Leather Ties That Bind

Leather Ties That Bind

The Cassegrains of Longchamp, Paris, makers of stylish handbags and practical travel bags, and the family behind Sydney­ based retailer Hunt Leather run businesses some 17,000 kilometres apart. But, writes Marion Hume, they haven’t let that stand in the way of a long­ running association.

The Australian Financial Review | September 2012 

 

by Marion Hume

Sly and The Family Stone put it so eloquently: “It’s a family affair”, although in the case of Longchamp and Hunt Leather, it’s a two ­family affair. We are talking babies in bassinets under the desk during meetings, some of whom have grown up to be part of both families’ management teams. At Longchamp today, members of the Cassegrain family include the founder’s son Philippe and his wife, Michèle and their three children, current CEO Jean, Olivier (who manages the business in the Americas) and Sophie, the artistic director. This is a French family label that has one of its oldest international stockists in Australia – the first order was placed in 1975.

Hunt Leather is steered today by matriarch Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hunt– who founded the company with her late husband, John – and their daughter Sophie. The family operates five Longchamp stores: one in Melbourne, two in Sydney, a shop­ in ­shop in Perth and a just opened store on Edward Street, Brisbane, featuring the latest global interior design by British design star, Thomas Heatherwick. In addition, there are five multibrand Hunt Leather stores, one Hunt Luggage store and, about to open, a store dedicated to another luggage brand, Rimowa.

The best ideas – certainly those capable of enduring almost 40 years – often come from practical need. Betty and John Hunt knew about luggage; their marriage began with travel when he competed as an oarsman in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. (One might argue she topped that, given she modelled for Helmut Newton.) Business life saw the pair, and later their family, posted all over the world. And there’s nothing like long­haul travel with small children to concentrate the mind on what luggage works, and what doesn’t.

The Hunts returned to an Australia with few luxury stores, so off they set once more, this time with the aim of bringing back the best luggage and leather goods from Europe and America for a planned retail outlet. At a trade show in Paris, they spotted bags that sang to them of simple stylishness and practicality. Philippe Cassegrain, then CEO of Longchamp, was delighted to make the Australians’ acquaintance. (The French family already had an Australian connection in that the Cassegrain winemaking family of northern NSW, who have been in this country since the early 1950s, are cousins.)

Longchamp is named after the Parisian racecourse, although its founding family were tobacconists. To name the brand ‘Cassegrain’ was not an option – distant relatives who, to this day, sell fine papers in Paris, had already purloined that. Cassegrain (literally ‘crush grain’) is French for flour mill and in 1948 there was one of these still visible on the outskirts of Paris, at the end of the racecourse’s final furlong. The company first used the highly recognisable Longchamp motif of a galloping horse on paraphernalia for smoking, including small leather goods. And the tobacconist ­to ­luxury brand arc chimes with the founding of another bigger and once family firm, Dunhill, which took a similar path across the Channel.

The smoking line finally ceased in 1978, by which time the brand had become known for its lightweight travel goods. Staying on the subject of fashion parallels, Longchamp really expanded when it added nylon to its range in the ’80s and then, in 1993, launched its most famous bag, Le Pliage, the fold­away nylon number in many colours that remains the brand’s hero item to this day. You can now find a Pliage in any colour you care to name (the range is vast) or you can get a multi­coloured bag, thanks to a bold, recent collaboration with the London print star, Mary Katrantzou.

When you think ‘nylon bag’ and ‘fashion’, thoughts turn to Prada. There is, however, no question who thought of a very good idea first. In the days when Miuccia Prada’s family ran a single store in the glass­roofed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, Longchamp was a supplier whose product line included the nylon bag. “My father used to visit Miuccia Prada to sell his products to her [and] you can’t protect an idea like that and keep it totally for yourself,” says a magnanimous Jean Cassegrain. He says Prada’s support helped his family realise they were on to something big. More than 19 million Pliage travel pieces have been sold since 1993.

That Cassegrain and I meet during Paris fashion week in a packed showroom is indicative; all the big editors in town for the shows make sure to pop into Longchamp because so many of them actually carry the travel bags and they also want to check out what’s new in the innovative but ever ­practical handbag collection. There is also a range of ready­ to ­wear, designed by Cassegrain’s sister, creative director Sophie Delafontaine, to check out.

As a reporter whose beat is luxury, I often find I write about product that I may admire but have no first­ hand experience of using. I don’t own a Chanel suit nor have I ever worn a Lanvin cocktail dress. I have, however, used a Longchamp carry ­on bag for so long, I cannot remember when I bought it. As well as its endurance, a sign of its utility is that it is always getting pinched. People come to visit, perhaps have need of a bag and I lend them the Longchamp. Lend? It can take considerable effort to get it back.

Why is it special? It isn’t, if you just look at it. No bling, no big logo. It’s lightweight, it’s black, it’s nylon and so super­ strong I have kicked it around some of the less salubrious corners of the globe for decades. My Longchamp has a long, strong strap so it can balance securely on top of my big wheelie suitcases, or it can travel solo on a shorter trip. To me, bags that need their own bags to protect them make no sense. This bag makes sense.

Black is fast falling from being the No.1 colour choice, however. Researching this story, I lingered in the Paris store where my fellow shoppers were mainland Chinese who had one target in mind: a Longchamp bag in handy hot red. The brand has 14 stores in mainland China, where actress Gao Yuanyuanis its ambassador, with plans to reach 20 by the end this year. While Longchamp, as a private family company, is not obliged to report financial results, Cassegrain says that sales in China have doubled over the past two years. The company’s global revenue rose 22 per cent in 2011, to about €390 million ($495 million).

Not that the galloping horse is a one­trick pony. Take the artist collaborations with the likes of Brit Tracy Emin, whose patchwork Longchamp bag featuring the message ‘Me Every Time’, divided opinion. Then there was the signing in 2006 of Kate Moss. When one talks of Moss, who at 38 is demonstrating a longevity coupled with real ‘kerching!’ at the cash till (probably unmatched, even by her predecessors, those glamazon supermodels), one can only ask “before or after?”. “After,” confirms Jean Cassegrain, referring to signing Moss after the alleged cocaine scandalthat seemed then as if it would render her untouchable.

“Kate has worked very well for us,” says Cassegrain of the model whose Gloucester bag is still in the range, although she is no longer the ‘face’. “The fact Kate was unexpected was good. We had this quiet name and we are still fairly discreet as a company. But we always have lots of innovative products and we felt that maybe we were not expressing that part of ourselves forcefully enough. We figured that Kate would be a good ambassador, a good loudspeaker, if you will.”

So how much has Kate posing naked – but for a carefully placed bag – generated in terms of cold hard cash? “It’s impossible to say a figure,” says Cassegrain. “Kate helped us become more international and helped us to transform our image.” You can see why he might need to draft in some extra pizazz. He answers questions diligently, is earnest and knowledgeable, but the interview seems more like a tutorial with a mild­mannered French professor than one of the usual ‘sell sell sell’ chief executives of international luxury houses. The 47 ­year ­old Cassegrain is quiet, although clearly quietly determined.

He leads a family firm that sparks off each other. “We are pretty relaxed; we enjoy working together,” Cassegrain says. “We discuss opinions and ideas, as would be the case in any other company where there is an exchange between the creative side and the management and a need for balance. But I think how it works is we give room to new proposals. We try and fail a lot. We have a number of failures because we try a lot of things. But it’s programmed, so that it’s OK. If it’s not working, we move on to something else.”

Across the world, it’s a similar story of mother, brother and sister all in it together. “We do get along,” says Sophie Hunt when I sit down for lunch in Sydney with her and her mother. Sophie, 42, is Hunt Leather’s managing director, having stepped in, with a toddler in arms, when her father passed away in 2005. She has two daughters, Gretel, 9, and Isobel, 6. Her mother Betty holds the title of director, while brother Sam, 38, who was present as a baby in a bassinet when his parents first met the Cassegrains, runs logistics. Older brother Bruce is a filmmaker and not directly involved in the company.

They say the family that plays together stays together and this is certainly true of the Hunts, who share a passion for sailing. Embracing her father’s love of the water, Sophie Hunt has been known to run her work schedule around B14 races; Sam has competed at pro level and taken part in the Sydney to Hobart; and it is not unknown for Betty to take up the tiller.

As for the Hunt family history in leather, it goes way back. It was in 1850 that Josiah Hunt, the present generation’s great, great, great grandfather, established a leather boot factory in Balmain in Sydney’s inner west, selling to diggers headed to the goldfields. Today, the family firm still has its own Hunt label. But the special affection for Longchamp is evident. “What label is my carry ­on?” replies Betty Hunt, good ­humouredly querulous at the question.

Family companies can get so comfortable the cosiness eats away at the energy needed to advance. That Longchamp remains dynamic is demonstrated best by its current ad campaign of a trio of girls dancing their way through downtown New York. It is utterly charming. So is Betty Hunt, although anyone who has seen her sell – she still puts in time on the sales floor – can see she is a force to be reckoned with.

And she’s selling against the considerable obstacle that it’s a challenge to generate repeat business on bags that last for decades. Thank heavens for the Chinese and their new quest for the perfect black travel bag – in red.

Fit For A King

AFR | September 2012

by Marion Hume

A thrill goes through your body like a shiver when you stumble on an absolute master of the art of fashion writing. 

What? You think it is not an art? Just a lot of waffle about frocks? Try this; “Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body…The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.” 

Even if you don’t yet know who this Anne is, you do know she is a dangerous woman. When you find out the lady described is Anne Boleyn and that she has schemed to win a king and dipped her hands in blood to be crowned queen, the writing is more powerful still. For you see ahead the puddle of gore in which her little head will lie once severed by an executioner’s sword.

The words are penned by the peerless Hilary Mantel, before whom even the judges of the world’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, bow down. Mantel is the author of “Wolf Hall” and its 2012 follow-up, “Bring Up the Bodies”, both of which chart the rise of Henry VIII’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Even if you have zero taste for the Tudors, might I urge you to reach for Mantel’s double bill set in 16th century England, despite this requiring a considerable commitment to 2 x 400 pages? For within lie not only some of the greatest descriptions of clothing put to the page but also perhaps the most sage and searing portrait of businessman-as-survivor that you will ever find. 

You don’t know anything about Thomas Cromwell? Neither did I; indeed I had him confused with Oliver Cromwell, the “Roundhead” who came along more half a century later, wore monochrome black and white and decreed that the cavaliers must stop wearing such jaunty outfits. (Were fashion of little importance, why, throughout history, have powerful men been so determined to ban it?) 

Thomas Cromwell, in contrast, sported a nana-style black coat with a fur collar, accessorized by a horrible hat, (at least when he sat for the court painter, Holbein). He was Henry VIII’s wingman, from the days when the young king looked a bit like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the US TV series “the Tudors” right through to when the monarch was as massive as Gerald Depardieu.

Cromwell was executed in 1540 then had a long wait for a truly great biographer. For until Mantel turned her eagle eye and diamond lines upon him, who knew it was this Machiavelian minister who first noticed the it-bag? “This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped….” Thomas Cromwell observes in “Bring up the Bodies”.

My reading matter is more often Grazia than great literature. (And what’s not to love about a glossy where the wordsmiths come up with new vocabulary weekly? Currently, I’m liking the economy of “FROWers” meaning the front row set). But when time, or being in bed with flu allow, what better than to behold a young queen, busy spending recklessly on the luxury goods of the 1530s – damask clothes, Spanish leather, gold-fringed gloves – while a minister in a bad hat and plain Jane Seymour, dressed in black and dispatching messengers to the king to return his gift of jewels undo and outsmart her? The power of clothes indeed.

Ghost Celebrity

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

Is there a seasoned celebrity who still enjoys the red carpet? Or does it become akin to running the gauntlet in high heels: a trial to be endured while starved of oxygen in a gussied-up gown?

For if it really were fun – beyond that thrilling first time – why, in every interview, do celebrity couples (The Beckhams, the Jolie-Pitts) insist they prefer staying home? You can see where they are coming from. Even in a not famous life, the lure of a glass of wine and a box set is strong. 

But whatever business you are in, you can’t just stay on the sofa; not when showing up counts towards success and you’ve got to be seen building your “brand”. For we’re all brands these days, on message, out there, smiling.  What can make it even harder is the party presence of those glistening, glamourous people, the kind who don’t appear to be bogged with the hard work of a day job. Add to that too much champagne and the fact that, of course, you’ve got to tweet and blog and facebook and it all adds up to exhausting.

And so, a solution to this modern dilemma; a job share, if you will. What if, indeed you did stay home (pass the remote) thus clearing space by the velvet rope for the paps to snap the beautiful people head-to-toe? What if you got on with the work side, working late if need be, and you simply hired a “ghost celebrity” (duties to include anodyne tweeting) to dress up, go out and be a better you?

A better you? Of course. Ghost writers are always way smarter than those they’re doubling for. Sending out someone with a body of death or at least all their own hair is merely the flip of a supermodel or a sportsman hiring a brainy, flabby, shabby-looking scribe.  

The requirement for a ghost celebrity would not be restricted to those with red carpet lives. You might even explore a ghost celebrity time share, so you could hire someone smoking hot on a job-by-job basis, perhaps to show up at your school reunion or to attend that tax planning conference in Adelaide. Given everyone is already ameliorating the images they post on social networking sites, or at the very least keeping up the photos that are, in truth, ages old, this shouldn’t be that shocking. And you’ve got to admit the absolute brilliance of someone else watching their weight for you.

How would you select your ghost celebrity? It would be a two-way process, with either side entitled to walk away before the contract was signed. When I was approached to be a ghost writer, I was excited until I met the celebrity and it dawned on me than there could be no worse purgatory than a year spent sieving through what was – or in this case, was not, in her head and that no amount of cash would compensate. As with a ghost writer, the contract would be detailed and legalled. (Personally, I might insist no leopard print be worn in my name and that an over-reliance on ozone-destroying hairspray be deemed unacceptable). 

What you could not then do is show up yourself, any more than a ghost writer can pop out from behind the floral arrangement at the press launch of a glittering tell all autobiography and shout “I’m…. fill famous name in here”. Ah I can see I might need to workshop this more. For why, by delegating to someone else, would I risk missing out? How could I be sure that an event I was ducking out of might not morph into the time of my life? Guess it’s time to polish the party shoes and not let some other Cinderella go to the ball, after all.

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

The Business of Fashion | 8th June 2012

by Marion Hume

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Fashion is driven by desire. But ethical fashion has been driven by — well, what exactly? A wish to semaphore that one is a caring kind of person while walking through life in pleather shoes? There are, of course, style-setters so chic they can rock a hand-loomed yak hair poncho, being good while looking great. The writer is not one of those people.

The writer is, however, a veteran of more than 25 years on the front lines of fashion, possessed of a deep hatred of waste which jars, somewhat, with a love of glamour. Thus, when “green” fashion started to attract attention, I admired the effort but the results just didn’t chime. Ditto those “pity purchase” ranges, created by supermodels, to which I was often allergic because the products weren’t super enough.

This is not to suggest that all supermodel endeavours are empty. Lily Cole and Liya Kibede spring to mind as two whose deep commitment is tangible.

But overall, I am yet to meet the woman who opens her wardrobe in the morning and declares with glee, “Today I want to look ethical.” Most of us, let’s be honest, just want to look as good as we can, add accessories and get out of the house.

Is the tote I’m slinging my laptop into made with fair labour? Is the black t-shirt I have on under my jacket organic cotton? Have all environmental concerns been checked? Nope, not going to happen at 8am. What about getting up to speed at point of purchase instead? No again. A bristling of swing tags, trumpeting good deeds, can be really annoying when they catch in your underwear in the fitting room.

It is my absolute belief that ethical goods have to appeal, even if you don’t know the back story, but, on the flip side, that the fashion goods we desire should be made in the most ethical way possible. Why not? Why shouldn’t sustainability be as central to style as silhouette? Why should it be hard to stride forth in the confidence that you are doing no harm to people or planet?

Maybe the answer lies in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, if only we could be bothered to read those documents companies typically post online. Actually, I do bother. But I find that despite all the moody images of spring leaves and footprints in the sand, CSR brochures tend to muddy the pure blue water — not with what is written, but what is left out. The “light industry” that is fashion can be far from transparent.

So here’s some good news: a rather unusual bunch of bright people are about to get together to grapple with making fashion better. At the end of next week, on June 17th, just before presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to agree on a way forward for sustainable development, the United Nations Global Compact will host the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. Within more than 60 sessions focused on key sustainability issues, there is one that, perhaps, you would not normally expect: “Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” organized by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Its focus? Clothes, bags, shoes.

Speakers at this fashion session will include an immaculately dressed Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff and a Fendi with an obsession for plastic carrier bags — or, more accurately, an obsession with how to reduce the mountains of them leaching carcinogenic dioxins into hotchpotch neighbourhoods of the world’s poorest people.

The session aims to demonstrate that it is, indeed, very possible to do good while making profits. Joining Boff and Ilaria Venturini Fendi will be Aminata Traore, who hails from Mali, dresses to turn heads and advocates for making the global use of cotton more fair, alongside Auret van Heerden, president of non-profit group Fair Labor Association, whose political consciousness was forged in opposition to apartheid in his native South Africa. Then there’s the American, Willa Shalit, who, by treading softly, continues to lead some of fashion’s biggest names through the complex challenges of working in Haiti.

But the purpose of all this goes beyond letting some people with good accessories vent for an afternoon. The stated aim of the session is to produce a “roadmap” — free to use — to help big global fashion business become more fair, more green, more inclusive yet never less chic. The panel will be led by Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a United Nations agency for which (disclosure) I have been a consultant since 2009.

How this growing force for ethical fashion differs from others is that Cipriani’s instruction was to conceive a major initiative that would contribute towards two key priorities of the UN: eradicating extreme poverty and empowering women.

He could have said, “let’s open a factory to make tractors.” Instead he said, “I must call Vivienne Westwood.”

We are in Kenya, mid afternoon. After a long drive, there is a longer march to a squatter village, as the community we are visiting have lost their ancestral home to a land grab. The singing of Maasai women acts as an aural navigator.

The matriarch appears first, having donned her finery, adding a towering beaded headdress to her usual daywear collars and cuffs. Vivienne Westwood also dresses for the occasion, ducking into a goat-pen to slip on sky-high rocking horse shoes. Thus do two stylish women utterly “get” one another, then get down to business.

The death of animals due to drought had both unsettled this community and increased domestic violence. While it is the first time Westwood has visited, two seasons worth of orders from her company have allowed the local women to restock the animals, restoring pride to their men and some tranquility to their own lives.

Though they belong to a deeply patriarchal society, these women now have economic power. The matriarch makes this clear. How big an increase is there to be on an order for leather cuffs beaded with the word “SEX?” she wants to know. The negotiations conclude with an additional order for beaded bag panels that read “ILOVE CRAP.” Pure Westwood. Crap, of course, is what this absolutely isn’t.

This is just one small community among many — some rural, some in slums — where lives are being improved by fashion businesses which respond to the real needs of marginalised people. While the fashion world typically thrives on last minute change, this system must be planned in recognition that overtime is not possible in places where, to be safe, women must be home before nightfall. There are also crops to tend, which means that workers might only work three months of the year.

But make no mistake. The impact is real.

Before the orders from Westwood, a key source of income in the village we visit came from the sale of charcoal, which, when burned as fuel, has a devastating consequence in terms of carbon emissions. Dame Vivienne is an ardent advocate against climate change, yet she is amazed; her designs for beaded adornments are having a direct effect of preserving our environment.

Furthermore, Kenyan women typically earn between 150 and 300 Kenyan Shillings (KSH) per day, if they can find work at all. For a Westwood order, for which there is an expectation of high quality, the rate is an average of KSH 600 daily, a substantial increase that translates into quantifiable female empowerment. Indeed, over 70 percent of women working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative now understand banking and have accounts with the Cooperative Bank or the Kenya Women Finance Trust, a microfinance lending institution. And while the Masaai community we visit are squatters, others working for the Ethical Fashion Initiative have been able to use a steady income to rent better accommodation. In another, more settled rural community, the profits from Westwood are evident in a new water tank.

“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion lodged in his hand.” So said John Ruskin (1819-1900). But while his words ring true today, a Victorian gent who behaved very oddly towards his wife perhaps isn’t the fashion model we seek. So let’s update and call this “Hermès economics” for not only is the craftsman who makes your Birkin getting a proper pay packet and a hot lunch, but the water downstream of the tannery must be cleaner than the water found upstream.

Transfer that challenge to a tannery in Uganda. When Simone Cipriani was a boy, growing up in Florence, tanneries still pumped unfiltered sludge into the Arno, which made standing on the Ponte Vecchio decidedly whiffy. We wouldn’t tolerate that today. So how to make sure a tannery in Uganda does not discharge water effluents into the mighty Nile at inestimable cost to those living on its banks in several countries? The actual cost of a filtering system is about $10,000 — not insurmountable when factored in as small increments onto the finished cost of a bag, or a shoe.

It’s a myth, in my experience, that fashion people are silly people. Many of us are bright and thoughtful but we’d appreciate some guidance. Hopefully next week’s think tank in Rio will provide that.

Marion Hume is a fashion journalist based in London. For more than two decades, she has written for newspapers and magazines in the US, the UK and Australia.

“Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative will take place June 17th 2012 as part of the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, hosted by the United Nations Global Compact.


Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway

Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway

The Times | Sunday 12th May

It’s only 11km long and has no phone reception, but Lord Howe Island is a favourite with the in-the-know crowd, says Marion Hume 

I once met a woman with the weird and wonderful job of checking out far-flung locations for “vacational suitability” for a Hollywood clientele. So I shared a secret: Lord Howe Island. She hadn’t heard of it, but then, it was one of the last islands on Earth to be discovered. It bears no trace of indigenous settlement and Europeans and Polynesians didn’t show up until more than a century after the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. 

Savvy Aussies-in-Hollywood certainly slip away to this tiny speck in the Pacific, governed from New South Wales. Judy Davis, the Emmy award-winning actress who appeared in A Passage to India and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, has visited its golden sands, as has Eric Bana of Hulk fame, who came with his kids, and George Miller, the director of Happy Feet and Mad Max. 

But the islanders are too busy milking their cows or minding their honey bees to pay much attention and, as for visitors (numbers are capped at 394 at a time), why would you bother ogling stars when you can spend the time paddling with exotic fish in more colours than a Matthew Williamson Kaftan? Anyway, the island – 11km long (6.8 miles), 2.8km wide and 770 km across the Tasman Sea from Sydney – is out of mobile phone range, so you can’t call and tell your friends which famous name you’ve just spotted.

It’s not totally off the grid, though. You can buy the Australian edition of Grazia at the local store and an intermittent internet connection allows a couple of young mums to shop on Net-a-Porter (then wait for purchases to arrive by barge because the daily 32-seat Das 8 plane usually flies at capacity weight). As for fashionable visitors, Stephen Jones, the milliner, is among devotees of what he calls “an unspoilt hideaway”, adding: “In a few short days, Lord Howe’s magic transports me, even inspiring a collection of mine entitled ‘Drifting & Dreaming’.” A gentle respect pervades a place where the school uniform does not include shoes. If  you need to move faster than you can walk bare-foot, you hire a bicycle. (The speed limit for the few dozen cars is 25km an hour.)

The chef at Pinetrees, the local hotel since about 1848, cycles to work with his surf board under his arm. The relaxed mood extends to the hotel’s “business centre” – an empty desk and a can of mozzie spray. No one uses it. The staff joke that they place bets on how few hours it takes guests to go from “boardroom to BBQ”.

“A few people do ask where the lap-pool is. I say ‘over there, mate’.” says Luke Hanson, one of the Pinetrees’ proprietors, gesturing to the lagoon that is home to 90 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. Hanson has married into a matriarchal clan. His two young daughters, Elsie and Pixie, with wife Dani Rourke, an islander and former hot-shot Sydney lawyer, represent the seventh generation of women running Pinetrees (for, make no mistake, three-year-old Elsie definitely thinks she is running the place).

There’s abundant nature and history here. Take the tale of Dani’s great uncle Albert, who ran off as a teenager, by lighting a beacon to attract a passing ship and said he’d been shipwrecked. Eventually he settled in England, where 30 years later, he wrote home to tell the folks his new job – boatswain on the Titanic. Some 50 years after he perished at sea, s daughter traveled to Lord Howe Island, where she recalled her father as delusional; full of improbable stories of birds balancing  eggs on branches instead of building nests and flocks swooping from the sky at a human call. It’s such true facts of fascinating fauna that made Sir David Attenborough breathless when he vanished to the island. He described it as “almost unbelievable”.

Accommodation ranges from simple self-catering to the luxury of the new duplex Lidbird Suite at Capella Lodge, which features a bathtub on a private deck under the frangipani trees and a plunge pool with views across the lagoon to Mount Gower. The latter is a tough climb of 875m (2,870ft), so a more sensible way to spend the day might be lazing on the day bed reading The Freudian Slip by Marion von Adlerstein, the must-read of the Australian summer, in part set on Lord Howe. Lovely Capella lodge is child-free, so its owners, James and Hayley Baillie, who have four young boys, stay at Pinetrees.

Lord Howe isn’t an island to jam into a tight schedule. There ‘s the voyage to Ball’s Pyramid, which rises 551m out of the sea life a Gothic spire. There are glass – bottom boat trips that are far less frenzied than on the Great Barrier Reef, and not-to-be-missed – even by those who think bird-watching is for twitchers – is a ramble with the ornithologist Ian Hutton.

Then there is doing nothing. When Kris Lewis, the general manager of Arajilla Re-treat, returned after seven years working across Asia, he asked the fisherman who also refuels the planes what was new. “The windsock at the airport,” came the reply.

Still, there’s been much excitement lately. A new copper has reported for duty. Senior Constable McGrath’s correct title is “Lock Up Keeper Lord Howe Island”, though no one even locks their doors. The closest thing to that is the “privacy” sign hung on a banyan tree outside the yurt that houses the sap at Arajilla.

Style In And Of Itself Has Power

Style in and of itself has power

AFR | April 2012

by Marion Hume 

Right now, I’m obsessed with how accessories can grab attention. This is far from unique; I know women who position their latest Louboutins at the end of the bed at night so their first sight in the morning is guaranteed to be gorgeous. I know others – and perhaps you do too – whose idea of relaxation is window-­shopping the latest Brian Atwood stacks online. I don’t know Asma al­ Assad (at time of writing, Syria’s first lady, but things can change fast in a bloody conflict…) but surely one of the only vaguely normal things about a contemporary woman in the most abnormal situation is that she was known to press ‘add to basket’ in times of stress?

I know this is risky, but let’s workshop Asma (first ladies, whether courageous or cowardly, tend to be first-­name only). She shopped just like her former colleagues when she was a London-­based investment banker. Then recall what happened when the GFC hit like a slap in 2008. Pre GFC, the City of London was the leading ‘delivery to desk’ market for net­-a­-porter. After the crash, it is whispered that the same high fliers shopped not less, but more, although they ticked the ‘no packaging’ option and had their nannies sign for the deliveries at home instead of having anything turn up at the office.

I know I’m on a knife edge here, but can I state that it isn’t the taste for fashion that’s the sin. If it were, how explain that one of the most charismatic activists I know wears Ferragamo pumps, polished to a perfect sheen? “No one cares about your image; we care about your action” was the slogan adopted by the wives of ambassadors to the United Nations in a commendable effort to grab Asma’s attention with a YouTube video, International letter & petition to Asma al ­Assad, signed by women all over the world, posted back in April. “Some women care for style and some women care for their people” went the commentary, suggesting these interests are mutually exclusive. Yet I’ve spotted plenty of on-­trend handbags at human rights conferences. My point is, it isn’t what’s on Asma’s feet that is of concern; it’s what’s in her heart. “Stop being a bystander,” begged the video. Perhaps, by the time you read this, she will have found the courage to stand up to be counted. If she manages to do the right thing, who cares whether she does so wearing Louboutins or cheap shoes?

Someone who was just a bystander in another strife­-torn country – she was visiting her sick mother when students wounded in a military crackdown were brought into the hospital – is another British­-educated woman who knows the power of accessories. When this woman made a decision that she could not remain indifferent to what was going on outside the walls of her family’s comfortable lakeside villa, she stepped centre stage in front of half a million people wearing a look from which she has never wavered: tailored blouse, ‘longyi’ wrap skirt, signature flourish of flowers in her hair. Recognising the power of style, Aung San Suu Kyi has never let it slide, despite two decades of mental torture under a brutal regime. When she walked towards a platoon of soldiers, their rifles cocked to fire, she did so shielded by nothing but the power of that iconic image, earning her the moniker ‘steel orchid’. The great pro­democracy campaigner will make her first overseas trip in 24 years this June, and she will be recognised wherever she goes. Image and action – now that’s the potent combination.

Radical Departures

Radical Departures

Forget the cliches- it’s time to rediscover Australia

by Marion Hume

My theme is Australia. You may consider this southern continent the most radical departure from everyday experience- or equally, the least. It is, of course, a long way from just about everywhere and spending your entire weekend traveling may be a strange notion (except those who commute from London to Sydney.) Yet it is also the faraway destination that you might think holds little to surprise. We know all about Bondi Beach and finding Nemo on The Great Barrier Reef and that vast red rock in teh centre correctly called Uluru, don’t we?

Yet Australia is travel’s big surprise for 2012 in terms of culture, food and travel experiences which which have zero to do with the old ‘flop and drop’ backpackers of old. Let’s consider food first. We know Australia is the land of fusion, the nation that exports hard-working chefs – ask to meet the creator of your dinner anywhere from Bruges to Beijing and chances are, the bloke who emerges from the kitchen has a lazy gin and an Aussie greeting. But what is so buzzy is the Sydney food scene. Melbourne and Adelaide have long been vibrant food centers, this in no small part sue to sophisticated emigres from Italy and Greece. But in Sydney, the equation used to be ‘great view + lackluster food + too chilly air con and bad service = huge bill’. Now, one of the city’s best restaurants is in a basement.

But lets us focus first on the entrepreneur and food god that is Maurice Terzini, who helms several restaurants with peerless views and great food. Terzini, with partners Robert Marchetti and Kimme Shaw, has changed Sydney. Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, with glittering views across the ocean at Bondi Beach, is one of the few restaurants  on earth where it is a requirement, rather than a pose, to eat lunch in dark glasses. Then came North Bondi Italian Food, where the queue for tables starts at 6pm (no reservations). Now, in Neild Avenue, a road drivers used to cut through without stopping, comes the latest arrival, called- with brevity-Neild Avenue and housed in a former factory. What’s to love? The ambience, and the  gorgeous Sydney women in high heels and tiny dresses? Yet, but thats common in this snazzy town. The difference is the food, which here features Ottoman cuisine as flavorsome as in those run-down shacks by the Bosporus. We’re talking lamb pistachio kebabs with cracked wheat and hung yogurt, velvety hummus, buffalo halumi with lemon, mint and shallot salad. Diners even get excited about cauliflower.

Sydney is not only Terzini’s town of course. Neil Perry (who creates the onboard catering for Qantas, surely the only long haul airline where you actually look forward to dinner) is the reigning monarch of Rockpool and its many spin-offs. His latest is the Spice Temple, where the food is fiery with the flavours of Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang This is the joint in the basement so dinners enjoying a combination of fine local produce and authentic regional Chinese cuisine have nothing to divert them from what is on their plates. Then there are the little joints, like Vientiane, an organic Laotian restaurant combined with an art gallery which is carving out a name for “wellness” food that manages to be delicious and can be washed down with organic wine in a cute little boite hung with cutting-edge art. (Last time I was there, someone dropped AU$60 for dinner and AU$6,000 for a sculpture. Which was a shame because they had the latter packed to go while I was eating and I’d been enjoying the sight of it.)

Even home cooking has changed. The land of the “sausage sizzle ” has moved on from the humble ‘snag’ (which translates as ‘sausage’ from the local argo, ‘strine’). Fashionable in Sydney now? Competitive butchery with butchers shops as done up as the lobbies of small luxury hotels. Victor Churchill, in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra has a Himalayan salt-brick wall to help age the beef. In my grandmother’s day, shopping for supper meant asking if there were any chops. Now, customers can be heard requesting 36-month-old grass-fed meat, dry-aged for 30 days, for mince for burgers.

While butchers shops look like shiny hotel lobbies, the best hotels in Australia combine low key charm, the least possible impact on the environment and very good local wine. Southern Ocean Lodge is on Kangaroo Island, a short hop from Adelaide, South Australia. Hotelier James Baillie is a visionary, although you’d need at least 20:20 vision to even spot the lodge from afar as it disappears into the hillside . But there ‘s no swimming here.  Although the ocean spray comes right through your window, out there is the No.1 breeding ground for the Great White Shark.

James Baillie has made it tricky for me to choose my No.1 hotel on earth because he helms my equal two. Lord Howe Island was one of the last places on earth to be inhabited (and only descendants of the original handful of families can build houses there today). (It was first sighted at the end of the 19th century when a freighter was blown off course). As a result, the wildlife has no fear. Clap your hands and birds come down from the sky to see what is going on. But I’m no David Attenborough. I want supreme yet low-key comfort with my ornithology Capella Lodge is perfect.

The greatest travel commentator of them all, Alan Wicker, used to say he liked his paradises slightly spoilt, which to me means no one for miles, but wine and a proper loo. Kuri Bay is way up in the Kimberley, on the remotest shore of one of the most isolated regions, known up to now only to pearl divers. In partnership with Paspaley Pearls, Wild Bush Luxury – helmed by CHarles Carlow – has transformed Australia’s oldest pearl farm into a five room homestead, which is not luxurious in the traditional sense yet guests enjoy rare local delicacies such as pearl meat. The property is only accessible by helicopter or sea plane – a spectacular, one hour and 45-minute air safari from Broome, itself a tiny tin-roofed town three hours flight north of Perth, in turn the most isolated city in the world. Just don;t pack the IPad.

Travel alone to Three Hummock Island, off the northwest coast of Tasmania and you will be increasing the resident population by 50%. There are two residents at the place on our planet which enjoys the purest air quality. THis isle is an ark, where you can see all manner of rare marsupials. This is new luxury, which is to say managers John and Beverly O’Brien do everything possible to ensure a lovely stay. Just don’t expect a lock on the loo. Or indeed, a closed door.

Come to Australia for the culture? In which other country might you do a three city hop where the most radical contemporary art- some of it so transgressive it is rarely exhibited elsewhere – will knock your socks off? Let’s start with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, reopening after an AU$53 million rebuild this spring to reveal galleries of a scale that would make London’s Tate Modern and Madrid’s Museo del Prado jealous. And they are already jealous, one presumes, of a location right across the harbour from the Opera House, itself the ultimate site-specific work of art.

The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art is up in steamy Brisbane where the mercury rises. Brisbane was a country town that has become a city (Chanel has opened a store there). The fashionable hatter, Stephen Jones, curated an exhibition called Hats, an Anthology, a work of whimsy which proved a suprise crowed pleaser at London’s V&A. When it travelled to Brisbane, 165,158 people saw it in 60 days- many of them many times over, given the population.

Small? What about Tasmania, where even the locals joke about people with two heads. (Before you criticize me for the preceding line, see the brochure for MONA- The Museum of Old and New Art – in Hobart, which announces that ‘Tasmanians (two heads etc.)’ may enter for free.)

MONA is the single most exciting art gallery to have opened anywhere since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim at Bilbao. Sleepy Hobart is now in shock about how a native son – one David Walsh, who made his millions by developing a spread betting system for gambling on horse races- has opened a private museum, filled with his own treasures and largely funded by himself, and lured so many people to an extraordinary art space carved out of the rock and to which access is by boat.

Wim Delvoye is one of the world’s most controversial artists. He is best known for Cloaca, which replicates the process of the human intestine turning food to waste, and also for an art farm where piglets were tattooed then allowed to live for a decade, far longer than is conventional farming before their skins were displayed. Louis Vuitton and Disney are among those who have tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Delvoye for tattooing their logo’s on pigskin. MONA is the first gallery anywhere to show Delvoye’s complete exploration of religion, which includes dead mice acting out the stations of the cross and a real live man called Tim as a silent Christ-like work of art.

Australia as a radical departure? Surely yes, especially as this article does not even mention…sport.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

By the time you read this, you may either have been delighted by the feel-good movie of the season or have vowed that a herd of Indian elephants wouldn’t drag you to see a bunch of old folk cavorting about “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. 

For myself, while I loved witnessing the finest thesps show how terrific they are at enunciating, what pleased me even more was that not one of the seniors looks like a dowdy old nana, in stark contrast to how those beyond their Botox years are usually depicted on screen (if, of course, they appear at all). 

What this movie gets spot on is that today, those of advanced years are as diverse in their clothing choices as everyone else, although perhaps with longer sleeves. Dame Judi Dench (78) plays the widow, Evelyn, who looks lovely in loose linens of a tonal palette flattering to a silvery pixie crop hairdo. Evelyn’s light layers semaphore that she is the innocent ingenue – despite her years – who embraces a new world with an open heart and in very pretty scarves. 

But how satisfying that, just as the villain often gets all the best lines, in “Best Exotic” Penelope Wilton (66) plays Jean, and is by far the best dressed. Jean hates the heat and dust. She simmers with righteous anger that she has been robbed of the retirement she imagined, back home. That she does this while looking well turned out shows she is not some awful cliche of an old lady “losing it”, instead she is simply not in love with India or indeed, with the man she has stayed married to through habit. She wears a bang “on trend” and flattering indigo tie-dye shirt waister for the scene in which she proves she is brave enough to go home alone. 

Jean’s travel attire is anchored by a tailored beige jacket in a good cloth that doesn’t crease. Here is a woman who will never slum it in a comfy top, despite the indignation of a seat at the back of the plane. We see Jean chasing down the high court judge while wearing a long line floral shirt (its sartorial message; “spirited” but not “young”). What’s clever is we see her working the same seperates into different combinations. Jean may not be the heroine but she knows how to get full use out of a 23kg budget flight luggage limit. 

It’s no surprise “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is proving a worldwide hit with retirees or that audiences emerging from cinemas are so stylish. While no sensible fashion label markets to the “old” – if they did, who would buy? – the grey dollar is a segment ignored at peril, given this generation discovered their dress sense before the rise of fast fashion and while they may indeed be interested in “good value”, are loath to accept second-best. 

Indeed, some of the Best Dressed anywhere are of this age group. Look at the red carpet and how the likes of Dame Helen Mirren (67) always nail it. Among the chicest women in Sydney is the best selling author, Marion von Adlerstein, who, at 79, has just completed a book tour for “The Freudian Slip” dressed head to toe in daringly bright combinations of Issey Miyake. Maggie Tabberer is still, deservedly, an Australian fashion icon at 76 (her breezy summer elegance remains a lesson in chic for our climate). And should you ever walk past the pyjama emporium, Peter Alexander, and wonder who wears the brightest picks, with the parrots in hot pink, that would be my always adventurous godmother (80), although of course her taste is tame in comparison with what Dame Vivienne Westwood (71) would dare to wear. 

In 1961, a 29 year old poet called Jenny Joseph promised; “When I am old, I shall wear purple and a red hat that doesn’t go…” Instead, the poet (80) has lived to an age where purple and red do go, if you want them to. As to the cliche of “nana dressing”, there’s still a place for wooly cardies and furry slippers. The under 25s rock that combination and look terrific.

A Model Career

A Model Career

Sunday Telegraph Magazine | May 2012 

by Marion Hume 

With pop promos, movies and exercise videos, Cindy Crawford redefined ‘supermodel’. But it is her enduring looks, professionalism and Midwest manners that have made her a superstar in front of the camera for more than a quarter of a century. 

by Marion Hume 

Cindy was never like the other supermodels, although she was certainly super. She never blended in- and not just because of that mole; she never was an all- change chameleon. She was always Cindy and that could be very disconcerting.

You’d be sitting at a show, tapping along to the music (because they played such fun music, and each track all the way through, back in the Nineties) and you’d be caught up in the designer’s vision of wherever he was trying to transport you to.

And then came Cindy. She would storm out of the wings and those black eyes would seem to lock on you like a heat-seeking missile.

Cindy was, then, like no other. She wouldn’t wear high necks (not Cindy). I can’t recall her wearing trousers (well, maybe once, at Armani). She was all woman; none of that striding through life purposefully in flat shoes. this girl was in a heel or else she was in sneakers, running like the wind.

It’s hard to imagine now that something as naff as an exercise video could be exciting, but when Cindy first did them, to fashion people, they were thrilling. We brought them, even though we knew in our heart of hearts we’d never get round to doing those squats. Who buys calendars in an age when everything is on our iPhone? But then, everyone, male and female, brought Cindy’s. She posed for Playboy and, rather than thinking it was unspeakable, we thought it was cool.

What wasn’t cool was Fair Game. a truly dreadful 1995 movie in which she played a lawyer, but a lawyer who always seemed to dress with a white vest between her shirt and her bra, all the easier to strip off the former and dive into a harbour aflame with burning oil.

Cindy, of course, recovered magnificently and kept on running. She’d been married to Richard Gere, posed with him on the cover of US Vogue and then the pair had defended their marriage with a full-page ad in The Times, but they still broke up.  However, that both have found enduring partnerships since, and have never been rude about each other, doubtless says much about each of them as well-rounded real people as well as celebrities. And hell, while the relationship lasted, they were hot.

I think Cindy and I see the cover of Vanity Fair when, famously she’s in a swimsuit and heels pretending to shave the face of KD Lang. Or she’s emerging like Venus out of a shell. There are all those Helmut Newton images. What Cindy had, perhaps uniquely, was a sizzling appeal  to men while girls absolutely adored her too, even though any fool could work out that, no matter how many lunges we did in time to her video, we could never look like her. And then there was the ‘Freedom’ video for George Michael. The excitement was palpable.

Yet while she became and remains unique, Cindy started as ‘the cut-price version’ of another girl. (Fashion is, was and always will be cruel to the young fillies entering the parade ring.) She was first known as ‘Baby Gia’, after Gia Carangi, who broke the blonde mould with her sultry, dark looks but became known for leaving fashion shoots early via the bathroom window in hot pursuit of her drug dealer. ‘Baby Gia’ turned out to be not cut-price at all but a class act.

Cindy Crawford’s reputation, from day one, as for the solid Midwestern values she has brought with her from DeKalb, Illinois (known pre-Cindy as the ‘home of barbed wire’).  She turned up on time, well-groomed and well-spoken. But she also took control. She was known for expecting- and quite a reasonable expectation this- that shoots might also end on time, given she was always professional and expected to work, be paid and get on with her life.

That she had endured should be no surprise to anyone. She was born with good bones and she’s worked hard for those good glutes. What I recall is her manners. I was working with a film crew backstage when a phalanx of ‘Cindy and Richard’ security swept through so fast, they knocked me off my feet and into a rail of eveningwear. ‘Oh!’ came a voice belonging to the very famous Ms Crawford. ‘Stop! Is she ok? Are you ok?’ I was, 25m of tulle being terrific cushioning for a fall.

God may have created Cynthia Ann Crawford, but manners maketh the woman, I say.

Cheongsam

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

Fashion exhibitions are, if not ten-a-penny, given they are costly to stage, certainly pretty ubiquitous. 

But can you remember when fashion wasn’t thought to be “serious” enough to deserve gallery space or attention in a museum calendar? An upside of that was one might stumble on an unexpected gem, as a friend and I did when we noticed the gates of a usually private Parisian mansion were open in order to share a bijou collection of artifacts celebrating the client-couturier relationship between the late, lady of the house and that greatest couturier of the 20th century, Cristobal Balenciaga. 

The last time I saw a Balenciaga exhibition, it was at Le Louvre. It featured as many clothes by today’s designer for the brand, Nicolas Ghesquiere as by the long dead namesake. Fashion exhibitions have become like movie blockbusters, enjoyable in that they are mega, but with the commercial preoccupation of reinforcing brand message definitely front of mind.

What a joy then, to be in Singapore in time to catch “In the Mood for the Cheongsam” at The National Museum – the title echoing, of course, the movie that introduced Asian cinema, Maggie Cheung and the serene sexiness of a covered-up style that follows every curve to a wider world. 

While the exhibition has now closed, I have a hunch its influence will spread. Fashion creatives throw their nets very wide and surely, by now, someone has shared the images from the excellent catalogue on Pinterest. (Who bothers with Facebook anymore?) For alongside the expected (black satin, gold dragons) were groovy geometric and intriguing hot floral prints that looked so contemporary. The cheongsam provides a broad canvas for decorative experiment, although not too broad, given its second-skin proportions, these part of the reason it dipped out of fashion once Western styles became widely available across Asia.

It disappeared from sight in mainland China, where it began, for other, political reasons. On a trip back to Beijing recently, I met students from the nation’s leading fashion university. To those who have grown up with Western labels and with mothers, perhaps grandmothers, who wore Mao suits, the cheongsam is as exotic as it is to me, except perhaps through the threads that tangle back to a long-ago history. So at the exhibition in Singapore, I started thinking; given we are anticipating a new generation of designers to emerge from China, what might they do to reclaim, reinvent, reinvigorate this glamourous garment?

That’s been done already of course. Shanghai Tang, the witty Hong Kong label that takes a culture’s cliches, then, gloriously, spins these right back at you always has a cheongsam in its collections. Vivienne Tam in New York, Shiatzy Chen from Taiwan, often play with the sartorial markers of their heritage. The exhibition introduced me to the fresh talent of Priscilla Shunmugan, whose heritage is part-Chinese, part Indian and that got me thinking about how in India, the seductive beauty of the sari absolutely competes alongside Valentino, Versace, Cavalli while Hermes sells Lyon-silk printed saris there. Might the cheongsam, in some uncliched way, stage a bigger comeback?

The exhibition included a gown from John Galliano’s 1997 Dior show, inspired by the handover of Hong Kong, which I saw and adored. Yet while Galliano created so many ravishingly riffs right across a mash-up of cultures during his time at Dior, in retrospect, the cheongsam tripped him up, veering perilously close to drag. A cheongsam-inspired cocktail dress by the late Alexander McQueen looked leaden. “It needs an Asian Miuccia Prada,” I thought; a designer who takes historical references forward to create something new. I stopped in my tracks at a studio portrait of a woman in a loose, wildly patterned cotton cheongsam, accessorized with beguilingly elongated Mary Jane shoes. So modern. The date, “late 1920s”. 

I bet that’s already been shared via Pinterest and has someone’s creative juices flowing. 

Bentley

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

Can I start by saying I don’t like cars? Couldn’t care less about them. Indeed, I am so not engaged with the world of hot rods, that every time I book my trusty minicab driver to collect me from an event, he has to get out of the car when I wander outside because, while I rarely forget a face, cars, well, I know his is silver but that’s all I can tell you.

So when, out of the blue, I was offered the chance to test-drive a Bentley, I shrugged, “Nah, not my thing”. You know the expression “steam coming out of your ears”? I actually think I saw that happening to my husband. Hence some backtracking and then a Bentley delivered to my door, (here, bear in mind I live in Riot Central, North London). I must state this treat was unconnected to AFR, (I write for other publications in the UK). I’m mentioning it because AFR’s readers are wealthy enough to buy fast cars. As to how much wealth you might need, don’t ask me. As I said; cars, couldn’t care less.

That was until I confronted a mighty power that goes way beyond a handbag’s. My neighbours; hard scrabble Londoners, came out of their doors not to key the car, but to purr. I let one of them sit inside, because he’s good at setting a GPS, while I finished a few phone calls. My lack of interest was genuine – until I got inside the vehicle. 

What extraordinary, practical, beautiful, lovingly crafted design! And the smell of that leather; no wonder they are always trying to bottle it for men’s fragrance. On looks alone + the button that made the seat glide back, I was smitten, although the test drive was spoiled a bit by my realization I should have had my hair done up in a chignon. 

Later, I was asked to comment on how design might be improved. I am surprised my suggestion of a device that says, “you cannot afford me” to those who get too close has not been taken on board. For it is disconcerting when you are trying to park and men in bad sandals start to stroke your vehicle. 

Still, my other suggestion (not implemented either) of a bumper sticker reading “I’m not a footballer’s wife” must have been deemed innovative enough to score me an invitation to the London launch of a limited edition Continental Spur a few weeks’ later. This car can be ordered in a deep shade of chocolate brown, which, I assure you, is the new black. The armrest between the rear seats folds down to reveal a bar fridge. The make-up mirrors have better lighting than a West End theatre dressing room.

You, of course, already know a Bentley is a treasure-trove of great design. Whereas I am like the Chinese; on a voyage of discovery. In 2002, Bentley sold 41 cars in China. In 2011, it sold 1,103 from 13 dealerships. How much is a Bentley in China? Oh why sweat the small stuff? If I were a newly-minted billionaire, I’d be first in line with a big bag of yuan. 

Have I been suckered in? Of course. Yet the experience has been useful. For I am left wanting something I know I can never own. I have spent so many years covering fashion, I realise I have become largely immune to feelings of covetousness. Those with their noses pressed against the glass, looking at handbags they can’t afford? BB (Before Bentley), I’d be saying something logical, like, “At the end of the day, a duck egg blue Birkin is not that practical. You’ll find another bag”. AB (After Bentley) despite recognizing the wisdom of “Thou shalt not covet thy (billionaire) neighbour’s Bentley”, I feel that pain.

Pinstriped Prankster

Pinstriped Prankster

AFR Magazine | February 2012

by Marion Hume 

Like his impeccably tailored jackets that swing open to reveal a bounce of cheeky colour, Nottingham­born Paul Smith is a cautious if somewhat laid­-back businessman with a flair for the quirky and the original. The hugely successful joker in the pack talks to Marion Hume ahead of opening his first Australian store in Melbourne.


In photographs, Paul Smith (correctly, Sir Paul Smith-although he doesn’t use the title) can look a bit miserable like he’s got a stone stuck in his shoe. This is odd and not only because you’d think the chairman, designer and- with his childhood sweetheart-co-owner of a world famous brand with a turnover of £171.6 million ($257.5 million) would have something to smile about. What’s discombobulating is that in real life the man with the everyman name is all joy. The living breathing Paul Smith, as opposed the glum chap through the lens, makes you wish he’d invite you to lunch. With all due respect, you don’t say that about Giorgio Armani.

His appeal, like his clothes, is a simple equation: straightforward + quirky, with a sense of humour. In business, he’s not grasping. The arc of Paul Smith ltd has been steady, not greedy. The London HQ is full of people who hold open doors for each other and smile a lot, but not in a creepy way because the boss is watching. As for when the boss is being watched, he’ll be in a good suit and carrying a good man-bag, from which he might pull a rubber chicken.

Every year, Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of global fashion,  hosts The International Herald Tribune Luxury Summit, a pay-thousands-to-attend gathering which is the frock-world version of Davos. Industry titans take it so seriously, they hire writers and coaches to help with their strictly-timed 20 minute speeches. When it was Paul Smith’s turn to share knowledge of a business he’s been in since the early 1970s, he bounded onto the stage, pulled out an alarm clock, mucked up his PowerPoint and then, when clanging from the clock signalled time up, delivered his final piece of advice; if you are nervous about a meeting, bring a silver briefcase that opens up to reveal a train set. Because who doesn’t love playing with a train set?

In April, a Paul Smith store will open on Melbourne’s Collins Street, which raises the obvious question “what took so long?”- especially as Smith himself has no qualms baout long-haul travel (he’s been to Tokyo more than 80 times). The brand has successful relationships with David Jones and Sydney independent retailer Robbie Ingham. “I heard Prada are planning to open 80 shops this year. We want to move forward when it feels right, not be aggressive”, is Smith’s own explanation.

He does what he thinks is right, including flying to Japan, where he has more than 200 stores and over 1,000 staff, as soon as he heard about last year’s tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown. He was on the 42nd floor, when the aftershocks hit Tokyo. “It was scary and there was the radiation worry but I thought I should just go and give people who have worked for me for 20 years a hug, especially as everyone else was leaving.”

Paul Smith, born 5th of July 1946, is 65 (although when I ask, he says 63) and the life arc goes like this; young lad from Nottingham in what was once Britain’s clothing manufacturing heartland, wants to be professional racing cyclist, leaves school at 15, has accident aged 17, six months in hospital, starts working in shop, thinks he might as well have his own shop and is encouraged by his girlfriend, Pauline Denyer (now his wife)  to take a space down a back alley with a rent of 50p a week.

Soon, he starts mixing in his own stuff, inspired by the garb of the working men of a big industrial city, in amongst hard-to-find labels and jeans imported from the US. By 1976, he’d showen the  first menswear collection under the Paul Smith label in Paris and opened a store in London’s Covent Garden, near what was then the rat-infested fruit market (which closed down in 1979). Forever dubbed “classic with a twist”, that label-which mixes unexpected flashes of colour with solid blokey darks- is now attached to menswear, womenswear, jeans, shoes, scent, eyewear, watches, pens, furniture, rugs and bikes.

Of the latter, you can’t miss the sherbet pink bike in the crazy lair that is Paul Smith’s own office within his London HQ. While most of the building looks familiar if you’ve visited stores kitted out in lovingly salvaged old wood, the designer/chairman’s office, which is about the size of a country schoolroom, is a surprise. Every surface – every bit of wall, every inch of floor – is littered with stuff; fine art mixed with daft kids toys, exquisite mid century furniture topped by an Aussie bush hat and a joke giant spider (he apologizes that the battery has gone flat so he can’t make it crawl all over me).

“There are lovely things in here. And there are hideous things and cheap things and expensive things. I buy things and things get sent to me because I’ve got quite a reputation for liking unusual things. I’ve got this unknown person who has been sending me things for 20 years: a football, a traffic cone, a ski. And the thing is, they never arrive in a box, they always arrive as just stuff with stamps stuck on it. We call it “the stamped objects collection”. And the sender? “No idea. But when the stuff is particularly mad, I do wonder how Tom Ford or Giorgio Armani would react.”

At the thought of either of fashion’s minimalist perfectionists receiving a stamped didgeridoo, Smith lets out a schoolboy giggle. “I was on a train coming from the north of England last week and the hotel where we’d stayed, a funny little country hotel, had made us packed lunch in a Tupperware box and I thought,  ‘I’m not sure Mr. Armani would be doing this’.”

Like Armani’s, this is his own gig; a company built in his image. “ Everything here has a meaning to me,” Smith is saying as he points out a funny paper owl. “It’s about being open and not following and not looking at magazines and seeing what other people are doing and going shopping and saying ‘well, they’re doing that’, I’ve got a very open mind so I look at small and big and rough and smooth and kitsch and beautiful. I’m a very spontaneous person and I like things at my fingertips to take inspiration from.” With no children of his own, he says, “I think it’s the child-like mind that I enjoy because I think children are so free of education and experience.”

In terms of certificates on paper, so is Paul Smith. He has no formal fashion training, barring a night school tailoring course.  As for the business side, that’s self taught too.  “I don’t even know what an MBA is,” he replies when I ask if he’s got one. How big is your business now? How many shops do you have? I ask. “We’ve got all sorts… I’ve got it written here somewhere…a lot”. How many countries do you sell in? “Over 50”.

And the turnover? “The thing is, I know we’re doing well and we’ve never gone backwards and I know I get the weekly takings in the shops and I know which ones are doing not so well and which ones are doing better. And when they’re not doing so well, it’s usually because it was pouring with rain or snowing. We’ve never borrowed money, we own the buildings, we own the warehouses, we’ve got about 1,000 staff at Paul Smith and about 1,000 in Japan.”

So he’s rich. “I’ve got some money,” he mumbles. “I can probably spend a bit of money but it’s almost like the jam jar on the mantelpiece at your granny’s. Well, it’s never been as naïve as that but Pauline and I are quiet people and we are very fortunate to have met each other. We’ve never been searching for a Rolls Royce or a yacht or a stately home.”

Instead the couple live in a big, not grand house in Notting Hill. They have been spending summers in Tuscany since way before it was fashionable, “at a very remote farmhouse not a posh villa. What Smith is most proud of is that running “a good business and a profitable business,” means staff sharing in long-term security. “I’ve just written three cards to staff that have been with me for 20 years. So everything about it is a perfect business model, and we’ve won awards and I got a knighthood.”

In 2001, Paul Smith and Pauline Denyer left Buckingham Palace to get married, although they met when he was 21 and she was 27 and they’d been living together since 1967.  Sir Paul did think about refusing the honour – “well, it’s not really me” – but staffers said if his mum and dad had still been around, they’d be so proud. Does he use sir ever? Let’s see his credit cards. They say plain P B Smith and the signature’s exactly the same neat script as the one on the label.

Along with clothes (good solid suitings, a bit of a stripe, floral shirts and boxers; so racy when he started that idea) there has always been curios and gadgets, a mix that is familiar in the retail landscape now but wasn’t before Paul Smith started it. In the late 70s, he unearthed an old leather-bound personal organiser called a Filofax in a tiny shop hidden under an East London railway arch. The Filofax became to the 80s what the iPhone is today. While Paul Smith doesn’t have an iPhone, he’s an avid blogger, “and as a company we’re massively high-tech. We have this room in Nottingham which is like being on a space ship, which is where the brains are.  We’ve got five huge warehouses and one sends out 3 million pieces of kit a year, and it’s got 90 staff. I went in last week and immediately got goosebumps.”

When in London, he rises at 5 am and guns his tiny Mini Cooper across town to the RAC club where he swims,  “sometimes only for 10 minutes, sometimes half an hour depending on my mood, then I get into the office at six-ish with the cleaners.” Lots of his appointments these days involve the press, although rarely to toot his own trumpet. He financially supports London’s Design Museum and The Tate, so he’ll show up for those and many things connected to the arts. He’s done the interiors for Maggie’s, which has respite centres across Britain for those suffering from or connected to those with cancer. “Oh and last week a day trip to Dubai and I’m just back from Japan.”

In the early 80s, Japan was to fashion what China is now, except fashion’s players were far more parochial. When Paul and Pauline were invited to visit, they flew economy via Anchorage. He recalls the feeling: “So excited to go to this place we never thought we’d be able to see because it was so far away and so expensive. We had a modest business then. I couldn’t believe they actually wanted to have an agreement with me.” Back then, lots of European designers got Japanese deals, then faxed a few fast sketches a couple of times a year until the second-rate stuff didn’t sell and it was over. In contrast, Paul and Pauline went again and again. “I was all energy, enthusiasm, willingness. So I think it’s not a miracle we’ve done well in Japan”.

He doesn’t speak Japanese and uses jokes to communicate. “Providing you get the timing right, humour is fantastically important”, he says. “I think I have learned my discipline and the importance of cut and shape and being modest and down to earth from Pauline. But from my dad, I got the skill of communication. He passed away when he was 94 and he still had young friends.” Smith has yet to crack Chinese humour and so the Chinese market. “We’ve got a good business in Hong Kong and from this year, we’re entering into mainland China. Most of the brands that do well there have very identifiable logos. But with Paul Smith, there’s none of that, so I’ve been holding back.  And now there’s a younger generation of 17-25 year olds that are quite big Paul Smith fans.”

A lack of bold logos notwithstanding, counterfeiters is rife. “We have full-time lawyers on it, we have the merchandise destroyed but it starts again round the corner.” Or in plain sight in the case of Bali, where the fake Paul Smith stores are well known to Australian travellers. “I use the word ‘disappointed’,” says Smith. “When there’s thousands of talented fashion students, many of whom come from Asian countries, why not let them work from a blank sheet of paper and do something new?”

When a designer owns his company and is 65 (or 63 by his own count) it invites a question that is never easy to ask. “The answer is not clear and it’s something we talk about  [and] then immediately push to one side,” is his reply. “There is a very good team, we do everything in-house: design, press, marketing, shop design, architecture, no shareholders. That’s the joy…We still have the possibility of growing the business. Now we’ve got Melbourne and we could open Sydney and we’ve got Amsterdam coming up. We don’t need to grow massively because there’s no one pushing us to grow.”

He’ll come out to Melbourne for the shop opening and the store will, doubtless, have that intrinsic mix of plain darks with bold shots of colour. “although there are still taboos about what men can wear.”, he says. “I had one of my lads in the other day and he got a shirt with polka dots on it and he came in the next day and said he’d had it on at breakfast and all his kids burst out laughing. We’ve got more of a reputation for colour than actually what we sell. If you were to look at the figures, you’d find the bulk of what we sell are navy blue suits, masses of white shirts, navy blue sweaters.”

And what relationship does the Paul Smith woman have with the Paul Smith? “They could be a couple. I do five lines for men and three lines for women. As the businesses grow, you are attracting a broader audience, but in my head, my boy and my girl are skinny, boyish figures.” Just like Paul and Pauline, now just as when they were young. “Yes, we’re both skinny, long-limbed. We both love tailoring, we both love simplicity and that’s what has attracted me really”.

Luxury Luggage

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

This column’s territory is luxury, but as with any landscape, there are beauty spots and eyesores. When luxury lets you down, the feeling you get is sort of like when someone builds a condo in your view.

There is nothing more galling then investing in chic only to find it behaves like cheap. The brand names have been left out from what follows only because I’m on deadline so can’t give them right to reply. But one brand already knows it’s them, the next will guess and the third is going to be hearing from me, although I concede the latter might not be the scariest threat in the world.

Example one. An elegant man about town invested in a snazzy leather iPad case. Please note the word “case”, for which the dictionary definition is “receptacle, holder”. iPads are all about being connected on the move, so he moving, when he was caught in a Sydney storm. Did he use his iPad cover as an umbrella? He did not. He protected it and its contents as best he could as he ran for cover, which didn’t, alas, stop his good suit getting soaked. That sprang back to form once dry. Alas, instead, the iPad cover developed what the beauty business terms “deep set wrinkles”, this because beneath the butter soft leather lay cardboard gone limp. The brand response? No they wouldn’t take it back because the cover should not have been exposed to rain. In truth, it did recover a bit – the wrinkles are reduced to “fine lines” – but the fact is, he’s stuck with it.

Example two. A self-made, glamourous wife buys a suit for her dashing husband. The word “suit” rather suggests its purposes include suiting the wearer, except it doesn’t. It i is neither too large or too small, it just looked wrong. “Because you have removed the (nasty, plasticky) swing tag, we won’t exchange it,” she was told. It’s currently hanging in the wardrobe like a reproach.

Our final example concerns a well travelled woman we’ll call Marion because, obviously, she’s me. I invest in my luggage – not the kind with other people’s initials all over it which comes with another bag to protect the bag – I cannot see the point of that – instead bags from expert luggage makers with an esteemed heritage and a reputation for offering innovative, durable, practical designs, which is surely what one wants in a suitcase. 

Thumbnail story; I buy suitcase in morning, pack for Singapore, fly that night. I fly on to Auckland, and – here’s the marvelous bit – not once do I have to lug my own bag. Instead, its first taste of long haul is on a series of trolleys, even though it has four study wheels of its own. So the first time I use the pull-out handle is in Sydney and it comes clean off in my hand. I send an email expecting I will be directed to that global free repair service the website boasts of. Instead it reads, “just take it back to the store on your return to London”. Excuse me? As much trumpeted customer service goes, that rates as absolutely useless. “Do you have your receipt?” they say when I call the Sydney store listed on the company website. “Yes, filed at home in London, as I was instructed to keep it safe with the warranty”. “Well, I can’t think why you didn’t pack the receipt” is the frankly sniffy response. Readers, do you take your luggage receipts on a two-month business trip? Maybe I’m being dumb here? 

But didn’t the customer used to be right, or at least given a fair hearing? Consumers have embraced the, to me, hideous notion that cheap T shirts won’t survive a second wash but part of the luxury promise is longevity.When you buy into posh, a bit of you falls in love and when it fails, you are a little bit heartbroken.

Amazing spider-men

Amazing spider-men

The first-ever spider silk cape-a glowing, golden piece-will be unveiled this month at the V&A

The Financial Times | 15th January 2012

By Marion Hume

The myths date back more than a hundred years: of a gift to Queen Victoria of a pair of spider silk bloomers hailing from Madagascar; of how a delicate yet spectacularly strong yarn found its way into stockings made for Empress Josephine.

There was, these stories said, a sustainable way to harvest and use spider thread. And, unlikely as it sounds, the Victoria & Albert Museum this month unveils the first-ever spider silk cape, a glowing, golden piece that is as much about two men’s determination to work with nature as it is a desire to make fairy tales come true.

Briton Simon Peers has lived in Madagascar since 1989 with his Malagasy wife Ange and their two sons. He gave up a job as an art dealer at the Fine Art Society in London to move to the Malagasy capital Antananarivo (known as “Tana”), to reinvigorate the business of Madagascar’s exquisite silk traditions (this from silkworms, not spiders). He imported looms from Yorkhire to create jacquards, passementerie and embroidery of Versailles standards of craftsmanship. The world’s leading decorators, including Peter Marino, Robert Couturier and David Mlinaric, have become loyal customers.

Peer’s partner is American Nicholas Godley, whose grandmother was born in Madagascar. He arrived in 1993 as a development economist to work on raising living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries. Then he set up a handbag label, Majunga, employing hundreds and using native raffia,and sold bags to Neiman Marcus and Saks.

Peers and Godley had been friends for years when, one day in 2003, Godley asked about a strange contraption on a shelf in Peers’ office. “I told him it was for extracting silk from spiders,” recalls Peers. Godley was more than intrigued; he was determined to push Peers to turn a daydream into reality.

Peers was obsessed with the island’s large female golden silk orb-weaver spider (Nephila madagascariensis), famous for creating the most symmetrical and concentric of spider webs. He’s come a tale of how Paul Camboue, a French Jesuit priest, had tried to extract spider silk and how these efforts had attracted the attention of a 19th-century French colonial administrator called Nogue (his first name lost to history), who was looking for industries to set Madagascar apart from other francophone colonies. It was Nogue who had designed the machine Peers had on his shelf- a guillotine-like trap (although its occupants emerge unharmed) that could hold eight spiders while the threads were pulled from their bodies on to a bobbin.

“Think of the times you have brushed a spider off your sleeve,” Peers says. “You flick and it falls but is still attached to you by a silken thread. The silk comes out without any problem.”

At the end of the 19th century, such was the excitement about the possibilities for spider silk that spider catching was considered a top job for locals in Antananarivo. There was even a technical college there, set up to train spider silk weavers. In 1900 a set of Malagasy spider silk bed hangings, now lost, was exhibited in Paris. But enthusiasm waned, not least because of hte challenges of lodging and feeding hundreds of thousands of carnivorous cannibals needed for every yard of silk. Spider silk also turned out to be at least 2o times more costly than the “boil in the bag” method by which silkworms dies to release a strand of thread.

A century on, however, Peers and Godley decided to give it another try. In 2004, they started “silking” spiders and by Novermber 2008, the elusive silk became reality. “Having silked over a million spiders, we are transforming the resulting stock into a singer unique and extraordinary golden textile,” Peers says.

The challenge of food and lodging was solved by using only females, brought to the silking facility each morning by a team of 80 spider catchers and then released into the wild later that afternoon.

In 2009, Peers emailed me to say: “We are making this extraordinary cape. Homage to the spider. And apart from another-probably apocryphal story-of a suit of spider silk clothes made for Louis XIV, this will be the first time any serious piece of clothing has ever been attempted.”

Three years on, he calculates that the weaving, embroidery and applique of the cape has involved 6,000 human hours, while at least 1.2m spiders have been employed. Each of the hundreds of thousands of warp and weft threads comprises 96 individual strands of spider silk in the ground weave of the decorated panels and 48 individual strands for each thread in the lining. each pass of the needle to create the embellishments of appliqued spiders scuttling over flowers required 96 strand threads. The golden glow is the natural colour of the silk.

Peers and Godley have no ambition to find a more industrial application for their breakthrough. “Our objective has not been just conquering the technical challenges, but also to engage people with an emotional and intellectual experience,” says Peers. “This lengthy and arduous process is the antithesis of the brief, ephemeral life of a web.” The result, they hope, will live on, and not just in stories.

‘Golden Spider Silk’, V&A Studio Gallery, January 25-June 5 

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant