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
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
Anatomy of a Maison
The Australian Financial Review | November 2011
In the Medieval age, the sight of a towering spire signalled a city of splendour. Today, it is cathedrals of retailing that indicate metropolitan status in the global pecking order. The December 3 opening, not of another Louis Vuitton store – there are already 460 of those worldwide – but of a much grander Louis Vuitton ‘Maison’ (of which there are just 13) proves Sydney must be a very smart town indeed. Kar-Hwa Ho is the man responsible for the latest Australian opening, as well as such landmark stores as Louis Vuitton Singapore, housed on its very own island. Vuitton’s design director for the Asia-Pacific region tells Marion Hume about the new maison in the company of the brand’s Paris-based director of architecture, David McNulty.
A CATHEDRAL FOR A SECULAR AGE
“Is that a compliment?” asks David McNulty. “I suppose fashion houses are becoming architectural theatre in the way opera houses were and cathedrals used to be. For us, there is always a question of visibility. We cannot be tucked away. We must be seen.” So how big a footprint is needed for a maison? “About 2000 square metres” says McNulty. Walk-ins are welcome at the Sydney Maison, because busy George Street means there’s nowhere to park, let alone a space for your limo to wait. But what of those Vuitton stores where you can’t walk in? The line at the Paris Champs Élysées flagship store often numbers in the hundreds. “It’s really not good to have people waiting,” protests McNulty, revealing that staff serve hot beverages to waiting crowds and the company sometimes lays on transport to the other five Vuitton stores in Paris, “but everyone wants to go to that one because it’s the biggest.”
IF WE BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
To semaphore to the customer that a maison is more than just a place to pick up a monogram wallet, it helps if the building itself is jaw-droppingly attractive and the Sydney Maison certainly is chic. “But we don’t own the building, which means there are restrictions,” explains Ho. Even without these, sometimes the most arresting designs don’t get built. All the architecture models that didn’t make it are in the Vuitton head office, including one of shining metal rods by Zaha Hadid. “One day!” says Ho, wistfully. Do the challenges of preserving history lead to better stores? Not always. “While we’re not interested in destroying heritage buildings, our original concepts are usually better,” says McNulty, who adds that, sometimes, keeping the history can go too far. At the recently opened Milan Maison, he says, “there’s a really ugly mural on the wall. Really ugly. It has a preservation order on it so we built a wall in front of it, so some archaeologist in the future can come in and find it.”
MAKING AN ENTRANCE
There is no grander gesture than empty space, given retail rents are charged by the (astronomical) square metre and here is 59 sq m of glittering floor over which you must walk to reach the central altar of retailing. Walking directly ahead, you enter a ‘fast lane’ leading to what is known as the ‘hot zone’. Here’s where you find the bag that stars in the latest advertising campaign. “The bags that are the ‘fashion moment’ can always be seen from the entrance to the store,” says McNulty. But does one turn left or right? “We don’t want to control that,” he says. “We want to convey to the visitor that there are many things on offer; leather goods, travel, the men’s universe, the women’s universe.”
FAMILIARITY BREEDS EXCITEMENT
The aim is to attract a customer who knows exactly what to expect yet is also in search of novel retail entertainment. Uniform across all Vuitton stores is a colour palette of caramel and toffee, a reference to the checkerboard Damier canvas of 1888, which in turn led to Louis’s son, Georges, inventing the famous monogram canvas of 1896. And, rather as a cathedral has a smaller, perhaps more opulent, altar behind the main one – this only visible to those allowed to venture behind a parclose – so too does the Sydney Maison have its hidden treasure: literally, given the watch and jewellery sales area is tucked behind the ground floor’s central selling station. “The aim is to create a more intimate area, away from the flow,” Ho says.
In all retailing, the challenge is to encourage traffic to upper floors. That’s been somewhat easier since 1857, when the first commercial passenger elevator was installed in a New York City department store. Yet the Sydney Maison has just one customer lift. “It’s not necessary to have more,” McNulty says. “What tends to happen is that people walk around and discover the store by themselves, including taking the stairs. A sweeping staircase – all steel substructure and timber veneer – is visible centre-left as you enter the Maison, inviting you to mount a stairway to heaven – or more precisely menswear first and then, on the second floor, ‘women’s universe’ for fabulous fashion by Marc Jacobs.
As Gloria Swanson knew, one must be well lit. While the primary function of store lighting is to make sure you can see everything, at Vuitton, spotlights are trained on the hottest products just as kliegs were once directed on a movie star’s cheekbones. “Whenever we can bring natural light into the store, we do,” says McNulty, who adds that, despite a menu of lighting options, sales staff always choose the brightest setting. But in the ‘try rooms’ (this is Vuittonese for what you and I usually refer to as a fitting room), it is you who control the light, via a panel that allows you to check an outfit under the noonday sun, at twilight and by night.
DESIGN FOR MEN
Even in equal Australia, men rarely shop midweek, which risks a very empty floor. The solution: stick menswear on the first floor so women must go past it and thus might think, “I’ll get him a belt to soften the blow of all the stuff I’ve bought for me.” And when men do shop? “If a man sees a mannequin with an outfit on it, he could well buy the [lot],” says McNulty. Expect to see rows of mannequins. The primary male quest is for shoes. Your shoe guy wants to choose shoes, sit down, try them and buy them. So the chairs here (just one of 10 different designs in use by Vuitton) are the optimum height and tilt for trying on footwear. This is less of a concern in China where, “they have no problem waiting for a seat to be freed up; they’ll do it standing on one foot and they’ll even try clothes on without using a changing room,” McNulty says.
When spending a penny (as opposed to $4500 on the latest Tiger clutch bag), every customer is a VIP – given the VIP loo is for you. But there’s VIPs and VVIPs. Tucked into a corner of the second floor is an area code-named ‘constellation’, as in ‘star’. Here, those who require additional privacy can be accommodated behind a closed door. As for the old saying that common folk sweat, the rest of us perspire and stars glow, here’s why: the VVIP area has its own dedicated air con. It’s here that the most exclusive service – the chance to get a bag in shapes and leathers of your choice – will be offered. It’s called ‘haute maroquinerie’ in Vuittonese. ‘Hot maroc’ in Sydney-speak? Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
While an exceptional sales associate cannot actually walk through walls, she can tap a mirror to reveal a door that allows her to reach the tills. Cash-and-wrap is hidden from your view, “although we have to make sure that this works well with the flow of the selling ceremony,” says Ho. “You don’t want your salesperson to disappear for too long with your things while you are sitting around waiting.” But what about disappearing with one’s credit card while, even in restaurants, they bring the machine to you these days? “Mostly, people don’t mind,” Ho says. “But in Asia, customers follow their salesperson to the till. People pay cash and need a secure area to count it.”
Everything is as ecological as possible, from the certified woods you can see to the basement unpacking area you can’t, where paper and cardboard are stored. “Our Guam store is powered by solar panels,” Ho says. This not an option for Sydney where the building is rented.
While big-brand stores look somewhat the same around the world, Vuitton makes the effort to help shoppers remember what country they are in. In Auckland, the store features model lambs created by a Kiwi. In Jakarta, there are Indonesian lamps and stools. So for Sydney? The eagle-eyed will spot eucalyptus motifs played out in wood marquetry. Coming soon – although not in time for the opening – LV monogrammed surfboards should provide a clue.
WINDOW ON A NEW WORLD
Windows are an invitation, and a global mega-brand requires lavish displays. “From our standpoint, that means providing the right space and lighting and access,” says McNulty. The secret to quick changes? Panels that can move in and out and doors big enough to accommodate a window dresser carrying a zebra. That is not a joke. The windows in London’s Bond Street currently feature a herd of life-sized African fauna.
Catching the Moment
AFR | September 2011
Where is fashion marching now, asks international fashion editor Marion Hume. Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus with the oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides.
When fashion wants to look back, it is a sure sign of its unease at looking forward. Of course, fashion continually takes inspiration from ‘vintage’ but that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, it seems to me, people are looking in the rear view mirror as if wondering, “how on earth did we get here?”
‘Here’ is a world where luxury labels have us so addicted, you almost suspect there’s nicotine in the handbag leather. ‘Here’ is a world where, when it comes to basics, we seem to believe it is others who should take responsibility that the cotton in our clothes is not the same cotton that causes lakes to run dry. ‘Here’ is a place where a clutch bag in iridescent python is described as “so on trend!” despite grave concern elsewhere that the number of snakes slaughtered for style could lead to an explosion of the rat population and then a spread of human contagion.
It can be ugly, this business driven by desire for beautiful things. So thank heavens for Botox, injected into snakeskin to make that clutch bag feel scaly not flakey. I had no idea of that little detail until I read “To Die For. Is Fashion Wearing out the World?” by Lucy Siegle. I’ll hold back on her description of what happens in the slow process of snakes being slaughtered only because losing you too early hardly serves my purpose in writing the rest of this article.
But who’d want such a ludicrous display of wealth as a python purse anyway? Not you, of course; you prefer to dress down. So that cotton Tshirt? Did you check it hasn’t reached your back via the labour of schoolchildren – and their teachers – who are forced out of the classroom every summer to harvest the cotton crops of Uzbekistan? Those new jeans that already look old? We need other people – poorer people – to get the look for us by sandblasting, which is big in Bangladesh, where garment workers are dying of silicosis. Sandblasting is the new fur. You shouldn’t be seen dead in it. Donatella Versace is the latest designer to join the campaign to outlaw it. Expect the next trend in denim to be a direct reaction; dark indigo, except that’s turning vital rivers in India bright blue. It would be wrong to suggest that all the big fashion brands are up to no good. Most of them try quite hard not to be bad.
I can’t think of a single one that has ignored consumer pressure to get with the eco agenda. But now they have done the easy stuff (cutting down on packaging, changing the light bulbs, rerouting grey water to flush the loos), it’s a hard road ahead. For those just entering the business, that road must seem almost impassable. Even if a young designer does get a break, financial pressure now translates as shareholder demands front of mind. And if our young talent still believes in fashion as ‘art’, what chilling examples are to be found: Alexander McQueen dead by his own hand in London; John Galliano, who killed his career with antisemitic rantings in a Paris bar.
The pressures of producing endless fantastical collections generating those endless dollars can prove unbearable. Which leads me to looking back. About a year ago, I started getting random requests for a six part BBC fashion documentary called The Look which I worked on from 1990 to 1992. In the past six months, interest has increased from England, Australia, Korea . . . and unsolicited emails arrive from those just born when it was first broadcast. They are reacting to the six episodes posted on vimeo (videosharing website used by creatives) with the wonder of archeologists stumbling into Tutankhamun’s tomb. (OK, that’s a gigantic exaggeration, but one thing that will never go out of fashion is the industry’s ease with hyperbole).
Anyway, the other day, I too found The Look online. I understood instantly why the clothes appeal now; they are so utterly out of fashion, they are on the way back in. I suppose watching the late Gianni Versace, Moschino and Yves Saint Laurent appeals to this constituency the way The History Channel does to guys obsessed with WWII.
In The Look, names now thought of as brands still belong to people; in the program Donna Karan admits in it she has only recently stopped opened all the mail with her name on it. The supermodels are in their prime. “I don’t know what a supermodel is. Does it mean I’m super?” squeaks Linda Evangelista, her voice surely as shocking as when silent stars switched to talkies. And there’s Carla Bruni, with the face she was born with, wisely saying nothing, missing nothing; good training for the future First Lady of France.
The doco seems to capture a golden age; a moment in time before things went absolutely crazy. Not that all was calm. In 1992, the series was aired around the world, perhaps to the chagrin of marie claire editor, Jackie Frank, then a New York based stylist, whose feisty reaction to a scrum scene outside a Jean-Paul Gaultier show was viewed by the folks back in Melbourne. Crowd control has much improved, but otherwise, that lack of organization had advantages. PRs were posh women in pearls. Today’s media managers would never let anyone get the equivalent of a shot that goes on and on as Yves Saint Laurent ‘Elnetts’ his bouffant backstage.
Lurking about was a guy in a tie we never bothered to interview. Bernard Arnault was in his early 40s when The Look was being filmed and looks vulpine, stealthy, as he circles his prey. The rhetoric the chairman and chief executive of LVMH pushes today is that fashion stars don’t matter as much as they did. Now it’s all about the product. (This from the man who – at time of writing – has no viable designer for Dior).
But in 1990, he was the star maker to Christian Lacroix, an experiment that would fail to the tune of €150 million in losses over the years. That Arnault’s other instincts were more sound is evidenced by his current status as the wealthiest man in France, with a Forbes-estimated worth of US$41 billion.
Today, the money is on the quiet ones, specifically Phoebe Philo, who heads up Celine and is independent of spirit (though not in business, Celine is part of LVMH). She creates uncluttered clothes for busy women and references her own needs as the stylish mother of two young children. Yet her sartorial statements echo those of the leading minimalist we talked to back in the early ‘90s. Giorgio Armani’s muted palate and unadorned silhouettes were exactly what sophisticated women yearned for back then, although this being TV, we cut away from frocks to shots of his home, complete with five colour-coordinated Persian cats.
The landscape of fashion was expanding, literally; it was the beginning of the identikit designer superstore in London, New York, LA (although we would have to wait until the millennium for most brands to open in Australia). That territorial land grab goes on. Twenty years ago, China was the place that made the cheap stuff. Now 20% of goods labelled Prada are, legitimately, made in China.
Where else is fashion marching? Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus and its oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Where there’s muck, there’s frocks and fashion mags; Cosmo Mongolia launched in the wake of Rio Tinto mining the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposits. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides, thanks to e-commerce.
Asked in 1990 what her life’s ambition was, New Yorker, Donna Karan shot back, “A Broadway Show!” Today, her response would be more holistic; her company is, for example, among pioneers trying to source product out of Haiti to aid its reconstruction. Vivienne Westwood played the pantomime dame in The Look; her fault and ours, given she was the one cavorting around in a nude body suit with a gold fig leaf. But we didn’t listen when she went on about global responsibility. We just thought she was bonkers. And great TV.
Recently I’ve been working closely with Dame Vivienne and know her to be wise. I consult for the UN-World-Trade Organization agency, the International Trade Centre, on the Ethical Fashion Program which links top designers to some of the world’s poorest people. A growing percentage of Vivienne Westwood accessories is produced in the slums and drought-stricken regions of East Africa. Driving across Northern Kenya, seeing hardly a tree because those farmers whose animals had died had felled them to burn and sell for charcoal in order to feed their families, the designer’s ardent advocacy that climate change cannot be ignored makes poignant, sound sense.
Fashion as a vehicle out of poverty? Who would have thought that in 1990 when we were getting excited by who had a mansion, who had a yacht? Yet you can create lovely beads from the carcasses of cows dumped in a slum, you can make handbag hardware from brass salvaged from abandoned cars. Artisan skills, from screen printing to embroidery, can be done by those displaced by conflict, quickly earning them a living wage.
Not that the Mighty UN is the only body to have identified fashion’s unique power. There are scores of smaller initiatives: from Ecuador (The Andean Collection, which offers natty felt hats to Manhattan urbanites) to Ethiopia (Sammy Ethiopia, whose featherlight scarves, wrapped over bikinis, are a summer hit among the Med set). Spurred by its success in Uganda and Cambodia, the Spotlight Stitch in Time program operates in Australia’s Top End where, it is hoped, the provision of sewing machines and support could mean that indigenous women, among the world’s most marginalised, may earn a place in a lucrative value chain.
While small companies can react to changing needs and, designers such as Vivienne Westwood can be nimble because she retains control of a business (with estimated annual sales in excess of £120 million ($189 million), plus ownership of all key retail real estate. Who’s bonkers now?), the fast fashion juggernauts require a longer turning curve. It is encouraging that Pablo Isla, the new man at the top of Inditex (owner of Zara) has pledged to make sustainability a cornerstone of all of activities and has announced that his company has signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative and The CEO Water Mandate.
At the dawn of the ‘90s, it was the Ladies-who-lunch who fascinated. I’d certainly never met anyone like couture-clad Texan, Lynn Wyatt, a damn good sport who agreed to wear a wire so we could listen in to the front row set. Now, those I record (entirely legally) might be scientists, hardly a profession known as best dressed. Fashion professional Helen Storey works with boffin, Tony Ryan, to create dresses which disappear, thereby demonstrating that detergent bottles of the same material (polyvinyl alcohol) can “knowingly” reduce to a compostable gel once empty. There’s Dr. Helen Crowley of the Wildlife Conservation Society whose biodiversity objectives include sustainable cashmere, this to stop over-grazing of goats and so save the rare Przewalski’s horse from extinction.
Fashion really is everywhere, (Benin Fashion Week followed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, by the way), its glitter sprinkled even on Magnum ice-creams (Karl Lagerfeld just shot the TV commercial). Yet the given is, it always reacts to what has gone before, hence Tom Ford, – he of Gucci runways vast enough to land an A380 – now favours salon presentations, no cameras allowed. While Vuitton-checkered flags flutter over all points of the compass, upcomers want just a handful of stores, or only one, in Paris. When you can get everything everywhere, a thrill lies in something you can only find somewhere.
In the days of The Look, we never spoke about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); now those in power recognise fashion must become more fair to respond to consumer demand. While eco is a trend with staying power, claims for eco cred must become more intelligent. Pack purchases in paper in a world short on trees yet littered in plastic bags? Let’s rethink that. Marginalized women across Africa are cleaning and crocheting waste that would otherwise be burned releasing dangerous dioxins. A plastic-bag crocheted tote from Zambia, with no designer label, has replaced the Birkin as the schlepp bag of choice for a New York tastemaker I know.
Last year, Naomi Campbell was called to testify at the international court of justice at the Hague. Her memories of 1997 when she was given those “dirty looking stones” reminded us what a filthy business the diamond trade used to be. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), formally adopted in November 2002, has done much to clean up things, to the point that if you splash out on something sparkly from a reputable jeweller, you can be confident there’s no blood on your hands.
Fashion is much more diverse than the international gem trade (itself still grappling with the transit of illicit precious stones from Burma, Zimbabwe, etcetera and it should be noted, the KPCS does not cover environmental concerns nor guarantee fair trade). It will take wisdom, time, effort for a clear international system of ethical labeling to become as useful as the one inside your jacket that directs you to cool iron or dry clean. While the 21st century journey of that jacket to your back is way too complex to fit on an actual label, there are positive developments.
Just as e-commerce has made it possible for the consumer to voice concerns (much easier via pressing “contact us” than trying to get answers from a harried shop assistant), so might m-commerce on smartphones allow us to receive the life story of clothes just as we are deciding whether of not to buy them.
There are no plans I’m aware of to make a sequel to The Look but if there were, what moment might it capture now? I think this is the time where those of us who love fashion face up to responsibilities that include saying “no” if something seems too cheap, in the awareness that it may carry other costs we can’t countenance. The Look captured a moment of style. If a sequel could capture the moment of style equaling substance, wouldn’t that be good?
Stop, Revive, Survive
Singapore + Bangkok
Harpers Bazaar | September 2011
Breaking up (the journey) is not hard to do with BAZAAR’s guide to the cities worth a trip beyond the transit lounge
by Marion Hume
Reborn as Cool: Singapore
If you still think Singapore is dull, you’ve evidently not sipped a Southside (Tanqueray 10, fresh mint, fresh lime) while lounging at Lantern, the jaw-droppingly fabulous poolside bar which sits atop the Fullerton BayHotel.
Lantern derives its moniker from the old Chinese name for Singapore’s historical Clifford Pier: Red Lantern Pier. But that’s the only old-fashioned thing about this joint. Old Singapore? Forget it. The people here have, except in the city’s excellent museums. As for the 21st-century city, where else can you find a cathedral of commerce to rival the newest Louis Vuitton megastore accessed by bridge to its very own island?
STAY: The waterfront conversion, (calling this project “ambitious” would be ridiculous understatement) is at last complete. What that means to the stopover visitor is not just glittering views but also a safe circuit that you can walk, or run at 4 am, should you choose.
Come to your senses and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on your balcony instead (scrambled eggs and shaved black truffles, for instance). The Fullerton Bay Hotel is the 100-room groovy little sister of the stately old dame The Fullerton, the latter a grand treat that can wait until you have gray hair.
Think twice before staying at the much-talked-about Marina Bay Sands, with its three, 55-storey towers topped by a jetsons-style SkyPark and an outpost of Bali icon Ku De Ta. When I visited, the line to check in for a sneak peak was longer than the line at the airport. Which is not to say this massive complex, which seems to rise out of the South China Sea, isn’t awesome to admire from a distance.
If your budget is tight, rest your head in a room so dinky, you’ll marvel how they fitted in the power shower and Nespresso machine. Blue Monday is painted blue, from ceiling to skirting board, and is teeny. It is a room on the first floor of Wanderlust, where every room is named and colour-coded (surprisingly useful when you are jet-lagged). Wanderlust is a gem in Little India, the last still-authentic neighborhood on a tiny island that is no stranger to change. But think carefully before checking in to the third floor where rooms are themed after monsters (strange, but true). The Typewriter room features a keyboard straight out of an acid trip by American novelist William Burroughs. Having spent my life on a nightmare of deadlines, I’ll pass on that one, thanks. You might like the tree monster room, though; an enchanted forest with a mezzanine bed.
Singapore is designed for stopping over. There’s the easy-peasy train link from Changhi Airport, from whence you can store your luggage and venture into town with just an overnighter. Free WiFi, local calls and non-alcoholic drinks are often standard in hotel rooms, as are iPod docks and great toiletries by the likes of Molton Brown and Kiehl’s. And toothpaste. Useful if you’ve left that in the big bag at the airport. The Quincy, my favorite stopover hotel on earth, also offers free laundry of a couple of items a day and hearty, hot, breakfast, lunch, dinner included in the room rate plus an infinity pool open all hours.
SHOP: Stopovers from Australia usually arrive in the evening, so once you’ve spend your first night at Lantern, it’s up early for shopping. The waterfront has all the luxury brands you’d expect but if you want bargains, head to Mall 313 on Orchard Road (the main shopping nexus). 313 isn’t the shiniest mall, but it stocks local brands (don’t bother unless you are of nearest Asian proportions) and the fabulous Uniqlo (which fits all).
PLAY: What to do in Singapore? The answer used to be eat then eat more, and that has stayed the same. What’s changed is the scope, which now includes Cocotte, a French brasserie at least as good as any in Paris. Cocotte is at Wanderlust. You don’t have to check in to enjoy a “pissaladiere”, one of those nicoise-style onion and anchovy tarts that are perfect for lunch.
The sights? I lived in Singapore years ago, when they were busy bulldozing most of those and I have to say, having stayed in a traditional wooden slatted home and been eaten alive by mosquitoes, I’m not sorry it’s changed. The Singapore I remember is preserved in the Chinatown Heritage Centre on Pagoda Street. Do dash in. It’s authentic except for the air-con.
Otherwise you can come to this frenetic city and just relax. The Tanjong Beach Club (day membership available) is a sexy beachside enclave of pool, volleyball, bar and cabana just a stone’s throw from the heart of the city and is the perfect place to spend a sun-soaked afternoon. Twenty-four hours in Singapore? You could just throw the bikini in your hand luggage and chil here sipping mai tais until your night flight to Europe.
Bang For Your Buck: Bangkok
Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not a easy city to grasp fast, so keep things simple. What’s required for a 48-hour jaunt is a peaceful place to stay, a few fantastic restaurants and after some great shopping, a wonderful massage. And as little time spent in traffic jams as possible.
TRANSIT TIP: If you arrive on a Sunday, you’ll save an hour on the route in from the airport. Avoid airport transits on a Friday night. While Asia’s other tourist hubs have affordable airport links, Bangkok’s can be a nightmare. Consider that your most extravagant spend should be a limo transfer (pricey, but great are those that meet you at the gate and whisk you past lengthy immigration lines) or get your hotel to send a car.
The problem with Bangkok is that there is no central taxi service hub and no reliable maps of a city growing and changing by the minute. Unless you have girl-scout skills of navigation, it’s wise not to believe the driver who says “near, near” and urges you got get out prematurely. Always carry a card with your hotel number, the phone number of where you are going and the address in Thai and English script, and know that calls on your driver’s local mobile are almost free (tip heavily). It is not unusual for taxi drivers to be remote-phone-navigated to your destination.
STAY: Check in at The Eugenia, an old colonial house with a pool in the central courtyard. But hang on: Thailand has never been colonized, so what’s with this “Indochine” mansion- all dark wood floors, high mahogany beds and copper bathtubs? It’s a fantasy, built just five years ago. Who cares? The details, both antique and repro, and the vast tables of white orchids, are glorious. Stay in the neighborhood until you get your bearings. Ruen Mallika is a wonderful restaurant to Thai-up your tastebuds and just a short taxi ride from the Eugenia.
PLAY: For cocktails, it is Vertigo on the roof of the Banyan tree; aptly named given it is 61 floors up (check online re: the dress code). Or for another way to achieve bliss with no dress code whatever, get a Thai massage at Oasis Spar (they’ll send a car to your hotel and you could leave from here direct to the airport).
EAT: You must go to Nahm, Australian Thai food guru David Thompson’s restaurant in the Metropolitan hotel. Sell the car, rent your house out, do whatever it takes to eat here. What to eat? Frankly, my notes are pathetic, I got as far as ” clear soup with crab meat, scallop salad with grated coconut” before I realised no words of mine could describe the majesty of this food. Simply brilliant.
SHOP: With 48 hours, you’ve just enough time to order a bespoke suit form the Tailor at Sukhumvit Road (try Raja Royal Tailor at Sukhmvit 4, Tanika at Sukumvit 14). For beautiful glassware, go to Lamont at the Four Seasons.
The Siblings of Chopard
AFR | September 2011
by Marion Hume
Could you work with your brother or your sister? For every entrepreneur who shrugs, “Sure”, there’s another who snaps, “not until hell freezes over.” For Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele and Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the response is, “we’ve shared an office for 25 years.” These sibling co-presidents of the Swiss watch and fine jewellery company, Chopard, are German-by-birth, Swiss by choice, (having braved the rigors of gaining a Swiss passport).
But it would be misleading to imply they have been locked in each other’s company for quarter of a century- during which time Chopard, based in a suburb of Geneva, has grown into a glittering name. “If I am in Geneva for a week, I feel I am not doing anything,” says 49-year-old Caroline, when we chat at the 64th International Cannes Film Festival. “I’m always travelling. My brother and I are very different in character and we are complementary,” she adds.
“Maybe I’m more spontaneous. He would sit more and think and analyse things.” When we meet at the Chopard Headquarters, where about 750 craftsmen are hard at work (the company employs a total of 1,700 people and has more than 120 boutiques and 1600 points of sale), her older brother concurs: “Each of us has very specific areas where we excel.”
The Chopard story is not just a tale of two siblings, it’s a tale of two families; the Scheufeles, German goldsmiths for four generations; and the Chopards, who sold out in 1963 to Caroline and Karl-Friedrich’s parents. Chopard was established by a Swiss horologist named Louis-Ulysse Chopard in 1860 and, when it comes to watches, it turns out 75,000 a year.
I am more fascinated by Chopard’s fine jewellery, launched in 1990. And, more specifically, I’m intrigued by how soon after Uma Thurman’s apperance at the opening night of the Cannes film festival the cascades of emeralds she wore on her ears were sold. (Answer, first serious interest logged within minutes of her appearance, sale concluded the following morning. “And we could have sold them five or six times,” says Caroline of these red carpet one-offs that sold for €270,000.)
By now, it is lunchtime at Cannes. Elegant women, some looking a little the worse for wear after a Chopard-sponsored glittering after-screen beach party the night before, are nibbling on the chilled seafood pasta, served buffet-style on the penthouse terrace of Hotel Martinez. For those whose surnames do not end in Thurman, De Niro, Pitt or indeed Jolie-Pitt, this is where EVERYONE stays during the festival. It’s where you hop into the lift as the doors are closing, say “press seven please for the Chopard lounge,” only then to realise your lift operator is Oscar winner, Adrian Brody.
While Chopard has a presence at the Academy Awards as well as the French Cesars amd the British BAFTAs- and now, thanks to a current push into Australia, is targeting the AFIs as well- it is here at Cannes that the brand has pulled off its greatest coup. While no single commercial brand is particularly associated with the Oscars and the statuette, designed by an MGM studio art director remains almost unchanged since 1929, Chopard designs The Palme d’Or trophy.
Another prestigious Cannes award, presented each year by the biggest star in town to the young actor and actress who show outstanding promise, is called the Trophée Chopard. (Audrey “Amelie” Tautou, and Marion Cotillard are just two winners who have worn “lucky” Chopard jewellery ever since).
These close associations with the film festival have given the brand unequalled muscle on the Cannes red carpet, the scene of not one big night, but twelve. All this promotion comes at considerable cost (how considerable, no one in this private company will say). That it reaps rewards caused London’s Financial Times to highlight Chopard for its soft-sell “masterclass in the art of celebrity endorsement”.
The top floor of Hotel Martinez enjoys a sweeping view along La Croisette to the Palais des Festivals – as long as you can get past the squadron of security guards. Up here, there’s a beauty salon, a nail bar, a chill-out room, complete with both Grey Goose vodka bar and a bank of TV monitors, on which a montage of images of movie star plus Caroline Scheufele, movie star runs on an exhausting loop.
Outside on the terrace, a band, wittily titled The Gypsy Queens provides live music. As a visual centre piece, there is a pair of bejewelled stilettos under glass, billed as “the world’s most expensive shoes”, these the result of a collaboration with Italian shoe-maker, Guiseppe Zanotti. They are in such a small size that when Caroline Scheufele bounds onto the terrace to greet me, I look first at her tiny feet.
I have already decided I like Gruosi-Scheufele, who looks bright as a button, given she is the first (co-) president I have ever encountered whose PA has said, “she never does interviews before noon”. “I’m a night bird, I’m a natural party person,” she says as I take in flawless diamond earrings so massive (5 carat), that on anyone else, I would assume them to be fake. “They have no weight, diamonds have no weight, only gold has weight,” she tells me as she leads me to the VIP area of this already decidedly VIP terrace atop a VIP hotel (by now, I’ve cleared five security checks, three of which are operated by the hotel to keep fans at bay).
Through French doors, I can spy what must then be correctly called the VVVIP suite, where bodyguards protect a client from the Middle East who is being shown an emerald necklace. Of course, I’m supposed to be conducting an interview, not clocking a customer via eyes in the back of my head. But it certainly seems that, in the time it takes me to ask Scheufele a bit about her life in the family firm, a deal is reaching its conclusion. “Is that lady just looking?” I say, feigning innocence. “Buying,” Caroline confirms.
“Sometimes, we sell to the [movie star] who [has borrowed something for the red carpet]. I think it works when the celebrity is first of all choosing what she likes to wear and what she would wear anyway. Then it’s a natural thing. Sometimes, we sell to other clients who like what they saw.”
“But if that lady were a movie star, wouldn’t you give it for free?” I push.“Of course it happens I like to give presents because that would be an honour for the house. It means that people are really appreciating what we do. But they also buy. Jude Law was talking to me yesterday. He said he really liked his watch, and as he’s happy to wear it, he will buy it.” Behind her head, the Middle Eastern lady and her entourage prepare to leave. The necklace is sold.
The Cannes Film Festival has become a truly international gathering of the glam clan. While the late Liz Taylor was a paying customer, the lion’s share of jewellery purchasing power lies now in the Middle East and the BRICS economies, from whence plenty of wealthy customers, with just scant interest in the movies, show up for festival fortnight in their superyachts. There are other jewellers, with pop up shops along La Croisette and selling suites in smart hotels, but what is beyond debate is that Chopard is in the lead here, ever since, some 15 years ago, Caroline Scheufele took herself to Paris to meet with the festival president.
“I said to myself, I’m a cinema lover and that’s how the whole thing started.” That said, her personal taste in film, perhaps similar to that of many guests of sponsors who get the most-prized tickets to evening premieres, does not parallel those movies chosen to screen in competition, of which this year’s Australian entry, Sleeping Beauty was far from the most bleak and disturbing. Caroline’s favourite recent movie? “I liked that one with Julia Roberts in Bali….”
The Chopard HQ, just outside Geneva, betrays no hint of glamour. When you arrive at a cluster of squat grey buildings, the first thing they do is take away your passport. Inside, it is unexpected- that is if you expected the place where they kit out Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Carlize Theron, Penelope Cruz to movie-star fabulous. It turns out this place is fabulous, but in a different, hi-industrial kind of way.
After being ushered past enough steel rods, forged in Japan, to support a Shanghai skyscraper (here used to make watches), there is a machine so enormous that it looks like it should have been delivered instead to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on the nearby Franco-Swiss border.
So perhaps it’s the scale of the next machine that I like: for in contrast, it is about equal to that of a top-loading ‘nana’ washing machine, (one of those cylindrical ones you had to drag out on wheels and then put the hose pipe out the window). This one is for smelting gold. Some 12 tonnes of it (current spot price, $US52,000 a kilo) is delivered here each year from the nearby UBS vaults. Hardly any jewellers smelt their own gold. Chopard does because, as my guide puts it, “it means we control baking the perfect cake.”
So in goes a bit of copper for a rosy hue, a bit of palladium, a sprinkling of pure silver for strength and then a pile of 24-carat ingots, which are much smaller than those bricks of bullion villains steal in heist movies. The machine heats up to 1,000 degrees. There’s a viewfinder on the top. But what you see through it looks less how you might expect molten gold to look, (my reference; chocolate ads on TV) and more like the view through the Hubble Telescope to Mars. Weird. Wonderful.
Inside the fine jewellery workshop, a craftsman is tweaking the beaks of a pair of jewel-encrusted humming birds, each hovering over a diamond earring. Another holds the empty casement of a dress ring containing a massive 102-carat sapphire secured on a mount full of tiny holes, each of which will be filled with marquise diamonds. Then there’s the strand of 133 perfect South Sea Pearls. When I ask if I might try it on, it weighs me down like a yoke. “We will make the setting very light, with diamonds,” says a master craftsman.
Karl-Friedrich Scheufele meets me in the Chopard museum, which houses 18th century pocket watches and (bizarre this), a fully-stocked bar. While he shares twinkling nut-brown eyes with his sister, his gestures are smaller. Yes, he’s content with running a business in Switzerland, “although our currency is quite strong at the moment and it may become more difficult for us in the next 6-8 months.”
Yes, he’s content with how Chopard is navigating these tough times, “although as we work with our own capital, certainly in our case, we are very careful.” And actually, he is glad his parents did not change the company name to Scheufele, “because we want our product to be the hero. We want people to believe in our brand name, respect it, cherish it. We as a family are not so important. We’re not really so keen about personal publicity.”
What Karl-Friedrich is obsessed by is provenance; a potentially sticky subject if you deal in gems. While the transit of diamonds is now tightly-controlled, it remains relatively simple to smuggle, say, banned Burmese rubies into the Thai supply chain. Karl-Friedrich aims to make Chopard completely transparent, pretty much from rock to ring, and the company is two-years into a three-year process to achieve that. “To be frank, this is not what our customers are asking us yet. But we must ask,” he says.
As to where those customers are, a growing number are in cities he’s still not sure how to pronounce, such as the Chinese coal-rich city of Urumqi. Australia is also on the radar for expansion, where the company hopes to stake a claim to both local custom and the upper end of the tourist market.
But there’s one family question i’ve yet to ask. Did these siblings have any choice of career? Karl-Friedrich pauses. “At one point, I wanted to pick up art as a main study in university. But then I entered into a jewelry apprenticeship and saw that it was also interesting and slowly but surely I found my way to the company.”Caroline has answered the same question at Cannes. “I would have liked to become a singer maybe,” she said, gazing over the Cote d’Azur. “Ballet was also something that I loved. But I had a choice. If my father had been producing lorries or cars, for sure, I would not be there.”
The Sunday Telegraph | September 2011
For Decades, Giorgio Armani has remained Loyal to A philosophy of Shape And Tailoring this season’s collection of suits is true to form.
by Marion Hume
‘Silhouettes must evolve slowly, so that an upcoming season never renders the one that has gone before redundant. Fabrics must be both sensual to touch yet tough enough to endure.’
Such sound sartorial sense may sound like the latest quote from a minimalist such as Celine’s Phoebe Philo. But it was Giorgio Armani who said this in 1991, when I interviewed him for a BBC TV series called The Look. Judging by e-mails I’ve been receiving since 10 magazine posted links to is on an online blog, The Look is currently gathering an audience of those barely born when it was new. Amazingly Armani’s clothes still look current- adjust the shoulder pads a little and his jackets could walk off the screen and out onto the street without looking remotely ‘vintage’.
As a combination of great tailoring and good taste returns to the centre of fashion, it is Giorgio Armani’s turn yet again, and the 77-year-old’s collections have been garnering rave reviews. While those who work within the Armani universe, headquartered in a palazzo in Milan, might argue Commendatore Armani has stayed in style since the label was launched in 1975, his understated refinements of the jacket, first for men, then, in 1976, for women, have been both fashionable and, inevitably, less so in turn over the years. There have certainly been times when the designer himself has criticised the competition as ‘motlo porno’ or ‘‘troppo Joan Collins’. Now, he might argue, the rest of us have returned to our senses.
What is also certain is that at no point has the Giorgio Armani brand-its start-up costs funded by the sale of a Volkswagen Beetle-ever stopped advancing hence a fortune which Forbes puts at $7bn (March 2011). The Armani empire is now vast, comprising sleek stores around the globe, underpants promoted via the buff body of Rafael Nadal, hotel rooms, even chocolates…Yet the central pillar that supports it all is a jacket, created by this architect of the power suit, who, paradoxically, changed the way men and women dress for work by knocking the stiffness clean out of it.
‘Jackets had a rigidity that made them awkward to wear’, he says of the mid-Seventies. ‘My idea was to take them apart, then put them together again, removing the structure, the padding and the lining reconfiguring them with all the easy comfort of a knitted cardigan.’
Today Giorgio Armani stands as a style colossus, the creator of a democratic uniform which cuts across class and geographical divides. Of course, it requires substantial cash to own a real Armani (slightly less for Emporio Armani), but his influence is writ large even on those imitations where the colour and the weave of the fabric have nothing like his subtlety and quality.
‘After my first collection for men, my sister and her friends asked me to design similarly deconstructed but impeccably cut jackets for them as well,’ he says today, explaining the genesis of his signature look. ‘I went on to offer women an alternative to clothes that imprisoned them in a confined ‘baby doll’ role.’
I saw my first Armani show in the mid-Eighties and I was blown away by the unadorned beauty. But as more seasons of beige perfection went by, the impact inevitably diminished. At the time, his understated and elegant approach was also in stark contrast to the ostentatious sexiness of one of his closer neighbours, and the press delighted in comparing Giorgio (northern Italian, sedate) with Gianni Versace (southern and then at the height of his women-as-courtesan obsession).
But Armani insists that tailoring can seduce, and that his is ‘a sensuality that is hinted at, never shouted out loud’. He explains: ‘When I design a suit, I like to give it a sexy edge, firstly through the choice of fabric, but most importantly through the balance of proportion and volume that often reveals the beauty of a woman”s anatomy better than nudity.’
From the vantage point of Armani’s autumn/winter 2011 reviews, this may seem credible, but 25 years ago it was easy to see him as an austere perfectionist. Stories circulated in the press of his obsession, like how he insisted the hangers in his stores were always exactly the same distance apart. Now we are used to the attention to detail of Tom Ford and Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, that sounds so fashion-normal. Sadly, back then, the fashion press was so busy refined in front of our eyes was a category piece that would stand the test of time alongside Chanel tailleur and the YSL tux. And then came Hollywood.
Armani was the first to assess the massive brand-building potential of the red-carpet, back when Cher was in feathers, Meryl Streep in some gown she brought on the way to the ceremony and Jodie Foster on the ‘worst-dressed’ list. In the space of a year, Armani moved in and Foster was ‘best-dressed’ in a beaded tuxedo and the US magazine W replaced its famous ‘In/Out’ list by one headed ‘Armani/Armani Not’. Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Ross, Angelica Huston, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford and Robert De Niro all wore Armani.
That Armani always appeals to grown-ups may, of course, be due to the fact that he was 40 in 1975 when he launched his own label along with his partner Sergio Galeotti (who died in 1985). While it was his self-taught talent, refined first as a window-dresser, then as a freelance designer, that set Armani style agenda from day one, the fact that the company earned $1m in its first year was largely down to Galeotti’s business acumen and considerable chutzpah.
By 1976, Fred Pressman, who was at the helm of Barney’s New York, tracked the pair down via the Milan telephone directory. By 1977, the Giorgio Armani label was being stocked on America’s West Coast, too, attracting the attention of screenwriter Paul Schrader, who was working on a follow-up to Taxi-Driver that would centre on a male escort. Would Armani be interested in costuming John Travolta? Then Travolta pulled out of American Gigolo. Enter a young buck called Richard Gere.
1n 2000, two decades after the film’s eventual release, at the opening of a 25-year Giorgio Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim, New York, I wandered into a side gallery where clips from the many movies for which Armani has designed the clothes over the years were played on a loop. And there was Richard Gere, grey around the temples, still gorgeous, watching his cocky younger self in fashion’s number-one-all-time-favourite film clip- working out what Armani shirt, what Armani tie, goes with what. It’s the most glamourous image of a man getting ready to go to work.
The interesting this is Giorgio Armani will probably be remembered for creating a new wardrobe for the working woman. ‘Throughout the Seventies, I saw women establishing their right to a personal status beyond the family environment, often in a professional capacity,’ he says. ‘At that time, they did not have an aesthetic model to emulate. My aim was to find a positive sartorial solution to this problem, adapting certain elements of the male wardrobe, softening the lines and aiming for a balance between precision and delicacy. In short, I was determined to provide clothes for a new kind of woman.’ So this was fashion as a social statement? ‘It is all a long time ago, but there can be no doubting the significance of my small revolution concerning the jacket.‘
Back in 1991, in the interview for The Look, he said, ‘The jacket obscures, the jacket suggests. It’s mysterious. It’s protection, a shield, a kind of armour to help you survive modern life. A dress reveals too much. You see a woman in a dress, you know how she is made. The jacket conceals and gives you shape.’ This season’s elegant offerings make it obvious that the maestro of minimalism still stands by that.
Cruising with Chanel
AFR | September 2011
Staging fashion shows in glamorous venues is par for the premier course for haute Parisian labels but the house of Chanel does have especial affinity with the perfumed air around Antibes. Where better, than, for Marion Hume to meet the man responsible for its extravaganzas?
Bruno Pavlovsky just may have the coolest business card on the planet. It is white of course, with the words, “CHANEL 2931 Rue Cambon, 75001 Paris”, in inky black sans serif type in the lower right hand corner; those essentials of telephone, fax and email in the lower left. Centered and below his name, is his job title; président des activités mode (president of fashion activities), Chanel. How cool is that?
Pavlovsky himself is easybreezy, even though we meet on a particularly busy day. He is relaxed of style: dark trousers, white shirt, cashmere sweater slung just so over his shoulders. On meeting him, I am slightly stunned, for I had been anticipating an uptight guy in a tie doing a job that involves cajoling and containing the genius that is Karl Lagerfeld (the face of all things Chanel since 1983), as well as being one of very few public spokesmen for a private company that is possibly the world’s most successful fashion empire.
That empire is controlled by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, whose grandfather Pierre co-founded Chanel. Alain chairs the group, while Gerard chairs the watch division The brothers, who are worth an estimated $US6 billion never give interviews about the brand, although they’ve been known to show up at Chanel shows, sneaking into seats in the third or fourth rows. Pavlovsky is a row one kind of guy. Along with global chief executive Maureen Chiquet and Lagerfeld, he is one of the few who give voice to a brand whose ‘double-C’ logo is recognised anywhere on earth.
As to where on earth he and I are meeting, do let me set that scene. It was supposed to be Paris, at his office in rue Cambon, a narrow, dark street where Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel opened a little shop in 1910. But it turns out the only window in Pavlovsky’s diary is on the afternoon before the Chanel cruise show, the location for which is the Hôtel du Cap, Eden Roc, Cap D’Antibes on the French Riviera. Yeah, I know, sometimes this job is a chore.
The hotel itself is a wedding cake confection of such grand gorgeousness, it is little wonder it was a favourite of Picasso, Chagall and Edward & Mrs Simpson. It was immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel “Tender is the Night”, in which a character called Nicole, “crosses herself reverently with Chanel sixteen” – an in-joke because, although there have been far more Chanel fragrances than you might guess – incdlung Nos. 1, 2, 7 , 9, 11, 14, both 18 and 19 which still exist, 20, 21, 27, 46, 55 as well as , of course No. 5, there has never been a No.16.
Today’s fragrance offer includes a dozen “exclusifs de Chanel”, of which 28 La Pausa is named for the white marble villa Chanel had her lover, Bendor, Duke of Westminster, build for her at Roquebrune Cap Martin, further along this breathtakingly beautiful coastline. The company is whispered to have just acquired La Pausa. The villa was certainly for sale recently at an asking price of €11.2 million ($14.6 million).
The Riviera plays such an important part in the story of Chanel. Near here is Grasse, the hilltop town where Chanel No. 5 was born from ingredients including an especially heady jasmine and a complex and intensely-scented rose, the centifolia, also known as rose de mai. It was here on the Riviera in the Christmas vacation of 1920, that Coco Chanel first spritzed a little vial of this innovative concoction around her table at a restaurant in Cannes. Other diners, walking past, were enraptured. Thus, five months before its official debut, did an advertising campaign begin that has carried on to this day, thanks to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou.
Down here by the sea, Coco was among the first to come up with the notion of sporty holiday clothes; when it comes to mixing stripes and palazzo pants, our debt is to her. This holiday category, which the French call croisiere and the the rest of us ‘cruise’, really caught hold in America in the 1970s, when designers started offering extra clothes for wealthy clients heading to Florida, the Med or to cruise ships to escape the winter. Bruno Pavlovsky makes a good-natured play for tracing the history, definitively, to Coco. “Chanel liked to design for some very specific people, targeting the cruise and the boats. She developed some very specific clothes for lovely places.”
Cruise collections, though they garner less press attention than those huge ready-to-wear extravaganzas revealed in Paris twice a year, are far more profitable. As ever with the Chanel empire, no one will provide figures, but industry analysts estimate Cruise accounts for more than 70% of clothing sales for the brand worldwide. Reasons include the longest selling season (cruise pieces stay available in store from December until the following June), designs more suited for real life; slightly more affordable price points; and perhaps most importantly, styles and fabrics that work in places where the weather differs from France-in other words, the new boom economies and Australia.
“Cruise is a very popular and successful collection in our local market,” says David Blakeley, the managing director for Chanel Australia and New Zealand, whom I reach by email. “Given it is our summertime when it launches in-store, the collection has become one of our most successful. Light knitwear, casual evening wear and beautiful summer fabrics are geared for a hot climate guaranteeing our clients have something suitable to select for their Christmas and New Year holidays.” As to why Blakeley is not present at the show for the launch of the clothes that will drive his region’s sales, there’s rather a lot happening on his local watch. “So unfortunately, even with today’s technology, I’m unable to be in all places at once,” he jokes.
