by Marion Hume
Hush hush, but have you heard the latest about cocagne? The source is limited but whispers are spreading through the French fashion crowd. Really, if you are planning to holiday in the snazziest summer enclaves in Europe next summer, (Cap d’Antibes, Ile de Re, St Paul de Vence….) you don’t want to miss out.
We are talking about something difficult to obtain but entirely legal of course. While you pronounce “cocagne” almost exactly like the marching powder which, some years ago, a supermodel allegedly put close to her nose, this column reaches you not from seedy late night London but from sun-drenched South West France, with its Medieval cities which grew rich thanks to the cocgane trade reaching every corner of the world.
What is cocagne? It’s about the size of a tennis ball and originally came with a distinct whiff of urine. In 15th century Toulouse, dealers built Medieval McMansions complete with blingy turrets and spiral staircases and probably tried to out-do each other with pimped-up ox carts too. The hit they sold was blue.
A cocagne is the solid, transportable form of a plant extract that releases blue dye. While abundant in nature, for centuries, blue was the trickiest hue to fix onto fabric. Your 12th century Game of Thrones warlord wasn’t wearing ecru because of a pre-Armani taste for beige but because no one had yet been able to take the taste for woad face paint and make it work for fashion. The breakthrough came when someone took the ordinary-looking plant called pastel, from which woad derives, pulped the leaves, dried them, fermented them in human urine, rolled them into balls then, about a year later, crushed these and hurled the powder into a vat of boiling water. When the offcuts from the loom were dipped into this brine, the cloth emerged a celestial blue.
So successful was the taste for pastel blue that by 1570, the pope decreed priests shouldn’t be seen in it as it was far too common. But the good times would end. Indigo – faster, cheaper – arrived from India. The French government tried to ban its import but by the mid 18th century, it was all over for the lords of cocagne. In turn, the 19th century saw indigo ousted in favour of synthetic dye, the 20th saw the pollution of rivers near European fashion factories. And so it came to pass that, by the 21st century, the poor of China started dying because dyeing had turned their water sources toxic. Those with a conscience are looking back to the environmentally-pure pastel of France.
A combination of university boffins plus eager artisans have been trying to bring pastel up to date for over a decade, the challenges, including finding an eco trigger for fermentation that does not whiff of the pissoir and making a labour-intensive process economically viable have taken time. First successes including (pee free) body products – soaps, lotions and the like – trumpeting the pastel plant’s antiseptic properties and labelled “Comptoir de Pastel” are now de rigeur in the chicest French holiday houses.
Now, at last, linen and cotton scarves dip-dyed a glorious Gallic blue are available via a completely sustainable reintroduction of a traditional artisanal trade and for around the 40 euro mark, making them viable additions to a holiday wardrobe. Gorgeous Gauls, who would never be seen dead out of darks while in Paris, are accessorizing their summer looks (white jeans, striped T-shirts – that chic cliche that keeps on looking good) with a swath of pastel blue scarf, worn either soft knotted at the neck, wafting in the evening breeze or even tied over an Eres swimsuit.
As far as I know, Pastel de Lectoure is the only producer to have launched an online source of pastel scarves with an English translation. Let the international trafficking of cocagne begin.
by Marion Hume
Now that the brouhaha about The Great Gatsby has settled — at least until it ramps up again for movie awards season — shall we take a moment to examine its sartorial legacy? As in, does it have one? Or does it not? You’d think the answer would be easy. Count the glossy pages devoted to “Gatsby style” in the past months. But is there now a taste for flapper dresses in a shade I still like to call “Queen Mum mauve”? Have oyster satin pyjamas moved from boudoir to street? For gentlemen, have pink suits taken off? The answer — to all — is no.
What is beyond reasonable doubt is that double Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin is on track for her third Oscar, for her fearless mixing of the historically accurate with the utterly contemporary. But when the looks filter down, what we have is fun, not fashion. The reason ‘20s style is the perpetual party theme that is so easy to do — with something spangly, a gold T-bar shoe and a cheap wig. Almost every woman looks like she’s having a good time when you add a feather boa.
A few years ago, I was reminded of the power of ‘20s dressing thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Remember the volcano erupted? To cut one of my all-time favourite stories short, I was halfway through airline online check-in when I realised I needed a swift plan B to reach Venice. I hitched a ride on the Orient Express, a fun-filled flapper heaven (other than for me: I didn’t have time to theme-pack). The only mirrors on board are make-up sized, which means no one has a full-length view. Everyone thus dresses how they think they would like to look and, thanks perhaps to some dry martinis, everyone looks lovely. Not fashionable, but superbly theme-party lovely.
What is lovely is how loudly Catherine Martin has acknowledged the roles Tiffany & Co, Prada and Brooks Bros played in her overall costume creation. When she brings her Oscar count to a trifecta, I’ll wager that, once she’s effusively thanked her collaborator in life and work, the film’s director Baz Luhrmann, she will name-check all the above. By so doing, Martin will be acting more than graciously — she will be setting right a wrong done when The Great Gatsby last garnered an Oscar, in 1974. If you recall that version at all, what you’re most likely to remember is Robert Redford’s clothes (Mia Farrow’s Daisy is a more misty memory). Yet when costume designer Theoni Alderedge caressed her Oscar at the podium, she did not thank Ralph Lauren, an omission that made clear the attention he had been getting for his suits had got right under her skin.
Aldredge was not the first costume designer to neglect to thank the input of fashion designers. When Edith Head collected an Oscar for Sabrina (1954), she seemed not to recall that French couturier Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the new neckline that so flattered elfin Audrey Hepburn, igniting a trend. Givenchy didn’t stake his claim to the “Sabrina neckline” until years after Head’s death, even though those who’d worked with her at Paramount Pictures had, by then, confided that the costumes had been made up from Givenchy’s sketches.
As to the current Gatsby changing the way we dress, I doubt it. But acknowledging that you need creative collaboration to make something great? Well, that’s bang on trend.
by Marion Hume
What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?
The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.
I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.
The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia, twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.
Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.
I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.
I learn another new word; “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”
by Marion Hume
It was the best runway show held on a runway. Well, to be accurate, it ties as my joint favourite of only two fashion shows ever shown on a runway. I’m using the Australian sense of that word (a long straight strip on which planes land) as opposed to the American, where it also means the thin strip catwalk models swank down.
The first runway show I saw was some twenty years ago when the brainiac of fashion, Hussein Chalayan, revealed a conceptual collection called “Beyond False Equator” illuminated by aircraft landing lights. Great shows stick.
The other is likely to remain front-of-mind to Australians for years to come, given it began with the roar of jet engines and then out came the new Qantas uniforms. We all know Qantas is NOT the national airline (the people don’t own it) but when it comes to distilling the modern spirit of chic, sophisticated, multifaceted Australia, frankly, Qantas nailed it.
You don’t need me to describe the trench coat, the slender dress, the shorts for the baggage handlers – by now, the images are everywhere. After decades being unknown except to the tight, top-tier of the fashion world, Melbournian, Martin Grant (a long time resident of Paris) who Qantas hired as the designer, at last needs no introduction – although he is hardly what you would call an overnight success.
I grabbed an aisle seat a few rows back (always my preference), in amongst flight attendants who were seeing what they will wear to work for the next decade for the first time. “Loving the Qantas red with the hot pink!” the woman next to me exclaimed, not to me but to herself, in affirmation that she felt her pride in her job sweeping back back. Clothes can, you see, be powerful. The best uniforms can unite a workforce in a common goal.
You get it that my verdict on the Qantas uniforms is excellent when it comes to style but top marks to in terms of the politics of business, which can be very turbulent. Habitually, when corporations collide with fashion, the results end up ugly. Corporations have what I call an “Auntie Mame” view; they come to those funny people in fashion for glamour, yet want it for a buck in cheap synthetics. Surprisingly perhaps, fashion designers tend to tone things down yet they want beautiful fabrics and everything in a tiny size. Then it goes to committee where there’s an uneasy compromise, especially when the resulting designs are scaled for the climates of 5 continents and in sizes 2 to 22.
In addition, when corporates call the fashion world, usually, they are after a star, a personality who can be rolled out like a camp court jester. Martin Grant is no performer. He is quietly spoken, determined, diligent and has built his business one client at time. As a result, he knows where the bumps are and how to plan for them.
There are bumps ahead for the global aviation industry in the sky and on the ground. Yet Qantas can certainly tick one box; for motivating its far flung global battalions in a modern way. The era of the trolley dolly is over. It’s not about marrying the pilot or the guy in seat 1Aand the new Qantas uniforms signal pride in one’s career.
Martin Grant told me it was pressure from the flight attendants that persuaded him to add the gloves, the hat. “Too right,” say my friend Suze, who flies domestic for Qantas. “I’m in my 50s. You don’t get much attention. But in that outfit, I can’t wait to see the heads turn as we march through the terminal”
Call this lift off to a new and stylish corporate dawn.
by Marion Hume
The day after any televised royal event, I know just what my mum is going to say. “Did you see the way the Queen walked down those stairs? Not holding a handrail and she never looks down!” HRH’s agility fascinates my not particularly Royalist mother. I was wondering what both she and her Maj might have made of the scene at a recent fashion party. The exit was via a vast marble staircase, so I hurried down the centre then waited and waited as everyone else teetered to ground level, clinging to the rails as if this were the sinking of the Titanic. Isn’t the purpose of a shoe that you can walk in it, including down a stair? But what’s ontrend now are styles so unbalanced that the fastest speed is a hobble. HRH would be amused by that!
Yet fashion decrees that when one must have reaches the realms of the ridiculous, another becomes sensible to compensate. Handbags, once so weighed down with hardware you could hardly lift them empty, have become more practical. What is chic now is unadorned and calm. (Imagine here, please, handbags by Celine. So simple. So lovely. So expensive.) HRH knows all about practical bags – she’s had the same style swinging off a regal forearm for the past half century. Indeed, maybe not just the same style, perhaps the same actual bag? I suspect she owns but three: one cream, one black and one which they recover to match whatever primrose ensemble she is wearing. Those of us who can’t avail ourselves of such a service do need a few more choices.
I made one a month ago. As I walked to the office, I decided to buy a rucksack, a style I have not owned since I gave up backpacking in my early 20s. Mine, though, is black canvas, with a leather base and a pocket for phone and keys. It is not at all something you would take on a scout camp. That the label, Ally Capellino, is not better known in Australia is something I am trying to change, one convert at a time. The label sells online, at the Tate galleries in London and in just two little London stores.
If your tastes are snazzier, may I draw your attention to the bags of Baraboux. Reema Bandar Al Saud of Riyadh was looking for a solution to the organisational needs of a globe trotting lifestyle and decided to do something about it. These are not schlepp-it-through-the-sand bags, although they’d be perfect if you were, say, flying Emirates and doing a few days stopover in Dubai. I swooped in on the Marie, a day bag with detachable pocket purses on the outside, for when I’m travelling and a rucksack won’t cut it. Usually you put purses inside a handbag, but this way, you can go: “Can leave that one in the hotel. Need that one. Don’t need that one until later.” Amazingly, the bag looks equally attractive with any combination of pockets attached.
Every women knows the prettiest evening bags are the most useless. It’s a fantasy to think all we need to carry is a lipstick and a hanky. The Reema bag has a neat trick: a metal mesh cuff which looks like a decorative detail to a black satin clutch, yet slides around the barrel revealing two compartments – one for things you don’t mind people catching a glimpse of, one for those necessities you do. Phone, business cards, keys and other items a girl needs close at hand. I dumped them from one bag to the Reema. Call that a sale.
by Marion Hume
For once, I look more like Chanel than any other woman present and me a big boned six footer while Coco was a little bird. I’m in Scotland, land of my heart, a nation with which Mademoiselle Chanel fell in love while being wooed by the Duke of Westminster, familiarly known as Bendor and the richest man in England, (which, in turn, meant he owned half of Scotland). In the end, Chanel would ditch the multimillionaire but would keep her love for “the auld country” forever.
While they were dating, Coco and Bendor would enjoy long walks through the bonnie purple heather, which inspired a devotion for the rough weaves and the colours of tweed which remain central to the Chanel DNA. It was “North of the Border” that the jaunty French mistress of a naughty rich gent fell for the majesty of tartan, the softness of Scottish wool, the patterns of Fair Isle. And it was up here, in the land of lochs and crags, that Chanel really took to mannish dressing. She’d dabbled before, decking herself in the jersey undergarments of a former boyfriend, but she really crossed over in Scotland.
For salmon fishing at Lochmore, Chanel wore an oversized chunky sweater, warm “trews”, big socks, jack boots and, in a snapshot taken in 1928, a radiant smile. She looked entirely different from the hard, little Parisian of other photographs with the gimlet eye of ambition, the jaw fixed in grim determination, the armholes of her jacket cut high and tight.
It is Chanel’s joyful Lochmore look I have gone for tonight because we are instructed to wrap up warm. I’ve added a huge broach, which looks as if it was hammered and forged by the Pictish men of the dark hills; in truth, it was dug up with delight, at Christine Barro’s treasure trove in Melbourne.
Snow falls on the location, a roofless, ruined castle. Karl Lagerfeld has invited us to witness a fashion show inspired not just by the brand’s long history of Scottish production but also by its life-saving purchase, last August, of Barrie Knitwear, which makes Chanel’s cashmere twinsets. A pension fund crisis in the conglomerate by which it was owned had bought Barrie to the brink. Chanel added it into its charm bracelet of specialist companies, the Metiers d’Art, acquired in order to preserve the savoir faire of glove makers, feather makers, milliners, goldsmiths. “It’s a dream,” says managing director, Jim Carrie, who feared he was headed for the block.
That was the grim fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, born here at Linlithgow Palace and whose every living heartbeat brought her closer to her cousin, Elizabeth I, sending horseman North with orders for her execution. The models in the show wear their red hair plaited upwards, tight to their scalps, keeping their necks clean for the axe. Scotland changed Chanel. Its haunting highland spell softens Karl Lagerfeld, who modernises the traditional in his most beautiful show in 30 years with the brand. Models hurry past, their chiffon gowns held by kilt fastenings, wrapped up against the weather in vast tartan scarves and bonnets. Never, in all my years of singing Auld Lang Syne to see in the New Year did I expect that the Chanel bag du jour would be a sporran rendered in golden chain mail or that Hogmanay vocabulary like tam o’shanter, ghillies and sgian dubh (men’s bonnet, brogues and the knife you stick on your kilt socks) would become a useful part of my lexicon in the high speed frenzy of the front row.
The “Auld Alliance” between France and Scotland was forged way back in 1295. The show’s title is Paris Edimbourg, to me, thrilling proof that the age-old pairing between the land of my work and the land of my blood stays strong.