Ethical Fashion

Category Archives: Ethical Fashion

A joint statement from Simone Cipriani, The Ethical Fashion Initiative and Marion Hume

The United Nations’ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) today announces that Marion Hume will step down as senior consultant after five years.

During this time, the Ethical Fashion Initiative has expanded to be truly global with designers from Britain’s Vivienne Westwood to Australians, Sass & Bide and New Zealander, Karen Walker working with some of the world’s most marginalized artisans.

Hume, an international fashion journalist of nearly 30 years standing, with a career spanning the UK, the USA and Australia, has worked closely with the fashion media across the world to promote the possibilities of Simone Cipriani’s vision to use fashion as a vehicle out of poverty.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative has featured in global issues of Vogue, Bazaar and Marie Claire as well as the Financial Times, The International New York Times and The Economist. “Working with Simone Cipriani and the Ethical Fashion team from Geneva to Nairobi has been an extraordinary privilege, full of unforgettable memories and achievements,” says Hume. “As a fashion insider, it has been wonderful to be part of a process of shifting the needle towards more thoughtful production, to acknowledging the artisans who make our clothes and accessories and being more mindful of the environment. The biggest honour has been the human connections as artisans are empowered to change their own lives while EFI’s designer partners create truly great fashion.”

Cipriani adds; “Our time together has been great and full of achievements. I will always be grateful to Marion for the work she has done with us. Part of the reason we are where we are is because of Marion’s dedication and hard work. So, thank you, Marion, you will always be with us.”

HOW SHOULD WE DESCRIBE SPRING’S, UM, ‘GLOBAL TREND’?

DESCRIBE

www.neverunderdressed.com BY MARION HUME

SUNDAY 26 JANUARY 2014, 06:00

For spring 2014, designers looked far beyond their backyards for inspiration, mimicking an ever expanding global market with the international flavours of their collections. The trouble is, we don’t seem to have the fashion vocabulary to describe them. Writer and ethical consultant Marion Hume on the pitfalls of provenance and why you should never say ‘tribal’

‘Designers are thinking globally this season, with plenty of African inspired beading.’

The caption, on a jacket featuring bands of blue and white braiding, is from a woman’s magazine. The question is, what is African inspired beading?

Does that mean in the style of the Magreb where the beauty might lie in unexpected juxtapositions of silver, amber and shells? Or is the inspiration the vivid creations of the Samburu, where uniformity is prized to the point that any glass bead not perfectly round is rejected? And why this sartorial esperanto that implies all is the same from Mozambique to Senegal?  Designers are never ‘European-inspired’, because that might mean anything from Aran knits to Lederhosen.

AT DIOR COUTURE AW13, RAF SIMONS ‘OBSERVED DIFFERENT CONTINENTS’

”African-inspired’ is just ignorant laziness. Inspired by which part of Africa’s 54 countries exactly? Which part of its 6 different geographic zones? So 1.1 billion people inspired the collection?’ says Kiran Yoliswa, co-founder of the popular website, SBA.

But hang on. Doesn’t SBA stand for ‘Styled by Africa’? Isn’t that wrapping up a continent as one? ‘We called our brand Styled By Africa because we source collections from all over the continent and our mission is to showcase the diversity in African fashion,’ Yoliswa counters. ‘Traditional Ethiopian womenswear is very white with only hints of colour while West African women wear much brighter designs, in turn different from Mali’s mud cloth or Tanzania’s kitenges. To be ‘Styled By Africa’ means simply that the people and places of the continent have contributed in some way to what you are today, which is true of our customers, designers, and collections.’

Ok. With ‘African- inspired’ eliminated, how to describe the trends we’re currently seeing at Givenchy, Dior, Celine? What about ‘ethnic’?

‘Used to describe any non-European aesthetic. Without any real descriptive value,’ says Yoliswa.

‘Tribal?’

‘Cringeworthy, patronising. And used to describe stereotypical geometric patterned prints or beaded jewellery that could be from anywhere. With feathers usually thrown in for good measure.’

Yodit Eklund, founder of Africa’s first youth culture brand, Bantu Wax, says the T-word should be deleted, not just because it is offensive but also because it reveals the writer as hopelessly out of date. ‘Tribal, to me, refers to anything but the cultural explosion that is taking place across the African continent today,’ she says. ‘Africa is moving at the speed of light. There are more mobile users in Africa than in North America.’

‘Global traveller’ is the euphemism of the moment. All it reveals is that fashion scribes – the majority still white anglo-saxon like me – aren’t very good at geography. Or history. Or politics. But how to describe the hottest collections of the season? Some writers called Dior ‘Africa-meets-Japan’ – a distinctly unequal collision if you visualize it, given one landmass measures about 8,000km tip to toe, the other comprises hundreds of islands, (and even then, sovereignty is disputed by Russia, China, Taiwan…). Style.com managed to teeter without breaking any eggshells by noting, ‘a Maasai neckpiece, a Parisienne wrap, a Shinto scarf.. colorful, optimistic emblems of national identity.’

So as long as you avoid thinking of Africa as a country not a continent, you are specific in the nations or cultural groups you cite and you avoid using terms that expose you as a complete colonial throwback, will you then be doing ok? Then what about this scenario:

You’re at the Vivienne Westwood Gold label show. The model coming towards you is wearing a trouser suit of fabric handwoven near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and she is carrying a bag screen-printed in Nairobi and beading by the Maasai in Lakipia, Northern Kenya. (All this is thanks to Westwood’s enduring collaboration with the United Nations ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative for which – full disclosure- I consult). With the best will in the world, how to be culturally correct in a tweet? Is “Dame Viv @FollowWestwood shows fab stripes and squiggles made with @_ethicalfashion #Africa” not ok?

‘I think it’s fine because it is made in different places within Africa. If it was just made in Kenya, there would be more of an argument to just say ‘Made in Kenya’.' says Kiran Yoliswa.

Westwood’s collaboration allows marginalised artisans to join the fashion chain in a fair way. But what of all those designers who turn to the African continent for inspiration but produce elsewhere so that no profits go to the source?

‘When done properly, some places can actually benefit from the increased awareness about their cultural styles,’ counters Yoliswa, citing Burberry’s use of West African wax prints. ‘I do think this helped place African designers more in the mainstream and allowed the indirect growth of their brands as well.’ Yet, to add to the confusion, those wax prints are created by VLISCO, which is Dutch.

Let’s move on to how we describe designers themselves. In the unlikely event I were ever to cross the fence from journalism to design, I would most likely be ‘English’ (even though my heritage, not my accent, is Scottish). How to describe Nkwo Onwuka, a British designer of Nigerian heritage who lives in Nigeria yet finds inspiration from the traditional craft of the bronze casters of Benin? No wonder fashion writers opt for bland cover-all lines such as, ‘Nkwo Onwuka is worth watching.’

All this is not only ‘An African Problem’ (to use another sweeping and inaccurate term). Let’s travel to the Americas and Walter van Bierendonk’s recent menswear show which included milliner Stephen Jones’ take on a Native American feathered headdress. (Help! Should I be writing Cheyenne, Sioux or the Muscogee war bonnet?). This was daubed with the words “Stop Racism” ;  allegedly a response to the headgear at the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Dallas at the end of last year. The Metiers d’Art show at the end of 2012  had been held in Edinburgh. Yet Lagerfeld’s plays on the sporran and tam o’shanter had my Caledonian heart beating with joy, not righteous anger. Is that because my forefathers, cleared from their crofts on the orders of greedy landowners to make way for sheep at least had a chance, unlike those slaughtered in long years of government-sanctioned genocide?

Damn,  fashion is fraught.

I guess where I’m going with this is at least we should acknowledge we’ve got to try harder. But we have a long way to go.  This is, after all, the business that refers to a plaster pink shade as ‘nude’. Maybe this season’s style crush, Lupito Ngong’o will at least knock that lazy terminology right out of fashion.

Fashion Hearts Kenya?

Vivienne Westwood keyring being beaded by the Maasai in Kenya

Fashion Hearts Kenya?

How has the recent terror attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi changed things for designers with manufacturing connections in Kenya? Marion Hume reports.

Business of Fashion | October 2013

NAIROBI, Kenya — Bex Manners, aka Bex Rox — which is the name of her costume jewellery line — figured it would be sensible to sit down for a proper brunch. A long working day lay ahead, then the midnight flight back to London. But time was pressed. So instead she grabbed take-out from ArtCaffe and went on her way. Less than 15 minutes later, terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall. The four-day siege in Nairobi left at least 67 dead, 39 still missing, a nation reeling.

You might be surprised who in the fashion world has ties to Kenya. Bex Rox is known for rock and roll, party-all-night-in-Ibiza edginess, not “ethical” or “Africa.” A connection to the continent happened by chance. She was in London’s Portobello Road, bumped into Cristina Cisilino (of the high-end jewellery producer, Crea Africa, based in Nairobi) “and the next thing I knew, I had a 40-piece collection being prototyped and I flew out to [Kenya] to see samples through the final stages.”

A Paris fashion week party to show off “Afrika” — including bold bracelets in gold-plated brass and knuckleduster rings in sock-it-to-you brights — went ahead as planned. Yet as guests sipped cocktails and took in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the private residence, on loan for the night, talk turned to near-misses. “The first thought was, ‘Are our friends safe?’” said Erin Beatty, design director of Suno and veteran of the New York-to-Nairobi commute. “Common sense told all of us not to go to Westgate,” said a subdued Max Osterweis, founder of Suno, the label named after his mother, who has had a home on the Kenyan island of Lamu since his childhood. “But when you need something for your laptop, it’s where the Apple store is. It’s where the book store is; the ATM.”So what now?

Does fashion “heart” Kenya?

Does fashion care?

“I can say our customers have been buying a lot,” says a still-shaken Manners. “Is that because of what just happened? Honestly, no. It’s because it’s handmade, lovely and I can cater exclusively for small quantities; I can offer an amazing colour palate with the Maasai beading.”

Osterweis is of the opinion that caring can never come first in fashion, this despite founding Suno because he cared so much. The son of a wealthy family, he launched Suno instead of writing a bit fat charity cheque after Kenya’s post-election violence, in 2008, claimed over a thousand lives and left 350,000 people displaced. As he told me when we met in Nairobi for a Time magazine story (April 2009), “I wanted to set an example to show that investment in Africa need not be about building more safari lodges.” An entirely “made in Africa” label was never the ambition however. “I’d seen brands being unrealistic, so we’ve invested in people’s strengths, produced what we knew could be done well in Kenya, while also producing elsewhere,” he told me then, revealing his aim to dress cool girls for hot, New York-summer nights, while, at the same time, providing work to skilled Kenyan artisans (as well as those in Italy and the United States).

Today, fans of Suno include the actress Elle Fanning, the artist Cindy Sherman and American First Lady, Michelle Obama. And as the label has soared, so too have the number of units made in Osterweis’ second home nation, bolstered by an additional online offering of sneakers, pyjamas and totes made exclusively in Kenya. “No one has said ‘I’ll order more,’” he says now. “People buy what they like.” As for his commute, “Nothing changes, except we won’t be eating pizza at Artcaffe. What happened is not a Kenyan problem, it’s a global problem. It’s not life as usual. It’s dealing with life as it is.”

Because it was founded by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, Edun attracted first ludicrous expectations then harsh criticism, especially after pragmatic, LVMH-appointed CEO Janice Sullivan insisted on scaling African production back to ensure a viable economic foundation for the brand. (“Out of Africa, Into Asia” was how The Wall Street Journal reported the decision, back in 2010). Sullivan’s tactic to pull back, shore up, then reintroduce the African production that was Edun’s central “raison d’etre” seems to be working at last. Over 80 percent of the line is now made on the African continent, although the percentage in Kenya, where it all began, remains quite small.

“No one has brought up Kenya once,” says Sullivan at Edun’s Paris showroom, this while fingering a goat horn and silver collar, made in collaboration with Nairobi-based jeweller, Penny Winter. Instead, she says, the chatter is about the brand’s new designer, Daniela Sherman (formerly of Alexander Wang and The Row). So will Edun stick with Kenya, especially given growing production in Madagascar means the brand could easily pull out of a trouble spot and still hit its “made in Africa” targets? Ali Hewson, who has joined us, looks incredulous at the suggestion. “We were in Kenya for the riots of 2008. We were in Uganda for the attack at the World Cup. We were in Mali two weeks before the coup. We’re Irish!” by which she means proximity to risk won’t change a thing.

Ilari Venturini Fendi admits to being nervous in Nairobi, “constantly aware of the possibility that something so bad might happen. It’s always been quite complicated to work in Kenya.” Whether she returns soon or not, there’s no question that her socially conscious, made in Africa accessories brand, Carmina Campus, will continue to operate in the country, where the facility to achieve the label’s ethical goals at the high quality expected by a Fendi is already established. Each season, artisans in Italy connect with those living in the slums of Korogocho and Kibera via video which, Venturini insists, is not about “us” teaching “them,” but instead an exchange of ideas and know-how.

Chan Luu’s seed bead wrap bracelets in raw-cut leather are hot sellers. Do global stores care that the Los Angeles-based celebrity jeweller produces in Kenya (where she may be the largest single contractor of Maasai beaders, all paid a fair wage)? “What matters is everyone buys!” she shouts across the melee of those placing wholesale orders at a showroom in Paris. In a quieter moment, she adds, “I believe poverty can create violence. My customers want to do good for the world, so they support these ethical fashion projects.”

Both Luu and Venturini Fendi were introduced to Kenya via The United Nations’ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, (full disclosure: it was on assignment in Kenya for Time that I met the head of the initiative, Simone Cipriani, and, as a result, began working with them). “The terrorist attack has produced a double effect,” Cipriani says. “Yes, short-term travel plans of colleagues in the fashion industry have been disrupted. First of all, we work to keep collaborations with us stable, supplying African artisans with ongoing work in a meaningful way. Another important reaction is from fashion brands wanting to bring work to Kenya (several more brands have reached out since the Westgate siege). Terrorism is a global threat. A way to fight is by giving work and dignity to every human being. And if we do it, by creating beautiful, unique and gorgeous products, so much the better for everybody.”

Surely eternal activist and ethical pioneer, Vivienne Westwood would agree? Did she include so many Kenyan bags in her Paris show this season out of solidarity with artisans she met when she visited Nairobi in 2011? “They’re my favourite bags, that’s why I show them,” says ever-honest Dame Viv backstage. “I show them because they’re lovely.”

Fashion’s New Stella

Stella-Jean-Burkina-Faso-656x436

Fashion’s New Stella

With Milan Fashion Week in need of fresh blood, Giorgio Armani has invited emerging Italian designer Stella Jean to present her ethical Spring/Summer 2014 collection at the Teatro Armani, his Via Bergognone show space.

Business Of Fashion | September 2013

MILAN, Italy — In a business of first names — like Miuccia, Raf, Dries, Alber — things are about to get complicated. Meet fashion’s future star, Stella. That would be Stella Jean, who no less than Giorgio Armani has anointed a fashion supernova. Taylor Tomasi Hill, social media star and creative director of Moda Operandi, is another supporter. So is Natalie Kingham, head of fashion at Matches Fashion.

During Milan Fashion Week, Stella Jean — a resident of Rome — is set to show at the 550-seat Teatro Armani, the first womenswear designer so honoured, other than the emperor himself.

The show is scheduled to start at 10.30am start on Saturday, September 21st, which, while sandwiched nicely in the calendar between Emporio Armani on Friday and Giorgio Armani on Monday, pits it against a considerable challenger. Saturday morning during Milan Fashion Week is, you see, the sacred time for “shoe appointments,” a euphemism for shopping. Yet the buzz around “the new Stella” is such that the front-row set are confirming attendance in Via Bergognone rather than Via Monte Napoleone.

So why Stella Jean?

Firstly, she isn’t a baby designer. Rather, she is a woman of 34, mother of two and a former model (although she disliked all but the fittings and watching the designers at work). She launched her eponymous label in Rome in 2011, but far from being an overnight success, she twice failed to even qualify for the talent competition “Who Is On Next,” supported by Vogue Italia as part of the Alta Roma schedule. It was third-time luck when she finally qualified, then won.

Alta Roma’s elegant talent scout Simonetta Gianfelici helped to turn things around for Stella Jean, advising her to “be more sincere; do something that belongs only to you.” Stella Jean (her surname, though she doesn’t use it professionally, is Novarino) is half-Italian and half-Haitian. “I had struggled to find my identity,” she says. “I found it through my work. I put my two worlds together and found fashion was looking for that.”

She calls her unique vision “Wax & Stripes” — the latter for a father who hailed from industrial Turin and the former “for the black side of me, the black roots of the Caribbean islands.”

Certainly, the first thing that attracts the eye to Stella Jean’s work is her vivid use of colour and riotous prints; these in contrast to somber stripes and silhouettes so proper, they’d suit Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

Here the story veers off into the history of “wax,” vibrant cotton prints worn across West Africa. Their original roots lie in Java, however, in the batik the Dutch transported, first back home, then to the Netherland Antilles in the Caribbean and thence to Africa with Helmond, Holland-based textile giant Vlisco, the dominant wax trader from 1846 to this day. “We think wax comes from West Africa. The slaves sent to the Caribbean islands came from West Africa. Yet wax is European, like me. No one ever believes I am Italian, but I am,” says Stella Jean.

Having witnessed her sophisticated global mash-up in a group show in Rome, last July, Suzy Menkes became an ardent champion of Stella Jean. And rumour has it that it was she who whispered in Armani’s right ear as Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani was whispering the same name in his left. Whatever the facts, the designer herself had no clue.

“I was on the expressway when a friend called and told me to pull over. Then I was screaming, ‘Is it for real?’”

Calmer now, she describes Armani’s offer as “a giant giving a hand to a new name. It’s not just for me. It is a symbolic act that gives hope to my generation.”

Mr Armani says he did it because “the new generation of Italian designers needs support. Stella-Jean will be the next designer to organise a fashion show at the Teatro Armani and I hope this experience brings her luck.” No word yet on whether he will be there to wish her that personally.

Matches Fashion will certainly be in attendance, having signed up Stella-Jean after a look book arrived, unheralded, at their London offices. “I was initially attracted to the styling which was exceptionally strong, as was her use of colour and print,” recalls Natalie Kingham, the company’s head of fashion. “When I looked at the collection up close the next time I was in Italy. Her clever mix of traditional fabrics in such modern shapes made me realise how interesting the label was. It felt relevant and really stood out. That it sells out the minute it hits the site is a sign that she has potential to be big.”

Taylor Tomasi Hill, Moda Operandi’s creative director, praises her Stella Jean’s “distinctive aesthetic — no small feat for an emerging designer. Her bold patterns tempered by ladylike silhouettes capture precisely how our customer wants to dress: unconventionally, but not at the expense of luxury or intelligent design.”

For myself, a fashion scribe of over 25 years, Stella’s first solo show, in Rome last January, stands among those rare debuts that feel right on target: John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, Phoebe Philo for Céline…. Yet bear with me here while I change hats, because (full disclosure) I also work as a consultant for the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative, a United Nations initiative aimed at changing the way the international fashion business works. The aforementioned Simonetta Gianfelici is a consultant too. And it was she who first recognised Stella Jean as the right creative collaborator for a collective of marginalised artisans far across the world.

Although the Ethical Fashion Initiative is active in Stella Jean’s mother country, Haiti, when she and Gianfelici found themselves wilting in 47-degree heat last April, it was not in Port-au-Prince, but Ouagadougou, in landlocked Burkina Faso, West Africa.

“Burkina Faso is rich in cotton and incredible weaving traditions. The poorest of the poor are the heirs to ancient artisanal traditions that can only be rejuvenated at the luxury level because handwoven fabrics are extremely labour-intensive,” explains Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

“Stella’s capacity to use materials from all over the world, along with her passion for involving people in a fair way in her supply chain — she is extremely serious about that — persuaded us to ask her to join with us.”

Cipriani’s delight when the news of Mr Armani’s support came through was at least as loud as Stella Jean’s. “It is something incredible!” he says now, still rather loudly.”That this work will be seen in the theatre of Armani!”

He will not be front row to witness it, however. He’ll be in Ouaga, where he will share the glory with the weavers of the collection, for whom a video of the event is being made.

Everyone agrees ethics can’t carry fashion. First, the design must be great. What ethics provide is “another positive dimension,” says Kingham.

“[Ethics] resonates, not only with our core values, but also our clientele,” says Tomasi Hill. “We’re passionate about representing ethically-minded designers who collaborate with artisans around the world.”

As for Stella Jean, “the world doesn’t need someone else to [just make] beautiful clothes,” she says. “We don’t need more empty aesthetic expressions. We have to grab a chance to do more, to tell more.”

“I come from two worlds and I believe the more we meld together, the stronger we can be.”

Diamonds That Are Not Forever

Diamonds That Are Not Forever

A mining company produces Australia’s ultimate raw luxury: pink diamonds. Marion Hume visits Jaipur and Antwerp to discover why the fine jewellery world loves Rio Tinto’s rare gems.

The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013

Half a century has passed since the famed fashion maven, Diana Vreeland, declared: “Pink is the navy blue of India”. Yet you can’t go to Jaipur in 2013 without the phrase passing through your mind. It isn’t just the famed pink city, it is the tunics of the guards, the dress worn by Bollywood star Pallavi Sharda, even the elephant’s trunk has a touch of pink. This is because a famous fashion photograph, originally taken by Norman Parkinson, inspired another photo shoot, commissioned by Argyle Diamonds, to tell the story of India’s new love affair with pink diamonds.

The necklace Sharda is wearing is spectacular, 100-plus carats, of which more than a few are very precious pinks. Pink diamonds comprise about 0.03 per cent of global diamond production. Almost all of these come from Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine in Western Australia where, in turn, less than 0.01 per cent of production is pink. In turn once more, 1 per cent of that 0.01 per cent are the finest “fancy pinks” destined for some of the world’s most costly jewellery.

Every year, about 12 million tonnes of Australian earth is shifted in search of diamonds, of which the rarest pink ones, all together, would rattle around in a teacup. It is these that the world’s top jewellers most desire yet have no guarantee of acquiring. Since 1984, the somewhat secretive Argyle Pink Diamond Tender, a moveable feast which tours international cities before the auction takes place by sealed bid, has caused considerable excitement; that is, if you are among the few hundred people worldwide who even know it is happening.

The 2013 tender, of less than 60 stones, is likely to tour from Perth to Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and beyond – the diamond world does like to be rather cryptic about specifics. Bidders such as Graff, Tiffany & Co, Calleija and Moussaieff face competition from the likes of Bollywood jeweller NiravModi and China’s Chow Tai Fook.

The world’s top jewellers have seen interest in pinks soar among their wealthiest clientele, which is somewhat inconvenient because the supply will probably be exhausted by about 2020. For years, there have been murmurs that the only consistent source of pink diamonds was coming to an end. Technological advances mean a shift from open cast to underground mining at the Argyle mine is possible, with diamonds buried as deep as 450 metres soon to be accessed by a honeycomb of funnels. But they can’t keep going to the centre of the earth.

The luxury world makes many claims to “rare”. Yet pink diamonds truly are. Their hue is not a result of impurity; it’s instead due to extreme pressure beneath the earth’s surface and geologically freaky conditions long before dinosaurs walked the earth.

Nirav Modi of Mumbai leads the field of what to do with a pink. His Golconda necklace was sold for US$3.6 million at Christie’s in 2010. Lightness is the leitmotif of this third generation jeweller. He has worked out how to almost remove the necklace part of a diamond necklace, which is to say, even the links are made of (white) diamonds. “The metal is less weight than the diamonds,” he says of creations that slither like mercury. The stars in each piece are pink but of different hues. “It’s not about getting every single stone to be the same, homogenous colour. With white diamonds, it is all about the clarity.With fancy pinks, it is the intensity of the colour. In fact, the appeal is the range of colours, from a pale pink to a purplish pink, then there’s candy pink. Some are this gorgeous bubble gum pink – except, saying that, it does not sound like a wonderful colour. In diamonds, it is. You need to look at it.”

Modi points to a delicious pink: “Look at that.You don’t often see a colour like that.” As for style, he aims for “modern, not trendy. If you look at your photos 20 years ago, you probably wore bell-bottoms. You cringe at that. You can’t do that with jewellery.”

Pinks are Australia’s ultimate raw luxury, yet the story of their discovery is a grubby and gripping tale of men sporting facial hair and stubbies. They drilled, they dug and on October 2, 1979, they discovered they were literally standing on top of the richest pink diamond deposit in the world.

Nik Senapati, Rio Tinto’s managing director for India, has been with the mining giant for 31 years. A geologist by training, he recalls the “Eureka” day in 1979. “There was elation. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the initial discovery, especially for the geologists who did it, was amazing. Most geologists in the world – I would say 99 per cent of geologists in the world – never discover anything.” Senapati sees Argyle as a very Australian story. “That perseverance; the geologist who was leading at the time, went out and said: ‘well everybody’s looking here, I’m going to look there’.”

Senapati loves diamonds, in a geologist’s kind of way. “A rough diamond formed 150 kilometres down in the earth, transported to the surface in its beautiful crystal form,” he muses. “To hold that. Maybe they should just leave them as beautiful roughs.” Since Argyle, no other consistent source of pinks has been found. So given a diminishing supply by the end of the decade, should the wise man stockpile? “I don’t think you can talk of a stockpile when the entire production since it began wouldn’t fill a glove compartment,” laughs Senapati.

