Dream Weavers – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

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AFR | May 2013

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Baz – The Telegraph

All That Baz

A new film of The Great Gatsby recreates the glamour and decadence of the Prohibition era. Marion Hume meets the director Baz Luhrmann on the set, where — as in the novel — reality and illusion collide. 

The Telegraph | April 2013

The Great Gatsby is a slender book. Yet you can be certain of a sweeping epic of a film in May. In F Scott Fitzgerald’s introspective novel, every utterance is weighed. This is not how things work in the world of Baz Luhrmann. You don’t even get through the question, ‘When did you first read the…’ before the 50-year-old director who brought us Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Australia is in full flow.

‘I was on my break after making Moulin Rouge, on the Trans-Siberian, and I don’t want to bag out Mongolia, but it was a bit lonely and that’s when I decided, I have to read The Great Gatsby. It was un­believable! This was written when jazz was around and parents were arresting their children and putting them in court because they were so out of control. The orgy of money and booze! Only yesterday women were wearing hems down to their ankles and now they were wearing underwear as clothing!’

This, in Luhrmann-land (a magical place to be), counts as a short soundbite. Just as he makes films that seem to draw their megawatt dazzle straight off the mains, so does Luhrmann himself seem powered by an extraordinary voltage.

We are meeting in a mansion on the East Coast of the United States, where a wild party is in full swing, the bandmaster is spinning like a top and louche ladies are lounging on lilos shaped like floating zebras in a floodlit swimming pool. Beyond the garden, stumbling stragglers are enjoying their own inebriated merriment down on the beach. Way out in the distance a green landing light blinks from a dock. ‘What is Gatsby? What is a gangster? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Once you realise that everyone’s living a bit of a lie, then everyone finds it easier to live a very big lie. This…’ Luhrmann says with a vast sweep, ‘is the Prohibition. Just look at those bottles of Moët!’

While the Moët is the real McCoy, we are not, of course, at Jay Gatsby’s sumptuous home. Actually, we’re not even in America, but in Sydney, on one of the biggest sound stages in the world. A few miles across town, smack in the centre of one of the grittiest inner-city neighbourhoods, stands a real mansion (rather than one of putty and paint), called Iona, the headquarters of the global empire that is Bazmark Films. There, alongside those involved with Gatsby, another team is working on the live stage show of Strictly Ballroom, the 1992 film with which Luhrmann did nothing short of change the way more than 40 nations watch Saturday night television. It’s true – the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (and Dancing with the Stars, as it is known in other markets) was inspired by his love story of a gallumphing girl transformed in the arms of her dance partner.

‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,’ was the mantra of that film, which marked its then 29-year-old Australian director as one to watch. It remains the motto of Bazmark, and certainly taking on Gatsby is the act of a fearless man. To Americans it is something of a sacred text: it has been filmed five times before (as a silent movie in 1926; in 1949 starring Alan Ladd; most lusciously with Robert Redford in the lead role in a 1974 version with a script by Francis Ford Coppola; it was filmed for television in 2000 and again, with a modern twist, as G in 2002). Adding to that, Luhrmann is amping up the sexual tension to a hip-hop soundtrack by Jay-Z, and he is filming in 3D.

‘I just hope that we open the door to a new generation and we tell the story well,’ he says. ‘3D allows you to see awesome actors in the prime of their career going at each other. For me, it’s about watching actors act.’ He pauses. ‘The special effects look pretty good, too!’

The Great Gatsby follows a young Midwesterner, Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire), as he arrives in Manhattan in the wild spring of 1922, at a time when the bond market is rocketing, boot­leggers are thriving and morals are loosening. He rents a house in Long Island, next to the mansion of a mysterious new-money millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the water from the old-moneyed – and unfaithful – Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), married to Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). He quickly gets caught up in a world of arrogant privilege and bears witness to its tragic consequences.

To the edge of the party stands the host. On cue he turns to face the camera. ‘I’m Jay Gatsby. I’m sorry, Old Sport, I thought that you knew that,’ DiCaprio says to Tobey Maguire. The pair do take after take. To keep things fresh, Maguire starts feeding deviations on the script to his friend, but with 3D, every possible camera angle is covered, and rudimentary lip-reading reveals his ad libs are rude. (‘Ah,’ Maguire says, chastened, when we meet later, ‘you saw?’) Yet DiCaprio is flawless. He turns, dazzles, holds a beat, then says again, ‘I’m Jay Gatsby.’

The subtitle of the novel, written in 1925, was ‘The tale of a man who built himself an illusion to live by’. As an actor DiCaprio has proved himself a master of the illusion that is movie-making, ever since, as an already-seasoned performer of 18, he almost stole What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? from Johnny Depp. DiCaprio has since become a screen star so consistently outstanding (he has been nominated three times for an Academy Award, for Gilbert Grape, Blood Diamond and The Aviator) that it is beginning to look like bad manners that he has never received an Oscar.

As we learn in the novel, Gatsby, born James Gatz, is a poor boy who has willed himself wealthy to get the girl he has always loved, and is now the subject of endless speculation. In fiction, strangers trade Gatsby stories; outside in the long, hot Australian summer of filming, it is ‘Leo’ who is the fodder. Girls hold vigil where he is alleged to be staying. If he appears in public, there’s a feeding frenzy; if he doesn’t, the paparazzi seek him here, seek him there, perhaps egged on by some sense of entitlement – of a film budget rumoured to be AU$120 million (£82 million), some $50 million is being funded, indirectly, by the Australian public in the form of tax concessions.

Even my silver-haired aunt has a Leo story. Her dreadlocked surfer-dude handyman disappears for weeks, only to come back looking as sleek as an otter because he has landed the job of Leo’s body double. This proves a useful barometer for gauging if the star is on set or has left town: when DiCaprio, a committed environmentalist, headed off to visit the widow of the Crocodile Man, Steve Irwin, Auntie Jean got her lawn mown.

On set, too, it is DiCaprio about whom everyone is curious. Very few international reporters have been allowed access. ‘I wonder if we’ll meet Leo?’ the reporter from Munich whispers. ‘I hope so!’ swoons the one from Spain. Yet as we walk between sound stages, DiCaprio, who, unusually for a film star, is far taller than you’d expect, walks directly towards us. He neither evades nor engages. Extraordinarily, only two of us even register that it is him.

When a novel is loved, the challenge is to make a retelling sizzle. The executive producer, Doug Wick, secured the rights for Luhrmann, who, he believes, will make a story so many people know by heart feel fresh once more. ‘If a young person sees this, they better think it’s a cool party. Baz knows how to throw a party,’ Wick says.

Luhrmann’s given name of Mark was ditched not long after he left Herons Creek, a dot on the map of New South Wales where his father ran the petrol station and the cinema. The boy became the man who maintains an Outback-scaled theatricality. When Baz and his costume and production designer wife, Catherine Martin, married on the stage of the Sydney Opera House in 1997, legend has it that the celebrant descended by zip wire.

An Australian in a beanie hat shuffles up. Joel Edgerton snared the role of the entitled and athletic Tom Buchanan after Ben Affleck pulled out when his passion project Argo got the green light. When Edgerton (recently seen in Zero Dark Thirty) met Luhrmann the director gave him a copy of the book. ‘I’ve never been a big reader in my life. I don’t hold books as precious as a lot of other people do,’ Edgerton says. ‘I dropped it into my bag and went to meet a friend and I was like, “Baz gave me a copy of the book,” and my mate said, “Give me a look at that.” And it was a very, very special copy, which I didn’t understand all that much – you know, when books are printed and what edition they are – and then I felt terrible that I’d shown such ignorance or arrogance.’

Edgerton must project both – as well as the faintest hint of a heart – in the role of a hard-muscled, flinty, white supremacist whose other girl is Myrtle Wilson (played by a fellow-Australian, Isla Fisher), the blousy bride of a garage mechanic. ‘Tom’s socio-economic background is different from mine, although I do plan one day to be as rich as Tom Buchanan,’ Edgerton says, laughing. ‘Working with Baz, he’s basically Wikipedia. He provides you with all the doors and rooms and avenues and pathways to understand the world from etiquette to language to design to everything else.’

