Jeans Genie

Jeans Genie

J Brand founder Jeff Rudes wanted to create the perfect pair of jeans. Now, as Marion Hume writes, he is turning the denim brand into a fully fledged fashion label.

The Australian Financial Review | March 2013
Subsequently published in Business of Fashion

Question: What do the queen bee of fashion, the future queen of the realm and the longest-reigning king of rock ‘n roll have in common? Hint: it is not a label you can see on the back of their jeans. This is because J Brand, jeans megalith, a phenomenon so extraordinary it has actually changed what “jeans” means, does not slap a big label on your behind. Call these discrete jeans. If you are old school and right now, in your mind’s eye, you are seeing blue, scratch that. That is not what the editor of American Vogue or Kate Middleton or Mick Jagger are looking for.

Anna Wintour is, one might surmise, exacting aboutwhat she puts on to her slender form. The Duchess of Cambridge faces a long lens even when she pops out to walk Lupo the dog. As for Sir Mick, he embraces the limelight in pants too tight to be decent on any other man about to turn 70 – and he likes it.

Every fashion editor I know wears J Brand. Every movie star – no, really, find one who doesn’t – wears J Brand: Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. So does Rihanna.

How can you tell? That’s when it gets harder. J Brand sells more than two million pairs of jeans a year, yet somehow manages to seem niche in a manner that has most of the other jeans giants scratching their heads.

It is easier to start with what these jeans are not, than with what they are:There are no rhinestones across the buttocks, no signature stitching on the rear, no big envelope pockets, no weird holes, no other identifiable features. The genius of Jeff Rudes, when he set up J Brand back in 2005, was to see the jean not as a vintage item or a homily to Home on the Range or as a grab-attention item, but as a style staple, the central skinny anchor to a fashionable silhouette.

That these are “fashion” jeans not “designer” jeans – despite the input of cutting edge fashion designers Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan, Proenza Schouler as collaborators – needs to be explained. For that, let’s whizz backwards. Jeans were born in the USA. Yes, denim comes de Nimes, from the town in France where indigo dye was pioneered. But it was out west, in the days of the great American pioneers, that an Ashkenazi Jewish merchant named Levi Strauss met a tailor from Riga, Latvia, and fronted up the cash for the latter’s smart idea to make work wear more sturdy by adding metal at the pressure points. The tailor’s name was Jacob Davis, which just goes to show that history favours the investor.

Along with Levis have come as many cowboy brands as you’d find on a cattle ranch. Then came “poor little rich girl” Gloria Vanderbilt, the face – or more specifically, the arse – of the first true designer jeans. As a teenage Brooke Shields was claiming that nothing came between her and her Calvins, over in France, Marithé and Francois Girbaud were throwing pumice stones into the wash and the Japanese were tooling up, as were the Dutch with GStar.

Let’s surge forward now, past sass & bide and Ksubi, and behold something dark and not remotely casual Friday: a “premium” jean. Jeff Rudes, a handsome silver fox in his mid 50s, is a jeans guy. He launched his first jeans line in New York when he was 18, sold it, moved to jeans manufacturing hub Los Angeles, launched another line, sold it, became the king of private label making jeans for other people, stopped, and with a former girlfriend came up with what seemed a very novel concept: jeans that weren’t washed or paint-splattered or destructed or possessed of screamy branding or so baggy you could camp in them. The vision was for clean jeans with the least likely name (the J stands for Jeff). Angelina Jolie liked them.

Then, in 2010, J Brand gave us a non-denim, skinny cargo pant. They sold 300,000 plus pairs of the Houlihan, then discontinued the style while addicts around the world were howling for them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fashion business.

There’s a slight delay in my meeting Jeff Rudes. As my plane lands in LA, his takes off, unavoidable as he is needed in New York for the press conference to announce that the company, whose 2011 net sales were approximately US $124million, has been acquired by the Japanese fashion giant, Fast Retailing. The world’s fourth largest apparel retail company owns labels such as Helmut Lang and Uniqlo and generated global sales for the last fiscal year of ¥928 billion ($9.8 billion). Fast Retailing acquired an 80.1 per cent stake, meaning that Rudes, when I do meet him, is a very happy, very wealthy man.

As Rudes is heading back on the red eye, international sales manager Robert Brown invites me to dinner at Soho House, West Hollywood. We are waiting for the barman to fix our eastern standard cocktails before taking our seats when a man walks in, eyes Brown’s J Brand-clad legs and utters the line: “Are those Tylers? Aren’t they great? I’m wearing the ass out of mine.” I wonder if I have stumbled into a cult.

The postponed interview means time to do significant market intelligence checking out the brand’s positioning (which, yes, translates as hanging around in several smart malls and in Barneys New York on Rodeo Drive). I observe how much the selling of jeans has changed. For women, jeans are now, solidly, a fashion item. Men have taken longer to change gear, simply because men are so brand loyal. When I ask Rudes later who he wishes would switch to J Brand, he bats back: “Brad Pitt”. The PR cuts in: “Brad wears them, Jeff. Remember, riding the motor cycle?”

We meet in his office in downtown LA (worn wood floors, huge American flag), where I am transfixed by a pin-board full of thank you notes from famous people, but there’s no time to linger because he’s heading down to the factory below. J Brand is headquartered just off a freeway ramp in an area best described as gritty. Besides this factory, there are five more, at capacity, producing premium jeans for J Brand, within a
two-kilometre radius.

Rudes rubs his hands over bolts of denim. He gives an impassioned speech on the importance of ironing, transfixed as a big guy tackles a seam: “You couldn’t do it with a machine, you wouldn’t be able to press these seams and keep them apart and the distance from both equal. You could easily buy a machine but you lose the integrity.”

The factory is unusual in that the majority of workers are men; the tailors, the pressers. That they just do their thing while the boss is nearby indicates he is nearby all the time. Back upstairs in his office, Rudes is charming, engaged, yet you do get the sense that he wishes there was a trap door under his chair that could just flip him back down to where the action is.

As to the big new business action, he is excited. “We’ve moved very slow and cautious,” he says. “That’s why it took eight years when most brands would have [expanded] sooner. We are very focused on what we are doing.”

The expansion includes pumping up a full ready-to-wear line – tops, coats, jackets – launched quietly last year, with creative director Donald Oliver. From now on, that will be going at full bore. “Now everything will move faster, because the market perception is ‘you guys grew up’.We will be seen as a fashion brand. There will be flagships, there will be growth.”

While other businesses rely on data, fashion fairy tales start with a hunch. The denim market is crowded, was crowded eight years ago when Rudes’ faith was with the opposite of what was “in” at the time. “For us, it was always about dressing a woman in a chic way,” he says. “I had experiences in the jean space and knew it was the moment to change.”

J Brand has pushed skinny as far as anatomically possible (ankle zips help). “We knew who was buying the jeans at the start. Itwas the fashion savvy girl. But aspirationally, we knew it would go more mass because what we saw was, when anyone tried on our jeans, she looked amazing. And who doesn’t want to look amazing?”

The big thing, he says, is jeans are emotional in a manner perhaps only paralleled, for women, by shoes. “I always tell my team we are really selling an emotion. That’s why women want to find a new great pair of jeans all the time, because if something can make you feel and look beautiful and feel sexy – not overtly sexy, but you feel confident and there are compliments – you can remember that.”

It seems Australian women agree with that. “We want instant fashion that looks amazing, fits perfectly, is of superior quality and affordable; J Brand is at the fashion forefront,” says Janine Edwards, head of Edwards Imports, which sells “literally, thousands” of J Brand jeans in Australia each year.

If you fly with fashion, you could die with fashion. Rudes showed considerable brinksmanship by halting the Houlihan juggernaut (search Houlihan on www.jbrandjeans.com and you simply get directed to the current hot style, no mention of discontinued or out of stock). He and his design team also took a punt on a daring combination: bright + skinny – not seen since the disco 80s. And when the catwalks got brighter, they were ready.

“I think it was fall 2010,” Rudes says. “We had bright on our line but they weren’t quite as bright. A light bulb went off and we did BRIGHT. You’ve gotta time it, you might have to store it, then you see how the designers are doing it and say ‘we are going to be part of it’.” But always, there’s the emotion: “When a woman picks up something new, there has to be that trust, ‘I know when I wear it, I look beautiful’.”

Way back in the hippie era, denim was alternative, suits were evil. In terms of sustainability, the story hasn’t quite panned out that way, given cotton is among the most rapacious crops in the world. Rudes faces the corporate social responsibility question with an honesty in admirable contrast to other jeans tsars, who waffle about interesting experiments making cloth out of nettles. “Organic cotton isn’t the difference,” he argues. “What is making a difference is we are transforming our laundries. Everybody is paying attention to the use of water and the chemicals that were being used around the world and should not be part of the manufacturing of jeans.”

Also grabbing attention: advertising campaigns. No boys in their underpants in laundries anymore. J Brand’s ad spend for 2012 topped US $1 million, including media buys in magazines such as Vanity Fair, French Vogue and style.com for slick pictures taken by Craig McDean. Yet for all Rudes’ talk of elevating the jean, it is a mumsy style that has really rocked.

“It’s mid-rise and it is in this soft twill gabardine,” he defends the style that proved the royal Kate has even more kerching! than Kate Moss. “She wore a more conservative, let’s say, skinny. It didn’t really touch you at the ankle, it pulled away a little bit but it’s sold A LOT,” says Rudes,who, no, has not met her and, yes, she paid retail.

As for Sir Mick Jagger, when J Brand launched a men’s line in 2008, it was with two styles, the skinny, called Mick, and the bootleg, called Clint. Eastwood wears them, too. “I always loved The Stones; it’s kind of come full circle now that he is wearing them,” says Rudes. “The call came for the lightest weight denim we make because of the way he moves on stage and has to be comfortable. So it’s got a great stretch, it’s paper-thin, seven ounces, our lightest weight women’s fabric. We never thought of making a men’s garment in that fabric, but when he suggested it, it completely made sense.” J Brand got a credit in the souvenir tour programme.

That thing about fit? When I arrived in the offices, I passed a tall, handsome man. Nothing extraordinary there, plenty of good looking people here. Much later, Rudes is walking me out and we pass an open door and there he is again. “We use the human body,” Rudes explains as the “fit model” nods hello. “It’s about having great pattern-makers and the knowledge of what you want to do with the fit, technically, to make the bum look better and lift and shape it. ”How long will he be here? “Maybe four more hours” says the guy. How often
is he here? “There’s a bunch of us that do this. I’m here maybe three days a week.”