Indeed, it is because Chanel is expanding in Australia that Bruno Pavlovsky has said “yes” to my request for an interview. We chat on the movie descending the hotel’s blond stone staircase to a pathway lined with palms leading down to a beachside restaurant, which looks like the deck of an ocean liner cantilevered out over the azure sea. As we go, technicians, video operators, the guys rigging up the lights-all members of the large-yet-tight Chanel team working like clockwork-stop to shake Pavlovsky’s hand.
Between the cameraderie, Pavlovsky is telling me about the growing importance of croisiere, which used to be shown only to store buyers and has now become an annual travelling show. In the past, Chanel Cruise shows have been staged as far afield as Santa Monica on a private airfield. (In this Chanel is not alone. Last year, Dior staged a lavish cruise show on the Bund in Shanghai, although the sacking of John Galliano in March meant there was no such extravaganza this year). Yet in recent years, celebrations have been in places that are part of the brand’s DNA; Saint-Tropez last year, Antibes this time around, to sum up the free spirit of Coco.
The brand made its debut in Australia right back in 1922, with, predictably, the arrival of Chanel No.5, which has continued to be shipped across the world, flacon by cut glass square flacon ever since. It was not until well into the “Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel years” that a boutique opened here, in 1989, at the same Castlereagh Street, Sydney, site it occupies today. This underwent a complete redesign in 2000 and will close at the end of this year for a radical renovation before reopening in Autumn 2012. The Melbourne store on Collins Street that first opened in 2001 will also be renovated.
Then there’s Chanel in the mall. Back in 2007, when word went out that Chanel would open in Westfield Bondi Junction, there was disbelief, (“Chanel! In the Junga?”), yet the success of a fragrance and beauty store lead to the opening of an even higher-end fashion boutique in 2009. In the same year, the brand made its debut in the luxury precinct of Victoria’s Chadstone mall. This month sees a fragrance and beauty store opening at The Star development in Sydney’s casino complex.
Coming up in October and after a six-year search for appropriate locations, Chanel heads North to Queensland, with two stand-alone boutiques in Brisbane’s Queens Plaza where Blakeley predicts that sunglasses will prove especially popular. Back in Sydney, there will be a pop-up boutique in Westfield’s City complex while the Castlereagh Street store is closed. (There has also long been a significant Chanel presence in the cosmetics departments of both David Jones and Myer as well as selected pharmacies.
This quintessentially Parisian brand has earned the love it receives in the Australian market. Unlike other big brands that first showed up here with last season’s European leftovers, (it used to happen), Chanel has always treated far-flung loyalists to the same season on the same delivery schedule worldwide. “As a brand, Chanel delivers product launches to a global calendar,” says Blakeley. “Given our climate is the reverse of the French seasons, the Fashion Buying Manager works to a very specific ‘collection buy’ per each boutique. This ensures each collection in store offers every client a varied choice for their international travel, plus their local needs.”
Pavlovsky he says he’s thrilled by all this Aussie action. “It’s the right thing for us, the right time for us. We are ready to expand and we have a strong expansion [program],” he says with excitement. By now, the pair of us are still only half way down the gravel slope to the sea where we sit for a moment on ’50s-style white wire patio chairs with blue cushions that matching the sea’s colour. These do not belong to the hotel. Along with matching parasols, they have been shipped in for the show tonight, such is Chanel’s exacting level of perfection in all things.
It seems the moment to ask Pavlovsky why Chanel is not in fashion’s biggest global marketplace-online. That you cannot buy a Chanel suit from an e-tailer seems rather quaint. “You have to go a boutique,” he replies, at first sounding like those doubters did a decade ago when predicting net-a-porter’s swift demise. However he follows with, “My feeling is that one day we go online. But we are not going yet. Our product is sophisticated and we need to be with our customer. I do believe in fashion online, yes. But Chanel is perfection and for that, for now, you need to go to a boutique”.
So there are no Chanel clothes, no scarves, no shoes, officially, at e-tail (which gives you a big clue that, yes, that too-good-to-be-true classic Chanel padded leather 2.55 bag on e-Bay is likely to be a fake). “We are very active online,” Pavlovsky stresses. “We are not selling fashion online, but we are doing something with [the web] and…we are, at the moment, doing more and more. We have a lot of digital initiatives.” Indeed, click on to chanel.com and should you want to study the every waking thought of Karl Lagerfeld (and be warned, he only sleeps a few hours a night), there’s plenty to persuade you to linger.
Yet not selling the clothes online is beginning to look less luddite, indeed rather smart (like those smug in the knowledge that never having been on Facebook is right in the long run). Much of the charm of Chanel lies in the weave of the cloth, the beauty of the finish. More than 80 % of the clothing is made in France, the rest in Italy and Scotland while accessories are made in France and Italy.
From 1985, Chanel began buying up small suppliers, thus ensured the survival of little maisons making fabric flowers, buttons, costume jewellery and the signature two-tone pumps in beige and black designed by mademoiselle in 1957 with specialist shoemakers Massaro. Chanel also owns the high-end swimwear company Eres, the gunmaker Holland & Holland (which carries a small range of specific sporting clothing); and it has a stake in the luxury watchmaker, Bell & Ross.
“We have developed something very specific for our customer,” says Pavlovsky. “It’s the only way to be able to supply such a quality of products. It takes so long to be able to reach our level. I would rather work with these small companies, [which are] very focused on the protection of their know-how,” he adds. Perhaps surprisingly, a complete knowledge of the intricacies of every step of its supply chain means that one of global fashion’s most expensive brands may thus be one of the greenest. But Pavlovsky is wary of any boasting on that score. “We are taking [sustainability programs] step by step and, for that reason, we are not talking…” He pauses, as if he were tempted to tell me more, then stops. “It is too early. Shall we walk?”
Ahead of us now is the seaside terrace with its view of a huge saltwater swimming pool dynamited out of the rocks. “Our story is of this location, the décor. The Riviera was always so inspiring for Chanel,” Pavlovsky is saying, “and the weather is everything; it is perfect here. And Karl Lagerfeld, you know that Mr Largerfeld loves this region.” Ah yes, Mr. Lagerfeld, who spends August in the South of France [he has a villa near Saint-Tropez]. And here he is, enjoying a light, late lunch (leafy salads, tiny artichokes). Pavlovsky approaches. I watch, but can’t work out who is schmoozing whom.
It is said that Karl Lagerfeld has a lifetime contract at Chanel. It is said, by Lagerfeld himself, that he gets to choose his successor. (The current front runner, tipped by the designer last November, is the rising star Haider Ackermann). But as to when Lagerfeld might stand down, who knows? Like Coco herself, he enjoys keeping his date of birth shady, meaning he may or may not be the fashion world’s most senior world famous designer: he disputes a birth date of 1933, preferring 1938, while Giorgio Armani admits to being born in 1934. But Pavlovsky is far too smart to let me even begin to get anywhere with speculation, instead wheeling talk around to how amazing it is to work with Karl etc., etc.,
The President des Activites Mode has no family connection with fashion. “When I was a kid, I had no idea. I would surf and dive. I’m used to living [outdoors]: a lot of sport and all these kind of things, a more Australian kind of life, I suppose,” he muses. “Now I know fashion very well, and I like fashion and of course working with Karl.” I know, had we met in an office above a dark street in Paris as planned, I’d have got more out of him at this point; what brought him to this role, his past, his parents and maybe even his hopes for the future. But the thing is, the surroundings are so distracting.
Over our heads is a sea-diving board and is that really an enormous disco ball hanging out over the sea? At the end of a jetty stretching out into the bright blue water, a lone security guard is standing muscles bristling, legs akimbo. It is so 007-glamourous (and indeed, past guests at the hotel include a James Bond trifecta of Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan and the peerless Sean Connery) that I spend my last few minutes with Chanel’s smooth President joking that the speedboat that is approaching right now must be booked for my departure. (It is not. I have to wait for the photographer. Then it takes us so long to get back to our hotel, we have about 40 seconds before we have to get out again).
It is early evening. The photographer and I, speedily scrubbed up, suited and booted, are back at the imposing front entrance of Hotel du Cap where, (bless him) the concierge who we have met earlier in the day dives forward with “Madame! How glamourous you look!” (The hotel’s starting price of 680 euros a night is seeming ever-more reasonable). How glamourous do we feel as we are escorted by young men in tennis whites, past Vanessa Paradis and Gossip Girl, Blake Lively to one of the parasoled picnic tables, where we wait for the fading of the light and the show to begin.
Off to the side and silhouetted against the sea, I spot Lagerfeld, perhaps thinking he is unobserved (the ponytail is the giveaway). Close at hand, although all but concealed behind a giant spiky plant, I can make out Pavlovsky.
I’m a veteran of Chanel shows and I have not always been kind. Yet this one is a delight with its billowing evening gowns, wide palazzo pants and simple sweaters which seem to encapsulate the casual glamour of Coco Chanel herself, although one doubts even she would have worn diamonds so recklessly with strapless swimwear. After the show, as the sun sets, we head to the beach bar terrace now furnished with white loungers and fire pits.
All chat is praise halted when a cinema screen pops up from behind a rock, a short film by Lagerfeld is screened and then, just as swiftly, the screen disappears and there’s Brian Ferry on stage. I do not spot Pavlovsky on the dance floor smooching to Avalon or doing an air guitar solo during Love is the Drug so I have no chance to shout a final question; whether he thinks the rumoured €3 million this is all costing the House of Chanel is worth it. Clearly the hand-picked audience think it money well spent. But in any case, even if I could find Pavlovsky in the moonlight, I know the answer “Chanel is a private company. We never talk about the figures,” he’d say.
A Lesson Learned
A gaggle of women in full-on African dress were utterly perplexed by a moving staircase going up to the stars. One gingerly places a foot on a tread, shrieked and fled.
AFR | August 2011
by Marion Hume
Before reaching air-side at Kenyatta International Airport, I was halted at a security desk manned by those doing something most unusual for their rather serious job; they were giggling. It’s true the scene ahead was, in a purely slapstick sense, rather funny. A gaggle of women in full Africna dress were utterly perplexed by a moving staircase going up to the stars. One gingerly places a foot on a trend, shrieked and fled. Another started slapping the rubber handrail as if it were a snake she must kill to stop it moving-at which point the immigration official who had raised his arm to stamp my exit visa bit into his sleeve to stop himself laughing out loud.
Passport stamped at last, I walked towards the high escalator and stepped on to it to gasps of astonishment. Next, a young girl was behind me, shrieking with glee. “See, it’s OK,” I said, before raising my right leg slowly , indicating how to step off again. While I was running late for the Nairobi-London night flight, I hung around just long enough to see others of the group emerge over the top from what. by the look on their delighted faces, has been the ride of their lives.
We all travel so much these days, it’s a struggle to remember our own first time. But to travel, to transit your fist airport, to fly, when you come from a country mired in poverty, is an even more extraordinary thing. Of course not even Kenyan is poor- far from it- but my sense was these women were certainly not Nairobi cosmopolitans. By the time they reached the top of the escalator, their eyes were sparkling with both astonishment and a sense of achievement. They’d conquered something and they hadn’t even left the country.
Still, one must always be wary of stereotyping. I recently worked with a Kenyan cameraman who told me how an international director had shown him some footage shot by his foreign team. Seeing a filthy little toddler digging in the mud with a stick, the cameraman suggested it might not be a great idea to use that sequence but was ignored.
Months later, a mother watching her flat screen TV was furious when she spotted her son being used in one of those bulletins urging us to flex out credit cards for charity. “Don’t those people’s kids ever sit in the yard?” she shouted. (That, and demanding to know why, when the images of kids from rich countries are protected, no one though to so much as ask whether a mother might be equally protective of her little boy). The cameraman said he’d heard that parents in New York and London have become so scared, they never let their kids just be kids, sitting in the sun digging for worms.
Wherever my escalator ladies were headed, I hope there are people to guide them through the subtleties of their new location. For while I was only able to teach them the not wildly complicated skill of how to ride an escalator, what they gave me in exchange was more profound.
If we are lucky in our working lives, we are forever fronting up to new experience. Yet sometimes, I know that makes me nervous and now I now realise that the terminology we use is partly to blame. Why would I relish risking going ‘out on the wire’ when I lack the balancing skills of a circus performer? But stepping on to an escalator, going up? I can do that. So from now on, I’m going to remember the Kenyatta escalator ladies when I need reminding that the new isn’t always to be feared. It can be fun.
With her new line of bags, fashion scion Ilaria Venturini Fendi is spinning cast-off materials into chic carryalls-and changing lives in Africa in the process. Marion Hume meets the Fendi family’s first eco-warrior.
By Marion Hume
W | July 2011
“ I never understood why recycling had to be cheap or amateur,” says Ilaria Venturini Fendi. “But then, I’m a Fendi!” Indeed, the bubbly blonde Italian is the youngest daughter or Anna, one of the five Fendi sisters who re-imagined the possibilities of fur and leather transforming the family atelier into a worldwide brand. Her sister Silvia Venturini Fendi is the head accessories designer at the label, which is now under the LVMH luxury umbrella. And her niece Delfina Delettrez Fendi has made a name for herself with a goth-meets-glam jewellery line. Yet it is Ilaria, right now powering her jeep down a dirt track on her organic farm outside of Rome, who is proving to be the true style revolutionary of the famous fashion clan.
Her Carmina Cmpus line-which includes totes, purses, computer bags, and iPad covers- is grabbing attention for using old stuff in new ways. The Bags, made my communities of disadvantaged people, are about as green as it gets. Many of them are created out of reclaimed and recycled material including leftover fabrics, old blankets, and even discarded soda-bottle caps. But let’s nip in the bud any thought of “eco-ugly” fashion- this is Made in Africa-meets- Made in Italy, which translates into exuberant style fused with flawless finishing. On offer at such rarefied global stores as Milan’s 10 Corso Como and London’s Dover Street Market, these are not your average do-gooder totes. The bag slung at Venturini Fendi’s feet as she drives for example, blends pieces of khaki canvas reclaimed from a safari tent (the ones used for five-star tourism become unusable after several seasons) with artisanal patchwork made from off-cuts of the kanga cloths that comprise the traditional East African garment.
Growing up in the Fendi atelier, Venturini Fendi made dresses for her dolls out of scraps. “I hate waste,” she says as she brakes to avoid a flock of sheep. “Always surrounded with precious materials, we were taught to be careful.” Farming is also in the bloodline, from her father, Giulio Venturini, who dies when she was 10. While his day job was in the construction industry his passion was nature. He taught his daughter how to ride, and she still remembers their country outings together. As for her farm, Venturini Fendi brought I Casali del Pino nearly a decade ago, with the aim of turning her back on the fashion business for being “so passive about what really mattered, like the environment.” Today milk from the aforementioned sheep is used to produce four kinds of cheese, including tangy pecorino. There are also ducks, pigs and hens as well as two donkeys so ludicrously tame they keep trying to nuzzle up and say hello.
It was her bees, however, that lured Venturini Fendi into producing high-end accessories in Africa. In 2007 the University of Rome asked her to share her apiarist insights with some visiting beekeepers from Cameroon. They, in turn, thanked her by presenting her with a traditional Cameroonian hat, which looks somewhat like a crazy crocheted hedgehog. Once a Fendi, always a Fendi: Rather than put the gift on her head, she immediately re-imagined it upside down and trimmed in leather, transformed into a funky little bag.
Just before meeting the beekeepers, Venturini Fendi has begun to miss the world she thought she’d left for good. She had reconfigured her greenhouse into a design studio, where she has been joined by a clutch of former colleagues from the days when she’s worked at Fendissime, in the Ninties, a youthful secondary line that was shuttered after LVMH purchased Fendi. The team’s goal: to figure out how discarded materials could be refashioned at the highest possible level. The results, plus those created by other eco-minded designers, would soon be sold at Re(f)use, a green emporium that Venturini Fendi set up in a family owned building in the heart of Rome.
Putting the hat-turned-bag into production involved a group trip to Dschang, the Cameroonian town from which the bobby berets originate. (Both men and women wear them,” she says. “They look incredible.”) After forging a collaboration if with local artisans, however, she was left with questions: How was she to know if she was paying workers too little or- just as damaging in a fragile economy-too much? For answers, Venturini Fendi turned to Simone Ciprani, on officer at the Ethical Fashion Programme of the International Trade Centre, which is the joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. (Full disclosure: the author consults for the program.) The mission of the Ethical Fashion Programme is to harness fashion as a vehicle out of poverty, connecting the world’s most marginalized people to plugged-in designers in Paris, New York, Milan and elsewhere. Production of the hat-bags continues at a small scale in Cameroon, while artisans in Kenya produce a wider range of styles. Carmina Campus employs 69 Kenyans full time, many from the notorious Nairobi slums of Korogocho and Kibera. “It is about real people with faces and names and stories, who live in a different way now,” says Cipriani, who can’t help but be impressed by Venturini Fendi. “I was astonished to see her in the dump sites of the slums, talking with the people for a long time. It is not an easy place.”
Venturini Fendi’s latest project is a three-way collaboration between Carmina Campus, the ITC, and 10 Corso Como owner Carla Sozzani. This time the bags, which just made their debut at Sozzani’s Milan boutique, are lined and trimmed with leftovers from 10 Corso Como’s signature collections- but they are finished in Africa. “What I didn’t like when I was in fashion before was that what you created was gone in a season,” Venturini Fendi says. “Now I want ot make lovely things that last. When I hear that other designers want to do the same, I am happy.” Indeed Vivienne Westwood, who is also passionate about the environment, is collaborating with the ITC in Kenya-both women believe fashion’s aspirational aura allows the industry to punch above its weight when it comes to getting notices. In this lies a route to real change, and while moving fashion away from a trend-driven model is quite a lofty aim, forging a new path, has after all, been in the Fendi DNA for several generations.
“I want fashion to be the promoter of change,” says Venturini Fendi as she exits her jeep for a walk along the river that flows though her farm, “to the point that there will no longer be any need to make a distinction between fashion and ethical fashion.”
Estate of the Art – Collezione Gori
by Marion Hume
In the gardens of a Tuscan manor house, an inspiring collection by modern masters. TUSCANY There is, of course, an abundance of celebrated art in Tuscany, but the experience of looking at it amidst jostling crowds is rarely tranquil. And what if your taste is for something more modern?
Collezione Gori is a rare treat: a private collection of art beautifully displayed in some 24 hectares of parkland surrounding a grand Tuscan manor called Celle. The estate displays some 70 works designed precisely for their surroundings by artists including Anselm Kiefer, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Richard Serra. The collection was started by Giuliano Gori, who acquired the old mansion in the Tuscan hills between Florence and Pistoia, in the 1970s and set about inviting artists to come to Tuscany, absorb the atmosphere, choose where they would like to see a creation displayed and then be funded to make that happen.
Entry to Collezione Gori is free, but the days of turning up at the gates on a bicycle and be let in are long gone. Today, you must write to the gallery well in advance- although the good news, as the collection prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2012, is that there will be more summer open days than in the recent years. Current artworks include a house of mirrors by Daniel Buren, a bamboo pathway to infinity and a couple of giant eggs.
Now structural renovations are complete, it’s also possible to enjoy the seventeenth century chapel, historic fountains and stonework in the garden next to the house. As well as modern installations – keep eyes peeled for the Marta Pan and two Dani Karavan works- other treats include a number of 19th century whimsies such as an aviary, a tea house and an Egyptian monument. The landscaping, inspired by the English stately homes, includes two small lakes with crags and a waterfall. Amid all this is the unmissable My Sky Hole by Bukichi Inoue. Set in the olive grove, it sets visitors on a meditative journey through an outdoor corridor, down an underground tunnel and back up a spiral staircase into the light of a large glass cube.
For details on how to apply for a visit go to goricoll.it and allow at least six weeks notice.
The Secrets of Zara’s Success
Classy, well-tailored, cheap-and ethical. Can the world’s favorite clothing store do no wrong?
by Marion Hume
The Daily Telegraph | June 22nd 20011
How do we love thee, Zara? Let us count the ways. Some numbers make a good place to start: a company founded on just €30 is now worth an estimated €32 Billion. Last week its parent company, Inditex, of which Zara represents over 60 percent, declared an 11 percent rise for the first quarter to €2.96 billion.
Translated, Zara was coining it while other retailers spent January to March moaning about recession and rising production costs. Next quarter’s financials look set to be more spectacular, if the response to the £49.95 blue dress worn by the Dutchess of Cambridge after her wedding is anything to go by.
So why do those as diverse as Kate and the business brains at Harvard which recently commissioned a study of the brand love Zara? Here’s a top 10.
1 The designs work in normal life.
Walk into a Zara. See anything you like? Thought so. A bug reason for this is that there is no Zara “style” – its appeal is broad. Yet you won’t find everyone else in the office in the same dress, and here lies the first clue to its supremacy. Although Zara may run up 30,000 copies of an item, supply is spread thinly over its 5,157 stores in 81 countries, plus its online shop. Scarcity plus realistic design equals kerching! at the cash till.
2 Fast Response to city-specific trends
A new white jacket arrived at the Manhattan flagship store. But customers passed, telling sales staff that New Yorkers prefer cream. A system is in place for retail staff to transmit such information straight to the design team at Arteixo, a tiny town in north-west Spain. Within a fortnight, a much bigger consignment of cream jackets had been dispatched to become a sell-out on 42nd street.
3 It’s mass with class
That Zara has its headquarters in Spain is significant. While influences are global, Spanish customers have always liked curvy cutting to flatter a proud bearing. The result is that Zara tailoring seems higher quality than other in this price range (blazers start at around £49.99), and styles are on-trend as opposed to too trendy.
4 A signifier of stylish city
A Zara store opening signifies a city has arrived sartorially. “Thank God, we won’t be a third-world fashion country any more,” said a Sydney- residing fan at the first Australian opening in April. Such was the delight down under that crowd control barriers had to be maintained for weeks. Those in Cape Town, Taipei and Lima may be equally excited.
Just as consumers are driven by scarcity, so the press is intrigued by the greatest fashion story never told. Inditex founder Amancio Ortega, 75, the son of a railwayman who is now rated as the ninth richest man in the world, has never given an interview- and probably never will. Next month, he hands over to his equally taciturn second-in-command, Pablo Isla.
6 A Brilliant brand name
Those launching brands seek short, sharp names that work in every language. Yet this four-letter word was an accident. From 1963, Ortega’s company, which manufactured nightwear, was called Confecciones GOA (Amancio Ortega Gaona’s initials backwards). In 1975, he started to sell direct to public through a little shop in La Coruña and decided to call it Zorba. But the owner of a nearby bar of the same name protested. A new name had to come from the letter moulds already cast. Ironically, Spain is the only country in which Zara is pronounced not “Zah-rah” but “Tha-ra”.
7 The Green Frock
Inditex ups its eco rating by using wind turbines and solar power in its headquarters. Recaptured energy is even redirected into the steamers that press every garment. Items are despatched in battered boxes, which are reused and then recycled. Bicycles are provided for workers to whizz around inside vast warehouses. Green, yes- but is also makes good business sense because it saves money.
8 Seductive, sustainable store design
Store design is really working when you are too busy shopping to notice. Zara stores are built to seem airy and light-even on a busy Saturday-while the current in-store look, closely inspired by Prada, is for squadrons of mannequins gathered together to show off the season’s many looks. To decide on how its global stores should appear, Inditex tests entire “streetscapes” of prototypes for new-look Zara stores within a vast hanger at Arteixo. The radical Rome store, the prototype for all new builds, is on target to receive a platinum standard in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a seal of sustainable architecture that is one of the most demanding of its kind.
9 A hooray from Harvard
The ultimate business plaudit is a study by Harvard business school. What do the money men love? That Zara turns the fashion system, which usually starts with the whim of a designer, on its head, by putting the customer at the heart of a unique business model. But there is a downside: for this model to thrive, Zara’s “designers” are strongly “inspired” by the creations of others, who are neither acknowledged nor paid. Not for nothing had Daniel Piette, fashion director of Louis Vuitton, described Zara as “the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world”.
10 Ethics Appeal
Inditex is intelligent in its generosity to charity. Following the Haiti earthquake, Inditex sent €2 million of emergency reconstruction relief as cash, not clothes. You might think that those who have lost everything need clothes, but as a result of other fashion giants sending these, local clothing industries have never recovered, leading to a greater dependency on aid, rather than trade.
In Spain, some stores’ employment practices make it possible for those with mental and physical disabilities to join the workforce.
But let’s hold back on awarding Zara that tenth love point for now; a somewhat murky supply chain makes all fast-fashion tough to love. Potentially vulnerable garment workers manning sewing machines in countries such as Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. In Zara’s favor, though, much of its production is in factories it owns in Spain, meaning it can guard against the scary labour practices that haunt the high street.
However, you can help by letting them know how much that matters and even that you are prepared to pay a little more and wait a little longer to ensure fashion is fairer.
Remember how they listen to customers asking for cream jackets? Use that system to ask for clean jackets at the cash till or via zara.com. You could also suggest that Zara provides “swing tags” that detail your garments journey to you.
Why would the world’s biggest fashion force care what you think? Because Inditex has conquered by putting the customer at the care of the story. Do speak up.
This Flower’s Power
Departures | June 2011
Loro Piana sourced a rare cloth once used only by Southeast Asian monks. Its origins, however, have a far-from-blessed past.
By Marion Hume
Inle Lake, in southeast Burma, is a beautiful spot. Some 14 miles long and seven miles wide (it is hard to tell where the reeds end and the land begins), the lake is dotted with local fisherman balancing on the bows of their wooden skiffs. They live in thatched houses on stilts above the lake and grow vegetables on floating gardens tethered to the water bed with strips of bamboo. Through a camera, or just sitting back in a longboat and gazing at the scene, you would think this is paradise. It isn’t.
Burma (whose military regime arbitrarily renamed it Myanmar in 1989) is among the world’s poorest countries. Despite the release last fall of democracy fighter and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for opposing the dictatorship, the country is still very much under the grip of an autocracy. Sanctions designed to deny the generals and their cronies foreign currency mean that almost nothing from Burma can be imported into the United States. And although European sanctions do not cover textiles, considerable pressure has been applied on mass-market manufacturers not to source from a country where cheap clothes come at high price when it comes to human rights.
So what on earth is Pier Luigi Loro Piana, of the luxury label known for peerlessly fine garments in cashmere, vicuna and silk, doing here? Why is this charming Italian, who is hardly unfamiliar with private jets and yachts, sitting barefoot on the floor of a Burmese thatched-roof house? He is watching a woman remove sappy filaments from the stems of the country’s wild lotus flowers that grow everywhere on the lake. He moves on to watch another woman spinning yarn on a contraption that would not look out of place in a museum. There are looms here – of the type rarely seen in the West since the 18th century – and women sit at them, their hands sending shuttles flying to and fro.
These are among the world’s last weavers of lotus flower fabric, a textile prized for its fineness, lightness and extraordinary ability to keep its wearer cool in even the warmest of climates. When Mr. Loro Piana, the Marco Polo of fashion, learned that lotus-flower cloth, which was once woven only for the ceremonial robes of monks, was still being made, he headed to the source. The company offered to buy all production, which is only about 55 yards a month, and paid the community of artisans in advance, then pledged more orders season after season-and in so doing has helped ensure that a unique tradition survives and that the craftsmen are now paid fairly. As a Loro Piana spokesperson explains: “The fibre is great and exclusive, yes, but people are being helped. The idea behind the project was not just to give fish, as they saying goes, but teach them how to fish.”
In a select clutch of Loro Piana stores-none in the United States, where imports are still prohibited- the cloth, which has a nubby, linen-like texture of raw silk, is now available. It is sold loose to be later tailored into sumptuous jackets (from $5,600); its fineness makes it less suitable for trousers. Pier Luigi is hoping the US government will grant lotus-flower cloth an exemption from sanctions. With Aung San Suu Kyi calling for careful, ethical engagement with Burma once again, reviving the magical cloth of monks, which has the desirable secular property of cooling one down on a warm day, might be a appropriate way to begin.