Edgerton (of Bankstown, NSW, far removed from posh) has grasped the differences between old money and new wealth. ‘Have you seen my house yet? Make sure you wipe your feet. My house is like the White House. Gatsby’s house is like Disneyland, all about the glitz and glamour, and mine’s all elegant and pure. And then Myrtle’s apartment is like my Nana’s been decorating. On crack. It’s the tackiest little apartment you’ve ever seen. Yes, Tom likes shagging her, but every time he walks in he looks around and goes, “Oh, God, not another ornament.”’

Outside on the lawn, where the air is heady with the scent of roses, a lithe girl in an oyster satin trouser suit is casually swinging a strand of pearls. ‘I have some beautiful rings, too,’ she says, extending her hand by way of a hello. The character is Jordan Baker, a golf pro who has an affair with Carraway; the actress is Elizabeth Debicki, an ingenue straight from drama school. ‘Baz saw me and he asked me,’ she explains with Jordan-like nonchalance.

Scott Fitzgerald was a customer of Tiffany & Co, the most famous jeweller of the Jazz Age. Thus despite it being highly unusual and fraught with risk to use real gems on a film set, Catherine Martin spent months working with the company to reissue a few original 1920s designs and to come up with others with an Art Deco feel. ‘There’s something about knowing that they’re incredibly expensive. It makes you move your hands differently,’ Debicki says.

While the rest of the little press posse goes back to Gatsby’s house, I sneak off to meet Charlie – no other name is given, and when I notice his muscles, I dare not ask. After the double-locked doors, past the CCTV cameras, Charlie opens a safe like a pro, slips on black cotton gloves and starts opening Tiffany-blue boxes. ‘See here, Daisy got this when she was a little girl,’ he says, cradling a silver locket in his enormous hand. I’m rather more taken by what Daisy gets as a grown-up. There’s an exquisite bejewelled brace of feathers on a plaster-pink ribbon. ‘It sits, like this, on her head,’ Charlie says, demonstrating on himself, somewhat incongruously. ‘It is in what will become a famous scene, where she’s standing in the sun, looks across and sees Gatsby.’

Two days later I return to catch up with Catherine Martin. It is now December 22, steaming hot outside and tense indoors because everything must wrap by lunchtime if Carey Mulligan is to make it back to England for Christmas Eve. ‘Fine jewellery is called fine jewellery for a reason,’ Martin starts. ‘Case in point: Daisy’s headpiece. It’s an archival piece that was made in the late teens. And I thought that was perfect, it could almost have belonged to her mother and then she gets it. It has been remade by Tiffany, but we also use genuine pieces.’

One of these is a jabot pin carved from rock crystal embellished with onyx and diamonds. It is among Tiffany & Co’s most treasured artifacts, and it is Charlie’s main job to protect it. Yet when Jordan Baker meets Nick Carraway she shows off the precious pin stuck casually into her hat. Among the many pieces that have been created specially for the film are cufflinks, a signet ring and the silver handle of a cane, each of which carries Gatsby’s monogram of a daisy, his permanent aide memoire for the reason he is so passionate about the trappings of wealth: because he believes the girl he loves requires them.

Martin’s unbreakable rule has been, ‘Never one feather only. This is not a flapper-themed 21st-birthday party. My aim,’ she says, ‘is to express the true nature of the period through an eclectic combination of things that have a real point of reference.’

This does not mean that she is a stickler for historical accuracy. Part of Martin’s genius (she has won two Oscars, after all, one as production designer, the other as costume designer, both for Moulin Rouge) is how she mixes modern pieces that reference the past in order to make that past seem current. ‘You can’t live your life in fear of the fashion police,’ she says as we flick through racks of delicious dresses by Prada.

‘You have to do what’s right to tell the story and what you believe makes an ethereal moment.’ Like those inflatable zebras in the pool, I say, thinking back to how the eye-popping stripes added even more verve to the party scene. She stops in her tracks. ‘Leonardo was saying to me the other day, “Those zebra lilos didn’t exist,” and I said, “Yes, I have a picture of them.” Here it is.’ (I take the photocopy, glad that Leo and I have at least connected somehow.)

As I leave, I spy Carey Mulligan, slumped on a chair as her final scene is set up, wearing a breathtaking crystal-encrusted Prada party dress with a hideous pair of Crocs. The clock is ticking. I ask her if the Tiffany rock on her finger has helped her to ‘find’ the flighty, beautiful Daisy? ‘I do find myself staring at her ring,’ she replies. ‘I mean, I would never spend more than £100. I would never in a million years imagine actually owning this, so it does throw you into that world. Have you met Charlie who follows me around? The whole notion of Tom and Daisy is that Tom seduces her and wraps her in jewellery. He contains her with his money. They have become a couple because she wanted a great sense of wealth and superiority and he ensnared her with these things.’ She twirls the ring on her slender finger. ‘You feel the weight. In the scenes between Daisy and Gatsby, the engagement ring Tom gave her becomes such a weighty thing.’

In the end, Mulligan will catch her plane. DiCaprio will leave town and my aunt will once again have a gorgeous garden. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ is how Scott Fitzgerald ended his finest work. As to how Luhrmann ends what promises to be his – and does so in 3D – remains a mystery until next month.

The Great Gatsby is out on May 16. Tiffany’s Ziegfeld Collection celebrates the company’s collaboration with Warner Bros and Bazmark Films on The Great Gatsby (tiffany.co.uk)

Highfliers – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

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AFR | April 2013

by Marion Hume

It was the best runway show held on a runway. Well, to be accurate, it ties as my joint favourite of only two fashion shows ever shown on a runway. I’m using the Australian sense of that word (a long straight strip on which planes land) as opposed to the American, where it also means the thin strip catwalk models swank down.

The first runway show I saw was some twenty years ago when the brainiac of fashion, Hussein Chalayan, revealed a conceptual collection called “Beyond False Equator” illuminated by aircraft landing lights. Great shows stick.

The other is likely to remain front-of-mind to Australians for years to come, given it began with the roar of jet engines and then out came the new Qantas uniforms. We all know Qantas is NOT the national airline (the people don’t own it) but when it comes to distilling the modern spirit of chic, sophisticated, multifaceted Australia, frankly, Qantas nailed it.

You don’t need me to describe the trench coat, the slender dress, the shorts for the baggage handlers – by now, the images are everywhere. After decades being unknown except to the tight, top-tier of the fashion world, Melbournian, Martin Grant (a long time resident of Paris) who Qantas hired as the designer, at last needs no introduction – although he is hardly what you would call an overnight success.

I grabbed an aisle seat a few rows back (always my preference), in amongst flight attendants who were seeing what they will wear to work for the next decade for the first time. “Loving the Qantas red with the hot pink!” the woman next to me exclaimed, not to me but to herself, in affirmation that she felt her pride in her job sweeping back back. Clothes can, you see, be powerful. The best uniforms can unite a workforce in a common goal.

You get it that my verdict on the Qantas uniforms is excellent when it comes to style but top marks to in terms of the politics of business, which can be very turbulent.  Habitually, when corporations collide with fashion, the results end up ugly. Corporations have what I call an “Auntie Mame” view; they come to those funny people in fashion for glamour, yet want it for a buck in cheap synthetics. Surprisingly perhaps, fashion designers tend to tone things down yet they want beautiful fabrics and everything in a tiny size. Then it goes to committee where there’s an uneasy compromise, especially when the resulting designs are scaled for the climates of 5 continents and in sizes 2 to 22.

In addition, when corporates call the fashion world, usually, they are after a star, a personality who can be rolled out like a camp court jester. Martin Grant is no performer. He is quietly spoken, determined, diligent and has built his business one client at time. As a result, he knows where the bumps are and how to plan for them.

There are bumps ahead for the global aviation industry in the sky and on the ground. Yet Qantas can certainly tick one box; for motivating its far flung global battalions in a modern way. The era of the trolley dolly is over. It’s not about marrying the pilot or the guy in seat 1Aand the new Qantas uniforms signal pride in one’s career.

Martin Grant told me it was pressure from the flight attendants that persuaded him to add the gloves, the hat. “Too right,” say my friend Suze, who flies domestic for Qantas. “I’m in my 50s. You don’t get much attention. But in that outfit, I can’t wait to see the heads turn as we march through the terminal”

Call this lift off to a new and stylish corporate dawn.

Jeans Genie – Australian Financial Review

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.

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant