A Lesson Learned

A gaggle of women in full-on African dress were utterly perplexed by a moving staircase going up to the stars. One gingerly places a foot on a tread, shrieked and fled.

AFR | August 2011

by Marion Hume 

Before reaching air-side at Kenyatta International Airport, I was halted at a security desk manned by those doing something most unusual for their rather serious job; they were giggling. It’s true the scene ahead was, in a purely slapstick sense, rather funny. A gaggle of women in full Africna dress were utterly perplexed by a moving staircase going up to the stars. One gingerly places a foot on a trend, shrieked and fled. Another started slapping the rubber handrail as if it were a snake she must kill to stop it moving-at which point the immigration official who had raised his arm to stamp my exit visa bit into his sleeve to stop himself laughing out loud.

Passport stamped at last, I walked towards the high escalator and stepped on to it to gasps of astonishment. Next, a young girl was behind me, shrieking with glee. “See, it’s OK,” I said, before raising my right leg slowly , indicating how to step off again. While I was running late for the Nairobi-London night flight, I hung around just long enough to see others of the group emerge over the top from what. by the look on their delighted faces, has been the ride of their lives.

We all travel so much these days, it’s a struggle to remember our own first time. But to travel, to transit your fist airport, to fly, when you come from a country mired in poverty, is an even more extraordinary thing. Of course not even Kenyan is poor- far from it- but my sense was these women were certainly not Nairobi cosmopolitans. By the time they reached the top of the escalator, their eyes were sparkling with both astonishment and a sense of achievement. They’d conquered something and they hadn’t even left the country.

Still, one must always be wary of stereotyping. I recently worked with a Kenyan cameraman who told me how an international director had shown him some footage shot by his foreign team. Seeing a filthy little toddler digging in the mud with a stick, the cameraman suggested it might not be a great idea to use that sequence but was ignored.

Months later, a mother watching her flat screen TV was furious when she spotted her son being used in one of those bulletins urging us to flex out credit cards for charity. “Don’t those people’s kids ever sit in the yard?” she shouted. (That, and demanding to know why, when the images of kids from rich countries are protected, no one though to so much as ask whether a mother might be equally protective of her little boy). The cameraman said he’d heard that parents in New York and London have become so scared, they never let their kids just be kids, sitting in the sun digging for worms.

Wherever my escalator ladies were headed, I hope there are people to guide them through the subtleties of their new location. For while I was only able to teach them the not wildly complicated skill of how to ride an escalator, what they gave me in exchange was more profound.

If we are lucky in our working lives, we are forever fronting up to new experience. Yet sometimes, I know that makes me nervous and now I now realise that the terminology we use is partly to blame. Why would I relish risking going ‘out on the wire’ when I lack the balancing skills of a circus performer? But stepping on to an escalator, going up? I can do that. So from now on, I’m going to remember the Kenyatta escalator ladies when I need reminding that the new isn’t always to be feared. It can be fun.

Green Dreamer – Ilaria Venturini Fendi – W

Green Dreamer


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

By Marion Hume

W | July 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Estate of the Art-Collezione Gori

Estate of the Art – Collezione Gori

by Marion Hume

In the gardens of a Tuscan manor house, an inspiring collection by modern masters. TUSCANY There is, of course, an abundance of celebrated art in Tuscany, but the experience of looking at it amidst jostling crowds is rarely tranquil. And what if your taste is for something more modern?

Collezione Gori is a rare treat: a private collection of art beautifully displayed in some 24 hectares of parkland surrounding a grand Tuscan manor called Celle. The estate displays some 70 works designed precisely for their surroundings by artists including Anselm Kiefer, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Richard Serra. The collection was started by Giuliano Gori, who acquired the old mansion in the Tuscan hills between Florence and Pistoia, in the 1970s and set about inviting artists to come to Tuscany, absorb the atmosphere, choose where they would like to see a creation displayed and then be funded to make that happen.

Entry to Collezione Gori is free, but the days of turning up at the gates on a bicycle and be let in are long gone. Today, you must write to the gallery well in advance- although the good news, as the collection prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2012, is that there will be more summer open days than in the recent years. Current artworks include a house of mirrors by Daniel Buren, a bamboo pathway to infinity and a couple of giant eggs.

Now structural renovations are complete, it’s also possible to enjoy the seventeenth century chapel, historic fountains and stonework in the garden next to the house. As well as modern installations – keep eyes peeled for the  Marta Pan and two Dani Karavan works- other treats include a number of 19th century whimsies such as an aviary, a tea house and an Egyptian monument. The landscaping, inspired by the English stately homes, includes two small lakes with crags and a waterfall. Amid all this is the unmissable My Sky Hole by Bukichi Inoue. Set in the olive grove, it sets visitors on a meditative journey through an outdoor corridor, down an underground tunnel and back up a spiral staircase into the light of a large glass cube.

For details on how to apply for a visit go to goricoll.it and allow at least six weeks notice. 

The Secrets of Zara’s Success – The Daily Telegraph

The Secrets of Zara’s Success

Classy, well-tailored, cheap-and ethical. Can the world’s favorite clothing store do no wrong?

by Marion Hume 

The Daily Telegraph | June 22nd 20011

How do we love thee, Zara? Let us count the ways. Some numbers make a good place to start: a company founded on just €30 is now worth an estimated €32 Billion. Last week its parent company, Inditex, of which Zara represents over 60 percent, declared an 11 percent rise for the first quarter to €2.96 billion.

Translated, Zara was coining it while other retailers spent January to March moaning about recession and rising production costs. Next quarter’s financials look set to be more spectacular, if the response to the £49.95 blue dress worn by the Dutchess of Cambridge after her wedding is anything to go by.

So why do those as diverse as Kate and the business brains at Harvard which recently commissioned a study of the brand love Zara? Here’s a top 10.

1 The designs work in normal life.

Walk into a Zara. See anything you like? Thought so. A bug reason for this is that there is no Zara “style” – its appeal is broad. Yet you won’t find everyone else in the office in the same dress, and here lies the first clue to its supremacy. Although Zara may run  up 30,000 copies of an item, supply is spread thinly over its 5,157 stores in 81 countries, plus its online shop. Scarcity plus realistic design equals kerching! at the cash till. 

2 Fast Response to city-specific trends

A new white jacket arrived at the Manhattan flagship store. But customers passed, telling sales staff that New Yorkers prefer cream. A system is in place for retail staff to transmit such information straight to the design team at Arteixo, a tiny town in north-west Spain. Within a fortnight, a much bigger consignment of cream jackets had been dispatched to become a sell-out on 42nd street.

3 It’s mass with class

That Zara has its headquarters in Spain is significant. While influences are global, Spanish customers have always liked curvy cutting to flatter a proud bearing. The result is that Zara tailoring seems higher quality than other in this price range (blazers start at around £49.99), and styles are on-trend as opposed to too trendy.

4 A signifier of stylish city

A Zara store opening signifies a city has arrived sartorially. “Thank God, we won’t be a third-world fashion country any more,” said a Sydney- residing fan at the first Australian opening in April. Such was the delight down under that crowd control barriers had to be maintained for weeks. Those in Cape Town, Taipei and Lima may be equally excited.

5 Intrigue…

Just as consumers are driven by scarcity, so the press is intrigued  by the greatest fashion story never told. Inditex founder Amancio Ortega, 75, the son of a railwayman who is now rated as the ninth richest man in the world, has never given an interview- and probably never will. Next month, he hands over to his equally taciturn second-in-command, Pablo Isla.

6 A Brilliant brand name 

Those launching brands seek short, sharp names that work in every language. Yet this four-letter word was an accident. From 1963, Ortega’s company, which manufactured nightwear, was called Confecciones GOA (Amancio Ortega Gaona’s initials backwards). In 1975, he started to sell direct to public through a little shop in La Coruña and decided to call it Zorba. But the owner of a nearby bar of the same name protested. A new name had to come from the letter moulds already cast. Ironically, Spain is the only country in which Zara is pronounced not “Zah-rah” but “Tha-ra”.

7 The Green Frock

Inditex ups its eco rating by using wind turbines and solar power in its headquarters. Recaptured energy is even redirected into the steamers that press every garment. Items are despatched in battered boxes, which are reused and then recycled. Bicycles are provided for workers to whizz around inside vast warehouses.  Green, yes- but is also makes good business sense because it saves money.

8 Seductive, sustainable store design 

Store design is really working when you are too busy shopping to notice. Zara stores are built to seem airy and light-even on a busy Saturday-while the current in-store look, closely inspired by Prada, is for squadrons of mannequins gathered together to show off the season’s many looks. To decide on how its global stores should appear, Inditex tests entire “streetscapes” of prototypes for new-look Zara stores within a vast hanger at Arteixo. The radical Rome store, the prototype for all new builds, is on target to receive a platinum standard in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a seal of sustainable architecture that is one of the most demanding of its kind.

9 A hooray from Harvard

The ultimate business plaudit is a study by Harvard business school. What do the money men love? That Zara turns the fashion system, which usually starts with the whim of a designer, on its head, by putting the customer at the heart of a unique business model. But there is a downside: for this model to thrive, Zara’s “designers” are strongly “inspired” by the creations of others, who are neither acknowledged nor paid. Not for nothing had Daniel Piette, fashion director of Louis Vuitton, described Zara as “the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world”.

10 Ethics Appeal 

Inditex is intelligent in its generosity to charity. Following the Haiti earthquake, Inditex sent €2 million of emergency reconstruction relief as cash, not clothes. You might think that those who have lost everything need clothes, but as a result of other fashion giants sending these, local clothing industries have never recovered, leading to a greater dependency on aid, rather than trade.

In Spain, some stores’ employment practices make it possible for those with mental and physical disabilities to join the workforce.

But let’s hold back on awarding Zara that tenth love point for now; a somewhat murky supply chain makes all fast-fashion tough to love. Potentially vulnerable garment workers manning sewing machines in countries such as Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. In Zara’s favor, though, much of its production is in factories it owns in Spain, meaning it can guard against the scary labour practices that haunt the high street.

However, you can help by letting them know how much that matters and even that you are prepared to pay a little more and wait a little longer to ensure fashion is fairer.

Remember how they listen to customers asking for cream jackets? Use that system to ask for clean jackets at the cash till or via zara.com. You could also suggest that Zara provides “swing tags” that detail your garments journey to you.

Why would the world’s biggest fashion force care what you think? Because Inditex has conquered by putting the customer at the care of the story. Do speak up.


This Flower’s Power

This Flower’s Power

Departures | June 2011

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

By Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

Yohji Yamamoto – Sunday Telegraph

Sunday Telegraph Fashion Magazine | 20th March 2o11

Yohji Yamamoto

by Marion Hum

The question is not why is Yohji Yamamoto the subject of a major fashion retrospective at the V&A this spring, but what took so long?

For it is now 30 years since Yohji (always called Yohji, not Yamamoto by fashion insiders), along with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, stormed the bastions of French fashion. It was shocking.

To say one is “shocked” can be used casually in fashion-speak these days. But in March 1981, the front row set were truly appalled. They were, already, in a jumpy mood before the first Yohji Yamamoto show began.  The chill wind of President Mitterand’s newly elected socialist regime was blowing through the silken corridors of Paris fashion, where the motto is rarely Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, but at least they expected to be on somewhat familar ground, to see more of the coquettish frills and furbelows of the likes of Valentino and Ungaro. Instead what they were confronted with was oversized, flawed, monochromatic, flat-heeled, gender neutral, asymmetrical, shabby looking clothes.  “Is there a “yellow peril” on the horizon?” thundered  Le Figaro. Not a line one could get away with now.

While the first to be accused of “Holocaust chic”, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo were not the first Japanese designers on the Paris fashion scene. Hanae Mori had established a gracious reputation for neat little suits, Kenzo had made his Jungle Jap shows into extravaganzas, Issey Miyake had been showing in Paris since 1973. But the storm caused by Yamamoto and Kawakubo didn’t die down, it got more fierce. By 1983, Le Figaro was still raging. telling readers,  “this miserable-ism is not for you. Neither are these patched garments, nor these new rags, nor these fabrics tied hastily as tatters. Nor all this funereal black. Nor the livid make-up of decomposed women. A snobbism of rags that  presents the future in a bad way.”

From the beginning, the British were more curious. Joan Burstein of Browns and the late Joseph Ettedgui of Joseph were quick to see the possibilities of the new wave. (Browns landed Comme des Garcons, the Joseph stores carried Yohji). British fashion students, who back then would travel by coach and ferry to Paris and beg, borrow or steal tickets to shows, were also early fans. Some recall finding their way to Yohji’s Paris studio after the first show and being shown textures and shapes completely new to the West. British Vogue also soon realised this was the aesthetic of the future, praising the designers of the “International East” “for their noblesse oblique, thunderstruck colour, marvellous new manipulations of print and texture.”

Part of the savagery of the initial reaction from the old guard must be attributed to the prejudice of those just one generation away from war. As for Yohji Yamamoto himself, he is defined by the circumstances of his birth, to a widowed mother, who would work 16 hours a day to raise him. In 1987, he said this in an interview with Sally Brampton, then one of the UK’s leading fashion scribes, now an agony aunt;  “The reason my clothes (are the way they are) is because I have given up, because I desire nothing. Some people try to relate that to Buddhism but it has nothing to do with it. It is hard to appreciate what I say unless you were born in Tokyo in 1943 when the war was destroying everything. Success came just by chance. I never wanted anything. Like most of my generation  in Japan, I didn’t want to do anything or be anyone, so I started to help my mother in her dress shop. I hated it.”

A lifelong love of rock n roll might seem to sound a lighter note (and led to a bizarre show where male models walked to “Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog” played on a bazooka), yet Yohji himself has been somber about  “Americanization.”  “We were fed American products but at a certain age you start realizing things. The problem was, who are the Japanese people?” he has said. “It is very difficult, even for us, to find out”.

Yet as time has gone on, Yohji has also, brilliantly and surprisingly, explored the aesthetic of Paris, where he sets up home for weeks every season (his mother comes too, to cook for him). Having first fought against the richness of haute couture, latterly he has subverted it. Who can forget Yohji’s catwalk bride with a gown so huge it swept the notebooks off the laps of those in the front row?

For all the memorable catwalk sensations, most of  Yohji’s creations are rather plain, often navy and in industrial gaberdine which makes them seasonless. The same women who would not be seen dead in last season’s Prada happily boast of wearing “20 year old Yohji”, which explains why there is so little trade in Yohjis on the vintage market.

What his clothes have always explored is feminism. Never interested in coquettish appeal,  his woman is always strong, although as he has concurred, “Most men do not like strong, independent women with their feet on the ground. Men don’t want women to be outstanding…. When women try to be real people there is tremendous pressure against them. I’d like to say hang on, keep trying.”

To do so, wearing timeless Yohji is a pleasure.

It’s a Wrap – Diane von Furstenberg – Australian Financial review

AFR | April 2011

It’s a Wrap

by Marion Hume 

Diane von Fürstenberg has started a business, sold a business, started again, been a worldwide fashion phenomenon not once, but twice, appeared on the cover of Newsweek. She has dressed Michelle Obama, advocated for women’s rights, presided over the Council of Fashion Designers of America, married, divorced, married . . . Let’s stop there, because it’s exhausting. But there’s one thing she will never do: design for men.

For von Fürstenberg, who now has her first Australian store at Westfield Sydney, everything comes back to women; being a woman, dressing women, helping to give a voice to women around the world. Which is not – let’s get this clear – to say that Diane von Fürstenberg (often shortened to DvF) has any dislike of men. Or they of her. Before we get into a private – and all signs indicate, highly lucrative – company, a few examples first of female force.

Example 1. A conference, the room airless, the delegates bored. DvF prowls to the podium and, as deeply un­PC as this sounds, it is as if the embodiment of sexual energy has taken control of the room. People are mesmerised, twitchy. It is an extraordinary moment.

Example 2. I am interviewing a chief executive at Claridge’s, the top London hotel, to a background of the gentle clatter of porcelain teacups on saucers. DvF enters, the sedate salon goes silent. Everyone – EVERYONE – turns to watch her go by. “She’s like a panther,” swoons my business titan, to the air, not to me, as the raven­haired beauty in heels passes our table. Did I mention von Fürstenberg is 64 and a grandmother?

“I do use my female power,” she says when, some months later I’m in New York, sitting across the desk from cheekbones that have sunk a thousand ships. It’s the day after her fashion show, which was full of wearable, bright, practical pieces designed by the brand’s creative director, Yvan Mispelaere, a Frenchman who is ex­Chloe, ex­Gucci.

Von Fürstenberg’s role these days is as mentor to the company built in her image. As to that, while she has utterly embraced the can­-do American dream, her look is old world, sultry (un­Botoxed), alluring. “I have always used my power. I used it when I was tiny as well,” the Belgian-­born fashion icon, who speaks four languages fluently, is saying. “We all have that power. I have never met a woman who is not strong. Sometimes they hide it. Sometimes they have a husband, brother, father who puts the lid on them but, then, when it is needed, the strength comes out.”

She was born in Brussels on New Year’s Eve, 1946, to a Moldavian refugee father and a mother who, just 18 months before, had been liberated from a Nazi camp weighing just 22 kilos and who was not expected to live, much less bear a child whom she would raise to face life head­on.

Diane, with a mop of brunette curls in an age of blondes, grew up smart, went to Geneva to study economics, met Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, married him, moved to New York as one partner of that era’s ‘it’ couple, had two babies back ­to­ back and, from an initial investment of $US30,000, was a tycoon heading up an empire with combined retail sales from clothes, licences, fragrance and cosmetics topping $US60 million before her children started school.

“The minute I knew I was about to be Egon’s wife, I decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her deserts,” is how she explains all that.

Her idea, a simple jersey dress that wraps around the body and ties over the hip, was not original – American designer Claire McCardell had explored similar sartorial territory in the 1940s. Yet von Fürstenberg’s dresses, manufactured by a friend in Italy in graphic prints and with a clingy, jersey sexiness, plugged straight into the ’70s zeitgeist. Being Princess Diane of Fürstenberg helped.

The legendary editor­in­chief of US Vogue, Diana Vreeland, was among the first wooed. “I think your clothes are absolutely smashing. I think the fabrics, the prints, the cut are all great. This is what we need,” she wrote on April 9, 1970, as von Fürstenberg herself posed in a signature wrap dress, leaning against a white cube on which she had scrawled, “Feel like a woman. Wear a dress”.

Her marriage collapsed as the business grew and, by 26, she was a single working mother (although she remained close to Egon and was at his side when he died in 2004). By 1976, she was on the cover of Newsweek, in virtually the same wrap dress Michelle Obama would wear on the White House lawns 34 years later. (“That’s what you call staying power!” says von Fürstenberg). By day, wherever she went, women would stop to tell her of turning points in their lives when they were wearing her label. By night, she relished walking alone into legendary nightclub Studio 54 to hang out with Mick and Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent and Halston.

Hers was, she recalls in her 1998 autobiography, Diane: A Signature Life, the life of the huntress. “Men had been enjoying casual relationships for centuries. Now women could, including me.” She is said to have made a joke of asking a Rolling Stone editor to guess how many of his cover stars she had seduced. “I always wanted to live a man’s life in a woman’s body,” was her mantra. When it came to business, Newsweek, in a follow­up article, dubbed her, “The most marketable female in fashion since Coco Chanel”.

Then came that familiar fashion story of boom and bust. After a damaging period of overextension, she sold her company in 1983, travelled, moved to Bali, to Paris, ran a publishing company – this while her royalties, which had been $US4 million, dwindled. The tarnished brand was looking like a ’70s throwback – until that became a good thing in the ’70s revival of the mid-­1990s.

American designer Todd Oldham invited von Fürstenberg to a fashion show that he said was a homage to herself. As she wrote in her autobiography, “part of me was flattered and part of me felt like saying, ‘wait a minute, I’m not dead yet’.” Meanwhile her daughter, Tatiana, and her then daughter­-in­-law, duty-­free heiress Alexandra Miller, were both girls in their 20s raiding her vintage pieces to wear.

On a trip to Paris, von Fürstenberg ran into Rose Marie Bravo of Saks Fifth Avenue (who would go on to rejuvenate Burberry), who told her, “Diane, we need your dresses.” In September 1997, the wrap dress was relaunched at Saks and sold out. Today, although it is everywhere, it is a particular blessing in Australia, given it is light, cool, businesslike yet feminine – as long as you have curves and confidence.

Actually, DvF had started her comeback in 1992, on television. She was one of the first to embrace televised home shopping channel QVC, racking up numbers with a range called Silk Assets. She saw the light early on in electronic selling, thanks to her association with Barry Diller who, in 1992, resigned as chairman and CEO of Fox and took a $US25 million stake in the shopping channel (it is now also online). Now chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp, he and von Fürstenberg married in 2001, the occasion for him to present her with 26 gold wedding bands, one for each year since they’d met. As von Fürstenberg wrote in her biography, “Our relationship was unique from day one and quite unexplainable . . . Later I would have other people in my heart and in my life, but somehow Barry was always there.”

The six­storey DvF New York flagship store is way downtown, on a wide cobbled street in the Meatpacking District next to the High Line, a tranquil garden along an old elevated rail line. It is in marked contrast to the interior of von Fürstenberg’s office – a riot of hot colour and girls in heels negotiating a six­-storey central staircase embedded with Swarovski crystals.

Von Fürstenberg’s own airy office is decorated with photos of family and friends. Her son, Alexander, works in finance; her daughter, Tatiana, is a filmmaker. While grandchildren Antonia, Talita and Tassilo are still young, she talks openly about how she hopes they will one day join the company. This daughter of a Holocaust survivor has always been a philanthropist. Today, ‘giving back’ includes co­hosting annual Women in the World summits with high­profile magazine editor Tina Brown. Speakers have included US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Queen Rania of Jordan, while four DvF awards a year, each of $US50,000, go to those who display leadership, strength and courage in fighting for positive change for women everywhere.

“My cause in life is to empower women,” she tells me. “Fashion has led me to this incredible dialogue with women always and … there was always a very real relationship with me and women. Now I am in the fall of my life, part of what I do is to share experience.” She shares the cash too. “When I re­created the wrap dress, I committed that for every one made, $US1 would go to St Jude hospital, a children’s research institute (in Memphis, Tennessee). One dollar doesn’t seem much, but when you do hundreds of thousands, it’s forever.”

As for the lessons of running a global business second time around, she says there is one key difference, one key similarity. Different is her clarity. “I know now you can go nowhere without clarity. What is it you want to do? How? You have to see it; it has to be clear. What kind of product? Once you have clarity, you have strategy, and once you have clarity and strategy, you have success.”

The similarity is a lesson from her mother. “Fear is not an option. Insecurity is a waste of time. The most important relationship you have in life is the one with yourself. In order to have that and to like yourself, you have to be very honest. That’s what I most want to pass on to my grandchildren.”

Another Edun- Janice Sullivan – AFR Magazine

AFR Magazine | April 2011

Another Edun

by Marion Hume 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Ways with Austerity chic – Australian Financial review

AFR | April 2011 

Royal Ways with Austerity Chic

by Marion Hume 

There’s much chatter about how a wedding dress big enough for Westminster Abbey and the world’s TV can also be in keeping with the current make-do-and-mend trend. 

Austerity Chic: that’s the term being bandied about to describe a forthcoming royal wedding of which, even if you are the staunchest republican, you cannot be unaware. Wills and Kate are doing a buffet, we hear, but there’s much chatter about how a wedding dress big enough for Westminster Abbey and the world’s TV screens can possibly also be in keeping with the current make-do-and-mend trend.

I’m guessing that the royal couple have advisers they can call on in such circumstances, but they could still learn a trick or two from my friends A&M and N&M, as both these couples have recently scored 100% on the Austerity Chic wedding monitor of my own invention.

I doubt W&K – as I shall henceforth call them, for balance – can manage to pair things back quite the way A&M did; their invitation consisted on him saying “Can you meet me at the Civic Centre on Tuesday morning?” -and there he was on the steps, in the suit he was given 15 years ago when he first came to England and got a job as a silver service waiter.

The ring was his mother’s, the bridal car – this will explain the initials – had been borrowed for a test drive from a swanky dealer, the pictures were taken outside Kenwood, one of London’s grandest wedding venues although we didn’t go in, the champagne was concealed in my handbag and the cake was a pile of meringues bought from a local cafe. As for the dress, it was in shades of oyster and chocolate, chosen by a woman who rarely gets new clothes to be worn again. All in all delightful and in the nicest way, spectacularly cheap.

N&M’s wedding was on a bigger scale. Hundreds packed the church and later, a scruffy music venue which had been transformed with elbow grease and ropes of circus lights into a magical place. The groom’s dad is of Welsh heritage, so we kicked off with cups of tea, rounds of sandwiches and slices of Victoria sponge cake that he and his side of the family had made that morning. Mother-of-the-bride is from Sierra Leone, Mother-of-the.groom from Barbados. I’m prepared to wager that the African & Caribbean buffet they cooked up later, and which the bridesmaids ladled out, will outdo W&Ks for flavour – even with all the organic produce from Prince Charles’ farms.

Another bet I know I’ll win is on the dancing. Posh ‘Hoorays’ tend to be commendably enthusiastic but really bad dancers, in contrast to N&M’s celebration where Granny-of-the-bride cleared the dance floor out of respect when she did her moves wearing flame orange robes, a vivid head scarf and a jaunty fedora hat atop it all. The bride’s dress? Cocktail length and one of those rare ones where you think “she really could dye that and wear it afterwards.”

But how can you do “Austerity Chic” when you are marrying the heir to the heir of the throne?  Kate’s dress has to be sort of grand; companies such as 9th generation silk weavers, Stephen Walters & Sons, keep going in part because of royal trade, but (please) there has to be less of it than there was of Di’s gown. Dyeing and reshaping is not an option for what is, after all, a future historical artifact, but then, that’s austerity points scored for the guarantee of a second life, viewed under glass. Where Kate’s outfit-to-be is all set for maximum points on my Austerity Chic wedding monitor is in the jewels department. After all, the ring A gave M was only second hand. And those royal tiaras get hauled out and remodelled generation after generation.

So overall, W&K may score higher than you might expect, familiar as they are with the Austerity Chic mantra; Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.

The Zara Juggernaut – Australian Financial review

The Zara Juggernaut

AFR Magazine | April 2o11

by Marion Hume 

Spain’s remote corners are good at revolutions, from the gastrenomic one that began at a Catalonian country restaurant called El Bulli, to the fast-fashion phenomenon that sprang from the wilds of Galicia to conquer the malls of the world.

Given I have travelled across Europe to discuss a miracle, how fitting that the man I’ve come to meet is called Jesus. My pilgrimage has taken me to Spain’s North West, to Galicia, which is as far as you can go from the castanet cliche of the sun-backed south. For this is not the Costa del Sol, but the Costa del Muerte, the coast of death. At the very tip of the landmass, clinging like a barnacle to a rock and battered by sea spray, sits the little city of Coruna and just beyond it, along the rugged coast, Arteixo, a town of just 5,000 souls. Yet it is here that a global fashion phenomenon is headquartered.

If you track the markets, you may know of Inditex, which has experienced the kind of growth that makes you wish you could turn back time to the March 2001 IPO and scoop up some of the 40% equity floated on the Madrid Stock Exchange (60% remains with the founding family). Inditex, born in the late 1960s on an investment of just 30 euros (yes, E30, or 5,000 pesetas as it was in the old money) is now worth more than E 32 billion ($44 billion). So I’m looking forward to asking a man called Jesus Echevarria, the chief spokesman for the company, how that happened.

But first, I need to find him. The taxi arrives at a huge industrial estate. Sorry, what was that? Reception is across that courtyard, then down into the underground car park? When that turns out to be correct, the message is clear: no unannounced callers welcome here. Next, I take the lift up to reception, where a young woman in a headset greets me, then escorts me into a glass-sided lift. We rise up through blank, shiny floors that give no clue as to what happens here and then I wait alone in a boardroom, long enough to gaze out the window and realise that every 30 seconds, another huge truck pulls out from the loading bay down below and drives away.

“Hello! Sorry to keep you waiting. Coffee? I am Jesus,” says a man in a suit, bearing what is, in Spain, a relatively common name. He’s going to tell me more about a name that’s also pretty common, wherever you live in the world. If Inditex, which stands for Industria de Disena Textil might not mean much, have you ever heard of Zara? In the unlikely event you have not, brace yourself. The global fast fashion force is, at last, coming to Australia this month, a full decade after company scouts began arriving to study locations and logistics. The brand will open two stores, the first in Westfield Sydney with Melbourne to follow. “Thank God we won’t be a third world fashion country any more,” is how one Sydney fashion fanatic puts it.

Inditex is probably the biggest fashion company in the world; probably, because it depends on how you measure (there are mega retailers that sell lots of everything, including clothes, although this may not count as fashion). Inditex sells 700 million units per year globally. Within the empire, Zara is by far the most dominant brand (63.8%) and its sales for 2009 (the last full year available) were E7,077 millions. In 2005, Inditex overtook the Swedish fashion giant, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M); in 2008, it overtook the US one, Gap. Of the more than 5,000 stores Inditex has around the world about 1,700 of them are Zara boutiques. The parent company employs over 100,000 people belonging to more than 140 different nationalities.

The Zara name includes womenswear, menswear, children’s wear, homeware, accessories, perfume and now, zara.com. Yet the other Inditex brands are hardly tiddlers. These comprise Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho and Uterque, are names which don’t exactly trip off the tongue, but each does significant business around the world. Uterque for instance has some 80 stores in 16 countries. though heaven knows how people pronounce the names in any of them. In contrast, the name Zara works brilliantly because it is pronounced the same in every language bar one. (Ironically, that one is Spanish, where it is pronounced “Tha-ra”).

The choice of this convenient four letter word is however entirely accidental. Back in the ‘60s, the son of a railwayman called Amancio Ortega teamed up with his brother and his brother’s wife and started a business manufacturing shirts and nightwear (the best seller was a pink bathrobe for women). The wholesale business boomed and, in what would prove a turning point, Ortega realised that control, though at this time, not necessarily easy money- lay in owning stores in order to oversee the complete vertical process.

Had the company remained a manufacturer, it would doubtless be out of business today, as others have pulled production out of Spain in search of cheaper deals in Bulgaria, Romania and beyond. Instead, in 1975, Ortega opened a little shop in La Coruna  – it is still there today – and decided to call it Zorba, as in Zorba the Greek. But the owner of a nearby bar of the same name saw the signage go up he protested. Ortega agreed to change it but, because you need costly moulds to make three dimensional store front lettering, he needed a name which could be made in the moulds already cast. So they repeated the “a” and Zara was born.

You are not about to meet  Amancio Ortega, because the 75-year-old founder has never given an interview. Thus the 9th richest man in the world is far less known than those who sit above him on the Forbes rich list, such as the Mexican telecom titan, Carlos Slim Helu, Americans Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison, the steel magnet Lakshmi Mittal and LVMH’s Bernard Arnault. Before the internet and camera phones, Amancio Ortega was never even knowingly photographed, but then a few pictures appeared online and now Inditex provides an official portrait. Apparently, there’s no mystery  about why this twice married father of three doesn’t speak in public, he just doesn’t chose to. He didn’t even show for the Inditex IPO.

Although it has just been announced that he will move aside at the shareholders’ meeting in July 2011 and the current second-in-command, Pablo Isla Alverez de Tajera, will become both chairman and Chief Executive, Isla is unlikely to be much more available. “He does speak twice a year, at the AGM and the shareholders’ meeting. But no, we don’t expect him to do more,” says Echevarria, who remains the only company voice. So what is the secret of success? ““Maybe because we are on the edge, not at a crossroads,” he says. “We are here alone, which allows us to concentrate. But there’s more.”

A silent CEO is just one of the many ways in which one of the world’s most dynamic fashion forces is different. This is a story of going zig when others go zag. Beyond the obscure location on the edge of the Atlantic, and the odd fact that Zara spends almost nothing on advertising (most fashion brands factor in  a minimum of 4% of turnover a year), nothing Zara actually does is done how others do it, to the point that the company became a subject of a Harvard Business School study which could be titled “Doing everything upside down.” (In fact it is called something so boring, such as “Inditex case study,” that I didn’t write it down).

Most fashion companies work like this; there are the designers. They design. There is a show. Meanwhile fabric is ordered for those designs, takes ages to arrive and then factories start to make the designs; the designs are advertised and the customer goes into the store to find them. At Zara, however, the customer goes into the store, sees a white jacket and says she’d prefer it in cream. If a couple more customers do that, two weeks’ later (perhaps less) there it is. The store is the centre piece and constant drops of new fashion to keep the customer coming back to see what’s new.

There is no Zara “style”, instead there a multiple styles, all of which disappear fast, so you won’t find everyone else wearing them. If a look doesn’t sell, it is pulled. There is , however, an innate Spanishness, which is to say, Spanish women, whether Castilian from Madrid or Catalunyan from Barcelona or Galician from Coruna, tend to have a proud bearing which they want flattered by tailoring; thus Zara’s jackets tend to be somewhat sexier, curvier of cut than others at these prices.

Because the vast geographical spread of the 5,000 Zara stores, a small production run is 30,000 pieces, leading to both economies of scale and the guarantee that hardly anyone you will ever bump into will have what you have. Stores order twice a week and the logistics that make that possible are astonishing (Think factory floors the size of way too many soccer pitches, full of clothing items flying around on tracks suspended from the ceiling and then ending up in specific cardboard boxes on which the store destination is already encoded. Those working in the warehouses move about by bicycle because the distances are so huge.)

As to why it has taken Zara so long to enter the Australian market, the company has been studying it for some time.  “For Australia, we had to be convinced we could give our excellent service to a customer in the Southern Hemisphere,” Echevarria says. “We have 250 womenswear designers specifically thinking of the Northern Hemisphere and then the others of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, where of course we have shared heritage and language (as for Brazil, Galego, the regional language of Galicia, has similarities with Portuguese). We knew we couldn’t do last season’s clothes later for Australia, so we have been sending the design teams many times so they know what will work and at the right moment. It has taken us a long time to be ready because we are Zara and we know people expect us to get it right.”

Fashion folk love Zara, for its style and its speed. (From factory to store in 48 hours and the aim is to do that even for Australia). For those of us who like to poke our noses into company CSR (corporate social responsibility), Zara and parent company Inditex are popular too.

More than 50% of its offering, comprising most of its fast-fashion pieces, are made in factories it owns in Spain meaning it can guard against the kind of scary labour practices that haunt fast fashion. But as with all fast fashion (not specifically Inditex), once offshore, things are harder to police, this compounded by shoppers having come to expect low prices. Generally, campaigners and trade unions are alarmed at the cost of workers of a decade of deflation in clothing prices. But all Inditex’s 1,237 contracted suppliers are governed by the company’s External Manufacturers and Workshops Code of Conduct and it has also forged strong partnerships with international union bodies.

As to its eco friendliness, the message at HQ is demonstrated by a vast wind turbine soaring overhead. Being fortuitously positioned in a place that is both windy and sunny means much of the energy needs can be generated on the spot. In addition, Echevarria in intent on showing me how energy that would otherwise leech out and be lost has been redirected into the steamers that iron every garment. He is especially proud of the battered state of the cardboard boxes packed with goods for stores all over the world. These are reused and reused before being eventually recycled, he tells me.

Commendably Zara has gone far with its store design. Not only does every store turn its lights off for Earth Day,  the latest opening, in Rome, aims to be the first ever fashion store to achieve the platinum standard certification, a seal of sustainable architecture that is one of the most demanding of its kind in the world. The company is working to make all stores eco efficient and older sites are being retrofitted. Echevarria is reluctant to let me take away a CSR report because it runs to 311 pages and this company hates to consume paper. Plastic bags are oxo biodegradable, meaning they break down to a small amount of biomass within two years, while traditional plastic bags take more than 400.

By studying the small print of  the 22 pages concerning Inditex and society, I learn that the company has made emergency gifts in the multimillions in response to the earthquakes in Haiti and Sumatra,  multiple gifts (of hundreds of thousands of Euro) to community and NGO projects in Cambodia, Morocco, Mali and beyond and that it builds some of its Spanish stores under its “for&from” project, which aims to make it possible for those with severe mental disabilities to join the workforce. So far, so good.

Where Zara does raise ire is when it comes to design, as in its appropriation of other people’s ideas. The model is only possible because both the design team and the customer is strongly inspired by the creation of others- who are neither acknowledged nor paid. While the likes of Topshop have overcome this criticism by supporting both London Fashion Week and British designers from deep pockets and H&M does high profile hi-lo collaborations with designers-most recently with Alber Elbaz of Lanvin- Zara does not.

Hussein Chalayan is just one originator who has seen the result of hours and hours of his labour hanging with a Zara label. Not that the fast fashion shopper, looking for something fabulous at a good price, cares a hoot. In the past, some designers actually used to be happy about Zara using their designs. Before the internet put every style on instant view, Inditex used to send teams around the world with a shopping spend that was legendary. I know of one French fashion label that used to factor in the Zara spend, not minding because Zara was mass and they were high end. Otherwise, designers have tended not to take on fast-fashion brands because altering a sleeve or changing a stripe tends to make clothing copyright cases notoriously difficult to prosecute. Not for nothing has Daniel Piette, then the fashion director of Louis Vuitton described Zara as *the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world”.

In February, Inditex brand Stradivarius was forced to U-turn after teenage style bloggers complained that images they had posted of themselves online had been reproduced rather too faithfully on the front of T-shirts. “It would have been no problem if they asked me,” one blogger told The Guardian. The article suggested that designers working in the vast studios at Inditex may be resorting to the internet to search out images of cool hipsters because of the pressure they are under to hit targets on the number of designs they produce each day. Zara alone is thought to produce some 40,000 designs a year.

While there’s a joke now that there’s a Zara opening somewhere every week, it was far from an overnight success. Ortega was 39 before he opened the first store, but after that it was as if he was making up for lost time. Stores opened at a heady pace, first in Spain, then Portugal. Location was always key – indeed the only Zara store not in a prime location is the first. The company launched itself in the US at a site bang opposite Bloomingdales on Lexington Avenue in 1989 and then on rue du Rivoli Paris in 1990.

The big question though- once Sydney and Melbourne are trading, once other sites across Australia are ear-marked for the Inditex brands as is also happening in South Africa- is where next.  There are already more than 150 Inditex stores in China. Central and South America are conquered and the company has posted its flag all over South East Asia. But once New Zealand gets Zara (no plans yet revealed) where else is left? Especially as the global shopper can go to zara.com?

The answer may well be hidden away in a secret bunker in one of the vast buildings at Arteixo. Echevarria escorts me past extra security and then we walk into a vast empty space, with a heavy industrial curtain to the rear. He pulls it back enough for us to pass through and there is a whole Inditex street, of fully kitted out stores, none like you have seen before,  including a whole new look for Zara women and Zara mens (think “more like Prada” and “more like Gucci” respectively).

But I suspect there is more. The night before my official meeting at Inditex, I have met up with an old friend who has connections deep inside the company. “There’s something completely new,” she tells me. So will the empire keep up the march, with another concept entirely. Tantalizingly, at the end of the secret Inditex street, there’s another curtain, but Echevarria steers me away. “We are thinking all the time of new concepts,” he says. But can’t he tell me more, given I have come all this, way? “We are always thinking,” he says, then adds “lunch?”. This being Spain, it’s past 3pm and I am, it has to be said, ravenously hungry. So Jesus and I head off for bread and fish and wine, Galician style. Whatever might be the next miracle, for now must stay  a secret.

South Australia – On A Grander Scale – Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair | April 2011 

On A Grander Scale

Forget your Rough Guide. What you’ll really need is a Thesaurus because the landscapes of South Australia will soon have you racking your brain for alternative to “huge”, “amazing”, “awesome” and “wowee”.


By Marion Hume

Do not go to South Australia because you want to climb the Harbour Bridge, watch the sun rise over Uluru or find Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef. None of these are in South Australia, where you can’t even crack a convict joke in the state capital of Adelaide without someone pointing the sugar tongs and reminding you that there was never any of that transported unpleasantness around here — it was free-settled in accordance to an 1834 Act of His Majesty’s Parliament. But do go to South Australia, because it will blow your mind.

One and a half times the size of Texas, think of it as a perpetual version of the artist James Turrell’s Bindu Shards, the mysterious hi-tech installation that packed them in at London’s Gagosian Gallery in late 2010 — except out here you won’t have to clamber inside a metal pod in order to witness Technicolor dreams so intense they’re freaky. You’ll feel utterly alone as dawn breaks over the Finders rangers and they pump up the lights. Sure, waking up on the other side of the state line at Uluru (Ayers Rock if you’re not keeping up) is impressive, until someone slurps from a Thermos. But what’s different here is you can’t capture this on a postcard because the immensity makes it photographically impossible.

It’s as if the Zen principles of the Japanese garden have been turned upside down. Every rock in the foreground could be a mountain in the distance — your brain can’t compute the dimensions of the empty space in between, especially without the migratory herds of the African plains on which to lock your viewfinder. Still, look down and there could be a king brown snake, dull-looking but deadly, about to slither up under the axle of your car.

To explore here is both a sensory pleasure — such a cluster of world-class wineries — and a tease. Let’s say you are doing a quick edit of your digital snaps. What you see are Alpine slopes. Where you are is on a bluff bleached by the sun where the pines have shed their needles. Then there’s your ears, which hear the crackle of footsteps on a frosty lawn while your eyes spy kangaroo-paw prints on the salty crust of what was once the ocean floor.

But before we get into the outback, just an hour or so out of Adelaide is the Barossa Valley. Most of its early settlers were Lutherans fleeing religious persecution in Prussia, who thoughtfully stuffed some vines in their bags as they decamped from South Australia.

If you intend to sample the Shiraz, you must stay at The Louise. No you must stay at The Louise — Australia’s drink-driving laws are among the toughest in the world. Then you can also experience the delight of an outdoor shower, before dinner at Appellation, where grilled wagyu mignon wrapped in prosciutto with bacon crumble and creamed white beans convinces you that it is justly renowned.

Another day, another valley of vines, although there aren’t many wineries like Sevenhill Cellars, which has the lay market and the church trade stitched up (the latter is shifting from reds to whites to save on laundering the alter cloths). North Bundaleer, built at the end of the 19th century, sits where the Clare Valley ends. This gracious homestead was built for George Maslin, a sheep farmer made good, so there’s a ballroom under the corrugated-iron roof.

Of course, this being Australia, some things are just odd. So you don’t blink when a bloke looks up from under the brim of his Akubra and says his semen price is $60 a dose. He’s talking about his stud ram. And the man in raggedy trousers, leaning on a gate forged out of an old iron bedstead? He only looks like a Depression-era portrait by Dorothea Lange until his iPhone beeps with the Tokyo trading price for sushi-grade abalone, for which he owns a brace of offshore dive licenses. After hours on a bullet-straight road, you’re in a pub and the waitress reappears, cradling a small goat, to offer condom pie for afters. Ah, that would be quandong, a native plum.

Arriving into the little former railway town of Quorn feels like high noon in the Wild West, due to its streets as wide as a movie set-which is what is has been since Maureen O’Hara showed up in the 50s, followed by Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in the 60s, and then Mel Gibson, who shot scenes for Gallipoli here in 1980, back when he was still beautiful.

There was a camel in Gallipoli; in fact there have been camels in South Australia since 1840. Today there are over a million feral dromedaries roaming the country, descended from those that hauled anything from telegraph cables to the sleepers for the Ghan railway — “Ghan” being short for “Afghan”, a catch-all term for Muslim cameleers. Surnames deriving from Muscat, Yemen and Iraq pepper South Australia. Look hard enough and somewhere you’ll find camel pie.

Arkaba is one of the Luxury Lodges of Australia-Which also include The Louise, the divine Capella off the coast of New South Wales and the new Saffire in Tasmania, as well as Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, of which more in due course. It’s a spirited initiative to trump the successful superlodges of New Zealand. Arkaba’s owner, Charlie Carlow, heir to the earldom of Portarlington, explains: “We are not trying to recreate hotel rooms with mini-bars. Here you just help yourself to drinks- it’s like staying in someone’s home. This is an early settler property, and the original owner had some kind of eating house or pub-there’s an Eating House Creek nearby. Graveyards on the property tell of heroic failures.” The bedheads are made of old fence posts, bed-side tables are glass-topped wool bales and communal dining is round an old wool-sorting table.

Most of all, though, at Arkaba it is possible to get some perspective on the landscape of the rugged Flinders Ranges.

Every August since 1856 professional or “gun” shearers have shown up to work at the Arkaba woolshed, which looks just like the one in Tom Robert’s 19th century masterpiece, Shearing the Rams, a painting that defines a certain strand of Australian art that is at once masculine and misty.

Collectively, the traditional inhabitants of the Flinders Ranges are known as the Adnyamathanha, the hill people. But even the ancient Aboriginal tribes are, in geological terms, johnny-come-latelys in a wonderland that dates back some 1.8 billion years.

Further north, things get more exciting as they get younger (about 550 million years). Because so few people kick about in the Ediacara Hills, no one picked up the key to life until 2003, after which Ross Fargher, whose family own the Prairie Hotel, Parachilna, left his fossil lying on the porch until a palaeontologist realised it beat that of the next oldest vertebrae by 30 million years. No wonder David Attenborough gets breathless when he visits.

When I was editing Vogue Australia, I sent a fashion team to the Prairie Hotel, where the time is always beer o’clock and there’s fancy fayre like wallaby shashlick and emu-egg frittata on the menu. They drove out into the middle of nowhere and just at the model was striking a pose a voice hollered, “Oi! I’ve just raked that!” And then Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel appeared to shoot a scene for Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke.

Take a small plane south and meet me on Kangaroo Island. You’re still in the same state, but it’s too far to drive unless you’ve got time on your hands.

So you’ve ticked off the African Safari big five? Pens at the ready for an Aussie Noah’s Ark, because this island, eight miles offshore from Cape Jervis, is a natural life raft for endangered creatures, including the Australian sea lion- the world’s more threatened pinniped- and the glossy black cockatoo. It is also where the Heath goanna is making its last stand. Then there’s the New Zealand fur seal, the Tammar wallaby (the wallaby and the kangaroo are cousins) and Koalas (never, please, “koala bears” they’re not bears), which are increasingly rare on much of the mainland- but look, there’s one now, in his furry pyjamas.

How adorable are the waddling squadrons of fairy penguins! As for mail-order queens, genetically pure K.I bees are in demand by international apiarists. But just because there are no foxes, no rabbits, to destroy this Antipodean Galapagos doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can kill you. “Gotcha!” hisses the tiger snake, and you sincerely hope it’s joking- one bite and, without antivenom, odds on you’re a goner.

And so to the four-headed penis of the male short-beaked echidna, which isn’t enough for the female that looks like a porcupine but makes like a princess as she leads up to eight randy chaps on a six- week Animal Magic excursion called an echidna (love) train, at the end of which only one gets a shag. About 24 days later, mama lays an egg, which she wiggles up into her pouch, where it stays until it hatches into a puggle. It’s knowledge like that which makes you wish Trivial Pursuit had not gone the way of the Victorian parlour game.

Egg-laying monotremes are the oldest surviving mammals on Earth, and if that isn’t enough to get an island named after you, blame Captain Matthew Finders, who was starving when he and his men landed in 1802 and threw roos in the pot. Nicholas Baudin, who made landfall that same spring, was French, so he nabbed a kangaroo to parade around Paris- though he (the Frenchman) only made it to Madagascar before he died. Both explorers must surely have been surprised that they encountered no Aboriginal people on an island seven times the size of Singapore. Nor has an Aboriginal skeleton been found since. Tools dating back 16,000 years suggests that whoever did live here was fending off marsupial Godzillas- possums and wombats the size of rhinos- so may have made a dash for it over a long-gone land bridge.

I won’t be surprised if you already know about Southern Ocean Lodge, given it has won just about every travel gong going since it opened in 2008. Why will be particularly clear if your billet is the exhilarating Osprey Suite, with its peerless glass-walled views over the pounding surf. You’d expect this game-changing luxury lodge, which slithers almost invisibly down a bluff, to be eco-this, eco-that. It is also near-carbon-neutral, what with crab-meat omelette for breakfast, line-caught snapper for lunch, and dinner’s oysters followed by South Rock lamb, all locally-sourced. The Henschke Julius Riesling, however, had to travel from the Barossa Valley.

You’ll be glad it did, and you did, as you stand at sunset, glass in hand, for kangaroos and canapés and a mob of roos bounds across the horizon.

FIN! – Australian financial review


AFR | May 2011

By Marion Hume 

We used to fret that the internet would render fashion shows obsolete. While the opposite is the case, it’s us, the professional audience, whose days must be numbered.

There’s no such thing as “fashionably late” in a world of live streaming.

Time was when, if the invitation said 4pm, you could dawdle over to a cafe near the venue, enjoy a cup of tea, or, if you were feeling full-on fashionista, a glass of champagne, yet still fret that, by turning up before 5pm, you’d be revealing yourself as a rookie who was frightfully keen.

Today, 4pm means in your seat at 3.45 pm or the designer’s PR will be SMSing frantically. It means sitting up straight and slapping on your catwalk smile by 3.50pm, then it’s lights down, music up and a huge screen running a countdown as viewers in Dubai, Hong Kong, Los Angeles are welcomed to start “shopping the show”. You can buy the coats at Burberry, to arrive months later, in 150 countries, as they are appearing on a catwalk in London. What you can’t do is bribe your way in once a show has started – as I discovered at 4.01pm. Opps.

Lesson learned. Over in Paris, I got to Louis Vuitton so horribly early, I had to sneak off for a coffee so as not to linger with the kids who snap the arrival of the front row set for their blogs. The Vuitton show was staged at the Cour Carree du Louvre, as it has been for several seasons now, but just to make things interesting, they changed the point of entry. Cue scores of people, myself included, who glancing over and, seeing no line yet, relaxed and ordered another “cafe creme”.

People may think we fashion folk are so dumb, we can’t walk and chew gum, but let me tell you, once I realised entry was via the gate around the corner, I was sprinting, texting to friends in five inch heels to “move it from the café, now!” and thinking how HUGE the Louvre is, all at the same time. True, I couldn’t remember exactly which Louis had extended the old chateau of Francois Ist until it became a palace that seems to take up half of France but I did keep wishing he’d put in more cut-throughs. Luckily, I was in my seat when the show started, but as it featured women in handcuffs, I got hot under my feminist collar all over again.

Those of us who watch fashion shows for a living are increasingly questioning what they are for, (although kinky handcuffs, are, you have to admit, a whole new product category to brand). The truth is dawning, chillingly, that shows are no longer for those on the seasonal schlepp from New York to London to Milan to Paris. We used to fret that the internet would render fashion shows obsolete. While the opposite is the case, it’s us, the professional audience, whose days must be numbered. “Shopping the show” online still requires skinny girls (one of whom, this season, is a boy) walking up and down in the clothes to click and buy. The vast lobby of net-a-porter, the pioneer of luxury online, is dominated by a gigantic screen showing designer shows. The Burberry website, the Burberry stores, feature more catwalk footage. The equation of “1,000 seater show staged like a rock concert + clothes to click on now” is key to how this British brand has become a GBP 5.1 billion fashion megalith.

But what of the 1,000 people who are invited to attend? What purpose do we serve, now that anyone can go to London’s Piccadilly Circus and watch the Burberry show, simultaneously, on a 32-metre digital screen? (As I did)  What is the point of fashion critics now the public, on twitter, on apps, shopping as they go, votes on what’s fashionable now? As for those of us who go to actual shows (if we are not locked out, at 4.01pm), how long before they just paint us in by CGI?

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant