It’s a Powerland,* darling
Sunday Times Stella | 04 December 2011
By Marion Hume
*That’s Powerland, the Chinese answer to Prada. Never heard of it? You soon will have, along with a host of other super-brands now being hatched in the world’s emerging economies. Report by MARION HUME
At the Paris shows in October, the hot rumour was of a meeting between Anna and Uma. While ‘Anna’ does indeed refer to the editor of American Vogue, the Uma in question is a Shanghainese designer who fashion insiders believe is on target to achieve international acclaim.
Uma Wang’s creations are sophisticated and chic; in style more Belgian than any cliché of what one might consider Chinese. As word circulated that ‘Vogue is doing a piece,’ everyone checked out the buzz. ‘Thanks for the tip off!’ one retailer texted me after I directed her to Wang’s tiny, temporary showroom. ‘Love it. Brought it. Uma is a star!!!!!!’
Just as Western luxury brands colonise and coin it in China, it is inevitable that Chinese companies will want to do the same right back. While some might currently be lacking in savoir faire, whatthose with big ambitions won’t lack is money; Beijing and Shanghai are backed with newly minted billionaires looking for glamorous investment opportunities.
The French and the Italians of course just shrug at all this. For what Chinese brand can realistically give a grand marquee with 50, 100, 150-lus years behind it a run for it’s money? But those much-vaunted years do somewhat depend on how you count. Sometimes the moniker ‘luxury brand’ really translates as ‘company able to flog mountains of pricy handbags with some other stuff on the side’. While Louis Vuitton has indeed an artisanal heritage arcing back to 1854, it is in trunk-making for which construction techniques could ‘hold their own on avenue Montaigne’, thanks to ‘a long history of exquisite craftsmanship, a wealth of beautiful stones, an emotional relationship with fold, and the talent to design and create ornaments with a very distinct identity’. She also points out the popularity of the jewellery brand Amrapali among American celebrities. The actress Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the singer Rihanna, have all worn pieces on the red carpet this year.
Sheetal Mafatlal, a Paris front-row fixture who introduced the Valentino label to Mumbai, also insists that local jewellers such as TBZ are the best anywhere, but cautions that their strengths lie not in the global brand reach but in their spectacular bespoke offerings.
Shweta Shiware is the former fashion editor of Mid Day (India’s afternoon newspaper with a circulation of five million.) She explains that designerwear is synonymous with bridalwear in India because that’s where people spend money. ‘Bridal masters like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra control the market in a far tighter grip than any international luxury brands can hope to’. Of course, among the Indian diaspora, top sari labels are already international brands. Manish Malhotra is known as the Cavalli of Mumbai, while creations by TT (as Tarun Tahiliani is known) are accessorised with Bottega Veneta clutches and Louboutin heels at all the best Bollywood parties. To woo India, Hermes now offers its famous scarves expanded to sari size. Expect others to copy that idea.
Brazilian brands have already made some serious headway. Fernanda Paronetto, head of corporate marketing for the Brazilian operation of the concierge company Quintessentially, has a hot-list of local brands-gone-global at her fingertips. There’s the jeweller H Stern, with 165 stones in 12 countries; the fashion designer Carlos Miele- who has shown at New York Fashion Week since 2002 and is worn by mega-stars such as Jennifer Lopez Beyonce. Alexandre Herchovitch is another Brazilian designer, who is currently big in Japan. For shoes, Alexandre Birman is known as the Brazilian Manolo Blanhik and is a hit both on net-a-porter.com and the red carpet. The lingerie label Rosa Cha is Brazil’s answer to La Perla, Osklen is the South American Polo Ralph Lauren and there’s the model Gisele Bundchen’s favourite Havaianas – the flip-flops that wouldn’t be considered luxurious except that every female Oscar nominee gets given a pair. ‘And don’t forget Jack Vartanian,’ adds Paronetto. ‘Nowadays his jewels are worn by Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.’
With many an economist’s eye on South Korea’s emerging economy, if the name Lie Sang Bong is not yet familiar to you, it should become so. The McQueen of Korea has been showing at Paris fashion week for almost a decade, and is the most prominent designer in his home country, dressing the first lady and collaborating on design projects as wide ranging as home décor, cigarettes and computing (the Lie Sang Bong limited edition mobile phone is a highly desirable piece of kit). ‘And Lady Gaga loves him!’ adds the Seoul-based interior designer Rea Kim.
Such is Korea’s success that it has threatened to budge Russia out of its own acronym, with some economists vaunting a change from BRIC, the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to BRICK. In fact, as far as new local luxury brands are concerned, the Russian’s don’t seem to be son interested. The designer Valentin Yudashkin has been showing at Paris Fashion Week for decades and is the only Russian designer to be honoured with membership of the city’s Syndicate of High Fashion. But his brand is still not one with global recognition.
Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Paris Vogue who has Russian blood, is a supporter of Yudashkin, and she also has a hand in the revival of the Russian jewellery house Faberge. Faberge thrived from 1842 until the 1927 revolution ad is famous for its exquisite bejewelled eggs (valued at about £12 million each). The Brand, now owned by the London-based consortium Pallinghurst Resources, is no longer based in Russia, and is returning to London and New York with new stores. The flagship stores is in Geneva rather than St Petersburg these days and the brand’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, isn’t Russian, but the talented designer Natalia Shugaeva is. And what could be more Russian than a history full of opulence, tragedy and exile?
Of all local brands that could take on luxury giants, the wise woman might place her quilted gold, pave gem-set jewelled chips on Faberge..
That IKEA has caught on, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is in part directly due to my mother, who will always drive out of her way for napkins and a jar of herrings.
AFR | December 2011
by Marion Hume
I was really excited. I had travelled to the source – a bit like Burton and Speke and the source of the Nile, except for the details, such as Burton didn’t actually make it to Lake Victoria and I didn’t have a camel. No need for camels with such a massive parking lot. What lay before me was not nile green, but the world’s most recognized colour combination, yellow and blue. I had reached the birthplace of IKEA.
Actually, I’ve just lied a bit and I’m sad about that. Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA in Smaland. But my Swedish friend insisted the Goteburg branch was better, so while I missed the thrill of the most ancient temple of flat-packing, a still historic source of self-assembly was good enough. I could barely contain my excitement as I grabbed my yellow ‘for use in store’ bag.
I should confess here that I love IKEA. I just do not understand why people hate it. I mean, even I can follow instructions and build a drawer. I also love that the designs are democratic, which is to say affordable and widely applicable. Not for you with your ‘shabby chic’ sitting room? But have you thought of how happily one of the $10 tables will sit next to your overstuffed armchair were you only to cover it in a pretty chintz cloth?
As for hiding in plain sight, one swanky decorator of my acquaintance stocks up on LACK bookshelves for oligarch clients’ homes. Sure, she puts the IKEA mostly in the chauffeurs and security guards’ accommodation, but she always sneaks a bit into the main house(s) because it fills the gaps. Then there’s the eco-thought, the sustainability, the effort that has gone in to flushing all those toilets with reclaimed grey water. I’m not crazy about the meatballs, but why linger in the canteen when there are wash bags to snap up, just like the ones at Prada but with more useful mesh pockets?
Still, I’ll concede that few people, when booking a holiday, want a Swedish farm house, by water, no internet access (on vacation from email) and an easy drive to IKEA. But then few can rival my connections to this mighty brand. Back in the 1950s, my parents, students at The Glasgow School of Art, both won travel scholarships to study Scandinavian design. Fueled by a shared love of skandichic, they returned to Sweden a second time just as an empire was dawning. I’ll say this for my canny Scots folks; while many others would have doubted anyone would pay to make their own furniture while there were craftsmen in every village, my Mum and Dad took one look at the LOVET table with removable legs (so it packed easily into the Volvo) and decided IKEA would could catch on. That it has, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is still, in part, directly due to my moth Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it
Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it is drawn to me. I once sat next to an IKEA kitchen designer on the plane to Shanghai; then I was on a little plane in Kenya and the woman next to me was part of an initiative to support women’s rights in communities. “Which NGO do you work for?” I asked. “IKEA,” she answered. But there’d be no need for an allen key in a manyatta mud hut.
Here’s what I observed in Gotenberg. In the kitchen sales area, there were people actually cooking. In the bed area, blondes of various sizes were testing a mattress via a family group hug. But most novel of all, people in workout gear were walking ‘the long natural way’ (the route designed to encourage the customer to see the store in its entirety) using those arctic ski poles. In an empire born in a cold country and on a bedrock of practical ideas, who could say they shouldn’t?
Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues.
The Critical Choices
AFR | 2011
by Marion Hume
There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.
In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.
The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.
Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.
So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequentflier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.
When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.
The People’s Republic of Luxe
10 Mag | Issue 41 November 2011
When I was a little girl, before you were born, China was the place they made cheap stuff. Now it’s the place where all the luxury labels have to have their snazziest stores in the world. When I was a teenager, China remained closed – they only let them out to scoop up all the medals at the Olympics. Now, of course, if you are in fashion, you have to go there to scoop up your share of an annual consumer expenditure estimated to top 1.3 trillion yuan (about £122 billion) by 2020.
by Marion Hume
And we’re not just talking Dior, Chanel, Vuitton. You want a yacht with that handbag? British yacht brand, Sunseeker is out there flogging its Manhattan 73 model for 31.4 million yuan (£3 million). You could toast your purchase with Chateau Lafite 1982 at 445,186 yuan (£42,115) Oh stop fretting, that’s for half a case. Did you think anyone would pay that much for a bottle?
When I started work, Hong Kong was the gateway to “Mainland China” as it was known (those in the know call it “the PRC” today). Back when Honkers was still a British colony, you could almost count the grains of rice in people’s dinner bowls as the plane swerved around mountains and tower blocks to touch down at Kai Tak, the world’s sixth most dangerous airport. Now, the PRC is peppered with super-dooper airports designed by “star-chitects”. But China’s billionaires don’t fly commercial, although some hire rather than own their own Gulfstreams. Price for Beijing-Shanghai return on a Gulfstream G550: 276,500 yuan (£26,157).
From the far south of Guangzhou, where Louis Vuitton has its largest Chinese flagship store, to the the old silk road staging post of Urumqi, the most inland city in the world – yup, they’ve got a Vuitton there too – China is fashion profit central, even if a recent store renovation is rumoured to have cost Vuitton in the eight digits. The first fashion person I knew who reached “real” China, as in Beijing, was sent by Zara to find a cheap production source. Now, Zara has 70 stores in the PRC.
The first time I went to Beijing, it was to interview newly-successful women, several of whom thought they were wearing designer clothes, but these were funny fake brands that I had never heard of. Then the fake market started to thrive and I seemed to always be clambering through some fat-filled restaurant kitchen, then down a back alley and into a room the size of a toilet pretending to be a customer. The criminal salesmen pretended to believe me as they took photographs of my (real) Fendi Selleria bag. The fake business shows no sign of slowing down as China’s love of luxury booms. The new trend is in counterfeiting an entire experience, although who knew there was anywhere on earth that they would welcome a completely fake branch of IKEA?
Even as recently as five years ago, the picture the photographer had to get was the “contrast shot” of the toothless guy parking his bicycle next to the Louis Vuitton superstore in Shanghai. The shoppers within were still so delighted in the newness of being able to express their individuality through fashion, that they would willingly stop and talk to a stranger with a tape recorder, a photographer and a translator. They told such sad stories of their Mao suit years. One shopper never knew her father. When her mother was pregnant, her parents had been sent to the country to be “re-educated” and they locked her father in a shed until he died. Her mother survived eating frogs and birds eggs. Another was once given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that. The power of fashion is powerful indeed.
Now, the bulk of luxury shoppers – and there are more than 200 million young adults under 30 in the PRC – were born after The Cultural Revolution so have not “eaten bitterness” as their parents did. Far from envying their lifestyles, their mothers tend to encourage them. “If I dress a little bit sexy, she thinks I look beautiful,” one girl told me when I returned to Beijing in 2008. “I’m the youth she didn’t have.”
For the luxury tsars, China’s love of the new is a great plus. “They don’t have a generation before them to refer to style-wise, so they are daring with the choices they make,” one CEO told me, eyes ablaze. The rules are still being written in this high profit battle ground. Beijinger and Shanghainese girls like to write off those from the “second tier cities” as bumpkins who have just learned to say Vuitton, but that doesn’t stop those in cities you’ve hardly heard wanting designer bags. No surprise then that as well as opening stores everywhere, the likes of Chloe now have Chinese language blogs. Faye Wong, a Chinese singer and actress, does print campaigns for Céline. One of Louis Vuitton’s male models is Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Godfrey Gao. No prizes for guessing (beyond those gorgeous cheekbones) why he got the gig.
It might be hard to believe this now, but British designers used to quake in their boots when the American department stores came calling. China is expected to be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015 and if the USA doesn’t pull its economy out of tailspin, it could come sooner. Guess which buyers get the champers and the Rose Bakery cupcakes these days? But forget any cliches about Chinese shoppers liking the logo-a-gogo stuff. The level of sophistication is obvious when you walk past racks of Vanessa Bruno, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens at the Lane Crawford department store in Beijing.
A year ago, I got a call from Francois-Henri Pinault’s office. Would I like to join him on a trip to 10 Chinese cities, few of which I had actually heard of (and I’m up on Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian…)? Alas, I was in a diamond mine in Australia (key global market for Tiffany? Yes, you got that one too) so had to pass on the PPR titan’s tempting invite, but I did once interview Pinault’s rival, Bernard Arnault of LVMH, in a penthouse suite in Beijing. Trying to get to Arnault, both the richest man in fashion and the richest man in France, when you are actually in France is well-nigh impossible. Yet in China, he was as relaxed and warm as a chilly billionaire can be, although he was probably totting up what you get when even 0.001% of a population headed towards 1.35 billion people wants Dior.
But you should never count your Chinese chickens. When Arnault’s mate President Sarkozy said he would be meeting the Dalai Lama (do, please Google exactly why Richard Gere is so passionate about Tibet), the Chinese ambassador in Paris apparently had the luxury titan quaking in his handmade Berlotti shoes at the thought of Chinese Vuitton customers asking for their money back.
Those customers get wooed. Last year it was the Dior extravaganza staged on the Bund in Shanghai; there was the “Culture Chanel” exhibition, the Fendi’s show on the Great Wall and the Ferragamo show within the Forbidden City. But it is not just about wooing the girls. One of the glories of modern China, if you are a luxury tycoon, is this is one of the few markets where men outdo women in their regard of expensive designer goods as trophies of success. Good news for Dunhill and Hugo Boss,
You can’t keep up with who is opening, who is expanding where. There’s Burberry’s upcoming Hong Kong megastore which promises to be a smart shopping destination for an annual 23 million Chinese tourists who come to town. Niche brands like Moncler are making a splash in Beijing, Miu Miu is expanding in Shanghai – the list goes on.
Susan Owens is a China expert whose blog, Paris Cherie, links the world of Paris fashion to Shanghai. She admits she can hardly post content up fast enough or keep track of the Western brands keen to snap up the services of Shanghai model, Du Juan.
What the Chinese luxury consumer is not madly interested in – up to now – is the vast nation’s sartorial past. “There’s no vintage—Chinese don’t wear old clothes,” someone told me. Hello Ralph Lauren, who visited China last year. Cue an autumn-winter 2011 collection of cheongsams inspired by the old silk road. When Ralph Lauren opened his first stores in Britain, back when Princess Diana was young, few thought his coals-to-Newcastle – or more precisely chintz-to-Downton Abbey -offering would work in a land where some people actually owned family silver. How wrong we were so expect to see fashion folk in the PCR dressing “Chinese”
Coming soon, more homegrown designers, more competition. And I leave you with this. In 1997, I was editing Vogue Australia, which meant I was “Asia Pacific” on the Paris show seating plans and thus in the worst seats in the house. Around me would be the first few fashion editors from the PRC. Where are they now? Locate Suzy Menkes and track along a couple of chairs, that’s where. All power to China.
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?