The AFR Magazine December 2010
Story by Marion Hume
What is old is new again, and the advantage for me, racking up fashion years (which multiply at twice the speed of dog years, by the way) is that I’ve been round this circuit before. What’s the biggest trend right now? The seventies. Where did my fashion consciousness awake? Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and wearing leg warmers.
In the 1980s, some fashion wag dubbed the ‘70s, “the decade that style forgot”, which stuck, although it was wrong. In fact, the ‘70s were rich and diverse. In just ten years, I dressed my teens through hippy, glam rock, disco, punk and then, at last came chic, as captured with the ultimate ‘70s movie “American Gigolo” (it came out in 1980, but it was made in 1978).
Paul Schrader’s movie, which opens with a scene that succeeds in making even the Los Angeles freeway look glorious, wasn’t a hit in Kyoto, Japan or, if it was, Akira Isogawa – who despite still looking annoyingly youthful was very much alive in the ‘70s – managed to miss it. So, on his recent trip to London, I felt duty-bound to re-rig the video recorder (how clever to have kept that hidden away) and soon we were listening to the soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder and I was trying quite hard not to sing along to Blondie’s “Call Me”.
Much has been made of the scene in which Richard Gere prances around like a latter-day dandy (or, to be accurate, just like the male hooker of the title role), matching “griege” shirts with beige ties as if that were hard.
This is the fashion world’s no. 1. favourite movie clip and certainly, I will never forget watching it WITH Richard Gere (gray around the temples, even more handsome) at the Giorgio Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York a few years’ ago. When I say I watched it with Gere, there were only four people in a room at the museum in which the high points of Armani’s movie successes were being projected on a vast screen. Alas, I must concede that Gere is unlikely to reminisce about me being there, but watching him watch himself was a thrill all the same.
But I realised, re-watching the celebrated scene with Isogawa instead that the familiar version has actually being clipped; this to omit the opening where Gere scrapes his finger through a mountain of cocaine and rubs it vigorously into his gums before he begins the Herculean task of working out what he’s going to wear. Since 1978, there have been moments at Armani shows when a little lift would not have gone amiss, but despite all you hear about us drug-addled fashionistas, I’ve never seen anyone go that far since.
While Gere gets the glory, actually, it is Lauren Hutton who fascinates in the movie now. Hutton began the ‘70s as both gap-toothed girl next door and the world’s first supermodel and ended them (lucky her) kissing Gere and wearing satin blouses which look so utterly “now”. While Gere’s outfits changed menswear in what was then the future (think of a Hollywood agent in the ‘80s and you’ll imagine him wearing a beige Armani suit), Hutton’s outfits were a sartorial lament to a softness that was already disappearing and has taken 30 years to return. In between, womenswear has had a harder edge, starting with the “me me me” styles of the ’80s.
Why is softness back? It’s partly due to the achievements of a band of women who prefered dungarees when Hutton was wearing grey silk and who manned the barricades to fight for the equality we all now enjoy by law. Today’s designers – many of them women – are, largely, the first generation to be the children of working mothers and they are working mothers themselves.
Hence the 70s looks at Celine, Chloe, McCartney. But who I wonder, is going to reissue the fabulous soft trench coat Hutton slips off in the movie? We’ll have to wait for next season’s shows for that.
What to give the fashion person who has everything? Say you were Italian designer Domenico Dolce wondering what to buy for Stefano Gabbana, for example, or Gabbana wondering what to give Dolce, who already has a yacht. Where might you start?
The growing trend among fashion powers looking for the ultimate trinket is to search for something sporty. We’re not talking a fleece hoodie; we’re talking a team.
To wit: Dolce & Gabbana recently treated each other to 15 muscular men in satin shorts otherwise known as an Italian boxing team that competes on the WSB international circuit and will henceforth be called Dolce & Gabbana Milano Thunder.
“For the first time, a sporting team will carry our name. This is the beginning of a new adventure for us,” say the designers, neither of whom boxes. Of course, the team will also get a snazzy new kit.
This is not a sporting first for the designers. Dolce & Gabbana has a three-year agreement with Chelsea FC to kit out Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and the rest of the squad with official suits, and has created the “Dolce & Gabbana Lounge” in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge. It is more stylistically flashy than it was in its previous incarnation as “the Armani Lounge”, as that earlier sponsor filled the space with muted pieces from the Armani Casa range.
Giorgio Armani was not the first fashion designer to see the literal appeal of the physical – Jean Patou dressed Suzanne Lenglen, a glamorous French tennis star, in the 1920s – but it was Armani who mined the marketing relationship between style and sport, starting in 1995, when he declared footballers “today’s new style leaders” and invited David James, then Liverpool goalkeeper, both on to the catwalk and into his Emporio Armani underwear advertisements. Other players, notably David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, have joined Team Armani since, the latest in the posse being tennis world number one Rafael Nadal. Armani also owns Armani Jeans Milano basketball team.
Which is why it would be such a struggle if you drew him as your “Secret Santa” recipient; ditto Diego della Valle, Tod’s chief, who already owns the Italian football team Fiorentina. And what on earth would one buy Sergio and Pier Luigi Loro Piana of the eponymous brand? They’ve already treated themselves to a polo team. (Surprisingly, the Polo man himself, Ralph Lauren, does not have a team of his own, though instead he sponsors the Black Watch team captained by Argentine international and Ralph Lauren model Ignacio Figueras).
Meanwhile, Hermès launched a show-jumping competition, the Saut d’Hermès, at Grand Palais in Paris in April, and Zegna has its own ski resort.
Look deeper and it’s hard to find a designer not involved with sport. Emilio Pucci was an Olympic skier before he created his own line, which includes skiwear; Paul Smith, who sells bikes as well as suits, was a boy racer at the Beeston Road Club in Nottingham. Stella McCartney is charged with designing Britain’s look for the the 2012 Olympics, and Donna Karan has a long-term sponsorship arrangement with baseball’s New York Yankees.
“The marriage is natural,” says Karan. “DKNY and Yankee Stadium are quintessentially New York in spirit. Both are a part of our culture, our streets, our collective consciousness.”
Hugo Boss, however, is the company that has basketball sewn up, working with the Knicks so that during games at Madison Square Gardens, interactive voting is tallied up on the huge screens in categories such as “best-dressed fan”. Boss is involved in so many sports – from golf to tennis to sailing to soccer – that it’s hard to keep track. “And don’t forget we’ve been the sponsor of McLaren at Formula One for 30 years,” says Philipp Wolff, senior vice-president.
So what’s in it for them, besides love? Ketty Maisonrouge of Columbia Business School and president and co-founder of the Luxury Education Foundation explains: “The sports teams selected by the fashion houses are increasingly appealing to men, which follows the movement of a certain masculinisation of fashion, as fashion houses go after this historically less-tapped market. Men feel more confident caring about themselves and their appearance, and fashion brands want to make men even more comfortable with this interest by selecting sports teams that are considered highly masculine.”
Thus even brands where you think “No, never” have been bitten by the sports bug. The late Franco Moschino, who died in 1994, was a joker, not a jock. Yet which brand has just signed a deal with Aironi, the Italian rugby team formed to take part in this year’s Magners League and Heineken Cup? You guessed it.
“I’m proud that a rugby team chose Moschino to dress its image around the globe,” says Rossella Jardini, Moschino creative director. Consider it their gift to the brand.
A guide to the 1970s
Think the Seventies was all about the maxi-dress? Think again. From slick pantsuits to the delicate crepe dresses of Yves Saint Laurent, via the punky pins of rockers’ garbs, this diverse decade has influenced a roll-call of designers for autumn.
BY MARION HUME | 05 OCTOBER 2010
Why are Seventies styles all over the stores right now and, judging by the current round of catwalk shows, staying around next season? Given the original styles were so diverse, there is no short answer. But try these explanations for starters.
Silhouettes and soundtracks
It’s easier to spell out the vast range of looks through sounds of the Seventies. Think Isaac Hayes’s theme from Shaft ; now think Slade; now the Jackson Five; Abba; Rod Stewart; and Bob Marley. If you are old enough, was it Ziggy Stardust segueing into The Sex Pistols for you? Or David Cassidy to Bruce Springsteen? T-Rex to the Jam? Cher’s Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves to The Hustle ?
“The fundamental difference now is the focus on luxe,” says Bridget Cosgrave, fashion director of Matches. Her Seventies memory? “My mother wafting around in silk kaftans to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love .”
It’s all about your mother
The most influential collection of the Seventies – and as important now – was Yves Saint Laurent’s reinvention of memories of his mother, Lucienne, in the crêpe dresses, palazzo pantsuits and platform sandals she wore in the Algerian sun when he was a boy in the Forties. Unfortunately, those styles reminded fashion scribes at his 1971 show of the Nazi occupation of Paris. But just as the old guard hated the collection, the young, like Paloma Picasso, adored it. Those silhouettes were worn by Linda McCartney, the late mother of Stella McCartney, who is in turn now influenced by her mother. As is Phoebe Philo by hers.
“It’s striking how a crop of principally British, thirtysomething designers are re-exploring the easy, chic clothing their mothers once wore,” says Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of the trendy magazine, The Gentlewoman . “Several of them – Phoebe Philo at Céline and Stella McCartney, for instance – are now working mothers themselves and recognise the need for clothes that don’t make them look idiotic. The palette – caramels, flesh tones, pragmatic black and white – as well as generous silhouettes inspire confidence and warmth in those wearing them. Women genuinely look and feel great in these clothes.”
Many designers were teenagers in the Seventies, and you never forget your first fashion love. A 17-year-old Tom Ford moved to New York City just as Halston was at his height. At Ford’s womenswear comeback this September, “the ambience of the showing was pure Halston,” says Kate Betts, contributing editor to Time .
Marc Jacobs was familiar with the best designs of the Seventies; aged 15, he started working at Charivari, then Manhattan’s most cutting-edge boutique. Meanwhile, Stefano Gabbana was yearning to afford more than just the stickers at Milan’s Fiorucci. Albert Kriemler now helms his family’s label, Akris. When he was a teen, his father was producing clothes for the ultimate Seventies label, Ted Lapidus – clothes which influence the slim silhouettes in mustard and burgundy in Kriemler’s collections today.
First love never dies for the shopper, too. In 1976, Mimma Viglezio looked so great in her Lee Cooper burgundy corduroy flares, she won the “Miss Arse” competition at her Swiss high school. “It really was called that,” insists the former executive vice-president of Gucci Group, who is now a leading luxury world consultant, adding, “I still love high-waisted flares. When you are not 16 any more and your tummy is not quite so flat, a high waist is more flattering than risking a muffin top!”
Karen Walker, the designer, was in Auckland rather than New York when CBGB and Studio 54 were at their zenith. “But I love the Seventies as the last age of underground hedonism,” she says. Although the influence of punk has been enormous – there were studs, leather and zips at Balmain last week, set against the sound of Sid Vicious doing My Way – it was a fashion blip at the time. In 1977, Zandra Rhodes somehow made safety pins sweet, but real punks wore Millets and DIY, which is why the rare few who could afford Westwood/McClaren items have since sold them for a fortune.
The thrill of the old
It was in the Seventies that fashion’s looking-backward-to-go-forward dynamic kicked off. In 1971, Cecil Beaton curated an exhibition at the V&A called Fashion, An Anthology , which celebrated styles of previous decades and had the knock-on effect of making wearing vintage smart.
“Today, dealers charge up to £100 for rare and beautiful clothes in perfect condition,” wrote a surprised Georgina Howell in 1975. “Now, in London, you can find a whole range of fashion within a stone’s throw – tweedy, ethnic, Hollywood, classic, glamorous, executive, nostalgic…” Should you be in search of Seventies originals, you’re too late; designer scouts long ago scooped up “inspirational” YSL pie-crust cuff satin blouses. Look for lesser-known labels such as Stephen Burrows or bang-on-the-ethnic-trend Mexicana – Princess Anne packed a Mexicana gown for her 1973 honeymoon.
So to answer how to get the look, well, which look exactly? To narrow it down, you could rent the right films. Everything Julie Christie wears in Don’t Look Now (1973) looks right. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), although set in 1937, features Faye Dunaway looking very Céline. If you want a Gallic twist, try the early work of French actress Dominique Sanda.
Then there is Lauren Hutton, who began the Seventies as the multi-million-dollar model girl next door, and ended it looking as if she was about to be crushed by the hard-edged Eighties. American Gigolo (made in 1978, released in 1980) is best remembered because Richard Gere’s wardrobe kick-started Giorgio Armani’s dominance in menswear, but it’s Hutton’s flicky hair, blouses and leg-elongating nude mules that are so very now.
KISS AND SELL. SIR PHILIP GREEN
by Marion Hume
The AFR Magazine September 2010
The self-made king of affordably fabulous has the retail touch: Sir Philip Green ships about 150 million garments a year through ‘cheap chic’ outlets such as the Topshop chain. He’s worth about $7.6 billion and is still working
on how his businesses can adjust to a new consumer embracing social media
Sir Philip Green doesn’t waste time. My allotted slot with the global king of affordable chic is at 1 o’clock, and at 12.59pm, after ice water and coffee has been served in the plush reception area outside his office (pale carpets, swanky sofas, Jo Malone scent in the loo), the door swings open and here he is; pin-neat grey suit, pristine white shirt open at the neck. Two buttons, no tie; silver swept-back hair shimmering with the sheen of a shampoo commercial; tanned skin positively glowing. In other words, the absolute picture of a 58-year-old, self-made man worth about £4.43billion ($7.6billion), whose Monday morning commute from the family home is by private jet from The French Riviera.
Green is famous for the fact he pulls no punches and answers his own phone (not some new-fangled device but an old Nokia; he has a stockpile of them). Want to know about the ethics of the rag trade – a tough call for a man whose fortune rests on cheap chic manufactured in the murkier corners of the world? He faces it head-on, doesn’t blink. The only thing his VP of communications has suggested is that I don’t ask for his life story “because the risk is, that’s your time gone”.
I decide not to ask about his plush pad in Monaco, a tax haven, either. As Green has told reporters before – not angrily, just firm – he pays tax in Britain. He does not claim non-residency. (However, that Britain’s ninth-richest person has received hefty dividends from Taveta Investments, which is in the name of his Monaco-based wife, Lady Tina, has been widely reported; less publicised is the fact that he has not done so for the past four years.)
In Australia, Green’s best-known brand is Topshop, which, famously, carries a collection by Kate Moss and sells in Incu in Sydney, as well as in New York, Paris, Hong Kong. It also sells in The Department Store in Takapuna, New Zealand, where, when the brand arrived last May, the first sale was at 7.03am and it took four hours to clear the queues around the block.
Green’s Arcadia Group, privately owned by Taveta Investments, also numbers a score of High Street chains not present in Australia, as well as vast and growing e-commerce sites. The brands operate in more than 30 countries across Europe, the Far East and Middle East. Pretax profit for 2008-09, the most recent data available, was £213.6 million, up 13 per cent from £188.9 million. This in a recession still being felt deeply in Britain.
Those MBAs that have become fashion’s favourite accessory are not for this high-school dropout. “There’s parts of it you can learn, which are probably the mechanical pieces,” the billionaire concedes. “But you can’t learn to have a good eye. You either have it or you don’t.” Of course, Green has it and his decisions are snappy. “I’m doing this on the run, I’m turning up, show it to me,” is how he explains his M.O.
“So just now, I was just going through ladies dresses for Christmas; before that, knitwear. When you’ve finished, I’m going to see Kate Moss about her collection. Do I chuck stuff out I think won’t work? Yeah. I saw some knitwear this morning. Didn’t like it on the hanger. Then I’m looking at dresses and I asked [myself]: ‘If this was your last bet, is that where you’d be putting your money?’ In my mind, you weigh up the risk/reward box. I said, ‘If you want to buy a dress that sells at £40, and you want to buy a dress that sells at £70, buy 5,000 of the one that sells at £40, and 600 of the one that sells at £70. It’s not negotiable – unless they prove to me the reason why they think I’m wrong.”
Green hails from London’s Croydon, a suburban sprawl better known as the birthplace of Kate Moss, whose Topshop collections reward her with an undisclosed fee, plus a percentage. As for the ‘Sir’ bit, no one from Croydon, where there are no stately homes or rural acres, has one of those inherited toff titles. Sir Philip Green’s was earned, bestowed for services to business. He was born not rich, not poor. His parents ran garages, electrical shops, property. When he was 12, his father died, his mum carried on and he helped out in the business during school holidays until he left school at 16 and started out on his own. He hawked cheap shoes from China, then jeans. Then he bought up some struggling shops, was making money and, well, let’s fast-forward to 2002, when he acquired the Arcadia Group, including the Topshop chain, for £850 million – or we will, indeed, be here all day. He acquired British Home Stores, rebranded now as Bhs, before Arcadia but has failed in three attempts to grab the High Street prize that is the giant Marks & Spencer.
No surprise that the king of the hill is both liked and loathed; he’s liked by Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell – both of whom call him ‘Uncle Phil’ – and by most key staff, who praise his unerring instinct, photographic memory and ability to helicopter in (often literally) and sort things out. Green is loathed, or more accurately envied, by a certain segment of the British tabloid press, which deems it obscene for a man who has made his own money to relish spending it, hence snide asides about the Gulfstream jet, the pad in Monte Carlo, the family cruises aboard the 63-metre yacht, Lionheart, while the Greens’ now-adult children, Chloe and Brandon, weigh anchor nearby aboard the 33-metre Lionchase.
Sir Philip and Lady Tina throw lavish parties, hiring Beyoncé or Rod Stewart to entertain their guests. The list of charities supported by a spectacularly fat wallet is long, so we’ll start and end with how Green first met Moss when he paid £60,000 for a kiss in a charity auction. Aware how seedy taking the prize would look, he donated it to the underbidder, Jemima Khan. Images of the girl-on-girl smooch went around the world.
You won’t, by the way, find many of the fashion pack scoffing at Green, especially since it was under his ownership that Topshop, once notorious for rip-offs that stole designer ideas, turned into a fulcrum of creativity. For almost a decade, Topshop has been funding New Gen designers in the early stages of their careers, plus (brilliant this) every season, Green and team set up what has to be the world’s most glamorous soup kitchen to feed and water (and champagne) the international fashion pack during London fashion show season.
Green takes plenty of time off – summer on the Med, winter in Barbados, fitness breaks in the US in between – but that isn’t to say he switches off. “I went walking in Arizona last week and a lot of the time I spent thinking, ‘How can we do things differently? How do we adjust to the new world we live in?’” he says. “We’re in an over-shopped world, so you’ve got to create more theatre, more fresh … You’ve got young kids now who spend their time on this Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other form of communication on the planet. You have to be clever, smarter, newer …”
Back when Green was flogging his first cheap shoes, the consumer didn’t care about workplace practices, ethical fashion, carbon footprint. Arcadia owns none of the factories in about 60 countries – including China, India, Mauritius, Romania, Turkey – that supply its stores, although, of course, its management and staff are acutely aware that proof of something ghastly, like child labour or mistreatment of women, could threaten everything. Arcadia funds what is probably the global clothing business’s biggest compliance team, last year alone staging 1,044 factory ethics audits, carried out by independent bodies trained not just to look but to ask, and in such a way that those on the economic margins fearful for their livelihoods are able to respond.
“When you’ve got a business directly employing 45,000 people, therefore probably indirectly [benefiting] 150,000 with families and kids, you know everyone is watching,” Green says. “I want to sell the best products I can, at the best price I can, in the best quality I can and there’s no point cutting corners, because you’ll get caught. You’ve got to educate the people who work for us that we want to do things in the right way. We run a very professional, proper ship. There’s no dodging round.” In 2009 alone, the group rejected approaches from 37 new factories until work practices were brought into line. Thus, the consumer can enjoy fast fashion, confident that it has been produced fairly, although there are still improvements to be made. “I don’t want to be a manufacturer,” Green says. “I finance them; I lend them money; I help them buy machinery; I help them build factories but I don’t want to be the owner because I don’t live there. I can’t put my hand on my heart and say to you I know about every single worker. We’re shipping 150 million garments a year. I can’t look you in the eye and say I can guarantee every single piece because someone’s got to go to Timbuktu, make it, inspect it, colour it, ship it. But, hopefully, we are doing as good a job as we can.” Arcadia also has an in-house ‘police’ force, the Fashion Footprint Group, which has a clear mandate to align social responsibilities with business practice, encompassing everything from recycling to taking a stand on the mulesing of Australian sheep. (From the end of 2010, Arcadia will not work with wool suppliers who practice mulesing against fly strike, irrespective of the use of pain relief.)
But enough of the worthy stuff. What Green really wants to talk about is shopping, knowing that, on the way here, I’ve popped into some of the stores. “What didn’t you like?” he demands. Eyes locked, I say I found the flagship Bhs store hard to navigate. “In which way?” The first floor didn’t entice me. “OK, that’s because you walked up [and] so hit childrenswear first. There’s always a struggle and a debate how we tell people what is on each floor. We’ll fix that.” On to Topshop, where the crowds and the chaos and the neon may be heaven on a stick to Sir Philip and every teenager – “if you took 20 CEOs to Topshop, they’d be dishonest if they didn’t say, ‘Wow, this is a real retail experience’,” he beams – but I found it such a jumble and so packed. “Jumbled up in which way?” he booms, “and who complains if it’s busy? Put that on your tape! That’s what those retailers want!”
Of course, what Topshop has, which fast fashion competitors such as Zara and H&M don’t have, is Kate Moss. (H&M did have her, but dumped her after an alleged brush with drugs earned her the nickname ‘Cocaine Kate’ in 2006.) As the myth goes, Kate moseyed up to ‘Uncle Phil’ in a restaurant a couple of weeks after the paid-for pash at the charity do, said something along the lines of, “We’re both from Croydon, let’s do business together”, and it’s been the music of the tills ringing ever since. But it wasn’t quite like that. Negotiations, apparently, were protracted, especially as Green, used to people snapping to attention, needed to be convinced a fashion princess could do things his way. “To be honest with you, at the time, without being conceited, I think it was actually pretty brave because a lot of people had dropped her,” Green recalls now. “People said to me, ‘Are you sure?’ And this is back to instinct, because that told me ‘Good moment’. Topshop had never had a ‘Face Of’ so it was a complete departure. Part of being an entrepreneur is risk and my attitude was, if I’m wrong, what’s the worst that’s going to happen to me? It’s not going to threaten my whole business.”
Actually, it has lifted it hugely. Moss is helping to push the image of Topshop to a whole new level. “It would be fair to say it [lifted] the profile,” Green says. “It’s never been a huge piece of business, and it was never planned to be a huge piece of business. It was about her brand, our brand coming together and you hit the right mood, the right moment. But at the end of the day, the product can’t lie. The merchandise has got to be great. You can’t kid people, and that’s what’s key.”
“Of course, Kate Moss helps,” says designer and retailer Karen Walker, of The Department Store in Auckland. It was Topshop that suggested forging a deal with the hip Kiwis of Takapuna, following successful partnerships with Opening Ceremony in New York, Colette in Paris, Laforet in Japan and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. Walker says, “The volcano [in Iceland this year that disrupted air travel worldwide] interrupted our initial deliveries, so what we ended up doing was a one-weekend preview, which sold out, then we closed down for two weeks and the second opening was even bigger. We’re the custodians of the brand in New Zealand and both companies, long term, will benefit from the mutual experience.”
The brand made its Australian debut in October 2009 at Incu, transforming a little-used upstairs space above the Paddington store into a must-shop destination. “It’s provided us with a whole new customer base,” Incu director Brian Wu says. “Now, customers can go upstairs to our Topshop area to buy pieces to wear on the weekend and then head downstairs to buy a jacket they have been saving up for, which will last them for many seasons.”
As to why people somehow go more crazy for Topshop than its key competitors, specifically Zara, Green puts it thus: “Zara’s is a great business. I admire and respect it and I’d love to own it. We’re in a slightly different business, though. We’re more edgy. Mr Ortega [Amancio Ortega, Zara’s founder] told me one of his favourite shops in the world is our Oxford Street store, and if you’re in our industry, it would be.”
Later, we’ve moved on to chat about a schools program dedicated to fostering entrepreneurial flair when there’s a sudden ‘knock-knock’ and, “Sir Philip, your 1.30 is here”. It is 1.28pm. “Hello, Naughty,” he calls out through the open door, “with you in a minute.” “Hi Uncle Phil,” Kate Moss says as she pops her head around the door, then he’s back with me, 100 per cent focused, wrapping things up before we shake hands. And then Moss comes in, shakes my hand and we’re done. So it’s a minute later, back in the snazzy reception that the true power of Sir Philip Green hits me. Yeah the billions and the retail turnarounds in record time are impressive, but lordy! What about getting a supermodel to turn up two minutes early! ■
ROGER VIVIER AHEAD OF THE CURVE
ST MAGAZINE | September 2010
by Marion Hume
I’m looking at a design drawing of some distinctly racy strappy sandals, fashioned of arabesques of golden kidskin leather and with high heels inlaid with rubies. But the shoes look surprisingly sturdy, built up to support the instep and with the strong straps required by showgirls like Kylie or Lady Gaga.
In fact, the drawing dates back half a century and was done for a rather different kind of performer. In 1953, when the-then Princess Elizabeth needed glamourous, comfortable footwear in which to stand in Westminster Abbey without so much as a wobble, she turned to the French shoemaker, Roger Vivier. The result was the most famous shoes hardly ever seen, given they were invisible under the Queen’s Hartnell gown on the day of the coronation and have been hidden away in some palace archive ever since. The shock is, in the drawing, they look astonishingly contemporary.
You’ll doubtless be familiar with the name Roger Vivier, given the brand has been dazzlingly revived since 2003 when Diego Della Valle – he of the Tod’s empire – took it over. Della Valle installed Bruno Frisoni, a Frenchman of Italian heritage who had been making his mark creating accessories for Christian Lacroix, as artistic director. Since then, Frisoni has proved adept at mixing wit and elegance, especially in the recent, “A princess to be a queen” collection, including a platform “Balmoral” so sky-high HRH certainly did not command him to send a pair over.
Roger Vivier is also well known because its brand ambassador is the chicest woman in France. (Official; she won a nationwide poll ahead of Carla Bruni Sarkozy). Ines de la Fressange, once Karl Lagerfeld’s muse at Chanel and still as slim as a reed well into her 50s, now acts as a kind of North Star of taste. She describes her own somewhat nebulous role as being able to tell Della Valle to his face that he is “too old and too rich” to tolerate ugliness and thus to constantly remind him of the importance of beauty. This seems to be working. This shoe and bag brand now has nine stores around the world, including rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris; Sloane Street, London and just opened, Plaza 66 in Shanghai, a first foray into mainland China. A little nosegay of Vivier scents launches this autumn too.
But what of the man behind the name? Roger Vivier was the most famous shoe designer in the world – really; his shoes were desired from America to Australia, from his native France to Egypt, South Africa and beyond. Yet while he had the good fortune to live until the age of 90, by doing so, he had so far outlived both close friends and glittering clients such as Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, that when he died in 1998, he was largely forgotten. Indeed, when Diego Della Valle decided to revive the brand, the main question of people’s lips was “Who?”
Back in the 90s, you could sometimes find fabulous satin stilettos labelled “Christian Dior cree par Roger Vivier”. (These days, if you do, it will be in a posh vintage store and the price will be high). Dior and Vivier were personal friends and professional collaborators, to the point that Dior would make a point of publicly acknowledging that, “my friend Roger Vivier, (by) making shoes for the most elegant feet in the world, helped make my dream come true.” Yet the pair hadn’t even met when Dior re-established French fashion supremacy in February 1947 with “The New Look” (accessorised with shoes by Ferragamo). They didn’t meet until 1949.
So who was Roger Vivier? Born into the Parisian bourgeoisie, his young life changed radically when his father and mother died in quick succession leaving him an orphan. At the end of his teens, he dropped out of the Ecole des Beaux-Art to make shoes, thus forever linking a love of sculptural form with the ability to make money. When he first travelled to New York in 1935, he was as awed by those cathedrals of commerce, Saks 5th Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman as he was by the Statue of Liberty. Soon he was designing shoes for Delman, a mighty American firm but when, in 1937, a proposal for a new shoe provoked a transatlantic telegram reading “Are You Crazy?” he took his innovation for platforms made of cork to the surrealist, Elsa Schiaparelli instead.
During the Nazi Occupation, Vivier, like many creative Parisians, headed to the South of France. He then travelled to Lisbon from whence he secured a passage on one of the last passenger liners to cross the Atlantic. Partly due to the scarcity of leather, he made hats during the war years which he saw out in Manhattan. When he finally came home and was introduced to Dior, it was hats that he offered him. Instead, a deal was struck for decorative, jewel-encrusted shoes that, after a while, were labelled “Christian Dior by Roger Vivier”, the first time a shoe maker got equal billing with a couturier.
While the Vivier creations displayed at the Dior boutique were often of a Marie-Antoinette level of opulence, encrusted in shimmering jewels or the feathers of a kingfisher, the creator of them was fascinated by structure as much as surface decoration. In 1954, he realised that architectural breakthroughs concerning weight-bearing steel could be applied to making pin-thin heels possible for the first time. Voila! The stiletto, which would prove so ruinous to wooden floors that by 1965, the wearing of stiletto heels was banned from official buildings in France.
Yet while Vivier was the king of heels – the inward curving Choc heel which appears to follow and extend the leg was also his invention – he was equally the master of the flat. Diana Vreeland, the legendary US Vogue editrix who was known for sacking Voguettes if they didn’t polish the soles of their shoes with the same rigour as the uppers, wrote in her autobiography, DV, “no one ever got a sole as flat – as flat as tongues – as old Roger Vivier.” Not that Vreeland was averse to heels, posing outside her Vogue office in 1964 in a pair of jaunty fire-engine red python stack heeled boots. “My darling Roger Vivier,” she wrote, “the shoes he made… are the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever known…. shoes of hummingbird feathers, shoes embroidered with tiny black pearls and coral, all with exquisite heels of lacquer.” She described her own extensive collection, some of which she wore for over 20 years and all of which she had her housemaid polish with a rhinoceros horn as, “a lesson in perfection”.
No wonder then that a young Yves Saint Laurent came to Vivier when he sought to encapsulate the groovy Paris of his friends, Françoise Hardy and Zizi Jeanmaire. By 1965, Vivier, by now independent from Dior, conceived a seemingly-puritan yet somewhat transgressive flat pump with a buckle on its upper. It became the sexiest flat shoe ever when Catherine Deneuve wore a pair in Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”. Today, flats are equal to heels. “A woman who understands she won’t be better or sexier with 12-centimetres more is smart! Sensuality doesn’t come from centimetres!” says Ines de la Fressange, who then adds, “but of course I love heels too.”
Only the most extraordinary creative people don’t find their taste gets stuck. (Most designers find their style, then keep repeating it. Rare are those , such as Karl Lagerfeld, who keep moving on). Yet Vivier was still at the cutting edge aged 54. One of Rudolf Nureyev’s first acts after he defected to the West was to shop as a free man. His purchase, a pair of boots by Roger Vivier. Vivier was 61 when Brigitte Bardot wore his over-the-knee black boots as she crooned Serge Gainsbourg’s “Harley Davison”, the same year Jane Fonda wore a Vivier version of what were then called kinky boots, in silver and vinyl,in “Barbarella.” Officially Vivier retired in 1971, but he never stopped designing, to the end of his life preferring to talk of his “stamina” rather than his talent.
To revive a historic brand, it helps to have strong signatures to revisit. For Bruno Frisoni, there’s the heel shapes; the comma, the choc, the stiletto; there’s the jewelled flat, the snub square toe that was another Vivier creation. Frisoni is certainly having fun with that pilgrim buckle, these days seen on slightly naughty handbags that hint at a First Lady primness (no surprise then that slightly naughty Carla Bruni Sarkozy is often seen with hers) while the toes of Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Katie Holmes are often covered in Vivier flats. As for the heels, the role call of those attracted to witty yet always elegant heights includes Kate Winslet and Tilda Swinton as well as Hollywood swan, Cate Blanchett, so often a repeat customer that she and Frisoni have become firm friends.
If Frisoni finds himself stuck for ideas, the Vivier oeuvre is a vast source of inspiration. If he feels like getting away from it all, his favourite place on earth is Conca dei Marini, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Jackie O used to holiday wearing Vivier flats. But sometimes, he says, he just sits in his office at 29 rue Faubourg Saint Honore and channels the master. “I talk to God,” he laughs. “Or in this case, to Roger”