Sacré Bleu – Australian Financial review

AFR | October 2013

by Marion Hume

Hush hush, but have you heard the latest about cocagne? The source is limited but whispers are spreading through the French fashion crowd. Really, if you are planning to holiday in the snazziest summer enclaves in Europe next summer, (Cap d’Antibes, Ile de Re, St Paul de Vence….) you don’t want to miss out.

We are talking about something difficult to obtain but entirely legal of course. While you pronounce “cocagne” almost exactly like the marching powder which, some years ago, a supermodel allegedly put close to her nose, this column reaches you not from seedy late night London but from sun-drenched South West France, with its Medieval cities which grew rich thanks to the cocgane trade reaching every corner of the world.

What is cocagne? It’s about the size of a tennis ball and originally came with a distinct whiff of urine. In 15th century Toulouse, dealers built Medieval McMansions complete with blingy turrets and spiral staircases and probably tried to out-do each other with pimped-up ox carts too. The hit they sold was blue.

A cocagne is the solid, transportable form of a plant extract that releases blue dye. While abundant in nature, for centuries, blue was the trickiest hue to fix onto fabric. Your 12th century Game of Thrones warlord wasn’t wearing ecru because of a pre-Armani taste for beige but because no one had yet been able to take the taste for woad face paint and make it work for fashion. The breakthrough came when someone took the ordinary-looking plant called pastel, from which woad derives, pulped the leaves, dried them, fermented them in human urine, rolled them into balls then, about a year later, crushed these and hurled the powder into a vat of boiling water. When the offcuts from the loom were dipped into this brine, the cloth emerged a celestial blue.

So successful was the taste for pastel blue that by 1570, the pope decreed priests shouldn’t be seen in it as it was far too common. But the good times would end. Indigo – faster, cheaper – arrived from India. The French government tried to ban its import but by the mid 18th century, it was all over for the lords of cocagne. In turn, the 19th century saw indigo ousted in favour of synthetic dye, the 20th saw the pollution of rivers near European fashion factories. And so it came to pass that, by the 21st century, the poor of China started dying because dyeing had turned their water sources toxic. Those with a conscience are looking back to the environmentally-pure pastel of France.

A combination of university boffins plus eager artisans have been trying to bring pastel up to date for over a decade, the challenges, including finding an eco trigger for fermentation that does not whiff of the pissoir and making a labour-intensive process economically viable have taken time. First successes including (pee free) body products – soaps, lotions and the like – trumpeting the pastel plant’s antiseptic properties and labelled “Comptoir de Pastel” are now de rigeur in the chicest French holiday houses.

Now, at last, linen and cotton scarves dip-dyed a glorious Gallic blue are available via a completely sustainable reintroduction of a traditional artisanal trade and for around the 40 euro mark, making them viable additions to a holiday wardrobe. Gorgeous Gauls, who would never be seen dead out of darks while in Paris, are accessorizing their summer looks (white jeans, striped T-shirts – that chic cliche that keeps on looking good) with a swath of pastel blue scarf, worn either soft knotted at the neck, wafting in the evening breeze or even tied over an Eres swimsuit.

As far as I know, Pastel de Lectoure is the only producer to have launched an online source of pastel scarves with an English translation. Let the international trafficking of cocagne begin.

Fashion Hearts Kenya? – The Business of Fashion

Vivienne Westwood keyring being beaded by the Maasai in Kenya

Fashion Hearts Kenya?

How has the recent terror attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi changed things for designers with manufacturing connections in Kenya? Marion Hume reports.

Business of Fashion | October 2013

NAIROBI, Kenya — Bex Manners, aka Bex Rox — which is the name of her costume jewellery line — figured it would be sensible to sit down for a proper brunch. A long working day lay ahead, then the midnight flight back to London. But time was pressed. So instead she grabbed take-out from ArtCaffe and went on her way. Less than 15 minutes later, terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall. The four-day siege in Nairobi left at least 67 dead, 39 still missing, a nation reeling.

You might be surprised who in the fashion world has ties to Kenya. Bex Rox is known for rock and roll, party-all-night-in-Ibiza edginess, not “ethical” or “Africa.” A connection to the continent happened by chance. She was in London’s Portobello Road, bumped into Cristina Cisilino (of the high-end jewellery producer, Crea Africa, based in Nairobi) “and the next thing I knew, I had a 40-piece collection being prototyped and I flew out to [Kenya] to see samples through the final stages.”

A Paris fashion week party to show off “Afrika” — including bold bracelets in gold-plated brass and knuckleduster rings in sock-it-to-you brights — went ahead as planned. Yet as guests sipped cocktails and took in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the private residence, on loan for the night, talk turned to near-misses. “The first thought was, ‘Are our friends safe?’” said Erin Beatty, design director of Suno and veteran of the New York-to-Nairobi commute. “Common sense told all of us not to go to Westgate,” said a subdued Max Osterweis, founder of Suno, the label named after his mother, who has had a home on the Kenyan island of Lamu since his childhood. “But when you need something for your laptop, it’s where the Apple store is. It’s where the book store is; the ATM.”So what now?

Does fashion “heart” Kenya?

Does fashion care?

“I can say our customers have been buying a lot,” says a still-shaken Manners. “Is that because of what just happened? Honestly, no. It’s because it’s handmade, lovely and I can cater exclusively for small quantities; I can offer an amazing colour palate with the Maasai beading.”

Osterweis is of the opinion that caring can never come first in fashion, this despite founding Suno because he cared so much. The son of a wealthy family, he launched Suno instead of writing a bit fat charity cheque after Kenya’s post-election violence, in 2008, claimed over a thousand lives and left 350,000 people displaced. As he told me when we met in Nairobi for a Time magazine story (April 2009), “I wanted to set an example to show that investment in Africa need not be about building more safari lodges.” An entirely “made in Africa” label was never the ambition however. “I’d seen brands being unrealistic, so we’ve invested in people’s strengths, produced what we knew could be done well in Kenya, while also producing elsewhere,” he told me then, revealing his aim to dress cool girls for hot, New York-summer nights, while, at the same time, providing work to skilled Kenyan artisans (as well as those in Italy and the United States).

Today, fans of Suno include the actress Elle Fanning, the artist Cindy Sherman and American First Lady, Michelle Obama. And as the label has soared, so too have the number of units made in Osterweis’ second home nation, bolstered by an additional online offering of sneakers, pyjamas and totes made exclusively in Kenya. “No one has said ‘I’ll order more,’” he says now. “People buy what they like.” As for his commute, “Nothing changes, except we won’t be eating pizza at Artcaffe. What happened is not a Kenyan problem, it’s a global problem. It’s not life as usual. It’s dealing with life as it is.”

Because it was founded by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, Edun attracted first ludicrous expectations then harsh criticism, especially after pragmatic, LVMH-appointed CEO Janice Sullivan insisted on scaling African production back to ensure a viable economic foundation for the brand. (“Out of Africa, Into Asia” was how The Wall Street Journal reported the decision, back in 2010). Sullivan’s tactic to pull back, shore up, then reintroduce the African production that was Edun’s central “raison d’etre” seems to be working at last. Over 80 percent of the line is now made on the African continent, although the percentage in Kenya, where it all began, remains quite small.

“No one has brought up Kenya once,” says Sullivan at Edun’s Paris showroom, this while fingering a goat horn and silver collar, made in collaboration with Nairobi-based jeweller, Penny Winter. Instead, she says, the chatter is about the brand’s new designer, Daniela Sherman (formerly of Alexander Wang and The Row). So will Edun stick with Kenya, especially given growing production in Madagascar means the brand could easily pull out of a trouble spot and still hit its “made in Africa” targets? Ali Hewson, who has joined us, looks incredulous at the suggestion. “We were in Kenya for the riots of 2008. We were in Uganda for the attack at the World Cup. We were in Mali two weeks before the coup. We’re Irish!” by which she means proximity to risk won’t change a thing.

Ilari Venturini Fendi admits to being nervous in Nairobi, “constantly aware of the possibility that something so bad might happen. It’s always been quite complicated to work in Kenya.” Whether she returns soon or not, there’s no question that her socially conscious, made in Africa accessories brand, Carmina Campus, will continue to operate in the country, where the facility to achieve the label’s ethical goals at the high quality expected by a Fendi is already established. Each season, artisans in Italy connect with those living in the slums of Korogocho and Kibera via video which, Venturini insists, is not about “us” teaching “them,” but instead an exchange of ideas and know-how.

Chan Luu’s seed bead wrap bracelets in raw-cut leather are hot sellers. Do global stores care that the Los Angeles-based celebrity jeweller produces in Kenya (where she may be the largest single contractor of Maasai beaders, all paid a fair wage)? “What matters is everyone buys!” she shouts across the melee of those placing wholesale orders at a showroom in Paris. In a quieter moment, she adds, “I believe poverty can create violence. My customers want to do good for the world, so they support these ethical fashion projects.”

Both Luu and Venturini Fendi were introduced to Kenya via The United Nations’ ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, (full disclosure: it was on assignment in Kenya for Time that I met the head of the initiative, Simone Cipriani, and, as a result, began working with them). “The terrorist attack has produced a double effect,” Cipriani says. “Yes, short-term travel plans of colleagues in the fashion industry have been disrupted. First of all, we work to keep collaborations with us stable, supplying African artisans with ongoing work in a meaningful way. Another important reaction is from fashion brands wanting to bring work to Kenya (several more brands have reached out since the Westgate siege). Terrorism is a global threat. A way to fight is by giving work and dignity to every human being. And if we do it, by creating beautiful, unique and gorgeous products, so much the better for everybody.”

Surely eternal activist and ethical pioneer, Vivienne Westwood would agree? Did she include so many Kenyan bags in her Paris show this season out of solidarity with artisans she met when she visited Nairobi in 2011? “They’re my favourite bags, that’s why I show them,” says ever-honest Dame Viv backstage. “I show them because they’re lovely.”

Stella Role – Sunday Life

gilliananderson1 gilliananderson2

Stella Role

In a life-imitating-art twist, Gillian Anderson has created a TV drama character who has become an instant cult figure. She tells Marion Hume how the effect has been all positive.

Sunday Life | October 2013

This really is bad form. I’m still sitting here, hours later than I expected, and Gillian Anderson, she of that gimlet stare and surly mouth, has no right to have made me feel so uncomfortable in my own skin – especially as she looks so supremely confident in hers.

It is 5am. I’m alone. I’ve just finished watching the complete series of the crime drama The Fall and there’s no way I can sleep now. So I’m sitting up, as the final credits roll, feeling jumpy and angry – the latter with myself, because I perched on this sofa hours ago, just for 10 minutes, to get a sense of the series and be prepped for meeting its lead.

I never intended to watch the whole thing in one sitting, but The Fall gets a grip on you. It’s compelling because it’s unexpected. It’s not “Scandi crime”, especially as Anderson’s character, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, wouldn’t be seen dead in a big ugly jumper. Instead, she is the centre of a universe into which men are invited, often for sex, then dismissed afterwards, followed by an expensive glass of pinot.

It is a mistake, of course, to confuse character with actor, yet Gillian Anderson so utterly inhabits her blisteringly intelligent and fiercely sexy detective that when the series ran on the BBC last June, it provoked an internet meme called “What would Stella do?” What Stella Gibson does when a male colleague comments on her seduction of a policeman is to fire back, “Woman subject, man object, it’s not so comfortable for you, is it?” and you can almost hear the sound of women around the world applauding. But what Stella says to an intrusive reporter is this: “No one knows better than me how important the media is … but really, you should f… off now.”

So it is with some trepidation that I set off to meet Gillian Anderson. She turns out to look rather unlike Stella, as she walks in wearing a floor-length, floral flutter of a sleeveless chiffon maxi dress accessorised by wedge sandals. Stella would be in something slippery, mean stilettos and the peek of a black lace bra.

Fashion, often not quite right on television, is pitch perfect in The Fall, where power dressing means satin in blush pink and a key scene hangs on a wardrobe malfunction at a police press conference. “It’s not fashion, it’s style,” Anderson corrects, relating how she and the costume team booked a VIP suite at a department store, then narrowed down Stella’s look from hundreds of separates hanging on the racks – no pant suits. When the series aired in the UK there was a marked spike in the sale of silk blouses.

We meet at London’s Young Vic theatre. Anderson has the looks of a beautiful woman whom the world thinks is gorgeous (“haughty lips”, “aquiline features”, “pellucid eyes” are among the more cerebral descriptions, while “sexiest woman alive” remains the favoured lads’ mag tag).

From what I have gleaned, Anderson has a reputation as a prickly interviewee – not surprising given she became famous as FBI Special Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files at the age of 24. Thus, at 45, she has spent more than two decades contractually obliged to promote her performances by chatting to the press. Having waded through clippings fatter than a police file, I find myself in sympathy – any sane human would be scratchy when asked, again and again, to reveal the truth about aliens, even though it is more than 10 years since Anderson left Scully behind and changed her hair from red to blonde.

After walking two steps behind David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder from 1993-2002 (although when she found out he was paid double she demanded, and got, wage parity) Anderson surely showed how sane she was by getting away from paranormal sightings in Vancouver and moving to Britain, where she spent the next decade garnering plaudits in television costume dramas such as Bleak House and Great Expectations. She also made movies (The Mighty Celt, Shadow Dancer) and turned down Lady Cora in Downton Abbey.

Today, she’s not prickly at all, instead passionate about The Fall and the relief that the role of DSI Gibson is making her known for being a grown woman – “although I’m not Stella by any stretch”. She senses, she says, her fame level rising again, as people snap pictures on public transport without asking (she takes the train and the London buses). Thankfully, this is nowhere close to what she had to deal with in her 20s, when the paparazzi rammed her car in order that, when she got out to get insurance details, they could grab their shots.

“I feel that Stella has had nothing but a positive effect on how I am in my life. Not to say there weren’t elements before, but I think she’s sharpened my sense of self and femininity,” says Anderson.

What of those feminist ripostes? “Well, I’ve always been the person most likely to say ‘f… off’,” she admits in her crystalline British accent (having spent part of her childhood in the UK, part in the US, she can switch seamlessly). “But the fact Stella is able to say ‘f… off’ with such poise brings her a different level of respect.” As for “What would Stella do?” becoming an online mantra to inspire other women, Anderson has had bumper stickers and fridge magnets made, with the proceeds going to a women’s shelter.

Adding to the mercurial unease of The Fall is its location in the still-scarred city of Belfast. DSI Gibson is the outsider, seconded from London’s Met because the Police Service of Northern Ireland has failed to catch a killer preying on young businesswomen. She does nothing to ingratiate herself.

The writing is whip-smart and female-friendly (although penned by a man, Allan Cubitt). “I think people expect me to be a lot more intelligent than I actually am, because I played Scully and now Gibson. But that’s not a bad thing,” says Anderson. “The majority of the women I’ve been blessed to inhabit are women who I’m flattered to have been able to spend time with, and for people to think I’m even remotely like them is great. Although there have been a few thrown in there that are less appealing,” she deadpans, perhaps referring to the intractable Lady Dedlock and the flinty Miss Havisham.

What’s novel – though it shouldn’t be – is the capacity for female friendship that ripples through The Fall. “That’s really important,” says Anderson, fire-flashing those pale sapphire eyes, “to show adult, mature women – completely different in the experiences they’d been through and the choices that they’d made – bonding through womanhood. Too often, what is portrayed between women is either ‘girly’ and going shopping, or the opposite, the negativity.”

In the show, a female detective and forensic scientist discuss how they balance the dead bodies at work with live ones at home, talking of “doubling”, “compartmentalising”. “I compartmentalise everything,” says Anderson. “It’s useful in the work that I do, but it can be very separating in my personal life.”

That life cannot be entirely personal, given Anderson was thrust into the spotlight virtually straight out of drama school. Then she proved catnip to the tabloids by having her first child, Piper, as the first series of The X-Files reached a cliffhanger close. She married a Canadian, gave birth, returned to work 10 days later, got divorced, married again, divorced, had her sons, now aged seven and five, within a now-defunct long-term partnership – Anderson’s whole adult arc has been documented. Plus, she’s peppered it with all manner of juicy details (“‘I’ve experimented with women’ – X-Files star confesses to lesbian flings”, The Daily Mail) because she does interviews alone, including this one, with no publicist hovering to keep things on message. In high school she was voted “Most Bizarre” and “Most Likely to Be Arrested”.

She says her own judgment has matured, that she sees people beyond the pigeonholes she once put them in. “Human beings are so much more complicated than we often give them credit for. We see someone on the bus and we put them in a box. Then you discover that, actually, that person has been sexting with half of the world – all of that kind of stuff, it’s shocking!” she laughs. As for those buses, “If it gets too intense, I’m pretty good at putting up a wall of ‘Do not stare’. I actually find that, when I’m in America, I’m much more open. I behave more American, and I am more likely to go, ‘Hey, yeah, take a photo.’ I’m much more guarded here, but that’s because I think I’m much more British here.”

Maybe I’m being terribly British because I find I have no desire to ask Anderson if she’s dating or how her young-adult daughter is fairing or how she juggles work as a single mum with two little boys at home. But then I realise this isn’t about nationality, it’s about professional respect. As we talk about her ambitions, about Stella’s wider role as a representation of 21st-century middle-aged womanhood, we are businesslike. Because, after all, acting is Anderson’s business and her accomplishments are evident. And I have entirely forgiven her for my sleepless night.

The Fall starts on BBC UKTV on Foxtel on October 19.

Fashion’s New Stella – The Business of fashion

Stella-Jean-Burkina-Faso-656x436

Fashion’s New Stella

With Milan Fashion Week in need of fresh blood, Giorgio Armani has invited emerging Italian designer Stella Jean to present her ethical Spring/Summer 2014 collection at the Teatro Armani, his Via Bergognone show space.

Business Of Fashion | September 2013

MILAN, Italy — In a business of first names — like Miuccia, Raf, Dries, Alber — things are about to get complicated. Meet fashion’s future star, Stella. That would be Stella Jean, who no less than Giorgio Armani has anointed a fashion supernova. Taylor Tomasi Hill, social media star and creative director of Moda Operandi, is another supporter. So is Natalie Kingham, head of fashion at Matches Fashion.

During Milan Fashion Week, Stella Jean — a resident of Rome — is set to show at the 550-seat Teatro Armani, the first womenswear designer so honoured, other than the emperor himself.

The show is scheduled to start at 10.30am start on Saturday, September 21st, which, while sandwiched nicely in the calendar between Emporio Armani on Friday and Giorgio Armani on Monday, pits it against a considerable challenger. Saturday morning during Milan Fashion Week is, you see, the sacred time for “shoe appointments,” a euphemism for shopping. Yet the buzz around “the new Stella” is such that the front-row set are confirming attendance in Via Bergognone rather than Via Monte Napoleone.

So why Stella Jean?

Firstly, she isn’t a baby designer. Rather, she is a woman of 34, mother of two and a former model (although she disliked all but the fittings and watching the designers at work). She launched her eponymous label in Rome in 2011, but far from being an overnight success, she twice failed to even qualify for the talent competition “Who Is On Next,” supported by Vogue Italia as part of the Alta Roma schedule. It was third-time luck when she finally qualified, then won.

Alta Roma’s elegant talent scout Simonetta Gianfelici helped to turn things around for Stella Jean, advising her to “be more sincere; do something that belongs only to you.” Stella Jean (her surname, though she doesn’t use it professionally, is Novarino) is half-Italian and half-Haitian. “I had struggled to find my identity,” she says. “I found it through my work. I put my two worlds together and found fashion was looking for that.”

She calls her unique vision “Wax & Stripes” — the latter for a father who hailed from industrial Turin and the former “for the black side of me, the black roots of the Caribbean islands.”

Certainly, the first thing that attracts the eye to Stella Jean’s work is her vivid use of colour and riotous prints; these in contrast to somber stripes and silhouettes so proper, they’d suit Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

Here the story veers off into the history of “wax,” vibrant cotton prints worn across West Africa. Their original roots lie in Java, however, in the batik the Dutch transported, first back home, then to the Netherland Antilles in the Caribbean and thence to Africa with Helmond, Holland-based textile giant Vlisco, the dominant wax trader from 1846 to this day. “We think wax comes from West Africa. The slaves sent to the Caribbean islands came from West Africa. Yet wax is European, like me. No one ever believes I am Italian, but I am,” says Stella Jean.

Having witnessed her sophisticated global mash-up in a group show in Rome, last July, Suzy Menkes became an ardent champion of Stella Jean. And rumour has it that it was she who whispered in Armani’s right ear as Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani was whispering the same name in his left. Whatever the facts, the designer herself had no clue.

“I was on the expressway when a friend called and told me to pull over. Then I was screaming, ‘Is it for real?’”

Calmer now, she describes Armani’s offer as “a giant giving a hand to a new name. It’s not just for me. It is a symbolic act that gives hope to my generation.”

Mr Armani says he did it because “the new generation of Italian designers needs support. Stella-Jean will be the next designer to organise a fashion show at the Teatro Armani and I hope this experience brings her luck.” No word yet on whether he will be there to wish her that personally.

Matches Fashion will certainly be in attendance, having signed up Stella-Jean after a look book arrived, unheralded, at their London offices. “I was initially attracted to the styling which was exceptionally strong, as was her use of colour and print,” recalls Natalie Kingham, the company’s head of fashion. “When I looked at the collection up close the next time I was in Italy. Her clever mix of traditional fabrics in such modern shapes made me realise how interesting the label was. It felt relevant and really stood out. That it sells out the minute it hits the site is a sign that she has potential to be big.”

Taylor Tomasi Hill, Moda Operandi’s creative director, praises her Stella Jean’s “distinctive aesthetic — no small feat for an emerging designer. Her bold patterns tempered by ladylike silhouettes capture precisely how our customer wants to dress: unconventionally, but not at the expense of luxury or intelligent design.”

For myself, a fashion scribe of over 25 years, Stella’s first solo show, in Rome last January, stands among those rare debuts that feel right on target: John Galliano, Romeo Gigli, Phoebe Philo for Céline…. Yet bear with me here while I change hats, because (full disclosure) I also work as a consultant for the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative, a United Nations initiative aimed at changing the way the international fashion business works. The aforementioned Simonetta Gianfelici is a consultant too. And it was she who first recognised Stella Jean as the right creative collaborator for a collective of marginalised artisans far across the world.

Although the Ethical Fashion Initiative is active in Stella Jean’s mother country, Haiti, when she and Gianfelici found themselves wilting in 47-degree heat last April, it was not in Port-au-Prince, but Ouagadougou, in landlocked Burkina Faso, West Africa.

“Burkina Faso is rich in cotton and incredible weaving traditions. The poorest of the poor are the heirs to ancient artisanal traditions that can only be rejuvenated at the luxury level because handwoven fabrics are extremely labour-intensive,” explains Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

“Stella’s capacity to use materials from all over the world, along with her passion for involving people in a fair way in her supply chain — she is extremely serious about that — persuaded us to ask her to join with us.”

Cipriani’s delight when the news of Mr Armani’s support came through was at least as loud as Stella Jean’s. “It is something incredible!” he says now, still rather loudly.”That this work will be seen in the theatre of Armani!”

He will not be front row to witness it, however. He’ll be in Ouaga, where he will share the glory with the weavers of the collection, for whom a video of the event is being made.

Everyone agrees ethics can’t carry fashion. First, the design must be great. What ethics provide is “another positive dimension,” says Kingham.

“[Ethics] resonates, not only with our core values, but also our clientele,” says Tomasi Hill. “We’re passionate about representing ethically-minded designers who collaborate with artisans around the world.”

As for Stella Jean, “the world doesn’t need someone else to [just make] beautiful clothes,” she says. “We don’t need more empty aesthetic expressions. We have to grab a chance to do more, to tell more.”

“I come from two worlds and I believe the more we meld together, the stronger we can be.”

Riding The Coat Tales – The Austalian Financial Review

Max Mara1 Max Mara2 Max Mara3

Riding The Coat Tales

Luigi Maramotti has strong views on many things, from a distaste for star designer egos, to resisting the ghettoism of fashion, to cheese. The chairman of the Italian cost company Max Mara shows Marion Hume around the company’s small-town headquarters.

The Austalian Financial Review | September 2013

Reggio Emilia, some two hours east of Milan, is renowned for cheese and for coats. The first has the longer history; rich pastures and traditions being behind wheels of salty treasure that have little in common with ready-grated so-called parmesan found at the supermarket. The family behind the coats remains involved in the making of Parmigiano Reggiano too; both requiring skill and time to achieve the sublime. The label on the coats is Max Mara.

“The fabric we use has been left to lie – the whole idea of seasoning the fabric like you do for a cheese – it’s very slow,” says Luigi Maramotti, a man of quiet yet intense passion who is the company chairman (and who also owns a farm). “A lot of people don’t even know that, at the price per ounce, they might even be paying more for a daily cheese than for the best cheese in the world!”

Is it odd that the head of a fashion powerhouse worth some US$1.7bn should be talking – and with some ferocity – about cheese? Maramotti, a long cool drink of water, also holds strong opinions about high speed rail, education, the “greenwashing” that allows big companies to play at being ethical, as well as the challenges of finding artisans at a time of rising unemployment and austerity yet youthful obsession with being a star. He is also absolutely passionate about art (is that a Gerhard Richter to his left?) and is impeccably attired in a beautiful suit.

Handmade where? Max Mara doesn’t do menswear; the brand celebrates the marriage of technology and the human hand in 23 different womenswear labels. So he brushes the question of the provenance of his suit away, instead indicating what he considers perfection.  “These chairs,” he gestures, “designed in 1956, finding the perfect balance, it works, still, but it is not obvious, you need the time, the know-how. ‘Classic’ can have newness and excitement, but perhaps not at a glance….”

At a glance, a Max Mara coat is always beautifully fit-for-purpose. That coats are at the core might go some way to explain why the Max Mara Group has been slow to expand in Australia (while Australia is a luxury source of the merino in so many of those coats…). “I’m not trying to compare to Michelangelo and the quality of the marble, but when you see some great merino, great cashmere or a modern fabric with steel inside which keeps the memory of the shape, it is important,” says Maramotti. “Design being born from respect of the fabric, you do the minimum, you don’t over-design. Shouting about design is not how we convey value.”

No hoopla, no designer taking a bow. Each of the Max Mara lines is created by a team, usually comprising long-term company loyalists, a peppering of emerging talent from London design schools with which Max Mara Group has strong links ( and who, mostly, stay a while, then flee small town life) plus big names such as Karl Lagerfeld; Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana; the Roman, Giambattista Valli and from America, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Yet the latter are only acknowledged when they are no longer working for the company.  What is the logic of that? Maramotti says that naming them would only build a platform for their egos, “because it is very unlikely they will negate their ego(s)”. Anonymity instead allows fashion stars to, “forge their expertise with ours and that of our technical teams. I accept that, today, there is a common advantage to use the designer as a marketing tool by which you go for a creative vision of an individual who wants to impose that vision on women….” his mouth forms into a moue of distaste. “What underpins us is a respect for women”.

Reggio Emilia is a company town – Max Mara owns the local hotel, a restaurant and many locals drive or bus to work at the nearby Max Mara campus of steel, glass and several thousand trees. But this is not – Maramotti is emphatic – an outpost. “I measure using not geography, but time. There is a beautiful station near here, designed by (Valencian star-chitect) Santiago Calatrava. I can be in Milan in 38 minutes. How far can you travel in London in 38 minutes? My point is centrality or decentrality is a state of mind…”

Certainly, this has to be the world capital of coats. A morning tour of production has been thorough and impressive. The classic 101801 (known since 1981 by a code number, no catchy names here) is a double-breasted camel overcoat of balanced proportions. A navy cashmere parka with voluminous hood, new this season, will look great for years. In other factories, presumably just as hi-tech, millions of items of clothing for women who want to look up with the times, but not up to the minute, are also made and labeled Max Mara, Sportmax, Pianoforte, Pennyblack, Marella, these joined by Max&Co.,for teenage girls.

The current chairman’s great, great grandmother was a 19th century dress maker called Marina Rinaldi, who has had a label named in her honour since the early 70s. “In everything we do, we resist the ghettoism of fashion. Marina Rinaldi has kept a different thinking in our company,” explains Maramotti, this referring to the welcome fact that Marina Rinaldi is a fashionable alternative for curvier, bustier or taller women who do not otherwise appreciate being siloed into a swamp called“plus sized”. Instead, Marina Rinaldi has seasonal collections, stores on London’s Bond Street, Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a Sydney store in Chifley Plaza. “It is politically correct to say size is not an issue yet size in fashion, it’s a kind of a taboo,” says Maramotti. “I’ve met many women in my life who are interesting and at peace with themselves and not a tiny size.”

Time to get personal. Much of my own wardrobe is Marina Rinaldi – expensive yes, long-lasting too. While of course I don’t believe you have to fit the clothes to write about them (then where would I be?) in a rare subjective assessment, I can confirm that white linen pants last for summers, navy wool tunics can go anywhere and T-shirts keep their shape.  My challenge is sometimes I haven’t been able to keep my clothes.  I haven’t misplaced any of them, I know exactly why they do not return from hotel laundries. I recall a hotel manager, a big boned woman, offering free nights to compensate my “loss” (her gain). As you don’t need many clothes on an island and I had time to spare, both parties were delighted. I have other examples – enough to argue that larger women love great clothes if they can get their hands on them, but enough for now.

When the founder of the Max Mara Group, Achille Maramotti, died in 2005, he left a business in the care of his three children, Luigi, Maria Ludovica (in charge of product development) and Ignazio (managing director) and this has always been a generational, family story (the company remains private and family controlled). Achille started in 1951, in that post-war surge that saw Northern Italy transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy. He was much inspired by the female force in his life, his mother, Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, who, widowed since 1939, had raised four children, funded by her dressmaking school where other young women could gain skills to ensure their independent survival. Achille took a law degree, funded by several jobs including working in a raincoat factory in Switzerland, where he realised that his mother’s craft could be industrialized through a logical system of work. Degree done, he got started, offering useful, attractive clothes to women who had neither the need nor the capital for copies of coquettish Parisian haute couture. The rise of Max Mara is one of classic capitalism, of a man driven by need plus a vision;  that creativity could be harnessed profitably to technology. Achille travelled to America where clothes meant the garment industry not a local dressmaker. By the dawn of the 60s, Max Mara production was streamlined to the point that a coat that had taking 18 hours required only two. The company remains is a triumph of technology plus the skills of the human brain and hand (no machine can secure buttons as well as a person can). “Technology helps people repeat best performance for the entire day,” explains Luigi Maramotti. “ Handmade is another legend. It is not true handmade is better than machine. Machines help human beings be the best – you need both. The future, yet the know-how not forgotten.”

Yet the know-how seemingly inherent in the “Made in Italy” label has become complex. “It is a slogan… this idea of democratization of fashion comes from Italy, absolutely. Yet ‘Made in Italy’ can be very frustrating,” Maramotti says, refering to the fact that all one needs to do is put the pieces together in Italy  for a garment to earn the prized ‘Made In Italy’ label. “Yet if I design it here, I do prototypes here; that doesn’t count. The central point is, are we, in Italy, capable of keeping alive a heritage that goes back centuries, to the Renaissance, the workshops for ideas?” Another challenge is manning those workshops (with women, the majority of employees). About 20 people in Reggio Emilia  retire or relocate each year yet as Italy stumbles through recession, there is no line at the factory gates, despite The Max Mara Group working with the Italian public sector to fund skills training. “This becomes  anthropological,” Maramotti muses of the paradox of high unemployment and the lack of apprentices or skilled workers. “You see a lot of young people dreaming of doing things that are much less relevant which they think are better. The values are not perceived correctly. We fight against the perception of ‘blue collar’. I don’t think the major issue is the salary.”

Hardly a casual chat this, for the next subject is sustainability, Maramotti being no fan of external pressures applied by advocacy groups. “There is an entire marketing on these ethical balance sheets,” he sniffs. “I have always opposed this because I prefer to do what works for us. Our power comes from hydro energy, but you don’t make a manifesto, you do the right thing, full stop. The moment it becomes a marketing tool, you are doing something that, ethically, is debatable. I prefer coherence. I know that coherence is boring. Consistency is boring too. But that is the case here.” He warms to the theme, “Some people see a society in which consumption is reduced to a minimum. But because I was trained to look at creativity as part of the growth of an individual, this vision of reducing consumption, making nothing, it is, in a way, offensive to the human intellect. So we have to find a way where we don’t kill ourselves with a model which is sterile.”

Of his own role, of the boss who inherited the top job, he is thoughtful too. “Never separate privileges from burdens, you are just born there, and you have to take what that means,” he muses. “The point is, what are you going to do with that? Absolutely I am privileged. I can think, I can do things. Does that bring responsibility and burdens? That is the question.”

For Costume Parties Only – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

gatsby

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

Now that the brouhaha about The Great Gatsby has settled — at least until it ramps up again for movie awards season — shall we take a moment to examine its sartorial legacy? As in, does it have one? Or does it not? You’d think the answer would be easy. Count the glossy pages devoted to “Gatsby style” in the past months. But is there now a taste for flapper dresses in a shade I still like to call “Queen Mum mauve”? Have oyster satin pyjamas moved from boudoir to street? For gentlemen, have pink suits taken off? The answer — to all — is no.

What is beyond reasonable doubt is that double Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin is on track for her third Oscar, for her fearless mixing of the historically accurate with the utterly contemporary. But when the looks filter down, what we have is fun, not fashion. The reason ‘20s style is the perpetual party theme that is so easy to do — with something spangly, a gold T-bar shoe and a cheap wig. Almost every woman looks like she’s having a good time when you add a feather boa.

A few years ago, I was reminded of the power of ‘20s dressing thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Remember the volcano erupted? To cut one of my all-time favourite stories short, I was halfway through airline online check-in when I realised I needed a swift plan B to reach Venice. I hitched a ride on the Orient Express, a fun-filled flapper heaven (other than for me: I didn’t have time to theme-pack). The only mirrors on board are make-up sized, which means no one has a full-length view. Everyone thus dresses how they think they would like to look and, thanks perhaps to some dry martinis, everyone looks lovely. Not fashionable, but superbly theme-party lovely.

What is lovely is how loudly Catherine Martin has acknowledged the roles Tiffany & Co, Prada and Brooks Bros played in her overall costume creation. When she brings her Oscar count to a trifecta, I’ll wager that, once she’s effusively thanked her collaborator in life and work, the film’s director Baz Luhrmann, she will name-check all the above. By so doing, Martin will be acting more than graciously — she will be setting right a wrong done when The Great Gatsby last garnered an Oscar, in 1974. If you recall that version at all, what you’re most likely to remember is Robert Redford’s clothes (Mia Farrow’s Daisy is a more misty memory). Yet when costume designer Theoni Alderedge caressed her Oscar at the podium, she did not thank Ralph Lauren, an omission that made clear the attention he had been getting for his suits had got right under her skin.

Aldredge was not the first costume designer to neglect to thank the input of fashion designers. When Edith Head collected an Oscar for Sabrina (1954), she seemed not to recall that French couturier Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the new neckline that so flattered elfin Audrey Hepburn, igniting a trend. Givenchy didn’t stake his claim to the “Sabrina neckline” until years after Head’s death, even though those who’d worked with her at Paramount Pictures had, by then, confided that the costumes had been made up from Givenchy’s sketches.

As to the current Gatsby changing the way we dress, I doubt it. But acknowledging that you need creative collaboration to make something great? Well, that’s bang on trend.

Bespoke Luxury Summit brings fashion icons together in Sydney

3bespoke20139Bespoke Luxury Summit brings fashion icons together in Sydney

The Australian Financial Review | May 2013

For me, fashion is always about vision. That doesn’t fit in a basement, no matter how snazzy the chandeliers. When the idea of an Australian Financial Review luxury business conference was first mooted, the least interested person was me. Nothing inspires me less than the thought of spending an airless day listening to guys in ties drone on to a backdrop of PowerPoints. Maybe – if the facts are fascinating and your business is finance or mining – that floats your boat.

To succeed we had to be bold. So the AFR Bespoke Luxury and Fashion Summit, held on Thursday, was inspired by the most audacious example, the Sydney Opera House. That had to be our venue. It is, after all, the most triumphant example of what can be achieved when talents from many ­disciplines come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.

From the building itself came the theme of the day: creative collaboration. It could have been a boring box on Bennelong Point had not the star architect of the 1950s, the Finn Eero Saarinen, dared to defend the startling submission by a little-known Dane, Joern Utzon. We had to provide a forum for new thinking; the Opera House stands up thanks to the determination of its engineer, Ove Arup, to think outside the box.

The image of the fashion designer issuing edicts from an ivory tower is long gone. Today, the world of fashion and luxury is collaborative, across all manner of disciplines. At Bespoke, Parisian Ramdane Touhami – a marketing genius who claims not to like marketing – told stories of how he reaches back into history to find products for today. Photographer and Aquabumps founder Eugene Tan, who hails from Bondi Beach, recounted how he chucked in the desk job, picked up a (waterproof) camera, dived into the surf and now sees his images on Speedo swimwear and thongs by Havaianas.

Design today is about teamwork, exemplified on stage by the handsome lads from Saturdays Surf NYC, who like Tan, chucked in desk jobs and built a surf brand in the unlikely location of Manhattan. Making things look easy is one of fashion’s best illusions, yet this global industry is built on long hours and considerable brinksmanship, even though millionaire jeans genie, Jeff Rudes, of J Brand, made it all sound so easy.

In the run-up to Bespoke, some people asked me: “Why now?” “Why here?”. To be blunt, that just sounded like the old cultural cringe. Why not now? Why not here?

Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings – literally, as the drills make the ground shake at Barangaroo – and we are on the brink of a new era. A city once on the outer edge is perfectly positioned as luxury’s modern metropolis-on-the-ocean. ­Global economies have shifted. Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world, a reason why I was also delighted to welcome to the stage, from Hong Kong and Shanghai, Regina Lam and Lisa Chang, who advise luxury goods companies on how to break into China.

While the international speakers who had travelled the furthest were fascinating, I suspect Kiwi designer Karen Walker was the most surprising. Could she be the first person from fashion to enter political office? She was enormously compelling.

Yet Bespoke was not about that old model of “people from over there telling us what to do over here”; instead it was about the transfer of knowledge in both directions. On that, it was important to remind everyone of the raw luxuries of Australia. We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – but we are right at the world’s luxury source.

Sydney’s industrial architecture of massive wharves stretching out into the water remind us this city, this nation, was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the ongoing role played by wool in the luxury business. The superfine suits by Ermenegildo Zegna and Dunhill, robust yet light and with unmatched recovery thanks to the finest microns of yarn, are – always – of Australian wool. So are the rigorously fitted dresses with which Victoria Beckham has redefined modern business attire for women across the globe.

For the wealthy woman in Beijing considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellane opal ring from Dior, the trail starts here. The sunburst yellow diamonds of Tiffany & Co hail from the Ellendale mine in the Far North West, the peerless pink diamonds in the creations of Bollywood jeweller Nirav Modi come from the Argyle mine, and from out in the Arafura sea, beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, come the lustrous south sea pearls that find their way into the creations of the best jewellers of Place Vendome.

Which brings us back to Paris, a city which has its eye on us. A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, ­Bernard Arnault – took a stake in RM Williams. Some were perplexed. What could the chic French want with work boots worn here by the boss and the jackaroo?

One word – macho. The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke. Australian brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, (especially) to the purveyors of luxury looking to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds. The aim of Bespoke was to inform and inspire; a reason I fought (against nail-biting time constraints) for the work of fashion photographer/filmmaker/web publisher Nick Knight– to me, the greatest image maker of our age – to be projected up on three vast screens. Accompanied by fashion icon Daphne Guinness singing opera, the film left some in the stalls perplexed, but for those up in the cheap seats – 400 students – it was the session they told me they loved the most.

For me , what I hope was the main takeaway of the day is that, to be truly stylish, we have to make fashion more fair. Lessons must be learned from last month’s tragedy in Bangladesh. Women (and it is almost always women) must not be enslaved, or lose their lives in a locked factory with insufficient foundations, so that we can get a “bargain”. As Simone Cipriani of the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative put it, “I am not saying everything should be expensive – times can be tough, even in Australia – I am saying be fair and buy well. Fashion is never, ever to die for”. The luxury world’s most important creative collaboration is with those who did not appear on the Opera House stage – the workers who make the clothes on our backs, the bags in our hands. The best fashion companies, such as Hermes, have had corporate social responsibility embedded in what they do since long before anyone in fashion talked about CSR. Today, the world’s third biggest luxury group, PPR (being rebranded under the name Kering), is being recalibrated, to a deadline of 2016, so that its P&L becomes an EP&L – with environmental and ethical impact included in the bottom line.

I am far removed from the ethical hippy tree-hugging type. I work within the world’s most glamourous industry. Yet my driving ambition for Bespoke, always, was to use one of the world’s most celebrated stages to shift the needle. Maybe, just maybe, we did that.

Bespoke, May 16th, Sydney Opera House; Opening Address

Good morning everyone.

Welcome aboard Bespoke.

As you took your seats,  you saw a visual celebration of Australia’s raw luxuries.

We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – we ARE right at the world’s luxury source.

Let’s start on Sydney Harbour. The Australian Financial Review is headquartered at Pyrmont,  on land once sold for a gallon of rum to Captain James Macarthur.

Sailing on the Second Fleet, it was Captain James Macarthur who brought the first merino sheep to Australia.

Industrial architecture – the massive finger wharfs stretching out into the water – reminds us that this city – this nation – was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the vital role played by wool in fashion today.

Superfine suits by Zegna, Paul Smith, Burberry?

Always Australian.

Dion Lee reached the finals of the Woolmark awards in London, where one of the judges was Victoria Beckham, whose designs – in Australian superfine – have re-defined what women wear in the boardroom.

Our ancient island continent is rich indeed. For the wealthy woman in Shanghai considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellaine opal ring from Dior; the trail starts here.

There’s Australian gold, sunburst yellow diamonds from Ellendale and from out beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, in the sparkling Arafura sea; Pinctada maxima – the shells the size of dinner plates, south sea pearls lustrous to behold. These greenest of gems which thrive only in pristine waters – become jewelled creations by Paspaley, Kailis and  Harry Winston and Tiffany & Co on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Our mineral wealth inspires our artists. In 1983, Jenny Kee created Opal Oz which Karl Lagerfeld used in his first ready-to-wear collection for Chanel.

In 2007, Gloria Pet-yar-ee’s art became “Gloria’s Dream”, a silk scarf for Hermes.

Just a few weeks ago, Zegna revealed a collaboration with Dorothy Nap-an-gardi, whose artwork, Salt, was incorporated in to the menswear collection.

Then there’s the Argyle Diamond mine. Argyle’s peerless pinks find their way into the hands – or actually, the tweezers – of only the world’s finest jewellers – the Australians celebrated in the Beyond Rare brochure today – with others around the world including Chow Tai Fook in Beijing, Nirav Modi in Mumbai and Van Cleef & Arpels on Place Vendome… which takes us back, again, to Paris.

…A city which has its eye on us.

A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault – took a stake – through its investment arm – in RM Williams.

Some of my business colleagues at the AFR were perplexed. What could the chi-chic French want with work boots worn by everyone here, from the boss to a jackaroo?

One word – macho.

The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke.  The appeal is somewhat like our actors – Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Joel Edgerton, Sam Worthington, Jason Clark – we send em out tough and rugged.

Equally, Australia brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, to the purveyors of luxury looking – especially – to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds.

Akubra is not for sale. This family firm just turned 100 and the whispers are that the hatters of the Outback have exciting plans ahead. They certainly have unusual customers – the second biggest market for Australia’s celebrated hats? It’s … Tibet.

Might a brand go global from here? The best-known luxury brands trace their roots back to hard work; Louis Vuitton made steamer trunks, Thierry Hermes was a saddler. So why not one from the land of hard yakka?

Still, it’s got to be said, we’re pretty good at relaxing too – and creating sand-between-the-toes chic which labels – such as Zimmerman – export to the world.

Australia today has one of the world’s most robust economies, thanks largely to a resource not connected to the fashion world; iron ore.

Yet we also breed entrepreneurs who are focusing – not – on what we can sell over there, but on what – they – can buy over here.

I’m talking about a sophisticated focus on inbound tourism aimed in particular at top-tier Chinese visitors.

Their expenditure in Australia is expected to top $9 billion by 2020.

Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world.

Global economies have shifted and Sydney is perfectly positioned as the modern metropolis-on-the-ocean.

And what does the tyranny of distance mean anymore, anyway?

In a scan-and-shop digital age?

The theme of Bespoke is creative collaboration. The Sydney Opera House is stunning example of what can be achieved when talents, from many disciplines, come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.

Today, fashion has to be collaborative if it is to fly. The days of the designer issuing edits from an ivory tower are gone. This global industry thrives on partnerships. Yet we must not ignore new paradigms. Where we must be bold is in ways that make fashion more fair.

So what does Australian luxury mean?

To me, it is all about encapsulating how we live, how diverse we are, this vast land and the blue sea.

In the past few days, it’s been a joy to welcome our speakers from around the world and to watch them, falling in love, as I did when I first landed here in 1996.

“Why can’t I live here?”

“Why can’t I live by the water?”

They’ve been saying to me, “Why can’t I live like you do?”

Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings.

Literally – in that, every New Year’s Eve, the world turns in this direction and watches as fireworks on the Harbour Bridge illuminate the Opera House sails.

Our first speaker is the creative director of a brand which has a direct relationship to The Sydney Opera House.

Please welcome – in the brave and bold position of walking on first – Ana Maria Escobar, the Creative Director of Oroton Group.

Dream Weavers – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

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AFR | May 2013

by Marion Hume

What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.

I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.

The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia,  twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.

Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.

I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.

I learn another new word;  “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant