Lou Stoppard, Amarpaul Kalirai, Cyprian De Coteau, Marion Hume and Camilla Morton discuss the Mary Katrantzou show.
An Homme For All Seasons
The way we travel obsesses Kim Jones. The menswear designer with Louis Vuitton, which started out making trunks, finds inspiration when journeying to the middle of nowhere. He tells Marion Hume what he learns from his 100 or so flights a year.
The Australian Financial Review | September 2013
Riding The Coat Tales
Luigi Maramotti has strong views on many things, from a distaste for star designer egos, to resisting the ghettoism of fashion, to cheese. The chairman of the Italian cost company Max Mara shows Marion Hume around the company’s small-town headquarters.
The Austalian Financial Review | September 2013
Reggio Emilia, some two hours east of Milan, is renowned for cheese and for coats. The first has the longer history; rich pastures and traditions being behind wheels of salty treasure that have little in common with ready-grated so-called parmesan found at the supermarket. The family behind the coats remains involved in the making of Parmigiano Reggiano too; both requiring skill and time to achieve the sublime. The label on the coats is Max Mara.
“The fabric we use has been left to lie – the whole idea of seasoning the fabric like you do for a cheese – it’s very slow,” says Luigi Maramotti, a man of quiet yet intense passion who is the company chairman (and who also owns a farm). “A lot of people don’t even know that, at the price per ounce, they might even be paying more for a daily cheese than for the best cheese in the world!”
Is it odd that the head of a fashion powerhouse worth some US$1.7bn should be talking – and with some ferocity – about cheese? Maramotti, a long cool drink of water, also holds strong opinions about high speed rail, education, the “greenwashing” that allows big companies to play at being ethical, as well as the challenges of finding artisans at a time of rising unemployment and austerity yet youthful obsession with being a star. He is also absolutely passionate about art (is that a Gerhard Richter to his left?) and is impeccably attired in a beautiful suit.
Handmade where? Max Mara doesn’t do menswear; the brand celebrates the marriage of technology and the human hand in 23 different womenswear labels. So he brushes the question of the provenance of his suit away, instead indicating what he considers perfection. “These chairs,” he gestures, “designed in 1956, finding the perfect balance, it works, still, but it is not obvious, you need the time, the know-how. ‘Classic’ can have newness and excitement, but perhaps not at a glance….”
At a glance, a Max Mara coat is always beautifully fit-for-purpose. That coats are at the core might go some way to explain why the Max Mara Group has been slow to expand in Australia (while Australia is a luxury source of the merino in so many of those coats…). “I’m not trying to compare to Michelangelo and the quality of the marble, but when you see some great merino, great cashmere or a modern fabric with steel inside which keeps the memory of the shape, it is important,” says Maramotti. “Design being born from respect of the fabric, you do the minimum, you don’t over-design. Shouting about design is not how we convey value.”
No hoopla, no designer taking a bow. Each of the Max Mara lines is created by a team, usually comprising long-term company loyalists, a peppering of emerging talent from London design schools with which Max Mara Group has strong links ( and who, mostly, stay a while, then flee small town life) plus big names such as Karl Lagerfeld; Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana; the Roman, Giambattista Valli and from America, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Yet the latter are only acknowledged when they are no longer working for the company. What is the logic of that? Maramotti says that naming them would only build a platform for their egos, “because it is very unlikely they will negate their ego(s)”. Anonymity instead allows fashion stars to, “forge their expertise with ours and that of our technical teams. I accept that, today, there is a common advantage to use the designer as a marketing tool by which you go for a creative vision of an individual who wants to impose that vision on women….” his mouth forms into a moue of distaste. “What underpins us is a respect for women”.
Reggio Emilia is a company town – Max Mara owns the local hotel, a restaurant and many locals drive or bus to work at the nearby Max Mara campus of steel, glass and several thousand trees. But this is not – Maramotti is emphatic – an outpost. “I measure using not geography, but time. There is a beautiful station near here, designed by (Valencian star-chitect) Santiago Calatrava. I can be in Milan in 38 minutes. How far can you travel in London in 38 minutes? My point is centrality or decentrality is a state of mind…”
Certainly, this has to be the world capital of coats. A morning tour of production has been thorough and impressive. The classic 101801 (known since 1981 by a code number, no catchy names here) is a double-breasted camel overcoat of balanced proportions. A navy cashmere parka with voluminous hood, new this season, will look great for years. In other factories, presumably just as hi-tech, millions of items of clothing for women who want to look up with the times, but not up to the minute, are also made and labeled Max Mara, Sportmax, Pianoforte, Pennyblack, Marella, these joined by Max&Co.,for teenage girls.
The current chairman’s great, great grandmother was a 19th century dress maker called Marina Rinaldi, who has had a label named in her honour since the early 70s. “In everything we do, we resist the ghettoism of fashion. Marina Rinaldi has kept a different thinking in our company,” explains Maramotti, this referring to the welcome fact that Marina Rinaldi is a fashionable alternative for curvier, bustier or taller women who do not otherwise appreciate being siloed into a swamp called“plus sized”. Instead, Marina Rinaldi has seasonal collections, stores on London’s Bond Street, Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a Sydney store in Chifley Plaza. “It is politically correct to say size is not an issue yet size in fashion, it’s a kind of a taboo,” says Maramotti. “I’ve met many women in my life who are interesting and at peace with themselves and not a tiny size.”
Time to get personal. Much of my own wardrobe is Marina Rinaldi – expensive yes, long-lasting too. While of course I don’t believe you have to fit the clothes to write about them (then where would I be?) in a rare subjective assessment, I can confirm that white linen pants last for summers, navy wool tunics can go anywhere and T-shirts keep their shape. My challenge is sometimes I haven’t been able to keep my clothes. I haven’t misplaced any of them, I know exactly why they do not return from hotel laundries. I recall a hotel manager, a big boned woman, offering free nights to compensate my “loss” (her gain). As you don’t need many clothes on an island and I had time to spare, both parties were delighted. I have other examples – enough to argue that larger women love great clothes if they can get their hands on them, but enough for now.
When the founder of the Max Mara Group, Achille Maramotti, died in 2005, he left a business in the care of his three children, Luigi, Maria Ludovica (in charge of product development) and Ignazio (managing director) and this has always been a generational, family story (the company remains private and family controlled). Achille started in 1951, in that post-war surge that saw Northern Italy transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy. He was much inspired by the female force in his life, his mother, Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, who, widowed since 1939, had raised four children, funded by her dressmaking school where other young women could gain skills to ensure their independent survival. Achille took a law degree, funded by several jobs including working in a raincoat factory in Switzerland, where he realised that his mother’s craft could be industrialized through a logical system of work. Degree done, he got started, offering useful, attractive clothes to women who had neither the need nor the capital for copies of coquettish Parisian haute couture. The rise of Max Mara is one of classic capitalism, of a man driven by need plus a vision; that creativity could be harnessed profitably to technology. Achille travelled to America where clothes meant the garment industry not a local dressmaker. By the dawn of the 60s, Max Mara production was streamlined to the point that a coat that had taking 18 hours required only two. The company remains is a triumph of technology plus the skills of the human brain and hand (no machine can secure buttons as well as a person can). “Technology helps people repeat best performance for the entire day,” explains Luigi Maramotti. “ Handmade is another legend. It is not true handmade is better than machine. Machines help human beings be the best – you need both. The future, yet the know-how not forgotten.”
Yet the know-how seemingly inherent in the “Made in Italy” label has become complex. “It is a slogan… this idea of democratization of fashion comes from Italy, absolutely. Yet ‘Made in Italy’ can be very frustrating,” Maramotti says, refering to the fact that all one needs to do is put the pieces together in Italy for a garment to earn the prized ‘Made In Italy’ label. “Yet if I design it here, I do prototypes here; that doesn’t count. The central point is, are we, in Italy, capable of keeping alive a heritage that goes back centuries, to the Renaissance, the workshops for ideas?” Another challenge is manning those workshops (with women, the majority of employees). About 20 people in Reggio Emilia retire or relocate each year yet as Italy stumbles through recession, there is no line at the factory gates, despite The Max Mara Group working with the Italian public sector to fund skills training. “This becomes anthropological,” Maramotti muses of the paradox of high unemployment and the lack of apprentices or skilled workers. “You see a lot of young people dreaming of doing things that are much less relevant which they think are better. The values are not perceived correctly. We fight against the perception of ‘blue collar’. I don’t think the major issue is the salary.”
Hardly a casual chat this, for the next subject is sustainability, Maramotti being no fan of external pressures applied by advocacy groups. “There is an entire marketing on these ethical balance sheets,” he sniffs. “I have always opposed this because I prefer to do what works for us. Our power comes from hydro energy, but you don’t make a manifesto, you do the right thing, full stop. The moment it becomes a marketing tool, you are doing something that, ethically, is debatable. I prefer coherence. I know that coherence is boring. Consistency is boring too. But that is the case here.” He warms to the theme, “Some people see a society in which consumption is reduced to a minimum. But because I was trained to look at creativity as part of the growth of an individual, this vision of reducing consumption, making nothing, it is, in a way, offensive to the human intellect. So we have to find a way where we don’t kill ourselves with a model which is sterile.”
Of his own role, of the boss who inherited the top job, he is thoughtful too. “Never separate privileges from burdens, you are just born there, and you have to take what that means,” he muses. “The point is, what are you going to do with that? Absolutely I am privileged. I can think, I can do things. Does that bring responsibility and burdens? That is the question.”
by Marion Hume
Now that the brouhaha about The Great Gatsby has settled — at least until it ramps up again for movie awards season — shall we take a moment to examine its sartorial legacy? As in, does it have one? Or does it not? You’d think the answer would be easy. Count the glossy pages devoted to “Gatsby style” in the past months. But is there now a taste for flapper dresses in a shade I still like to call “Queen Mum mauve”? Have oyster satin pyjamas moved from boudoir to street? For gentlemen, have pink suits taken off? The answer — to all — is no.
What is beyond reasonable doubt is that double Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin is on track for her third Oscar, for her fearless mixing of the historically accurate with the utterly contemporary. But when the looks filter down, what we have is fun, not fashion. The reason ‘20s style is the perpetual party theme that is so easy to do — with something spangly, a gold T-bar shoe and a cheap wig. Almost every woman looks like she’s having a good time when you add a feather boa.
A few years ago, I was reminded of the power of ‘20s dressing thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Remember the volcano erupted? To cut one of my all-time favourite stories short, I was halfway through airline online check-in when I realised I needed a swift plan B to reach Venice. I hitched a ride on the Orient Express, a fun-filled flapper heaven (other than for me: I didn’t have time to theme-pack). The only mirrors on board are make-up sized, which means no one has a full-length view. Everyone thus dresses how they think they would like to look and, thanks perhaps to some dry martinis, everyone looks lovely. Not fashionable, but superbly theme-party lovely.
What is lovely is how loudly Catherine Martin has acknowledged the roles Tiffany & Co, Prada and Brooks Bros played in her overall costume creation. When she brings her Oscar count to a trifecta, I’ll wager that, once she’s effusively thanked her collaborator in life and work, the film’s director Baz Luhrmann, she will name-check all the above. By so doing, Martin will be acting more than graciously — she will be setting right a wrong done when The Great Gatsby last garnered an Oscar, in 1974. If you recall that version at all, what you’re most likely to remember is Robert Redford’s clothes (Mia Farrow’s Daisy is a more misty memory). Yet when costume designer Theoni Alderedge caressed her Oscar at the podium, she did not thank Ralph Lauren, an omission that made clear the attention he had been getting for his suits had got right under her skin.
Aldredge was not the first costume designer to neglect to thank the input of fashion designers. When Edith Head collected an Oscar for Sabrina (1954), she seemed not to recall that French couturier Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the new neckline that so flattered elfin Audrey Hepburn, igniting a trend. Givenchy didn’t stake his claim to the “Sabrina neckline” until years after Head’s death, even though those who’d worked with her at Paramount Pictures had, by then, confided that the costumes had been made up from Givenchy’s sketches.
As to the current Gatsby changing the way we dress, I doubt it. But acknowledging that you need creative collaboration to make something great? Well, that’s bang on trend.
The Australian Financial Review | May 2013
For me, fashion is always about vision. That doesn’t fit in a basement, no matter how snazzy the chandeliers. When the idea of an Australian Financial Review luxury business conference was first mooted, the least interested person was me. Nothing inspires me less than the thought of spending an airless day listening to guys in ties drone on to a backdrop of PowerPoints. Maybe – if the facts are fascinating and your business is finance or mining – that floats your boat.
To succeed we had to be bold. So the AFR Bespoke Luxury and Fashion Summit, held on Thursday, was inspired by the most audacious example, the Sydney Opera House. That had to be our venue. It is, after all, the most triumphant example of what can be achieved when talents from many disciplines come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.
From the building itself came the theme of the day: creative collaboration. It could have been a boring box on Bennelong Point had not the star architect of the 1950s, the Finn Eero Saarinen, dared to defend the startling submission by a little-known Dane, Joern Utzon. We had to provide a forum for new thinking; the Opera House stands up thanks to the determination of its engineer, Ove Arup, to think outside the box.
The image of the fashion designer issuing edicts from an ivory tower is long gone. Today, the world of fashion and luxury is collaborative, across all manner of disciplines. At Bespoke, Parisian Ramdane Touhami – a marketing genius who claims not to like marketing – told stories of how he reaches back into history to find products for today. Photographer and Aquabumps founder Eugene Tan, who hails from Bondi Beach, recounted how he chucked in the desk job, picked up a (waterproof) camera, dived into the surf and now sees his images on Speedo swimwear and thongs by Havaianas.
Design today is about teamwork, exemplified on stage by the handsome lads from Saturdays Surf NYC, who like Tan, chucked in desk jobs and built a surf brand in the unlikely location of Manhattan. Making things look easy is one of fashion’s best illusions, yet this global industry is built on long hours and considerable brinksmanship, even though millionaire jeans genie, Jeff Rudes, of J Brand, made it all sound so easy.
In the run-up to Bespoke, some people asked me: “Why now?” “Why here?”. To be blunt, that just sounded like the old cultural cringe. Why not now? Why not here?
Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings – literally, as the drills make the ground shake at Barangaroo – and we are on the brink of a new era. A city once on the outer edge is perfectly positioned as luxury’s modern metropolis-on-the-ocean. Global economies have shifted. Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world, a reason why I was also delighted to welcome to the stage, from Hong Kong and Shanghai, Regina Lam and Lisa Chang, who advise luxury goods companies on how to break into China.
While the international speakers who had travelled the furthest were fascinating, I suspect Kiwi designer Karen Walker was the most surprising. Could she be the first person from fashion to enter political office? She was enormously compelling.
Yet Bespoke was not about that old model of “people from over there telling us what to do over here”; instead it was about the transfer of knowledge in both directions. On that, it was important to remind everyone of the raw luxuries of Australia. We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – but we are right at the world’s luxury source.
Sydney’s industrial architecture of massive wharves stretching out into the water remind us this city, this nation, was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the ongoing role played by wool in the luxury business. The superfine suits by Ermenegildo Zegna and Dunhill, robust yet light and with unmatched recovery thanks to the finest microns of yarn, are – always – of Australian wool. So are the rigorously fitted dresses with which Victoria Beckham has redefined modern business attire for women across the globe.
For the wealthy woman in Beijing considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellane opal ring from Dior, the trail starts here. The sunburst yellow diamonds of Tiffany & Co hail from the Ellendale mine in the Far North West, the peerless pink diamonds in the creations of Bollywood jeweller Nirav Modi come from the Argyle mine, and from out in the Arafura sea, beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, come the lustrous south sea pearls that find their way into the creations of the best jewellers of Place Vendome.
Which brings us back to Paris, a city which has its eye on us. A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault – took a stake in RM Williams. Some were perplexed. What could the chic French want with work boots worn here by the boss and the jackaroo?
One word – macho. The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke. Australian brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, (especially) to the purveyors of luxury looking to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds. The aim of Bespoke was to inform and inspire; a reason I fought (against nail-biting time constraints) for the work of fashion photographer/filmmaker/web publisher Nick Knight– to me, the greatest image maker of our age – to be projected up on three vast screens. Accompanied by fashion icon Daphne Guinness singing opera, the film left some in the stalls perplexed, but for those up in the cheap seats – 400 students – it was the session they told me they loved the most.
For me , what I hope was the main takeaway of the day is that, to be truly stylish, we have to make fashion more fair. Lessons must be learned from last month’s tragedy in Bangladesh. Women (and it is almost always women) must not be enslaved, or lose their lives in a locked factory with insufficient foundations, so that we can get a “bargain”. As Simone Cipriani of the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative put it, “I am not saying everything should be expensive – times can be tough, even in Australia – I am saying be fair and buy well. Fashion is never, ever to die for”. The luxury world’s most important creative collaboration is with those who did not appear on the Opera House stage – the workers who make the clothes on our backs, the bags in our hands. The best fashion companies, such as Hermes, have had corporate social responsibility embedded in what they do since long before anyone in fashion talked about CSR. Today, the world’s third biggest luxury group, PPR (being rebranded under the name Kering), is being recalibrated, to a deadline of 2016, so that its P&L becomes an EP&L – with environmental and ethical impact included in the bottom line.
I am far removed from the ethical hippy tree-hugging type. I work within the world’s most glamourous industry. Yet my driving ambition for Bespoke, always, was to use one of the world’s most celebrated stages to shift the needle. Maybe, just maybe, we did that.
Good morning everyone.
Welcome aboard Bespoke.
As you took your seats, you saw a visual celebration of Australia’s raw luxuries.
We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – we ARE right at the world’s luxury source.
Let’s start on Sydney Harbour. The Australian Financial Review is headquartered at Pyrmont, on land once sold for a gallon of rum to Captain James Macarthur.
Sailing on the Second Fleet, it was Captain James Macarthur who brought the first merino sheep to Australia.
Industrial architecture – the massive finger wharfs stretching out into the water – reminds us that this city – this nation – was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the vital role played by wool in fashion today.
Superfine suits by Zegna, Paul Smith, Burberry?
Dion Lee reached the finals of the Woolmark awards in London, where one of the judges was Victoria Beckham, whose designs – in Australian superfine – have re-defined what women wear in the boardroom.
Our ancient island continent is rich indeed. For the wealthy woman in Shanghai considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellaine opal ring from Dior; the trail starts here.
There’s Australian gold, sunburst yellow diamonds from Ellendale and from out beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, in the sparkling Arafura sea; Pinctada maxima – the shells the size of dinner plates, south sea pearls lustrous to behold. These greenest of gems which thrive only in pristine waters – become jewelled creations by Paspaley, Kailis and Harry Winston and Tiffany & Co on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Our mineral wealth inspires our artists. In 1983, Jenny Kee created Opal Oz which Karl Lagerfeld used in his first ready-to-wear collection for Chanel.
In 2007, Gloria Pet-yar-ee’s art became “Gloria’s Dream”, a silk scarf for Hermes.
Just a few weeks ago, Zegna revealed a collaboration with Dorothy Nap-an-gardi, whose artwork, Salt, was incorporated in to the menswear collection.
Then there’s the Argyle Diamond mine. Argyle’s peerless pinks find their way into the hands – or actually, the tweezers – of only the world’s finest jewellers – the Australians celebrated in the Beyond Rare brochure today – with others around the world including Chow Tai Fook in Beijing, Nirav Modi in Mumbai and Van Cleef & Arpels on Place Vendome… which takes us back, again, to Paris.
…A city which has its eye on us.
A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault – took a stake – through its investment arm – in RM Williams.
Some of my business colleagues at the AFR were perplexed. What could the chi-chic French want with work boots worn by everyone here, from the boss to a jackaroo?
One word – macho.
The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke. The appeal is somewhat like our actors – Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Joel Edgerton, Sam Worthington, Jason Clark – we send em out tough and rugged.
Equally, Australia brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, to the purveyors of luxury looking – especially – to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds.
Akubra is not for sale. This family firm just turned 100 and the whispers are that the hatters of the Outback have exciting plans ahead. They certainly have unusual customers – the second biggest market for Australia’s celebrated hats? It’s … Tibet.
Might a brand go global from here? The best-known luxury brands trace their roots back to hard work; Louis Vuitton made steamer trunks, Thierry Hermes was a saddler. So why not one from the land of hard yakka?
Still, it’s got to be said, we’re pretty good at relaxing too – and creating sand-between-the-toes chic which labels – such as Zimmerman – export to the world.
Australia today has one of the world’s most robust economies, thanks largely to a resource not connected to the fashion world; iron ore.
Yet we also breed entrepreneurs who are focusing – not – on what we can sell over there, but on what – they – can buy over here.
I’m talking about a sophisticated focus on inbound tourism aimed in particular at top-tier Chinese visitors.
Their expenditure in Australia is expected to top $9 billion by 2020.
Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world.
Global economies have shifted and Sydney is perfectly positioned as the modern metropolis-on-the-ocean.
And what does the tyranny of distance mean anymore, anyway?
In a scan-and-shop digital age?
The theme of Bespoke is creative collaboration. The Sydney Opera House is stunning example of what can be achieved when talents, from many disciplines, come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.
Today, fashion has to be collaborative if it is to fly. The days of the designer issuing edits from an ivory tower are gone. This global industry thrives on partnerships. Yet we must not ignore new paradigms. Where we must be bold is in ways that make fashion more fair.
So what does Australian luxury mean?
To me, it is all about encapsulating how we live, how diverse we are, this vast land and the blue sea.
In the past few days, it’s been a joy to welcome our speakers from around the world and to watch them, falling in love, as I did when I first landed here in 1996.
“Why can’t I live here?”
“Why can’t I live by the water?”
They’ve been saying to me, “Why can’t I live like you do?”
Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings.
Literally – in that, every New Year’s Eve, the world turns in this direction and watches as fireworks on the Harbour Bridge illuminate the Opera House sails.
Our first speaker is the creative director of a brand which has a direct relationship to The Sydney Opera House.
Please welcome – in the brave and bold position of walking on first – Ana Maria Escobar, the Creative Director of Oroton Group.
by Marion Hume
What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?
The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.
I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.
The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia, twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.
Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.
I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.
I learn another new word; “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”
All That Baz
A new film of The Great Gatsby recreates the glamour and decadence of the Prohibition era. Marion Hume meets the director Baz Luhrmann on the set, where — as in the novel — reality and illusion collide.
The Telegraph | April 2013
The Great Gatsby is a slender book. Yet you can be certain of a sweeping epic of a film in May. In F Scott Fitzgerald’s introspective novel, every utterance is weighed. This is not how things work in the world of Baz Luhrmann. You don’t even get through the question, ‘When did you first read the…’ before the 50-year-old director who brought us Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Australia is in full flow.
‘I was on my break after making Moulin Rouge, on the Trans-Siberian, and I don’t want to bag out Mongolia, but it was a bit lonely and that’s when I decided, I have to read The Great Gatsby. It was unbelievable! This was written when jazz was around and parents were arresting their children and putting them in court because they were so out of control. The orgy of money and booze! Only yesterday women were wearing hems down to their ankles and now they were wearing underwear as clothing!’
This, in Luhrmann-land (a magical place to be), counts as a short soundbite. Just as he makes films that seem to draw their megawatt dazzle straight off the mains, so does Luhrmann himself seem powered by an extraordinary voltage.
We are meeting in a mansion on the East Coast of the United States, where a wild party is in full swing, the bandmaster is spinning like a top and louche ladies are lounging on lilos shaped like floating zebras in a floodlit swimming pool. Beyond the garden, stumbling stragglers are enjoying their own inebriated merriment down on the beach. Way out in the distance a green landing light blinks from a dock. ‘What is Gatsby? What is a gangster? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Once you realise that everyone’s living a bit of a lie, then everyone finds it easier to live a very big lie. This…’ Luhrmann says with a vast sweep, ‘is the Prohibition. Just look at those bottles of Moët!’
While the Moët is the real McCoy, we are not, of course, at Jay Gatsby’s sumptuous home. Actually, we’re not even in America, but in Sydney, on one of the biggest sound stages in the world. A few miles across town, smack in the centre of one of the grittiest inner-city neighbourhoods, stands a real mansion (rather than one of putty and paint), called Iona, the headquarters of the global empire that is Bazmark Films. There, alongside those involved with Gatsby, another team is working on the live stage show of Strictly Ballroom, the 1992 film with which Luhrmann did nothing short of change the way more than 40 nations watch Saturday night television. It’s true – the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (and Dancing with the Stars, as it is known in other markets) was inspired by his love story of a gallumphing girl transformed in the arms of her dance partner.
‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,’ was the mantra of that film, which marked its then 29-year-old Australian director as one to watch. It remains the motto of Bazmark, and certainly taking on Gatsby is the act of a fearless man. To Americans it is something of a sacred text: it has been filmed five times before (as a silent movie in 1926; in 1949 starring Alan Ladd; most lusciously with Robert Redford in the lead role in a 1974 version with a script by Francis Ford Coppola; it was filmed for television in 2000 and again, with a modern twist, as G in 2002). Adding to that, Luhrmann is amping up the sexual tension to a hip-hop soundtrack by Jay-Z, and he is filming in 3D.
‘I just hope that we open the door to a new generation and we tell the story well,’ he says. ‘3D allows you to see awesome actors in the prime of their career going at each other. For me, it’s about watching actors act.’ He pauses. ‘The special effects look pretty good, too!’
The Great Gatsby follows a young Midwesterner, Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire), as he arrives in Manhattan in the wild spring of 1922, at a time when the bond market is rocketing, bootleggers are thriving and morals are loosening. He rents a house in Long Island, next to the mansion of a mysterious new-money millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the water from the old-moneyed – and unfaithful – Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), married to Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). He quickly gets caught up in a world of arrogant privilege and bears witness to its tragic consequences.
To the edge of the party stands the host. On cue he turns to face the camera. ‘I’m Jay Gatsby. I’m sorry, Old Sport, I thought that you knew that,’ DiCaprio says to Tobey Maguire. The pair do take after take. To keep things fresh, Maguire starts feeding deviations on the script to his friend, but with 3D, every possible camera angle is covered, and rudimentary lip-reading reveals his ad libs are rude. (‘Ah,’ Maguire says, chastened, when we meet later, ‘you saw?’) Yet DiCaprio is flawless. He turns, dazzles, holds a beat, then says again, ‘I’m Jay Gatsby.’
The subtitle of the novel, written in 1925, was ‘The tale of a man who built himself an illusion to live by’. As an actor DiCaprio has proved himself a master of the illusion that is movie-making, ever since, as an already-seasoned performer of 18, he almost stole What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? from Johnny Depp. DiCaprio has since become a screen star so consistently outstanding (he has been nominated three times for an Academy Award, for Gilbert Grape, Blood Diamond and The Aviator) that it is beginning to look like bad manners that he has never received an Oscar.
As we learn in the novel, Gatsby, born James Gatz, is a poor boy who has willed himself wealthy to get the girl he has always loved, and is now the subject of endless speculation. In fiction, strangers trade Gatsby stories; outside in the long, hot Australian summer of filming, it is ‘Leo’ who is the fodder. Girls hold vigil where he is alleged to be staying. If he appears in public, there’s a feeding frenzy; if he doesn’t, the paparazzi seek him here, seek him there, perhaps egged on by some sense of entitlement – of a film budget rumoured to be AU$120 million (£82 million), some $50 million is being funded, indirectly, by the Australian public in the form of tax concessions.
Even my silver-haired aunt has a Leo story. Her dreadlocked surfer-dude handyman disappears for weeks, only to come back looking as sleek as an otter because he has landed the job of Leo’s body double. This proves a useful barometer for gauging if the star is on set or has left town: when DiCaprio, a committed environmentalist, headed off to visit the widow of the Crocodile Man, Steve Irwin, Auntie Jean got her lawn mown.
On set, too, it is DiCaprio about whom everyone is curious. Very few international reporters have been allowed access. ‘I wonder if we’ll meet Leo?’ the reporter from Munich whispers. ‘I hope so!’ swoons the one from Spain. Yet as we walk between sound stages, DiCaprio, who, unusually for a film star, is far taller than you’d expect, walks directly towards us. He neither evades nor engages. Extraordinarily, only two of us even register that it is him.
When a novel is loved, the challenge is to make a retelling sizzle. The executive producer, Doug Wick, secured the rights for Luhrmann, who, he believes, will make a story so many people know by heart feel fresh once more. ‘If a young person sees this, they better think it’s a cool party. Baz knows how to throw a party,’ Wick says.
Luhrmann’s given name of Mark was ditched not long after he left Herons Creek, a dot on the map of New South Wales where his father ran the petrol station and the cinema. The boy became the man who maintains an Outback-scaled theatricality. When Baz and his costume and production designer wife, Catherine Martin, married on the stage of the Sydney Opera House in 1997, legend has it that the celebrant descended by zip wire.
An Australian in a beanie hat shuffles up. Joel Edgerton snared the role of the entitled and athletic Tom Buchanan after Ben Affleck pulled out when his passion project Argo got the green light. When Edgerton (recently seen in Zero Dark Thirty) met Luhrmann the director gave him a copy of the book. ‘I’ve never been a big reader in my life. I don’t hold books as precious as a lot of other people do,’ Edgerton says. ‘I dropped it into my bag and went to meet a friend and I was like, “Baz gave me a copy of the book,” and my mate said, “Give me a look at that.” And it was a very, very special copy, which I didn’t understand all that much – you know, when books are printed and what edition they are – and then I felt terrible that I’d shown such ignorance or arrogance.’
Edgerton must project both – as well as the faintest hint of a heart – in the role of a hard-muscled, flinty, white supremacist whose other girl is Myrtle Wilson (played by a fellow-Australian, Isla Fisher), the blousy bride of a garage mechanic. ‘Tom’s socio-economic background is different from mine, although I do plan one day to be as rich as Tom Buchanan,’ Edgerton says, laughing. ‘Working with Baz, he’s basically Wikipedia. He provides you with all the doors and rooms and avenues and pathways to understand the world from etiquette to language to design to everything else.’
Edgerton (of Bankstown, NSW, far removed from posh) has grasped the differences between old money and new wealth. ‘Have you seen my house yet? Make sure you wipe your feet. My house is like the White House. Gatsby’s house is like Disneyland, all about the glitz and glamour, and mine’s all elegant and pure. And then Myrtle’s apartment is like my Nana’s been decorating. On crack. It’s the tackiest little apartment you’ve ever seen. Yes, Tom likes shagging her, but every time he walks in he looks around and goes, “Oh, God, not another ornament.”’
Outside on the lawn, where the air is heady with the scent of roses, a lithe girl in an oyster satin trouser suit is casually swinging a strand of pearls. ‘I have some beautiful rings, too,’ she says, extending her hand by way of a hello. The character is Jordan Baker, a golf pro who has an affair with Carraway; the actress is Elizabeth Debicki, an ingenue straight from drama school. ‘Baz saw me and he asked me,’ she explains with Jordan-like nonchalance.
Scott Fitzgerald was a customer of Tiffany & Co, the most famous jeweller of the Jazz Age. Thus despite it being highly unusual and fraught with risk to use real gems on a film set, Catherine Martin spent months working with the company to reissue a few original 1920s designs and to come up with others with an Art Deco feel. ‘There’s something about knowing that they’re incredibly expensive. It makes you move your hands differently,’ Debicki says.
While the rest of the little press posse goes back to Gatsby’s house, I sneak off to meet Charlie – no other name is given, and when I notice his muscles, I dare not ask. After the double-locked doors, past the CCTV cameras, Charlie opens a safe like a pro, slips on black cotton gloves and starts opening Tiffany-blue boxes. ‘See here, Daisy got this when she was a little girl,’ he says, cradling a silver locket in his enormous hand. I’m rather more taken by what Daisy gets as a grown-up. There’s an exquisite bejewelled brace of feathers on a plaster-pink ribbon. ‘It sits, like this, on her head,’ Charlie says, demonstrating on himself, somewhat incongruously. ‘It is in what will become a famous scene, where she’s standing in the sun, looks across and sees Gatsby.’
Two days later I return to catch up with Catherine Martin. It is now December 22, steaming hot outside and tense indoors because everything must wrap by lunchtime if Carey Mulligan is to make it back to England for Christmas Eve. ‘Fine jewellery is called fine jewellery for a reason,’ Martin starts. ‘Case in point: Daisy’s headpiece. It’s an archival piece that was made in the late teens. And I thought that was perfect, it could almost have belonged to her mother and then she gets it. It has been remade by Tiffany, but we also use genuine pieces.’
One of these is a jabot pin carved from rock crystal embellished with onyx and diamonds. It is among Tiffany & Co’s most treasured artifacts, and it is Charlie’s main job to protect it. Yet when Jordan Baker meets Nick Carraway she shows off the precious pin stuck casually into her hat. Among the many pieces that have been created specially for the film are cufflinks, a signet ring and the silver handle of a cane, each of which carries Gatsby’s monogram of a daisy, his permanent aide memoire for the reason he is so passionate about the trappings of wealth: because he believes the girl he loves requires them.
Martin’s unbreakable rule has been, ‘Never one feather only. This is not a flapper-themed 21st-birthday party. My aim,’ she says, ‘is to express the true nature of the period through an eclectic combination of things that have a real point of reference.’
This does not mean that she is a stickler for historical accuracy. Part of Martin’s genius (she has won two Oscars, after all, one as production designer, the other as costume designer, both for Moulin Rouge) is how she mixes modern pieces that reference the past in order to make that past seem current. ‘You can’t live your life in fear of the fashion police,’ she says as we flick through racks of delicious dresses by Prada.
‘You have to do what’s right to tell the story and what you believe makes an ethereal moment.’ Like those inflatable zebras in the pool, I say, thinking back to how the eye-popping stripes added even more verve to the party scene. She stops in her tracks. ‘Leonardo was saying to me the other day, “Those zebra lilos didn’t exist,” and I said, “Yes, I have a picture of them.” Here it is.’ (I take the photocopy, glad that Leo and I have at least connected somehow.)
As I leave, I spy Carey Mulligan, slumped on a chair as her final scene is set up, wearing a breathtaking crystal-encrusted Prada party dress with a hideous pair of Crocs. The clock is ticking. I ask her if the Tiffany rock on her finger has helped her to ‘find’ the flighty, beautiful Daisy? ‘I do find myself staring at her ring,’ she replies. ‘I mean, I would never spend more than £100. I would never in a million years imagine actually owning this, so it does throw you into that world. Have you met Charlie who follows me around? The whole notion of Tom and Daisy is that Tom seduces her and wraps her in jewellery. He contains her with his money. They have become a couple because she wanted a great sense of wealth and superiority and he ensnared her with these things.’ She twirls the ring on her slender finger. ‘You feel the weight. In the scenes between Daisy and Gatsby, the engagement ring Tom gave her becomes such a weighty thing.’
In the end, Mulligan will catch her plane. DiCaprio will leave town and my aunt will once again have a gorgeous garden. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ is how Scott Fitzgerald ended his finest work. As to how Luhrmann ends what promises to be his – and does so in 3D – remains a mystery until next month.
The Great Gatsby is out on May 16. Tiffany’s Ziegfeld Collection celebrates the company’s collaboration with Warner Bros and Bazmark Films on The Great Gatsby (tiffany.co.uk)
by Marion Hume
It was the best runway show held on a runway. Well, to be accurate, it ties as my joint favourite of only two fashion shows ever shown on a runway. I’m using the Australian sense of that word (a long straight strip on which planes land) as opposed to the American, where it also means the thin strip catwalk models swank down.
The first runway show I saw was some twenty years ago when the brainiac of fashion, Hussein Chalayan, revealed a conceptual collection called “Beyond False Equator” illuminated by aircraft landing lights. Great shows stick.
The other is likely to remain front-of-mind to Australians for years to come, given it began with the roar of jet engines and then out came the new Qantas uniforms. We all know Qantas is NOT the national airline (the people don’t own it) but when it comes to distilling the modern spirit of chic, sophisticated, multifaceted Australia, frankly, Qantas nailed it.
You don’t need me to describe the trench coat, the slender dress, the shorts for the baggage handlers – by now, the images are everywhere. After decades being unknown except to the tight, top-tier of the fashion world, Melbournian, Martin Grant (a long time resident of Paris) who Qantas hired as the designer, at last needs no introduction – although he is hardly what you would call an overnight success.
I grabbed an aisle seat a few rows back (always my preference), in amongst flight attendants who were seeing what they will wear to work for the next decade for the first time. “Loving the Qantas red with the hot pink!” the woman next to me exclaimed, not to me but to herself, in affirmation that she felt her pride in her job sweeping back back. Clothes can, you see, be powerful. The best uniforms can unite a workforce in a common goal.
You get it that my verdict on the Qantas uniforms is excellent when it comes to style but top marks to in terms of the politics of business, which can be very turbulent. Habitually, when corporations collide with fashion, the results end up ugly. Corporations have what I call an “Auntie Mame” view; they come to those funny people in fashion for glamour, yet want it for a buck in cheap synthetics. Surprisingly perhaps, fashion designers tend to tone things down yet they want beautiful fabrics and everything in a tiny size. Then it goes to committee where there’s an uneasy compromise, especially when the resulting designs are scaled for the climates of 5 continents and in sizes 2 to 22.
In addition, when corporates call the fashion world, usually, they are after a star, a personality who can be rolled out like a camp court jester. Martin Grant is no performer. He is quietly spoken, determined, diligent and has built his business one client at time. As a result, he knows where the bumps are and how to plan for them.
There are bumps ahead for the global aviation industry in the sky and on the ground. Yet Qantas can certainly tick one box; for motivating its far flung global battalions in a modern way. The era of the trolley dolly is over. It’s not about marrying the pilot or the guy in seat 1Aand the new Qantas uniforms signal pride in one’s career.
Martin Grant told me it was pressure from the flight attendants that persuaded him to add the gloves, the hat. “Too right,” say my friend Suze, who flies domestic for Qantas. “I’m in my 50s. You don’t get much attention. But in that outfit, I can’t wait to see the heads turn as we march through the terminal”
Call this lift off to a new and stylish corporate dawn.
J Brand founder Jeff Rudes wanted to create the perfect pair of jeans. Now, as Marion Hume writes, he is turning the denim brand into a fully fledged fashion label.
The Australian Financial Review | March 2013
Subsequently published in Business of Fashion
Question: What do the queen bee of fashion, the future queen of the realm and the longest-reigning king of rock ‘n roll have in common? Hint: it is not a label you can see on the back of their jeans. This is because J Brand, jeans megalith, a phenomenon so extraordinary it has actually changed what “jeans” means, does not slap a big label on your behind. Call these discrete jeans. If you are old school and right now, in your mind’s eye, you are seeing blue, scratch that. That is not what the editor of American Vogue or Kate Middleton or Mick Jagger are looking for.
Anna Wintour is, one might surmise, exacting aboutwhat she puts on to her slender form. The Duchess of Cambridge faces a long lens even when she pops out to walk Lupo the dog. As for Sir Mick, he embraces the limelight in pants too tight to be decent on any other man about to turn 70 – and he likes it.
Every fashion editor I know wears J Brand. Every movie star – no, really, find one who doesn’t – wears J Brand: Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. So does Rihanna.
How can you tell? That’s when it gets harder. J Brand sells more than two million pairs of jeans a year, yet somehow manages to seem niche in a manner that has most of the other jeans giants scratching their heads.
It is easier to start with what these jeans are not, than with what they are:There are no rhinestones across the buttocks, no signature stitching on the rear, no big envelope pockets, no weird holes, no other identifiable features. The genius of Jeff Rudes, when he set up J Brand back in 2005, was to see the jean not as a vintage item or a homily to Home on the Range or as a grab-attention item, but as a style staple, the central skinny anchor to a fashionable silhouette.
That these are “fashion” jeans not “designer” jeans – despite the input of cutting edge fashion designers Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan, Proenza Schouler as collaborators – needs to be explained. For that, let’s whizz backwards. Jeans were born in the USA. Yes, denim comes de Nimes, from the town in France where indigo dye was pioneered. But it was out west, in the days of the great American pioneers, that an Ashkenazi Jewish merchant named Levi Strauss met a tailor from Riga, Latvia, and fronted up the cash for the latter’s smart idea to make work wear more sturdy by adding metal at the pressure points. The tailor’s name was Jacob Davis, which just goes to show that history favours the investor.
Along with Levis have come as many cowboy brands as you’d find on a cattle ranch. Then came “poor little rich girl” Gloria Vanderbilt, the face – or more specifically, the arse – of the first true designer jeans. As a teenage Brooke Shields was claiming that nothing came between her and her Calvins, over in France, Marithé and Francois Girbaud were throwing pumice stones into the wash and the Japanese were tooling up, as were the Dutch with GStar.
Let’s surge forward now, past sass & bide and Ksubi, and behold something dark and not remotely casual Friday: a “premium” jean. Jeff Rudes, a handsome silver fox in his mid 50s, is a jeans guy. He launched his first jeans line in New York when he was 18, sold it, moved to jeans manufacturing hub Los Angeles, launched another line, sold it, became the king of private label making jeans for other people, stopped, and with a former girlfriend came up with what seemed a very novel concept: jeans that weren’t washed or paint-splattered or destructed or possessed of screamy branding or so baggy you could camp in them. The vision was for clean jeans with the least likely name (the J stands for Jeff). Angelina Jolie liked them.
Then, in 2010, J Brand gave us a non-denim, skinny cargo pant. They sold 300,000 plus pairs of the Houlihan, then discontinued the style while addicts around the world were howling for them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fashion business.
There’s a slight delay in my meeting Jeff Rudes. As my plane lands in LA, his takes off, unavoidable as he is needed in New York for the press conference to announce that the company, whose 2011 net sales were approximately US $124million, has been acquired by the Japanese fashion giant, Fast Retailing. The world’s fourth largest apparel retail company owns labels such as Helmut Lang and Uniqlo and generated global sales for the last fiscal year of ¥928 billion ($9.8 billion). Fast Retailing acquired an 80.1 per cent stake, meaning that Rudes, when I do meet him, is a very happy, very wealthy man.
As Rudes is heading back on the red eye, international sales manager Robert Brown invites me to dinner at Soho House, West Hollywood. We are waiting for the barman to fix our eastern standard cocktails before taking our seats when a man walks in, eyes Brown’s J Brand-clad legs and utters the line: “Are those Tylers? Aren’t they great? I’m wearing the ass out of mine.” I wonder if I have stumbled into a cult.
The postponed interview means time to do significant market intelligence checking out the brand’s positioning (which, yes, translates as hanging around in several smart malls and in Barneys New York on Rodeo Drive). I observe how much the selling of jeans has changed. For women, jeans are now, solidly, a fashion item. Men have taken longer to change gear, simply because men are so brand loyal. When I ask Rudes later who he wishes would switch to J Brand, he bats back: “Brad Pitt”. The PR cuts in: “Brad wears them, Jeff. Remember, riding the motor cycle?”
We meet in his office in downtown LA (worn wood floors, huge American flag), where I am transfixed by a pin-board full of thank you notes from famous people, but there’s no time to linger because he’s heading down to the factory below. J Brand is headquartered just off a freeway ramp in an area best described as gritty. Besides this factory, there are five more, at capacity, producing premium jeans for J Brand, within a
Rudes rubs his hands over bolts of denim. He gives an impassioned speech on the importance of ironing, transfixed as a big guy tackles a seam: “You couldn’t do it with a machine, you wouldn’t be able to press these seams and keep them apart and the distance from both equal. You could easily buy a machine but you lose the integrity.”
The factory is unusual in that the majority of workers are men; the tailors, the pressers. That they just do their thing while the boss is nearby indicates he is nearby all the time. Back upstairs in his office, Rudes is charming, engaged, yet you do get the sense that he wishes there was a trap door under his chair that could just flip him back down to where the action is.
As to the big new business action, he is excited. “We’ve moved very slow and cautious,” he says. “That’s why it took eight years when most brands would have [expanded] sooner. We are very focused on what we are doing.”
The expansion includes pumping up a full ready-to-wear line – tops, coats, jackets – launched quietly last year, with creative director Donald Oliver. From now on, that will be going at full bore. “Now everything will move faster, because the market perception is ‘you guys grew up’.We will be seen as a fashion brand. There will be flagships, there will be growth.”
While other businesses rely on data, fashion fairy tales start with a hunch. The denim market is crowded, was crowded eight years ago when Rudes’ faith was with the opposite of what was “in” at the time. “For us, it was always about dressing a woman in a chic way,” he says. “I had experiences in the jean space and knew it was the moment to change.”
J Brand has pushed skinny as far as anatomically possible (ankle zips help). “We knew who was buying the jeans at the start. Itwas the fashion savvy girl. But aspirationally, we knew it would go more mass because what we saw was, when anyone tried on our jeans, she looked amazing. And who doesn’t want to look amazing?”
The big thing, he says, is jeans are emotional in a manner perhaps only paralleled, for women, by shoes. “I always tell my team we are really selling an emotion. That’s why women want to find a new great pair of jeans all the time, because if something can make you feel and look beautiful and feel sexy – not overtly sexy, but you feel confident and there are compliments – you can remember that.”
It seems Australian women agree with that. “We want instant fashion that looks amazing, fits perfectly, is of superior quality and affordable; J Brand is at the fashion forefront,” says Janine Edwards, head of Edwards Imports, which sells “literally, thousands” of J Brand jeans in Australia each year.
If you fly with fashion, you could die with fashion. Rudes showed considerable brinksmanship by halting the Houlihan juggernaut (search Houlihan on www.jbrandjeans.com and you simply get directed to the current hot style, no mention of discontinued or out of stock). He and his design team also took a punt on a daring combination: bright + skinny – not seen since the disco 80s. And when the catwalks got brighter, they were ready.
“I think it was fall 2010,” Rudes says. “We had bright on our line but they weren’t quite as bright. A light bulb went off and we did BRIGHT. You’ve gotta time it, you might have to store it, then you see how the designers are doing it and say ‘we are going to be part of it’.” But always, there’s the emotion: “When a woman picks up something new, there has to be that trust, ‘I know when I wear it, I look beautiful’.”
Way back in the hippie era, denim was alternative, suits were evil. In terms of sustainability, the story hasn’t quite panned out that way, given cotton is among the most rapacious crops in the world. Rudes faces the corporate social responsibility question with an honesty in admirable contrast to other jeans tsars, who waffle about interesting experiments making cloth out of nettles. “Organic cotton isn’t the difference,” he argues. “What is making a difference is we are transforming our laundries. Everybody is paying attention to the use of water and the chemicals that were being used around the world and should not be part of the manufacturing of jeans.”
Also grabbing attention: advertising campaigns. No boys in their underpants in laundries anymore. J Brand’s ad spend for 2012 topped US $1 million, including media buys in magazines such as Vanity Fair, French Vogue and style.com for slick pictures taken by Craig McDean. Yet for all Rudes’ talk of elevating the jean, it is a mumsy style that has really rocked.
“It’s mid-rise and it is in this soft twill gabardine,” he defends the style that proved the royal Kate has even more kerching! than Kate Moss. “She wore a more conservative, let’s say, skinny. It didn’t really touch you at the ankle, it pulled away a little bit but it’s sold A LOT,” says Rudes,who, no, has not met her and, yes, she paid retail.
As for Sir Mick Jagger, when J Brand launched a men’s line in 2008, it was with two styles, the skinny, called Mick, and the bootleg, called Clint. Eastwood wears them, too. “I always loved The Stones; it’s kind of come full circle now that he is wearing them,” says Rudes. “The call came for the lightest weight denim we make because of the way he moves on stage and has to be comfortable. So it’s got a great stretch, it’s paper-thin, seven ounces, our lightest weight women’s fabric. We never thought of making a men’s garment in that fabric, but when he suggested it, it completely made sense.” J Brand got a credit in the souvenir tour programme.
That thing about fit? When I arrived in the offices, I passed a tall, handsome man. Nothing extraordinary there, plenty of good looking people here. Much later, Rudes is walking me out and we pass an open door and there he is again. “We use the human body,” Rudes explains as the “fit model” nods hello. “It’s about having great pattern-makers and the knowledge of what you want to do with the fit, technically, to make the bum look better and lift and shape it. ”How long will he be here? “Maybe four more hours” says the guy. How often
is he here? “There’s a bunch of us that do this. I’m here maybe three days a week.”
One last thing. Rudes’ “we will be seen as a fashion brand” billboard statement? It’s already happened. As temperatures plummet during New York Fashion Week, clothing to suit an urban life proves a hit. “Women won’t just be buying these clothes; they’ll be wearing the hell out of them, too,” trumpets style.com. Or perhaps “wearing the ass out of them”. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that.
This man wants to inspire Aussie blokes to embrace fashion. And his targets are not just the urban (and urbane) variety. As Marion Hume discovers, who knew there was a peacock just off the Birdsville Track?
The Austalian Financial Review | March 2013
After the hard yakka of running 12,000 head of beef cattle over 1.6 million acres, Clayton Oldfield pulls on new jeans and heads to the Birdsville Hotel. “For the pub, you want something nice,” he says. The label on those jeans? “Aww, now you’re testing me.” He doesn’t know the label on the new shirt either. Oldfield, 29, was born and raised where the north-east corner of South Australia meets the south-west corner of Queensland. How far is the nearest shop? “Define what you mean as shop.” Twice a year, he drives 1300 kilometres to Adelaide to get what he needs. Then it’s straight back to Sturt Stony Desert: few people, deadly snakes.
Yet he’s been using his broadband connection for more than keeping up with the price of stud bulls. “Mr Porter’s easy,” he says of the global online menswear retailer. “Once, the jeans were the wrong size. You just let them know you’re sending a parcel back and take it to the post office.” (That’s only a 52-kilometre round trip.)
How did a fourth-generation cattleman get with the fashion scene? “I just look at the design and I go from there,” says Oldfield. “I know what looks good, nothing really outrageous. I like that there’s a lot of stuff there, there’s clothing I might not have tried.” He hits the site “about once a month, once every couple of months”.
It is no empty boast that www.mrporter.com has changed the look of the Aussie bloke, whether it is the urban fanatics trawling late night for Lanvin or Saint Laurent, or the men of the Never Never – off the Birdsville Track or at Yulara, out by Uluru – or even those on Lord Howe Island who like a bit of James Perse for the cool of an evening.
The company does not release figures, but it is understood that sales to Australia rank second behind the UK, where Mr Porter is based, and ahead of the US. It may only be the urban shoppers who lap up the extras: the online magazine, the snazzy apps, the video content, some of it voiced by a fruity-vowelled Englishman (“Cary Grant’s father taught him the art of understatement. Remember it’s you walking down the street, not the socks. Mr Grant never forgot it.”) However, for the far-flung, it’s a style lifeline. “You just wait a couple of weeks and it’s there at the post,” says Oldfield.
Delivery is swifter if you live in a city. At present, it takes three to four days for the Aussie man to get a Mr Porter fix, delivered in distinctive black-lettered white packaging. The first Australian order was received within 30 minutes of the site’s launch on February 19, 2011, and an E. Tautz wool tie embarked on its way to Warracknabeal, in Victoria’s wheat belt. In the first 24 hours of trading, nearly 20 per cent of the international orders were from Australia, three times more than any country outside the UK. In two years, Mr Porter has “grown to an astonishing size compared to where Net-A-Porter was in the same period of time,” says Natalie Massenet, the founder and executive chairman of Net-A-Porter Group. (The Outnet, which sells designer wares from previous seasons, is the third of a trio of distinct offerings.)
To be fair, the foundations were more solid than 13 years ago,when, from her kitchen, Massenet worked out howto use the new fangled internet to flog designer clothes. In 2010,Net-A-Porter Group was acquired by multi-brand giant Richemont in a deal which valued it at £350million ($519million).
While the vastness of Oldfield’s outback backyard deserves the adjective “awesome”, a world away, so too does Net-A-Porter’s global HQ,which sits atop Westfield London. When I last interviewed Massenet (AFR Magazine, December 2010), inside the penthouse office floor, the company she founded occupied a third of the available space. Now, barring a gym in one corner, she has it all.
The group employs more than 2500 people across three continents. In London, plasma screens log global sales live: a man in Cleveland buys a Canali suit, a woman in Stockholm snaps up a shirt by Jil Sander. It’s the middle of the night in Australia, yet suddenly the globe swivels and an icon of a white bag lands on Australia. Last time I was here, the daily sales ticker stood at £455,443. On a January day in 2013, while Washington is headed for a fiscal cliff and London is braced against news of an economic double dip, the figure tops £2.5 million. “Please don’t write that down, a lot of stuff is reduced on sale,” begs the press officer.
It would help to have binoculars to spot Jeremy Langmead across this massive building.Once I reach the man at the helm of Mr Porter,we shake hands in a suitably “man’s world” way, then walk – or rather, hike, given the distance – to Massenet’s corner office,where she flops on the sofa and he perches beside her. Massenet, a former magazine fashion editor, hired Langmead from Esquire magazine. I ask how he is faring, across the barricades in the world of commerce. “Shall I leave the room?” he gestures to the other side of the plate glass. She says he was always the front runner, especially after that other candidate turned up for his interview in shorts. “Shorts!” Massenet hoots. Does Mr Porter not sell shorts? “We do.” Perhaps the candidate hailed from Australia? “He did not.”
Langmead, who was editor-in-chief of Wallpaper for four years before editing UK Esquire, admits he was desperate for the job. “One of the frustrations of being in print magazines was that I wanted to do so much more than I was able to. We had a very small blog budget, £15 a month or something. And I have quite a short attention span.” He was also bored with the pretence of a church-and-state division between editorial and advertising, which – while vital in a publication such as AFR Magazine – makes little sense in fashion glossies, which are pretty much “pay for play”, meaning those who advertise get coverage, those who do not rarely do. “You were featuring things but you were never really sure if readers liked them,” Langmead says. “Here, you know instantly. You can see what they’ve read and what they’ve bought. I like that.”
While he and the woman who hired him clearly share a can-do determination, his is schoolboy eager (although he sports a beard and has two grownup sons); hers still has the nervy feistiness she needed at the beginning to prove the doubters wrong. Theworld’s most glamorous geek exudes not an iota of the puffed-up smugness of a business titan, even though she pocketed £50 million from the Richemont sale; has been awarded an MBE; and is at the start of a five-year pro bono tenure as chairman of the British Fashion Council, the first woman thus anointed,which may very well lead to a trip to the palace and “arise Dame Natalie”.
No resting on laurels now. The fashion world might exalt Massenet, watching her in the front row, copying what she wears, buying whatever device she might pull from her handbag. But this mother of “kids who are BBMing and instant messaging and Instagramming” (she has daughters aged 13 and seven) knows the challenge ahead. In the early days, it was to drag the fashion pack up to speed.Now, it is to outpace a consumer for whom luxury e-tailing has morphed from novelty to normalised.
To this young customer, engagement works two ways. As Massenet recalls: “At the Paris shows, I posted my little black flat Valentino studded shoes on Instagram and within three seconds, someone said, ‘Oh that’s so last season’. By the way, we ordered them like crazy; they’re one of our best sellers, they’re like a cult shoe. I then took my little shredded Converses, that I had brought for the Eurostar ride and put them up and responded back to this person saying, ‘What about this?’ I have no idea who it was, it was an anonymous
post, but it was kind of funny. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s somebody out therewith an opinion’. But I’m happy then to counter them and say, ‘I love those shoes, they’re amazing, they’re flat, women should be wearing them’.”
Similarly,Mr Porter customers keep Langmead on his toes. “If you post, they’ll leave comments,” he says. “I’m always Instagramming and tweeting and Facebooking. You come back from the men’s shows and you have to know what people are ‘liking’,what’s going to sell. Equally, you have to know that lots of people are using you to keep up to date with what’s been happening throughout the day. You get feedback so quickly. You take a picture and within a minute, you have 68 likes.”
“People are making decisions visually,” says Massenet, “which is really good for us because we’re selling visually. People are making their decisions on what to buy based on a picture and ordering it and shipping it and then trying it on. It’s a very different process now. People are processing information in a completely different way.”
The expectations of today’s shoppers are literally sky high; they can load up a custom-made app, get a sneak peek of a new collection, participate in live events (such as the one Net-A-Porter staged with Karl Lagerfeld last year) and buy by scanning images on display in global popup shops. What you saw on Bondi Beach last year was teenagers holding up iPhones and shopping. What you didn’t hear was a voice belonging to anyone under 35 saying, “How the hell do they do that?” (Augmented reality technology, cutting-edge image recognition technology, powered by Aurasma, overlays the virtual world on the real world environment through a device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet. Got that?)
Net-A-Porter is about fashion, full speed ahead. Mr Porter’s tone is different: it meanders, taking time to teach chaps what’s what, yet it is underpinned by the same whizzbang, ever-updated technology. And while it may appear obvious that a business so successful at selling to women would expand into menswear, success with both in the bricks-and-mortar world has been rare and usually started with the boys. Ralph Lauren sold ties; Thomas Burberry sold trench coats for soldiers.
“It’s distinct. On Net-A-Porter, it is about ‘You have to have this. Don’t even think about leaving the house without it.’ Whereas for Mr Porter . . .” Massenet looks to Langmead. “The words ‘must have’ are totally banned. We work hard at creating an online world where men feel comfortable, whether they are there to shop, browse, or just be inspired.”
It’s somewhat like being looked after by the Downton Abbey butler: studiously polite yet sometimes raising an eyebrow. An entry under style icons reads, “Although the list of his other virtues is short, the Duke of Windsor is widely considered to be the best-dressed man of the 20th century and his clothes were exemplary in many ways.” When it comes to casual attire: “Seen here performing with Nirvana in 1991, Mr Kurt Cobain underscores the sweatshirt’s rock star appeal.” One starts to imagine that the man who frequents Mr Porter must be equally sophisticated – the type of guy to drive a girl around the Riviera in a sport car – while, in truth, he’s more likely to pull out his phone and add a Rag & Bone T-shirt to his wish list during dinner.
“I think men were not so much waiting for internet shopping to happen but waiting for a dedicated style site that spoke to them, their lifestyle, their interests and their needs,” Langmead says. “They were certainly adept at shopping online for other areas in their lives. We can be quite geeky as a gender.” The expectations too, differ from the sister site.
There’s the understanding that a sale might not be final. On the one hand, when a man finds something he likes, he’ll want more of the same and inventory is held to facilitate restocking. The female customer, in contrast, will have moved on, not to the next thing but the one after that. If our gent tries something and it doesn’t suit, returns – as on the sister site – are free with tags intact. To mitigate against wear and return “the tags are located in quite an uncomfortable place”, notes Langmead.
This duo is not remotely surprised that Australia is playing a leading role in Mr Porter’s success, especially as Australian women were fast off the mark. (The first order on Net-A-Porter from Australia was within 12 months of the June, 2000 launch, back in the day when few had faith in fashion online.) “Thanks to the internet, the Australian consumer has, I believe, become far more knowledgeable, confident, experimental and savvy about style. It’s an exhilarating period for menswear at the moment,” says Langmead. “The online retail landscape has allowed him to be a lot more selective and it is a natural process for him. We certainly see a very fashion-forward guy buying the likes of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Lanvin from Australia.”
Langmead’s own style is not especially adventurous, despite the red socks he’s teamed with brogues. “We actually just did a video on the trends in Paris and we were looking at socks. They’re quite cheery.” He brand checks: “Loro Piana washed cotton, chambray shirt, Alexander Olch check, wool twill tie, Canali Kei slim-fit, unstructured, cotton- blend blazer.” He also wears trousers but does not name check them because he’s moved on to the bracelets. “Luis Morais. Small diamonds and white gold in the middle.”
“That was the first item to sell out on Mr Porter,” says Massenet. Langmead adds: “It’s extraordinary how many businessmen wear these. Loads of finance guys wear beads on their wrists.” Even in Australia? “They fly out.” So what of the three neon tangerine bands that hang loose from Massenet’s dainty wrist? “Hairbands; put hair in a ponytail instantly,” she demonstrates. Ah, but trust her to have a dime-store product in a hard-to-get colour. Her outsized top is Les Chiffoniers. “We’re really in love with the sweatshirt right now,” she says. “This is a couture sweatshirt look plus inky black jeans by Frame Denim and Alexander Wang wedge boots,which are very cool and I can run in them.”
The skill, they say, is in the curation. In the vast gentleman’s closet that is Mr Porter, a sweatshirt featuring a shark might coexist (but never be worn with) a Charvet tie (the French firm was founded in 1838). “It’s that balance of taste and desire and just getting it right overall,” says Langmead. Massenet’s view is: “We’re not trying to be the world’s biggest super store. Our value add is that we edit what we believe in. We make sure we are the partners to our consumers in terms of taste.”
Massenet used to be the fashion chick at the geek show. Although she remains the designers’ champion, today it is technology that ignites her. “Within two years, everyone will be looking up again,” she predicts. “You’ll have the messages going in your field of vision so you don’t have to move your head down. There will be a single device for everything. You will have your desktop within a mobile and you’ll connect to TV screens, movie screens, as well as the ability to make a purchase or identify yourself across all platforms with a single
click,which will be mind-blowing.”
The only bit I really grasp is that it is all coming within two years and I have learnt not to doubt Natalie Massenet.
Langmead proffers me a parting gift I am better placed to understand. “The inky incarnation of Mr Porter,” he says, sliding across a book, The Manual for a Stylish Life, printed on sensuous vellum stock. Massenet grabs it. “Look, all the images downloaded instantly,” she says with a straight face. “And you can flick seamlessly from one page to the next!”
Then she giggles and hands it over.
“How clever of you, Mr. Parkinson, also to know that pink is the navy blue of India,” the legendary fashion maven, Diana Vreeland told the great photographer Norman “Parks” Parkinson when he returned from the City Palace, Jaipur, India with a picture of Anne Gunning in a pink mohair coat tanding next to a decked-up elephant manned by guards in pink.
The model in the picture taken in tribute by photographer Antony Horth in January 2013 was the glorious Bollywood star, Pallavi Sharda, decked in diamonds from Australia’s Argyle.
But when she ducked off to change into Dior, I had to sneak in next to a supermodel guaranteed to make me look small. The bunch of kids didn’t miss their chance either.
A lovely memory of a lovely trip to India with Argyle diamonds.