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.
‘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 ofAfrica’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.
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.”
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.”
The way we travel obsesses Kim Jones. The menswear designer with Louis Vuitton, which started out making trunks, finds inspiration when journeying to the middle of nowhere. He tells Marion Hume what he learns from his 100 or so flights a year.
Luigi Maramotti has strong views on many things, from a distaste for star designer egos, to resisting the ghettoism of fashion, to cheese. The chairman of the Italian cost company Max Mara shows Marion Hume around the company’s small-town headquarters.
The Austalian Financial Review | September 2013
Reggio Emilia, some two hours east of Milan, is renowned for cheese and for coats. The first has the longer history; rich pastures and traditions being behind wheels of salty treasure that have little in common with ready-grated so-called parmesan found at the supermarket. The family behind the coats remains involved in the making of Parmigiano Reggiano too; both requiring skill and time to achieve the sublime. The label on the coats is Max Mara.
“The fabric we use has been left to lie – the whole idea of seasoning the fabric like you do for a cheese – it’s very slow,” says Luigi Maramotti, a man of quiet yet intense passion who is the company chairman (and who also owns a farm). “A lot of people don’t even know that, at the price per ounce, they might even be paying more for a daily cheese than for the best cheese in the world!”
Is it odd that the head of a fashion powerhouse worth some US$1.7bn should be talking – and with some ferocity – about cheese? Maramotti, a long cool drink of water, also holds strong opinions about high speed rail, education, the “greenwashing” that allows big companies to play at being ethical, as well as the challenges of finding artisans at a time of rising unemployment and austerity yet youthful obsession with being a star. He is also absolutely passionate about art (is that a Gerhard Richter to his left?) and is impeccably attired in a beautiful suit.
Handmade where? Max Mara doesn’t do menswear; the brand celebrates the marriage of technology and the human hand in 23 different womenswear labels. So he brushes the question of the provenance of his suit away, instead indicating what he considers perfection. “These chairs,” he gestures, “designed in 1956, finding the perfect balance, it works, still, but it is not obvious, you need the time, the know-how. ‘Classic’ can have newness and excitement, but perhaps not at a glance….”
At a glance, a Max Mara coat is always beautifully fit-for-purpose. That coats are at the core might go some way to explain why the Max Mara Group has been slow to expand in Australia (while Australia is a luxury source of the merino in so many of those coats…). “I’m not trying to compare to Michelangelo and the quality of the marble, but when you see some great merino, great cashmere or a modern fabric with steel inside which keeps the memory of the shape, it is important,” says Maramotti. “Design being born from respect of the fabric, you do the minimum, you don’t over-design. Shouting about design is not how we convey value.”
No hoopla, no designer taking a bow. Each of the Max Mara lines is created by a team, usually comprising long-term company loyalists, a peppering of emerging talent from London design schools with which Max Mara Group has strong links ( and who, mostly, stay a while, then flee small town life) plus big names such as Karl Lagerfeld; Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana; the Roman, Giambattista Valli and from America, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Yet the latter are only acknowledged when they are no longer working for the company. What is the logic of that? Maramotti says that naming them would only build a platform for their egos, “because it is very unlikely they will negate their ego(s)”. Anonymity instead allows fashion stars to, “forge their expertise with ours and that of our technical teams. I accept that, today, there is a common advantage to use the designer as a marketing tool by which you go for a creative vision of an individual who wants to impose that vision on women….” his mouth forms into a moue of distaste. “What underpins us is a respect for women”.
Reggio Emilia is a company town – Max Mara owns the local hotel, a restaurant and many locals drive or bus to work at the nearby Max Mara campus of steel, glass and several thousand trees. But this is not – Maramotti is emphatic – an outpost. “I measure using not geography, but time. There is a beautiful station near here, designed by (Valencian star-chitect) Santiago Calatrava. I can be in Milan in 38 minutes. How far can you travel in London in 38 minutes? My point is centrality or decentrality is a state of mind…”
Certainly, this has to be the world capital of coats. A morning tour of production has been thorough and impressive. The classic 101801 (known since 1981 by a code number, no catchy names here) is a double-breasted camel overcoat of balanced proportions. A navy cashmere parka with voluminous hood, new this season, will look great for years. In other factories, presumably just as hi-tech, millions of items of clothing for women who want to look up with the times, but not up to the minute, are also made and labeled Max Mara, Sportmax, Pianoforte, Pennyblack, Marella, these joined by Max&Co.,for teenage girls.
The current chairman’s great, great grandmother was a 19th century dress maker called Marina Rinaldi, who has had a label named in her honour since the early 70s. “In everything we do, we resist the ghettoism of fashion. Marina Rinaldi has kept a different thinking in our company,” explains Maramotti, this referring to the welcome fact that Marina Rinaldi is a fashionable alternative for curvier, bustier or taller women who do not otherwise appreciate being siloed into a swamp called“plus sized”. Instead, Marina Rinaldi has seasonal collections, stores on London’s Bond Street, Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a Sydney store in Chifley Plaza. “It is politically correct to say size is not an issue yet size in fashion, it’s a kind of a taboo,” says Maramotti. “I’ve met many women in my life who are interesting and at peace with themselves and not a tiny size.”
Time to get personal. Much of my own wardrobe is Marina Rinaldi – expensive yes, long-lasting too. While of course I don’t believe you have to fit the clothes to write about them (then where would I be?) in a rare subjective assessment, I can confirm that white linen pants last for summers, navy wool tunics can go anywhere and T-shirts keep their shape. My challenge is sometimes I haven’t been able to keep my clothes. I haven’t misplaced any of them, I know exactly why they do not return from hotel laundries. I recall a hotel manager, a big boned woman, offering free nights to compensate my “loss” (her gain). As you don’t need many clothes on an island and I had time to spare, both parties were delighted. I have other examples – enough to argue that larger women love great clothes if they can get their hands on them, but enough for now.
When the founder of the Max Mara Group, Achille Maramotti, died in 2005, he left a business in the care of his three children, Luigi, Maria Ludovica (in charge of product development) and Ignazio (managing director) and this has always been a generational, family story (the company remains private and family controlled). Achille started in 1951, in that post-war surge that saw Northern Italy transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy. He was much inspired by the female force in his life, his mother, Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, who, widowed since 1939, had raised four children, funded by her dressmaking school where other young women could gain skills to ensure their independent survival. Achille took a law degree, funded by several jobs including working in a raincoat factory in Switzerland, where he realised that his mother’s craft could be industrialized through a logical system of work. Degree done, he got started, offering useful, attractive clothes to women who had neither the need nor the capital for copies of coquettish Parisian haute couture. The rise of Max Mara is one of classic capitalism, of a man driven by need plus a vision; that creativity could be harnessed profitably to technology. Achille travelled to America where clothes meant the garment industry not a local dressmaker. By the dawn of the 60s, Max Mara production was streamlined to the point that a coat that had taking 18 hours required only two. The company remains is a triumph of technology plus the skills of the human brain and hand (no machine can secure buttons as well as a person can). “Technology helps people repeat best performance for the entire day,” explains Luigi Maramotti. “ Handmade is another legend. It is not true handmade is better than machine. Machines help human beings be the best – you need both. The future, yet the know-how not forgotten.”
Yet the know-how seemingly inherent in the “Made in Italy” label has become complex. “It is a slogan… this idea of democratization of fashion comes from Italy, absolutely. Yet ‘Made in Italy’ can be very frustrating,” Maramotti says, refering to the fact that all one needs to do is put the pieces together in Italy for a garment to earn the prized ‘Made In Italy’ label. “Yet if I design it here, I do prototypes here; that doesn’t count. The central point is, are we, in Italy, capable of keeping alive a heritage that goes back centuries, to the Renaissance, the workshops for ideas?” Another challenge is manning those workshops (with women, the majority of employees). About 20 people in Reggio Emilia retire or relocate each year yet as Italy stumbles through recession, there is no line at the factory gates, despite The Max Mara Group working with the Italian public sector to fund skills training. “This becomes anthropological,” Maramotti muses of the paradox of high unemployment and the lack of apprentices or skilled workers. “You see a lot of young people dreaming of doing things that are much less relevant which they think are better. The values are not perceived correctly. We fight against the perception of ‘blue collar’. I don’t think the major issue is the salary.”
Hardly a casual chat this, for the next subject is sustainability, Maramotti being no fan of external pressures applied by advocacy groups. “There is an entire marketing on these ethical balance sheets,” he sniffs. “I have always opposed this because I prefer to do what works for us. Our power comes from hydro energy, but you don’t make a manifesto, you do the right thing, full stop. The moment it becomes a marketing tool, you are doing something that, ethically, is debatable. I prefer coherence. I know that coherence is boring. Consistency is boring too. But that is the case here.” He warms to the theme, “Some people see a society in which consumption is reduced to a minimum. But because I was trained to look at creativity as part of the growth of an individual, this vision of reducing consumption, making nothing, it is, in a way, offensive to the human intellect. So we have to find a way where we don’t kill ourselves with a model which is sterile.”
Of his own role, of the boss who inherited the top job, he is thoughtful too. “Never separate privileges from burdens, you are just born there, and you have to take what that means,” he muses. “The point is, what are you going to do with that? Absolutely I am privileged. I can think, I can do things. Does that bring responsibility and burdens? That is the question.”
J Brand founder Jeff Rudes wanted to create the perfect pair of jeans. Now, as Marion Hume writes, he is turning the denim brand into a fully fledged fashion label.
The Australian Financial Review | March 2013
Subsequently published in Business of Fashion
Question: What do the queen bee of fashion, the future queen of the realm and the longest-reigning king of rock ‘n roll have in common? Hint: it is not a label you can see on the back of their jeans. This is because J Brand, jeans megalith, a phenomenon so extraordinary it has actually changed what “jeans” means, does not slap a big label on your behind. Call these discrete jeans. If you are old school and right now, in your mind’s eye, you are seeing blue, scratch that. That is not what the editor of American Vogue or Kate Middleton or Mick Jagger are looking for.
Anna Wintour is, one might surmise, exacting aboutwhat she puts on to her slender form. The Duchess of Cambridge faces a long lens even when she pops out to walk Lupo the dog. As for Sir Mick, he embraces the limelight in pants too tight to be decent on any other man about to turn 70 – and he likes it.
Every fashion editor I know wears J Brand. Every movie star – no, really, find one who doesn’t – wears J Brand: Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. So does Rihanna.
How can you tell? That’s when it gets harder. J Brand sells more than two million pairs of jeans a year, yet somehow manages to seem niche in a manner that has most of the other jeans giants scratching their heads.
It is easier to start with what these jeans are not, than with what they are:There are no rhinestones across the buttocks, no signature stitching on the rear, no big envelope pockets, no weird holes, no other identifiable features. The genius of Jeff Rudes, when he set up J Brand back in 2005, was to see the jean not as a vintage item or a homily to Home on the Range or as a grab-attention item, but as a style staple, the central skinny anchor to a fashionable silhouette.