Although the vast majority of all diamonds are cut and polished in India, the largest,most stunning pinks go to Perth. But first, the majority of all rough diamonds, however valuable, take a trip to Antwerp for initial sorting and valuation. While India is the leading nation for diamond cutting and polishing, little Belgium, home of Tin-tin and Dries van Noten, is the rough diamond trading centre of the world. It is in Antwerp that we find Jean-Marc
Lieberherr, Rio Tinto’s general manager for diamonds sales and marketing, in a dull office in a dull building with double door airlocks and shoe mirrors. Security is tight.

Lieberherr, a marketing man, formerly with LVMH, was headhunted. “I knew absolutely nothing about diamonds,” he says. “I started thinking about a mining company producing the ultimate luxury, and a wonderful pink diamond business asking to be developed. The whole concept of marketing and branding is to build a system. But to have this fantastic product which is effectively not marketed at all, it’s really just a joy.”

Diamonds were once marketed brilliantly. De Beers is a tiny chip of the monopoly it once was. Back in the days when it controlled a global cartel, the company needed a slogan that expressed romance and yet would also inhibit the public from reselling. The Mad Men of Madison Avenue came up with “A Diamond Is Forever”, and at a stroke, tiny crystals of carbon became synonymous with wealth and with love.

“Diamonds are forever in that they carry emotions in a timeless manner from one generation to another,” says Lieberherr. “But all the great stories there are around diamonds aren’t told.” What he means is that the old evil stories (blood diamonds, absolutely nothing to do with Argyle and no longer true of 99 per cent of diamond production today) still linger. “Think about the history that goes back billions of years. The chance of it coming up to the surface, people finding it, the impact on the communities. Not one natural story is as exciting as the diamond. We need to start marketing the diamond story a hell of a lot better.”

When it comes to underselling, Lieberherr makes the comparison with the vast land from which pinks hail. He believes Australia is a great brand and that our diamonds can make it even stronger, if we get the narrative right. “I would start with the fact that it’s a world in itself, so how can you live on this planet and not know it?” he suggests. “It’s a very intense place, in terms of its colours, its nature, its landscapes, its dangers. Then I’d talk about the people. I’d develop a brand around Australians being very genuine; their friendliness, their resilience, their resourcefulness.Then I’d probably go to the treasures of Australia, and go to ‘the most expensive substance on earth is here below the surface of Australia, and it’s Argyle pink diamonds’.”

But even for the brand man, isn’t there a conundrum in marketing a diminishing resource? “I think the Argyle pink diamond brand has fantastic potential,” Lieberherr says. “When you think of the awareness it has for anyone who has any interest in jewellery or in diamonds, they know how expensive they are, how rare they are. And that’s been built from what is effectively a tiny, tiny production. “What I dream about is the Argyle pink diamond could become a fantastic jewellery brand, also a watch brand, so that in 50 years time, it’s still there … Argyle the brand will survive the mine. The brand will be about Australian luxury.”

True Blue

True Blue

Nobody was more surprised than Michael Kowalski when he got the top job at Tiffany. As Marion Hume writes, during his watch the retailer has made some radical moves in its quest to sell fine jewellery in a ‘democratic’ way.

The Austalian Financial Review | November 2012

by Marion Hume

What a swell party it was. The brass band was swinging, the singers were crooning, the dance floor was hopping, fuelled by champagne. Above the granite and marble of the imposing main floor, a towering interior was lit Tiffany blue, while views out of vast windows showcased the rainy night sparkle of the streets of Manhattan. They say the opening of the world­renowned Tiffany & Co. store at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1940 was a glorious affair, despite the US being on the brink of entering World War II. The above description is not, however, of 1940 but 2012. The vast views were photographs to bring Manhattan to Prague, in the Czech Republic, to celebrate the opening of the American jeweller’s latest global store. That said, the vibe was glamorously retro, a warm contrast to the usual chilly fashion parties where guests dripping in borrowed brand merchandise are more intent on Instagramming than kicking up their heels.

Tiffany should have ended its 175th birthday year with an even more marvellous party – one that was supposed to feature movie stars, Moet, two inflatable zebra lilos and a fabulous pool party. For December was to have seen the Tiffany marque writ large across cinema screens in 3D. But Warner Bros stalled the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, for which the jeweller has provided scores of sparklers, until May 2013. Surely news of the delay was exactly what Tiffany did not want for Christmas? “Not at all!” laughs Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s quietly spoken chairman and chief executive, when we meet on the morning before the Prague party in the leafy garden of one of the Czech Republic’s swankiest hotels.

Kowalski, it must be said, is not a swanky kind of guy, despite the locale. Bespectacled, married to the same woman for 35 years, you’d read the 61­ yea r­old more as the dependable numbers guy than the CEO, which, in a way, would be right. His route to the top was finance and, when he reached the pinnacle in 1999, at age 48, he claims no one was more surprised than himself. He still doesn’t act much like other CEOs – although he has a car and driver while in Prague. “I actually prefer to rent my own car because just the act of understanding where a store is, in relation to airport or downtown and navigating by yourself, gives a sense of awareness and familiarity. Or I’ll take the subway,” he says. On the way back from the Prague party, he’ll offer several guests a chauffeur-­driven ride, meaning he will perch in the centre rear seat.

In Prague, Kowalski gives a warm opening speech, he works the red carpet, he shakes hands. He doesn’t appear shy; instead he’s utterly comfortable that he’s made a commitment to this in a schedule that has him travelling at least 40 per cent of his time. He even seems to be a little dazzled by the elegance of the party. This isn’t his natural milieu. “We do what we need to do to manage and promote Tiffany,” he says, “but on a personal level, I like to stay under the radar.”

But while Kowalski, personally, won’t regret that December isn’t a whirl of red carpet movie premieres, surely the delay is a blow for a business that had geared up to maximise the best bit of brand promotion since 1961, when Audrey Hepburn immortalised Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “It has been actually fine for us,” Kowalski counters. “It would have been sort of piling on to the holiday season in those weeks where it’s absolutely impossible for us to put more people in the stores.” You see, in the US, Tiffany pretty much is Christmas, in no small part due to years of seductive advertisements featuring snowflakes, lovers and the brand’s blue boxes tied up with white bows. “Quite frankly, and since we’ve seen some of the trailers, the delay has helped us because it gives us an opportunity to build a more robust product endorsement,” says Kowalski.

Prices of pieces with a Jazz Age theme will range from entry-­level to stratospheric. That’s how it has always been at Tiffany, the American jeweller Kowalski calls ‘democratic’, by which he means that money, or the lack thereof, is not a bar to crossing the threshold of its stores. Australia got its first Tiffany store in 1994, far earlier than most European cities, because our way of life chimes with store environments that are relatively relaxed compared to other high­end international jewellers. You can simply walk in, whoever you are, whatever you do. Let’s not forget that the Holly Golightly of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was what was known euphemistically as ‘a good time girl’, before Hepburn’s portrayal sweetened her into a good girl. As Golightly says of the Fifth Avenue flagship store: “Isn’t it wonderful? Nothing bad could ever happen to you in a place like this.”

When Charles Tiffany and his brother­-in-­law John Young set up their stationery and fancy goods emporium at 259 Broadway in New York City in 1837, an early policy dictated that not only was it fine to ask the price, most of these were displayed in plain sight. This policy meant Tiffany was the first fine jeweller to include the price tag when advertising engagement rings. In the contemporary context, it means the price appears within the first product details online (for instance: Tiffany Enchant Scroll Pendant $20,000).

Some things, though, are priceless, such as the cushion­ cut, 128.54 carat, sunburst yellow diamond purchased in 1878 by Charles Tiffany and housed on the ground floor of the Fifth Avenue store. On an earlier shopping spree to Paris, he bought the French crown jewels (up for sale due to revolutionary turmoil). It was in Paris that Tiffany was entranced by a fashionable hue known as Nattier blue, after the painter Jean­Marc Nattier. “The company has a team of people making sure the blue never changes, hunting down anyone who abuses it,” says Kowalski. It is at Kowalski’s insistence – he has strong environmental principles – that these days the blue box is green; that is, made from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper.

Tiffany, for all its sparkle, has always taken a radical lead. Kowalski says that the brand realised early on that, to expand, it had to break down the intimidation inherent in selling fine jewellery: “I’m sure when we opened a store in a mall in New Jersey, now one of our top 20 stores in the world, there were New Yorkers who were appalled, like: ‘My gosh, they’re opening a store in New Jersey! What could they be thinking!’ People were far more likely to walk through that wide door in a mall and once they were through that threshold, it was like: ‘Gosh, nothing bad is happening, I haven’t been asked to leave, did someone say can I help you?’ ’’

The high­-end jeweller with the common touch also lost no time tapping into the feminist Zeitgeist: early in the 1970s, when ads for a fragrance called Charlie showed confident women in pant suits striding through the streets of New York, Tiffany signed a modern visionary, Elsa Peretti, who found her design inspiration in street stall donuts and coffee beans. Until then, the most famous designs were those by Jean Schlumberger, a Frenchman whose opulent creations were adored by Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, Tiffany collaborators continue to surprise. While collections by Paloma Picasso are not radical, the jeweller carries a line of bold, demanding pieces by the architect Frank Gehry.

Outside it doors, Tiffany sometimes generates shockwaves. “We do scandalise our competitors,” laughs Kowalski, recalling the tremors that greeted the news it was moving into e­commerce in 1999, a year before Natalie Massenet launched Net­a­ Porter. Online sales now account for about 6 per cent of worldwide sales, making it the number two store after New York. It even has an app that allows ring sizing, although Kowalski holds with his decision not to sell diamond engagement rings online “because of all those tactile things where you really have to hold it in your hand”.

Nor does he tweet: “Tiffany tweets but CEOs tweeting, that’s asking for trouble.” Not that he avoids controversy: “I know there are many people in the mining world and in the jewellery world and in the supply chain who think that I’m some sort of radical environmentalist who is pursuing his own personal agenda to save the world. But that’s simply not true.” Tiffany does not sell coral or rubies because they are as closely tied to nefarious practices as blood diamonds. As for diamonds, Tiffany’s can be traced pretty much to the square metre of earth they came from. (Of note: Tiffany’s yellow diamonds come from the Ellendale mine, in the far north of Western Australia.) Few knew until recently that platinum is controversial – although not Tiffany’s stock, which comes either from a single mine in Montana in the US, or is recycled.

“We have come up against some real industry opposition; it’s been disappointing in many ways,” says Kowalski. “I’m making a judgment based on what I believe our customers want, and it’s no different to the judgment I make about advertising or design. It’s all part of the brand DNA. One of the things that customers expect when they walk through those doors is that nothing terrible has happened in creating this diamond ring. I’m not suggesting that’s the first thing that they ask about, but consumers should be able to absolutely assume that to be the case.” Tiffany has won rare praise from Global Witness, which campaigns against natural resource­related conflict and corruption, for “one possible model of what major diamond jeweller retailers and manufacturers should do”.

Luck played no small part in Kowalski’s rise to the top. “It’s always better to be lucky than to be smart. In my own case, it was bizarre,” he says. Kowalski was working in financial planning at Avon, which had purchased Tiffany in 1977. “I had been there for about five or six years and I was just bored. I went to see the guy who had hired me, and said, ‘It’s been wonderful, but I really have to move on from here.’ And he said, ‘You got a job to go to? Because I’ve just learnt that there’s going to be an opportunity to head the financial planning department over at Tiffany, would you have any interest?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’”

Six months later, when Avon decided to sell Tiffany, it fell to Kowalski to oversee the sale. The success of the subsequent management­led leveraged buy­out was dependent on liquidating inventory, so Kowalski was asked to move to merchandising and take responsibility. “We had to put in place those basic financial disciplines,” he says. “That’s where the lucky part came in. I was in the merchandising division and moved up, so no, I never thought I would be CEO.”

Would he at least concede he’s a successful one? “I’ll tell you the obvious trajectory of sales growth. It was US$120 million with seven or eight stores [when he started in 1999]. Last year, it was US$3.6 billion with 247 stores, and almost half a billion dollars in profit.” From less than a dollar at the time he took over as CEO, the share price hovers around $US63. Like Kowalski, several key executives have put in years with the company and many hold stock. “There’s this great sense of financial accountability. There’s an incredible sensibility to legacy and tradition yet we’re analytical, disciplined, fact­based and very collegial. We have a great culture of respect and you know, you never raise your voice.” When the Gatsby party season kicks off next year, don’t go looking for Michael Kowalski. “I much prefer anonymity,” he says. “I walk into a party and I really try to avoid talking about Tiffany because once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to bring the conversation back to any common ground.”

No faking it on the Gatsby set

On a sunny day on the set of the The Great Gatsby at Sydney’s Fox Studios in December 2011, director Baz Luhrmann’s voice can be heard through a bullhorn. He is revving up more than 500 extras gathered for a party scene in the Gatsby mansion, complete with sunken pool and revellers on lilos. Time and again, Leonardo DiCaprio turns towards Tobey Maguire, repeating: “I’m Jay Gatsby. I’m sorry, old chap, I thought that you knew that,” each time flashing a megawatt smile and an onyx signet ring featuring a daisy motif.

Luhrmann had identified Tiffany as a ‘must get’ collaborator several years before production began. In a nice fit, Gatsby’s author F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Tiffany customer. Luhrmann’s partner, the double Oscar­winning costume designer Catherine Martin, spent months with the jeweller’s in­house designer, Jim Stonebraker, in New York. Stonebraker had to “go through hundreds of hoops because, exacting as I am, Baz is even more exacting,” says Martin. “Just being able to say, ‘Hmm, I think I’d really like a platinum cigarette case in enamel with diamonds and pearls’, and that was no problem, was fabulous.”

It is unusual, and risky, to use real jewellery on a movie set. “What’s crazy [is] my wife walking onto the set wearing a $2 million bracelet,” Luhrmann recalls of a shoot which had to include bodyguards and gems in locked boxes inside a safe within a safe room. “Tiffany has been phenomenal in that they open up the world of decadence. You can have fake diamonds but the real ones are just so much better.” Adds Martin: “We used every single piece because everyone loved wearing them. I would go, ‘Do you want to wear any jewels today?’ And they would reply, ‘We want to wear them all.’ ”

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

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.


Amazing spider-men

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 

Catching the Moment

Catching the Moment

AFR | September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Dreamer – Ilaria Venturini Fendi

Green Dreamer

 

With her new line of bags, fashion scion Ilaria Venturini Fendi is spinning cast-off materials into chic carryalls-and changing lives in Africa in the process. Marion Hume meets the Fendi family’s first eco-warrior.

By Marion Hume

W | July 2011

 

“ I never understood why recycling had to be cheap or amateur,” says Ilaria Venturini Fendi. “But then, I’m a Fendi!” Indeed, the bubbly blonde Italian is the youngest daughter or Anna, one of the five Fendi sisters who re-imagined the possibilities of fur and leather transforming the family atelier into a worldwide brand. Her sister Silvia Venturini Fendi is the head accessories designer at the label, which is now under the LVMH luxury umbrella. And her niece Delfina Delettrez Fendi has made a name for herself with a goth-meets-glam jewellery line. Yet it is Ilaria, right now powering her jeep down a dirt track on her organic farm outside of Rome, who is proving to be the true style revolutionary of the famous fashion clan.

Her Carmina Cmpus line-which includes totes, purses, computer bags, and iPad covers- is grabbing attention for using old stuff in new ways. The Bags, made my communities of disadvantaged people, are about as green as it gets. Many of them are created out of reclaimed and recycled material including leftover fabrics, old blankets, and even discarded soda-bottle caps. But let’s nip in the bud any thought of “eco-ugly” fashion- this is Made in Africa-meets- Made in Italy, which translates into exuberant style fused with flawless finishing. On offer at such rarefied global stores as Milan’s 10 Corso Como and London’s Dover Street Market, these are not your average do-gooder totes. The bag slung at Venturini Fendi’s feet as she drives for example, blends pieces of khaki canvas reclaimed from a safari tent (the ones used for five-star tourism become unusable after several seasons) with artisanal patchwork made from off-cuts of the kanga cloths that comprise the traditional East African garment.

Growing up in the Fendi atelier, Venturini Fendi made dresses for her dolls out of scraps. “I hate waste,” she says as she brakes to avoid a flock of sheep. “Always surrounded with precious materials, we were taught to be careful.” Farming is also in the bloodline, from her father, Giulio Venturini, who dies when she was 10. While his day job was in the construction industry his passion was nature. He taught his daughter how to ride, and she still remembers their country outings together. As for her farm, Venturini Fendi brought I Casali del Pino nearly a decade ago, with the aim of turning her back on the fashion business for being “so passive about what really mattered, like the environment.” Today milk from the aforementioned sheep is used to produce four kinds of cheese, including tangy pecorino. There are also ducks, pigs and hens as well as two donkeys so ludicrously tame they keep trying to nuzzle up and say hello.

It was her bees, however, that lured Venturini Fendi into producing high-end accessories in Africa. In 2007 the University of Rome asked her to share her apiarist insights with some visiting beekeepers from Cameroon. They, in turn, thanked her by presenting her with a traditional Cameroonian hat, which looks somewhat like a crazy crocheted hedgehog. Once a Fendi, always a Fendi: Rather than put the gift on her head, she immediately re-imagined it upside down and trimmed in leather, transformed into a funky little bag.

Just before meeting the beekeepers, Venturini Fendi has begun to miss the world she thought she’d left for good. She had reconfigured her greenhouse into a design studio, where she has been joined by a clutch of former colleagues from the days when she’s worked at Fendissime, in the Ninties, a youthful secondary line that was shuttered after LVMH purchased Fendi. The team’s goal: to figure out how discarded materials could be refashioned at the highest possible level. The results, plus those created by other eco-minded designers, would soon be sold at Re(f)use, a green emporium that Venturini Fendi set up in a family owned building in the heart of Rome.

Putting the hat-turned-bag into production involved a group trip to Dschang, the Cameroonian town from which the bobby berets originate. (Both men and women wear them,” she says. “They look incredible.”) After forging a collaboration if with local artisans, however, she was left with questions: How was she to know if she was paying workers too little or- just as damaging in a fragile economy-too much? For answers, Venturini Fendi turned to Simone Ciprani, on officer at the Ethical Fashion Programme of the International Trade Centre, which is the joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. (Full disclosure: the author consults for the program.) The mission of the Ethical Fashion Programme is to harness fashion as a vehicle out of poverty, connecting the world’s most marginalized people to plugged-in designers in Paris, New York, Milan and elsewhere. Production of the hat-bags continues at a small scale in Cameroon, while artisans in Kenya produce a wider range of styles. Carmina Campus employs 69 Kenyans full time, many from the notorious Nairobi slums of Korogocho and Kibera. “It is about real people with faces and names and stories, who live in a different way now,” says Cipriani, who can’t help but be impressed by Venturini Fendi. “I was astonished to see her in the dump sites of the slums, talking with the people for a long time. It is not an easy place.”

Venturini Fendi’s latest project is a three-way collaboration between Carmina Campus, the ITC, and 10 Corso Como owner Carla Sozzani. This time the bags, which just made their debut at Sozzani’s Milan boutique, are lined and trimmed with leftovers from 10 Corso Como’s signature collections- but they are finished in Africa. “What I didn’t like when I was in fashion before was that what you created was gone in a season,” Venturini Fendi says. “Now I want ot make lovely things that last. When I hear that other designers want to do the same, I am happy.” Indeed Vivienne Westwood, who is also passionate about the environment, is collaborating with the ITC in Kenya-both women believe fashion’s aspirational aura allows the industry to punch above its weight when it comes to getting notices. In this lies a route to real change, and while moving fashion away from a trend-driven model is quite a lofty aim, forging a new path, has after all, been in the Fendi DNA for several generations.

 

“I want fashion to be the promoter of change,” says Venturini Fendi as she exits her jeep for a walk along the river that flows though her farm, “to the point that there will no longer be any need to make a distinction between fashion and ethical fashion.” 

This Flower’s Power

This Flower’s Power

Departures | June 2011

Loro Piana sourced a rare cloth once used only by Southeast Asian monks. Its origins, however, have a far-from-blessed past.

By Marion Hume

Inle Lake, in southeast Burma, is a beautiful spot. Some 14 miles long and seven miles wide (it is hard to tell where the reeds end and the land begins), the lake is dotted with local fisherman balancing on the bows of their wooden skiffs. They live in thatched houses on stilts above the lake and grow vegetables on floating gardens tethered to the water bed with strips of bamboo. Through a camera, or just sitting back in a longboat and gazing at the scene, you would think this is paradise. It isn’t.

Burma (whose military regime arbitrarily renamed it Myanmar in 1989) is among the world’s poorest countries. Despite the release last fall of democracy fighter and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for opposing the dictatorship, the country is still very much under the grip of an autocracy. Sanctions designed to deny the generals and their cronies foreign currency mean that almost nothing from Burma can be imported into the United States. And although European sanctions do not cover textiles, considerable pressure has been applied on mass-market manufacturers not to source from a country where cheap clothes come at high price when it comes to human rights.

So what on earth is Pier Luigi Loro Piana, of the luxury label known for peerlessly fine garments in cashmere, vicuna and silk, doing here? Why is this charming Italian, who is hardly unfamiliar with private jets and yachts, sitting barefoot on the floor of a Burmese thatched-roof house? He is watching a woman remove sappy filaments from the stems of the country’s wild lotus flowers that grow everywhere on the lake. He moves on to watch another woman spinning yarn on a contraption that would not look out of place in a museum. There are looms here – of the type rarely seen in the West since the 18th century – and women sit at them, their hands sending shuttles flying to and fro.

These are among the world’s last weavers of lotus flower fabric, a textile prized for its fineness, lightness and extraordinary ability to keep its wearer cool in even the warmest of climates. When Mr. Loro Piana, the Marco Polo of fashion, learned that lotus-flower cloth, which was once woven only for the ceremonial robes of monks, was still being made, he headed to the source. The company offered to buy all production, which is only about 55 yards a month, and paid the community of artisans in advance, then pledged more orders season after season-and in so doing has helped ensure that a unique tradition survives and that the craftsmen are now paid fairly. As a Loro Piana spokesperson explains: “The fibre is great and exclusive, yes, but people are being helped. The idea behind the project was not just to give fish, as they saying goes, but teach them how to fish.”

In a select clutch of Loro Piana stores-none in the United States, where imports are still prohibited- the cloth, which has a nubby, linen-like texture of raw silk, is now available. It is sold loose to be later tailored into sumptuous jackets (from $5,600); its fineness makes it less suitable for trousers. Pier Luigi is hoping the US government will grant lotus-flower cloth an exemption from sanctions. With Aung San Suu Kyi calling for careful, ethical engagement with Burma once again, reviving the magical cloth of monks, which has the desirable secular property of cooling one down on a warm day, might be a appropriate way to begin.

Another Edun- Janice Sullivan

AFR Magazine | April 2011

Another Edun

by Marion Hume 

As if the fashion business is not tough enough, Janice Sullivan must also meet Bono and Ali Hewson’s lofty aims for a niche eco label they founded to help lift Africa out of poverty.

There are times when I’m sitting with a Chief executive, who is completely ‘on message’, brilliant at expressing the ‘pillars’ of the brand and at talking through an impressive bottom line, yet I’m thinking, “Yes, but you could be selling paint.” There are other times – rarer these – when I meet a CEO who is perhaps more tentative at first, yet utterly equipped for the unique challenges of the fashion business. A latter case is Janice Sullivan. As she puts it herself, “I come from the back room. I’m hands on. I am all about product.”

Sullivan, an immaculate New York honey blonde in her mid 40s, does not have an expensive MBA. Instead, she has a roll-up-your-sleeves understanding of the logistics of making clothes and accessories in any part of the world. She knows her fabrics; she can tell at a glance how many you can cut of this and how long it is going to take to add beading.

“I started out in production; [was] then in product development; then in merchandising, then took over sales,” says Sullivan, who grew up on the Jersey shore looking across to Manhattan and whose career in New York City, until 18 months ago, involved switching back and forth between Calvin Klein and Donna Karan as she climbed the ladder at two iconic America brands. She was president of Calvin Klein Jeans when Mark Weber, who helms the LVMH business in the US, (which these days includes Donna Karan), asked her to take on a considerable challenge. She is now the CEO of Edun.

In contrast to her past employers, Edun is a minnow; a niche eco brand where the numbers for an item might be 200, rather than 20,000, even 200,000 at Calvin Klein. Since 2009, this eco brand has been 49% owned by the luxury giant LVMH. You will certainly have heard of the pair who founded it in 2005, given they are rock star Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson.

To begin with, Edun received spectacular press, way more than the usual start-up because the world’s media was keen to get up close with Mr. & Mrs. Hewson. Edun garnered renown as the go-to made in Africa label (this even though the majority of product was sourced in Turkey, India, Peru). The mission became the message; that the 53 nations of Africa have way too small a share of the world’s trade (just 3% for 2010) and that producing in that vast continent went at least some way to levelling that inequity.

Ali Hewson, a political science graduate, proved every bit as forceful as her husband at delivering facts and figures about poverty, the numbers of people in sub-Saharan nations decimated by HIV/AIDS and how buying clothes could help. The brand’s mantra, “We carry the story of the people who make our clothes around with us,” was compelling. But while the fashion business worships at the altar of celebrity if that is going to shift stuff, it is neither charitable nor forgiving. Late deliveries, inconsistent quality and lacklustre clothing lead retailers, initially so enthusiastic, to drop the line. It has been reported that the Hewsons pumped US$20 million of their own cash into Edun to keep it afloat while they shopped for an expert partner. LVMH acquired its stake for US$7.8 million.

While the timing was great for Edun, it was also good for LVMH, whose arch rival, PPR/Gucci Group, includes Stella McCartney, a brand that has moved from being perceived as, “the awkward [run] one, by [an] animal rights activist who won’t use fish glue, let alone leather”, to a sustainable, ethical, luxury brand that chimes precisely with the zeitgeist. LVMH needed an eco brand and to get one that could promise rockstar power to the front row (just as the daughter of Paul McCartney can) cannot but have added to the appeal.

The acquisition seemed the signal good times ahead. Sullivan was appointed to steer the brand; Sharon Wauchob, an Irish designer based in Paris, was hired to create a laid-back, modern fashion signature. (As to Wauchob’s nationality, she made clear on the first time we spoke that, “Not everyone Irish knows Bono”. She got the gig based on her achievements, having never before met the Hewsons). LVMH brought business expertise: the ability to help a small company with IT, customs clearance and such like.

Then Bono and Ali Hewson followed the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards and Mikhail Gorbachev by appearing in a “Core Values”  Louis Vuitton advertising campaign, which also name-checked Edun. Invites went out to a glamourous party to fete the collaboration and to showcase a Louis Vuitton “Keepall” bag,  featuring a slick cow horn charm, made by an Edun supplier in the slums of Nairobi. Profits from the bag, as well as the Hewsons’ fees, went to African causes.

Yet not for nothing is there an old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Last September, The Wall Street Journal came out with a damning article headlined  “Out of Africa, Into Asia”, containing the revelation that, since joining with LVMH, most of Edun’s clothes are made not by the poor of Africa but in highly mechanised factories in China. The story went round the world.

The WSJ piece was fair (the online version has a few clarifications, but no significant corrections), yet the ramifications of it have been unfortunate. While I was working on this piece, a leading style journalist mentioned she was working on a piece about producing in Africa but “not featuring Edun; they make everything in China.” (To clarify further on the goods that are made in China, this is no longer synonymous with sweatshops; LVMH has stringent codes of compliance for its factory partners).

There were further reasons the WSJ story, its contents cherry picked and reprinted by global tabloids, garnered such traction. Some of this was due to Bono bashing, given he is a divisive figure. Some of it was due to a rare chink in the otherwise impregnable armour of the mighty LVMH (which is rarely criticised and also spends enormous amounts of money in the media advertising its brands).

“I think it is unfortunate some people put a lock on the brand,” says Janice Sullivan carefully. However she then acknowledges, “because of all the press, because of Bono, there was a high level of expectation to not only have a beautiful collection, but to tick all these boxes in terms of sustainability, in terms of where things are made.

“But I think to go forward, you take it carefully and make sure you deliver. You want to make sure you have controlled growth. Our commitment is to make sure we grow the percentage of our line that we produce out of Africa. But it will never be everything.”

Depending how you cut it, 41% of Edun’s production is currently Africa, however this includes the Edun Live line of blank T-shirts, which are bulk-purchased by bands and brands as tour merchandise and are separate from the fashion offer. Also wrapped into that African percentage are items made in Morocco and Tunisia- North African nations that, (Tunisia’s current political turmoil not withstanding), are industrial suppliers to legions of fashion companies.

On the plus side and perhaps galvanised by press scrutiny, Edun has pledged that its fashion sourcing in the poverty belt of sub-Saharan Africa will rise to over 60%  by 2013. The highly visible fashion portion which started out as 15% of the collection, is expected to expand to 40%, and with steady attention, each collection should benefit from the transfer of skills needed to achieve these goals. Already, new collaborations are being forged; with The Crochet Sisters, a sisterhood of nuns and young girls, many of them refugees from Zimbabwe, who live and work in a safe environment in Nairobi; with a small company in Cameroon making sneakers and ongoing, with MADE, the Nairobi accessory company that provided the charm on the Vuitton Keepall bag.

Janice Sullivan is a realist. “This is made in Asia,” she says, fingering a fluid silk dress that wraps and ties over the body. “The fabrics are most likely Asian. These are African” she says, pointing to beads of recycled copper adorning a handknit. “I think Edun can be the next big brand but in a different type of way. But right now, it’s about getting it right so we can grow.” Desirability and reliability have to come before any mission.“You can have a great story, but your product has to deliver, it has to be desired by people, it has to be right and on time. And you have to do it over and over again.”

Those who frame Edun’s  sourcing of the majority of its offer outside of Africa as some kind of ongoing failure lack an understanding of the logistics that Sullivan is talking about or of the challenges of producing in the sub-Saharan region, home to some of the most disadvantaged people on earth. “As we grow more confident, we will expand our capacity in Africa,” Sullivan says. “But I don’t want to overburden, overwhelm. I want to make sure we concentrate on good, strong pieces we know we can execute, and get them done.”

“Overburden” “Overwhelm” are well chosen words. The challenges of producing in the developing world are legion. I know of this because I serve as a consultant to the UN agency, the International Trade Centre, on its global Ethical Fashion Programme, which encourages top designers to consider marginalized community producers among their suppliers. (Edun is not currently involved with the programme).

As you can imagine, it is not easy to produce high fashion in a Kenyan slum where the population density is 23 times that of Manhattan; neither is it so in war-torn rural Uganda where there are almost two million ‘Internally Displaced Persons’, refugees in their own land because of 20 years of civil war. Add to these, such externalities as lack of a reliable power supply and the need to get workers, especially women, home before dark, (which mitigating against the possibility of overtime).

It is surprisingly expensive to source among the poor. Just one equation; in Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia, water and education are provided free by the communist regime, meaning the living wage is $3 a day. In Kenya, slum dwellers must pay even for access to drinking water, meaning their living wage is $4 a day – that extra dollar at source significantly upping the end price of a product. Currently Edun sources in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar and the West African nation of Cameroon.

But one would safely assume that an ethical brand like Edun would be 100% organic, wherever it was producing, right? Wrong. Pesticides kill some 20,000 cotton growers a year from accidental poisoning, while a further million suffer ill health, according to Pesticide Action Network. This is compounded by the devastating effect on the environment. Edun has a noble commitment to organic cotton and has been a key force in the establishment of The Conservation Cotton Initiative (CCI) which enables displaced farmers in Northern Uganda to get the tools and funding they need to return to their land.

Appearance fees donated by Bono and Ali Hewson in the Annie Leibovitz-shot Core Values campaign were donated to CCI  facilitating the hiring of TechnoServe, a specialist in rural enterprise, The result has been that the number of farmers being helped has risen from 800 to 3,500, (the target is 8000).  Last season, Edun purchased 15 tonnes of this cotton, enough to make some 10,000 T shirts. “We use organic materials whenever possible,” Sullivan said last year, “but it’s not easy”.

Things just got harder- 2011 is an election year in Uganda and President Museveni is distributing free pesticides to farmers. “We’ve decided to push a people agenda rather than the organic agenda,” says a sanguine Sullivan now. “We’ve switched our efforts to teach responsible farming and how pesticides can be used sparingly. Yet she remains upbeat. “These are the kind of complications Edun is willing to embrace in order to thrive and grow. Inconveniences are not insurmountable. They require patience but that pays off if the result is something special.”

Sullivan, a working mother of 15 year old twins, who is also stepmom to her husband’s 15 year old son, says she was ready for a new kind of fashion challenge. She is glad Edun is about forging long relationships around the world. But for Edun to fly, the clothes have to be great. While designer Wauchob has made as many visits to East Africa as she has been able (she has a young baby), she has resisted offering African styles or prints, choosing instead to use her time there researching what it is possible to make.

Hence black crochet skirts, little fringed vests, which are bang “on trend” while the offer sourced elsewhere includes utilitarian parkas (wise, given winters seem to be getting harsher in the Northern Hemisphere fashion cities), snug chunky knits, floaty-long woven skirts and reconstructed Fair Isle patterns in rich earth tones. In other words, clothes that are not chasing youth but can be worn by grown up women such as Hewson, whose style signature is “great pants, layers and a good jacket” and Sullivan, who needs to look like she means business, but not to look “corporate”.

Sullivan is quick to praise the founders. “A lot of great ideas come from those outside the industry…What appealed to me [when I joined] was the idea that we’re all in one world now, and you can’t remove yourself from the process any more. Fashion is a big influencer. I’ve worked for some very big brands. This is still a small brand but I think it has a lot of power.”

Certainly, there is no way Edun could have come so far, so fast without the Hewsons, who remain very much involved. “I’m incredible impressed with how extensively they had already made in-roads, particularly in Uganda. It made my job a lot easier stepping in,” says Sullivan.

Star power continues to create magic. While last season, Sullivan apparently had to reign in Bono’s ambitions for a fashion extravaganza, telling him, “We are having a fashion show. Show is the second word. Fashion is the first word.” This season, he’s helped to lift menswear sales by wearing Edun, as has fellow band member The Edge, during U2′s South African tour.  As for womenswear, REM’s Michael Stipe, Hugh Jackman, Helena Christensen and Christy Turlington sat in the front row at the New York show in February.

But neither a sprinkling of stardust or a good heart is enough in the tough business of fashion.  “It’s got to be great. No one cuts you slack. I can’t put out something that looks half way, there’s no such thing as ‘we’re almost there’,” says Sullivan. “It’s always about what I can show you now that’s great.” She pauses. “Take those black skirts made by the Crochet Sisters. We’ll do 600 of the skirts,  400 of the fringed vests. No, make that 2,000 units, I’m sure we’ll do that.”

And with just 2000 units – not 20,000, not 200,000 -  a community of women, many of whom have fled the violence of war to find unlikely sanctuary on the edge of one of the most dangerous slums in the world can work, eat and stay safe until next season’s order arrives.

Cut From A Different Cloth – Finantial Times

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Financial Times | March 2011

Cut From A Different Cloth

by Marion Hume

Last September, I had a telephone call from Pier Luigi Loro Piana. He heads the family business that bears his surname – an Italian textile group with 135 stores in prime addresses, including London’s Bond Street and Avenue Montaigne in Paris. One of its coats can cost £5,000, a sweater £500.
This sixth-generation family firm is led as a job-share between Pier Luigi, 59, and his brother Sergio, 62. While both run the business, the younger brother also searches worldwide for the best raw materials that can be turned into yarn.
Loro Piana wanted to tell me about a new project. He had found a community that makes a fabric that cools down the wearer (perfect for the humid cities that are home to the emerging ultra-rich). This, he said, was new to the west, yet legendary in the Asia – but the know-how to weave it was almost lost. Just one isolated community was left with the skills to make it, and they live on houses on stilts on a lake. I was spellbound. He wanted me to go out there with him, to take a look for myself. Then he told me the village was in Burma.
There are many reasons to avoid doing business in Burma. It is run by a repressive military junta, practically unchanged since 1962. Sanctions were first imposed by the US in 1993 and the European Union in 1996. The EU extended its measures in 2007 after anti-government demonstrations led by monks in Burma were quashed by force.
Reporters without Borders ranks Burma 171st out of 175 countries in the world in its Press Freedom Index (only Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea fare worse).
Although trade in textiles with Burma is not barred by the EU, almost nothing is allowed into the US from Burma. (It makes an exception for teak, when used in decking by American boatbuilders.)
Loro Piana is aware of the moral dilemma of doing business in Burma. In an e-mail to me, he wrote that by finding out more about the country, “We can be more sensitive … Our venture is directed to the … ‘informal economy’ represented by the majority of the local population, and mainly supported by agriculture and craftsmanship.”
I said I would not even consider such a visit until Aung San Suu Kyi was freed. The Burmese opposition leader had endured almost 15 years of incarceration. Then, last November, she was released from house arrest. I recognise that this alone does not make Burma a place to visit lightly. And so I canvassed activists and correspondents based in the region, and was pleased that they felt, as I did, that I should now go to Burma, if offered the chance. (Still, such is the sensitivity of the subject that most of my contacts were unwilling to be quoted on the record.)
Mark Farmaner is a director of human rights group Burma Campaign UK, which has called for targeted sanctions against the regime. Of the Loro Piana project, Farmaner says: “In principle, we have no objection to this. There was never a call for total sanctions against Burma. It is always about targeting the generals and their business cronies.”
So I accepted Loro Piana’s invitation to inspect his “miracle fabric”.
I have been a fashion journalist for 20 years – some of them at the Financial Times – but two years ago I also took on a consulting role with the Ethical Fashion Programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. My role is to forge links between the best-known labels and the poorest people of sub-Saharan Africa. In my visa application, I wrote “fashion consultant”. However, I also have a US journalist visa in my passport, which the Burmese embassy held for weeks and returned, visa granted, with departure only days away.

It is 10am and Loro Piana looks somewhat rumpled. We had arrived in Rangoon (renamed Yangon by the junta, which also renamed the country Myanmar) the night before, and this morning we had flown onwards to Helo, in eastern Burma. Now we’ve just travelled a further hour by bumpy road. Yet Loro Piana’s jacket, a prototype made of the fabric we are here to see, looks pristine. “See – it doesn’t need ironing. Unlike me,” he jokes as we clamber into a longboat. We pull out of the reeds on to the expanse of Inle Lake, ringed by mountains. The Intha people subsist by fishing and by growing vegetables on floating gardens built using bamboo and lotus flowers. It is those lotus flowers, or more accurately, their stems, that are made into the magical yarns.
We arrive at a thatched house standing on stilts, the kind imitated by watery five-star resorts across Asia. Access is via a rickety pontoon of bamboo poles and wobbly wooden stairs. Once inside, the co-chief executive of a company with a €480m turnover squats down on the floor next to a woman who is extracting sappy filaments, each about one metre long, from lotus flower stems – which is a painstaking process. Another woman rubs the filaments together at extraordinary speed. A third woman sits spinning yarn using a contraption made from wooden bobbins and an old bicycle wheel. Loro Piana scrunches the finished yarn in his hands.
It is his second visit to Inle Lake. He first came a year ago, having learned from a Japanese friend that lotus flower cloth was still being woven here. His friend urged him to save the craft from disappearing forever. The textile baron instantly saw the potential of the Nelumbo nucifera that grows here: it is, among other astonishing properties, featherlight, “slubby” in appearance (like linen), wonderfully cool and also of a good natural colour. Some 26,000 stems are needed for one blazer.
There are, at most, just 300 Intha people who know how to harvest the wild lotus flower stems (they must be pulled from the water by hand – never scythed, which kills the root). About 200 others know how to extract the filaments and process these to skeins, which must be done within 24 hours of picking to prevent deterioration. Lotus flower robes were once worn on ceremonial days by the most senior monks, but they have had to find a cheaper alternative.
When Loro Piana first came to Burma, the fabric was being made into pricey scarves for the few tourists who visit the country. On that first trip, he guaranteed to purchase all the fabric. “This is a key point in the success of the project,” he says. “We commit to buy, not from time to time, but everything. We pay in advance.”
There are four looms operated by women using foot treadles. This involves passing shuttles under the warp threads, back and forth by hand – but they can do so for no more than four hours a day, which equates to about an inch of cloth. Loro Piana is not pushing for more production, mindful that it might force the youngest teenage girls into working at the looms rather than attending school.
Is Loro Piana exploiting these workers? The UN calculates that the living wage for a manual worker in Burma is $1.20 per day. Those working here are skilled. My guess is that they earn at least five times that figure. However, as the project is in its first season, there are no reliable records of pay yet.
There is a whiff of change in Burma – not regime change, but the feeling that the country, so rich in rubies, oil and teak, is about to re-open for business. Thai entrepreneurs are pushing for road development along the two countries’ shared border.
Still, the Burmese officials who granted us visas knew what we were doing in the country – at no time were we “off radar” – we were accompanied at all times by an English-speaking official guide.
The position on sanctions is still complicated. In a speech to the World Economic Forum in January, Suu Kyi said Burma needed ethical foreign investment, but a report from the National League for Democracy, the party she leads, recently concluded that sanctions should remain in place for the time being.
In Burma itself, strangers can be bold, despite the dangers of speaking out. “Our government has a suicidal policy, if I may speak frankly, of stopping people from coming here. Thank you for ignoring it,” someone told me in Rangoon.
Loro Piana admits that he was not especially clued up politically before he began working in Burma. Now, though, his project is helping a few more communities to join the lucrative fashion value chain. The indications are that they will be properly rewarded for doing so, and in decent working conditions.
As Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK puts it: “This is the kind of trade, working with ordinary people, preserving traditions and culture, and paying accordingly, that we support. It is the large-scale, low-wage element of the clothing sector that is a problem.”

Was I right to go there? I think so.

“These are delicate times,” Loro Piana says to me. “But I believe what you have seen is positive and it opens your eyes.”