Diamonds That Are Not Forever -Australian Financial Review

Diamonds That Are Not Forever

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

The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Auld Country – Australian Financial Review

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dior Down Under – Australian Financial Review

Dior Down Under

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

The Australian Financial Review | December 2012

by Marion Hume

 

Heart Of Glass – Australian Financial review

AFR | December 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Blue – Austalian Financial Review

True Blue

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

The Austalian Financial Review | November 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No faking it on the Gatsby set

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

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

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

The Doisneau Department – Austalian Financial Review

AFR | November 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stack [Monocle 24]

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


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


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

At The Court Of Armani – Australian Financial review

COVER1

At The Court of Armani 

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

Austalian Financial Review | August 2012

by Marion Hume 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferragamo and Screen Goddesses: a Perfect Fit – Australian Financial Review

Shodding Venus

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

The Australian Financial Review Magazine | August 2012 

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leather Ties That Bind – Australian Financial Review

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 – Australian Financial Review

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.

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant