The Bees Knees

The Bees Knees

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume

Cor blimey, I should have turned up in a “Pearly Queen” outfit, because I seem to have walked in to Old London Town. Fish and chips? Served in twists of newspaper by waiters in bowler hats.  A nip of gin? Coming right up. Red-jacketed Queen’s guards? Yes, but unlike those standing sentry outside Buckingham Palace, these lads are sporting Extra Wow Lash mascara under their towering bearskins.

The venue is an iconic London landmark, the Battersea Power Station that is truthfully too far from the steeple of Bow Bells for anyone to claim to be cockney. But that’s not going to stop supermodel “mockney” Kate Moss from arriving in style. Pump up London Calling by The Clash and look! That’s Kate’s chopper overhead!  It touches down and the ultimate London girl then runs down a red carpet in a little red dress to match her Lasting Finish shade #1 red lips.

That certainly gets the party started to celebrate her 10-year association with Rimmel London, (which used to be called just plain ‘Rimmel’ and was actually founded by a Frenchman). This birthday bash has been going on all day. Earlier, it was red, white and blue cupcakes and an English tea party at Claridge’s hotel, where fashion’s famous sphinx, (again sporting Lasting Finish shade #1) picked up a microphone and actually spoke, albeit briefly.

Interviewer: “What was it like filming the latest commercial?”

Kate: “It was so much fun.”

Interviewer: “What was the best bit?”

Kate: “The last shot was good, thank you for coming everyone.”

Come they have. The beauty press have been flown in from all corners of the globe to try New Lasting Finish 25 Hour Foundation and Vinyl Max Gloss. Me? While I admit I’ve grabbed a Scandaleyes mascara and Traffic Stopping eyeshadow in Over the Limit #001, I’m here to talk to the boss, Bernd Beetz, (and yes, it does sound like Burned Bees).

Beetz helms Coty Inc. (which has Rimmel London along with Calvin Klein fragrance and Sally Hansen nail varnish and Lancaster skincare and JOOP! body splash, etcetera, etcetera, in a vast portfolio). While Moss’s 10 years with Rimmel have seen her jumping off double decker buses and roaring past Big Ben on a motorbike  and going from “nought to Sexy in seconds”, Beetz has been the puppeteer, dramatically repositioning a ragtag of mass-market fragrances and toiletries as well as marshaling new launches and snapping up acquisitions to create a global beauty behemoth with revenues of more than $3.5 billion in 2010. A word on those acquisitions. In just two months this year, Coty snapped up four major beauty companies, Dr. Scheller Cosmetics, Philosophy inc, The nail line, OPI and TJoy, the latter a Chinese skincare brand.

Australia has a role to play in all this.  Talking just Rimmel alone, we rank fourth among key markets and are also viewed as a territory with the maximum upswing (which translates as “they could sell even more here and they’re certainly going to try”). Already successful is Rimmel’s value priced (cheap), self-serve (grab your own,) accessible (teenage), make-up, although even after HRH’s recent, well received visit to Queensland and beyond, you wouldn’t be betting on how many Union Jack eyeshadows in Royal Blue and Purple Reign will be sold on these shores.

By now Bernd Beetz (61 year old, wearing a suit, no tie he commutes between Coty’s Paris and New York HGs and is almost always in transit), is posing for the paps with Kate Moss and his close lieutenant Steve Mormoris, the Senior Vice-President, Global Marketing for Coty Beauty. Coty has two main divisions; Coty Prestige, which encompasses perfume and cosmetics for such brands as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga; and the somewhat more “masstige”Coty Beauty, with labels such as Kylie Minogue, Beyonce Knowles, David and Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss, also has a Coty perfume range that sells in supermarkets.

Moss has good reason to be hugging Beetz and Mormoris, considering these businessmen stuck by her when she was mired in an alleged cocaine scandal that saw much edgier fashion brands judge her too hot to handle. While Mormoris decided not to ditch her,  ultimate veto lay with Beetz. That he did not let Moss go is among a series of sometimes surprising decisions that made him the subject of a Harvard Business School paper; Bernd Beetz: Creating the New Coty by Professor Geoffrey Jones and Senior Researcher David Kiron.

“Is this an average day for you?” I ask Beetz, (and given the scene, what would you have tried as an opening gambit?) Beetz is German. He considers the question and replies with care. “It is not so average. After this, I go on to…normal business. This event is particular because it marks the 10 year anniversary of me taking over Coty. It is 10 years since working here with Steve and I took Kate Moss as the key spokesperson for Rimmel, which was my first big decision.”

And you’ve stuck with her. “Basically there were two things. She was loyal to us, so we were loyal to her. We are not people that dump a loyal supporter and we were also lucky because we are a private company. So even if our business would have gone down, it is something we could have afforded. Secondly, everything is not sugar-coated and straight-forward in life, so it seemed not be a bad idea to stick with her and show that life has difficulties. I think that in hindsight, it was a good idea.”Other businessmen might agree, especially if it were to lead to them partying with one of the most famous beauties on earth in the roped-off VIP area.

Bernd Beetz  comes from Heidelberg, was educated in Mannheim and is the son of an engineer who built power plants. He speaks English, French, Italian and Turkish fluently (“with conversational Spanish”). For 20 years, he worked across Europe for P&G ( the leading consumer product company, Procter & Gamble), then at LVMH, where he was president and CEO of Dior and is credited with the blockbuster success of J’Adore fragrance.

Securing the top job at Coty was not an inviting prospect in 2001. While the name dates back to 1904 and Francois Coty, a French perfumer who was much admired by Coco Chanel, Coty had been sold and amalgamated and downgraded to little more than a tattered umbrella over a bunch of brands with competing agendas and unimpressive market share. By 2001, Coty had been spun off from a chemicals conglomerate called Benckiser, privately-owned by the Reimann family and run by Peter Harf. However, Harf  did have to wisdom to realise that success flogging household cleaning products did not give him the skill set required to build an upscale beauty portfolio on the side.  For that, he had Beetz in his sights.

Back then, Beetz was the man-of-the-moment. He had doubled profits in two and a half years at Dior and earned a reputation as an inspired marketer. He was living in a luxury Paris apartment (complete with personal chef and chauffeur). Looking back now, he recalls the experience of working for LVMH boss Bernard Arnault as transforming, citing the luxury goods titan’s mastery at translating concepts into products  “He taught me a new aspect on how to approach a luxury brand”.  Beetz was surprised to find his old business acquaintance Peter Harf standing in the street outside his door one morning in 2001. Harf approached with an offer he could not refuse. If, after two years, he couldn’t fix Coty, he would be free to go with a big fat bonus. If he could, the company would be his to run as he liked.

Beetz said yes and by the way, he would make Coty one of the world’s top beauty companies within a decade as well. (At the time, Coty ranked 32nd). Today? It’s number 12 according to Women’s Wear Daily’s Top 100 Beauty listing after Kao Group, Johnson & Johnson, Chanel, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.  Coty now comprises more than 40 well-known brands available in over 90 markets worldwide.

Beetz has achieved the turnaround first pulling everyone into line and then setting them free. (The Harvard study dubbed this a “Faster, Further, Freer” corporate culture). But setting people free surely carries risk that they are free to fail? “It’s not luck,” is Beetz reply on that. “We didn’t have a major failure. I’m not afraid to admit that we have been by and large very successful.”  Part of that success has been wise acquisitions. An US$800 million acquisition of Unilever’s fragrance division, including the Calvin Klein fragrance license along with the romantic scents of Vera Wang and the fashion-forward Chloe made Coty the world’s largest fragrance company. But what of deals that got away? “I know but I’m not going to answer,” says Beetz.

Elsewhere in the beauty business where both the profits – and the losses – are potentially enormous – (for example, 90% of new perfume launches fail within a year) , it is not unusual for big decisions to be made by consensus. Senior executives might be polled on what a teenage fragrance should smell like (mostly just like an earlier success), how the bottle should be shaped (like one that exists)  – in other words, companies can be hampered by highly accomplished staffers being part of decisions that have little to do with what they are good at. One of Beetz’ skills has been to let the people best placed to make creative decisions do so. In this, it helps that the company is private. “I don’t think we could have accomplished what we did in the last ten years without the strong support of the family of the mother company,” Beetz says.

“Actually we have the best of both worlds. We have the support of the family which is part of the 7th generation. But they are not involved in the management so we have a clear meritocracy. This entitled me to the job and I have been successful ever since. Nobody in the family works here, not even on the board.”

There are 3 key product pillars of Coty inc:- There’s colour cosmetics, anchored by the storming success of  Rimmel, which legitimately earned its “London” tag in 1834 after Eugene Rimmel set up shop away from his native France, then his British-born sons developed the first non toxic mascara. But Rimmel was barely known outside of Britain ten years ago. The strategy since then has been to invest in R&D, to align the brand closely with the vibrant street style of urban tribes, to pump up the image while pushing down the price (its lipsticks sell  for as much as 20% less than close competitors).

Next come the sun and skincare lines, which range from Lancaster, which traces its heritage to the jet-set of 1950s Monte Carlo, to TJoy. This has provided a foothold into China through TJoy’s existing distribution channels as well as a platform for expansion. But there’s a challenge inherent here.

Coty’s biggest product category by far, (62% of total revenues) is fragrance. In much of Asia, dabbing on perfume is neither a tradition nor is it popular.  Give it time; for Asian markets, Coty now create “flankers”, softer versions of star scents, hence Calvin Klein Euphoria becomes the lighter, entry-level Calvin Klein Euphoria Blossom. Cracking China is the goal of many western beauty conglomerates and here, Coty is far from the front runner. “We are the challenger in that game and we only have a very low presence,” concedes Beetz.  “We started off in Europe and then we conquered America and we were a bit behind in China. We acquired TJoy to develop a meaningful presence.” With a bridge to Beijing, will Rimmel be roaring into town? How well is Kate Moss known in China? “She’s known,” says Beetz gnomically.

At the turn of the millennium, you might have described Jennifer Lopez more as notorious; given her relationship with rap mogul, Sean “P Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs and an incident involving a gun in a New York nightclub. So although J.Lo’s “people” were shopping around the notion that the Latina bombshell might front a fragrance, not surprisingly, there were not a lot of takers. In any case, the category was moribund.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth Taylor had become almost as well known for the fragrance White Diamonds as her role as Cleopatra but, with her notable exception, over the next decade, celebrity scent had diminished to dime store sales for cable TV stars.

Yet against this backdrop, Beetz’ gut told him a celebrity scent was exactly what was needed to power out his re-energised Coty. He let “his people” talk to J Lo’s “people”. He proved willing to sign the cheques that allowed an executive to hang out with Lopez, to learn what she was really like (far sweeter than her reputation, apparently) and then to encapsulate that in a flacon based on her body (a trick first tried in the 1930s when Mae West posed for a bottle based on her Hollywood curves).

It could have been a tacky disaster story. Instead, a range of JLo fragrances – which still sell, despite most fragrances having somewhat short “lives”  – has generated cumulative revenues topping US$1 billion. The launch of Lopez’ first fragrance with Coty, J.Lo Glow is often attributed with reinvigorating the entire celebrity fragrance category.

The rumour back then was that Beetz identified J Lo or Madonna as his ideal collaborators. On the day Beetz and I meet there’s a faint rumour going around that Madonna is, at last, entering the scent scene. So who is the diva’s industry partner and how do you bottle Madge? “What are you talking about?” Beetz shoots back (It has since been announced that Coty’s Truth or Dare by Madonna, with topnotes of gardenias and tuberose, will launch at Macy’s New York on March 26 followed by an international roll out in May. “She was always on my list,” Beetz told fashion industry paper, WWD.)

Anyway, next up, for sure, are new launches from the Beckhams, plus Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recently announced the launch of a new Soul2Soul fragrance at their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And Lady Gaga will be gearing up to conquer perfume counters. For if you can sell 13 million plus albums worldwide and garner more than a billion views online and with 6.9million followers on Twitter, why wouldn’t you bottle it?

But it may come as a surprise to discover Coty does not do that. The world’s leading fragrance company does not make scent. Instead, it comes up with a concept then shops it out to the likes of Givaudan, Firmenich or IFF  (none of these are household names) to create the liquid in the bottle, or in industry parlance, “the juice”.

Once the juice is right, whether floral, spicy, mossy, citrus, chypre or fougere (the latter perfume term translates as “fern”), Coty bottles it, packages it, promotes it and hopes that we buy it labelled Kate Moss or Playboy or Adidas or – coming soon – four Elite Model fragrances: Paris Baby, London Queen, New York Muse, Rio Glam Girl -  tapping into the zeitgeist of Next Top Model TV shows.  At the prestige end of the spectrum, there’s Bottega Veneta, Cerruti, Davidoff, Jil Sander, and a new scent by Roberto Cavalli. Coty has also developed scents with Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, Renée Fleming and Celine Dion.

Flagged up in the Beetz Harvard study is a warning that the amount of travel endured by senior staffers threatens life/work balance; although, as the Rimmel London party ramps up, Beetz shows no sign of weariness. “I don’t force myself to be fit for the job, I just like it. I like the lifestyle. I like the rhythm of it. So I don’t know if I keep fit for the job or if the job is just shaped in the way I live,” he tells me. As to keeping everything spinning, he replies, “I think I balance it very well. I’m basically working around the clock. Work is life.” Let’s drink to that.

It’s a Powerland,* darling

It’s a Powerland,* darling

Sunday Times Stella | 04 December 2011

By Marion Hume

*That’s Powerland, the Chinese answer to Prada. Never heard of it? You soon will have, along with a host of other super-brands now being hatched in the world’s emerging economies. Report by MARION HUME

At the Paris shows in October, the hot rumour was of a meeting between Anna and Uma. While ‘Anna’ does indeed refer to the editor of American Vogue, the Uma in question is a Shanghainese designer who fashion insiders believe is on target to achieve international acclaim.

Uma Wang’s creations are sophisticated and chic; in style more Belgian than any cliché of what one might consider Chinese. As word circulated that ‘Vogue is doing a piece,’ everyone checked out the buzz. ‘Thanks for the tip off!’ one retailer texted me after I directed her to Wang’s tiny, temporary showroom. ‘Love it. Brought it. Uma is a star!!!!!!’

Just as Western luxury brands colonise and coin it in China, it is inevitable that Chinese companies will want to do the same right back. While some might currently be lacking in savoir faire, what those with big ambitions won’t lack is money; Beijing and Shanghai are backed with newly minted billionaires looking for glamorous investment opportunities.

The French and the Italians of course just shrug at all this. For what Chinese brand can realistically give a grand marquee with 50, 100, 150-lus years behind it a run for it’s money? But those much-vaunted years do somewhat depend on how you count. Sometimes the moniker ‘luxury brand’ really translates as ‘company able to flog mountains of pricy handbags with some other stuff on the side’. While Louis Vuitton has indeed an artisanal heritage arcing back to 1854, it is in trunk-making for which construction techniques could ‘hold their own on avenue Montaigne’, thanks to ‘a long history of exquisite craftsmanship, a wealth of beautiful stones, an emotional relationship with fold, and the talent to design and create ornaments with a very distinct identity’. She also points out the popularity of the jewellery brand Amrapali among American celebrities. The actress Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the singer Rihanna, have all worn pieces on the red carpet this year.

Sheetal Mafatlal, a Paris front-row fixture who introduced the Valentino label to Mumbai, also insists that local jewellers such as TBZ are the best anywhere, but cautions that their strengths lie not in the global brand reach but in their spectacular bespoke offerings.

Shweta Shiware is the former fashion editor of Mid Day (India’s afternoon newspaper with a circulation of five million.) She explains that designerwear is synonymous with bridalwear in India because that’s where people spend money. ‘Bridal masters like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra control the market in a far tighter grip than any international luxury brands can hope to’. Of course, among the Indian diaspora, top sari labels are already international brands. Manish Malhotra is known as the Cavalli of Mumbai, while creations by TT (as Tarun Tahiliani is known) are accessorised with Bottega Veneta clutches and Louboutin heels at all the best Bollywood parties. To woo India, Hermes now offers its famous scarves expanded to sari size. Expect others to copy that idea.

Brazilian brands have already made some serious headway. Fernanda Paronetto, head of corporate marketing for the Brazilian operation of the concierge company Quintessentially, has a hot-list of local brands-gone-global at her fingertips. There’s the jeweller H Stern, with 165 stones in 12 countries; the fashion designer Carlos Miele- who has shown at New York Fashion Week since 2002 and is worn by mega-stars such as Jennifer Lopez Beyonce. Alexandre Herchovitch is another Brazilian designer, who is currently big in Japan. For shoes, Alexandre Birman is known as the Brazilian Manolo Blanhik and is a hit both on net-a-porter.com and the red carpet. The lingerie label Rosa Cha is Brazil’s answer to La Perla, Osklen is the South American Polo Ralph Lauren and there’s the model Gisele Bundchen’s favourite Havaianas – the flip-flops that wouldn’t be considered luxurious except that every female Oscar nominee gets given a pair. ‘And don’t forget Jack Vartanian,’ adds Paronetto. ‘Nowadays his jewels are worn by Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.’

With many an economist’s eye on South Korea’s emerging economy, if the name Lie Sang Bong is not yet familiar to you, it should become so. The McQueen of Korea has been showing at Paris fashion week for almost a decade, and is the most prominent designer in his home country, dressing the first lady and collaborating on design projects as wide ranging as home décor, cigarettes and computing (the Lie Sang Bong limited edition mobile phone is a highly desirable piece of kit). ‘And Lady Gaga loves him!’ adds the Seoul-based interior designer Rea Kim.

Such is Korea’s success that it has threatened to budge Russia out of its own acronym, with some economists vaunting a change from BRIC, the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to BRICK. In fact, as far as new local luxury brands are concerned, the Russian’s don’t seem to be son interested. The designer Valentin Yudashkin has been showing at Paris Fashion Week for decades and is the only Russian designer to be honoured with membership of the city’s Syndicate of High Fashion. But his brand is still not one with global recognition.

Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Paris Vogue who has Russian blood, is a supporter of Yudashkin, and she also has a hand in the revival of the Russian jewellery house Faberge. Faberge thrived from 1842 until the 1927 revolution ad is famous for its exquisite bejewelled eggs (valued at about £12 million each). The Brand, now owned by the London-based consortium Pallinghurst Resources, is no longer based in Russia, and is returning to London and New York with new stores. The flagship stores is in Geneva rather than St Petersburg these days and the brand’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, isn’t Russian, but the talented designer Natalia Shugaeva is. And what could be more Russian than a history full of opulence, tragedy and exile?

Of all local brands that could take on luxury giants, the wise woman might place her quilted gold, pave gem-set jewelled chips on Faberge..

Holidaying with Ikea

That IKEA has caught on, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is in part directly due to my mother, who will always drive out of her way for napkins and a jar of herrings.

Holidaying with IKEA

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume

I was really excited. I had travelled to the source – a bit like Burton and Speke and the source of the Nile, except for the details, such as Burton didn’t actually make it to Lake Victoria and I didn’t have a camel. No need for camels with such a massive parking lot. What lay before me was not nile green, but the world’s most recognized colour combination, yellow and blue. I had reached the birthplace of IKEA.

Actually, I’ve just lied a bit and I’m sad about that. Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA in Smaland. But my Swedish friend insisted the Goteburg branch was better, so while I missed the thrill of the most ancient temple of flat­-packing, a still historic source of self­-assembly was good enough. I could barely contain my excitement as I grabbed my yellow ‘for use in store’ bag.

I should confess here that I love IKEA. I just do not understand why people hate it. I mean, even I can follow instructions and build a drawer. I also love that the designs are democratic, which is to say affordable and widely applicable. Not for you with your ‘shabby chic’ sitting room? But have you thought of how happily one of the $10 tables will sit next to your overstuffed armchair were you only to cover it in a pretty chintz cloth?

As for hiding in plain sight, one swanky decorator of my acquaintance stocks up on LACK bookshelves for oligarch clients’ homes. Sure, she puts the IKEA mostly in the chauffeurs and security guards’ accommodation, but she always sneaks a bit into the main house(s) because it fills the gaps. Then there’s the eco­-thought, the sustainability, the effort that has gone in to flushing all those toilets with reclaimed grey water. I’m not crazy about the meatballs, but why linger in the canteen when there are wash bags to snap up, just like the ones at Prada but with more useful mesh pockets?

Still, I’ll concede that few people, when booking a holiday, want a Swedish farm house, by water, no internet access (on vacation from email) and an easy drive to IKEA. But then few can rival my connections to this mighty brand. Back in the 1950s, my parents, students at The Glasgow School of Art, both won travel scholarships to study Scandinavian design. Fueled by a shared love of skandi­chic, they returned to Sweden a second time just as an empire was dawning. I’ll say this for my canny Scots folks; while many others would have doubted anyone would pay to make their own furniture while there were craftsmen in every village, my Mum and Dad took one look at the LOVET table with removable legs (so it packed easily into the Volvo) and decided IKEA would could catch on. That it has, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is still, in part, directly due to my moth Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it

Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it is drawn to me. I once sat next to an IKEA kitchen designer on the plane to Shanghai; then I was on a little plane in Kenya and the woman next to me was part of an initiative to support women’s rights in communities. “Which NGO do you work for?” I asked. “IKEA,” she answered. But there’d be no need for an allen key in a manyatta mud hut.

Here’s what I observed in Gotenberg. In the kitchen sales area, there were people actually cooking. In the bed area, blondes of various sizes were testing a mattress via a family group hug. But most novel of all, people in workout gear were walking ‘the long natural way’ (the route designed to encourage the customer to see the store in its entirety) using those arctic ski poles. In an empire born in a cold country and on a bedrock of practical ideas, who could say they shouldn’t?

The Critical Choices

Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues.

The Critical Choices

AFR | 2011

by Marion Hume

There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true­-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.

In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-­star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th­ century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-­star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.

The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-­crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.

Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26­-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.

So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequent­flier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.

When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.

The People’s Republic of Luxe

The People’s Republic of Luxe


10 Mag | Issue 41 November 2011

When I was a little girl, before you were born, China was the place they made cheap stuff. Now it’s the place where all the luxury labels have to have their snazziest stores in the world. When I was a teenager, China remained closed  – they only let them out to scoop up all the medals at the Olympics. Now, of course, if you are in fashion, you have to go there to scoop up your share of an annual consumer expenditure estimated to top 1.3 trillion yuan (about £122 billion) by 2020.

by Marion Hume

And we’re not just talking Dior, Chanel, Vuitton. You want a yacht with that handbag? British yacht brand, Sunseeker is out there flogging its Manhattan 73 model for 31.4 million yuan (£3 million). You could toast your purchase with Chateau Lafite 1982 at 445,186 yuan (£42,115) Oh stop fretting, that’s for half a case. Did you think anyone would pay that much for a bottle?

When I started work, Hong Kong was the gateway to “Mainland China” as it was known (those in the know call it “the PRC” today). Back when Honkers was still a British colony, you could almost count the grains of rice in people’s dinner bowls as the plane swerved around mountains and tower blocks to touch down at Kai Tak, the world’s sixth most dangerous airport. Now, the PRC is peppered with super-dooper airports designed by “star-chitects”. But China’s billionaires don’t fly commercial, although some hire rather than own their own Gulfstreams. Price for Beijing-Shanghai return on a Gulfstream G550: 276,500 yuan (£26,157).

From the far south of Guangzhou, where Louis Vuitton has its largest Chinese flagship store, to the the old silk road staging post of Urumqi, the most inland city in the world – yup, they’ve got a Vuitton there too – China is fashion profit central, even if a recent store renovation is rumoured to have cost Vuitton in the eight digits. The first fashion person I knew who reached “real” China, as in Beijing, was sent by Zara to find a cheap production source. Now, Zara has 70 stores in the PRC.

The first time I went to Beijing, it was to interview newly-successful women, several of whom thought they were wearing designer clothes, but these were funny fake brands that I had never heard of. Then the fake market started to thrive and I seemed to always be clambering through some fat-filled restaurant kitchen, then down a back alley and into a room the size of a toilet pretending to be a customer. The criminal salesmen pretended to believe me as they took photographs of my (real) Fendi Selleria bag. The fake business shows no sign of slowing down as China’s love of luxury booms. The new trend is in counterfeiting an entire experience, although who knew there was anywhere on earth that they would welcome a completely fake branch of IKEA?

Even as recently as five years ago, the picture the photographer had to get was the “contrast shot” of the toothless guy parking his bicycle next to the Louis Vuitton superstore in Shanghai. The shoppers within were still so delighted in the newness of being able to express their individuality through fashion, that they would willingly stop and talk to a stranger with a tape recorder, a photographer and a translator. They told such sad stories of their Mao suit years. One shopper never knew her father. When her mother was pregnant, her parents had been sent to the country to be “re-educated” and they locked her father in a shed until he died. Her mother survived eating frogs and birds eggs. Another was once given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that. The power of fashion is powerful indeed.

Now, the bulk of luxury shoppers – and there are more than 200 million young adults under 30 in the PRC – were born after The Cultural Revolution so have not “eaten bitterness” as their parents did. Far from envying their lifestyles, their mothers tend to encourage them. “If I dress a little bit sexy, she thinks I look beautiful,” one girl told me when I returned to Beijing in 2008. “I’m the youth she didn’t have.”

For the luxury tsars, China’s love of the new is a great plus. “They don’t have a generation before them to refer to style-wise, so they are daring with the choices they make,” one CEO told me, eyes ablaze. The rules are still being written in this high profit battle ground. Beijinger and Shanghainese girls like to write off those from the “second tier cities” as bumpkins who have just learned to say Vuitton, but that doesn’t stop those in cities you’ve hardly heard wanting designer bags. No surprise then that as well as opening stores everywhere,  the likes of Chloe now have Chinese language blogs. Faye Wong, a Chinese singer and actress, does print campaigns for Céline. One of Louis Vuitton’s male models is Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Godfrey Gao. No prizes for guessing (beyond those gorgeous cheekbones) why he got the gig.

It might be hard to believe this now, but British designers used to quake in their boots when the American department stores came calling. China is expected to be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015 and if the USA doesn’t pull its economy out of tailspin, it could come sooner. Guess which buyers get the champers and the Rose Bakery cupcakes these days? But forget any cliches about Chinese shoppers liking the logo-a-gogo stuff. The level of sophistication is obvious when you walk past racks of Vanessa Bruno, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens at the Lane Crawford department store in Beijing.

A year ago, I got a call from Francois-Henri Pinault’s office. Would I like to join him on a trip to 10 Chinese cities, few of which I had actually heard of (and I’m up on Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian…)? Alas, I was in a diamond mine in Australia (key global market for Tiffany? Yes, you got that one too) so had to pass on the PPR titan’s tempting invite, but I did once interview Pinault’s rival, Bernard Arnault of LVMH, in a penthouse suite in Beijing. Trying to get to Arnault, both the richest man in fashion and the richest man in France, when you are actually in France is well-nigh impossible. Yet in China, he was as relaxed and warm as a chilly billionaire can be, although he was probably totting up what you get when even 0.001% of a population headed towards 1.35 billion people wants Dior.

But you should never count your Chinese chickens. When Arnault’s mate President Sarkozy said he would be meeting the Dalai Lama (do, please Google exactly why Richard Gere is so passionate about Tibet), the Chinese ambassador in Paris apparently had the luxury titan quaking in his handmade Berlotti shoes at the thought of Chinese Vuitton customers asking for their money back.

Those customers get wooed. Last year it was the Dior extravaganza staged on the Bund in Shanghai; there was the “Culture Chanel” exhibition, the Fendi’s show on the Great Wall and the Ferragamo show within the Forbidden City. But it is not just about wooing the girls. One of the glories of modern China, if you are a luxury tycoon, is this is one of the few markets where men outdo women in their regard of expensive designer goods as trophies of success. Good news for Dunhill and Hugo Boss,

You can’t keep up with who is opening, who is expanding where. There’s Burberry’s upcoming Hong Kong megastore which promises to be a smart shopping destination for an annual 23 million Chinese tourists who come to town. Niche brands like Moncler are making a splash in Beijing, Miu Miu is expanding in Shanghai – the list goes on.

Susan Owens is a China expert whose blog, Paris Cherie, links the world of Paris fashion to Shanghai. She admits she can hardly post content up fast enough or keep track of the Western brands keen to snap up the services of Shanghai model, Du Juan.

What the Chinese luxury consumer is not madly interested in – up to now – is the vast nation’s sartorial past. “There’s no vintage—Chinese don’t wear old clothes,” someone told me. Hello Ralph Lauren, who visited China last year. Cue an autumn-winter 2011 collection of cheongsams inspired by the old silk road. When Ralph Lauren opened his first stores in Britain, back when Princess Diana was young, few thought his coals-to-Newcastle – or more precisely chintz-to-Downton Abbey -offering would work in a land where some people actually owned family silver. How wrong we were so expect to see fashion folk in the PCR dressing “Chinese”

Coming soon, more homegrown designers, more competition. And I leave you with this. In 1997, I was editing Vogue Australia, which meant I was “Asia Pacific” on the Paris show seating plans and thus in the worst seats in the house. Around me would be the first few fashion editors from the PRC. Where are they now? Locate Suzy Menkes and track along a couple of chairs, that’s where. All power to China.

Net Prophet

Net Prophet

The Business of Fashion: The man behind Yoox, Katie Grand’s pyramid, Designer of the moment, China fashion week, ALT’s exhibition

AFR Magazine | November 2011

By Marion Hume

 

In 1998, which was way back in the dark ages before global internet connectivity, the Australian ‘success guru’ Siimon Reynolds published a little book with the catchy title, When they zig, you zag . Two years later, in 2000, Federico Marchetti, who was born in a small town below Venice on Italy’s Adriatic coast – and has never heard of the book – launched an innovative e-commerce business that has made him an industry titan. The planning that led up to the launch and what has happened since surely distinguish Marchetti as the ultimate ‘zagger’.

A quick whizz through his zags goes like this: As a teen, while others did what they wanted, Marchetti, in the quest for his long term goal, did what he didn’t want in the short term. An entrepreneur, he chose to launch into the online arena while living in a nation which, back then, boasted little expertise in internet technology. When did he launch? Just as the internet stock bubble was bursting. What did he do after asking his best friends to review a list of brand names? He chose Yoox – the one none of them liked. In 2008, as the financial crisis roiled markets, an undeterred Marchetti started the process of taking his global internet retailer public. Fast-forward to 2011 when, in the six months to June, Yoox Group’s net sales rose 36 per cent on the previous year to €131.2 million. All this by never going zig.
Marchetti (not to be confused with the Italian footballer) doesn’t even look the part. He is nervy and intense and when he speaks he sounds more like a literature professor than one of fashion’s category shifters. As for his style, there isn’t even the status indicator of an expensive watch – instead no watch. And swagger? None. Marchetti hates socialising, preferring to stay home reading books and eating minestrone. What did he do the night after Yoox successfully went public after a nail-biting run-up through the worst financial meltdown in decades? He went home and had soup. Damn it but – working two days a week in Milan, two in Bologna, the rest wherever needed – he doesn’t even drive a Ferrari. “I’m not a big fan of these symbols,” shrugs Marchetti, having ordered us two single, tart espressos when we meet in Florence, where he has travelled by train, as he insists all his staff do too.
You may not have heard of Yoox and you wouldn’t be alone; many in fashion who are all-too-familiar with its key competitor, Net-a-Porter, haven’t heard of it either. Yoox is headquartered in Milan and has a vast warehousing complex at Interporto near Bologna as well as logistics centres in New Jersey, Shanghai and just outside Tokyo. In the past decade, Yoox has shifted more than 1 million shirts, 800,000 pairs of shoes and 700,000 pairs of jeans to more than 100 countries by either same-day or next-day delivery (the company’s biggest single expense is its UPS [United Parcel Service] account). Yet the man behind it all is low key. “I hate networking,” he says. “I think it’s the worst. When I don’t work, I stay home by myself or with my girlfriend. I don’t do anything. I hate people that need to meet other people to feel important.”
Federico Marchetti has always judged only one person’s view to be important: his own. Even as a boy he knew that what he wanted was to be the king of a single big idea. He has been astonishingly pragmatic in accomplishing this. Claiming that his independence, determination and clarity comes from “my childhood”, he then adds that neither of his parents – “cultured people” – had any entrepreneurial spirit at all.
Yet even at school, Marchetti gravitated to subjects he didn’t like much because he thought they would be useful. At university, he picked economics while his heart said psychology. “I wanted to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time in order to make the fewest possible mistakes,” is how he puts it now. So, after leaving home at 19 (unusual in Italy, where undergraduates tend to live at home) and reading business at Bocconi, Milan, he took jobs in corporate finance and management consulting, got an MBA from Columbia, New York and then, eureka!
It was late in 1999 and the first big fashion internet start-ups were pressing panic buttons because they were about to tank. Yet Marchetti knew, with certainty, that gold lay in marrying fashion’s exclusivity with the accessibility of the net – not in the US, where he had been living, but back in Italy, then a country with minimal I know-how, yet world famous for its fashion.
First, Marchetti found venture capital funding from the US, then he joined forces with a bricks and mortar store in Bologna, taking stock on consignment and selling it online. Next, he started cultivating big fashion names, acutely aware of how sensitive they were to selling in an arena which, back then, seemed somewhat downmarket. So he worked with them to shift end-of season stock on the multi-brand site of yoox.com, never obviously “on sale” but instead at a “Yoox price”
Then he persuaded some of the mightiest brands to use Yoox’s established logistics, warehousing, customer care, to create their own mono-brand online stores, powered by Yoox. Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Alberta Ferretti, Moncler are just a few of the leading fashion brand websites where everything – from radio frequency identification tags, to the studios full of photographers taking the pictures – is done by Yoox, which then supplies customer demand in more than 100 countries from hubs on three continents. Yoox started in menswear and now covers womenswear, kids, home, even pets.
The name Yoox came, recalls Marchetti “from my own imagination. The Y and the X are like the chromosomes for men and women; that’s why we are so good at talking about men and women – it is part of our DNA – and then the OO is also like the DNA of the internet, because it’s the zero from the binary code.” Marchetti had a list of possible names, “and I asked friends and everybody liked brands that were more common … I realised they liked the past, I liked the future, so I picked the one no one chose”.
And it’s very contemporary. If I go to Japan, they think it’s Japanese. If I go to China, they think it’s Chinese. If I go to America, they think it’s American. It’s very neutral, very global and I never wanted to be a local player.” He adds: “I consider myself a miracle. Every day when I wake up, I say thank god for this gift of knowing what I want.”
Starting with menswear proved a competitive advantage; the long-held belief in the luxury business that men hated to shop left the category more open. Online, it soon became clear that without the fuss of sales assistants, in anonymity and with a “no questions asked” returns policy, men were keen to buy.
After more than a decade of e-commerce, it can be assessed that, while men rarely browse and are not frequent purchasers when they do shop, they buy more and often at the beginning of the season rather than waiting to purchase on impulse in the sales. Yoox research shows Americans buy the most bow ties, the French like hats and Italians prefer briefs to boxers. Irrespective of nationality, men like black, navy and grey, although the Spanish also like red. Swedes and Norwegians are most likely to tick the eco-shipping option.
Yoox offers all the basics and the big brands. For those of more esoteric tastes, thecorner.com, launched in 2008 for men and a year later for women, is a series of mini boutiques, each highly customised in keeping with the brand messages of cutting-edge designers including Viktor & Rolf and Hussein Chalayan. Designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann and Dries Van Noten choose thecorner.com as their official internet retailing partner.
Yoox’s listing on the Milan bourse at the end of 2009 was the first in the European tech sector since the financial downturn, and Marchetti admits there was a time when he felt he was running towards a cliff not knowing if he would take flight or tumble. “I did have a very strong feeling it was the right thing to do,” he says now, although he admits advisers (Goldman Sachs and Mediobanca were the co-ordinators of the sale) told him they might suddenly suggest he call a halt. The high pricing came as a collective relief.
Right now, as the Italian economy wobbles, that Yoox Group is both international and nimble is a considerable advantage, especially for a company with a vast warehouse in Shanghai. China’s online adventures are just beginning. McKinsey research shows that while more than one-third of the world’s most populous nation are web users, less than a third of that number have started shopping online (against a global average of 86 per cent), implying considerable upswing ahead, even in a nation where the likes of Armani Group already has close to 200 real-life stores. The other area of growth, albeit much smaller, says Marchetti, is Australia, thanks to a hunger for international luxury goods and a robust economy. “It’s not big, but it is significant as one of the highest-growing markets for us. In the last couple of years, it has grown 10 times over,” he says.
To a question of life-work balance, Marchetti responds: “It’s easy to answer because fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t consider what I’m doing to be work. It’s not work, it’s my child that I’m very proud of; it’s part of my style – I put a lot of myself into it.” Yet he is, he claims, “quite well balanced” about switching off. “This year, I went on holiday with some friends and I took four days off. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, four days in Greece and I turned [my BlackBerry] off.” He adds that, for the first two hours, it was hell.
He tries to trade in as ecological a manner as possible – ECO_mmerce as it is referred to in Yoox-speak – to the point where there’s a complete ‘green site’ within the site, called Yooxygen, dedicated to ethical fashion. The industry-wide challenge is that some of the clothes on offer in this niche are less than enticing (a notable exception being Vivienne Westwood’s snazzy 100 per cent ethical bags made in Africa with UN agency ITC. But as I consult on the project, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
Marchetti says regretfully he doesn’t think ethical fashion will become just’fashion’- that all fashion will have wised up to ethics-any time soon. “It is a niche,” he says and one where Yoox may face competition when ex=Barneys New York buying guru, Julie Gilhart, who had impeccable ‘green’ credentials, finds her feet in her new role as fashion consultant for amazon.com. Still, Yoox scores marks for its ecobox packaging, which is made using cellulose gathered under environmentally socially and economically sustainable conditions.
Yet in cyber world, things get ever more glossy, as brands sign movie stars and tap Hollywood special effects guys, such as Avatar’s James Lima, to bring more bang. “We are still so close to the beginning of the story,” says Marachetti who tells me his favourite activity away from work is “nothing. I get all the adrenalin I need with Yoox” (having conducted this whole interview on just one small sniff of Florentine coffee). “Elsewhere in my life, I don’t look for more.”

©afr.co

Anatomy of a Maison

maison

Anatomy of a Maison

The Australian Financial Review | November 2011

In the Medieval age, the sight of a towering spire signalled a city of splendour. Today, it is cathedrals of retailing that indicate metropolitan status in the global pecking order. The December 3 opening, not of another Louis Vuitton store – there are already 460 of those worldwide – but of a much grander Louis Vuitton ‘Maison’ (of which there are just 13) proves Sydney must be a very smart town indeed. Kar-Hwa Ho is the man responsible for the latest Australian opening, as well as such landmark stores as Louis Vuitton Singapore, housed on its very own island. Vuitton’s design director for the Asia-Pacific region tells Marion Hume about the new maison in the company of the brand’s Paris-based director of architecture, David McNulty.

A CATHEDRAL FOR A SECULAR AGE

“Is that a compliment?” asks David McNulty. “I suppose fashion houses are becoming architectural theatre in the way opera houses were and cathedrals used to be. For us, there is always a question of visibility. We cannot be tucked away. We must be seen.” So how big a footprint is needed for a maison? “About 2000 square metres” says McNulty. Walk-ins are welcome at the Sydney Maison, because busy George Street means there’s nowhere to park, let alone a space for your limo to wait. But what of those Vuitton stores where you can’t walk in? The line at the Paris Champs Élysées flagship store often numbers in the hundreds. “It’s really not good to have people waiting,” protests McNulty, revealing that staff serve hot beverages to waiting crowds and the company sometimes lays on transport to the other five Vuitton stores in Paris, “but everyone wants to go to that one because it’s the biggest.”

IF WE BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

To semaphore to the customer that a maison is more than just a place to pick up a monogram wallet, it helps if the building itself is jaw-droppingly attractive and the Sydney Maison certainly is chic. “But we don’t own the building, which means there are restrictions,” explains Ho. Even without these, sometimes the most arresting designs don’t get built. All the architecture models that didn’t make it are in the Vuitton head office, including one of shining metal rods by Zaha Hadid. “One day!” says Ho, wistfully. Do the challenges of preserving history lead to better stores? Not always. “While we’re not interested in destroying heritage buildings, our original concepts are usually better,” says McNulty, who adds that, sometimes, keeping the history can go too far. At the recently opened Milan Maison, he says, “there’s a really ugly mural on the wall. Really ugly. It has a preservation order on it so we built a wall in front of it, so some archaeologist in the future can come in and find it.”

MAKING AN ENTRANCE

There is no grander gesture than empty space, given retail rents are charged by the (astronomical) square metre and here is 59 sq m of glittering floor over which you must walk to reach the central altar of retailing. Walking directly ahead, you enter a ‘fast lane’ leading to what is known as the ‘hot zone’. Here’s where you find the bag that stars in the latest advertising campaign. “The bags that are the ‘fashion moment’ can always be seen from the entrance to the store,” says McNulty. But does one turn left or right? “We don’t want to control that,” he says. “We want to convey to the visitor that there are many things on offer; leather goods, travel, the men’s universe, the women’s universe.”

FAMILIARITY BREEDS EXCITEMENT

The aim is to attract a customer who knows exactly what to expect yet is also in search of novel retail entertainment. Uniform across all Vuitton stores is a colour palette of caramel and toffee, a reference to the checkerboard Damier canvas of 1888, which in turn led to Louis’s son, Georges, inventing the famous monogram canvas of 1896. And, rather as a cathedral has a smaller, perhaps more opulent, altar behind the main one – this only visible to those allowed to venture behind a parclose – so too does the Sydney Maison have its hidden treasure: literally, given the watch and jewellery sales area is tucked behind the ground floor’s central selling station. “The aim is to create a more intimate area, away from the flow,” Ho says.

GOING UP

In all retailing, the challenge is to encourage traffic to upper floors. That’s been somewhat easier since 1857, when the first commercial passenger elevator was installed in a New York City department store. Yet the Sydney Maison has just one customer lift. “It’s not necessary to have more,” McNulty says. “What tends to happen is that people walk around and discover the store by themselves, including taking the stairs. A sweeping staircase – all steel substructure and timber veneer – is visible centre-left as you enter the Maison, inviting you to mount a stairway to heaven – or more precisely menswear first and then, on the second floor, ‘women’s universe’ for fabulous fashion by Marc Jacobs.

HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR

As Gloria Swanson knew, one must be well lit. While the primary function of store lighting is to make sure you can see everything, at Vuitton, spotlights are trained on the hottest products just as kliegs were once directed on a movie star’s cheekbones. “Whenever we can bring natural light into the store, we do,” says McNulty, who adds that, despite a menu of lighting options, sales staff always choose the brightest setting. But in the ‘try rooms’ (this is Vuittonese for what you and I usually refer to as a fitting room), it is you who control the light, via a panel that allows you to check an outfit under the noonday sun, at twilight and by night.

DESIGN FOR MEN

Even in equal Australia, men rarely shop midweek, which risks a very empty floor. The solution: stick menswear on the first floor so women must go past it and thus might think, “I’ll get him a belt to soften the blow of all the stuff I’ve bought for me.” And when men do shop? “If a man sees a mannequin with an outfit on it, he could well buy the [lot],” says McNulty. Expect to see rows of mannequins. The primary male quest is for shoes. Your shoe guy wants to choose shoes, sit down, try them and buy them. So the chairs here (just one of 10 different designs in use by Vuitton) are the optimum height and tilt for trying on footwear. This is less of a concern in China where, “they have no problem waiting for a seat to be freed up; they’ll do it standing on one foot and they’ll even try clothes on without using a changing room,” McNulty says.

VIP

When spending a penny (as opposed to $4500 on the latest Tiger clutch bag), every customer is a VIP – given the VIP loo is for you. But there’s VIPs and VVIPs. Tucked into a corner of the second floor is an area code-named ‘constellation’, as in ‘star’. Here, those who require additional privacy can be accommodated behind a closed door. As for the old saying that common folk sweat, the rest of us perspire and stars glow, here’s why: the VVIP area has its own dedicated air con. It’s here that the most exclusive service – the chance to get a bag in shapes and leathers of your choice – will be offered. It’s called ‘haute maroquinerie’ in Vuittonese. ‘Hot maroc’ in Sydney-speak? Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

SECRET DOORS

While an exceptional sales associate cannot actually walk through walls, she can tap a mirror to reveal a door that allows her to reach the tills. Cash-and-wrap is hidden from your view, “although we have to make sure that this works well with the flow of the selling ceremony,” says Ho. “You don’t want your salesperson to disappear for too long with your things while you are sitting around waiting.” But what about disappearing with one’s credit card while, even in restaurants, they bring the machine to you these days? “Mostly, people don’t mind,” Ho says. “But in Asia, customers follow their salesperson to the till. People pay cash and need a secure area to count it.”

ECOLOGY

Everything is as ecological as possible, from the certified woods you can see to the basement unpacking area you can’t, where paper and cardboard are stored. “Our Guam store is powered by solar panels,” Ho says. This not an option for Sydney where the building is rented.

AUSTRALIANA

While big-brand stores look somewhat the same around the world, Vuitton makes the effort to help shoppers remember what country they are in. In Auckland, the store features model lambs created by a Kiwi. In Jakarta, there are Indonesian lamps and stools. So for Sydney? The eagle-eyed will spot eucalyptus motifs played out in wood marquetry. Coming soon – although not in time for the opening – LV monogrammed surfboards should provide a clue.

WINDOW ON A NEW WORLD

Windows are an invitation, and a global mega-brand requires lavish displays. “From our standpoint, that means providing the right space and lighting and access,” says McNulty. The secret to quick changes? Panels that can move in and out and doors big enough to accommodate a window dresser carrying a zebra. That is not a joke. The windows in London’s Bond Street currently feature a herd of life-sized African fauna.

Catching the Moment

Catching the Moment

AFR | September 2011

Where is fashion marching now, asks international fashion editor Marion Hume. Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus with the oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides.

When fashion wants to look back, it is a sure sign of its unease at looking forward. Of course, fashion continually takes inspiration from ‘vintage’ but that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, it seems to me, people are looking in the rear view mirror as if wondering, “how on earth did we get here?”

‘Here’ is a world where luxury labels have us so addicted, you almost suspect there’s nicotine in the handbag leather. ‘Here’ is a world where, when it comes to basics, we seem to believe it is others who should take responsibility that the cotton in our clothes is not the same cotton that causes lakes to run dry. ‘Here’ is a place where a clutch bag in iridescent python is described as “so on trend!” despite grave concern elsewhere that the number of snakes slaughtered for style could lead to an explosion of the rat population and then a spread of human contagion.

It can be ugly, this business driven by desire for beautiful things. So thank heavens for Botox, injected into snakeskin to make that clutch bag feel scaly not flakey. I had no idea of that little detail until I read “To Die For. Is Fashion Wearing out the World?” by Lucy Siegle. I’ll hold back on her description of what happens in the slow process of snakes being slaughtered only because losing you too early hardly serves my purpose in writing the rest of this article.

But who’d want such a ludicrous display of wealth as a python purse anyway? Not you, of course; you prefer to dress down. So that cotton T­shirt? Did you check it hasn’t reached your back via the labour of schoolchildren – and their teachers – who are forced out of the classroom every summer to harvest the cotton crops of Uzbekistan? Those new jeans that already look old? We need other people – poorer people – to get the look for us by sandblasting, which is big in Bangladesh, where garment workers are dying of silicosis. Sandblasting is the new fur. You shouldn’t be seen dead in it. Donatella Versace is the latest designer to join the campaign to outlaw it. Expect the next trend in denim to be a direct reaction; dark indigo, except that’s turning vital rivers in India bright blue. It would be wrong to suggest that all the big fashion brands are up to no good. Most of them try quite hard not to be bad.

I can’t think of a single one that has ignored consumer pressure to get with the eco agenda. But now they have done the easy stuff (cutting down on packaging, changing the light bulbs, re­routing grey water to flush the loos), it’s a hard road ahead. For those just entering the business, that road must seem almost impassable. Even if a young designer does get a break, financial pressure now translates as shareholder demands front of mind. And if our young talent still believes in fashion as ‘art’, what chilling examples are to be found: Alexander McQueen dead by his own hand in London; John Galliano, who killed his career with anti­semitic rantings in a Paris bar.

The pressures of producing endless fantastical collections generating those endless dollars can prove unbearable. Which leads me to looking back. About a year ago, I started getting random requests for a six ­part BBC fashion documentary called The Look which I worked on from 1990 to 1992. In the past six months, interest has increased from England, Australia, Korea . . . and unsolicited emails arrive from those just born when it was first broadcast. They are reacting to the six episodes posted on vimeo (video­sharing website used by creatives) with the wonder of archeologists stumbling into Tutankhamun’s tomb. (OK, that’s a gigantic exaggeration, but one thing that will never go out of fashion is the industry’s ease with hyperbole).

Anyway, the other day, I too found The Look online. I understood instantly why the clothes appeal now; they are so utterly out of fashion, they are on the way back in. I suppose watching the late Gianni Versace, Moschino and Yves Saint Laurent appeals to this constituency the way The History Channel does to guys obsessed with WWII.

In The Look, names now thought of as brands still belong to people; in the program Donna Karan admits in it she has only recently stopped opened all the mail with her name on it. The supermodels are in their prime.  “I don’t know what a supermodel is. Does it mean I’m super?” squeaks Linda Evangelista, her voice surely as shocking as when silent stars switched to talkies. And there’s Carla Bruni, with the face she was born with, wisely saying nothing, missing nothing; good training for the future First Lady of France.

The doco seems to capture a golden age; a moment in time before things went absolutely crazy. Not that all was calm. In 1992, the series was aired around the world, perhaps to the chagrin of marie claire editor, Jackie Frank, then a New York based stylist, whose feisty reaction to a scrum scene outside a Jean-Paul Gaultier show was viewed by the folks back in Melbourne. Crowd control has much improved, but otherwise, that lack of organization had advantages. PRs were posh women in pearls. Today’s media managers would never let anyone get the equivalent of a shot that goes on and on as Yves Saint Laurent ‘Elnetts’ his bouffant backstage.

Lurking about was a guy in a tie we never bothered to interview. Bernard Arnault was in his early 40s when The Look was being filmed and looks vulpine, stealthy, as he circles his prey. The rhetoric the chairman and chief executive of LVMH pushes today is that fashion stars don’t matter as much as they did. Now it’s all about the product. (This from the man who – at time of writing – has no viable designer for Dior).

But in 1990, he was the star maker to Christian Lacroix, an experiment that would fail to the tune of  €150 million in losses over the years. That Arnault’s other instincts were more sound is evidenced by his current status as the wealthiest man in France, with a Forbes-estimated worth of US$41 billion.

Today, the money is on the quiet ones, specifically Phoebe Philo, who heads up Celine and is independent of spirit (though not in business, Celine is part of LVMH). She creates uncluttered clothes for busy women and references her own needs as the stylish mother of two young children. Yet her sartorial statements echo those of the leading minimalist we talked to back in the early ‘90s. Giorgio Armani’s muted palate and unadorned silhouettes were exactly what sophisticated women yearned for back then, although this being TV, we cut away from frocks to shots of his home, complete with five colour-coordinated Persian cats.

The landscape of fashion was expanding, literally; it was the beginning of the identikit designer superstore in London, New York, LA (although we would have to wait until the millennium for most brands to open in Australia). That territorial land grab goes on. Twenty years ago, China was the place that made the cheap stuff. Now 20% of goods labelled Prada are, legitimately, made in China.

Where else is fashion marching? Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus and its oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Where there’s muck, there’s frocks and fashion mags; Cosmo Mongolia launched in the wake of Rio Tinto mining the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposits. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides, thanks to e-commerce.

Asked in 1990 what her life’s ambition was, New Yorker, Donna Karan shot back, “A Broadway Show!” Today, her response would be more holistic; her company is, for example, among pioneers trying to source product out of Haiti to aid its reconstruction. Vivienne Westwood played the pantomime dame in The Look; her fault and ours, given she was the one cavorting around in a nude body suit with a gold fig leaf. But we didn’t listen when she went on about global responsibility. We just thought she was bonkers. And great TV.

Recently I’ve been working closely with Dame Vivienne and know her to be wise. I consult for the UN-World-Trade Organization agency, the International Trade Centre, on the Ethical Fashion Program which links top designers to some of the world’s poorest people. A growing percentage of Vivienne Westwood accessories is produced in the slums and drought-stricken regions of East Africa. Driving across Northern Kenya, seeing hardly a tree because those farmers whose animals had died had felled them to burn and sell for charcoal in order to feed their families, the designer’s ardent advocacy that climate change cannot be ignored makes poignant, sound sense.

Fashion as a vehicle out of poverty? Who would have thought that in 1990 when we were getting excited by who had a mansion, who had a yacht? Yet you can create lovely beads from the carcasses of cows dumped in a slum, you can make handbag hardware from brass salvaged from abandoned cars. Artisan skills, from screen printing to embroidery, can be done by those displaced by conflict, quickly earning them a living wage.

Not that the Mighty UN is the only body to have identified fashion’s unique power. There are scores of smaller initiatives: from Ecuador (The Andean Collection, which offers natty felt hats to Manhattan urbanites) to Ethiopia (Sammy Ethiopia, whose featherlight scarves, wrapped over bikinis, are a summer hit among the Med set). Spurred by its success in Uganda and Cambodia, the Spotlight Stitch in Time program operates in Australia’s Top End where, it is hoped, the provision of sewing machines and support could mean that indigenous women, among the world’s most marginalised, may earn a place in a lucrative value chain.

While small companies can react to changing needs and, designers such as Vivienne Westwood can be nimble because she retains control of a business (with estimated annual sales in excess of £120 million ($189 million), plus ownership of all key retail real estate. Who’s bonkers now?), the fast fashion juggernauts require a longer turning curve. It is encouraging that Pablo Isla, the new man at the top of Inditex (owner of Zara) has pledged to make sustainability a cornerstone of all of activities and has announced that his company has signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative and The CEO Water Mandate.

At the dawn of the ‘90s, it was the Ladies-who-lunch who fascinated. I’d certainly never met anyone like couture-clad Texan, Lynn Wyatt, a damn good sport who agreed to wear a wire so we could listen in to the front row set. Now, those I record (entirely legally) might be scientists, hardly a profession known as best dressed.  Fashion professional Helen Storey works with boffin, Tony Ryan, to create dresses which disappear, thereby demonstrating that detergent bottles of the same material  (polyvinyl alcohol) can “knowingly” reduce to a compostable gel once empty. There’s Dr. Helen Crowley of the Wildlife Conservation Society whose biodiversity objectives include sustainable cashmere, this to stop over-grazing of goats and so save the rare Przewalski’s horse from extinction.

Fashion really is everywhere, (Benin Fashion Week followed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, by the way), its glitter sprinkled  even on Magnum ice-creams (Karl Lagerfeld just shot the TV commercial). Yet the given is, it always reacts to what has gone before, hence Tom Ford, – he of Gucci runways vast enough to land an A380 – now favours salon presentations, no cameras allowed. While Vuitton-checkered flags flutter over all points of the compass, upcomers want just a handful of stores, or only one, in Paris. When you can get everything everywhere, a thrill lies in something you can only find somewhere.

In the days of The Look, we never spoke about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); now those in power recognise fashion must become more fair to respond to consumer demand. While eco is a trend with staying power, claims for eco cred must become more intelligent. Pack purchases in paper in a world short on trees yet littered in plastic bags? Let’s rethink that. Marginalized women across Africa are cleaning and crocheting waste that would otherwise be burned releasing dangerous dioxins. A plastic-bag crocheted tote from Zambia, with no designer label, has replaced the Birkin as the schlepp bag of choice for a New York tastemaker I know.

Last year, Naomi Campbell was called to testify at the international court of justice at the Hague. Her memories of 1997 when she was given those “dirty looking stones” reminded us what a filthy business the diamond trade used to be. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), formally adopted in November 2002, has done much to clean up things, to the point that if you splash out on something sparkly from a reputable jeweller, you can be confident there’s no blood on your hands.

Fashion is much more diverse than the international gem trade (itself still grappling with the transit of illicit precious stones from Burma, Zimbabwe, etcetera and it should be noted, the KPCS does not cover environmental concerns nor guarantee fair trade). It will take wisdom, time, effort for a clear international system of ethical labeling to become as useful as the one inside your jacket that directs you to cool iron or dry clean. While the 21st century journey of that jacket to your back is way too complex to fit on an actual label, there are positive developments.

Just as e-commerce has made it possible for the consumer to voice concerns (much easier via pressing “contact us” than trying to get answers from a harried shop assistant), so might m-commerce on smartphones allow us to receive the life story of clothes just as we are deciding whether of not to buy them.

There are no plans I’m aware of to make a sequel to The Look but if there were, what moment might it capture now? I think this is the time where those of us who love fashion face up to responsibilities that include saying “no” if something seems too cheap, in the awareness that it may carry other costs we can’t countenance. The Look captured a moment of style. If a sequel could capture the moment of style equaling substance, wouldn’t that be good?

Stop, Revive, Survive. Singapore + Bangkok

Stop, Revive, Survive

Singapore + Bangkok

Harpers Bazaar | September 2011

Breaking up (the journey) is not hard to do with BAZAAR’s guide to the cities worth a trip beyond the transit lounge

by Marion Hume

Reborn as Cool: Singapore

If you still think Singapore is dull, you’ve evidently not sipped a Southside (Tanqueray 10, fresh mint, fresh lime) while lounging at Lantern, the jaw-droppingly fabulous poolside bar which sits atop the Fullerton BayHotel.

Lantern derives its moniker from the old Chinese name for Singapore’s historical Clifford Pier: Red Lantern Pier. But that’s the only old-fashioned thing about this joint. Old Singapore? Forget it. The people here have, except in the city’s excellent museums. As for the 21st-century city, where else can you find a cathedral of commerce to rival the newest Louis Vuitton megastore accessed by bridge to its very own island?

STAY: The waterfront conversion, (calling this project “ambitious” would be ridiculous understatement) is at last complete. What that means to the stopover visitor is not just glittering views but also a safe circuit that you can walk, or run at 4 am, should you choose.

Come to your senses and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on your balcony instead (scrambled eggs and shaved black truffles, for instance). The Fullerton Bay Hotel is the 100-room groovy little sister of the stately old dame The Fullerton, the latter a grand treat that can wait until you have gray hair.

Think twice before staying at the much-talked-about Marina Bay Sands, with its three, 55-storey towers topped by a jetsons-style SkyPark and an outpost of Bali icon Ku De Ta. When I visited, the line to check in for a sneak peak was longer than the line at the airport. Which is not to say this massive complex, which seems to rise out of the South China Sea, isn’t awesome to admire from a distance.

If your budget is tight, rest your head in a room so dinky, you’ll marvel how they fitted in the power shower and Nespresso machine. Blue Monday is painted blue, from ceiling to skirting board, and is teeny. It is a room on the first floor of Wanderlust, where every room is named and colour-coded (surprisingly useful when you are jet-lagged). Wanderlust is a gem in Little India, the last still-authentic neighborhood on a tiny island that is no stranger to change. But think carefully before checking in to the third floor where rooms are themed after monsters (strange, but true). The Typewriter room features a keyboard straight out of an acid trip by American novelist William Burroughs.  Having spent my life on a nightmare of deadlines, I’ll pass on that one, thanks. You might like the tree monster room, though; an enchanted forest with a mezzanine bed.

Singapore is designed for stopping over. There’s the easy-peasy train link from Changhi Airport, from whence you can store your luggage and venture into town with just an overnighter. Free WiFi, local calls and non-alcoholic drinks are often standard in hotel rooms, as are iPod docks and great toiletries by the likes of Molton Brown and Kiehl’s. And toothpaste. Useful if you’ve left that in the big bag at the airport. The Quincy, my favorite stopover hotel on earth, also offers free laundry of a couple of items a day and hearty, hot, breakfast, lunch, dinner included in the room rate plus an infinity pool open all hours.

SHOP: Stopovers from Australia usually arrive in the evening, so once you’ve spend your first night at Lantern, it’s up early for shopping. The waterfront has all the luxury brands you’d expect but if you want bargains, head to Mall 313 on Orchard Road (the main shopping nexus). 313 isn’t the shiniest mall, but it stocks local brands (don’t bother unless you are of nearest Asian proportions) and the fabulous Uniqlo (which fits all).

PLAY: What to do in Singapore? The answer used to be eat then eat more, and that has stayed the same. What’s changed is the scope, which now includes Cocotte, a French brasserie at least as good as any in Paris. Cocotte is at Wanderlust. You don’t have to check in to enjoy a “pissaladiere”, one of those nicoise-style onion and anchovy tarts that are perfect for lunch.

The sights? I lived in Singapore years ago, when they were busy bulldozing most of those and I have to say, having stayed in a traditional wooden slatted home and been eaten alive by mosquitoes, I’m not sorry it’s changed. The Singapore I remember is preserved in the Chinatown Heritage Centre on Pagoda Street. Do dash in. It’s authentic except for the air-con.

Otherwise you can come to this frenetic city and just relax. The Tanjong Beach Club (day membership available) is a sexy beachside enclave of pool, volleyball, bar and cabana just a stone’s throw from the heart of the city and is the perfect place to spend a sun-soaked afternoon. Twenty-four hours in Singapore? You could just throw the bikini in your hand luggage and chil here sipping mai tais until your night flight to Europe.

Bang For Your Buck: Bangkok

Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not a easy city to grasp fast, so keep things simple. What’s required for a 48-hour jaunt is a peaceful place to stay, a few fantastic restaurants and after some great shopping, a wonderful massage. And as little time spent in traffic jams as possible.

TRANSIT TIP: If you arrive on a Sunday, you’ll save an hour on the route in from the airport. Avoid airport transits on a Friday night. While Asia’s other tourist hubs have affordable airport links, Bangkok’s can be a nightmare. Consider that your most extravagant spend should be a limo transfer (pricey, but great are those that meet you at the gate and whisk you past lengthy immigration lines) or get your hotel to send a car.

The problem with Bangkok is that there is no central taxi service hub and no reliable maps of a city growing and changing by the minute. Unless you have girl-scout skills of navigation, it’s wise not to believe the driver who says “near, near” and urges you got get out prematurely. Always carry a card with your hotel number, the phone number of where you are going and the address in Thai and English script, and know that calls on your driver’s local mobile are almost free (tip heavily). It is not unusual for taxi drivers to be remote-phone-navigated to your destination.

STAY: Check in at The Eugenia, an old colonial house with a pool in the central courtyard. But hang on: Thailand has never been colonized, so what’s with this “Indochine” mansion- all dark wood floors, high mahogany beds and copper bathtubs? It’s a fantasy, built just five years ago. Who cares? The details, both antique and repro, and the vast tables of white orchids, are glorious. Stay in the neighborhood until you get your bearings. Ruen Mallika is a wonderful restaurant to Thai-up your tastebuds and just a short taxi ride from the Eugenia.

PLAY: For cocktails, it is Vertigo on the roof of the Banyan tree; aptly named given it is 61 floors up (check online re: the dress code). Or for another way to achieve bliss with no dress code whatever, get a Thai massage at Oasis Spar (they’ll send a car to your hotel and you could leave from here direct to the airport).

EAT: You must go to Nahm, Australian Thai food guru David Thompson’s restaurant in the Metropolitan hotel. Sell the car, rent your house out, do whatever it takes to eat here. What to eat? Frankly, my notes are pathetic, I got as far as ” clear soup with crab meat, scallop salad with grated coconut” before I realised no words of mine could describe the majesty of this food. Simply brilliant.

SHOP: With 48 hours, you’ve just enough time to order a bespoke suit form the Tailor at Sukhumvit Road (try Raja Royal Tailor at Sukhmvit 4, Tanika at Sukumvit 14). For beautiful glassware, go to Lamont at the Four Seasons.

The Siblings of Chopard

The Siblings of Chopard

AFR | September 2011

by Marion Hume


Could you work with your brother or your sister? For every entrepreneur who shrugs, “Sure”, there’s another who snaps, “not until hell freezes over.”  For Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele and Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the response is, “we’ve shared an office for 25 years.” These sibling co-presidents of the Swiss watch and fine jewellery company, Chopard, are German-by-birth, Swiss by choice, (having braved the rigors of gaining a Swiss passport).

But it would be misleading to imply they have been locked in each other’s company for quarter of a century- during which time Chopard, based in a suburb of Geneva, has grown into a glittering name. “If I am in Geneva for a week, I feel I am not doing anything,” says 49-year-old Caroline, when we chat at the 64th International Cannes Film Festival. “I’m always travelling. My brother and I are very different in character and we are complementary,” she adds.

“Maybe I’m more spontaneous. He would sit more and think and analyse things.” When we meet at the Chopard Headquarters, where about 750 craftsmen are hard at work (the company employs a total of 1,700 people and has more than 120 boutiques and 1600 points of sale), her older brother concurs:  “Each of us has very specific areas where we excel.”

The Chopard story is not just a tale of two siblings, it’s a tale of two families; the Scheufeles, German goldsmiths for four generations; and the Chopards, who sold out in 1963 to Caroline and Karl-Friedrich’s parents. Chopard was established by a Swiss horologist named Louis-Ulysse Chopard in 1860 and, when it comes to watches, it turns out 75,000 a year.

I am more fascinated by Chopard’s fine jewellery, launched in 1990. And, more specifically, I’m intrigued by how soon after Uma Thurman’s apperance at the opening night of the Cannes film festival the cascades of emeralds she wore on her ears were sold. (Answer, first serious interest logged within minutes of her appearance, sale concluded the following morning. “And we could have sold them five or six times,” says Caroline of these red carpet one-offs that sold for €270,000.)

By now, it is lunchtime at Cannes. Elegant women, some looking a little the worse for wear after a Chopard-sponsored glittering after-screen beach party the night before, are nibbling on the chilled seafood pasta, served buffet-style on the penthouse terrace of Hotel Martinez. For those whose surnames do not end in Thurman, De Niro, Pitt or indeed Jolie-Pitt, this is where EVERYONE stays during the festival. It’s where you hop into the lift as the doors are closing, say “press seven please for the Chopard lounge,” only then to realise your lift operator is Oscar winner, Adrian Brody.

While Chopard has a presence at the Academy Awards as well as the French Cesars amd the British BAFTAs- and now, thanks to a current push into Australia, is targeting the AFIs as well- it is here at Cannes that the brand has pulled off its greatest coup. While no single commercial brand is particularly associated with the Oscars and the statuette, designed by an MGM studio art director remains almost unchanged since 1929, Chopard designs The Palme d’Or trophy.

Another prestigious Cannes award, presented each year by the biggest star in town to the young actor and actress who show outstanding promise, is called the Trophée Chopard. (Audrey “Amelie” Tautou, and Marion Cotillard are just two winners who have worn “lucky” Chopard jewellery ever since).

These close associations with the film festival have given the brand unequalled muscle on the Cannes red carpet, the scene of not one big night, but twelve. All this promotion comes at considerable cost (how considerable, no one in this private company will say). That it reaps rewards caused London’s Financial Times to highlight Chopard for its soft-sell “masterclass in the art of celebrity endorsement”.

The top floor of Hotel Martinez enjoys a sweeping view along La Croisette to the Palais des Festivals – as long as you can get past the squadron of security guards. Up here, there’s a beauty salon, a nail bar, a chill-out room, complete with both Grey Goose vodka bar and a bank of TV monitors, on which a montage of images of movie star plus Caroline Scheufele, movie star runs on an exhausting loop.

Outside on the terrace, a band, wittily titled The Gypsy Queens provides live music. As a visual centre piece, there is a pair of bejewelled stilettos under glass, billed as “the world’s most expensive shoes”, these the result of a collaboration with Italian shoe-maker, Guiseppe Zanotti. They are in such a small size that when Caroline Scheufele bounds onto the terrace to greet me, I look first at her tiny feet.

I have already decided I like Gruosi-Scheufele, who looks bright as a button, given she is the first (co-) president I have ever encountered whose PA has said, “she never does interviews before noon”. “I’m a night bird, I’m a natural party person,” she says as I take in flawless diamond earrings so massive (5 carat), that on anyone else, I would assume them to be fake. “They have no weight, diamonds have no weight, only gold has weight,” she tells me as she leads me to the VIP area of this already decidedly VIP terrace atop a VIP hotel (by now, I’ve cleared five security checks, three of which are operated by the hotel to keep fans at bay).

Through French doors, I can spy what must then be correctly called the VVVIP suite, where bodyguards protect a client from the Middle East who is being shown an emerald necklace. Of course, I’m supposed to be conducting an interview, not clocking a customer via eyes in the back of my head. But it certainly seems that, in the time it takes me to ask Scheufele a bit about her life in the family firm, a deal is reaching its conclusion. “Is that lady just looking?” I say, feigning innocence. “Buying,” Caroline confirms.

“Sometimes, we sell to the [movie star] who [has borrowed something for the red carpet]. I think it works when the celebrity is first of all choosing what she likes to wear and what she would wear anyway. Then it’s a natural thing. Sometimes, we sell to other clients who like what they saw.”

“But if that lady were a movie star, wouldn’t you give it for free?” I push.“Of course it happens I like to give presents because that would be an honour for the house. It means that people are really appreciating what we do. But they also buy. Jude Law was talking to me yesterday. He said he really liked his watch, and as he’s happy to wear it, he will buy it.” Behind her head, the Middle Eastern lady and her entourage prepare to leave. The necklace is sold.

The Cannes Film Festival has become a truly international gathering of the glam clan. While the late Liz Taylor was a paying customer, the lion’s share of jewellery purchasing power lies now in the Middle East and the BRICS economies, from whence plenty of wealthy customers, with just scant interest in the movies, show up for festival fortnight in their superyachts. There are other jewellers, with pop up shops along La Croisette  and selling suites in smart hotels, but what is beyond debate is that Chopard is in the lead here, ever since, some 15 years ago, Caroline Scheufele took herself to Paris to meet with the festival president.

“I said to myself, I’m a cinema lover and that’s how the whole thing started.” That said, her personal taste in film, perhaps similar to that of many guests of sponsors who get the most-prized tickets to evening premieres, does not parallel those movies chosen  to screen in competition, of which this year’s Australian entry, Sleeping Beauty was far from the most bleak and disturbing. Caroline’s favourite recent movie? “I liked that one with Julia Roberts in Bali….”

The Chopard HQ, just outside Geneva, betrays no hint of glamour. When you arrive at a cluster of squat grey buildings, the first thing they do is take away your passport. Inside, it is unexpected- that is if you expected the place where they kit out Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Carlize Theron, Penelope Cruz to movie-star fabulous. It turns out this place is fabulous, but in a different, hi-industrial kind of way.

After being ushered past enough steel rods, forged in Japan, to support a Shanghai skyscraper (here used to make watches), there is a machine so enormous that it looks like it should have been delivered instead to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on the nearby Franco-Swiss border.

So perhaps it’s the scale of the next machine that I like: for in contrast, it is about equal to that of a top-loading ‘nana’ washing machine, (one of those cylindrical ones you had to drag out on wheels and then put the hose pipe out the window). This one is for smelting gold. Some 12 tonnes of it (current spot price, $US52,000 a kilo) is delivered here each year from the nearby UBS vaults. Hardly any jewellers smelt their own gold. Chopard does because, as my guide puts it, “it means we control baking the perfect cake.”

So in goes a bit of copper for a rosy hue, a bit of palladium, a sprinkling of pure silver for strength and then a pile of 24-carat ingots, which are much smaller than those bricks of bullion villains steal in heist movies. The machine heats up to 1,000 degrees. There’s a viewfinder on the top. But what you see through it looks less how you might expect molten gold to look, (my reference; chocolate ads on TV) and more like the view through the Hubble Telescope to Mars. Weird. Wonderful.

Inside the fine jewellery workshop, a craftsman is tweaking the beaks of a pair of jewel-encrusted humming birds, each hovering over a diamond earring. Another holds the empty casement of a dress ring containing a massive 102-carat sapphire secured on a mount full of tiny holes, each of which will be filled with marquise diamonds. Then there’s the strand of 133 perfect South Sea Pearls. When I ask if I might try it on, it weighs me down like a yoke. “We will make the setting very light, with diamonds,” says a master craftsman.

Karl-Friedrich Scheufele meets me in the Chopard museum, which houses 18th century pocket watches and (bizarre this), a fully-stocked bar. While he shares twinkling nut-brown eyes with his sister, his gestures are smaller. Yes, he’s content with running a business in Switzerland, “although our  currency is quite strong at the moment and it may become more difficult for us in the next 6-8 months.”

Yes, he’s content with how Chopard is navigating these tough times, “although as we work with our own capital, certainly in our case, we are very careful.” And actually, he is glad his parents did not change the company name to Scheufele, “because we want our product to be the hero. We want people to believe in our brand name, respect it, cherish it. We as a family are not so important. We’re not really so keen about personal publicity.”

What Karl-Friedrich is obsessed by is provenance; a potentially sticky subject if you deal in gems. While the transit of diamonds is now tightly-controlled, it remains relatively simple to smuggle, say, banned Burmese rubies into the Thai supply chain. Karl-Friedrich aims to make Chopard completely transparent, pretty much from rock to ring, and the company is two-years into a three-year process to achieve that. “To be frank, this is not what our customers are asking us yet. But we must ask,” he says.

As to where those customers are, a growing number are in cities he’s still not sure how to pronounce, such as the Chinese coal-rich city of Urumqi. Australia is also on the radar for expansion, where the company hopes to stake a claim to both local custom and the upper end of the tourist market.

But there’s one family question i’ve yet to ask. Did these siblings have any choice of career? Karl-Friedrich pauses. “At one point, I wanted to pick up art as a main study in university. But then I entered into a jewelry apprenticeship and saw that it was also interesting and slowly but surely I found my way to the company.”Caroline has answered the same question at Cannes. “I would have liked to become a singer maybe,” she said, gazing over the Cote d’Azur. “Ballet was also something that I loved. But I had a choice. If my father had been producing lorries or cars, for sure, I would not be there.”