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.

Ghost Celebrity – Australian Financial Review

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable? – The Business of Fashion

Op-Ed | Can Ethical Fashion Really Be Fashionable?

The Business of Fashion | 8th June 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But make no mistake. The impact is real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway – The Times

Australia’s Secret Island Hideaway

The Times | Sunday 12th May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Style In And Of Itself Has Power – Australian Financial review

Style in and of itself has power

AFR | April 2012

by Marion Hume 

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

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

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

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

Radical Departures – Bentley Magazine

Radical Departures

Forget the cliches- it’s time to rediscover Australia

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Australian Financial review

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Model Career – Sunday Telegraph

A Model Career

Sunday Telegraph Magazine | May 2012 

by Marion Hume 

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

by Marion Hume 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheongsam – australian financial review

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant