Pinstriped Prankster – Australian Financial review

Pinstriped Prankster

AFR Magazine | February 2012

by Marion Hume 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxury Luggage – Australian financial review

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

This column’s territory is luxury, but as with any landscape, there are beauty spots and eyesores. When luxury lets you down, the feeling you get is sort of like when someone builds a condo in your view.

There is nothing more galling then investing in chic only to find it behaves like cheap. The brand names have been left out from what follows only because I’m on deadline so can’t give them right to reply. But one brand already knows it’s them, the next will guess and the third is going to be hearing from me, although I concede the latter might not be the scariest threat in the world.

Example one. An elegant man about town invested in a snazzy leather iPad case. Please note the word “case”, for which the dictionary definition is “receptacle, holder”. iPads are all about being connected on the move, so he moving, when he was caught in a Sydney storm. Did he use his iPad cover as an umbrella? He did not. He protected it and its contents as best he could as he ran for cover, which didn’t, alas, stop his good suit getting soaked. That sprang back to form once dry. Alas, instead, the iPad cover developed what the beauty business terms “deep set wrinkles”, this because beneath the butter soft leather lay cardboard gone limp. The brand response? No they wouldn’t take it back because the cover should not have been exposed to rain. In truth, it did recover a bit – the wrinkles are reduced to “fine lines” – but the fact is, he’s stuck with it.

Example two. A self-made, glamourous wife buys a suit for her dashing husband. The word “suit” rather suggests its purposes include suiting the wearer, except it doesn’t. It i is neither too large or too small, it just looked wrong. “Because you have removed the (nasty, plasticky) swing tag, we won’t exchange it,” she was told. It’s currently hanging in the wardrobe like a reproach.

Our final example concerns a well travelled woman we’ll call Marion because, obviously, she’s me. I invest in my luggage – not the kind with other people’s initials all over it which comes with another bag to protect the bag – I cannot see the point of that – instead bags from expert luggage makers with an esteemed heritage and a reputation for offering innovative, durable, practical designs, which is surely what one wants in a suitcase.

Thumbnail story; I buy suitcase in morning, pack for Singapore, fly that night. I fly on to Auckland, and – here’s the marvelous bit – not once do I have to lug my own bag. Instead, its first taste of long haul is on a series of trolleys, even though it has four study wheels of its own. So the first time I use the pull-out handle is in Sydney and it comes clean off in my hand. I send an email expecting I will be directed to that global free repair service the website boasts of. Instead it reads, “just take it back to the store on your return to London”. Excuse me? As much trumpeted customer service goes, that rates as absolutely useless. “Do you have your receipt?” they say when I call the Sydney store listed on the company website. “Yes, filed at home in London, as I was instructed to keep it safe with the warranty”. “Well, I can’t think why you didn’t pack the receipt” is the frankly sniffy response. Readers, do you take your luggage receipts on a two-month business trip? Maybe I’m being dumb here?

But didn’t the customer used to be right, or at least given a fair hearing? Consumers have embraced the, to me, hideous notion that cheap T shirts won’t survive a second wash but part of the luxury promise is longevity.When you buy into posh, a bit of you falls in love and when it fails, you are a little bit heartbroken.

Amazing spider-men – The Financial Times

Amazing spider-men

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

The Financial Times | 15th January 2012

By Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surviving The Fashion Business (Or 25 Years Spent Trying)

Inforum Speech

Marion Hume | January 2012 

Welcome everyone.

My thanks first; to Jenny Garber and Fiona Coogan of Inforum for inviting me here today.

To Jeni Porter, my editor at The Australian Financial Review Magazine for letting me reveal just a few of the things in a major report about the business of fashion in Australia – which the AFR will publish in the April Fashion Special.

To my AFR colleagues, especially Brook Turner for hiring me 7 years ago,  art director Tony Rice for making my articles look so good, Marguerite Winter for being my safety net and the unflappable Samantha Hutchinson.

My heartfelt thanks to Adam Worling for se-conding his staffer, Erica Chen, to make sure the powerpoint actually works. And thank you Erica. And also to Lindsey Botts for his input.

To Harper’s Bazaar for letting me use images and to photographers; Amber Rowlands, Jeremy Stigter, Victor Demarchelier, Gavin Bond, Will Davidson and especially, Peter Hunt, for permission to show their work today.

And as always, my thanks to Wee Keat Chan.

—So; SURVIVING THE FASHION BUSINESS OR 25 YEARS SPENT TRYING

Me 25 years ago? It’s a little bit more than that to be honest. But what’s honesty in fashion? I was born in 1962, making me too young to remember London designer, Mary Quant inventing the mini skirt.

Or was that Courreges?

Or Yves Saint Laurent?

Which of the above may have massaged dates in their archive slightly — backwards — so that history records them as first?

Perhaps I’m not the only one fudging the numbers.

Fashion is a game of smoke and mirrors, so here’s me in about 1980 smoking. Or pretending to because it was the fashionable thing to do.

Nowadays smoking is transgressive. Here’s Kate Moss on the Louis Vuitton catwalk

.

I have honestly never smoked (nor indeed put mirrors to what is -allegedly – a somewhat common use on planet fashion)

Fashion isn’t always what it seems.

—————————

But one area where the numbers aren’t fudged are where they read like this;

“Interim nine months 2011 reaching 9,709 million euros. Gross profit reached 5,784 million euros.”

What does that all add up to? Impressive.

These financials are from Inditex, the holding company for Zara,

Which numbers the other Kate among its fans

.

When I started reporting fashion, no one ever asked if I could add  2 + 2. It was about Paris, Milan and the colour of the season.

Now fashion is global. And more than anything, it’s about the colour of money.

————————————————————–

Actually, I’ve had practice adding up and giving the right change. I started my working life as a shop girl. It helps being 6ft2 when you are 15, not 16. By the age of 19, I working in Browns, the London emporium of style, then and now controlled by the all seeing eye of Mrs  Burstein.

I worked selling Norma Kamali  – a huge name then, not now.

Which proves – even those you think you’ll love forever….. will fade.

Or not

Here’s Karl Lagerfeld, circa 1980, with his Goyard suitcases.

Tell me another 75 year old today  – who might really be 79 – his age being the subject of some conjecture – who could cause a five-city frenzy

when pop up stores,

in association with net-a-porter, opened from Berlin

to Bondi Beach last week.

Karl and I had memorable tete-a-tete at his mansion on the Left Bank in Paris in 1994 because he was displeased by my critique of a Chanel show.

In newspapers, the reporter doesn’t write the headline. But as you can imagine, “No Way To Treat A  Lady” didn’t go down that well.

Our point of difference? He considered his fluffy hats to be surreal. I said they made supermodels who couldn’t see out of them stumble like blind mice.

And,  being me,  that wasn’t all I said.

So I got summoned chez Karl, where the butler served me water in a crystal goblet the size of a goldfish bowl, full of ice cubes that could sink the Titanic. An ormulu clock worth more than my house ticked and ticked and then at last, Karl appeared from behind an 18th century screen and then, oops, I wrote all about our chat…. which made him even more exasperated .

Let’s say we have enjoyed a respectful relationship ever since.

Designers, in my experience, are unique individuals and always exciting to encounter.

However for the AFR, my targets tend to be CEOs – the business people –

So you can imagine my disappointment when Chanel’s president of fashion activities, Bruno Pavlovsky cancelled an interview in Paris it had taken months to set up.

Instead, he insisted the location had to be

here

The hotel du Cap, Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes. A favourite of Picasso and Edward & Mrs Simpson.

Being sent to the Riviera. On the morning of the Chanel Cruise show which was opened by Melbournian,  Abby Lee Kershaw.

This job? It’s a chore.

What is a Cruise collection?  Though they garner less press attention than those huge ready-to-wear extravaganzas revealed in Paris twice a year, cruise is far more profitable, accounting for more than 70% of clothing sales for brands worldwide because of  –slightly– more affordable price points and designs that work in places where the weather differs from France. Like Australia.

Chanel has had a presence on these shores since 1922 when the first rare flacons of Chanel no 5 arrived.  Karl has been at the helm since 1983.

Talk about surviving the fashion business!

——————————————————

What of the other luxury brands in 1985, the year my first articles were published?

back then Hermes was a scarf

Louis Vuitton was a trunk

and

Burberry was just a coat, designed by an old chap for other chaps. Although women had started wearing them too, following Meryl Streep in Kramer versus Kramer

——————————–

Let’s have a look at Burberry now.

I was in the audience of this show. But I wasn’t among the first to see it – it was tweeted to the world from backstage BEFORE the models appeared on the runway.

Those of you who tweet, tumble, etc may be familiar with Burberry’s digital activity. burberry.com is available in 46 countries in six languages, its Digital platform has had over 16.6 million page views in over 200 countries. Its Facebook page has over 10.2 million fans.

And by the time I’ve read that, it’s probably out of date.

No surprise – Burberry ranks # 1 among luxury goods brands by social media activity.

———–

But Burberry is NOT the world’s No 1 luxury brand in terms of cold, hard cash

Hello Louis Vuitton,

or as they say it in China,  Ni How ELLE VEE

————————

Back in 1997, I  packed up my house and changed countries when I was hired to edit Vogue Australia.

Back in 1997, Marc Jacobs kissed his dog on the nose and started commuting between his native New York and his new job in Paris.

Here’s how we captured a downtown boy’s arrival at the then bourgeois Vuitton.

I guess Marc’s recent contract negotiations, rumoured to have topped 12 million euros a year, might make his the better job offer….

Still it was me, not multimillionaire Marc who has ended up with the greatest gift. In my opinion, anyway.

Because yes, I did get fired from Vogue – terrific for tabloid headline writers, given that road out of Sydney is called The Hume Highway. But I got Australian citizenship and, not a tree (apparently they don’t do that any more) but a poster featuring a koala, a bilby, a bandicoot.

And I do love a marsupial.

Back in my Vogue days, one colleague – who shall remain nameless –  was appalled at my adoration of Australiana. Every time I’d come up with another idea involving a model and a marsupial, she would chastize me with;

“We want luxury not kangaroos!” but why not both???

I knew I was right!

——————————–

SHOPPING AND THE CITY

The shopping cityscape has certainly changed since those days when you could only get Prada from a Duty free store in Sydney. Although I’d visit Melbourne and breath a sigh of relief at seeing women in Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela, those radical designers I missed from Europe. Melbourne has always been such an elegant city, the big changes today are just a little less…. Huge.

But let’s look at the city where fashion now really dominates the skyline.

New York? Not really, although Burberry has neon signage way up high next to that of the New Yorker.

Imagine this with crossed CC Chanel branding. Sacre Bleu!

In Asia, there’s certainly the store-as-cathedral. In Singapore, Louis Vuitton has its own island.

But Fashion logos on a world famous icon?

Of course not.  But some people thought so.

I spent the turn of the millennium on a boat on Sydney harbour with Tom & Nicole & Baz and CM and….

shall I just do that again…. I spent  the turn of…

But anyway, an American onboard turned to me and said;

“I cannot believe they let Calvin do that”.

Eternity being of course a perfume by Calvin Klein, as well as the chalk on pavements tag of the legendary Sydneysider, Arthur Stace

(an idea, wikipedia tells me, that he took from a Melbourne man)

But now look at this.

Visible from well, everywhere in Sydney. The home of the  world’s leading shopping mall brand.

Not, I stress, that I am anti shopping mall. Malls are democratic. They let all of us enjoy and participate in good design, which is far better than silo-ing those with less in ghettos where even what you get to look at is second rate.

Malls make people feel safe. They do not discriminate by age, by race, by wealth, by health or disability.

And you can breeze into Gucci with groceries in a Coles bag.

And why not?

We all have to multitask.

Westfield’s biggest mall to date is in London. It is Westfield Stratford City, adjacent to the site of the 2012 Olympics.

It has what is known as “unrivalled connectivity” meaning it sits at the hub of road, rail and air links for millions of people.

Although few arrive by helicopter.

I got that chance because an aerial photographer was recording the mall being constructed. If you are ever invited in a chopper with a snapper – know this – if they strap you in with a 6 web seatbelt, that’s because they are going to open the doors.

It is a very odd sensation, let me tell you, to find there is nothing but the pilot, who appears to be lying on his side whilst flying, between you and the golden cross that sits atop St Paul’s Cathedral.

Not for the faint hearted

But then show me a faint hearted fashion chick?

It takes guts to get to the front row.

—————————————

Of course it takes drive to build a global brand

Here’s Topshop – now at the old Jam Factory on Chapel Street. What a mob scene!

Topshop gives me the shivers. And it should. It’s designed for those less than half my age who think frenzy is fabulous.

Who might be coming here soon?

Hello again Abby – here modelling for H&M, the Swedish giant, which can’t be far away.

Here’s how we covered the arrival of Zara in the AFR.

Remember those lines around the block? For weeks? As a friend of mine said at the time, “we’re not a third world country any more”.

Indeed not.

There’s even a Zara in Adelaide.

The foreign invaders have it allbuzz, bucks, access to top models. What hope have local brands got of fighting back against slick visuals like this?

Hang on. Not foreign, This is the new campaign from Cue.

Part of Australian life since 1968.

Here’s Country Road,

Oh I do like a wrap for fall – so useful

Cue, Country Road, Trenery, Oroton, Sportsgirl, Sussan, these are loved labels, helmed by smart and competitive people, who keep upping their game.

For this ain’t no time to be lazy. I think we must conclude that some well-known names here will go to the wall.

No shopper is going to be loyal just because you’ve been around so long you dressed their mother.

————————————

But what of the young designers?  When I arrived, a fashion fledgling called Akira Isogawa could be spring-boarded onto the cover of Vogue

These guys? Less likely.

It’s the big internationals with the advertising bucks who get the prized covers today. That’s part of the scratch our backs, we’ll scratch yours deal.

And while young designers can eek out an internet presence, how to fight for space in a world market?

The biggest barrier to success? The GFC. Even though, compared to Europe and the US, Australians are now relatively rich.

Who’s the next Collette Dinnigan?

What has not changed is those who thrive combine fashion savvy with business smarts.

Why do Collette dresses like this hang in such a charming boutique shop-in-shops in David Jones?

Ever tried arguing with Collette?

She knows that works for her brand and what she wants and what her customers wants – and that’s good.

Consider Kiwi, Karen Walker, one of the stars at Myer.  When I came into this business, designers stayed up in their ivory towers —with the exception of the queen of the trunk show, Donna Karan, who was down in Bloomingdales, selling like pro.

Today, designers and stores have to collaborate. Myer and Karen have created Hi There, a line of bold, bright, primary coloured pieces that you can see from right across the floor.

Then there’s all that hot colour at Sass & Bide and the evidence of a label thriving through collaboration with a store group smart enough to let these designers do their thing – while introducing that fun, funky aesthetic to a far wide customer base.

The gritty truth about enduring fashion success; only a teeny bit of it is ever about fantasy and ivory towers and sipping champagne . Most of it is about team work.

—————————–

As Tom Ford told me, he was standing on the Bund in Shanghai when it dawned on him;

“America, this is not our century any more”

and actually, that’s rather good news for Australia.

The tyranny of distance? It depends on the point from which you measure. We’re near the middle now.

Enter the year of the Dragon.

No wonder Dior – opening its first Australian store in Sydney in November, chose the most beautiful Frenchwoman, Marion Cottiard, to fall in love with a mysterious Chinese man, played by Gong Tao, in the advertising campaign, directed by

David Lynch and set in Shanghai.

Visiting China always blows my mind.  Here’s a recent piece I did for 10 magazine..  The People’s Republic of luxe.

But the first time I went to Beijing almost a decade ago, it was to interview newly-successful women about their first designer buys. Yet instead, they told such sad stories of the Mao years. One told me about being given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that.

The power of clothes is powerful indeed.

The skyline here dates this story from my long run as contributing editor at TIME Magazine’s Style & Design in New York to 2008, because the Rem Koolhaas CCTV building is still under construction.  By 2008, the fashion antanae of smart girls like Wendi Yi – whose mother worn a Mao suit – were so finely tuned they’d already outgrown ELLE VEE. Wendi referred to Vuitton as “a second tier city brand”

Which translates as, for the hicks from the sticks.

Ouch.

She liked Fendi –which was handy, because we went together to the Fendi show on the Great Wall of China.

This, I can tell you, is what we call “a fashion moment”

Although a rather chilly one. I don’t wear fur, ever. Fendi was loaning them that night, – see Kate Bosworth in the front row. Instead, I wore basically all my clothes on top of each other, which is never a good look.

Strangely, I don’t seem to have a picture…

So instead, Here’s the proof that Karl Lagerfeld, he of Fendi, Chanel, KL, is the closest we have to fashion god on earth – he’s got his own popemobile.

That night on the Great Wall, Fendi almost went too far with its branding. The double Fs were projected onto the slopes of the Great Wall itself – which by the way, you can’t see from the moon.

Is the moon next? Think of the great back lighting!

Here’s the moon in Broome. Your brand up here?

Never.

But as technology advances, we may have to legislate to protect a view that belongs to every single one of us. No brand should change our natural world, pollute it or take without giving back.

However….. changing things for one night only is fine –  as long as every grain of sand goes back where it came from.

How lovely was the Hermes beach party in Sydney last month.

Rumour has it they had to remove all that pearly white sand with a hoover, Sadly, because everything had to go back to just like before the old beach hut on stilts Hermes turning into a champagne bar was for one night only.

That really is a shame.

I’m lucky enough to be sent all over the place, which is how I got to hang out with Arabian beauty, Al Anoud in Dubai

Then I froze in Moscow. Unlike Olga in her fur-lined parka.

May I draw your attention to the number on the calculator. It’s at least $50,000. For a gown.

Istanbul is uber chic . On a boat on the Bosphorous,   the elegant Zeynep, who was rocking a white bikini, explained her deeply held muslim faith.  Her faith decreed, she told me, that she cover her private places —- hence 3 tiny triangles.

And the evidence that malls don’t ruin cities and destroy civilization – here’s Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, bringing you the mall shopping experience since Constantinople and all the way back to Byzantium.

We’ll always have Paris

The city of light, or dark in this lovely shot. But even Paris changes.

Hermes means tradition stretching all the way back to a saddle maker on the Faubourg Saint Honore, right?

Yet on the Left Bank,

the Hermes Sevres store is a celebration of modernity.

Tradition is terrific, if you keep it spinning.

———————–

I suspect that Erica, who worked on these visuals, thinks these two both come from way back at the dawn of time. To a 20 year old, what’s a few million years between a dinosaur and my first computer? Which of course was not connected to something called the internet.

Today, it’s our lives. I’m sure many of you in this room are right now suffering social media deprivation, desperate to check emails, your twitter feed or indeed, as we’re talking frocks, to shop

and maybe snap up this numero, on sale, at net-a-porter

Yet it is my fault – absolutely mine – that the fashion professionals in this room face the mighty challenge of net-a-porter and now, its butch boyfriend, Mr Porter.

Founder and Executive chairman, Natalie Massenet, was bored with being a fashion stylist at Tatler magazine when she asked if I was hiring fashion for Vogue Australia. I told her no. Apparently she got back to her hotel room and shed a little tear.

The next time I saw her, she told me she was going to sell high fashion on this new fangled thing called the internet, this electronic thing which geeks and boffins with unwashed pony tails and wearing in washed out band tour T shirts seemed to be excited about. But buying clothes? Without touching the fabrics? Obviously the poor girl was deluded.

These days, Natalie is awfully good natured about my rejection and the sale of her company for about 350 million pounds….

The PRs of  these sites have emailed out of the blue offering their CEOs for profiles in the AFR.  Honestly, when I joined the AFR, people in Europe were not approaching…me.

I had to virtually mud wrestle to land Tom Ford….

So why now?

Because they are all noticing how much business they are getting from Australia.

Without Even Trying.

Which is very trying for those in the business here.

What’s Australia doing online? Not enough, not fast enough and you know it. Erica and I searched for wow images from Australian fashion sites. But here’s the tough love – not exciting enough yet.

—————————————

SURVIVAL OF THE GLAMOUROUS

If you can’t beat them…. No. You do not join them. You do what you do best.

If you are a designer – perhaps be inspired by Christian Louboutin, the shoe maker whose company is still privately owned, who started with nothing and now has a global niche, selling more than 340,000 pairs of shoes a year in heel heights he calls high, extremely high and madness.

The AFR headline? NO FLATS PLEASE, WE’RE FRENCH

Know you customer. If you design for a creative and intelligent grown up woman, then treat her to some intelligent creativity. As Scanlan and Theodore did by getting the art photography legend,  Nan Goldin,  to re- imagine the seasonal ad campaign.

If you are a retailer – Everyone knows it is tough for those independents who have carved their market by bringing in hard-to-find international labels –  only to find this niche especially threatened by the internet. What to do?

Boldly go in a very big hat?

Here’s Christine Barro. Where’s her store? Down a  Melbourne back street, down a staircase, underground. What’s it like? A fantastical Aladdin’s cave full of Lanvin and Celine bags and peerless jewellery by Adrian Lewis.

What did Christine do when she knew she needed to bring new, younger customers? She called Irish hatter, Philip Treacy — who does a lovely line in Melbourne Cup hats, as well as squiggles on the head of Princess Beatrice – to lend a hand

Her budget was buttons, so the show?  Staged in the lane way. Brilliant.

——————————–

Every one of us is a consumer. What do we all want?

Service.

I’m not talking obsequious, “Madame, your bum does not look big in that” silly service. But good service.

In Australia?

Sometimes it is appalling.

I started my career standing selling in shops. Before Browns, I worked in Debenhams, which roughly equates to a Myer away from the flagships. I worked in Selfridges, now so fabulous, then so foul, we used to get fleabites from the infested carpet when we knelt down to restock the cabinets.

My golden rule for how to get good service; pay commission. Some say that goes against team building, it causes backstabbing as sales people hurryto grab the customers while admin doesn’t get done.

Hello! Me, your shopper? I do not care about your admin.

And, as a former shop girl working punishing hours in the dry air of an old department store, I’ll be honest. I was motivated by making as much money as possible.

If You’ve got a problem with that, ask yourself this:  what would motivate YOU to get up from your snazzy desk and stand where I used to stand, at the front line, where customers — sorry to break this to you — can be quite vile.

Here’s how it worked for me.

Smile and serve. Smile and serve. Kerching!

And a % in my pay packet.

Is this man in Melbourne on commission? I have no idea, but I can tell you, he can sell.

“Do you think a woman could wear this, or is it too much?,” he asked as he spritzed some obscure fragrance – not on my friend and I,  but on scent strips. With that, he drew us in, lured us into his wonderful world of scent and then, how did that happen??? before we knew it, we felt so comfortable in the Harrolds mens store, we were shopping.

Salesmanship is an art.

The internet can do many things, but it cannot, yet, provide a handsome man to spritz two tired women with zest of lime and bergamot…

And it’s not just me who’s impressed. Here’s Kanye West after a Harrolds shopping extravaganza in Sydney.

—————————-

FASHION + BUSINESS

I’m a useless entrepreneur.  Way too interested in the next thing, to concentrate on the same thing, I guess.

So who IS a great entrepreneur?

She is.  Elle who gives a whole new fabulous meaning to the term BODY CORPORATE.

And she’s not the only one to realize there’s cash in pants.

Sean Ashby was an Aussie beach Bum who took his idea of very small things to be worn by very big men to the departments stores and –he claims – you all said no.

Unlike Natalie Massenet, who maybe shed a little tear when she was knocked back, Sean probably spewed up a barrage of expletives.

Then got busy.  Millions and millions of internet-earned dollars busy.

The American summer blockbuster, opening May 2012, is Marvel Comics,  The Avengers, starring Robert Downey jr, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow etc. In other words HUGE.

When the producers were casting around for the perfect fashion brand to appear as the shop in the background of a key battle scene, who did it choose?

Not bad for a brand that has no bricks and mortar stores.

——————————————-

Spot the odd one out?

I interview a lot of fashion CEOs. Are they smarter than the rest of us? Not always.

But what does every single one of them have in common?

CEOs get up early.

They are larks – except when I asked Erica to source a picture of a lark, she said “what’s a lark?” hence the sulphur crested cockatoo, although it squawks at dawn rather than sings melodically.

What else do CEOs all do?

They exercise.  I tell you, when I ask those Frenchmen in ties the work/life balance Q, it’s then hard to stop them telling me how great they are at tennis… and skiing…and competitive yachting.. and horse riding…. And how many kilometers they jog.

99% of my writing is at night. I am an owl, which is, I tell myself anyway, what stands between me and running a company.

Still, it is good to know there is always an exception to the rule.

No, not the bloke. Topshop tsar, Philip Green has to get up early to catch the jet from his home in the tax haven that is Monaco. But savvy business woman and superstar, Kate Moss, joins me in often seeing the dawn – before she’s gone to bed.

Although I suspect she’s having rather more fun.

———————————————

Here’s a pixilated man in his pants.

I want you now to think about the provenance of the clothes on our backs, or in this chap’s case, his front.

Why don’t we ask more questions? We do when it comes to food. Is it because the fashion answers make us …uncomfortable?

The majority of the world’s cotton is traded as a commodity, bundled together, which makes it difficult for us to trace where it was grown.  Some facts; Uzbekistan is the second biggest cotton exporter in the world. About 40% of it is picked by Year 11 teenagers, who are forced out of school for the harvest, alongside their teachers.

You want child labour with your knickers?

The internet does more than let us have everything we want delivered to our door. It allows allow us to ask and to act. Every fashion business wants to be seen to be doing good – some because they care, some because they fear the perilous price of a consumer boycott.

There’s always somewhere else to shop.

So use that connectivity at your finger tips.

You think they won’t listen? Then think of how the business of gemstones is cleaning up its act, due directly to campaigning, spreading information and then a rapidly declining for blood diamonds.

Here, I’m undercover in Burma – literally because I’m inside a temple illuminated only by very fast use of my photographer’s flash, trying to investigate the trade in rubies which, while are banned from being imported due to sanctions against the Myanmar regime – still find their way, via Thailand, into the stocks of —some – well known jewelers.

When it comes to food, we try to buy organic, local, from a responsible source.  So translating that to luxury,

aren’t we lucky here? Here’s a Kalis pearl, cultivated in the pristine waters off our far north western shores.

And I do like a diamond

Australia is home to the Ellendale mine, where health and safety rules are tough. There are workplace initiatives to ensure the promotion of indigenous people. Men and women are equal –  so girls get to drive the really big trucks.

As to environmental commitment, Ellendale even has a wallaby relocation officer.

Tiffany & Co has the rights to the top grade fancy yellows from Ellendale.

Local with an international twist

And from the international jeweler that leads the way in barring all Burmese rubies, using no dirty gold and refusing to trade in coral.

What’s not to love?

When I started as a fashion journalist, my ethics and my politics confused. How could I think the way I do yet love expensive handbags?

My answer is how could you favour cheap ones?

And especially fake ones. Fakes fund terrorism. Do think of that on that shopping jaunt to Bangkok or Bali.

You think she’s getting your dollars? Don’t kid yourself.

I do not own an Hermes Birkin, but when I can eventually afford one,  here’s my argument for anyone who thinks me an airhead for wanting a heritage treasure crafted by well paid artisans.

To compare. What happened to your last mobile phone? The one you had to have then fell out of love with when they launched an even snazzier model? The one with – it’s not unlikely – the copper for the connectors within that may well have been mined in Eastern Congo by trafficked slaves?

In contrast, Hermes artisans are supported by the family firm until the end of their lives – in Paris, there’s even a club for “les anciens”, the retired, where once a month the company shouts them lunch.

Here’s  Edun where a manageable proportion of the collection is made in Africa, this making the fashion chain more fair.

And here’s me in Nairobi with the Crochet Sisters who made those skirts, asking questions about their working conditions.

And it all adds up.

This bag is designed by Ilaria Fendi – of those Fendis – and made in East Africa with the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Let’s conclude with what I hope is fashion’s most important trend. I consult for the United Nations agency, the ITC where I am honoured to work with Simone Cipriani, a world expert on poverty reduction.

His brainwave? To harness the unrivalled glitter and power of fashion as a vehicle out of poverty. How?  We connect the best designers in the world with the poorest of the poor for mutual, profitable and long term collaborations. We facilitate a system of business which allows designers to move a small but significant percentage of production, at fair wages, to those otherwise excluded or exploited.

The mantra is NOT CHARITY, JUST WORK.

These bags, created in the slums that ring Nairobi, are shown on the Paris catwalk.

What’s great? This isn’t about pity purchasing, buying something because you think you should, then chucking it out on a one-way ticket to landfill.

The driving force in fashion – at every level – is –always — DESIRE.

Vivienne Westwood’s fans want these bags because they think they are fabulous.

It’s the ultimate gift with purchase that the bags also have a 100% ethical, environmentally sound backstory

We’re coming to the end of my stories, so those about travelling across Kenya with Dame Vivienne will have to wait.

In any case, the wonderful thing about this job, is I’m always on to the next adventure. A few weeks ago, that meant hanging out with that master of classic with a twist, Paul Smith, whose first Australian store opens in Collins Street – here’s a sneak peek of the AFR coverage out in March.

Thank you all for travelling with me through 25 years of fashion today.

Rainbow – Australian financial review

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

How can you copyright a colour? The notion seems ludicrous. Imagine some swaggering luxury goods titan looking up at a rainbow and pronouncing, “I want red for this brand, orange for that brand, worldwide usage for yellow, all rights for green and I’m banning anyone else from blue, indigo, violet.”

Yet who owns what tone has become a hot topic. A while back, I was asked to write a letter in support of the French shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s right to red and I was happy to do so. Louboutin’s red soles are a potent brand signifier. So no wonder he saw red and sued when Yves Saint Laurent offered red soled shoes too. The presiding judge found against him noting that no one designer should have a “monopoly” on any color. At time of writing, the case is on appeal.

Louboutin became associated with red by accident. He thought the black soles of his first designs for high heels looked depressingly dull so he grabbed some nail lacquer and added D.I.Y. pizazz. Does he own red? Powerful forces rallying to his support certainly hope so. Tiffany & Co. has filed something called an amicus curiae because if Loubi loses, who owns the blue the jewellers have been using since 1845?

There’s no question, surely, that Hermes owns orange. Yet like Loubi-red, Hermes orange was an accident. Until the end of the 1930s, the company’s packaging was brown. But under the Nazi occupation, paper stock became near-impossible to find. Someone heard of a cake shop that had had to close. The sunny packaging in which people had carried home gateaux in happier times was available because other luxury marques thought it too vulgar. And so orange came to signify hope, then chic and now – certainly if it is me who is the lucky recipient of an Hermes gift – absolute joy.

Hermes orange has gone even further, to the point that it is synonymous with Paris itself, for orange = Hermes = Parisian chic. Yet when you look at the fabric of Paris, it isn’t orange of course, it’s dove grey or in the watery light of early spring, the most ravishing lavender. And hardly anyone in Paris ever wears orange, with the exception of the Australian, Marc Newson, who has a penchant for vivid windcheaters.

Elsewhere, when nature, light and beautiful architecture can’t be called upon, a splash of bright paint can be transforming in how we see a city. I’ve never been to Tirana, Albania, among the most isolated capitals in Europe. But my interest was piqued when the mayor decreed that brutalist architecture – and thus citizens’ lives – could be improved with bold stripes of yellow, green, blue and red applied all over the tower blocks. Similarly, in the favelo of Rio and the slums of Nairobi, painting rundown buildings in vibrant colours is starting to have the effect of cutting criminality, which it turn gives locals more power over their lives.

This isn’t new to me. In 1851, a social experiment took place in a notorious London slum. When a row of cheap little terrace houses went up, each was rendered and painted a different colour to see if poor people might behave better if they lived in pretty houses. As my neighbours and I quip today, as we stand outside homes still painted primrose, pistachio and rose, we do. We also know our street brightens the day of many who walk through because they stop and tell us so. Colour is cheerful. Should fashion designers ever get ownership of it, then? I think, sometimes, yes. But given my suspicions that there are luxury goods titans out there would love to project brand logos onto the moon if we let them, we must stay vigilant. We hold the monopoly on how we colour our world.

The Bees Knees – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

The Bees Knees 

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

Cor blimey, I should have turned up in a “Pearly Queen” outfit, because I seem to have walked in to Old London Town. Fish and chips? Served in twists of newspaper by waiters in bowler hats.  A nip of gin? Coming right up. Red-jacketed Queen’s guards? Yes, but unlike those standing sentry outside Buckingham Palace, these lads are sporting Extra Wow Lash mascara under their towering bearskins.

The venue is an iconic London landmark, the Battersea Power Station that is truthfully too far from the steeple of Bow Bells for anyone to claim to be cockney. But that’s not going to stop supermodel “mockney” Kate Moss from arriving in style. Pump up London Calling by The Clash and look! That’s Kate’s chopper overhead!  It touches down and the ultimate London girl then runs down a red carpet in a little red dress to match her Lasting Finish shade #1 red lips.

That certainly gets the party started to celebrate her 10-year association with Rimmel London, (which used to be called just plain ‘Rimmel’ and was actually founded by a Frenchman). This birthday bash has been going on all day. Earlier, it was red, white and blue cupcakes and an English tea party at Claridge’s hotel, where fashion’s famous sphinx, (again sporting Lasting Finish shade #1) picked up a microphone and actually spoke, albeit briefly.

Interviewer: “What was it like filming the latest commercial?”

Kate: “It was so much fun.”

Interviewer: “What was the best bit?”

Kate: “The last shot was good, thank you for coming everyone.”

Come they have. The beauty press have been flown in from all corners of the globe to try New Lasting Finish 25 Hour Foundation and Vinyl Max Gloss. Me? While I admit I’ve grabbed a Scandaleyes mascara and Traffic Stopping eyeshadow in Over the Limit #001, I’m here to talk to the boss, Bernd Beetz, (and yes, it does sound like Burned Bees).

Beetz helms Coty Inc. (which has Rimmel London along with Calvin Klein fragrance and Sally Hansen nail varnish and Lancaster skincare and JOOP! body splash, etcetera, etcetera, in a vast portfolio). While Moss’s 10 years with Rimmel have seen her jumping off double decker buses and roaring past Big Ben on a motorbike  and going from “nought to Sexy in seconds”, Beetz has been the puppeteer, dramatically repositioning a ragtag of mass-market fragrances and toiletries as well as marshaling new launches and snapping up acquisitions to create a global beauty behemoth with revenues of more than $3.5 billion in 2010. A word on those acquisitions. In just two months this year, Coty snapped up four major beauty companies, Dr. Scheller Cosmetics, Philosophy inc, The nail line, OPI and TJoy, the latter a Chinese skincare brand.

Australia has a role to play in all this.  Talking just Rimmel alone, we rank fourth among key markets and are also viewed as a territory with the maximum upswing (which translates as “they could sell even more here and they’re certainly going to try”). Already successful is Rimmel’s value priced (cheap), self-serve (grab your own,) accessible (teenage), make-up, although even after HRH’s recent, well received visit to Queensland and beyond, you wouldn’t be betting on how many Union Jack eyeshadows in Royal Blue and Purple Reign will be sold on these shores.

By now Bernd Beetz (61 year old, wearing a suit, no tie he commutes between Coty’s Paris and New York HGs and is almost always in transit), is posing for the paps with Kate Moss and his close lieutenant Steve Mormoris, the Senior Vice-President, Global Marketing for Coty Beauty. Coty has two main divisions; Coty Prestige, which encompasses perfume and cosmetics for such brands as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga; and the somewhat more “masstige”Coty Beauty, with labels such as Kylie Minogue, Beyonce Knowles, David and Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss, also has a Coty perfume range that sells in supermarkets.

Moss has good reason to be hugging Beetz and Mormoris, considering these businessmen stuck by her when she was mired in an alleged cocaine scandal that saw much edgier fashion brands judge her too hot to handle. While Mormoris decided not to ditch her,  ultimate veto lay with Beetz. That he did not let Moss go is among a series of sometimes surprising decisions that made him the subject of a Harvard Business School paper; Bernd Beetz: Creating the New Coty by Professor Geoffrey Jones and Senior Researcher David Kiron.

“Is this an average day for you?” I ask Beetz, (and given the scene, what would you have tried as an opening gambit?) Beetz is German. He considers the question and replies with care. “It is not so average. After this, I go on to…normal business. This event is particular because it marks the 10 year anniversary of me taking over Coty. It is 10 years since working here with Steve and I took Kate Moss as the key spokesperson for Rimmel, which was my first big decision.”

And you’ve stuck with her. “Basically there were two things. She was loyal to us, so we were loyal to her. We are not people that dump a loyal supporter and we were also lucky because we are a private company. So even if our business would have gone down, it is something we could have afforded. Secondly, everything is not sugar-coated and straight-forward in life, so it seemed not be a bad idea to stick with her and show that life has difficulties. I think that in hindsight, it was a good idea.”Other businessmen might agree, especially if it were to lead to them partying with one of the most famous beauties on earth in the roped-off VIP area.

Bernd Beetz  comes from Heidelberg, was educated in Mannheim and is the son of an engineer who built power plants. He speaks English, French, Italian and Turkish fluently (“with conversational Spanish”). For 20 years, he worked across Europe for P&G ( the leading consumer product company, Procter & Gamble), then at LVMH, where he was president and CEO of Dior and is credited with the blockbuster success of J’Adore fragrance.

Securing the top job at Coty was not an inviting prospect in 2001. While the name dates back to 1904 and Francois Coty, a French perfumer who was much admired by Coco Chanel, Coty had been sold and amalgamated and downgraded to little more than a tattered umbrella over a bunch of brands with competing agendas and unimpressive market share. By 2001, Coty had been spun off from a chemicals conglomerate called Benckiser, privately-owned by the Reimann family and run by Peter Harf. However, Harf  did have to wisdom to realise that success flogging household cleaning products did not give him the skill set required to build an upscale beauty portfolio on the side.  For that, he had Beetz in his sights.

Back then, Beetz was the man-of-the-moment. He had doubled profits in two and a half years at Dior and earned a reputation as an inspired marketer. He was living in a luxury Paris apartment (complete with personal chef and chauffeur). Looking back now, he recalls the experience of working for LVMH boss Bernard Arnault as transforming, citing the luxury goods titan’s mastery at translating concepts into products  “He taught me a new aspect on how to approach a luxury brand”.  Beetz was surprised to find his old business acquaintance Peter Harf standing in the street outside his door one morning in 2001. Harf approached with an offer he could not refuse. If, after two years, he couldn’t fix Coty, he would be free to go with a big fat bonus. If he could, the company would be his to run as he liked.

Beetz said yes and by the way, he would make Coty one of the world’s top beauty companies within a decade as well. (At the time, Coty ranked 32nd). Today? It’s number 12 according to Women’s Wear Daily’s Top 100 Beauty listing after Kao Group, Johnson & Johnson, Chanel, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.  Coty now comprises more than 40 well-known brands available in over 90 markets worldwide.

Beetz has achieved the turnaround first pulling everyone into line and then setting them free. (The Harvard study dubbed this a “Faster, Further, Freer” corporate culture). But setting people free surely carries risk that they are free to fail? “It’s not luck,” is Beetz reply on that. “We didn’t have a major failure. I’m not afraid to admit that we have been by and large very successful.”  Part of that success has been wise acquisitions. An US$800 million acquisition of Unilever’s fragrance division, including the Calvin Klein fragrance license along with the romantic scents of Vera Wang and the fashion-forward Chloe made Coty the world’s largest fragrance company. But what of deals that got away? “I know but I’m not going to answer,” says Beetz.

Elsewhere in the beauty business where both the profits – and the losses – are potentially enormous – (for example, 90% of new perfume launches fail within a year) , it is not unusual for big decisions to be made by consensus. Senior executives might be polled on what a teenage fragrance should smell like (mostly just like an earlier success), how the bottle should be shaped (like one that exists)  – in other words, companies can be hampered by highly accomplished staffers being part of decisions that have little to do with what they are good at. One of Beetz’ skills has been to let the people best placed to make creative decisions do so. In this, it helps that the company is private. “I don’t think we could have accomplished what we did in the last ten years without the strong support of the family of the mother company,” Beetz says.

“Actually we have the best of both worlds. We have the support of the family which is part of the 7th generation. But they are not involved in the management so we have a clear meritocracy. This entitled me to the job and I have been successful ever since. Nobody in the family works here, not even on the board.”

There are 3 key product pillars of Coty inc:- There’s colour cosmetics, anchored by the storming success of  Rimmel, which legitimately earned its “London” tag in 1834 after Eugene Rimmel set up shop away from his native France, then his British-born sons developed the first non toxic mascara. But Rimmel was barely known outside of Britain ten years ago. The strategy since then has been to invest in R&D, to align the brand closely with the vibrant street style of urban tribes, to pump up the image while pushing down the price (its lipsticks sell  for as much as 20% less than close competitors).

Next come the sun and skincare lines, which range from Lancaster, which traces its heritage to the jet-set of 1950s Monte Carlo, to TJoy. This has provided a foothold into China through TJoy’s existing distribution channels as well as a platform for expansion. But there’s a challenge inherent here.

Coty’s biggest product category by far, (62% of total revenues) is fragrance. In much of Asia, dabbing on perfume is neither a tradition nor is it popular.  Give it time; for Asian markets, Coty now create “flankers”, softer versions of star scents, hence Calvin Klein Euphoria becomes the lighter, entry-level Calvin Klein Euphoria Blossom. Cracking China is the goal of many western beauty conglomerates and here, Coty is far from the front runner. “We are the challenger in that game and we only have a very low presence,” concedes Beetz.  “We started off in Europe and then we conquered America and we were a bit behind in China. We acquired TJoy to develop a meaningful presence.” With a bridge to Beijing, will Rimmel be roaring into town? How well is Kate Moss known in China? “She’s known,” says Beetz gnomically.

At the turn of the millennium, you might have described Jennifer Lopez more as notorious; given her relationship with rap mogul, Sean “P Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs and an incident involving a gun in a New York nightclub. So although J.Lo’s “people” were shopping around the notion that the Latina bombshell might front a fragrance, not surprisingly, there were not a lot of takers. In any case, the category was moribund.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth Taylor had become almost as well known for the fragrance White Diamonds as her role as Cleopatra but, with her notable exception, over the next decade, celebrity scent had diminished to dime store sales for cable TV stars.

Yet against this backdrop, Beetz’ gut told him a celebrity scent was exactly what was needed to power out his re-energised Coty. He let “his people” talk to J Lo’s “people”. He proved willing to sign the cheques that allowed an executive to hang out with Lopez, to learn what she was really like (far sweeter than her reputation, apparently) and then to encapsulate that in a flacon based on her body (a trick first tried in the 1930s when Mae West posed for a bottle based on her Hollywood curves).

It could have been a tacky disaster story. Instead, a range of JLo fragrances – which still sell, despite most fragrances having somewhat short “lives”  – has generated cumulative revenues topping US$1 billion. The launch of Lopez’ first fragrance with Coty, J.Lo Glow is often attributed with reinvigorating the entire celebrity fragrance category.

The rumour back then was that Beetz identified J Lo or Madonna as his ideal collaborators. On the day Beetz and I meet there’s a faint rumour going around that Madonna is, at last, entering the scent scene. So who is the diva’s industry partner and how do you bottle Madge? “What are you talking about?” Beetz shoots back (It has since been announced that Coty’s Truth or Dare by Madonna, with topnotes of gardenias and tuberose, will launch at Macy’s New York on March 26 followed by an international roll out in May. “She was always on my list,” Beetz told fashion industry paper, WWD.)

Anyway, next up, for sure, are new launches from the Beckhams, plus Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recently announced the launch of a new Soul2Soul fragrance at their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And Lady Gaga will be gearing up to conquer perfume counters. For if you can sell 13 million plus albums worldwide and garner more than a billion views online and with 6.9million followers on Twitter, why wouldn’t you bottle it?

But it may come as a surprise to discover Coty does not do that. The world’s leading fragrance company does not make scent. Instead, it comes up with a concept then shops it out to the likes of Givaudan, Firmenich or IFF  (none of these are household names) to create the liquid in the bottle, or in industry parlance, “the juice”.

Once the juice is right, whether floral, spicy, mossy, citrus, chypre or fougere (the latter perfume term translates as “fern”), Coty bottles it, packages it, promotes it and hopes that we buy it labelled Kate Moss or Playboy or Adidas or – coming soon – four Elite Model fragrances: Paris Baby, London Queen, New York Muse, Rio Glam Girl –  tapping into the zeitgeist of Next Top Model TV shows.  At the prestige end of the spectrum, there’s Bottega Veneta, Cerruti, Davidoff, Jil Sander, and a new scent by Roberto Cavalli. Coty has also developed scents with Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, Renée Fleming and Celine Dion.

Flagged up in the Beetz Harvard study is a warning that the amount of travel endured by senior staffers threatens life/work balance; although, as the Rimmel London party ramps up, Beetz shows no sign of weariness. “I don’t force myself to be fit for the job, I just like it. I like the lifestyle. I like the rhythm of it. So I don’t know if I keep fit for the job or if the job is just shaped in the way I live,” he tells me. As to keeping everything spinning, he replies, “I think I balance it very well. I’m basically working around the clock. Work is life.” Let’s drink to that.

It’s a Powerland,* darling – Sunday Times

It’s a Powerland,* darling 

 

Sunday Times Stella | 04 December 2011

 

By Marion Hume 

 

*That’s Powerland, the Chinese answer to Prada. Never heard of it? You soon will have, along with a host of other super-brands now being hatched in the world’s emerging economies. Report by MARION HUME 

 

At the Paris shows in October, the hot rumour was of a meeting between Anna and Uma. While ‘Anna’ does indeed refer to the editor of American Vogue, the Uma in question is a Shanghainese designer who fashion insiders believe is on target to achieve international acclaim.

Uma Wang’s creations are sophisticated and chic; in style more Belgian than any cliché of what one might consider Chinese. As word circulated that ‘Vogue is doing a piece,’ everyone checked out the buzz. ‘Thanks for the tip off!’ one retailer texted me after I directed her to Wang’s tiny, temporary showroom. ‘Love it. Brought it. Uma is a star!!!!!!’

Just as Western luxury brands colonise and coin it in China, it is inevitable that Chinese companies will want to do the same right back. While some might currently be lacking in savoir faire, whatthose with big ambitions won’t lack is money; Beijing and Shanghai are backed with newly minted billionaires looking for glamorous investment opportunities.

The French and the Italians of course just shrug at all this. For what Chinese brand can realistically give a grand marquee with 50, 100, 150-lus years behind it a run for it’s money? But those much-vaunted years do somewhat depend on how you count. Sometimes the moniker ‘luxury brand’ really translates as ‘company able to flog mountains of pricy handbags with some other stuff on the side’. While Louis Vuitton has indeed an artisanal heritage arcing back to 1854, it is in trunk-making for which construction techniques could ‘hold their own on avenue Montaigne’, thanks to ‘a long history of exquisite craftsmanship, a wealth of beautiful stones, an emotional relationship with fold, and the talent to design and create ornaments with a very distinct identity’. She also points out the popularity of the jewellery brand Amrapali among American celebrities. The actress Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the singer Rihanna, have all worn pieces on the red carpet this year.

Sheetal Mafatlal, a Paris front-row fixture who introduced the Valentino label to Mumbai, also insists that local jewellers such as TBZ are the best anywhere, but cautions that their strengths lie not in the global brand reach but in their spectacular bespoke offerings.

Shweta Shiware is the former fashion editor of Mid Day (India’s afternoon newspaper with a circulation of five million.) She explains that designerwear is synonymous with bridalwear in India because that’s where people spend money. ‘Bridal masters like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra control the market in a far tighter grip than any international luxury brands can hope to’. Of course, among the Indian diaspora, top sari labels are already international brands. Manish Malhotra is known as the Cavalli of Mumbai, while creations by TT (as Tarun Tahiliani is known) are accessorised with Bottega Veneta clutches and Louboutin heels at all the best Bollywood parties. To woo India, Hermes now offers its famous scarves expanded to sari size. Expect others to copy that idea.

Brazilian brands have already made some serious headway. Fernanda Paronetto, head of corporate marketing for the Brazilian operation of the concierge company Quintessentially, has a hot-list of local brands-gone-global at her fingertips. There’s the jeweller H Stern, with 165 stones in 12 countries; the fashion designer Carlos Miele- who has shown at New York Fashion Week since 2002 and is worn by mega-stars such as Jennifer Lopez Beyonce. Alexandre Herchovitch is another Brazilian designer, who is currently big in Japan. For shoes, Alexandre Birman is known as the Brazilian Manolo Blanhik and is a hit both on net-a-porter.com and the red carpet. The lingerie label Rosa Cha is Brazil’s answer to La Perla, Osklen is the South American Polo Ralph Lauren and there’s the model Gisele Bundchen’s favourite Havaianas – the flip-flops that wouldn’t be considered luxurious except that every female Oscar nominee gets given a pair. ‘And don’t forget Jack Vartanian,’ adds Paronetto. ‘Nowadays his jewels are worn by Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.’

With many an economist’s eye on South Korea’s emerging economy, if the name Lie Sang Bong is not yet familiar to you, it should become so. The McQueen of Korea has been showing at Paris fashion week for almost a decade, and is the most prominent designer in his home country, dressing the first lady and collaborating on design projects as wide ranging as home décor, cigarettes and computing (the Lie Sang Bong limited edition mobile phone is a highly desirable piece of kit). ‘And Lady Gaga loves him!’ adds the Seoul-based interior designer Rea Kim.

Such is Korea’s success that it has threatened to budge Russia out of its own acronym, with some economists vaunting a change from BRIC, the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to BRICK. In fact, as far as new local luxury brands are concerned, the Russian’s don’t seem to be son interested. The designer Valentin Yudashkin has been showing at Paris Fashion Week for decades and is the only Russian designer to be honoured with membership of the city’s Syndicate of High Fashion. But his brand is still not one with global recognition.

Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Paris Vogue who has Russian blood, is a supporter of Yudashkin, and she also has a hand in the revival of the Russian jewellery house Faberge. Faberge thrived from 1842 until the 1927 revolution ad is famous for its exquisite bejewelled eggs (valued at about £12 million each). The Brand, now owned by the London-based consortium Pallinghurst Resources, is no longer based in Russia, and is returning to London and New York with new stores. The flagship stores is in Geneva rather than St Petersburg these days and the brand’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, isn’t Russian, but the talented designer Natalia Shugaeva is. And what could be more Russian than a history full of opulence, tragedy and exile?

Of all local brands that could take on luxury giants, the wise woman might place her quilted gold, pave gem-set jewelled chips on Faberge..

Holidaying with Ikea – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

That IKEA has caught on, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is in part directly due to my mother, who will always drive out of her way for napkins and a jar of herrings. 

Holidaying with IKEA

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

I was really excited. I had travelled to the source – a bit like Burton and Speke and the source of the Nile, except for the details, such as Burton didn’t actually make it to Lake Victoria and I didn’t have a camel. No need for camels with such a massive parking lot. What lay before me was not nile green, but the world’s most recognized colour combination, yellow and blue. I had reached the birthplace of IKEA.

Actually, I’ve just lied a bit and I’m sad about that. Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA in Smaland. But my Swedish friend insisted the Goteburg branch was better, so while I missed the thrill of the most ancient temple of flat­-packing, a still historic source of self­-assembly was good enough. I could barely contain my excitement as I grabbed my yellow ‘for use in store’ bag.

I should confess here that I love IKEA. I just do not understand why people hate it. I mean, even I can follow instructions and build a drawer. I also love that the designs are democratic, which is to say affordable and widely applicable. Not for you with your ‘shabby chic’ sitting room? But have you thought of how happily one of the $10 tables will sit next to your overstuffed armchair were you only to cover it in a pretty chintz cloth?

As for hiding in plain sight, one swanky decorator of my acquaintance stocks up on LACK bookshelves for oligarch clients’ homes. Sure, she puts the IKEA mostly in the chauffeurs and security guards’ accommodation, but she always sneaks a bit into the main house(s) because it fills the gaps. Then there’s the eco­-thought, the sustainability, the effort that has gone in to flushing all those toilets with reclaimed grey water. I’m not crazy about the meatballs, but why linger in the canteen when there are wash bags to snap up, just like the ones at Prada but with more useful mesh pockets?

Still, I’ll concede that few people, when booking a holiday, want a Swedish farm house, by water, no internet access (on vacation from email) and an easy drive to IKEA. But then few can rival my connections to this mighty brand. Back in the 1950s, my parents, students at The Glasgow School of Art, both won travel scholarships to study Scandinavian design. Fueled by a shared love of skandi­chic, they returned to Sweden a second time just as an empire was dawning. I’ll say this for my canny Scots folks; while many others would have doubted anyone would pay to make their own furniture while there were craftsmen in every village, my Mum and Dad took one look at the LOVET table with removable legs (so it packed easily into the Volvo) and decided IKEA would could catch on. That it has, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is still, in part, directly due to my moth Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it

Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it is drawn to me. I once sat next to an IKEA kitchen designer on the plane to Shanghai; then I was on a little plane in Kenya and the woman next to me was part of an initiative to support women’s rights in communities. “Which NGO do you work for?” I asked. “IKEA,” she answered. But there’d be no need for an allen key in a manyatta mud hut.

Here’s what I observed in Gotenberg. In the kitchen sales area, there were people actually cooking. In the bed area, blondes of various sizes were testing a mattress via a family group hug. But most novel of all, people in workout gear were walking ‘the long natural way’ (the route designed to encourage the customer to see the store in its entirety) using those arctic ski poles. In an empire born in a cold country and on a bedrock of practical ideas, who could say they shouldn’t?

The Critical Choices – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues. 

The Critical Choices 

AFR | 2011

by Marion Hume 

There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true­-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.

In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-­star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th­ century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-­star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.

The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-­crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.

Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26­-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.

So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequent­flier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.

When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.

The People’s Republic of Luxe – 10 Mag

The People’s Republic of Luxe


10 Mag | Issue 41 November 2011

When I was a little girl, before you were born, China was the place they made cheap stuff. Now it’s the place where all the luxury labels have to have their snazziest stores in the world. When I was a teenager, China remained closed  – they only let them out to scoop up all the medals at the Olympics. Now, of course, if you are in fashion, you have to go there to scoop up your share of an annual consumer expenditure estimated to top 1.3 trillion yuan (about £122 billion) by 2020.

by Marion Hume

And we’re not just talking Dior, Chanel, Vuitton. You want a yacht with that handbag? British yacht brand, Sunseeker is out there flogging its Manhattan 73 model for 31.4 million yuan (£3 million). You could toast your purchase with Chateau Lafite 1982 at 445,186 yuan (£42,115) Oh stop fretting, that’s for half a case. Did you think anyone would pay that much for a bottle?

When I started work, Hong Kong was the gateway to “Mainland China” as it was known (those in the know call it “the PRC” today). Back when Honkers was still a British colony, you could almost count the grains of rice in people’s dinner bowls as the plane swerved around mountains and tower blocks to touch down at Kai Tak, the world’s sixth most dangerous airport. Now, the PRC is peppered with super-dooper airports designed by “star-chitects”. But China’s billionaires don’t fly commercial, although some hire rather than own their own Gulfstreams. Price for Beijing-Shanghai return on a Gulfstream G550: 276,500 yuan (£26,157).

From the far south of Guangzhou, where Louis Vuitton has its largest Chinese flagship store, to the the old silk road staging post of Urumqi, the most inland city in the world – yup, they’ve got a Vuitton there too – China is fashion profit central, even if a recent store renovation is rumoured to have cost Vuitton in the eight digits. The first fashion person I knew who reached “real” China, as in Beijing, was sent by Zara to find a cheap production source. Now, Zara has 70 stores in the PRC.

The first time I went to Beijing, it was to interview newly-successful women, several of whom thought they were wearing designer clothes, but these were funny fake brands that I had never heard of. Then the fake market started to thrive and I seemed to always be clambering through some fat-filled restaurant kitchen, then down a back alley and into a room the size of a toilet pretending to be a customer. The criminal salesmen pretended to believe me as they took photographs of my (real) Fendi Selleria bag. The fake business shows no sign of slowing down as China’s love of luxury booms. The new trend is in counterfeiting an entire experience, although who knew there was anywhere on earth that they would welcome a completely fake branch of IKEA?

Even as recently as five years ago, the picture the photographer had to get was the “contrast shot” of the toothless guy parking his bicycle next to the Louis Vuitton superstore in Shanghai. The shoppers within were still so delighted in the newness of being able to express their individuality through fashion, that they would willingly stop and talk to a stranger with a tape recorder, a photographer and a translator. They told such sad stories of their Mao suit years. One shopper never knew her father. When her mother was pregnant, her parents had been sent to the country to be “re-educated” and they locked her father in a shed until he died. Her mother survived eating frogs and birds eggs. Another was once given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that. The power of fashion is powerful indeed.

Now, the bulk of luxury shoppers – and there are more than 200 million young adults under 30 in the PRC – were born after The Cultural Revolution so have not “eaten bitterness” as their parents did. Far from envying their lifestyles, their mothers tend to encourage them. “If I dress a little bit sexy, she thinks I look beautiful,” one girl told me when I returned to Beijing in 2008. “I’m the youth she didn’t have.”

For the luxury tsars, China’s love of the new is a great plus. “They don’t have a generation before them to refer to style-wise, so they are daring with the choices they make,” one CEO told me, eyes ablaze. The rules are still being written in this high profit battle ground. Beijinger and Shanghainese girls like to write off those from the “second tier cities” as bumpkins who have just learned to say Vuitton, but that doesn’t stop those in cities you’ve hardly heard wanting designer bags. No surprise then that as well as opening stores everywhere,  the likes of Chloe now have Chinese language blogs. Faye Wong, a Chinese singer and actress, does print campaigns for Céline. One of Louis Vuitton’s male models is Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Godfrey Gao. No prizes for guessing (beyond those gorgeous cheekbones) why he got the gig.

It might be hard to believe this now, but British designers used to quake in their boots when the American department stores came calling. China is expected to be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015 and if the USA doesn’t pull its economy out of tailspin, it could come sooner. Guess which buyers get the champers and the Rose Bakery cupcakes these days? But forget any cliches about Chinese shoppers liking the logo-a-gogo stuff. The level of sophistication is obvious when you walk past racks of Vanessa Bruno, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens at the Lane Crawford department store in Beijing.

A year ago, I got a call from Francois-Henri Pinault’s office. Would I like to join him on a trip to 10 Chinese cities, few of which I had actually heard of (and I’m up on Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian…)? Alas, I was in a diamond mine in Australia (key global market for Tiffany? Yes, you got that one too) so had to pass on the PPR titan’s tempting invite, but I did once interview Pinault’s rival, Bernard Arnault of LVMH, in a penthouse suite in Beijing. Trying to get to Arnault, both the richest man in fashion and the richest man in France, when you are actually in France is well-nigh impossible. Yet in China, he was as relaxed and warm as a chilly billionaire can be, although he was probably totting up what you get when even 0.001% of a population headed towards 1.35 billion people wants Dior.

But you should never count your Chinese chickens. When Arnault’s mate President Sarkozy said he would be meeting the Dalai Lama (do, please Google exactly why Richard Gere is so passionate about Tibet), the Chinese ambassador in Paris apparently had the luxury titan quaking in his handmade Berlotti shoes at the thought of Chinese Vuitton customers asking for their money back.

Those customers get wooed. Last year it was the Dior extravaganza staged on the Bund in Shanghai; there was the “Culture Chanel” exhibition, the Fendi’s show on the Great Wall and the Ferragamo show within the Forbidden City. But it is not just about wooing the girls. One of the glories of modern China, if you are a luxury tycoon, is this is one of the few markets where men outdo women in their regard of expensive designer goods as trophies of success. Good news for Dunhill and Hugo Boss,

You can’t keep up with who is opening, who is expanding where. There’s Burberry’s upcoming Hong Kong megastore which promises to be a smart shopping destination for an annual 23 million Chinese tourists who come to town. Niche brands like Moncler are making a splash in Beijing, Miu Miu is expanding in Shanghai – the list goes on.

Susan Owens is a China expert whose blog, Paris Cherie, links the world of Paris fashion to Shanghai. She admits she can hardly post content up fast enough or keep track of the Western brands keen to snap up the services of Shanghai model, Du Juan.

What the Chinese luxury consumer is not madly interested in – up to now – is the vast nation’s sartorial past. “There’s no vintage—Chinese don’t wear old clothes,” someone told me. Hello Ralph Lauren, who visited China last year. Cue an autumn-winter 2011 collection of cheongsams inspired by the old silk road. When Ralph Lauren opened his first stores in Britain, back when Princess Diana was young, few thought his coals-to-Newcastle – or more precisely chintz-to-Downton Abbey -offering would work in a land where some people actually owned family silver. How wrong we were so expect to see fashion folk in the PCR dressing “Chinese”

Coming soon, more homegrown designers, more competition. And I leave you with this. In 1997, I was editing Vogue Australia, which meant I was “Asia Pacific” on the Paris show seating plans and thus in the worst seats in the house. Around me would be the first few fashion editors from the PRC. Where are they now? Locate Suzy Menkes and track along a couple of chairs, that’s where. All power to China.

Net Prophet – AFR

Net Prophet

The Business of Fashion: The man behind Yoox, Katie Grand’s pyramid, Designer of the moment, China fashion week, ALT’s exhibition

AFR Magazine | November 2011

By Marion Hume 

 

In 1998, which was way back in the dark ages before global internet connectivity, the Australian ‘success guru’ Siimon Reynolds published a little book with the catchy title, When they zig, you zag . Two years later, in 2000, Federico Marchetti, who was born in a small town below Venice on Italy’s Adriatic coast – and has never heard of the book – launched an innovative e-commerce business that has made him an industry titan. The planning that led up to the launch and what has happened since surely distinguish Marchetti as the ultimate ‘zagger’.

A quick whizz through his zags goes like this: As a teen, while others did what they wanted, Marchetti, in the quest for his long term goal, did what he didn’t want in the short term. An entrepreneur, he chose to launch into the online arena while living in a nation which, back then, boasted little expertise in internet technology. When did he launch? Just as the internet stock bubble was bursting. What did he do after asking his best friends to review a list of brand names? He chose Yoox – the one none of them liked. In 2008, as the financial crisis roiled markets, an undeterred Marchetti started the process of taking his global internet retailer public. Fast-forward to 2011 when, in the six months to June, Yoox Group’s net sales rose 36 per cent on the previous year to €131.2 million. All this by never going zig.
Marchetti (not to be confused with the Italian footballer) doesn’t even look the part. He is nervy and intense and when he speaks he sounds more like a literature professor than one of fashion’s category shifters. As for his style, there isn’t even the status indicator of an expensive watch – instead no watch. And swagger? None. Marchetti hates socialising, preferring to stay home reading books and eating minestrone. What did he do the night after Yoox successfully went public after a nail-biting run-up through the worst financial meltdown in decades? He went home and had soup. Damn it but – working two days a week in Milan, two in Bologna, the rest wherever needed – he doesn’t even drive a Ferrari. “I’m not a big fan of these symbols,” shrugs Marchetti, having ordered us two single, tart espressos when we meet in Florence, where he has travelled by train, as he insists all his staff do too.
You may not have heard of Yoox and you wouldn’t be alone; many in fashion who are all-too-familiar with its key competitor, Net-a-Porter, haven’t heard of it either. Yoox is headquartered in Milan and has a vast warehousing complex at Interporto near Bologna as well as logistics centres in New Jersey, Shanghai and just outside Tokyo. In the past decade, Yoox has shifted more than 1 million shirts, 800,000 pairs of shoes and 700,000 pairs of jeans to more than 100 countries by either same-day or next-day delivery (the company’s biggest single expense is its UPS [United Parcel Service] account). Yet the man behind it all is low key. “I hate networking,” he says. “I think it’s the worst. When I don’t work, I stay home by myself or with my girlfriend. I don’t do anything. I hate people that need to meet other people to feel important.”
Federico Marchetti has always judged only one person’s view to be important: his own. Even as a boy he knew that what he wanted was to be the king of a single big idea. He has been astonishingly pragmatic in accomplishing this. Claiming that his independence, determination and clarity comes from “my childhood”, he then adds that neither of his parents – “cultured people” – had any entrepreneurial spirit at all.
Yet even at school, Marchetti gravitated to subjects he didn’t like much because he thought they would be useful. At university, he picked economics while his heart said psychology. “I wanted to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time in order to make the fewest possible mistakes,” is how he puts it now. So, after leaving home at 19 (unusual in Italy, where undergraduates tend to live at home) and reading business at Bocconi, Milan, he took jobs in corporate finance and management consulting, got an MBA from Columbia, New York and then, eureka!
It was late in 1999 and the first big fashion internet start-ups were pressing panic buttons because they were about to tank. Yet Marchetti knew, with certainty, that gold lay in marrying fashion’s exclusivity with the accessibility of the net – not in the US, where he had been living, but back in Italy, then a country with minimal I know-how, yet world famous for its fashion.
First, Marchetti found venture capital funding from the US, then he joined forces with a bricks and mortar store in Bologna, taking stock on consignment and selling it online. Next, he started cultivating big fashion names, acutely aware of how sensitive they were to selling in an arena which, back then, seemed somewhat downmarket. So he worked with them to shift end-of season stock on the multi-brand site of yoox.com, never obviously “on sale” but instead at a “Yoox price”
Then he persuaded some of the mightiest brands to use Yoox’s established logistics, warehousing, customer care, to create their own mono-brand online stores, powered by Yoox. Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Alberta Ferretti, Moncler are just a few of the leading fashion brand websites where everything – from radio frequency identification tags, to the studios full of photographers taking the pictures – is done by Yoox, which then supplies customer demand in more than 100 countries from hubs on three continents. Yoox started in menswear and now covers womenswear, kids, home, even pets.
The name Yoox came, recalls Marchetti “from my own imagination. The Y and the X are like the chromosomes for men and women; that’s why we are so good at talking about men and women – it is part of our DNA – and then the OO is also like the DNA of the internet, because it’s the zero from the binary code.” Marchetti had a list of possible names, “and I asked friends and everybody liked brands that were more common … I realised they liked the past, I liked the future, so I picked the one no one chose”.
And it’s very contemporary. If I go to Japan, they think it’s Japanese. If I go to China, they think it’s Chinese. If I go to America, they think it’s American. It’s very neutral, very global and I never wanted to be a local player.” He adds: “I consider myself a miracle. Every day when I wake up, I say thank god for this gift of knowing what I want.”
Starting with menswear proved a competitive advantage; the long-held belief in the luxury business that men hated to shop left the category more open. Online, it soon became clear that without the fuss of sales assistants, in anonymity and with a “no questions asked” returns policy, men were keen to buy.
After more than a decade of e-commerce, it can be assessed that, while men rarely browse and are not frequent purchasers when they do shop, they buy more and often at the beginning of the season rather than waiting to purchase on impulse in the sales. Yoox research shows Americans buy the most bow ties, the French like hats and Italians prefer briefs to boxers. Irrespective of nationality, men like black, navy and grey, although the Spanish also like red. Swedes and Norwegians are most likely to tick the eco-shipping option.
Yoox offers all the basics and the big brands. For those of more esoteric tastes, thecorner.com, launched in 2008 for men and a year later for women, is a series of mini boutiques, each highly customised in keeping with the brand messages of cutting-edge designers including Viktor & Rolf and Hussein Chalayan. Designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann and Dries Van Noten choose thecorner.com as their official internet retailing partner.
Yoox’s listing on the Milan bourse at the end of 2009 was the first in the European tech sector since the financial downturn, and Marchetti admits there was a time when he felt he was running towards a cliff not knowing if he would take flight or tumble. “I did have a very strong feeling it was the right thing to do,” he says now, although he admits advisers (Goldman Sachs and Mediobanca were the co-ordinators of the sale) told him they might suddenly suggest he call a halt. The high pricing came as a collective relief.
Right now, as the Italian economy wobbles, that Yoox Group is both international and nimble is a considerable advantage, especially for a company with a vast warehouse in Shanghai. China’s online adventures are just beginning. McKinsey research shows that while more than one-third of the world’s most populous nation are web users, less than a third of that number have started shopping online (against a global average of 86 per cent), implying considerable upswing ahead, even in a nation where the likes of Armani Group already has close to 200 real-life stores. The other area of growth, albeit much smaller, says Marchetti, is Australia, thanks to a hunger for international luxury goods and a robust economy. “It’s not big, but it is significant as one of the highest-growing markets for us. In the last couple of years, it has grown 10 times over,” he says.
To a question of life-work balance, Marchetti responds: “It’s easy to answer because fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t consider what I’m doing to be work. It’s not work, it’s my child that I’m very proud of; it’s part of my style – I put a lot of myself into it.” Yet he is, he claims, “quite well balanced” about switching off. “This year, I went on holiday with some friends and I took four days off. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, four days in Greece and I turned [my BlackBerry] off.” He adds that, for the first two hours, it was hell.
He tries to trade in as ecological a manner as possible – ECO_mmerce as it is referred to in Yoox-speak – to the point where there’s a complete ‘green site’ within the site, called Yooxygen, dedicated to ethical fashion. The industry-wide challenge is that some of the clothes on offer in this niche are less than enticing (a notable exception being Vivienne Westwood’s snazzy 100 per cent ethical bags made in Africa with UN agency ITC. But as I consult on the project, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
Marchetti says regretfully he doesn’t think ethical fashion will become just’fashion’- that all fashion will have wised up to ethics-any time soon. “It is a niche,” he says and one where Yoox may face competition when ex=Barneys New York buying guru, Julie Gilhart, who had impeccable ‘green’ credentials, finds her feet in her new role as fashion consultant for amazon.com. Still, Yoox scores marks for its ecobox packaging, which is made using cellulose gathered under environmentally socially and economically sustainable conditions.
Yet in cyber world, things get ever more glossy, as brands sign movie stars and tap Hollywood special effects guys, such as Avatar’s James Lima, to bring more bang. “We are still so close to the beginning of the story,” says Marachetti who tells me his favourite activity away from work is “nothing. I get all the adrenalin I need with Yoox” (having conducted this whole interview on just one small sniff of Florentine coffee). “Elsewhere in my life, I don’t look for more.”

©afr.co

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant