All posts by Marion

At The Court Of Armani – Australian Financial review

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At The Court of Armani 

Born in the year of the dog, Italy’s foremost designer is a China crowd pleaser, not least for the well dressed sophistication of his highly wearable clothes. But the succession question dogs the 78 year old all the way to Beijing, where Marion Hume joins him on a night of nights that proves Giorgio Armani is unlike any other of fashion’s living greats.

Austalian Financial Review | August 2012

by Marion Hume 

“Are you responsible, compassionate, reliable, honest, pessimistic and anxious?” Giorgio Armani’s ice blue eyes lock onto mine. Who dares ask fashion’s last emperor – his kingdom resolutely independent from the conglomerates that dominate the global luxury landscape – about his personal character? Yet we are in China, where a reporter, born under the year of the tiger, merely wishes to enquire whether the world’s wealthiest designer fits the description of those born under the year of the dog.

This emperor, who has absolute control as sole shareholder of a business worth billions, is shielded by a fiercely protective court. His mandarins – easy to spot because, like their ruler, they don’t wear socks – are stringent about vetting questions in advance. Tabled for today’s interview, taking place in a hotel penthouse 74 storeys above the streets of Beijing at the end of May, is discussion about Armani in China where the group has 289 of some 2125 stand-alone stores globally, with 50 more Chinese openings slated within the year.

There is a beat of silence. Then the interpreter translates the question into the designer’s native Italian (court protocol, as many suspect Armani understands English). “Perfecto!” Armani pronounces. Then he laughs. Then everyone is laughing and so it is that a reporter, distanced from greatness by ample space in which to kowtow, is allowed to stay upright in her chair.

When granted an audience with Armani, whether in the group’s palatial Milan headquarters or anywhere in his dominions, do not expect intimacy. The emperor must maintain distance (unlike, say, Tom Ford, who might start stroking your back). There will be a platoon of people. They will be dressed either just like him (T-shirt, sweater, immaculate casual) or they will ‘work’ his designs in studiously funky ways. The latter is a sartorial shift in a company that used to decree low heels, no earrings, nude nail polish – the change perhaps to semaphore a core brand message of ‘cool’, although the designer himself is 78.

Looking decidedly odd in such an on-trend crowd are the suits. The guy in the tie hand-signalling ‘five minutes to time’s up’ when we’ve only just got started? He’s Armani’s loyal assistant, Paul Lucchesi. The suited and booted guy standing all buff and bristling by the door? His palace guard.

Back in ancient China, it was believed that a man carried the creature of his birth year forever in his heart. Of all the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Shengxiao zodiac, the dog is the most determined. There is no need to ask Giorgio Armani if that is true of him. In 1975, he started a business with cash from selling a car. In 2011 alone, that business achieved a total turnover, including licensed products at retail value, of €6.73 billion ($7.9 billion). The dog is stubborn. When Sergio Galeotti, who was Armani’s partner in business and life, died in 1985, Armani expanded when expected to retreat and runs everything at one of the world’s most recognised brands.

It is written that dogs prefer saving money to spending it. At last report, Giorgio Armani SpA had some $817 million in cash on its books and even Armani’s yacht must earn its keep in charters. To a dog, a well organised home is important. Make that nine private homes, a homeware line called Armani Casa and, in partnership with the UAE property developer Emaar, hotels in Milan and Dubai. But dogs are sensitive, or you might say prickly, given Armani’s less than complimentary comments about other designers’ creations over the years (“molto porno”; “troppo Joan Collins”).

Being born in 1934 makes Armani specifically a ‘wood dog’, the kind that hunts in a pack. Where the emperor leads, others trot behind, even on his annual holiday to Pantelleria, a volcanic speck southwest of Sicily. Apparently, Armani snarls at those he loves the most. In a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, he admitted to “verbal violence. And sometimes I even use words, Italian ones – stronzo or cazzo!” Shithead, prick… “That is normal. [Among ourselves], this is what we say all the time.”

This visit to China is not holiday galavanting; it is an international show of brand power – or make that brands, plural. Within the group are Giorgio Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, plus eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics. On this evening, the emperor plans to dazzle all those who have received a gilded invitation – accompanied by a little box of nine (Chinese lucky number) Armani Dolce chocolates – with an extravaganza entitled ‘Giorgio Armani: One Night Only in Beijing’.

But overnight success is the opposite to how he got to be here. Along with talent and a singular vision are years of sheer hard work. Armani hails from Piacenza, a northern industrial town far removed from the Italy of La Dolce Vita. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, born two years after Armani (who was telling his mother how to dress when he was four and was famous by 21), Armani’s childhood stories are not of decorating paper dolls but of hiding in ditches while his home town was strafed in Allied bombing raids. His father worked in the offices of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and then as a shipping manager. His housewife mother could be as hard as nails. It took Armani years to see his name in lights, although for almost as many years since, a vast Emporio Armani sign arcing over Milan’s Linate airport has welcomed visitors.

Armani didn’t design under his own name until he was 40, making him something of a fashion George Clooney (often in Armani on screen), which is to say, old enough to know what to do when fame came knocking. That fame has been burnished through associations with many movie stars at awards ceremonies and in costume collaborations. Who can forget a cocksure Richard Gere, matching Armani shirts, pants, ties in the 1980 filmAmerican Gigolo?

This catapulted an Italian label to international stardom just as Western economies were booming and Young Urban Professionals were wondering what to wear. For men, Armani knocked the stuffing out of the suit. For women, his supple tailoring signalled soft power in a changing world of work.

But that is all known to fashion insiders. What we don’t know, when we show up in China, is the succession plan for a company that directly employs some 5700 people and it’s the scoop all of us are really after. In this imperial tale, there is no little Pu-Yi to ascend to the throne when the current occupant journeys to meet the ancestors, although Armani has two nieces (Silvana and Roberta Armani) and a nephew Andrea Camerana. Instead, two weeks after Armani’s appearances in Beijing, it will be revealed through the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, that the Giorgio Armani group will become a foundation once the emperor has gone.

This will benefit family members without giving any one of them control and ensure independence, keeping the kingdom safe from far mightier powers such as LVMH. (About a decade ago when LVMH titan, Bernard Arnault approached Armani with an offer few would refuse, Armani did just that.) Such a structure gets around the risks of selling to private equity, which can lead to strange bedfellows, and also protects against the vicissitudes of the stock market.

But while in China, reporters who have travelled across mountains and oceans to get ‘the succession scoop’ do not yet know of this imperial edict. And so it is that an Englishman, an Irishman and a dual nationality British/Australian walk into a hotel penthouse – not the opener to a joke but instead because we English-speaking journalists find ourselves bunched together. (Pressure of time, what with all the French, the Spanish, the Mandarin speakers also interviewing in teams).

We agree the Englishman will be the diplomat: “Can I ask Mr Armani about Beijing and his impressions of Beijing, especially coming back here after four years?” This Aussie will jest about cutting suits big enough for Russell Crowe’s beloved Rabbitohs, while the Irishman, fluent in Italian and in blarney, will watch for the moment to ask “what happens next?”. But do not forget the mandarins are skilled at games of cat and mouse, or shall we say dog-taunt-tiger, rabbit, monkey. An American journalist joins us just as we start, with more questions to be translated, yet with no extra time.

What Armani wants to talk about is clothes. The emperor pontificates, the interpreter waffles on. “He says that with the jacket, he uses more rational shapes, more easy to dress. He says the main difference is not in colours, is not in material, but especially in the structure, the shape.” The penthouse door swings open again and the reporters from across Asia take their seats as we four are ushered out of ours and forward to shake the imperial hand.

Later that day, it is in the subterranean Hades of Beijing’s fake markets, being suffocated by horrid handbags dangling with gewgaws, that the essential difference between the Giorgio Armani brand and almost every other mighty fashion marque slaps me in the face, almost literally. (“Look lady, best LV!”) As I swipe a gawdy Vuitton copy away from my eye line, there are no Armani logos to be seen, not on the cheap clutches piled high on the stalls or among the more convincing fakes I see in private cubbyholes, through doors concealed behind mirrors, or doors disguised as sets of shelves. There’s ‘Hermès’, there’s ‘Fendi’, there’s ‘Chanel’. Fundamentally, Giorgio Armani is a clothing brand with some bags on the side, thus much harder to rip off than those fashion giants which are bag companies with clothes on the side.

While some brands appear to be using China as a shop window (their rich Chinese customers buying abroad where taxes are lower), clothes are different. You might need something tomorrow for a business meeting or cocktail party. The Armani brands sell robustly within China. No numbers are given, but a figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of customers gets a nod from Paul Haouzi, who is offered up for the AFRMagazine to interview when it becomes clear that the most senior executive, group commercial director Livio Proli, will not be taking questions.

Haouzi, chief executive Asia Pacific, is a Frenchman fluent in Mandarin, as well as in the English he uses to explain that Armani customers in China “know what they want, understand what fashion is about and want the best. They won’t care too much about price. Armani is a big name and a great product, especially for menswear. And the men here, they really want to look good.”

Training sales staff is key, he says. “The people who serve the customers are not only nice, not only look good, the most important thing is that they are knowledgeable. They have to make sure the person who buys something not only buys the piece, but also buys the Armani experience: the love that Mr Armani has for beauty, for fashion. I want to make sure that our staff are able to deliver more than a piece of clothing.”

Yet while Armani is the king of clothes, paradoxically, the fashion world tends to get much more excited about showpieces spun out by those labels that principally sell bags. Armani does care, personally, that the fashion media shrugs off his wearable offerings as bland when, frankly, where could you go in what comes down the catwalk at Balenciaga?

To examine how good his clothing can be, you have only to take a look at his Australian celebrity clientele. No, not at Cate Blanchett (“In reality she can be very strong, so sometimes you are surprised about this strongness,” Armani says) because she looks good in anything, although it was Blanchett who got Armani to Australia. Not Nicole Kidman either, a natural clothes horse (“Ah, Nicole!”), nor even Russell Crowe, who scrubs up well (“He knows what he wants.”). But recall Armani also clothes the actor’s South Sydney rugby league football team, the Rabbitohs. (In the interview, Armani mimes thighs of magnificent girth accompanied by “molto machile”.) The day the Rabbitohs were fitted is one some of his staffers will never forget, given several players were ‘going commando’. These days, off field, they look impeccable.

As night falls, we are transported at a crawl across Beijing where five million cars have replaced those fabled 10 million bicycles, towards 798 Space, in the city’s Dashanzi art district. Within what was formerly a power plant is the shell of an enormous gasometer (scale: not quite Rome’s Coliseum, but large at 3500 square metres) where a thousand guests mingle for pre-show cocktails inside the perimeter, then are ushered into a stunning theatre-in-the-round. Off-white cushions, bleacher seats, ‘landing lights’ illuminating the catwalk, all echo Armani’s permanent show venue in Milan. American crooner Mary J. Blige is in her dressing room, the models are lined up backstage, all preparing to perform as part of a show which must be costing a fortune. (How much? Who knows, when Armani has to account to no one but himself?)

In this era of the fashion show mega-stylist, Armani does not appear to employ one. Perhaps he does that job himself too. He checks every model before they step out of the wings. Yet while the catwalk is peppered with pieces you’d grab if you could pick what you wanted from a store, on this night, fussed up to look heightened for the dramatic setting, more becomes less. Then, at last, the finale. In the Shengxiao zodiac, dogs are warned: be wary of dragons.

“The pinnacle of the fashion show is a sinuous black lacquered dress around which a spectacular three-dimensional embroidery of a dragon wraps itself, from whose jaws spout not flames, but the lightest of feathers,” is how the final gown is described in an official press release. Shall we just say that the gulf between how fashion scribes express themselves post-show, in private, and what appears in print is often not the same thing. Global reviews are euphoric.

In any case, Giorgio Armani’s true triumph lies not in such travelling circuses. He stands as a style colossus for a quiet elegance that cuts across class and geographical divides. He is a modernist, as Coco Chanel was a modernist, his key contribution to fashion’s lexicon being the calm clothes that promise at least one element of your day will be right. While he has been refining daywear since 1975, it is telling that he did not launch Giorgio Armani Privé, with its sparkling couture gowns, until 30 years later, in 2005.

Included in our Beijing itinerary is a visit to Tsinghua University, where Armani sponsors a program for fashion and textile students. He is here to tell Wen Ya and Wang Yilong that they have been awarded intensive six-month apprenticeships in Milan. It is in the company of these young women, surrounded by their peers, that an emperor becomes mortal, a man with a burning desire to transmit his knowledge to a new generation. Far more animated with the students than with the press, his sense of urgent need – palpable, even through the mire of translation – is to teach that the true power of clothes is to bring out the best in the person who wears them.

Armani leans into the wattage beam of eager young smiles: “I want to say this to all of you: when you design, you should not just think of external things, you should think of internal things. Maybe a woman’s exterior is not so good, so you think of how a woman’s inner beauty can benefit from your designs. This industry needs inner passion.” The lights in the lecture hall dim and some vintage images flash up on a slightly shabby screen. “When the hell is this video from?” snipes one of the press pack, looking up from trawling through emails on his smartphone, only to be plunged back into the 70s.

Then Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo comes through the speakers and here they come: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, an older Richard Gere going up the escalator holding a rose. Here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Yeoh, Julia Roberts. Armani’s army marches on with Rafael Nadal and a tattooed David Beckham in their underpants, Rihanna in her bra and (surprisingly) Lady Gaga in her clothes. Cut to Beyoncé shimmying in a spangly mini and even the hacks are a bit awed by the punch, punch, punch of it all.

But from where I am seated, light coming off the screen makes Giorgio Armani himself just visible through the blackness. As all those audacious achievements flash up on the screen to the side of him, a silver-haired senior in a tight fitting sweater stares out into nothingness, fine fingers extended in a cathedral of prayer. As a life in fashion plays out before us all, he is marble-still, like a knight on a tomb.

Armani is not like fashion’s other living greats. He is not a designer-for-hire like Karl Lagerfeld who could (although unlikely) spin on his Cuban heels and walk out on Chanel. He is not Ralph Lauren, six years his junior, whose namesake is a public company where one of his sons is senior vice-president. Calvin Klein, who is nine years younger, sold out to the highest bidder and withdrew. Armani has never been one for opulent indulgence like Valentino, who held an unforgettable farewell party and enjoys a luxurious retirement. We know that, one day, the Giorgio Armani Group will become a foundation. But until his last breath, the emperor rules alone.

Ferragamo and Screen Goddesses: a Perfect Fit – Australian Financial Review

Shodding Venus

When it comes to celebrity endorsement, you can’t top Marilyn Monroe. The story behind master shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, his muses and the legacy. 

The Australian Financial Review Magazine | August 2012 

by Marion Hume

Today, brands bleat and tweet of free product worn by stars who are often paid handsomely for the exposure. Yet Salvatore Ferragamo, headquartered in Florence, is in possession of rare relics: a pair of receipts, dated March 11, 1961, which record a salesman called George at the Park Avenue, New York shoe salon, taking orders for 16 pairs of shoes and a white calfskin bag. In return, the most famous woman in the world wrote cheques totalling $US563.30.

These were far from Marilyn’s first Ferragamos. In the 1950s, Salvatore pushed his heel height up to 11 centimetres specifically to add more wiggle to the bombshell’s walk, although she was hardly his only star client. A glittering role call flocked to be shod by this messiah of the metatarsal who was utterly obsessed by their feet. “They [these feet] talk to me. As I take them in my hands, I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failings,” he wrote in his autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, published in 1957.

This rags­-to-­riches-­to-­rags-­to-­riches life story features (literally) walk­-on parts from such silver screen icons as Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson – although the shoemaker was far less intrigued by them from the ankle up. Then later, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, showed up, flanked by goose-­stepping Nazi guards. (“Good, normal feet and anything would fit her,” he noted). Predictably, he praised by podiatry, so tiny-­toed Vivien Leigh was a ‘Cinderella’, long­limbed Greta Garbo was an ‘aristocrat’ and Marilyn, possessed of perfectly proportioned size 37 feet, was ‘Venus’.

It is 50 years since the avatar of the American dream died. Yet a master craftsman called Stefano Frasconi is holding a pump in soft white lambskin, a near replica of the one Marilyn ordered many times – in white, nude, black, gold. As Frasconi holds a shoe that is yet to meet its heel, he is struggling to explain – through a translator and a mouthful of nails – what makes it special. But just like the company founder, any celebrity connection seems to be a sideline to him. Instead, Frasconi repeats “calzata perfectamente” (perfect fit), emphasising with sharp taps of  a little hammer. He keeps pulling at the leather, pre-soaked for days to provide flexibility, then jumps up and puts the shoe in a customised oven, before stretching its leather upper again and banging it with the hammer.

In close-up, this scene, playing out at the Ferragamo atelier on the outskirts of Florence, may seem somewhat anachronistic: the shoemaker hunched over a low bench spread with tools not dissimilar to those Salvatore himself might have used when he started making shoes commercially in 1906, aged 13. (He had made his first shoes, for his sisters, when he was only nine). But luddite practices, however charming, don’t account for a company that is listed on the Milan stock exchange and has 593 stores worldwide. The organisation posted total revenues for the first quarter of 2012 of €259.6 million ($305.5 million). WHile skills of human eye and hand helped, state-of-the-art machines aided the production of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, as well as clothing, luggage, small leather goods, eyewear, scarves, ties, timepieces, fragrance and handbags, made elsewhere in Italy.

Widening the focus reveals our location to be a vast, slick, industrial set-up known as Manovia, after the Italian word for circular ‘rail’ system, which here moves shoes from one production process to the next. Yet this, too, traces directly back to the founder, whose experiment with a mechanised production line that would still preserve the exacting standards of custom-made shoes was so ahead of its time, it lead to his 1933 bankruptcy.

Salvatore certainly bounded back. By the 1940s, the peasant boy from a family that had struggles for survival on a small holding was the proud owner both if Il Palagio, a sumptuous hillside villa outside FLorence that is still a family home, and a castle, complete with ramparts, right in the heart of the renaissance city. Palazzo Feroni remains the company’s headquarters. When Salvatore died suddenly in 1960, he left a much younger wife, Wanda, six children and a truly international business. Since then, it is the 90-year-old matriarch, ‘Mrs Wanada’, who still turns up for work every morning and who has preserved his legacy.

To avoid confusion, it is Ferragamo company policy to call family members by their first name, preceded by ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. Hence the 67-year-old Ferruccio, who is chairman of the company, is dubbed Mr Ferruccio. His siblings – Mrs Giovanna, Mrs Fulvia, Mr Leonardo and Mr Massimo – all have key roles. (The eldest daughter, Fiamma, who designed the best-selling flat Vara pump with its gold plaque and grosgrain ribbon, dies in 1998).

Given there are 60 direct heirs, not only is there no room at the family firm for them all but a wise and stringent charter decrees that only the top three from each subsequent generation are welcome. The most visible of the third generation,in part because of his matinee idol looks, is 40-year-old Mr James, who is women’s leather product director. The first of the fourth generation to hit 21,  Lorenza Gentile, has not yet fulfilled the minimum requirements even to apply: an MBA and several years experience work elsewhere.

When Mr Ferruccio sits down to chat over a rocket-fuel espresso at the palazzo, he says that what locks everything together is “quality products that are good value for what they are; with innovation, long-lasting”. This sounds much like many other brands, but he adds that the difference is: “We don’t want to ever overcome the personality of the customer.” Evidence can be found directly below us, in the mirrored shoe salon at street level. The Viatica is a timeless two-tone stiletto of white suede and black calf. That Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Sugar’ Kane Kowalczyk wore this exact style to woo her Shell Oil millionaire in Some Like it Hot starts to matter note more but, strangely, less, once these lovely shoes are beckoning one’s own feet. Which is to say, you yearn for them to be yours, not hers.

What lies beneath remains the same, then and now. The soul of Ferragamo – pun intended- is the sole. The founder- who lied in Italy, then America, then returned to Italy – was studying anatomy at night school in Los Angeles just as architects on Americana’s east coast were realising that they could build skyscrapers taller with less load-bearing structure at the base. Similarly, Salvatore surmised that, as the weight of the erect human body is borne not by toes or heels but drops straight down on the arch, a revolutionary steel arch support would act with the equilibrium of the body in motion instead of fighting against it. This slim plate remains central to comfort. No wonder that (whisper it) both the queen of the red carpet, Angelina Jolie, and the queen of all she surveys, HRH Elizabeth II, are believed to be loyal, paying customers.

That Ferragamo also offers a wide range of fittings (A to D, others on special order) has helped gather fans in the brand’s most robust market, China. There widths C and D are hte most common, which has ripped up other luxury shoemakers offering styles of a narrow French foot and who may also have faced an additional anatomical barrier: purveyors of very high-heeled ‘limo shoes’ find these cannot adapt to the average length of the chinese foot without the wearer being en point like a ballerina. That said, Chinese movie star, Fan Bingbing does favour towering Ferragamos. THese are custom-made, their height achieved with extraordinary platforms. As for Australian feet, Salvatore has this to say about them when he visited Sydney in 1958: “Nature has been generous in length though they, too, are narrow.”

The Asia Pacific region is the group’s top market in terms of revenue, up 27.3 per cent with a turnover of 96.4million for the first quarter of 2012. A further reason is menswear, attractive to a market where men tend to embrace luxury goods before they treat their wives. For Salvatore Ferragamo himself it was making books for men that led to his breakthrough American success. Salvatore made his mark in the American motion picture industry, before i relocated from Santa Barbara to Hollywood, with cowboy boots for early Westerns. From then on, he always shod male feet. (“Mussolini lost his corns and bad toenails after he wore my boots,” is just one comment n the subject).

The founder’s sons, Mr Ferruccio and Mr Leonardo, first stood on the Bund in Shanghao when they past was mud their feet. The brand debuted with a store in the city in 1994 (with local partner, Imaginex). Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci are between two and six times bigger than Ferragamo, yet in China this pioneer consistently marches ahead and is present in 34 cities. Company CEO Michele Norsa has no fears of brand saturation in China. “Not at all, we worked with McKinsey on a five­year plan,” he says. “We imagine in the next three to five years, we can cover another 10 to 20 cities probably. The potential of new destinations in China connected by trains, flights, infrastructure development is becoming very substantial.”

Norsa – known by his surname because he is an outsider, the first non-family member to hold a keymanagerial position – was hired in 2007, primarily to put in place the organisation and governance to gear up the company for an IPO, which was delayed by the 2008 crash and accomplished successfully last year. He says that Chinese customers in Beijing and Shanghaimay travel to avoid high duties and taxes,which has helped make Australia “one of the best markets in the world this year for us”.

The shoesmust bemade in Italy, “one of our pluses”, insists Mr Ferruccio, “for the name, the best quality and also, as commitment to those who have worked at Ferragamo for many years.” As to his nation’s economic woes, the company chairman adds: “I am sorry because there are many elements which are uncertain. We are fortunate because we produce 100 per cent in Italy, butwe sell, I think, 9 per cent in Italy.”

The founder’s three sons and the next generation have significant other interests. Mr Ferruccio’s son Salvatore Ferragamo II, twin of Mr James, helms their father’s parallel hotel and wine business, based in a medieval hamlet about 45 minutes’ drive from Florence. Closer to Siena is an 800year old winery and hotel, Castiglion del Bosco, owned by Mr Massimo and family. The most ambitious other business is surely Mr Leonardo’s.He is chairman and owner of Lungarno Collection, a luxury hotel group, with seven of the swankiest places to stay around Florence and another in Rome. He also owns the majority of Nautor’s Swan, the largest global producer of luxury yachts.

Today, the core business is ring-fenced against hostile threats like those endured by the part family-owned Hermès. Salvatore Ferragamo SpA is ripe for further growth (Norsa cites Jakarta and Berlin as examples) and a dynasty’s long view means thatMr James has been able to continue the inventiveness of a grandfather who tried sweet wrappers, fishing wire and tree bark as shoe uppers. He innovates in a sustainable context, while admitting that a 100 per cent biodegradable handbag (nometal parts) has yet to find broad appeal.

“In my father’s autobiography, in a way you can tell he felt his life was going to be short,” says Mr Ferruccio. “Perhaps we have tried to accomplish what he wanted to do”. But let’s not forget Mrs Wanda, born just four years before Marilyn Monroe and still standing ramrod straight in her Ferragamo heels. It is the matriarch who greets guests for cocktails after they have visited Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed within the cavernous palazzo for an exhibition dedicated to the icon (Marilyn runs to January 28, 2013).

“When Daddy passed away, [my mother] knew how to make children but not shoes,”Mr Ferruccio says. “Yet she has lived her life with the desire of continuing the business”.

Indeed, Mrs Wanda, long ago a teenage bride, deserves much of the credit for a sometimes glamorous, sometimes gruelling journey of this brand born of a fascination with feet.

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable? – The Business of Fashion

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

The Business of Fashion | 8th June 2012

by Marion Hume

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Fashion is driven by desire. But ethical fashion has been driven by — well, what exactly? A wish to semaphore that one is a caring kind of person while walking through life in pleather shoes? There are, of course, style-setters so chic they can rock a hand-loomed yak hair poncho, being good while looking great. The writer is not one of those people.

The writer is, however, a veteran of more than 25 years on the front lines of fashion, possessed of a deep hatred of waste which jars, somewhat, with a love of glamour. Thus, when “green” fashion started to attract attention, I admired the effort but the results just didn’t chime. Ditto those “pity purchase” ranges, created by supermodels, to which I was often allergic because the products weren’t super enough.

This is not to suggest that all supermodel endeavours are empty. Lily Cole and Liya Kibede spring to mind as two whose deep commitment is tangible.

But overall, I am yet to meet the woman who opens her wardrobe in the morning and declares with glee, “Today I want to look ethical.” Most of us, let’s be honest, just want to look as good as we can, add accessories and get out of the house.

Is the tote I’m slinging my laptop into made with fair labour? Is the black t-shirt I have on under my jacket organic cotton? Have all environmental concerns been checked? Nope, not going to happen at 8am. What about getting up to speed at point of purchase instead? No again. A bristling of swing tags, trumpeting good deeds, can be really annoying when they catch in your underwear in the fitting room.

It is my absolute belief that ethical goods have to appeal, even if you don’t know the back story, but, on the flip side, that the fashion goods we desire should be made in the most ethical way possible. Why not? Why shouldn’t sustainability be as central to style as silhouette? Why should it be hard to stride forth in the confidence that you are doing no harm to people or planet?

Maybe the answer lies in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, if only we could be bothered to read those documents companies typically post online. Actually, I do bother. But I find that despite all the moody images of spring leaves and footprints in the sand, CSR brochures tend to muddy the pure blue water — not with what is written, but what is left out. The “light industry” that is fashion can be far from transparent.

So here’s some good news: a rather unusual bunch of bright people are about to get together to grapple with making fashion better. At the end of next week, on June 17th, just before presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to agree on a way forward for sustainable development, the United Nations Global Compact will host the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. Within more than 60 sessions focused on key sustainability issues, there is one that, perhaps, you would not normally expect: “Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” organized by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Its focus? Clothes, bags, shoes.

Speakers at this fashion session will include an immaculately dressed Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff and a Fendi with an obsession for plastic carrier bags — or, more accurately, an obsession with how to reduce the mountains of them leaching carcinogenic dioxins into hotchpotch neighbourhoods of the world’s poorest people.

The session aims to demonstrate that it is, indeed, very possible to do good while making profits. Joining Boff and Ilaria Venturini Fendi will be Aminata Traore, who hails from Mali, dresses to turn heads and advocates for making the global use of cotton more fair, alongside Auret van Heerden, president of non-profit group Fair Labor Association, whose political consciousness was forged in opposition to apartheid in his native South Africa. Then there’s the American, Willa Shalit, who, by treading softly, continues to lead some of fashion’s biggest names through the complex challenges of working in Haiti.

But the purpose of all this goes beyond letting some people with good accessories vent for an afternoon. The stated aim of the session is to produce a “roadmap” — free to use — to help big global fashion business become more fair, more green, more inclusive yet never less chic. The panel will be led by Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a United Nations agency for which (disclosure) I have been a consultant since 2009.

How this growing force for ethical fashion differs from others is that Cipriani’s instruction was to conceive a major initiative that would contribute towards two key priorities of the UN: eradicating extreme poverty and empowering women.

He could have said, “let’s open a factory to make tractors.” Instead he said, “I must call Vivienne Westwood.”

We are in Kenya, mid afternoon. After a long drive, there is a longer march to a squatter village, as the community we are visiting have lost their ancestral home to a land grab. The singing of Maasai women acts as an aural navigator.

The matriarch appears first, having donned her finery, adding a towering beaded headdress to her usual daywear collars and cuffs. Vivienne Westwood also dresses for the occasion, ducking into a goat-pen to slip on sky-high rocking horse shoes. Thus do two stylish women utterly “get” one another, then get down to business.

The death of animals due to drought had both unsettled this community and increased domestic violence. While it is the first time Westwood has visited, two seasons worth of orders from her company have allowed the local women to restock the animals, restoring pride to their men and some tranquility to their own lives.

Though they belong to a deeply patriarchal society, these women now have economic power. The matriarch makes this clear. How big an increase is there to be on an order for leather cuffs beaded with the word “SEX?” she wants to know. The negotiations conclude with an additional order for beaded bag panels that read “ILOVE CRAP.” Pure Westwood. Crap, of course, is what this absolutely isn’t.

This is just one small community among many — some rural, some in slums — where lives are being improved by fashion businesses which respond to the real needs of marginalised people. While the fashion world typically thrives on last minute change, this system must be planned in recognition that overtime is not possible in places where, to be safe, women must be home before nightfall. There are also crops to tend, which means that workers might only work three months of the year.

But make no mistake. The impact is real.

Before the orders from Westwood, a key source of income in the village we visit came from the sale of charcoal, which, when burned as fuel, has a devastating consequence in terms of carbon emissions. Dame Vivienne is an ardent advocate against climate change, yet she is amazed; her designs for beaded adornments are having a direct effect of preserving our environment.

Furthermore, Kenyan women typically earn between 150 and 300 Kenyan Shillings (KSH) per day, if they can find work at all. For a Westwood order, for which there is an expectation of high quality, the rate is an average of KSH 600 daily, a substantial increase that translates into quantifiable female empowerment. Indeed, over 70 percent of women working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative now understand banking and have accounts with the Cooperative Bank or the Kenya Women Finance Trust, a microfinance lending institution. And while the Masaai community we visit are squatters, others working for the Ethical Fashion Initiative have been able to use a steady income to rent better accommodation. In another, more settled rural community, the profits from Westwood are evident in a new water tank.

“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion lodged in his hand.” So said John Ruskin (1819-1900). But while his words ring true today, a Victorian gent who behaved very oddly towards his wife perhaps isn’t the fashion model we seek. So let’s update and call this “Hermès economics” for not only is the craftsman who makes your Birkin getting a proper pay packet and a hot lunch, but the water downstream of the tannery must be cleaner than the water found upstream.

Transfer that challenge to a tannery in Uganda. When Simone Cipriani was a boy, growing up in Florence, tanneries still pumped unfiltered sludge into the Arno, which made standing on the Ponte Vecchio decidedly whiffy. We wouldn’t tolerate that today. So how to make sure a tannery in Uganda does not discharge water effluents into the mighty Nile at inestimable cost to those living on its banks in several countries? The actual cost of a filtering system is about $10,000 — not insurmountable when factored in as small increments onto the finished cost of a bag, or a shoe.

It’s a myth, in my experience, that fashion people are silly people. Many of us are bright and thoughtful but we’d appreciate some guidance. Hopefully next week’s think tank in Rio will provide that.

Marion Hume is a fashion journalist based in London. For more than two decades, she has written for newspapers and magazines in the US, the UK and Australia.

“Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative will take place June 17th 2012 as part of the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, hosted by the United Nations Global Compact.


Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway – The Times

Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway

The Times | Sunday 12th May

It’s only 11km long and has no phone reception, but Lord Howe Island is a favourite with the in-the-know crowd, says Marion Hume 

I once met a woman with the weird and wonderful job of checking out far-flung locations for “vacational suitability” for a Hollywood clientele. So I shared a secret: Lord Howe Island. She hadn’t heard of it, but then, it was one of the last islands on Earth to be discovered. It bears no trace of indigenous settlement and Europeans and Polynesians didn’t show up until more than a century after the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. 

Savvy Aussies-in-Hollywood certainly slip away to this tiny speck in the Pacific, governed from New South Wales. Judy Davis, the Emmy award-winning actress who appeared in A Passage to India and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, has visited its golden sands, as has Eric Bana of Hulk fame, who came with his kids, and George Miller, the director of Happy Feet and Mad Max. 

But the islanders are too busy milking their cows or minding their honey bees to pay much attention and, as for visitors (numbers are capped at 394 at a time), why would you bother ogling stars when you can spend the time paddling with exotic fish in more colours than a Matthew Williamson Kaftan? Anyway, the island – 11km long (6.8 miles), 2.8km wide and 770 km across the Tasman Sea from Sydney – is out of mobile phone range, so you can’t call and tell your friends which famous name you’ve just spotted.

It’s not totally off the grid, though. You can buy the Australian edition of Grazia at the local store and an intermittent internet connection allows a couple of young mums to shop on Net-a-Porter (then wait for purchases to arrive by barge because the daily 32-seat Das 8 plane usually flies at capacity weight). As for fashionable visitors, Stephen Jones, the milliner, is among devotees of what he calls “an unspoilt hideaway”, adding: “In a few short days, Lord Howe’s magic transports me, even inspiring a collection of mine entitled ‘Drifting & Dreaming’.” A gentle respect pervades a place where the school uniform does not include shoes. If  you need to move faster than you can walk bare-foot, you hire a bicycle. (The speed limit for the few dozen cars is 25km an hour.)

The chef at Pinetrees, the local hotel since about 1848, cycles to work with his surf board under his arm. The relaxed mood extends to the hotel’s “business centre” – an empty desk and a can of mozzie spray. No one uses it. The staff joke that they place bets on how few hours it takes guests to go from “boardroom to BBQ”.

“A few people do ask where the lap-pool is. I say ‘over there, mate’.” says Luke Hanson, one of the Pinetrees’ proprietors, gesturing to the lagoon that is home to 90 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. Hanson has married into a matriarchal clan. His two young daughters, Elsie and Pixie, with wife Dani Rourke, an islander and former hot-shot Sydney lawyer, represent the seventh generation of women running Pinetrees (for, make no mistake, three-year-old Elsie definitely thinks she is running the place).

There’s abundant nature and history here. Take the tale of Dani’s great uncle Albert, who ran off as a teenager, by lighting a beacon to attract a passing ship and said he’d been shipwrecked. Eventually he settled in England, where 30 years later, he wrote home to tell the folks his new job – boatswain on the Titanic. Some 50 years after he perished at sea, s daughter traveled to Lord Howe Island, where she recalled her father as delusional; full of improbable stories of birds balancing  eggs on branches instead of building nests and flocks swooping from the sky at a human call. It’s such true facts of fascinating fauna that made Sir David Attenborough breathless when he vanished to the island. He described it as “almost unbelievable”.

Accommodation ranges from simple self-catering to the luxury of the new duplex Lidbird Suite at Capella Lodge, which features a bathtub on a private deck under the frangipani trees and a plunge pool with views across the lagoon to Mount Gower. The latter is a tough climb of 875m (2,870ft), so a more sensible way to spend the day might be lazing on the day bed reading The Freudian Slip by Marion von Adlerstein, the must-read of the Australian summer, in part set on Lord Howe. Lovely Capella lodge is child-free, so its owners, James and Hayley Baillie, who have four young boys, stay at Pinetrees.

Lord Howe isn’t an island to jam into a tight schedule. There ‘s the voyage to Ball’s Pyramid, which rises 551m out of the sea life a Gothic spire. There are glass – bottom boat trips that are far less frenzied than on the Great Barrier Reef, and not-to-be-missed – even by those who think bird-watching is for twitchers – is a ramble with the ornithologist Ian Hutton.

Then there is doing nothing. When Kris Lewis, the general manager of Arajilla Re-treat, returned after seven years working across Asia, he asked the fisherman who also refuels the planes what was new. “The windsock at the airport,” came the reply.

Still, there’s been much excitement lately. A new copper has reported for duty. Senior Constable McGrath’s correct title is “Lock Up Keeper Lord Howe Island”, though no one even locks their doors. The closest thing to that is the “privacy” sign hung on a banyan tree outside the yurt that houses the sap at Arajilla.

Radical Departures – Bentley Magazine

Radical Departures

Forget the cliches- it’s time to rediscover Australia

by Marion Hume

My theme is Australia. You may consider this southern continent the most radical departure from everyday experience- or equally, the least. It is, of course, a long way from just about everywhere and spending your entire weekend traveling may be a strange notion (except those who commute from London to Sydney.) Yet it is also the faraway destination that you might think holds little to surprise. We know all about Bondi Beach and finding Nemo on The Great Barrier Reef and that vast red rock in teh centre correctly called Uluru, don’t we?

Yet Australia is travel’s big surprise for 2012 in terms of culture, food and travel experiences which which have zero to do with the old ‘flop and drop’ backpackers of old. Let’s consider food first. We know Australia is the land of fusion, the nation that exports hard-working chefs – ask to meet the creator of your dinner anywhere from Bruges to Beijing and chances are, the bloke who emerges from the kitchen has a lazy gin and an Aussie greeting. But what is so buzzy is the Sydney food scene. Melbourne and Adelaide have long been vibrant food centers, this in no small part sue to sophisticated emigres from Italy and Greece. But in Sydney, the equation used to be ‘great view + lackluster food + too chilly air con and bad service = huge bill’. Now, one of the city’s best restaurants is in a basement.

But lets us focus first on the entrepreneur and food god that is Maurice Terzini, who helms several restaurants with peerless views and great food. Terzini, with partners Robert Marchetti and Kimme Shaw, has changed Sydney. Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, with glittering views across the ocean at Bondi Beach, is one of the few restaurants  on earth where it is a requirement, rather than a pose, to eat lunch in dark glasses. Then came North Bondi Italian Food, where the queue for tables starts at 6pm (no reservations). Now, in Neild Avenue, a road drivers used to cut through without stopping, comes the latest arrival, called- with brevity-Neild Avenue and housed in a former factory. What’s to love? The ambience, and the  gorgeous Sydney women in high heels and tiny dresses? Yet, but thats common in this snazzy town. The difference is the food, which here features Ottoman cuisine as flavorsome as in those run-down shacks by the Bosporus. We’re talking lamb pistachio kebabs with cracked wheat and hung yogurt, velvety hummus, buffalo halumi with lemon, mint and shallot salad. Diners even get excited about cauliflower.

Sydney is not only Terzini’s town of course. Neil Perry (who creates the onboard catering for Qantas, surely the only long haul airline where you actually look forward to dinner) is the reigning monarch of Rockpool and its many spin-offs. His latest is the Spice Temple, where the food is fiery with the flavours of Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang This is the joint in the basement so dinners enjoying a combination of fine local produce and authentic regional Chinese cuisine have nothing to divert them from what is on their plates. Then there are the little joints, like Vientiane, an organic Laotian restaurant combined with an art gallery which is carving out a name for “wellness” food that manages to be delicious and can be washed down with organic wine in a cute little boite hung with cutting-edge art. (Last time I was there, someone dropped AU$60 for dinner and AU$6,000 for a sculpture. Which was a shame because they had the latter packed to go while I was eating and I’d been enjoying the sight of it.)

Even home cooking has changed. The land of the “sausage sizzle ” has moved on from the humble ‘snag’ (which translates as ‘sausage’ from the local argo, ‘strine’). Fashionable in Sydney now? Competitive butchery with butchers shops as done up as the lobbies of small luxury hotels. Victor Churchill, in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra has a Himalayan salt-brick wall to help age the beef. In my grandmother’s day, shopping for supper meant asking if there were any chops. Now, customers can be heard requesting 36-month-old grass-fed meat, dry-aged for 30 days, for mince for burgers.

While butchers shops look like shiny hotel lobbies, the best hotels in Australia combine low key charm, the least possible impact on the environment and very good local wine. Southern Ocean Lodge is on Kangaroo Island, a short hop from Adelaide, South Australia. Hotelier James Baillie is a visionary, although you’d need at least 20:20 vision to even spot the lodge from afar as it disappears into the hillside . But there ‘s no swimming here.  Although the ocean spray comes right through your window, out there is the No.1 breeding ground for the Great White Shark.

James Baillie has made it tricky for me to choose my No.1 hotel on earth because he helms my equal two. Lord Howe Island was one of the last places on earth to be inhabited (and only descendants of the original handful of families can build houses there today). (It was first sighted at the end of the 19th century when a freighter was blown off course). As a result, the wildlife has no fear. Clap your hands and birds come down from the sky to see what is going on. But I’m no David Attenborough. I want supreme yet low-key comfort with my ornithology Capella Lodge is perfect.

The greatest travel commentator of them all, Alan Wicker, used to say he liked his paradises slightly spoilt, which to me means no one for miles, but wine and a proper loo. Kuri Bay is way up in the Kimberley, on the remotest shore of one of the most isolated regions, known up to now only to pearl divers. In partnership with Paspaley Pearls, Wild Bush Luxury – helmed by CHarles Carlow – has transformed Australia’s oldest pearl farm into a five room homestead, which is not luxurious in the traditional sense yet guests enjoy rare local delicacies such as pearl meat. The property is only accessible by helicopter or sea plane – a spectacular, one hour and 45-minute air safari from Broome, itself a tiny tin-roofed town three hours flight north of Perth, in turn the most isolated city in the world. Just don;t pack the IPad.

Travel alone to Three Hummock Island, off the northwest coast of Tasmania and you will be increasing the resident population by 50%. There are two residents at the place on our planet which enjoys the purest air quality. THis isle is an ark, where you can see all manner of rare marsupials. This is new luxury, which is to say managers John and Beverly O’Brien do everything possible to ensure a lovely stay. Just don’t expect a lock on the loo. Or indeed, a closed door.

Come to Australia for the culture? In which other country might you do a three city hop where the most radical contemporary art- some of it so transgressive it is rarely exhibited elsewhere – will knock your socks off? Let’s start with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, reopening after an AU$53 million rebuild this spring to reveal galleries of a scale that would make London’s Tate Modern and Madrid’s Museo del Prado jealous. And they are already jealous, one presumes, of a location right across the harbour from the Opera House, itself the ultimate site-specific work of art.

The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art is up in steamy Brisbane where the mercury rises. Brisbane was a country town that has become a city (Chanel has opened a store there). The fashionable hatter, Stephen Jones, curated an exhibition called Hats, an Anthology, a work of whimsy which proved a suprise crowed pleaser at London’s V&A. When it travelled to Brisbane, 165,158 people saw it in 60 days- many of them many times over, given the population.

Small? What about Tasmania, where even the locals joke about people with two heads. (Before you criticize me for the preceding line, see the brochure for MONA- The Museum of Old and New Art – in Hobart, which announces that ‘Tasmanians (two heads etc.)’ may enter for free.)

MONA is the single most exciting art gallery to have opened anywhere since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim at Bilbao. Sleepy Hobart is now in shock about how a native son – one David Walsh, who made his millions by developing a spread betting system for gambling on horse races- has opened a private museum, filled with his own treasures and largely funded by himself, and lured so many people to an extraordinary art space carved out of the rock and to which access is by boat.

Wim Delvoye is one of the world’s most controversial artists. He is best known for Cloaca, which replicates the process of the human intestine turning food to waste, and also for an art farm where piglets were tattooed then allowed to live for a decade, far longer than is conventional farming before their skins were displayed. Louis Vuitton and Disney are among those who have tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Delvoye for tattooing their logo’s on pigskin. MONA is the first gallery anywhere to show Delvoye’s complete exploration of religion, which includes dead mice acting out the stations of the cross and a real live man called Tim as a silent Christ-like work of art.

Australia as a radical departure? Surely yes, especially as this article does not even mention…sport.

A Model Career – Sunday Telegraph

A Model Career

Sunday Telegraph Magazine | May 2012 

by Marion Hume 

With pop promos, movies and exercise videos, Cindy Crawford redefined ‘supermodel’. But it is her enduring looks, professionalism and Midwest manners that have made her a superstar in front of the camera for more than a quarter of a century. 

by Marion Hume 

Cindy was never like the other supermodels, although she was certainly super. She never blended in- and not just because of that mole; she never was an all- change chameleon. She was always Cindy and that could be very disconcerting.

You’d be sitting at a show, tapping along to the music (because they played such fun music, and each track all the way through, back in the Nineties) and you’d be caught up in the designer’s vision of wherever he was trying to transport you to.

And then came Cindy. She would storm out of the wings and those black eyes would seem to lock on you like a heat-seeking missile.

Cindy was, then, like no other. She wouldn’t wear high necks (not Cindy). I can’t recall her wearing trousers (well, maybe once, at Armani). She was all woman; none of that striding through life purposefully in flat shoes. this girl was in a heel or else she was in sneakers, running like the wind.

It’s hard to imagine now that something as naff as an exercise video could be exciting, but when Cindy first did them, to fashion people, they were thrilling. We brought them, even though we knew in our heart of hearts we’d never get round to doing those squats. Who buys calendars in an age when everything is on our iPhone? But then, everyone, male and female, brought Cindy’s. She posed for Playboy and, rather than thinking it was unspeakable, we thought it was cool.

What wasn’t cool was Fair Game. a truly dreadful 1995 movie in which she played a lawyer, but a lawyer who always seemed to dress with a white vest between her shirt and her bra, all the easier to strip off the former and dive into a harbour aflame with burning oil.

Cindy, of course, recovered magnificently and kept on running. She’d been married to Richard Gere, posed with him on the cover of US Vogue and then the pair had defended their marriage with a full-page ad in The Times, but they still broke up.  However, that both have found enduring partnerships since, and have never been rude about each other, doubtless says much about each of them as well-rounded real people as well as celebrities. And hell, while the relationship lasted, they were hot.

I think Cindy and I see the cover of Vanity Fair when, famously she’s in a swimsuit and heels pretending to shave the face of KD Lang. Or she’s emerging like Venus out of a shell. There are all those Helmut Newton images. What Cindy had, perhaps uniquely, was a sizzling appeal  to men while girls absolutely adored her too, even though any fool could work out that, no matter how many lunges we did in time to her video, we could never look like her. And then there was the ‘Freedom’ video for George Michael. The excitement was palpable.

Yet while she became and remains unique, Cindy started as ‘the cut-price version’ of another girl. (Fashion is, was and always will be cruel to the young fillies entering the parade ring.) She was first known as ‘Baby Gia’, after Gia Carangi, who broke the blonde mould with her sultry, dark looks but became known for leaving fashion shoots early via the bathroom window in hot pursuit of her drug dealer. ‘Baby Gia’ turned out to be not cut-price at all but a class act.

Cindy Crawford’s reputation, from day one, as for the solid Midwestern values she has brought with her from DeKalb, Illinois (known pre-Cindy as the ‘home of barbed wire’).  She turned up on time, well-groomed and well-spoken. But she also took control. She was known for expecting- and quite a reasonable expectation this- that shoots might also end on time, given she was always professional and expected to work, be paid and get on with her life.

That she had endured should be no surprise to anyone. She was born with good bones and she’s worked hard for those good glutes. What I recall is her manners. I was working with a film crew backstage when a phalanx of ‘Cindy and Richard’ security swept through so fast, they knocked me off my feet and into a rail of eveningwear. ‘Oh!’ came a voice belonging to the very famous Ms Crawford. ‘Stop! Is she ok? Are you ok?’ I was, 25m of tulle being terrific cushioning for a fall.

God may have created Cynthia Ann Crawford, but manners maketh the woman, I say.

Pinstriped Prankster – Australian Financial review

Pinstriped Prankster

AFR Magazine | February 2012

by Marion Hume 

Like his impeccably tailored jackets that swing open to reveal a bounce of cheeky colour, Nottingham­born Paul Smith is a cautious if somewhat laid­-back businessman with a flair for the quirky and the original. The hugely successful joker in the pack talks to Marion Hume ahead of opening his first Australian store in Melbourne.


In photographs, Paul Smith (correctly, Sir Paul Smith-although he doesn’t use the title) can look a bit miserable like he’s got a stone stuck in his shoe. This is odd and not only because you’d think the chairman, designer and- with his childhood sweetheart-co-owner of a world famous brand with a turnover of £171.6 million ($257.5 million) would have something to smile about. What’s discombobulating is that in real life the man with the everyman name is all joy. The living breathing Paul Smith, as opposed the glum chap through the lens, makes you wish he’d invite you to lunch. With all due respect, you don’t say that about Giorgio Armani.

His appeal, like his clothes, is a simple equation: straightforward + quirky, with a sense of humour. In business, he’s not grasping. The arc of Paul Smith ltd has been steady, not greedy. The London HQ is full of people who hold open doors for each other and smile a lot, but not in a creepy way because the boss is watching. As for when the boss is being watched, he’ll be in a good suit and carrying a good man-bag, from which he might pull a rubber chicken.

Every year, Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of global fashion,  hosts The International Herald Tribune Luxury Summit, a pay-thousands-to-attend gathering which is the frock-world version of Davos. Industry titans take it so seriously, they hire writers and coaches to help with their strictly-timed 20 minute speeches. When it was Paul Smith’s turn to share knowledge of a business he’s been in since the early 1970s, he bounded onto the stage, pulled out an alarm clock, mucked up his PowerPoint and then, when clanging from the clock signalled time up, delivered his final piece of advice; if you are nervous about a meeting, bring a silver briefcase that opens up to reveal a train set. Because who doesn’t love playing with a train set?

In April, a Paul Smith store will open on Melbourne’s Collins Street, which raises the obvious question “what took so long?”- especially as Smith himself has no qualms baout long-haul travel (he’s been to Tokyo more than 80 times). The brand has successful relationships with David Jones and Sydney independent retailer Robbie Ingham. “I heard Prada are planning to open 80 shops this year. We want to move forward when it feels right, not be aggressive”, is Smith’s own explanation.

He does what he thinks is right, including flying to Japan, where he has more than 200 stores and over 1,000 staff, as soon as he heard about last year’s tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown. He was on the 42nd floor, when the aftershocks hit Tokyo. “It was scary and there was the radiation worry but I thought I should just go and give people who have worked for me for 20 years a hug, especially as everyone else was leaving.”

Paul Smith, born 5th of July 1946, is 65 (although when I ask, he says 63) and the life arc goes like this; young lad from Nottingham in what was once Britain’s clothing manufacturing heartland, wants to be professional racing cyclist, leaves school at 15, has accident aged 17, six months in hospital, starts working in shop, thinks he might as well have his own shop and is encouraged by his girlfriend, Pauline Denyer (now his wife)  to take a space down a back alley with a rent of 50p a week.

Soon, he starts mixing in his own stuff, inspired by the garb of the working men of a big industrial city, in amongst hard-to-find labels and jeans imported from the US. By 1976, he’d showen the  first menswear collection under the Paul Smith label in Paris and opened a store in London’s Covent Garden, near what was then the rat-infested fruit market (which closed down in 1979). Forever dubbed “classic with a twist”, that label-which mixes unexpected flashes of colour with solid blokey darks- is now attached to menswear, womenswear, jeans, shoes, scent, eyewear, watches, pens, furniture, rugs and bikes.

Of the latter, you can’t miss the sherbet pink bike in the crazy lair that is Paul Smith’s own office within his London HQ. While most of the building looks familiar if you’ve visited stores kitted out in lovingly salvaged old wood, the designer/chairman’s office, which is about the size of a country schoolroom, is a surprise. Every surface – every bit of wall, every inch of floor – is littered with stuff; fine art mixed with daft kids toys, exquisite mid century furniture topped by an Aussie bush hat and a joke giant spider (he apologizes that the battery has gone flat so he can’t make it crawl all over me).

“There are lovely things in here. And there are hideous things and cheap things and expensive things. I buy things and things get sent to me because I’ve got quite a reputation for liking unusual things. I’ve got this unknown person who has been sending me things for 20 years: a football, a traffic cone, a ski. And the thing is, they never arrive in a box, they always arrive as just stuff with stamps stuck on it. We call it “the stamped objects collection”. And the sender? “No idea. But when the stuff is particularly mad, I do wonder how Tom Ford or Giorgio Armani would react.”

At the thought of either of fashion’s minimalist perfectionists receiving a stamped didgeridoo, Smith lets out a schoolboy giggle. “I was on a train coming from the north of England last week and the hotel where we’d stayed, a funny little country hotel, had made us packed lunch in a Tupperware box and I thought,  ‘I’m not sure Mr. Armani would be doing this’.”

Like Armani’s, this is his own gig; a company built in his image. “ Everything here has a meaning to me,” Smith is saying as he points out a funny paper owl. “It’s about being open and not following and not looking at magazines and seeing what other people are doing and going shopping and saying ‘well, they’re doing that’, I’ve got a very open mind so I look at small and big and rough and smooth and kitsch and beautiful. I’m a very spontaneous person and I like things at my fingertips to take inspiration from.” With no children of his own, he says, “I think it’s the child-like mind that I enjoy because I think children are so free of education and experience.”

In terms of certificates on paper, so is Paul Smith. He has no formal fashion training, barring a night school tailoring course.  As for the business side, that’s self taught too.  “I don’t even know what an MBA is,” he replies when I ask if he’s got one. How big is your business now? How many shops do you have? I ask. “We’ve got all sorts… I’ve got it written here somewhere…a lot”. How many countries do you sell in? “Over 50”.

And the turnover? “The thing is, I know we’re doing well and we’ve never gone backwards and I know I get the weekly takings in the shops and I know which ones are doing not so well and which ones are doing better. And when they’re not doing so well, it’s usually because it was pouring with rain or snowing. We’ve never borrowed money, we own the buildings, we own the warehouses, we’ve got about 1,000 staff at Paul Smith and about 1,000 in Japan.”

So he’s rich. “I’ve got some money,” he mumbles. “I can probably spend a bit of money but it’s almost like the jam jar on the mantelpiece at your granny’s. Well, it’s never been as naïve as that but Pauline and I are quiet people and we are very fortunate to have met each other. We’ve never been searching for a Rolls Royce or a yacht or a stately home.”

Instead the couple live in a big, not grand house in Notting Hill. They have been spending summers in Tuscany since way before it was fashionable, “at a very remote farmhouse not a posh villa. What Smith is most proud of is that running “a good business and a profitable business,” means staff sharing in long-term security. “I’ve just written three cards to staff that have been with me for 20 years. So everything about it is a perfect business model, and we’ve won awards and I got a knighthood.”

In 2001, Paul Smith and Pauline Denyer left Buckingham Palace to get married, although they met when he was 21 and she was 27 and they’d been living together since 1967.  Sir Paul did think about refusing the honour – “well, it’s not really me” – but staffers said if his mum and dad had still been around, they’d be so proud. Does he use sir ever? Let’s see his credit cards. They say plain P B Smith and the signature’s exactly the same neat script as the one on the label.

Along with clothes (good solid suitings, a bit of a stripe, floral shirts and boxers; so racy when he started that idea) there has always been curios and gadgets, a mix that is familiar in the retail landscape now but wasn’t before Paul Smith started it. In the late 70s, he unearthed an old leather-bound personal organiser called a Filofax in a tiny shop hidden under an East London railway arch. The Filofax became to the 80s what the iPhone is today. While Paul Smith doesn’t have an iPhone, he’s an avid blogger, “and as a company we’re massively high-tech. We have this room in Nottingham which is like being on a space ship, which is where the brains are.  We’ve got five huge warehouses and one sends out 3 million pieces of kit a year, and it’s got 90 staff. I went in last week and immediately got goosebumps.”

When in London, he rises at 5 am and guns his tiny Mini Cooper across town to the RAC club where he swims,  “sometimes only for 10 minutes, sometimes half an hour depending on my mood, then I get into the office at six-ish with the cleaners.” Lots of his appointments these days involve the press, although rarely to toot his own trumpet. He financially supports London’s Design Museum and The Tate, so he’ll show up for those and many things connected to the arts. He’s done the interiors for Maggie’s, which has respite centres across Britain for those suffering from or connected to those with cancer. “Oh and last week a day trip to Dubai and I’m just back from Japan.”

In the early 80s, Japan was to fashion what China is now, except fashion’s players were far more parochial. When Paul and Pauline were invited to visit, they flew economy via Anchorage. He recalls the feeling: “So excited to go to this place we never thought we’d be able to see because it was so far away and so expensive. We had a modest business then. I couldn’t believe they actually wanted to have an agreement with me.” Back then, lots of European designers got Japanese deals, then faxed a few fast sketches a couple of times a year until the second-rate stuff didn’t sell and it was over. In contrast, Paul and Pauline went again and again. “I was all energy, enthusiasm, willingness. So I think it’s not a miracle we’ve done well in Japan”.

He doesn’t speak Japanese and uses jokes to communicate. “Providing you get the timing right, humour is fantastically important”, he says. “I think I have learned my discipline and the importance of cut and shape and being modest and down to earth from Pauline. But from my dad, I got the skill of communication. He passed away when he was 94 and he still had young friends.” Smith has yet to crack Chinese humour and so the Chinese market. “We’ve got a good business in Hong Kong and from this year, we’re entering into mainland China. Most of the brands that do well there have very identifiable logos. But with Paul Smith, there’s none of that, so I’ve been holding back.  And now there’s a younger generation of 17-25 year olds that are quite big Paul Smith fans.”

A lack of bold logos notwithstanding, counterfeiters is rife. “We have full-time lawyers on it, we have the merchandise destroyed but it starts again round the corner.” Or in plain sight in the case of Bali, where the fake Paul Smith stores are well known to Australian travellers. “I use the word ‘disappointed’,” says Smith. “When there’s thousands of talented fashion students, many of whom come from Asian countries, why not let them work from a blank sheet of paper and do something new?”

When a designer owns his company and is 65 (or 63 by his own count) it invites a question that is never easy to ask. “The answer is not clear and it’s something we talk about  [and] then immediately push to one side,” is his reply. “There is a very good team, we do everything in-house: design, press, marketing, shop design, architecture, no shareholders. That’s the joy…We still have the possibility of growing the business. Now we’ve got Melbourne and we could open Sydney and we’ve got Amsterdam coming up. We don’t need to grow massively because there’s no one pushing us to grow.”

He’ll come out to Melbourne for the shop opening and the store will, doubtless, have that intrinsic mix of plain darks with bold shots of colour. “although there are still taboos about what men can wear.”, he says. “I had one of my lads in the other day and he got a shirt with polka dots on it and he came in the next day and said he’d had it on at breakfast and all his kids burst out laughing. We’ve got more of a reputation for colour than actually what we sell. If you were to look at the figures, you’d find the bulk of what we sell are navy blue suits, masses of white shirts, navy blue sweaters.”

And what relationship does the Paul Smith woman have with the Paul Smith? “They could be a couple. I do five lines for men and three lines for women. As the businesses grow, you are attracting a broader audience, but in my head, my boy and my girl are skinny, boyish figures.” Just like Paul and Pauline, now just as when they were young. “Yes, we’re both skinny, long-limbed. We both love tailoring, we both love simplicity and that’s what has attracted me really”.

Amazing spider-men – The Financial Times

Amazing spider-men

The first-ever spider silk cape-a glowing, golden piece-will be unveiled this month at the V&A

The Financial Times | 15th January 2012

By Marion Hume

The myths date back more than a hundred years: of a gift to Queen Victoria of a pair of spider silk bloomers hailing from Madagascar; of how a delicate yet spectacularly strong yarn found its way into stockings made for Empress Josephine.

There was, these stories said, a sustainable way to harvest and use spider thread. And, unlikely as it sounds, the Victoria & Albert Museum this month unveils the first-ever spider silk cape, a glowing, golden piece that is as much about two men’s determination to work with nature as it is a desire to make fairy tales come true.

Briton Simon Peers has lived in Madagascar since 1989 with his Malagasy wife Ange and their two sons. He gave up a job as an art dealer at the Fine Art Society in London to move to the Malagasy capital Antananarivo (known as “Tana”), to reinvigorate the business of Madagascar’s exquisite silk traditions (this from silkworms, not spiders). He imported looms from Yorkhire to create jacquards, passementerie and embroidery of Versailles standards of craftsmanship. The world’s leading decorators, including Peter Marino, Robert Couturier and David Mlinaric, have become loyal customers.

Peer’s partner is American Nicholas Godley, whose grandmother was born in Madagascar. He arrived in 1993 as a development economist to work on raising living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries. Then he set up a handbag label, Majunga, employing hundreds and using native raffia,and sold bags to Neiman Marcus and Saks.

Peers and Godley had been friends for years when, one day in 2003, Godley asked about a strange contraption on a shelf in Peers’ office. “I told him it was for extracting silk from spiders,” recalls Peers. Godley was more than intrigued; he was determined to push Peers to turn a daydream into reality.

Peers was obsessed with the island’s large female golden silk orb-weaver spider (Nephila madagascariensis), famous for creating the most symmetrical and concentric of spider webs. He’s come a tale of how Paul Camboue, a French Jesuit priest, had tried to extract spider silk and how these efforts had attracted the attention of a 19th-century French colonial administrator called Nogue (his first name lost to history), who was looking for industries to set Madagascar apart from other francophone colonies. It was Nogue who had designed the machine Peers had on his shelf- a guillotine-like trap (although its occupants emerge unharmed) that could hold eight spiders while the threads were pulled from their bodies on to a bobbin.

“Think of the times you have brushed a spider off your sleeve,” Peers says. “You flick and it falls but is still attached to you by a silken thread. The silk comes out without any problem.”

At the end of the 19th century, such was the excitement about the possibilities for spider silk that spider catching was considered a top job for locals in Antananarivo. There was even a technical college there, set up to train spider silk weavers. In 1900 a set of Malagasy spider silk bed hangings, now lost, was exhibited in Paris. But enthusiasm waned, not least because of hte challenges of lodging and feeding hundreds of thousands of carnivorous cannibals needed for every yard of silk. Spider silk also turned out to be at least 2o times more costly than the “boil in the bag” method by which silkworms dies to release a strand of thread.

A century on, however, Peers and Godley decided to give it another try. In 2004, they started “silking” spiders and by Novermber 2008, the elusive silk became reality. “Having silked over a million spiders, we are transforming the resulting stock into a singer unique and extraordinary golden textile,” Peers says.

The challenge of food and lodging was solved by using only females, brought to the silking facility each morning by a team of 80 spider catchers and then released into the wild later that afternoon.

In 2009, Peers emailed me to say: “We are making this extraordinary cape. Homage to the spider. And apart from another-probably apocryphal story-of a suit of spider silk clothes made for Louis XIV, this will be the first time any serious piece of clothing has ever been attempted.”

Three years on, he calculates that the weaving, embroidery and applique of the cape has involved 6,000 human hours, while at least 1.2m spiders have been employed. Each of the hundreds of thousands of warp and weft threads comprises 96 individual strands of spider silk in the ground weave of the decorated panels and 48 individual strands for each thread in the lining. each pass of the needle to create the embellishments of appliqued spiders scuttling over flowers required 96 strand threads. The golden glow is the natural colour of the silk.

Peers and Godley have no ambition to find a more industrial application for their breakthrough. “Our objective has not been just conquering the technical challenges, but also to engage people with an emotional and intellectual experience,” says Peers. “This lengthy and arduous process is the antithesis of the brief, ephemeral life of a web.” The result, they hope, will live on, and not just in stories.

‘Golden Spider Silk’, V&A Studio Gallery, January 25-June 5