One last thing. Rudes’ “we will be seen as a fashion brand” billboard statement? It’s already happened. As temperatures plummet during New York Fashion Week, clothing to suit an urban life proves a hit. “Women won’t just be buying these clothes; they’ll be wearing the hell out of them, too,” trumpets style.com. Or perhaps “wearing the ass out of them”. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that.

Diamonds That Are Not Forever

Diamonds That Are Not Forever

A mining company produces Australia’s ultimate raw luxury: pink diamonds. Marion Hume visits Jaipur and Antwerp to discover why the fine jewellery world loves Rio Tinto’s rare gems.

The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013

Half a century has passed since the famed fashion maven, Diana Vreeland, declared: “Pink is the navy blue of India”. Yet you can’t go to Jaipur in 2013 without the phrase passing through your mind. It isn’t just the famed pink city, it is the tunics of the guards, the dress worn by Bollywood star Pallavi Sharda, even the elephant’s trunk has a touch of pink. This is because a famous fashion photograph, originally taken by Norman Parkinson, inspired another photo shoot, commissioned by Argyle Diamonds, to tell the story of India’s new love affair with pink diamonds.

The necklace Sharda is wearing is spectacular, 100-plus carats, of which more than a few are very precious pinks. Pink diamonds comprise about 0.03 per cent of global diamond production. Almost all of these come from Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine in Western Australia where, in turn, less than 0.01 per cent of production is pink. In turn once more, 1 per cent of that 0.01 per cent are the finest “fancy pinks” destined for some of the world’s most costly jewellery.

Every year, about 12 million tonnes of Australian earth is shifted in search of diamonds, of which the rarest pink ones, all together, would rattle around in a teacup. It is these that the world’s top jewellers most desire yet have no guarantee of acquiring. Since 1984, the somewhat secretive Argyle Pink Diamond Tender, a moveable feast which tours international cities before the auction takes place by sealed bid, has caused considerable excitement; that is, if you are among the few hundred people worldwide who even know it is happening.

The 2013 tender, of less than 60 stones, is likely to tour from Perth to Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and beyond – the diamond world does like to be rather cryptic about specifics. Bidders such as Graff, Tiffany & Co, Calleija and Moussaieff face competition from the likes of Bollywood jeweller NiravModi and China’s Chow Tai Fook.

The world’s top jewellers have seen interest in pinks soar among their wealthiest clientele, which is somewhat inconvenient because the supply will probably be exhausted by about 2020. For years, there have been murmurs that the only consistent source of pink diamonds was coming to an end. Technological advances mean a shift from open cast to underground mining at the Argyle mine is possible, with diamonds buried as deep as 450 metres soon to be accessed by a honeycomb of funnels. But they can’t keep going to the centre of the earth.

The luxury world makes many claims to “rare”. Yet pink diamonds truly are. Their hue is not a result of impurity; it’s instead due to extreme pressure beneath the earth’s surface and geologically freaky conditions long before dinosaurs walked the earth.

Nirav Modi of Mumbai leads the field of what to do with a pink. His Golconda necklace was sold for US$3.6 million at Christie’s in 2010. Lightness is the leitmotif of this third generation jeweller. He has worked out how to almost remove the necklace part of a diamond necklace, which is to say, even the links are made of (white) diamonds. “The metal is less weight than the diamonds,” he says of creations that slither like mercury. The stars in each piece are pink but of different hues. “It’s not about getting every single stone to be the same, homogenous colour. With white diamonds, it is all about the clarity.With fancy pinks, it is the intensity of the colour. In fact, the appeal is the range of colours, from a pale pink to a purplish pink, then there’s candy pink. Some are this gorgeous bubble gum pink – except, saying that, it does not sound like a wonderful colour. In diamonds, it is. You need to look at it.”

Modi points to a delicious pink: “Look at that.You don’t often see a colour like that.” As for style, he aims for “modern, not trendy. If you look at your photos 20 years ago, you probably wore bell-bottoms. You cringe at that. You can’t do that with jewellery.”

Pinks are Australia’s ultimate raw luxury, yet the story of their discovery is a grubby and gripping tale of men sporting facial hair and stubbies. They drilled, they dug and on October 2, 1979, they discovered they were literally standing on top of the richest pink diamond deposit in the world.

Nik Senapati, Rio Tinto’s managing director for India, has been with the mining giant for 31 years. A geologist by training, he recalls the “Eureka” day in 1979. “There was elation. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the initial discovery, especially for the geologists who did it, was amazing. Most geologists in the world – I would say 99 per cent of geologists in the world – never discover anything.” Senapati sees Argyle as a very Australian story. “That perseverance; the geologist who was leading at the time, went out and said: ‘well everybody’s looking here, I’m going to look there’.”

Senapati loves diamonds, in a geologist’s kind of way. “A rough diamond formed 150 kilometres down in the earth, transported to the surface in its beautiful crystal form,” he muses. “To hold that. Maybe they should just leave them as beautiful roughs.” Since Argyle, no other consistent source of pinks has been found. So given a diminishing supply by the end of the decade, should the wise man stockpile? “I don’t think you can talk of a stockpile when the entire production since it began wouldn’t fill a glove compartment,” laughs Senapati.

Although the vast majority of all diamonds are cut and polished in India, the largest,most stunning pinks go to Perth. But first, the majority of all rough diamonds, however valuable, take a trip to Antwerp for initial sorting and valuation. While India is the leading nation for diamond cutting and polishing, little Belgium, home of Tin-tin and Dries van Noten, is the rough diamond trading centre of the world. It is in Antwerp that we find Jean-Marc
Lieberherr, Rio Tinto’s general manager for diamonds sales and marketing, in a dull office in a dull building with double door airlocks and shoe mirrors. Security is tight.

Lieberherr, a marketing man, formerly with LVMH, was headhunted. “I knew absolutely nothing about diamonds,” he says. “I started thinking about a mining company producing the ultimate luxury, and a wonderful pink diamond business asking to be developed. The whole concept of marketing and branding is to build a system. But to have this fantastic product which is effectively not marketed at all, it’s really just a joy.”

Diamonds were once marketed brilliantly. De Beers is a tiny chip of the monopoly it once was. Back in the days when it controlled a global cartel, the company needed a slogan that expressed romance and yet would also inhibit the public from reselling. The Mad Men of Madison Avenue came up with “A Diamond Is Forever”, and at a stroke, tiny crystals of carbon became synonymous with wealth and with love.

“Diamonds are forever in that they carry emotions in a timeless manner from one generation to another,” says Lieberherr. “But all the great stories there are around diamonds aren’t told.” What he means is that the old evil stories (blood diamonds, absolutely nothing to do with Argyle and no longer true of 99 per cent of diamond production today) still linger. “Think about the history that goes back billions of years. The chance of it coming up to the surface, people finding it, the impact on the communities. Not one natural story is as exciting as the diamond. We need to start marketing the diamond story a hell of a lot better.”

When it comes to underselling, Lieberherr makes the comparison with the vast land from which pinks hail. He believes Australia is a great brand and that our diamonds can make it even stronger, if we get the narrative right. “I would start with the fact that it’s a world in itself, so how can you live on this planet and not know it?” he suggests. “It’s a very intense place, in terms of its colours, its nature, its landscapes, its dangers. Then I’d talk about the people. I’d develop a brand around Australians being very genuine; their friendliness, their resilience, their resourcefulness.Then I’d probably go to the treasures of Australia, and go to ‘the most expensive substance on earth is here below the surface of Australia, and it’s Argyle pink diamonds’.”

But even for the brand man, isn’t there a conundrum in marketing a diminishing resource? “I think the Argyle pink diamond brand has fantastic potential,” Lieberherr says. “When you think of the awareness it has for anyone who has any interest in jewellery or in diamonds, they know how expensive they are, how rare they are. And that’s been built from what is effectively a tiny, tiny production. “What I dream about is the Argyle pink diamond could become a fantastic jewellery brand, also a watch brand, so that in 50 years time, it’s still there … Argyle the brand will survive the mine. The brand will be about Australian luxury.”

Style Counsel

Style Counsel

This man wants to inspire Aussie blokes to embrace fashion. And his targets are not just the urban (and urbane) variety. As Marion Hume discovers, who knew there was a peacock just off the Birdsville Track?

The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013

After the hard yakka of running 12,000 head of beef cattle over 1.6 million acres, Clayton Oldfield pulls on new jeans and heads to the Birdsville Hotel. “For the pub, you want something nice,” he says. The label on those jeans? “Aww, now you’re testing me.” He doesn’t know the label on the new shirt either. Oldfield, 29, was born and raised where the north-east corner of South Australia meets the south-west corner of Queensland. How far is the nearest shop? “Define what you mean as shop.” Twice a year, he drives 1300 kilometres to Adelaide to get what he needs. Then it’s straight back to Sturt Stony Desert: few people, deadly snakes.

Yet he’s been using his broadband connection for more than keeping up with the price of stud bulls. ”Mr Porter’s easy,” he says of the global online menswear retailer. “Once, the jeans were the wrong size. You just let them know you’re sending a parcel back and take it to the post office.” (That’s only a 52-kilometre round trip.)

How did a fourth-generation cattleman get with the fashion scene? “I just look at the design and I go from there,” says Oldfield. “I know what looks good, nothing really outrageous. I like that there’s a lot of stuff there, there’s clothing I might not have tried.” He hits the site “about once a month, once every couple of months”.

It is no empty boast that www.mrporter.com has changed the look of the Aussie bloke, whether it is the urban fanatics trawling late night for Lanvin or Saint Laurent, or the men of the Never Never – off the Birdsville Track or at Yulara, out by Uluru – or even those on Lord Howe Island who like a bit of James Perse for the cool of an evening.

The company does not release figures, but it is understood that sales to Australia rank second behind the UK, where Mr Porter is based, and ahead of the US. It may only be the urban shoppers who lap up the extras: the online magazine, the snazzy apps, the video content, some of it voiced by a fruity-vowelled Englishman (“Cary Grant’s father taught him the art of understatement. Remember it’s you walking down the street, not the socks. Mr Grant never forgot it.”) However, for the far-flung, it’s a style lifeline. “You just wait a couple of weeks and it’s there at the post,” says Oldfield.

Delivery is swifter if you live in a city. At present, it takes three to four days for the Aussie man to get a Mr Porter fix, delivered in distinctive black-lettered white packaging. The first Australian order was received within 30 minutes of the site’s launch on February 19, 2011, and an E. Tautz wool tie embarked on its way to Warracknabeal, in Victoria’s wheat belt. In the first 24 hours of trading, nearly 20 per cent of the international orders were from Australia, three times more than any country outside the UK. In two years, Mr Porter has “grown to an astonishing size compared to where Net-A-Porter was in the same period of time,” says Natalie Massenet, the founder and executive chairman of Net-A-Porter Group. (The Outnet, which sells designer wares from previous seasons, is the third of a trio of distinct offerings.)

To be fair, the foundations were more solid than 13 years ago,when, from her kitchen, Massenet worked out howto use the new fangled internet to flog designer clothes. In 2010,Net-A-Porter Group was acquired by multi-brand giant Richemont in a deal which valued it at £350million ($519million).

While the vastness of Oldfield’s outback backyard deserves the adjective “awesome”, a world away, so too does Net-A-Porter’s global HQ,which sits atop Westfield London. When I last interviewed Massenet (AFR Magazine, December 2010), inside the penthouse office floor, the company she founded occupied a third of the available space. Now, barring a gym in one corner, she has it all.

The group employs more than 2500 people across three continents. In London, plasma screens log global sales live: a man in Cleveland buys a Canali suit, a woman in Stockholm snaps up a shirt by Jil Sander. It’s the middle of the night in Australia, yet suddenly the globe swivels and an icon of a white bag lands on Australia. Last time I was here, the daily sales ticker stood at £455,443. On a January day in 2013, while Washington is headed for a fiscal cliff and London is braced against news of an economic double dip, the figure tops £2.5 million. “Please don’t write that down, a lot of stuff is reduced on sale,” begs the press officer.

It would help to have binoculars to spot Jeremy Langmead across this massive building.Once I reach the man at the helm of Mr Porter,we shake hands in a suitably “man’s world” way, then walk – or rather, hike, given the distance – to Massenet’s corner office,where she flops on the sofa and he perches beside her. Massenet, a former magazine fashion editor, hired Langmead from Esquire magazine. I ask how he is faring, across the barricades in the world of commerce. “Shall I leave the room?” he gestures to the other side of the plate glass. She says he was always the front runner, especially after that other candidate turned up for his interview in shorts. “Shorts!” Massenet hoots. Does Mr Porter not sell shorts? “We do.” Perhaps the candidate hailed from Australia? “He did not.”

Langmead, who was editor-in-chief of Wallpaper for four years before editing UK Esquire, admits he was desperate for the job. “One of the frustrations of being in print magazines was that I wanted to do so much more than I was able to. We had a very small blog budget, £15 a month or something. And I have quite a short attention span.” He was also bored with the pretence of a church-and-state division between editorial and advertising, which – while vital in a publication such as AFR Magazine – makes little sense in fashion glossies, which are pretty much “pay for play”, meaning those who advertise get coverage, those who do not rarely do. “You were featuring things but you were never really sure if readers liked them,” Langmead says. “Here, you know instantly. You can see what they’ve read and what they’ve bought. I like that.”

While he and the woman who hired him clearly share a can-do determination, his is schoolboy eager (although he sports a beard and has two grownup sons); hers still has the nervy feistiness she needed at the beginning to prove the doubters wrong. Theworld’s most glamorous geek exudes not an iota of the puffed-up smugness of a business titan, even though she pocketed £50 million from the Richemont sale; has been awarded an MBE; and is at the start of a five-year pro bono tenure as chairman of the British Fashion Council, the first woman thus anointed,which may very well lead to a trip to the palace and “arise Dame Natalie”.

No resting on laurels now. The fashion world might exalt Massenet, watching her in the front row, copying what she wears, buying whatever device she might pull from her handbag. But this mother of “kids who are BBMing and instant messaging and Instagramming” (she has daughters aged 13 and seven) knows the challenge ahead. In the early days, it was to drag the fashion pack up to speed.Now, it is to outpace a consumer for whom luxury e-tailing has morphed from novelty to normalised.

To this young customer, engagement works two ways. As Massenet recalls: “At the Paris shows, I posted my little black flat Valentino studded shoes on Instagram and within three seconds, someone said, ‘Oh that’s so last season’. By the way, we ordered them like crazy; they’re one of our best sellers, they’re like a cult shoe. I then took my little shredded Converses, that I had brought for the Eurostar ride and put them up and responded back to this person saying, ‘What about this?’ I have no idea who it was, it was an anonymous
post, but it was kind of funny. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s somebody out therewith an opinion’. But I’m happy then to counter them and say, ‘I love those shoes, they’re amazing, they’re flat, women should be wearing them’.”

Similarly,Mr Porter customers keep Langmead on his toes. “If you post, they’ll leave comments,” he says. “I’m always Instagramming and tweeting and Facebooking. You come back from the men’s shows and you have to know what people are ‘liking’,what’s going to sell. Equally, you have to know that lots of people are using you to keep up to date with what’s been happening throughout the day. You get feedback so quickly. You take a picture and within a minute, you have 68 likes.”

“People are making decisions visually,” says Massenet, “which is really good for us because we’re selling visually. People are making their decisions on what to buy based on a picture and ordering it and shipping it and then trying it on. It’s a very different process now. People are processing information in a completely different way.”

The expectations of today’s shoppers are literally sky high; they can load up a custom-made app, get a sneak peek of a new collection, participate in live events (such as the one Net-A-Porter staged with Karl Lagerfeld last year) and buy by scanning images on display in global popup shops. What you saw on Bondi Beach last year was teenagers holding up iPhones and shopping. What you didn’t hear was a voice belonging to anyone under 35 saying, “How the hell do they do that?” (Augmented reality technology, cutting-edge image recognition technology, powered by Aurasma, overlays the virtual world on the real world environment through a device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet. Got that?)

Net-A-Porter is about fashion, full speed ahead. Mr Porter’s tone is different: it meanders, taking time to teach chaps what’s what, yet it is underpinned by the same whizzbang, ever-updated technology. And while it may appear obvious that a business so successful at selling to women would expand into menswear, success with both in the bricks-and-mortar world has been rare and usually started with the boys. Ralph Lauren sold ties; Thomas Burberry sold trench coats for soldiers.

“It’s distinct. On Net-A-Porter, it is about ‘You have to have this. Don’t even think about leaving the house without it.’ Whereas for Mr Porter . . .” Massenet looks to Langmead. “The words ‘must have’ are totally banned. We work hard at creating an online world where men feel comfortable, whether they are there to shop, browse, or just be inspired.”

It’s somewhat like being looked after by the Downton Abbey butler: studiously polite yet sometimes raising an eyebrow. An entry under style icons reads, “Although the list of his other virtues is short, the Duke of Windsor is widely considered to be the best-dressed man of the 20th century and his clothes were exemplary in many ways.” When it comes to casual attire: “Seen here performing with Nirvana in 1991, Mr Kurt Cobain underscores the sweatshirt’s rock star appeal.” One starts to imagine that the man who frequents Mr Porter must be equally sophisticated – the type of guy to drive a girl around the Riviera in a sport car – while, in truth, he’s more likely to pull out his phone and add a Rag & Bone T-shirt to his wish list during dinner.

“I think men were not so much waiting for internet shopping to happen but waiting for a dedicated style site that spoke to them, their lifestyle, their interests and their needs,” Langmead says. “They were certainly adept at shopping online for other areas in their lives. We can be quite geeky as a gender.” The expectations too, differ from the sister site.

There’s the understanding that a sale might not be final. On the one hand, when a man finds something he likes, he’ll want more of the same and inventory is held to facilitate restocking. The female customer, in contrast, will have moved on, not to the next thing but the one after that. If our gent tries something and it doesn’t suit, returns – as on the sister site – are free with tags intact. To mitigate against wear and return “the tags are located in quite an uncomfortable place”, notes Langmead.

This duo is not remotely surprised that Australia is playing a leading role in Mr Porter’s success, especially as Australian women were fast off the mark. (The first order on Net-A-Porter from Australia was within 12 months of the June, 2000 launch, back in the day when few had faith in fashion online.) “Thanks to the internet, the Australian consumer has, I believe, become far more knowledgeable, confident, experimental and savvy about style. It’s an exhilarating period for menswear at the moment,” says Langmead. “The online retail landscape has allowed him to be a lot more selective and it is a natural process for him. We certainly see a very fashion-forward guy buying the likes of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Lanvin from Australia.”

Langmead’s own style is not especially adventurous, despite the red socks he’s teamed with brogues. “We actually just did a video on the trends in Paris and we were looking at socks. They’re quite cheery.” He brand checks: “Loro Piana washed cotton, chambray shirt, Alexander Olch check, wool twill tie, Canali Kei slim-fit, unstructured, cotton- blend blazer.” He also wears trousers but does not name check them because he’s moved on to the bracelets. “Luis Morais. Small diamonds and white gold in the middle.”

“That was the first item to sell out on Mr Porter,” says Massenet. Langmead adds: “It’s extraordinary how many businessmen wear these. Loads of finance guys wear beads on their wrists.” Even in Australia? “They fly out.” So what of the three neon tangerine bands that hang loose from Massenet’s dainty wrist? “Hairbands; put hair in a ponytail instantly,” she demonstrates. Ah, but trust her to have a dime-store product in a hard-to-get colour. Her outsized top is Les Chiffoniers. “We’re really in love with the sweatshirt right now,” she says. “This is a couture sweatshirt look plus inky black jeans by Frame Denim and Alexander Wang wedge boots,which are very cool and I can run in them.”

The skill, they say, is in the curation. In the vast gentleman’s closet that is Mr Porter, a sweatshirt featuring a shark might coexist (but never be worn with) a Charvet tie (the French firm was founded in 1838). “It’s that balance of taste and desire and just getting it right overall,” says Langmead. Massenet’s view is: “We’re not trying to be the world’s biggest super store. Our value add is that we edit what we believe in. We make sure we are the partners to our consumers in terms of taste.”

Massenet used to be the fashion chick at the geek show. Although she remains the designers’ champion, today it is technology that ignites her. “Within two years, everyone will be looking up again,” she predicts. “You’ll have the messages going in your field of vision so you don’t have to move your head down. There will be a single device for everything. You will have your desktop within a mobile and you’ll connect to TV screens, movie screens, as well as the ability to make a purchase or identify yourself across all platforms with a single
click,which will be mind-blowing.”

The only bit I really grasp is that it is all coming within two years and I have learnt not to doubt Natalie Massenet.

Langmead proffers me a parting gift I am better placed to understand. “The inky incarnation of Mr Porter,” he says, sliding across a book, The Manual for a Stylish Life, printed on sensuous vellum stock. Massenet grabs it. “Look, all the images downloaded instantly,” she says with a straight face. “And you can flick seamlessly from one page to the next!”

Then she giggles and hands it over.

Navy Blue And Pink In India

“How clever of you, Mr. Parkinson, also to know that pink is the navy blue of India,” the legendary fashion maven, Diana Vreeland told the great photographer Norman “Parks” Parkinson when he returned from the City Palace, Jaipur, India with a picture of Anne Gunning in a pink mohair coat tanding next to a decked-up elephant manned by guards in pink.

The model in the picture taken in tribute by photographer Antony Horth in January 2013 was the glorious Bollywood star, Pallavi Sharda, decked in diamonds from Australia’s Argyle.

But when she ducked off to change into Dior, I had to sneak in next to a supermodel guaranteed to make me look small. The bunch of kids didn’t miss their chance either.

A lovely memory of a lovely trip to India with Argyle diamonds.

It’s In The Bag

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

The day after any televised royal event, I know just what my mum is going to say. “Did you see the way the Queen walked down those stairs? Not holding a handrail and she never looks down!” HRH’s agility fascinates my not particularly Royalist mother. I was wondering what both she and her Maj might have made of the scene at a recent fashion party. The exit was via a vast marble staircase, so I hurried down the centre then waited and waited as everyone else teetered to ground level, clinging to the rails as if this were the sinking of the Titanic. Isn’t the purpose of a shoe that you can walk in it, including down a stair? But what’s on­trend now are styles so unbalanced that the fastest speed is a hobble. HRH would be amused by that!

Yet fashion decrees that when one must ­have reaches the realms of the ridiculous, another becomes sensible to compensate. Handbags, once so weighed down with hardware you could hardly lift them empty, have become more practical. What is chic now is unadorned and calm. (Imagine here, please, handbags by Celine. So simple. So lovely. So expensive.) HRH knows all about practical bags – she’s had the same style swinging off a regal forearm for the past half century. Indeed, maybe not just the same style, perhaps the same actual bag? I suspect she owns but three: one cream, one black and one which they re­cover to match whatever primrose ensemble she is wearing. Those of us who can’t avail ourselves of such a service do need a few more choices.

I made one a month ago. As I walked to the office, I decided to buy a rucksack, a style I have not owned since I gave up backpacking in my early 20s. Mine, though, is black canvas, with a leather base and a pocket for phone and keys. It is not at all something you would take on a scout camp. That the label, Ally Capellino, is not better known in Australia is something I am trying to change, one convert at a time. The label sells online, at the Tate galleries in London and in just two little London stores.

If your tastes are snazzier, may I draw your attention to the bags of Baraboux. Reema Bandar Al Saud of Riyadh was looking for a solution to the organisational needs of a globe trotting lifestyle and decided to do something about it. These are not schlepp­-it-­through-­the-sand bags, although they’d be perfect if you were, say, flying Emirates and doing a few days stopover in Dubai. I swooped in on the Marie, a day bag with detachable pocket­ purses on the outside, for when I’m travelling and a rucksack won’t cut it. Usually you put purses inside a handbag, but this way, you can go: “Can leave that one in the hotel. Need that one. Don’t need that one until later.” Amazingly, the bag looks equally attractive with any combination of pockets attached.

Every women knows the prettiest evening bags are the most useless. It’s a fantasy to think all we need to carry is a lipstick and a hanky. The Reema bag has a neat trick: a metal mesh cuff which looks like a decorative detail to a black satin clutch, yet slides around the barrel revealing two compartments – one for things you don’t mind people catching a glimpse of, one for those necessities you do. Phone, business cards, keys and other items a girl needs close at hand. I dumped them from one bag to the Reema. Call that a sale.

The Auld Country

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

For once, I look more like Chanel than any other woman present and me a big boned six footer while Coco was a little bird. I’m in Scotland, land of my heart, a nation with which Mademoiselle Chanel fell in love while being wooed by the Duke of Westminster, familiarly known as Bendor and the richest man in England, (which, in turn, meant he owned half of Scotland). In the end, Chanel would ditch the multimillionaire but would keep her love for “the auld country” forever.

While they were dating, Coco and Bendor would enjoy long walks through the bonnie purple heather, which inspired a devotion for the rough weaves and the colours of tweed which remain central to the Chanel DNA. It was “North of the Border” that the jaunty French mistress of a naughty rich gent fell for the majesty of tartan, the softness of Scottish wool, the patterns of Fair Isle. And it was up here, in the land of lochs and crags, that Chanel really took to mannish dressing. She’d dabbled before, decking herself in the jersey undergarments of a former boyfriend, but she really crossed over in Scotland.

For salmon fishing at Lochmore, Chanel wore an oversized chunky sweater, warm “trews”, big socks, jack boots and, in a snapshot taken in 1928, a radiant smile. She looked entirely different from the hard, little Parisian of other photographs with the gimlet eye of ambition, the jaw fixed in grim determination, the armholes of her jacket cut high and tight.

It is Chanel’s joyful Lochmore look I have gone for tonight because we are instructed to wrap up warm. I’ve added a huge broach, which looks as if it was hammered and forged by the Pictish men of the dark hills; in truth, it was dug up with delight, at Christine Barro’s treasure trove in Melbourne.

Snow falls on the location, a roofless, ruined castle. Karl Lagerfeld has invited us to witness a fashion show inspired not just by the brand’s long history of Scottish production but also by its life-saving purchase, last August, of Barrie Knitwear, which makes Chanel’s cashmere twinsets. A pension fund crisis in the conglomerate by which it was owned had bought Barrie to the brink. Chanel added it into its charm bracelet of specialist companies, the Metiers d’Art, acquired in order to preserve the savoir faire of glove makers, feather makers, milliners, goldsmiths. “It’s a dream,” says managing director, Jim Carrie, who feared he was headed for the block.

That was the grim fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, born here at Linlithgow Palace and whose every living heartbeat brought her closer to her cousin, Elizabeth I, sending horseman North with orders for her execution. The models in the show wear their red hair plaited upwards, tight to their scalps, keeping their necks clean for the axe. Scotland changed Chanel. Its haunting highland spell softens Karl Lagerfeld, who modernises the traditional in his most beautiful show in 30 years with the brand. Models hurry past, their chiffon gowns held by kilt fastenings, wrapped up against the weather in vast tartan scarves and bonnets. Never, in all my years of singing Auld Lang Syne to see in the New Year did I expect that the Chanel bag du jour would be a sporran rendered in golden chain mail or that Hogmanay vocabulary like tam o’shanter, ghillies and sgian dubh (men’s bonnet, brogues and the knife you stick on your kilt socks) would become a useful part of my lexicon in the high speed frenzy of the front row.

The “Auld Alliance” between France and Scotland was forged way back in 1295. The show’s title is Paris Edimbourg, to me, thrilling proof that the age-old pairing between the land of my work and the land of my blood stays strong.


Dior Down Under

Dior Down Under

While those distinctive watches, cosmetics, fragrances and accessories have been available in Australia for decades, Sydney’s luxury precinct is readying itself for the imminent arrival of the country’s first Christian Dior flagship boutique. The antipodes has nevertheless had its share of close encounters with the house’s very famous founder, as Marion Hume relates.

The Australian Financial Review | December 2012

by Marion Hume

 

Heart Of Glass

AFR | December 2012

by Marion Hume

Sometimes an adventure beckons and you have to follow the lead. When an interview was relocated from New York to Prague, I was thrilled, given I haven’t been to the Czech Republic since it was Czechoslovakia. I looked forward to going again to the mighty Prague castle, to walking the span of the historic Charles Bridge. 

But then a half-lost nugget of something began to niggle. When, recently, had there been mention of something Czech? I realized it was a few weeks before, in Kenya, when I was watching Maasai women working their magic on a range of bags for Myer, including designs by Karen Walker, Fleur Wood and Jayson Brunsdon. 

Maasai beading is every bit as good as in the ateliers of the Paris haute couture. (How lucky am I, to have witnessed both, and often). This is due to a mix of traditional skill and sheer bloody-mindedness. The Maasai won’t even touch beads from India or China (whisper it, but the French will). Only the Czech ones are perfect. 

Today, glass seed beads are still traded through second, third, fourth parties, so it has taken a degree of investigative skill to trace the source to where I am standing now, inside an old glass foundry, up a mountain, near a village I will never learn how to pronounce. Getting all the way here from Prague has taken guts and the navigational skills of a girl scout (Ok, that’s not true, but it has required the essential fashion skill of knowing how to hire a cheap driver with a GPS).

Inside, it is roasting hot, as you’d expect when five furnaces hit over 1,000 degrees. What looks like needle-thin vermicelli is being extruded (protuded? Who to ask for vocab when I can’t speak Czech?) along thin, raised contraptions that stretch as far as the eye can see. The secrets of glass reached Bohemia from the Venetian isle of Murano. But they will get no further today. How does this clear vermicelli become tiny beads of more colours than I can describe? Before I work that out, I am ushered outside into the icy cold. With every step I take there’s the crunch of glittering fragments of glass, sparkling under my feet. 

Where I am welcomed, warmly and officially, is at the offices of Preciosa Ornela from whence all top-end traditional seed beads, known as rocailles, hail. (Preciosa Ornela, best know for glass figurines, bought out an ailing company called Jablonex which pioneered rocailles). These beads range from so teeny, they are given the measure 13/0 – a percentage of a millimetre – to 4/0, which is just about big enough for me to see without glasses. 

Over eggs, ham and pickles, my hosts explain the reason Preciosa Ornela, and previously Jablonex and originally, the way more famous Swarovski, (a Czech company before moving to Austria) all hail from a cluster of tiny mountain villages. While glass is hard work, it doesn’t need many people. What it did need, traditionally, was wood, sand and water a-plenty. Given the Venetians soon ran out of wood, that this landlocked region of icy streams and forests always had to import sand (today a complex mix of chemicals) soon made the competition about even. But while the venetians lent more towards chandeliers, here it was beads and buttons. Thence, from the top of this mountain, traders ventured around the world, all the way to Mexico, China, India and East Africa. 

“But the world we have never conquered is fashion,” my hosts lament, comparing to the spectacular style success of Swarovski. That’s when I reveal that Vivienne Westwood evening clutch bags and Sass & Bide tote bags are beaded by the Maasai through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative in Kenya. My hosts are utterly delighted – although not as delighted as my Maasai mates will be when I hand over the new season’s disco beads in shimmering gold, bronze and silver.

True Blue

True Blue

Nobody was more surprised than Michael Kowalski when he got the top job at Tiffany. As Marion Hume writes, during his watch the retailer has made some radical moves in its quest to sell fine jewellery in a ‘democratic’ way.

The Austalian Financial Review | November 2012

by Marion Hume

What a swell party it was. The brass band was swinging, the singers were crooning, the dance floor was hopping, fuelled by champagne. Above the granite and marble of the imposing main floor, a towering interior was lit Tiffany blue, while views out of vast windows showcased the rainy night sparkle of the streets of Manhattan. They say the opening of the world­renowned Tiffany & Co. store at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1940 was a glorious affair, despite the US being on the brink of entering World War II. The above description is not, however, of 1940 but 2012. The vast views were photographs to bring Manhattan to Prague, in the Czech Republic, to celebrate the opening of the American jeweller’s latest global store. That said, the vibe was glamorously retro, a warm contrast to the usual chilly fashion parties where guests dripping in borrowed brand merchandise are more intent on Instagramming than kicking up their heels.

Tiffany should have ended its 175th birthday year with an even more marvellous party – one that was supposed to feature movie stars, Moet, two inflatable zebra lilos and a fabulous pool party. For December was to have seen the Tiffany marque writ large across cinema screens in 3D. But Warner Bros stalled the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, for which the jeweller has provided scores of sparklers, until May 2013. Surely news of the delay was exactly what Tiffany did not want for Christmas? “Not at all!” laughs Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s quietly spoken chairman and chief executive, when we meet on the morning before the Prague party in the leafy garden of one of the Czech Republic’s swankiest hotels.

Kowalski, it must be said, is not a swanky kind of guy, despite the locale. Bespectacled, married to the same woman for 35 years, you’d read the 61­ yea r­old more as the dependable numbers guy than the CEO, which, in a way, would be right. His route to the top was finance and, when he reached the pinnacle in 1999, at age 48, he claims no one was more surprised than himself. He still doesn’t act much like other CEOs – although he has a car and driver while in Prague. “I actually prefer to rent my own car because just the act of understanding where a store is, in relation to airport or downtown and navigating by yourself, gives a sense of awareness and familiarity. Or I’ll take the subway,” he says. On the way back from the Prague party, he’ll offer several guests a chauffeur-­driven ride, meaning he will perch in the centre rear seat.

In Prague, Kowalski gives a warm opening speech, he works the red carpet, he shakes hands. He doesn’t appear shy; instead he’s utterly comfortable that he’s made a commitment to this in a schedule that has him travelling at least 40 per cent of his time. He even seems to be a little dazzled by the elegance of the party. This isn’t his natural milieu. “We do what we need to do to manage and promote Tiffany,” he says, “but on a personal level, I like to stay under the radar.”

But while Kowalski, personally, won’t regret that December isn’t a whirl of red carpet movie premieres, surely the delay is a blow for a business that had geared up to maximise the best bit of brand promotion since 1961, when Audrey Hepburn immortalised Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “It has been actually fine for us,” Kowalski counters. “It would have been sort of piling on to the holiday season in those weeks where it’s absolutely impossible for us to put more people in the stores.” You see, in the US, Tiffany pretty much is Christmas, in no small part due to years of seductive advertisements featuring snowflakes, lovers and the brand’s blue boxes tied up with white bows. “Quite frankly, and since we’ve seen some of the trailers, the delay has helped us because it gives us an opportunity to build a more robust product endorsement,” says Kowalski.

Prices of pieces with a Jazz Age theme will range from entry-­level to stratospheric. That’s how it has always been at Tiffany, the American jeweller Kowalski calls ‘democratic’, by which he means that money, or the lack thereof, is not a bar to crossing the threshold of its stores. Australia got its first Tiffany store in 1994, far earlier than most European cities, because our way of life chimes with store environments that are relatively relaxed compared to other high­end international jewellers. You can simply walk in, whoever you are, whatever you do. Let’s not forget that the Holly Golightly of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was what was known euphemistically as ‘a good time girl’, before Hepburn’s portrayal sweetened her into a good girl. As Golightly says of the Fifth Avenue flagship store: “Isn’t it wonderful? Nothing bad could ever happen to you in a place like this.”

When Charles Tiffany and his brother­-in-­law John Young set up their stationery and fancy goods emporium at 259 Broadway in New York City in 1837, an early policy dictated that not only was it fine to ask the price, most of these were displayed in plain sight. This policy meant Tiffany was the first fine jeweller to include the price tag when advertising engagement rings. In the contemporary context, it means the price appears within the first product details online (for instance: Tiffany Enchant Scroll Pendant $20,000).

Some things, though, are priceless, such as the cushion­ cut, 128.54 carat, sunburst yellow diamond purchased in 1878 by Charles Tiffany and housed on the ground floor of the Fifth Avenue store. On an earlier shopping spree to Paris, he bought the French crown jewels (up for sale due to revolutionary turmoil). It was in Paris that Tiffany was entranced by a fashionable hue known as Nattier blue, after the painter Jean­Marc Nattier. “The company has a team of people making sure the blue never changes, hunting down anyone who abuses it,” says Kowalski. It is at Kowalski’s insistence – he has strong environmental principles – that these days the blue box is green; that is, made from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper.

Tiffany, for all its sparkle, has always taken a radical lead. Kowalski says that the brand realised early on that, to expand, it had to break down the intimidation inherent in selling fine jewellery: “I’m sure when we opened a store in a mall in New Jersey, now one of our top 20 stores in the world, there were New Yorkers who were appalled, like: ‘My gosh, they’re opening a store in New Jersey! What could they be thinking!’ People were far more likely to walk through that wide door in a mall and once they were through that threshold, it was like: ‘Gosh, nothing bad is happening, I haven’t been asked to leave, did someone say can I help you?’ ’’

The high­-end jeweller with the common touch also lost no time tapping into the feminist Zeitgeist: early in the 1970s, when ads for a fragrance called Charlie showed confident women in pant suits striding through the streets of New York, Tiffany signed a modern visionary, Elsa Peretti, who found her design inspiration in street stall donuts and coffee beans. Until then, the most famous designs were those by Jean Schlumberger, a Frenchman whose opulent creations were adored by Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, Tiffany collaborators continue to surprise. While collections by Paloma Picasso are not radical, the jeweller carries a line of bold, demanding pieces by the architect Frank Gehry.

Outside it doors, Tiffany sometimes generates shockwaves. “We do scandalise our competitors,” laughs Kowalski, recalling the tremors that greeted the news it was moving into e­commerce in 1999, a year before Natalie Massenet launched Net­a­ Porter. Online sales now account for about 6 per cent of worldwide sales, making it the number two store after New York. It even has an app that allows ring sizing, although Kowalski holds with his decision not to sell diamond engagement rings online “because of all those tactile things where you really have to hold it in your hand”.

Nor does he tweet: “Tiffany tweets but CEOs tweeting, that’s asking for trouble.” Not that he avoids controversy: “I know there are many people in the mining world and in the jewellery world and in the supply chain who think that I’m some sort of radical environmentalist who is pursuing his own personal agenda to save the world. But that’s simply not true.” Tiffany does not sell coral or rubies because they are as closely tied to nefarious practices as blood diamonds. As for diamonds, Tiffany’s can be traced pretty much to the square metre of earth they came from. (Of note: Tiffany’s yellow diamonds come from the Ellendale mine, in the far north of Western Australia.) Few knew until recently that platinum is controversial – although not Tiffany’s stock, which comes either from a single mine in Montana in the US, or is recycled.

“We have come up against some real industry opposition; it’s been disappointing in many ways,” says Kowalski. “I’m making a judgment based on what I believe our customers want, and it’s no different to the judgment I make about advertising or design. It’s all part of the brand DNA. One of the things that customers expect when they walk through those doors is that nothing terrible has happened in creating this diamond ring. I’m not suggesting that’s the first thing that they ask about, but consumers should be able to absolutely assume that to be the case.” Tiffany has won rare praise from Global Witness, which campaigns against natural resource­related conflict and corruption, for “one possible model of what major diamond jeweller retailers and manufacturers should do”.

Luck played no small part in Kowalski’s rise to the top. “It’s always better to be lucky than to be smart. In my own case, it was bizarre,” he says. Kowalski was working in financial planning at Avon, which had purchased Tiffany in 1977. “I had been there for about five or six years and I was just bored. I went to see the guy who had hired me, and said, ‘It’s been wonderful, but I really have to move on from here.’ And he said, ‘You got a job to go to? Because I’ve just learnt that there’s going to be an opportunity to head the financial planning department over at Tiffany, would you have any interest?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’”

Six months later, when Avon decided to sell Tiffany, it fell to Kowalski to oversee the sale. The success of the subsequent management­led leveraged buy­out was dependent on liquidating inventory, so Kowalski was asked to move to merchandising and take responsibility. “We had to put in place those basic financial disciplines,” he says. “That’s where the lucky part came in. I was in the merchandising division and moved up, so no, I never thought I would be CEO.”

Would he at least concede he’s a successful one? “I’ll tell you the obvious trajectory of sales growth. It was US$120 million with seven or eight stores [when he started in 1999]. Last year, it was US$3.6 billion with 247 stores, and almost half a billion dollars in profit.” From less than a dollar at the time he took over as CEO, the share price hovers around $US63. Like Kowalski, several key executives have put in years with the company and many hold stock. “There’s this great sense of financial accountability. There’s an incredible sensibility to legacy and tradition yet we’re analytical, disciplined, fact­based and very collegial. We have a great culture of respect and you know, you never raise your voice.” When the Gatsby party season kicks off next year, don’t go looking for Michael Kowalski. “I much prefer anonymity,” he says. “I walk into a party and I really try to avoid talking about Tiffany because once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to bring the conversation back to any common ground.”

No faking it on the Gatsby set

On a sunny day on the set of the The Great Gatsby at Sydney’s Fox Studios in December 2011, director Baz Luhrmann’s voice can be heard through a bullhorn. He is revving up more than 500 extras gathered for a party scene in the Gatsby mansion, complete with sunken pool and revellers on lilos. Time and again, Leonardo DiCaprio turns towards Tobey Maguire, repeating: “I’m Jay Gatsby. I’m sorry, old chap, I thought that you knew that,” each time flashing a megawatt smile and an onyx signet ring featuring a daisy motif.

Luhrmann had identified Tiffany as a ‘must get’ collaborator several years before production began. In a nice fit, Gatsby’s author F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Tiffany customer. Luhrmann’s partner, the double Oscar­winning costume designer Catherine Martin, spent months with the jeweller’s in­house designer, Jim Stonebraker, in New York. Stonebraker had to “go through hundreds of hoops because, exacting as I am, Baz is even more exacting,” says Martin. “Just being able to say, ‘Hmm, I think I’d really like a platinum cigarette case in enamel with diamonds and pearls’, and that was no problem, was fabulous.”

It is unusual, and risky, to use real jewellery on a movie set. “What’s crazy [is] my wife walking onto the set wearing a $2 million bracelet,” Luhrmann recalls of a shoot which had to include bodyguards and gems in locked boxes inside a safe within a safe room. “Tiffany has been phenomenal in that they open up the world of decadence. You can have fake diamonds but the real ones are just so much better.” Adds Martin: “We used every single piece because everyone loved wearing them. I would go, ‘Do you want to wear any jewels today?’ And they would reply, ‘We want to wear them all.’ ”

The Doisneau Department

AFR | November 2012

by Marion Hume

Paris in the sunlight. As my taxi slows in traffic near the Hotel de Ville, I am once again convinced of the existence of a secret agency of the French government, or perhaps a hidden team within the offices of the mayor. Their mission? To hire gorgeous young people and send them out on the streets to kiss, thus maintaining a worldwide reputation for romance.

The codename, or so I like to think; “The Doisneau Department”.

The smart bit is that whoever is in charge doesn’t just reach into the costume cupboard for vintage pieces and send the actors out to “do a Doisneau”. The trick keeps working because the fashions are always up-to-date.  But even if they did just try to stage literal recreations of Robert Doisneau’s eternal and endlessly-reproduced photograph, The Kiss (or Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, to give it the original title), the snapshots you’d catch from a cab would still look utterly contemporary.

If you can picture the original image, first published in Life magazine in 1950, in your mind’s eye, you’ll recall the young man is wearing an oversized double-breasted jacket which, today, you’d source from Yohji Yamamoto, plus a scarf like any you’d find in a good menswear store. The lass looks like she’s in Prada, although that nipped-in cardigan, pretty blouse and fit-and-flare skirt could just as easily be Marc Jacobs. Or Zara.

The two in my view now? They’re the “on-trend” versions. The boy (long black hair, thick as a paint brush and scrunched up with a rubber band) is in a T-shirt so sheer you can see a tattoo on his flank, worn with pants that are charcoal in tone and multiply slashed. The girl is in a jacket of this season’s Yves Klein blue + skinny jeans. J Brand? Citizens for Humanity? I’m not so close I can read the label. But I can spot Pierre Hardy strappy sandals at 100 paces, which signal the stylist has a considerable budget to work with.

The Paris Metro may be cheap and fast but the way I see it, cabs are a necessity to keep abreast of what the Doisneau Department is up to. This season, I’m noticing a marked casting choice towards Vanessa Paradis lookalikes, perhaps out of solidarity to the chanteuse since her split with Johnny Depp or maybe just because, if you are hiring an actress to look chic in a clinch, you go for the girl with the bee-stung lips.

As for the boys, if I were in charge, I’d be telling the prop stylist to stop handing out guitar cases – there’s been too much of that “Boho/busker” look lately. And all the boys grasping a plastic bag from techo-supermarket, FNAC, in their free hands?  That doesn’t do much for romance, does it?

Ah! But maybe it does! For what better proof that Paris herself is ravishing, than “couples” who can’t help themselves, even if  they only popped out to pick up an external hard-drive?

The Doisneau Department has a long history of getting it right. They’re good, these guys. They managed to keep a lid on the fact that the original picture was a set-up for 42 years. Word only got out when a real couple, who thought they were “the couple”, sued for a slice of the profits of a photo that launched a thousand fridge magnets. Only then, in 1992, did Robert Doisneau himself have to fess up to having hired a couple of actors; a girl of 20, a boy of 23.

Which is exactly the age I’d put on the pair lip-locked outside the Hotel de Ville now. As for me, I love that we’ll always have Paris, the city of love – even if, to keep the myth alive, civil servants are toiling away, somewhere behind these grand Haussman facades, calculating the day rates.

The Stack [Monocle 24]

The Stack cracks spines and thumbs pages as it looks at the world of print media, from glossy magazines to investigative newspapers. 


Episode 1: Monocle 24’s brand-new show focusing on magazine culture invites designer and blogger Jeremy Leslie and acclaimed journalist Marion Hume to discuss quality paper and ink.


Episode 7: The Stack meets US media magnate and domestic goddess Martha Stewart, reviews magazines with Benjamin Eastham and Marion Hume, and discusses Ian Samson’s new book – “Paper”.

At The Court Of Armani

At The Court of Armani 

Born in the year of the dog, Italy’s foremost designer is a China crowd pleaser, not least for the well dressed sophistication of his highly wearable clothes. But the succession question dogs the 78 year old all the way to Beijing, where Marion Hume joins him on a night of nights that proves Giorgio Armani is unlike any other of fashion’s living greats.

Austalian Financial Review | August 2012

by Marion Hume 

“Are you responsible, compassionate, reliable, honest, pessimistic and anxious?” Giorgio Armani’s ice blue eyes lock onto mine. Who dares ask fashion’s last emperor – his kingdom resolutely independent from the conglomerates that dominate the global luxury landscape – about his personal character? Yet we are in China, where a reporter, born under the year of the tiger, merely wishes to enquire whether the world’s wealthiest designer fits the description of those born under the year of the dog.

This emperor, who has absolute control as sole shareholder of a business worth billions, is shielded by a fiercely protective court. His mandarins – easy to spot because, like their ruler, they don’t wear socks – are stringent about vetting questions in advance. Tabled for today’s interview, taking place in a hotel penthouse 74 storeys above the streets of Beijing at the end of May, is discussion about Armani in China where the group has 289 of some 2125 stand-alone stores globally, with 50 more Chinese openings slated within the year.

There is a beat of silence. Then the interpreter translates the question into the designer’s native Italian (court protocol, as many suspect Armani understands English). “Perfecto!” Armani pronounces. Then he laughs. Then everyone is laughing and so it is that a reporter, distanced from greatness by ample space in which to kowtow, is allowed to stay upright in her chair.

When granted an audience with Armani, whether in the group’s palatial Milan headquarters or anywhere in his dominions, do not expect intimacy. The emperor must maintain distance (unlike, say, Tom Ford, who might start stroking your back). There will be a platoon of people. They will be dressed either just like him (T-shirt, sweater, immaculate casual) or they will ‘work’ his designs in studiously funky ways. The latter is a sartorial shift in a company that used to decree low heels, no earrings, nude nail polish – the change perhaps to semaphore a core brand message of ‘cool’, although the designer himself is 78.

Looking decidedly odd in such an on-trend crowd are the suits. The guy in the tie hand-signalling ‘five minutes to time’s up’ when we’ve only just got started? He’s Armani’s loyal assistant, Paul Lucchesi. The suited and booted guy standing all buff and bristling by the door? His palace guard.

Back in ancient China, it was believed that a man carried the creature of his birth year forever in his heart. Of all the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Shengxiao zodiac, the dog is the most determined. There is no need to ask Giorgio Armani if that is true of him. In 1975, he started a business with cash from selling a car. In 2011 alone, that business achieved a total turnover, including licensed products at retail value, of €6.73 billion ($7.9 billion). The dog is stubborn. When Sergio Galeotti, who was Armani’s partner in business and life, died in 1985, Armani expanded when expected to retreat and runs everything at one of the world’s most recognised brands.

It is written that dogs prefer saving money to spending it. At last report, Giorgio Armani SpA had some $817 million in cash on its books and even Armani’s yacht must earn its keep in charters. To a dog, a well organised home is important. Make that nine private homes, a homeware line called Armani Casa and, in partnership with the UAE property developer Emaar, hotels in Milan and Dubai. But dogs are sensitive, or you might say prickly, given Armani’s less than complimentary comments about other designers’ creations over the years (“molto porno”; “troppo Joan Collins”).

Being born in 1934 makes Armani specifically a ‘wood dog’, the kind that hunts in a pack. Where the emperor leads, others trot behind, even on his annual holiday to Pantelleria, a volcanic speck southwest of Sicily. Apparently, Armani snarls at those he loves the most. In a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, he admitted to “verbal violence. And sometimes I even use words, Italian ones – stronzo or cazzo!” Shithead, prick… “That is normal. [Among ourselves], this is what we say all the time.”

This visit to China is not holiday galavanting; it is an international show of brand power – or make that brands, plural. Within the group are Giorgio Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, plus eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics. On this evening, the emperor plans to dazzle all those who have received a gilded invitation – accompanied by a little box of nine (Chinese lucky number) Armani Dolce chocolates – with an extravaganza entitled ‘Giorgio Armani: One Night Only in Beijing’.

But overnight success is the opposite to how he got to be here. Along with talent and a singular vision are years of sheer hard work. Armani hails from Piacenza, a northern industrial town far removed from the Italy of La Dolce Vita. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, born two years after Armani (who was telling his mother how to dress when he was four and was famous by 21), Armani’s childhood stories are not of decorating paper dolls but of hiding in ditches while his home town was strafed in Allied bombing raids. His father worked in the offices of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and then as a shipping manager. His housewife mother could be as hard as nails. It took Armani years to see his name in lights, although for almost as many years since, a vast Emporio Armani sign arcing over Milan’s Linate airport has welcomed visitors.

Armani didn’t design under his own name until he was 40, making him something of a fashion George Clooney (often in Armani on screen), which is to say, old enough to know what to do when fame came knocking. That fame has been burnished through associations with many movie stars at awards ceremonies and in costume collaborations. Who can forget a cocksure Richard Gere, matching Armani shirts, pants, ties in the 1980 filmAmerican Gigolo?

This catapulted an Italian label to international stardom just as Western economies were booming and Young Urban Professionals were wondering what to wear. For men, Armani knocked the stuffing out of the suit. For women, his supple tailoring signalled soft power in a changing world of work.

But that is all known to fashion insiders. What we don’t know, when we show up in China, is the succession plan for a company that directly employs some 5700 people and it’s the scoop all of us are really after. In this imperial tale, there is no little Pu-Yi to ascend to the throne when the current occupant journeys to meet the ancestors, although Armani has two nieces (Silvana and Roberta Armani) and a nephew Andrea Camerana. Instead, two weeks after Armani’s appearances in Beijing, it will be revealed through the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, that the Giorgio Armani group will become a foundation once the emperor has gone.

This will benefit family members without giving any one of them control and ensure independence, keeping the kingdom safe from far mightier powers such as LVMH. (About a decade ago when LVMH titan, Bernard Arnault approached Armani with an offer few would refuse, Armani did just that.) Such a structure gets around the risks of selling to private equity, which can lead to strange bedfellows, and also protects against the vicissitudes of the stock market.

But while in China, reporters who have travelled across mountains and oceans to get ‘the succession scoop’ do not yet know of this imperial edict. And so it is that an Englishman, an Irishman and a dual nationality British/Australian walk into a hotel penthouse – not the opener to a joke but instead because we English-speaking journalists find ourselves bunched together. (Pressure of time, what with all the French, the Spanish, the Mandarin speakers also interviewing in teams).

We agree the Englishman will be the diplomat: “Can I ask Mr Armani about Beijing and his impressions of Beijing, especially coming back here after four years?” This Aussie will jest about cutting suits big enough for Russell Crowe’s beloved Rabbitohs, while the Irishman, fluent in Italian and in blarney, will watch for the moment to ask “what happens next?”. But do not forget the mandarins are skilled at games of cat and mouse, or shall we say dog-taunt-tiger, rabbit, monkey. An American journalist joins us just as we start, with more questions to be translated, yet with no extra time.

What Armani wants to talk about is clothes. The emperor pontificates, the interpreter waffles on. “He says that with the jacket, he uses more rational shapes, more easy to dress. He says the main difference is not in colours, is not in material, but especially in the structure, the shape.” The penthouse door swings open again and the reporters from across Asia take their seats as we four are ushered out of ours and forward to shake the imperial hand.

Later that day, it is in the subterranean Hades of Beijing’s fake markets, being suffocated by horrid handbags dangling with gewgaws, that the essential difference between the Giorgio Armani brand and almost every other mighty fashion marque slaps me in the face, almost literally. (“Look lady, best LV!”) As I swipe a gawdy Vuitton copy away from my eye line, there are no Armani logos to be seen, not on the cheap clutches piled high on the stalls or among the more convincing fakes I see in private cubbyholes, through doors concealed behind mirrors, or doors disguised as sets of shelves. There’s ‘Hermès’, there’s ‘Fendi’, there’s ‘Chanel’. Fundamentally, Giorgio Armani is a clothing brand with some bags on the side, thus much harder to rip off than those fashion giants which are bag companies with clothes on the side.

While some brands appear to be using China as a shop window (their rich Chinese customers buying abroad where taxes are lower), clothes are different. You might need something tomorrow for a business meeting or cocktail party. The Armani brands sell robustly within China. No numbers are given, but a figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of customers gets a nod from Paul Haouzi, who is offered up for the AFRMagazine to interview when it becomes clear that the most senior executive, group commercial director Livio Proli, will not be taking questions.

Haouzi, chief executive Asia Pacific, is a Frenchman fluent in Mandarin, as well as in the English he uses to explain that Armani customers in China “know what they want, understand what fashion is about and want the best. They won’t care too much about price. Armani is a big name and a great product, especially for menswear. And the men here, they really want to look good.”

Training sales staff is key, he says. “The people who serve the customers are not only nice, not only look good, the most important thing is that they are knowledgeable. They have to make sure the person who buys something not only buys the piece, but also buys the Armani experience: the love that Mr Armani has for beauty, for fashion. I want to make sure that our staff are able to deliver more than a piece of clothing.”

Yet while Armani is the king of clothes, paradoxically, the fashion world tends to get much more excited about showpieces spun out by those labels that principally sell bags. Armani does care, personally, that the fashion media shrugs off his wearable offerings as bland when, frankly, where could you go in what comes down the catwalk at Balenciaga?

To examine how good his clothing can be, you have only to take a look at his Australian celebrity clientele. No, not at Cate Blanchett (“In reality she can be very strong, so sometimes you are surprised about this strongness,” Armani says) because she looks good in anything, although it was Blanchett who got Armani to Australia. Not Nicole Kidman either, a natural clothes horse (“Ah, Nicole!”), nor even Russell Crowe, who scrubs up well (“He knows what he wants.”). But recall Armani also clothes the actor’s South Sydney rugby league football team, the Rabbitohs. (In the interview, Armani mimes thighs of magnificent girth accompanied by “molto machile”.) The day the Rabbitohs were fitted is one some of his staffers will never forget, given several players were ‘going commando’. These days, off field, they look impeccable.

As night falls, we are transported at a crawl across Beijing where five million cars have replaced those fabled 10 million bicycles, towards 798 Space, in the city’s Dashanzi art district. Within what was formerly a power plant is the shell of an enormous gasometer (scale: not quite Rome’s Coliseum, but large at 3500 square metres) where a thousand guests mingle for pre-show cocktails inside the perimeter, then are ushered into a stunning theatre-in-the-round. Off-white cushions, bleacher seats, ‘landing lights’ illuminating the catwalk, all echo Armani’s permanent show venue in Milan. American crooner Mary J. Blige is in her dressing room, the models are lined up backstage, all preparing to perform as part of a show which must be costing a fortune. (How much? Who knows, when Armani has to account to no one but himself?)

In this era of the fashion show mega-stylist, Armani does not appear to employ one. Perhaps he does that job himself too. He checks every model before they step out of the wings. Yet while the catwalk is peppered with pieces you’d grab if you could pick what you wanted from a store, on this night, fussed up to look heightened for the dramatic setting, more becomes less. Then, at last, the finale. In the Shengxiao zodiac, dogs are warned: be wary of dragons.

“The pinnacle of the fashion show is a sinuous black lacquered dress around which a spectacular three-dimensional embroidery of a dragon wraps itself, from whose jaws spout not flames, but the lightest of feathers,” is how the final gown is described in an official press release. Shall we just say that the gulf between how fashion scribes express themselves post-show, in private, and what appears in print is often not the same thing. Global reviews are euphoric.

In any case, Giorgio Armani’s true triumph lies not in such travelling circuses. He stands as a style colossus for a quiet elegance that cuts across class and geographical divides. He is a modernist, as Coco Chanel was a modernist, his key contribution to fashion’s lexicon being the calm clothes that promise at least one element of your day will be right. While he has been refining daywear since 1975, it is telling that he did not launch Giorgio Armani Privé, with its sparkling couture gowns, until 30 years later, in 2005.

Included in our Beijing itinerary is a visit to Tsinghua University, where Armani sponsors a program for fashion and textile students. He is here to tell Wen Ya and Wang Yilong that they have been awarded intensive six-month apprenticeships in Milan. It is in the company of these young women, surrounded by their peers, that an emperor becomes mortal, a man with a burning desire to transmit his knowledge to a new generation. Far more animated with the students than with the press, his sense of urgent need – palpable, even through the mire of translation – is to teach that the true power of clothes is to bring out the best in the person who wears them.

Armani leans into the wattage beam of eager young smiles: “I want to say this to all of you: when you design, you should not just think of external things, you should think of internal things. Maybe a woman’s exterior is not so good, so you think of how a woman’s inner beauty can benefit from your designs. This industry needs inner passion.” The lights in the lecture hall dim and some vintage images flash up on a slightly shabby screen. “When the hell is this video from?” snipes one of the press pack, looking up from trawling through emails on his smartphone, only to be plunged back into the 70s.

Then Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo comes through the speakers and here they come: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, an older Richard Gere going up the escalator holding a rose. Here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Yeoh, Julia Roberts. Armani’s army marches on with Rafael Nadal and a tattooed David Beckham in their underpants, Rihanna in her bra and (surprisingly) Lady Gaga in her clothes. Cut to Beyoncé shimmying in a spangly mini and even the hacks are a bit awed by the punch, punch, punch of it all.

But from where I am seated, light coming off the screen makes Giorgio Armani himself just visible through the blackness. As all those audacious achievements flash up on the screen to the side of him, a silver-haired senior in a tight fitting sweater stares out into nothingness, fine fingers extended in a cathedral of prayer. As a life in fashion plays out before us all, he is marble-still, like a knight on a tomb.

Armani is not like fashion’s other living greats. He is not a designer-for-hire like Karl Lagerfeld who could (although unlikely) spin on his Cuban heels and walk out on Chanel. He is not Ralph Lauren, six years his junior, whose namesake is a public company where one of his sons is senior vice-president. Calvin Klein, who is nine years younger, sold out to the highest bidder and withdrew. Armani has never been one for opulent indulgence like Valentino, who held an unforgettable farewell party and enjoys a luxurious retirement. We know that, one day, the Giorgio Armani Group will become a foundation. But until his last breath, the emperor rules alone.

Ferragamo and Screen Goddesses: a Perfect Fit

Shodding Venus

When it comes to celebrity endorsement, you can’t top Marilyn Monroe. The story behind master shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, his muses and the legacy. 

The Australian Financial Review Magazine | August 2012 

by Marion Hume

Today, brands bleat and tweet of free product worn by stars who are often paid handsomely for the exposure. Yet Salvatore Ferragamo, headquartered in Florence, is in possession of rare relics: a pair of receipts, dated March 11, 1961, which record a salesman called George at the Park Avenue, New York shoe salon, taking orders for 16 pairs of shoes and a white calfskin bag. In return, the most famous woman in the world wrote cheques totalling $US563.30.

These were far from Marilyn’s first Ferragamos. In the 1950s, Salvatore pushed his heel height up to 11 centimetres specifically to add more wiggle to the bombshell’s walk, although she was hardly his only star client. A glittering role call flocked to be shod by this messiah of the metatarsal who was utterly obsessed by their feet. “They [these feet] talk to me. As I take them in my hands, I feel their strengths, their weaknesses, their vitality or their failings,” he wrote in his autobiography, Shoemaker of Dreams, published in 1957.

This rags­-to-­riches-­to-­rags-­to-­riches life story features (literally) walk­-on parts from such silver screen icons as Lillian Gish, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson – although the shoemaker was far less intrigued by them from the ankle up. Then later, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, showed up, flanked by goose-­stepping Nazi guards. (“Good, normal feet and anything would fit her,” he noted). Predictably, he praised by podiatry, so tiny-­toed Vivien Leigh was a ‘Cinderella’, long­limbed Greta Garbo was an ‘aristocrat’ and Marilyn, possessed of perfectly proportioned size 37 feet, was ‘Venus’.

It is 50 years since the avatar of the American dream died. Yet a master craftsman called Stefano Frasconi is holding a pump in soft white lambskin, a near replica of the one Marilyn ordered many times – in white, nude, black, gold. As Frasconi holds a shoe that is yet to meet its heel, he is struggling to explain – through a translator and a mouthful of nails – what makes it special. But just like the company founder, any celebrity connection seems to be a sideline to him. Instead, Frasconi repeats “calzata perfectamente” (perfect fit), emphasising with sharp taps of  a little hammer. He keeps pulling at the leather, pre-soaked for days to provide flexibility, then jumps up and puts the shoe in a customised oven, before stretching its leather upper again and banging it with the hammer.

In close-up, this scene, playing out at the Ferragamo atelier on the outskirts of Florence, may seem somewhat anachronistic: the shoemaker hunched over a low bench spread with tools not dissimilar to those Salvatore himself might have used when he started making shoes commercially in 1906, aged 13. (He had made his first shoes, for his sisters, when he was only nine). But luddite practices, however charming, don’t account for a company that is listed on the Milan stock exchange and has 593 stores worldwide. The organisation posted total revenues for the first quarter of 2012 of €259.6 million ($305.5 million). WHile skills of human eye and hand helped, state-of-the-art machines aided the production of hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, as well as clothing, luggage, small leather goods, eyewear, scarves, ties, timepieces, fragrance and handbags, made elsewhere in Italy.

Widening the focus reveals our location to be a vast, slick, industrial set-up known as Manovia, after the Italian word for circular ‘rail’ system, which here moves shoes from one production process to the next. Yet this, too, traces directly back to the founder, whose experiment with a mechanised production line that would still preserve the exacting standards of custom-made shoes was so ahead of its time, it lead to his 1933 bankruptcy.

Salvatore certainly bounded back. By the 1940s, the peasant boy from a family that had struggles for survival on a small holding was the proud owner both if Il Palagio, a sumptuous hillside villa outside FLorence that is still a family home, and a castle, complete with ramparts, right in the heart of the renaissance city. Palazzo Feroni remains the company’s headquarters. When Salvatore died suddenly in 1960, he left a much younger wife, Wanda, six children and a truly international business. Since then, it is the 90-year-old matriarch, ‘Mrs Wanada’, who still turns up for work every morning and who has preserved his legacy.

To avoid confusion, it is Ferragamo company policy to call family members by their first name, preceded by ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. Hence the 67-year-old Ferruccio, who is chairman of the company, is dubbed Mr Ferruccio. His siblings – Mrs Giovanna, Mrs Fulvia, Mr Leonardo and Mr Massimo – all have key roles. (The eldest daughter, Fiamma, who designed the best-selling flat Vara pump with its gold plaque and grosgrain ribbon, dies in 1998).

Given there are 60 direct heirs, not only is there no room at the family firm for them all but a wise and stringent charter decrees that only the top three from each subsequent generation are welcome. The most visible of the third generation,in part because of his matinee idol looks, is 40-year-old Mr James, who is women’s leather product director. The first of the fourth generation to hit 21,  Lorenza Gentile, has not yet fulfilled the minimum requirements even to apply: an MBA and several years experience work elsewhere.

When Mr Ferruccio sits down to chat over a rocket-fuel espresso at the palazzo, he says that what locks everything together is “quality products that are good value for what they are; with innovation, long-lasting”. This sounds much like many other brands, but he adds that the difference is: “We don’t want to ever overcome the personality of the customer.” Evidence can be found directly below us, in the mirrored shoe salon at street level. The Viatica is a timeless two-tone stiletto of white suede and black calf. That Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Sugar’ Kane Kowalczyk wore this exact style to woo her Shell Oil millionaire in Some Like it Hot starts to matter note more but, strangely, less, once these lovely shoes are beckoning one’s own feet. Which is to say, you yearn for them to be yours, not hers.

What lies beneath remains the same, then and now. The soul of Ferragamo – pun intended- is the sole. The founder- who lied in Italy, then America, then returned to Italy – was studying anatomy at night school in Los Angeles just as architects on Americana’s east coast were realising that they could build skyscrapers taller with less load-bearing structure at the base. Similarly, Salvatore surmised that, as the weight of the erect human body is borne not by toes or heels but drops straight down on the arch, a revolutionary steel arch support would act with the equilibrium of the body in motion instead of fighting against it. This slim plate remains central to comfort. No wonder that (whisper it) both the queen of the red carpet, Angelina Jolie, and the queen of all she surveys, HRH Elizabeth II, are believed to be loyal, paying customers.

That Ferragamo also offers a wide range of fittings (A to D, others on special order) has helped gather fans in the brand’s most robust market, China. There widths C and D are hte most common, which has ripped up other luxury shoemakers offering styles of a narrow French foot and who may also have faced an additional anatomical barrier: purveyors of very high-heeled ‘limo shoes’ find these cannot adapt to the average length of the chinese foot without the wearer being en point like a ballerina. That said, Chinese movie star, Fan Bingbing does favour towering Ferragamos. THese are custom-made, their height achieved with extraordinary platforms. As for Australian feet, Salvatore has this to say about them when he visited Sydney in 1958: “Nature has been generous in length though they, too, are narrow.”

The Asia Pacific region is the group’s top market in terms of revenue, up 27.3 per cent with a turnover of 96.4million for the first quarter of 2012. A further reason is menswear, attractive to a market where men tend to embrace luxury goods before they treat their wives. For Salvatore Ferragamo himself it was making books for men that led to his breakthrough American success. Salvatore made his mark in the American motion picture industry, before i relocated from Santa Barbara to Hollywood, with cowboy boots for early Westerns. From then on, he always shod male feet. (“Mussolini lost his corns and bad toenails after he wore my boots,” is just one comment n the subject).

The founder’s sons, Mr Ferruccio and Mr Leonardo, first stood on the Bund in Shanghao when they past was mud their feet. The brand debuted with a store in the city in 1994 (with local partner, Imaginex). Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci are between two and six times bigger than Ferragamo, yet in China this pioneer consistently marches ahead and is present in 34 cities. Company CEO Michele Norsa has no fears of brand saturation in China. “Not at all, we worked with McKinsey on a five­year plan,” he says. “We imagine in the next three to five years, we can cover another 10 to 20 cities probably. The potential of new destinations in China connected by trains, flights, infrastructure development is becoming very substantial.”

Norsa – known by his surname because he is an outsider, the first non-family member to hold a keymanagerial position – was hired in 2007, primarily to put in place the organisation and governance to gear up the company for an IPO, which was delayed by the 2008 crash and accomplished successfully last year. He says that Chinese customers in Beijing and Shanghaimay travel to avoid high duties and taxes,which has helped make Australia “one of the best markets in the world this year for us”.

The shoesmust bemade in Italy, “one of our pluses”, insists Mr Ferruccio, “for the name, the best quality and also, as commitment to those who have worked at Ferragamo for many years.” As to his nation’s economic woes, the company chairman adds: “I am sorry because there are many elements which are uncertain. We are fortunate because we produce 100 per cent in Italy, butwe sell, I think, 9 per cent in Italy.”

The founder’s three sons and the next generation have significant other interests. Mr Ferruccio’s son Salvatore Ferragamo II, twin of Mr James, helms their father’s parallel hotel and wine business, based in a medieval hamlet about 45 minutes’ drive from Florence. Closer to Siena is an 800year old winery and hotel, Castiglion del Bosco, owned by Mr Massimo and family. The most ambitious other business is surely Mr Leonardo’s.He is chairman and owner of Lungarno Collection, a luxury hotel group, with seven of the swankiest places to stay around Florence and another in Rome. He also owns the majority of Nautor’s Swan, the largest global producer of luxury yachts.

Today, the core business is ring-fenced against hostile threats like those endured by the part family-owned Hermès. Salvatore Ferragamo SpA is ripe for further growth (Norsa cites Jakarta and Berlin as examples) and a dynasty’s long view means thatMr James has been able to continue the inventiveness of a grandfather who tried sweet wrappers, fishing wire and tree bark as shoe uppers. He innovates in a sustainable context, while admitting that a 100 per cent biodegradable handbag (nometal parts) has yet to find broad appeal.

“In my father’s autobiography, in a way you can tell he felt his life was going to be short,” says Mr Ferruccio. “Perhaps we have tried to accomplish what he wanted to do”. But let’s not forget Mrs Wanda, born just four years before Marilyn Monroe and still standing ramrod straight in her Ferragamo heels. It is the matriarch who greets guests for cocktails after they have visited Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed within the cavernous palazzo for an exhibition dedicated to the icon (Marilyn runs to January 28, 2013).

“When Daddy passed away, [my mother] knew how to make children but not shoes,”Mr Ferruccio says. “Yet she has lived her life with the desire of continuing the business”.

Indeed, Mrs Wanda, long ago a teenage bride, deserves much of the credit for a sometimes glamorous, sometimes gruelling journey of this brand born of a fascination with feet.

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant