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”
The Lost Explorer: Tim Walker’s flight of fancy
The Vogue fashion photographer Tim Walker has made a dark film, The Lost Explorer, that features 300 canaries
The Telegraph Magazine | 12 Aug 2010
By Marion Hume
My lemon-curd-and-honey vision just got darker,’ Tim Walker, the fashion-photographer-turned-filmmaker says of his first short film, The Lost Explorer. You may know Walker as the creator of Vogue shoots featuring white rabbits, powder-pink Persian kittens or stately homes covered in balloons. Yet for his first film he was drawn to an unsettling story in the 1989 collection Blood and Water and Other Tales by Patrick McGrath, whom Walker calls ‘the apocalyptic Roald Dahl’. The story begins with a child, Evelyn, played by 14-year-old Olympia Campbell, stumbling on a tent among brambles at the bottom of her garden. Inside, an explorer is dying of malaria and clutching a revolver.
The story the adventurer then whispers to Evelyn comes not from McGrath’s book but from Walker’s memory. ‘Ages ago someone told me how, in Victorian times, there were canary clouds over the Atlantic,’ he says, referring to the days when a taste for exotic birds meant that clippers sailed back from Africa loaded with cages. Halfway home, they would release the birds, which would soar over the sea, until, too tiny to reach land, they would drop back down to the ship and a life of captivity.
Walker was determined to capture this on film. ‘It was the toughest scene,’ he says. ‘We could afford only 300 canaries, and at the end, the animal wrangler retrieved 287. He put down nuts and seeds and five more appeared, then another seven. By the time the last one came down, it was dusty brown from being up in the rafters.’
According to Robbie Ryan, the Irish cinematographer who worked on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, whom Walker employed as director of photography, ‘300 canaries can look like three on film.’ He jokes that he had to pay them double to fly round twice. ‘Tim’s a breath of fresh air, though,’ he adds. ‘He’s so open and he was sponging it all up, because his day job is nothing compared to being on a film set.’
While a normal day for Walker might involve staging a shoot in an art deco mansion in India that hasn’t been used since the days of the Raj, the challenges of film proved much greater. ‘I’ve always been about building the story through the visuals, and I had to learn to sacrifice some visuals to tell the story.’ As for his decision to hire someone else to hold the camera, he told me, ‘That was weird, but I knew I needed to see the whole picture. Robbie’s about realism, and when you mix that with the way I view the world, you get magical realism, and we both were so excited by that. My photography can be so sweet and it needed someone to push things the other way.’
Making the 20-minute film seemed like an epic in itself: ‘I wanted to launch straight into a feature film, but friends said, “No, you’ll get drowned,” ‘ Walker says. ‘I was thinking, “I can do big epic fashion shoots, what’s the difference?” But they were so right, in every way.’ The shoot lasted eight days with a cast of six and a crew of more than 40.
The story is simple: disgusted yet fascinated by the Lost Explorer, played by a craggy, dirty-looking Richard Bremmer (Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), Evelyn befriends him, keeping his existence, death and burial a secret from her parents. It is a fairy tale with a gently shocking end but it is filled with elements of Walker’s imagination, from shadows of moths fluttering against the tent to close-ups of Evelyn dreamily playing among the sheets on the washing-line. And, of course, there is the ghost-ship scene with the canaries.
Shona Heath, who has created the sets for many of Walker’s fashion fantasies, worked as his costume and production designer. This meant finding authentic pre-First World War tent canvas, and liberally applying coffee, honey and Marmite to age props. The key difference between working on the film and on a fashion set was, she says, ‘a lot less Sellotape and glue. You can’t improvise on film. There was one job I did with Tim where I made hats out of cakes, which he took on the plane to Ireland, and not one survived, so I made some paper clover hats instead. But being true to a story means you can’t walk too far off the path, so suddenly a kind of discipline appeared while normally in Tim’s photography the crazier the better.’
Walker was born in 1970 on the Devon-Dorset border, ‘among hedgerows and cliff paths, in the world Cath Kidston has channelled into her empire’. His mother is the cookery writer Lorna Walker (Clever with Cream, The Complete Bread Book), who, together with his late father, Colin Walker, renovated old houses, and he and his older brother Rupert grew up baking, making camps and building dams and tunnels. (Rupert is currently the programme sponsor for Network Rail’s multimillion pound refurbishment of Reading station.)
Walker’s early ambition was to make films, ‘but at art school,’ he says, ‘everyone else was making funny, tight little shorts and I made this 20-minute film and everyone laughed when they weren’t meant to.’ He began his career as a photo­grapher after coming third in a photography competition for the Independent. He then spent a year immersed in the Cecil Beaton archive during an internship at the Cond Nast library and completed a photography degree at Exeter University before spending another year assisting Richard Avedon in New York. His first fashion commission, for the Independent, was joyfully radical. In an era when every young snapper wanted to find another waif-like Kate Moss, he chose a silver-haired senior clad in Oxfam finds.
He shot his first story for British Vogue 15 years ago, at the age of 25, and has since become a regular fixture in the American and Italian editions, too. His fashion photographs have a sense of theatre and magic about them, and he gleefully goes against the grain of all those images of skinny girls looking glum. The pictures always have a sense of narrative.
Walker’s fashion images, collected in the 2008 book Pictures, speak of a world of enchantment & watching the bee tapping against the window, the smell of mothballs in the wardrobe, going through it to Narnia,’ as he puts it. He loves rambling country piles ‘where you can trample on the roses, and inside there’s ticking mattresses stacked up and up and up and the dusty badminton set by the door. In London we know where stuff is because we have so little space, but when I shoot in houses in Northumberland, in Suffolk, people say, “I haven’t been in this room for five years…” ‘
Walker’s own home is over several floors of an industrial building in Shoreditch, east London. Inside, the urban edge is softened with gingham and bunting. Every inch is adorned on the bare brick walls posters of John and Yoko rub shoulders with advertisements for village fêtes, geraniums jostle on window sills with pottery toadstools, and puppets hang from joists.
Walker began filming The Lost Explorer in February and has been editing it with Valerio Bonelli, who worked on Ricky Gervais’s Cemetery Junction; he is also collecting a series of film stills for a new edition of the story. While the budget for a one-day advertising shoot can easily top £100,000, that’s chump change for a film, despite the fact that everyone, even actors of the calibre of Toby Stephens and Dexter Fletcher, who have supporting roles, worked for free. ‘But that was the amount I needed,’ Walker says. ‘I went round to people I’ve worked with for years and begged, “Can you help?” and Mulberry was brilliant.’
The quintessentially British brand will host a London Fashion Week screening of The Lost Explorer in September; it made its debut in Locarno, Switzerland, this week, and will be screened on the international film festival circuit. Gela Nash, one half of the Juicy Couture partnership (Walker shoots its advertising campaigns), also gets honourable mention for her support.
Walker’s next plan is for the feature film he dreams of making. Currently in his sights is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. ‘It has been in and out of being optioned. I don’t know where it’s at now. But that would be the dream project,’ he says.
Walker’s next plan is for the feature film he dreams of making. Currently in his sights is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. ‘It has been in and out of being optioned. I don’t know where it’s at now. But that would be the dream project,’ he says.
A long way from the World Cup epicentres of Johannesburg and Durban, catwalkers in New York and Paris are already marching to an African beat. And why not? If global business will have its eye on all things African this month, chiming with the prevailing mood makes economic as well as sartorial sense.
The work of Nigerian-born, London-based Duro Olowu, for instance, combines vintage couture fabrics and silhouettes with African prints (Princess Caroline of Monaco wore an Olowu evening gown at the Bal de la Rose – an annual event in Monaco attended by the royal family – in March). “What’s interesting,” Olowu says, “is the level of sophistication, which reflects the way African people have always combined European fabrics with indigenous culture. For a long time, there was a sense that this was limited to Africa but now it has become global. Combined with an awareness of social responsibility, it makes for a powerful statement.”
Fashion’s big hitters are interested. Diane von Furstenberg has created a “tribal tattoo desert sugar” wrap dress for summer; Dries Van Noten has used Ikat fabrics from Lamu and Zanzibar with abandon; and Alber Elbaz showed fierce feather and bead neckpieces at Lanvin’s autumn/winter 2010 show in March.
But there is more going on here than simple visual pillaging for mood board inspiration. Elbaz’s work, for example, was inspired by a meeting with United Nations officials to discuss potential projects for the brand in sub-Saharan Africa. As for von Furstenberg, back in March she co-hosted the “Women in the World” summit in New York, which included Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep and female micro-financing collectives from Nigeria to Liberia.
Increasingly, fashion professionals are making efforts to merge authentic African techniques with high fashion. As Olowu says, “Certain techniques, whether it’s block printing or beading, can’t be faked, and using the real thing gives a garment an integrity recognised by designers and consumers alike.”
One well-known Africa-involved ethical brand is Edun. Its new designer Sharon Wauchob has just returned from her first trip to east Africa. She was struck by “the freshness as far as our industry is concerned. We’ve tried other countries like India for so many trends, but here are crafts that have not been explored in terms of [western] fashion.”
Wauchob hints that the collection to be shown in New York next September will include “metal and beads but something beyond ‘Let’s put these Maasai beads on a T-shirt.’” Meanwhile Edun has launched a mini World Cup line, which includes African-produced T-shirts with a football motif. All proceeds will go to the Conservation Cotton Initiative in Uganda.
Stephanie Hogg, founder of Sierra Leone-based NearFar, believes that “it is possible to create sustainable emplyoment through fusing African creativity with western demand for fashion.” NearFar creates printed playsuits and mini-skirts so enticing that they have been snapped up by cult chain Anthropologie.
Holly Hikido, a former Barneys New York fashion buyer, now commutes between Italy and Addis Ababa to collaborate on a line of featherweight scarves labelled “Sammy Made in Ethiopia”. Her former colleague Julie Gilhart, senior vice-president and fashion director of Barneys, says they are “bestsellers” across the US.
Max Osterweis, who along with ex-Gap designer Erin Beatty runs New York-based, Kenyan-made Suno, agrees. “The idea with Suno is to make clothing covetable enough internationally to provide our tailors in Kenya with long-term employment,” he says.
Michelle Obama is a customer and Carol Lim, of New York’s Opening Ceremony store, is also a fan. “I love Suno because of how the bright colours make me feel,” she says. “It’s kind of like an energy boost.” When customers hear the brand’s made-in-Nairobi story, “it makes the purchase all the more meaningful”, she says.
Helping connect such projects with bigger brands is the Ethical Fashion Programme of the ITC (The International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations). Run by Simone Cipriani, a veteran of the Italian fashion world, the programme aims to provide long-term employment under certified fair labour processes for artisans working in impoverished areas.
While the catwalk names getting involved remain under wraps, there are already repeat customers, such as Luisa Laudi, creative director of MAX&Co, a brand of the Max Mara Group aimed at younger customers. “Working with Kenyan craftswomen in the slums is complicated and not like producing accessories in Italy,” she says, “but this is not charity. The accessories are great and in line with our production standards.”
But, Cipriani warns: “If fashion companies don’t fulfil their promises, the damage is severe. There are cases of micro-producers abandoning their own cottage industries to work with outsiders and then it stops and they are also deprived of the little they had before. The result is brutal. They starve.”
The ITC’s long-term projects are designed to mitigate against the damage of Africa going in and then out of fashion. Olowu says: “The world, including the fashion world, is becoming ever-more global. I think the African influence is more than a trend. Now it’s part of the melting pot.”
In the past fortnight, the following shows have taken place in New York: Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Pucci, Céline and Lanvin. A few weeks before that, the latest Chanel and Dior collections were unveiled in St Tropez and Shanghai, respectively.
None of the events was connected to the industry’s biannual fashion weeks – the collections were cruise shows, a between-seasons niche that industry insiders estimate has grown to account for 70 per cent of designers’ annual clothing sales.
The term “cruise” entered fashion vocabulary in the late 1970s, when designers created ready-to-wear holiday wardrobes for wealthy customers who would spend the winter months in the Mediterranean, Florida, or on board cruise ships.
Three decades on, cruise has become such a big money-spinner that there were rumours of Milan and New York vying to claim the concept and stage a “cruise week” in May to rival the ready-to-wear calendar. But last year’s recession hit and it all went quiet. Had the cruise ship sailed?
Not entirely. But it is increasingly clear that cruise shows are entering new territory. Unlike the classic women’s wear shows, which are tied to specific cities, cruise has no such restrictions. A show can be staged where the money is, and in a way best suited to make that money respond.
Take Chanel. It recently held a cruise extravaganza in St Tropez, following shows in Santa Monica and Miami. According to Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion: “Travelling is a way to feed the imagination around a brand, and to renew its vision.”
Sidney Toledano, Dior’s chief executive, agrees that holding shows away from conventional venues can be beneficial. “These days, we need to show outside Paris. We needed to do something in China, which is obviously a key market. May is the one month in the year when our teams can travel together, and this presents the perfect opportunity to do a show abroad.” Hence Dior’s lavish show held last month on the Bund in Shanghai, which saw John Galliano tote a vast entourage including a hair and make-up team, models, film stars Marion Cotillard and Charlize Theron, and hatter Stephen Jones, all the way to China.
The Dior collection featured simple day dresses, jaunty stripes, skinny pants and pretty cocktail frocks, all shown with distinctly wearable mid-heel shoes – in other words, clothes that the still-new-to-French-fashion smart Shanghainese could immediately imagine wearing themselves. As Stephen Jones puts it: “People said to me: ‘Are you taking really extraordinary hats?’ but I told them no. Cruise is about hats to take away on holiday. It’s about freshness and simplicity.” And increasing sales of merchandise, from November right through to the following July.
Cruise shows also reveal a company’s strategic direction. Hence brands that have staged big productions in the past, such as Gucci, might choose to go quiet for a season or two. Alternatively, a brand might work on its relationship with its customers – as Valerie Hermann, chief executive of Yves Saint Laurent, which staged a small cruise show in a salon at the French consulate in New York, explains. “We felt it was time to be a little humble,” she says. “Also it was time to be close to the viewers, not up on a pedestal.”
Some in the industry argue that keeping cruise collections off the catwalk altogether can be more advantageous. Tom Chapman, co-owner of Matches, which has 14 stores across London stocking cruise lines from labels such as Stella McCartney and Céline, says: “Because cruise isn’t so exposed, it fills the need for products that are fresh. Think about it. The customer sees Emma Watson walking around in a dress just off the runway that they can’t have for six months. The whole internet frenzy, the fact that fashion images are everywhere, means that consumers have seen ready-to-wear so often, they can lose interest.”
Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-a-Porter, agrees that the attraction of cruise is its newness. “Cruise serves as an indication of next season’s catwalk trends, but in a much more accessible form,” she says.
Indeed, smaller designers, far from lamenting that they can’t afford to stage cruise shows, are relieved to create primarily for their customer rather than catwalk scrutiny. “It’s certainly a calmer process,” says fashion designer Jonathan Saunders. Giles Deacon, who shows his mainline collections in Paris, says that creating his cruise line, which he presents via appointments and a look-book, is “really good fun” and the source of “nice new ideas”.
“In terms of business, it’s the most important season,” says Australian designer Richard Nicoll. “It also allows me to experiment with techniques and themes and to test-drive them from a sales perspective before the ideas for the next show become crystallised. In essence, it reduces my commercial risk.”
According to international brand strategist Pierre Rougier, whose clients include Narciso Rodriguez, Proenza Schouler and Raf Simons, only the biggest fashion houses such as Dior and Chanel can afford really lavish cruise shows. “Few other [brands] have the resources,” he says. “That said, it creates excitement, which is good for the industry as a whole.”