That these are “fashion” jeans not “designer” jeans – despite the input of cutting edge fashion designers Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan, Proenza Schouler as collaborators – needs to be explained. For that, let’s whizz backwards. Jeans were born in the USA. Yes, denim comes de Nimes, from the town in France where indigo dye was pioneered. But it was out west, in the days of the great American pioneers, that an Ashkenazi Jewish merchant named Levi Strauss met a tailor from Riga, Latvia, and fronted up the cash for the latter’s smart idea to make work wear more sturdy by adding metal at the pressure points. The tailor’s name was Jacob Davis, which just goes to show that history favours the investor.
Along with Levis have come as many cowboy brands as you’d find on a cattle ranch. Then came “poor little rich girl” Gloria Vanderbilt, the face – or more specifically, the arse – of the first true designer jeans. As a teenage Brooke Shields was claiming that nothing came between her and her Calvins, over in France, Marithé and Francois Girbaud were throwing pumice stones into the wash and the Japanese were tooling up, as were the Dutch with GStar.
Let’s surge forward now, past sass & bide and Ksubi, and behold something dark and not remotely casual Friday: a “premium” jean. Jeff Rudes, a handsome silver fox in his mid 50s, is a jeans guy. He launched his first jeans line in New York when he was 18, sold it, moved to jeans manufacturing hub Los Angeles, launched another line, sold it, became the king of private label making jeans for other people, stopped, and with a former girlfriend came up with what seemed a very novel concept: jeans that weren’t washed or paint-splattered or destructed or possessed of screamy branding or so baggy you could camp in them. The vision was for clean jeans with the least likely name (the J stands for Jeff). Angelina Jolie liked them.
Then, in 2010, J Brand gave us a non-denim, skinny cargo pant. They sold 300,000 plus pairs of the Houlihan, then discontinued the style while addicts around the world were howling for them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fashion business.
There’s a slight delay in my meeting Jeff Rudes. As my plane lands in LA, his takes off, unavoidable as he is needed in New York for the press conference to announce that the company, whose 2011 net sales were approximately US $124million, has been acquired by the Japanese fashion giant, Fast Retailing. The world’s fourth largest apparel retail company owns labels such as Helmut Lang and Uniqlo and generated global sales for the last fiscal year of ¥928 billion ($9.8 billion). Fast Retailing acquired an 80.1 per cent stake, meaning that Rudes, when I do meet him, is a very happy, very wealthy man.
As Rudes is heading back on the red eye, international sales manager Robert Brown invites me to dinner at Soho House, West Hollywood. We are waiting for the barman to fix our eastern standard cocktails before taking our seats when a man walks in, eyes Brown’s J Brand-clad legs and utters the line: “Are those Tylers? Aren’t they great? I’m wearing the ass out of mine.” I wonder if I have stumbled into a cult.
The postponed interview means time to do significant market intelligence checking out the brand’s positioning (which, yes, translates as hanging around in several smart malls and in Barneys New York on Rodeo Drive). I observe how much the selling of jeans has changed. For women, jeans are now, solidly, a fashion item. Men have taken longer to change gear, simply because men are so brand loyal. When I ask Rudes later who he wishes would switch to J Brand, he bats back: “Brad Pitt”. The PR cuts in: “Brad wears them, Jeff. Remember, riding the motor cycle?”
We meet in his office in downtown LA (worn wood floors, huge American flag), where I am transfixed by a pin-board full of thank you notes from famous people, but there’s no time to linger because he’s heading down to the factory below. J Brand is headquartered just off a freeway ramp in an area best described as gritty. Besides this factory, there are five more, at capacity, producing premium jeans for J Brand, within a
Rudes rubs his hands over bolts of denim. He gives an impassioned speech on the importance of ironing, transfixed as a big guy tackles a seam: “You couldn’t do it with a machine, you wouldn’t be able to press these seams and keep them apart and the distance from both equal. You could easily buy a machine but you lose the integrity.”
The factory is unusual in that the majority of workers are men; the tailors, the pressers. That they just do their thing while the boss is nearby indicates he is nearby all the time. Back upstairs in his office, Rudes is charming, engaged, yet you do get the sense that he wishes there was a trap door under his chair that could just flip him back down to where the action is.
As to the big new business action, he is excited. “We’ve moved very slow and cautious,” he says. “That’s why it took eight years when most brands would have [expanded] sooner. We are very focused on what we are doing.”
The expansion includes pumping up a full ready-to-wear line – tops, coats, jackets – launched quietly last year, with creative director Donald Oliver. From now on, that will be going at full bore. “Now everything will move faster, because the market perception is ‘you guys grew up’.We will be seen as a fashion brand. There will be flagships, there will be growth.”
While other businesses rely on data, fashion fairy tales start with a hunch. The denim market is crowded, was crowded eight years ago when Rudes’ faith was with the opposite of what was “in” at the time. “For us, it was always about dressing a woman in a chic way,” he says. “I had experiences in the jean space and knew it was the moment to change.”
J Brand has pushed skinny as far as anatomically possible (ankle zips help). “We knew who was buying the jeans at the start. Itwas the fashion savvy girl. But aspirationally, we knew it would go more mass because what we saw was, when anyone tried on our jeans, she looked amazing. And who doesn’t want to look amazing?”
The big thing, he says, is jeans are emotional in a manner perhaps only paralleled, for women, by shoes. “I always tell my team we are really selling an emotion. That’s why women want to find a new great pair of jeans all the time, because if something can make you feel and look beautiful and feel sexy – not overtly sexy, but you feel confident and there are compliments – you can remember that.”
It seems Australian women agree with that. “We want instant fashion that looks amazing, fits perfectly, is of superior quality and affordable; J Brand is at the fashion forefront,” says Janine Edwards, head of Edwards Imports, which sells “literally, thousands” of J Brand jeans in Australia each year.
If you fly with fashion, you could die with fashion. Rudes showed considerable brinksmanship by halting the Houlihan juggernaut (search Houlihan on www.jbrandjeans.com and you simply get directed to the current hot style, no mention of discontinued or out of stock). He and his design team also took a punt on a daring combination: bright + skinny – not seen since the disco 80s. And when the catwalks got brighter, they were ready.
“I think it was fall 2010,” Rudes says. “We had bright on our line but they weren’t quite as bright. A light bulb went off and we did BRIGHT. You’ve gotta time it, you might have to store it, then you see how the designers are doing it and say ‘we are going to be part of it’.” But always, there’s the emotion: “When a woman picks up something new, there has to be that trust, ‘I know when I wear it, I look beautiful’.”
Way back in the hippie era, denim was alternative, suits were evil. In terms of sustainability, the story hasn’t quite panned out that way, given cotton is among the most rapacious crops in the world. Rudes faces the corporate social responsibility question with an honesty in admirable contrast to other jeans tsars, who waffle about interesting experiments making cloth out of nettles. “Organic cotton isn’t the difference,” he argues. “What is making a difference is we are transforming our laundries. Everybody is paying attention to the use of water and the chemicals that were being used around the world and should not be part of the manufacturing of jeans.”
Also grabbing attention: advertising campaigns. No boys in their underpants in laundries anymore. J Brand’s ad spend for 2012 topped US $1 million, including media buys in magazines such as Vanity Fair, French Vogue and style.com for slick pictures taken by Craig McDean. Yet for all Rudes’ talk of elevating the jean, it is a mumsy style that has really rocked.
“It’s mid-rise and it is in this soft twill gabardine,” he defends the style that proved the royal Kate has even more kerching! than Kate Moss. “She wore a more conservative, let’s say, skinny. It didn’t really touch you at the ankle, it pulled away a little bit but it’s sold A LOT,” says Rudes,who, no, has not met her and, yes, she paid retail.
As for Sir Mick Jagger, when J Brand launched a men’s line in 2008, it was with two styles, the skinny, called Mick, and the bootleg, called Clint. Eastwood wears them, too. “I always loved The Stones; it’s kind of come full circle now that he is wearing them,” says Rudes. “The call came for the lightest weight denim we make because of the way he moves on stage and has to be comfortable. So it’s got a great stretch, it’s paper-thin, seven ounces, our lightest weight women’s fabric. We never thought of making a men’s garment in that fabric, but when he suggested it, it completely made sense.” J Brand got a credit in the souvenir tour programme.
That thing about fit? When I arrived in the offices, I passed a tall, handsome man. Nothing extraordinary there, plenty of good looking people here. Much later, Rudes is walking me out and we pass an open door and there he is again. “We use the human body,” Rudes explains as the “fit model” nods hello. “It’s about having great pattern-makers and the knowledge of what you want to do with the fit, technically, to make the bum look better and lift and shape it. ”How long will he be here? “Maybe four more hours” says the guy. How often
is he here? “There’s a bunch of us that do this. I’m here maybe three days a week.”
One last thing. Rudes’ “we will be seen as a fashion brand” billboard statement? It’s already happened. As temperatures plummet during New York Fashion Week, clothing to suit an urban life proves a hit. “Women won’t just be buying these clothes; they’ll be wearing the hell out of them, too,” trumpets style.com. Or perhaps “wearing the ass out of them”. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that.
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.”
This man wants to inspire Aussie blokes to embrace fashion. And his targets are not just the urban (and urbane) variety. As Marion Hume discovers, who knew there was a peacock just off the Birdsville Track?
The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013
After the hard yakka of running 12,000 head of beef cattle over 1.6 million acres, Clayton Oldfield pulls on new jeans and heads to the Birdsville Hotel. “For the pub, you want something nice,” he says. The label on those jeans? “Aww, now you’re testing me.” He doesn’t know the label on the new shirt either. Oldfield, 29, was born and raised where the north-east corner of South Australia meets the south-west corner of Queensland. How far is the nearest shop? “Define what you mean as shop.” Twice a year, he drives 1300 kilometres to Adelaide to get what he needs. Then it’s straight back to Sturt Stony Desert: few people, deadly snakes.
Yet he’s been using his broadband connection for more than keeping up with the price of stud bulls. ”Mr Porter’s easy,” he says of the global online menswear retailer. “Once, the jeans were the wrong size. You just let them know you’re sending a parcel back and take it to the post office.” (That’s only a 52-kilometre round trip.)
How did a fourth-generation cattleman get with the fashion scene? “I just look at the design and I go from there,” says Oldfield. “I know what looks good, nothing really outrageous. I like that there’s a lot of stuff there, there’s clothing I might not have tried.” He hits the site “about once a month, once every couple of months”.
It is no empty boast that www.mrporter.com has changed the look of the Aussie bloke, whether it is the urban fanatics trawling late night for Lanvin or Saint Laurent, or the men of the Never Never – off the Birdsville Track or at Yulara, out by Uluru – or even those on Lord Howe Island who like a bit of James Perse for the cool of an evening.
The company does not release figures, but it is understood that sales to Australia rank second behind the UK, where Mr Porter is based, and ahead of the US. It may only be the urban shoppers who lap up the extras: the online magazine, the snazzy apps, the video content, some of it voiced by a fruity-vowelled Englishman (“Cary Grant’s father taught him the art of understatement. Remember it’s you walking down the street, not the socks. Mr Grant never forgot it.”) However, for the far-flung, it’s a style lifeline. “You just wait a couple of weeks and it’s there at the post,” says Oldfield.
Delivery is swifter if you live in a city. At present, it takes three to four days for the Aussie man to get a Mr Porter fix, delivered in distinctive black-lettered white packaging. The first Australian order was received within 30 minutes of the site’s launch on February 19, 2011, and an E. Tautz wool tie embarked on its way to Warracknabeal, in Victoria’s wheat belt. In the first 24 hours of trading, nearly 20 per cent of the international orders were from Australia, three times more than any country outside the UK. In two years, Mr Porter has “grown to an astonishing size compared to where Net-A-Porter was in the same period of time,” says Natalie Massenet, the founder and executive chairman of Net-A-Porter Group. (The Outnet, which sells designer wares from previous seasons, is the third of a trio of distinct offerings.)
To be fair, the foundations were more solid than 13 years ago,when, from her kitchen, Massenet worked out howto use the new fangled internet to flog designer clothes. In 2010,Net-A-Porter Group was acquired by multi-brand giant Richemont in a deal which valued it at £350million ($519million).
While the vastness of Oldfield’s outback backyard deserves the adjective “awesome”, a world away, so too does Net-A-Porter’s global HQ,which sits atop Westfield London. When I last interviewed Massenet (AFR Magazine, December 2010), inside the penthouse office floor, the company she founded occupied a third of the available space. Now, barring a gym in one corner, she has it all.
The group employs more than 2500 people across three continents. In London, plasma screens log global sales live: a man in Cleveland buys a Canali suit, a woman in Stockholm snaps up a shirt by Jil Sander. It’s the middle of the night in Australia, yet suddenly the globe swivels and an icon of a white bag lands on Australia. Last time I was here, the daily sales ticker stood at £455,443. On a January day in 2013, while Washington is headed for a fiscal cliff and London is braced against news of an economic double dip, the figure tops £2.5 million. “Please don’t write that down, a lot of stuff is reduced on sale,” begs the press officer.
It would help to have binoculars to spot Jeremy Langmead across this massive building.Once I reach the man at the helm of Mr Porter,we shake hands in a suitably “man’s world” way, then walk – or rather, hike, given the distance – to Massenet’s corner office,where she flops on the sofa and he perches beside her. Massenet, a former magazine fashion editor, hired Langmead from Esquire magazine. I ask how he is faring, across the barricades in the world of commerce. “Shall I leave the room?” he gestures to the other side of the plate glass. She says he was always the front runner, especially after that other candidate turned up for his interview in shorts. “Shorts!” Massenet hoots. Does Mr Porter not sell shorts? “We do.” Perhaps the candidate hailed from Australia? “He did not.”
Langmead, who was editor-in-chief of Wallpaper for four years before editing UK Esquire, admits he was desperate for the job. “One of the frustrations of being in print magazines was that I wanted to do so much more than I was able to. We had a very small blog budget, £15 a month or something. And I have quite a short attention span.” He was also bored with the pretence of a church-and-state division between editorial and advertising, which – while vital in a publication such as AFR Magazine – makes little sense in fashion glossies, which are pretty much “pay for play”, meaning those who advertise get coverage, those who do not rarely do. “You were featuring things but you were never really sure if readers liked them,” Langmead says. “Here, you know instantly. You can see what they’ve read and what they’ve bought. I like that.”
While he and the woman who hired him clearly share a can-do determination, his is schoolboy eager (although he sports a beard and has two grownup sons); hers still has the nervy feistiness she needed at the beginning to prove the doubters wrong. Theworld’s most glamorous geek exudes not an iota of the puffed-up smugness of a business titan, even though she pocketed £50 million from the Richemont sale; has been awarded an MBE; and is at the start of a five-year pro bono tenure as chairman of the British Fashion Council, the first woman thus anointed,which may very well lead to a trip to the palace and “arise Dame Natalie”.
No resting on laurels now. The fashion world might exalt Massenet, watching her in the front row, copying what she wears, buying whatever device she might pull from her handbag. But this mother of “kids who are BBMing and instant messaging and Instagramming” (she has daughters aged 13 and seven) knows the challenge ahead. In the early days, it was to drag the fashion pack up to speed.Now, it is to outpace a consumer for whom luxury e-tailing has morphed from novelty to normalised.
To this young customer, engagement works two ways. As Massenet recalls: “At the Paris shows, I posted my little black flat Valentino studded shoes on Instagram and within three seconds, someone said, ‘Oh that’s so last season’. By the way, we ordered them like crazy; they’re one of our best sellers, they’re like a cult shoe. I then took my little shredded Converses, that I had brought for the Eurostar ride and put them up and responded back to this person saying, ‘What about this?’ I have no idea who it was, it was an anonymous
post, but it was kind of funny. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s somebody out therewith an opinion’. But I’m happy then to counter them and say, ‘I love those shoes, they’re amazing, they’re flat, women should be wearing them’.”
Similarly,Mr Porter customers keep Langmead on his toes. “If you post, they’ll leave comments,” he says. “I’m always Instagramming and tweeting and Facebooking. You come back from the men’s shows and you have to know what people are ‘liking’,what’s going to sell. Equally, you have to know that lots of people are using you to keep up to date with what’s been happening throughout the day. You get feedback so quickly. You take a picture and within a minute, you have 68 likes.”
“People are making decisions visually,” says Massenet, “which is really good for us because we’re selling visually. People are making their decisions on what to buy based on a picture and ordering it and shipping it and then trying it on. It’s a very different process now. People are processing information in a completely different way.”
The expectations of today’s shoppers are literally sky high; they can load up a custom-made app, get a sneak peek of a new collection, participate in live events (such as the one Net-A-Porter staged with Karl Lagerfeld last year) and buy by scanning images on display in global popup shops. What you saw on Bondi Beach last year was teenagers holding up iPhones and shopping. What you didn’t hear was a voice belonging to anyone under 35 saying, “How the hell do they do that?” (Augmented reality technology, cutting-edge image recognition technology, powered by Aurasma, overlays the virtual world on the real world environment through a device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet. Got that?)
Net-A-Porter is about fashion, full speed ahead. Mr Porter’s tone is different: it meanders, taking time to teach chaps what’s what, yet it is underpinned by the same whizzbang, ever-updated technology. And while it may appear obvious that a business so successful at selling to women would expand into menswear, success with both in the bricks-and-mortar world has been rare and usually started with the boys. Ralph Lauren sold ties; Thomas Burberry sold trench coats for soldiers.
“It’s distinct. On Net-A-Porter, it is about ‘You have to have this. Don’t even think about leaving the house without it.’ Whereas for Mr Porter . . .” Massenet looks to Langmead. “The words ‘must have’ are totally banned. We work hard at creating an online world where men feel comfortable, whether they are there to shop, browse, or just be inspired.”
It’s somewhat like being looked after by the Downton Abbey butler: studiously polite yet sometimes raising an eyebrow. An entry under style icons reads, “Although the list of his other virtues is short, the Duke of Windsor is widely considered to be the best-dressed man of the 20th century and his clothes were exemplary in many ways.” When it comes to casual attire: “Seen here performing with Nirvana in 1991, Mr Kurt Cobain underscores the sweatshirt’s rock star appeal.” One starts to imagine that the man who frequents Mr Porter must be equally sophisticated – the type of guy to drive a girl around the Riviera in a sport car – while, in truth, he’s more likely to pull out his phone and add a Rag & Bone T-shirt to his wish list during dinner.
“I think men were not so much waiting for internet shopping to happen but waiting for a dedicated style site that spoke to them, their lifestyle, their interests and their needs,” Langmead says. “They were certainly adept at shopping online for other areas in their lives. We can be quite geeky as a gender.” The expectations too, differ from the sister site.
There’s the understanding that a sale might not be final. On the one hand, when a man finds something he likes, he’ll want more of the same and inventory is held to facilitate restocking. The female customer, in contrast, will have moved on, not to the next thing but the one after that. If our gent tries something and it doesn’t suit, returns – as on the sister site – are free with tags intact. To mitigate against wear and return “the tags are located in quite an uncomfortable place”, notes Langmead.
This duo is not remotely surprised that Australia is playing a leading role in Mr Porter’s success, especially as Australian women were fast off the mark. (The first order on Net-A-Porter from Australia was within 12 months of the June, 2000 launch, back in the day when few had faith in fashion online.) “Thanks to the internet, the Australian consumer has, I believe, become far more knowledgeable, confident, experimental and savvy about style. It’s an exhilarating period for menswear at the moment,” says Langmead. “The online retail landscape has allowed him to be a lot more selective and it is a natural process for him. We certainly see a very fashion-forward guy buying the likes of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Lanvin from Australia.”
Langmead’s own style is not especially adventurous, despite the red socks he’s teamed with brogues. “We actually just did a video on the trends in Paris and we were looking at socks. They’re quite cheery.” He brand checks: “Loro Piana washed cotton, chambray shirt, Alexander Olch check, wool twill tie, Canali Kei slim-fit, unstructured, cotton- blend blazer.” He also wears trousers but does not name check them because he’s moved on to the bracelets. “Luis Morais. Small diamonds and white gold in the middle.”
“That was the first item to sell out on Mr Porter,” says Massenet. Langmead adds: “It’s extraordinary how many businessmen wear these. Loads of finance guys wear beads on their wrists.” Even in Australia? “They fly out.” So what of the three neon tangerine bands that hang loose from Massenet’s dainty wrist? “Hairbands; put hair in a ponytail instantly,” she demonstrates. Ah, but trust her to have a dime-store product in a hard-to-get colour. Her outsized top is Les Chiffoniers. “We’re really in love with the sweatshirt right now,” she says. “This is a couture sweatshirt look plus inky black jeans by Frame Denim and Alexander Wang wedge boots,which are very cool and I can run in them.”
The skill, they say, is in the curation. In the vast gentleman’s closet that is Mr Porter, a sweatshirt featuring a shark might coexist (but never be worn with) a Charvet tie (the French firm was founded in 1838). “It’s that balance of taste and desire and just getting it right overall,” says Langmead. Massenet’s view is: “We’re not trying to be the world’s biggest super store. Our value add is that we edit what we believe in. We make sure we are the partners to our consumers in terms of taste.”
Massenet used to be the fashion chick at the geek show. Although she remains the designers’ champion, today it is technology that ignites her. “Within two years, everyone will be looking up again,” she predicts. “You’ll have the messages going in your field of vision so you don’t have to move your head down. There will be a single device for everything. You will have your desktop within a mobile and you’ll connect to TV screens, movie screens, as well as the ability to make a purchase or identify yourself across all platforms with a single
click,which will be mind-blowing.”
The only bit I really grasp is that it is all coming within two years and I have learnt not to doubt Natalie Massenet.
Langmead proffers me a parting gift I am better placed to understand. “The inky incarnation of Mr Porter,” he says, sliding across a book, The Manual for a Stylish Life, printed on sensuous vellum stock. Massenet grabs it. “Look, all the images downloaded instantly,” she says with a straight face. “And you can flick seamlessly from one page to the next!”
“How clever of you, Mr. Parkinson, also to know that pink is the navy blue of India,” the legendary fashion maven, Diana Vreeland told the great photographer Norman “Parks” Parkinson when he returned from the City Palace, Jaipur, India with a picture of Anne Gunning in a pink mohair coat tanding next to a decked-up elephant manned by guards in pink.
The model in the picture taken in tribute by photographer Antony Horth in January 2013 was the glorious Bollywood star, Pallavi Sharda, decked in diamonds from Australia’s Argyle.
But when she ducked off to change into Dior, I had to sneak in next to a supermodel guaranteed to make me look small. The bunch of kids didn’t miss their chance either.
A lovely memory of a lovely trip to India with Argyle diamonds.
While those distinctive watches, cosmetics, fragrances and accessories have been available in Australia for decades, Sydney’s luxury precinct is readying itself for the imminent arrival of the country’s first Christian Dior flagship boutique. The antipodes has nevertheless had its share of close encounters with the house’s very famous founder, as Marion Hume relates.
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.’ ”
When it comes to celebrity endorsement, you can’t top Marilyn Monroe. The story behind master shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, his muses and the legacy.
The Australian Financial Review Magazine | August 2012
by Marion Hume
Today, brands bleat and tweet of free product worn by stars who are often paid handsomely for the exposure. Yet Salvatore Ferragamo, headquartered in Florence, is in possession of rare relics: a pair of receipts, dated March 11, 1961, which record a salesman called George at the Park Avenue, New York shoe salon, taking orders for 16 pairs of shoes and a white calfskin bag. In return, the most famous woman in the world wrote cheques totalling $US563.30.
These were far from Marilyn’s first Ferragamos. In the 1950s, Salvatore pushed his heel height up to 11 centimetres specifically to add more wiggle to the bombshell’s walk, although she was hardly his only star client. A glittering role call flocked to be shod by this messiah of the metatarsal who was utterly obsessed by their feet. “They [these feet] talk to me. As I take them in my hands, I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failings,” he wrote in his autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, published in 1957.
This rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches life story features (literally) walk-on parts from such silver screen icons as Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson – although the shoemaker was far less intrigued by them from the ankle up. Then later, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, showed up, flanked by goose-stepping Nazi guards. (“Good, normal feet and anything would fit her,” he noted). Predictably, he praised by podiatry, so tiny-toed Vivien Leigh was a ‘Cinderella’, longlimbed Greta Garbo was an ‘aristocrat’ and Marilyn, possessed of perfectly proportioned size 37 feet, was ‘Venus’.
It is 50 years since the avatar of the American dream died. Yet a master craftsman called Stefano Frasconi is holding a pump in soft white lambskin, a near replica of the one Marilyn ordered many times – in white, nude, black, gold. As Frasconi holds a shoe that is yet to meet its heel, he is struggling to explain – through a translator and a mouthful of nails – what makes it special. But just like the company founder, any celebrity connection seems to be a sideline to him. Instead, Frasconi repeats “calzata perfectamente” (perfect fit), emphasising with sharp taps of a little hammer. He keeps pulling at the leather, pre-soaked for days to provide flexibility, then jumps up and puts the shoe in a customised oven, before stretching its leather upper again and banging it with the hammer.
In close-up, this scene, playing out at the Ferragamo atelier on the outskirts of Florence, may seem somewhat anachronistic: the shoemaker hunched over a low bench spread with tools not dissimilar to those Salvatore himself might have used when he started making shoes commercially in 1906, aged 13. (He had made his first shoes, for his sisters, when he was only nine). But luddite practices, however charming, don’t account for a company that is listed on the Milan stock exchange and has 593 stores worldwide. The organisation posted total revenues for the first quarter of 2012 of €259.6 million ($305.5 million). WHile skills of human eye and hand helped, state-of-the-art machines aided the production of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, as well as clothing, luggage, small leather goods, eyewear, scarves, ties, timepieces, fragrance and handbags, made elsewhere in Italy.
Widening the focus reveals our location to be a vast, slick, industrial set-up known as Manovia, after the Italian word for circular ‘rail’ system, which here moves shoes from one production process to the next. Yet this, too, traces directly back to the founder, whose experiment with a mechanised production line that would still preserve the exacting standards of custom-made shoes was so ahead of its time, it lead to his 1933 bankruptcy.
Salvatore certainly bounded back. By the 1940s, the peasant boy from a family that had struggles for survival on a small holding was the proud owner both if Il Palagio, a sumptuous hillside villa outside FLorence that is still a family home, and a castle, complete with ramparts, right in the heart of the renaissance city. Palazzo Feroni remains the company’s headquarters. When Salvatore died suddenly in 1960, he left a much younger wife, Wanda, six children and a truly international business. Since then, it is the 90-year-old matriarch, ‘Mrs Wanada’, who still turns up for work every morning and who has preserved his legacy.
To avoid confusion, it is Ferragamo company policy to call family members by their first name, preceded by ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. Hence the 67-year-old Ferruccio, who is chairman of the company, is dubbed Mr Ferruccio. His siblings – Mrs Giovanna, Mrs Fulvia, Mr Leonardo and Mr Massimo – all have key roles. (The eldest daughter, Fiamma, who designed the best-selling flat Vara pump with its gold plaque and grosgrain ribbon, dies in 1998).
Given there are 60 direct heirs, not only is there no room at the family firm for them all but a wise and stringent charter decrees that only the top three from each subsequent generation are welcome. The most visible of the third generation,in part because of his matinee idol looks, is 40-year-old Mr James, who is women’s leather product director. The first of the fourth generation to hit 21, Lorenza Gentile, has not yet fulfilled the minimum requirements even to apply: an MBA and several years experience work elsewhere.
When Mr Ferruccio sits down to chat over a rocket-fuel espresso at the palazzo, he says that what locks everything together is “quality products that are good value for what they are; with innovation, long-lasting”. This sounds much like many other brands, but he adds that the difference is: “We don’t want to ever overcome the personality of the customer.” Evidence can be found directly below us, in the mirrored shoe salon at street level. The Viatica is a timeless two-tone stiletto of white suede and black calf. That Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Sugar’ Kane Kowalczyk wore this exact style to woo her Shell Oil millionaire in Some Like it Hot starts to matter note more but, strangely, less, once these lovely shoes are beckoning one’s own feet. Which is to say, you yearn for them to be yours, not hers.
What lies beneath remains the same, then and now. The soul of Ferragamo – pun intended- is the sole. The founder- who lied in Italy, then America, then returned to Italy – was studying anatomy at night school in Los Angeles just as architects on Americana’s east coast were realising that they could build skyscrapers taller with less load-bearing structure at the base. Similarly, Salvatore surmised that, as the weight of the erect human body is borne not by toes or heels but drops straight down on the arch, a revolutionary steel arch support would act with the equilibrium of the body in motion instead of fighting against it. This slim plate remains central to comfort. No wonder that (whisper it) both the queen of the red carpet, Angelina Jolie, and the queen of all she surveys, HRH Elizabeth II, are believed to be loyal, paying customers.
That Ferragamo also offers a wide range of fittings (A to D, others on special order) has helped gather fans in the brand’s most robust market, China. There widths C and D are hte most common, which has ripped up other luxury shoemakers offering styles of a narrow French foot and who may also have faced an additional anatomical barrier: purveyors of very high-heeled ‘limo shoes’ find these cannot adapt to the average length of the chinese foot without the wearer being en point like a ballerina. That said, Chinese movie star, Fan Bingbing does favour towering Ferragamos. THese are custom-made, their height achieved with extraordinary platforms. As for Australian feet, Salvatore has this to say about them when he visited Sydney in 1958: “Nature has been generous in length though they, too, are narrow.”
The Asia Pacific region is the group’s top market in terms of revenue, up 27.3 per cent with a turnover of 96.4million for the first quarter of 2012. A further reason is menswear, attractive to a market where men tend to embrace luxury goods before they treat their wives. For Salvatore Ferragamo himself it was making books for men that led to his breakthrough American success. Salvatore made his mark in the American motion picture industry, before i relocated from Santa Barbara to Hollywood, with cowboy boots for early Westerns. From then on, he always shod male feet. (“Mussolini lost his corns and bad toenails after he wore my boots,” is just one comment n the subject).
The founder’s sons, Mr Ferruccio and Mr Leonardo, first stood on the Bund in Shanghao when they past was mud their feet. The brand debuted with a store in the city in 1994 (with local partner, Imaginex). Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci are between two and six times bigger than Ferragamo, yet in China this pioneer consistently marches ahead and is present in 34 cities. Company CEO Michele Norsa has no fears of brand saturation in China. “Not at all, we worked with McKinsey on a fiveyear plan,” he says. “We imagine in the next three to five years, we can cover another 10 to 20 cities probably. The potential of new destinations in China connected by trains, flights, infrastructure development is becoming very substantial.”
Norsa – known by his surname because he is an outsider, the first non-family member to hold a keymanagerial position – was hired in 2007, primarily to put in place the organisation and governance to gear up the company for an IPO, which was delayed by the 2008 crash and accomplished successfully last year. He says that Chinese customers in Beijing and Shanghaimay travel to avoid high duties and taxes,which has helped make Australia “one of the best markets in the world this year for us”.
The shoesmust bemade in Italy, “one of our pluses”, insists Mr Ferruccio, “for the name, the best quality and also, as commitment to those who have worked at Ferragamo for many years.” As to his nation’s economic woes, the company chairman adds: “I am sorry because there are many elements which are uncertain. We are fortunate because we produce 100 per cent in Italy, butwe sell, I think, 9 per cent in Italy.”
The founder’s three sons and the next generation have significant other interests. Mr Ferruccio’s son Salvatore Ferragamo II, twin of Mr James, helms their father’s parallel hotel and wine business, based in a medieval hamlet about 45 minutes’ drive from Florence. Closer to Siena is an 800year old winery and hotel, Castiglion del Bosco, owned by Mr Massimo and family. The most ambitious other business is surely Mr Leonardo’s.He is chairman and owner of Lungarno Collection, a luxury hotel group, with seven of the swankiest places to stay around Florence and another in Rome. He also owns the majority of Nautor’s Swan, the largest global producer of luxury yachts.
Today, the core business is ring-fenced against hostile threats like those endured by the part family-owned Hermès. Salvatore Ferragamo SpA is ripe for further growth (Norsa cites Jakarta and Berlin as examples) and a dynasty’s long view means thatMr James has been able to continue the inventiveness of a grandfather who tried sweet wrappers, fishing wire and tree bark as shoe uppers. He innovates in a sustainable context, while admitting that a 100 per cent biodegradable handbag (nometal parts) has yet to find broad appeal.
“In my father’s autobiography, in a way you can tell he felt his life was going to be short,” says Mr Ferruccio. “Perhaps we have tried to accomplish what he wanted to do”. But let’s not forget Mrs Wanda, born just four years before Marilyn Monroe and still standing ramrod straight in her Ferragamo heels. It is the matriarch who greets guests for cocktails after they have visited Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed within the cavernous palazzo for an exhibition dedicated to the icon (Marilyn runs to January 28, 2013).
“When Daddy passed away, [my mother] knew how to make children but not shoes,”Mr Ferruccio says. “Yet she has lived her life with the desire of continuing the business”.
Indeed, Mrs Wanda, long ago a teenage bride, deserves much of the credit for a sometimes glamorous, sometimes gruelling journey of this brand born of a fascination with feet.