Surviving The Fashion Business (Or 25 Years Spent Trying)

Inforum Speech

Marion Hume | January 2012 

Welcome everyone.

My thanks first; to Jenny Garber and Fiona Coogan of Inforum for inviting me here today.

To Jeni Porter, my editor at The Australian Financial Review Magazine for letting me reveal just a few of the things in a major report about the business of fashion in Australia – which the AFR will publish in the April Fashion Special.

To my AFR colleagues, especially Brook Turner for hiring me 7 years ago,  art director Tony Rice for making my articles look so good, Marguerite Winter for being my safety net and the unflappable Samantha Hutchinson.

My heartfelt thanks to Adam Worling for se-conding his staffer, Erica Chen, to make sure the powerpoint actually works. And thank you Erica. And also to Lindsey Botts for his input.

To Harper’s Bazaar for letting me use images and to photographers; Amber Rowlands, Jeremy Stigter, Victor Demarchelier, Gavin Bond, Will Davidson and especially, Peter Hunt, for permission to show their work today.

And as always, my thanks to Wee Keat Chan.

—So; SURVIVING THE FASHION BUSINESS OR 25 YEARS SPENT TRYING

Me 25 years ago? It’s a little bit more than that to be honest. But what’s honesty in fashion? I was born in 1962, making me too young to remember London designer, Mary Quant inventing the mini skirt.

Or was that Courreges?

Or Yves Saint Laurent?

Which of the above may have massaged dates in their archive slightly — backwards — so that history records them as first?

Perhaps I’m not the only one fudging the numbers.

Fashion is a game of smoke and mirrors, so here’s me in about 1980 smoking. Or pretending to because it was the fashionable thing to do.

Nowadays smoking is transgressive. Here’s Kate Moss on the Louis Vuitton catwalk

.

I have honestly never smoked (nor indeed put mirrors to what is -allegedly – a somewhat common use on planet fashion)

Fashion isn’t always what it seems.

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But one area where the numbers aren’t fudged are where they read like this;

“Interim nine months 2011 reaching 9,709 million euros. Gross profit reached 5,784 million euros.”

What does that all add up to? Impressive.

These financials are from Inditex, the holding company for Zara,

Which numbers the other Kate among its fans

.

When I started reporting fashion, no one ever asked if I could add  2 + 2. It was about Paris, Milan and the colour of the season.

Now fashion is global. And more than anything, it’s about the colour of money.

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Actually, I’ve had practice adding up and giving the right change. I started my working life as a shop girl. It helps being 6ft2 when you are 15, not 16. By the age of 19, I working in Browns, the London emporium of style, then and now controlled by the all seeing eye of Mrs  Burstein.

I worked selling Norma Kamali  – a huge name then, not now.

Which proves – even those you think you’ll love forever….. will fade.

Or not

Here’s Karl Lagerfeld, circa 1980, with his Goyard suitcases.

Tell me another 75 year old today  – who might really be 79 – his age being the subject of some conjecture – who could cause a five-city frenzy

when pop up stores,

in association with net-a-porter, opened from Berlin

to Bondi Beach last week.

Karl and I had memorable tete-a-tete at his mansion on the Left Bank in Paris in 1994 because he was displeased by my critique of a Chanel show.

In newspapers, the reporter doesn’t write the headline. But as you can imagine, “No Way To Treat A  Lady” didn’t go down that well.

Our point of difference? He considered his fluffy hats to be surreal. I said they made supermodels who couldn’t see out of them stumble like blind mice.

And,  being me,  that wasn’t all I said.

So I got summoned chez Karl, where the butler served me water in a crystal goblet the size of a goldfish bowl, full of ice cubes that could sink the Titanic. An ormulu clock worth more than my house ticked and ticked and then at last, Karl appeared from behind an 18th century screen and then, oops, I wrote all about our chat…. which made him even more exasperated .

Let’s say we have enjoyed a respectful relationship ever since.

Designers, in my experience, are unique individuals and always exciting to encounter.

However for the AFR, my targets tend to be CEOs – the business people -

So you can imagine my disappointment when Chanel’s president of fashion activities, Bruno Pavlovsky cancelled an interview in Paris it had taken months to set up.

Instead, he insisted the location had to be

here

The hotel du Cap, Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes. A favourite of Picasso and Edward & Mrs Simpson.

Being sent to the Riviera. On the morning of the Chanel Cruise show which was opened by Melbournian,  Abby Lee Kershaw.

This job? It’s a chore.

What is a Cruise collection?  Though they garner less press attention than those huge ready-to-wear extravaganzas revealed in Paris twice a year, cruise is far more profitable, accounting for more than 70% of clothing sales for brands worldwide because of  –slightly– more affordable price points and designs that work in places where the weather differs from France. Like Australia.

Chanel has had a presence on these shores since 1922 when the first rare flacons of Chanel no 5 arrived.  Karl has been at the helm since 1983.

Talk about surviving the fashion business!

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What of the other luxury brands in 1985, the year my first articles were published?

back then Hermes was a scarf

Louis Vuitton was a trunk

and

Burberry was just a coat, designed by an old chap for other chaps. Although women had started wearing them too, following Meryl Streep in Kramer versus Kramer

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Let’s have a look at Burberry now.

I was in the audience of this show. But I wasn’t among the first to see it – it was tweeted to the world from backstage BEFORE the models appeared on the runway.

Those of you who tweet, tumble, etc may be familiar with Burberry’s digital activity. burberry.com is available in 46 countries in six languages, its Digital platform has had over 16.6 million page views in over 200 countries. Its Facebook page has over 10.2 million fans.

And by the time I’ve read that, it’s probably out of date.

No surprise – Burberry ranks # 1 among luxury goods brands by social media activity.

———–

But Burberry is NOT the world’s No 1 luxury brand in terms of cold, hard cash

Hello Louis Vuitton,

or as they say it in China,  Ni How ELLE VEE

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Back in 1997, I  packed up my house and changed countries when I was hired to edit Vogue Australia.

Back in 1997, Marc Jacobs kissed his dog on the nose and started commuting between his native New York and his new job in Paris.

Here’s how we captured a downtown boy’s arrival at the then bourgeois Vuitton.

I guess Marc’s recent contract negotiations, rumoured to have topped 12 million euros a year, might make his the better job offer….

Still it was me, not multimillionaire Marc who has ended up with the greatest gift. In my opinion, anyway.

Because yes, I did get fired from Vogue – terrific for tabloid headline writers, given that road out of Sydney is called The Hume Highway. But I got Australian citizenship and, not a tree (apparently they don’t do that any more) but a poster featuring a koala, a bilby, a bandicoot.

And I do love a marsupial.

Back in my Vogue days, one colleague – who shall remain nameless -  was appalled at my adoration of Australiana. Every time I’d come up with another idea involving a model and a marsupial, she would chastize me with;

“We want luxury not kangaroos!” but why not both???

I knew I was right!

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SHOPPING AND THE CITY

The shopping cityscape has certainly changed since those days when you could only get Prada from a Duty free store in Sydney. Although I’d visit Melbourne and breath a sigh of relief at seeing women in Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela, those radical designers I missed from Europe. Melbourne has always been such an elegant city, the big changes today are just a little less…. Huge.

But let’s look at the city where fashion now really dominates the skyline.

New York? Not really, although Burberry has neon signage way up high next to that of the New Yorker.

Imagine this with crossed CC Chanel branding. Sacre Bleu!

In Asia, there’s certainly the store-as-cathedral. In Singapore, Louis Vuitton has its own island.

But Fashion logos on a world famous icon?

Of course not.  But some people thought so.

I spent the turn of the millennium on a boat on Sydney harbour with Tom & Nicole & Baz and CM and….

shall I just do that again…. I spent  the turn of…

But anyway, an American onboard turned to me and said;

“I cannot believe they let Calvin do that”.

Eternity being of course a perfume by Calvin Klein, as well as the chalk on pavements tag of the legendary Sydneysider, Arthur Stace

(an idea, wikipedia tells me, that he took from a Melbourne man)

But now look at this.

Visible from well, everywhere in Sydney. The home of the  world’s leading shopping mall brand.

Not, I stress, that I am anti shopping mall. Malls are democratic. They let all of us enjoy and participate in good design, which is far better than silo-ing those with less in ghettos where even what you get to look at is second rate.

Malls make people feel safe. They do not discriminate by age, by race, by wealth, by health or disability.

And you can breeze into Gucci with groceries in a Coles bag.

And why not?

We all have to multitask.

Westfield’s biggest mall to date is in London. It is Westfield Stratford City, adjacent to the site of the 2012 Olympics.

It has what is known as “unrivalled connectivity” meaning it sits at the hub of road, rail and air links for millions of people.

Although few arrive by helicopter.

I got that chance because an aerial photographer was recording the mall being constructed. If you are ever invited in a chopper with a snapper – know this – if they strap you in with a 6 web seatbelt, that’s because they are going to open the doors.

It is a very odd sensation, let me tell you, to find there is nothing but the pilot, who appears to be lying on his side whilst flying, between you and the golden cross that sits atop St Paul’s Cathedral.

Not for the faint hearted

But then show me a faint hearted fashion chick?

It takes guts to get to the front row.

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Of course it takes drive to build a global brand

Here’s Topshop – now at the old Jam Factory on Chapel Street. What a mob scene!

Topshop gives me the shivers. And it should. It’s designed for those less than half my age who think frenzy is fabulous.

Who might be coming here soon?

Hello again Abby – here modelling for H&M, the Swedish giant, which can’t be far away.

Here’s how we covered the arrival of Zara in the AFR.

Remember those lines around the block? For weeks? As a friend of mine said at the time, “we’re not a third world country any more”.

Indeed not.

There’s even a Zara in Adelaide.

The foreign invaders have it allbuzz, bucks, access to top models. What hope have local brands got of fighting back against slick visuals like this?

Hang on. Not foreign, This is the new campaign from Cue.

Part of Australian life since 1968.

Here’s Country Road,

Oh I do like a wrap for fall – so useful

Cue, Country Road, Trenery, Oroton, Sportsgirl, Sussan, these are loved labels, helmed by smart and competitive people, who keep upping their game.

For this ain’t no time to be lazy. I think we must conclude that some well-known names here will go to the wall.

No shopper is going to be loyal just because you’ve been around so long you dressed their mother.

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But what of the young designers?  When I arrived, a fashion fledgling called Akira Isogawa could be spring-boarded onto the cover of Vogue

These guys? Less likely.

It’s the big internationals with the advertising bucks who get the prized covers today. That’s part of the scratch our backs, we’ll scratch yours deal.

And while young designers can eek out an internet presence, how to fight for space in a world market?

The biggest barrier to success? The GFC. Even though, compared to Europe and the US, Australians are now relatively rich.

Who’s the next Collette Dinnigan?

What has not changed is those who thrive combine fashion savvy with business smarts.

Why do Collette dresses like this hang in such a charming boutique shop-in-shops in David Jones?

Ever tried arguing with Collette?

She knows that works for her brand and what she wants and what her customers wants – and that’s good.

Consider Kiwi, Karen Walker, one of the stars at Myer.  When I came into this business, designers stayed up in their ivory towers —with the exception of the queen of the trunk show, Donna Karan, who was down in Bloomingdales, selling like pro.

Today, designers and stores have to collaborate. Myer and Karen have created Hi There, a line of bold, bright, primary coloured pieces that you can see from right across the floor.

Then there’s all that hot colour at Sass & Bide and the evidence of a label thriving through collaboration with a store group smart enough to let these designers do their thing – while introducing that fun, funky aesthetic to a far wide customer base.

The gritty truth about enduring fashion success; only a teeny bit of it is ever about fantasy and ivory towers and sipping champagne . Most of it is about team work.

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As Tom Ford told me, he was standing on the Bund in Shanghai when it dawned on him;

“America, this is not our century any more”

and actually, that’s rather good news for Australia.

The tyranny of distance? It depends on the point from which you measure. We’re near the middle now.

Enter the year of the Dragon.

No wonder Dior – opening its first Australian store in Sydney in November, chose the most beautiful Frenchwoman, Marion Cottiard, to fall in love with a mysterious Chinese man, played by Gong Tao, in the advertising campaign, directed by

David Lynch and set in Shanghai.

Visiting China always blows my mind.  Here’s a recent piece I did for 10 magazine..  The People’s Republic of luxe.

But the first time I went to Beijing almost a decade ago, it was to interview newly-successful women about their first designer buys. Yet instead, they told such sad stories of the Mao years. One told me about being given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that.

The power of clothes is powerful indeed.

The skyline here dates this story from my long run as contributing editor at TIME Magazine’s Style & Design in New York to 2008, because the Rem Koolhaas CCTV building is still under construction.  By 2008, the fashion antanae of smart girls like Wendi Yi – whose mother worn a Mao suit – were so finely tuned they’d already outgrown ELLE VEE. Wendi referred to Vuitton as “a second tier city brand”

Which translates as, for the hicks from the sticks.

Ouch.

She liked Fendi –which was handy, because we went together to the Fendi show on the Great Wall of China.

This, I can tell you, is what we call “a fashion moment”

Although a rather chilly one. I don’t wear fur, ever. Fendi was loaning them that night, – see Kate Bosworth in the front row. Instead, I wore basically all my clothes on top of each other, which is never a good look.

Strangely, I don’t seem to have a picture…

So instead, Here’s the proof that Karl Lagerfeld, he of Fendi, Chanel, KL, is the closest we have to fashion god on earth – he’s got his own popemobile.

That night on the Great Wall, Fendi almost went too far with its branding. The double Fs were projected onto the slopes of the Great Wall itself – which by the way, you can’t see from the moon.

Is the moon next? Think of the great back lighting!

Here’s the moon in Broome. Your brand up here?

Never.

But as technology advances, we may have to legislate to protect a view that belongs to every single one of us. No brand should change our natural world, pollute it or take without giving back.

However….. changing things for one night only is fine -  as long as every grain of sand goes back where it came from.

How lovely was the Hermes beach party in Sydney last month.

Rumour has it they had to remove all that pearly white sand with a hoover, Sadly, because everything had to go back to just like before the old beach hut on stilts Hermes turning into a champagne bar was for one night only.

That really is a shame.

I’m lucky enough to be sent all over the place, which is how I got to hang out with Arabian beauty, Al Anoud in Dubai

Then I froze in Moscow. Unlike Olga in her fur-lined parka.

May I draw your attention to the number on the calculator. It’s at least $50,000. For a gown.

Istanbul is uber chic . On a boat on the Bosphorous,   the elegant Zeynep, who was rocking a white bikini, explained her deeply held muslim faith.  Her faith decreed, she told me, that she cover her private places —- hence 3 tiny triangles.

And the evidence that malls don’t ruin cities and destroy civilization – here’s Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, bringing you the mall shopping experience since Constantinople and all the way back to Byzantium.

We’ll always have Paris

The city of light, or dark in this lovely shot. But even Paris changes.

Hermes means tradition stretching all the way back to a saddle maker on the Faubourg Saint Honore, right?

Yet on the Left Bank,

the Hermes Sevres store is a celebration of modernity.

Tradition is terrific, if you keep it spinning.

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I suspect that Erica, who worked on these visuals, thinks these two both come from way back at the dawn of time. To a 20 year old, what’s a few million years between a dinosaur and my first computer? Which of course was not connected to something called the internet.

Today, it’s our lives. I’m sure many of you in this room are right now suffering social media deprivation, desperate to check emails, your twitter feed or indeed, as we’re talking frocks, to shop

and maybe snap up this numero, on sale, at net-a-porter

Yet it is my fault – absolutely mine – that the fashion professionals in this room face the mighty challenge of net-a-porter and now, its butch boyfriend, Mr Porter.

Founder and Executive chairman, Natalie Massenet, was bored with being a fashion stylist at Tatler magazine when she asked if I was hiring fashion for Vogue Australia. I told her no. Apparently she got back to her hotel room and shed a little tear.

The next time I saw her, she told me she was going to sell high fashion on this new fangled thing called the internet, this electronic thing which geeks and boffins with unwashed pony tails and wearing in washed out band tour T shirts seemed to be excited about. But buying clothes? Without touching the fabrics? Obviously the poor girl was deluded.

These days, Natalie is awfully good natured about my rejection and the sale of her company for about 350 million pounds….

The PRs of  these sites have emailed out of the blue offering their CEOs for profiles in the AFR.  Honestly, when I joined the AFR, people in Europe were not approaching…me.

I had to virtually mud wrestle to land Tom Ford….

So why now?

Because they are all noticing how much business they are getting from Australia.

Without Even Trying.

Which is very trying for those in the business here.

What’s Australia doing online? Not enough, not fast enough and you know it. Erica and I searched for wow images from Australian fashion sites. But here’s the tough love – not exciting enough yet.

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SURVIVAL OF THE GLAMOUROUS

If you can’t beat them…. No. You do not join them. You do what you do best.

If you are a designer – perhaps be inspired by Christian Louboutin, the shoe maker whose company is still privately owned, who started with nothing and now has a global niche, selling more than 340,000 pairs of shoes a year in heel heights he calls high, extremely high and madness.

The AFR headline? NO FLATS PLEASE, WE’RE FRENCH

Know you customer. If you design for a creative and intelligent grown up woman, then treat her to some intelligent creativity. As Scanlan and Theodore did by getting the art photography legend,  Nan Goldin,  to re- imagine the seasonal ad campaign.

If you are a retailer – Everyone knows it is tough for those independents who have carved their market by bringing in hard-to-find international labels -  only to find this niche especially threatened by the internet. What to do?

Boldly go in a very big hat?

Here’s Christine Barro. Where’s her store? Down a  Melbourne back street, down a staircase, underground. What’s it like? A fantastical Aladdin’s cave full of Lanvin and Celine bags and peerless jewellery by Adrian Lewis.

What did Christine do when she knew she needed to bring new, younger customers? She called Irish hatter, Philip Treacy — who does a lovely line in Melbourne Cup hats, as well as squiggles on the head of Princess Beatrice – to lend a hand

Her budget was buttons, so the show?  Staged in the lane way. Brilliant.

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Every one of us is a consumer. What do we all want?

Service.

I’m not talking obsequious, “Madame, your bum does not look big in that” silly service. But good service.

In Australia?

Sometimes it is appalling.

I started my career standing selling in shops. Before Browns, I worked in Debenhams, which roughly equates to a Myer away from the flagships. I worked in Selfridges, now so fabulous, then so foul, we used to get fleabites from the infested carpet when we knelt down to restock the cabinets.

My golden rule for how to get good service; pay commission. Some say that goes against team building, it causes backstabbing as sales people hurryto grab the customers while admin doesn’t get done.

Hello! Me, your shopper? I do not care about your admin.

And, as a former shop girl working punishing hours in the dry air of an old department store, I’ll be honest. I was motivated by making as much money as possible.

If You’ve got a problem with that, ask yourself this:  what would motivate YOU to get up from your snazzy desk and stand where I used to stand, at the front line, where customers — sorry to break this to you — can be quite vile.

Here’s how it worked for me.

Smile and serve. Smile and serve. Kerching!

And a % in my pay packet.

Is this man in Melbourne on commission? I have no idea, but I can tell you, he can sell.

“Do you think a woman could wear this, or is it too much?,” he asked as he spritzed some obscure fragrance – not on my friend and I,  but on scent strips. With that, he drew us in, lured us into his wonderful world of scent and then, how did that happen??? before we knew it, we felt so comfortable in the Harrolds mens store, we were shopping.

Salesmanship is an art.

The internet can do many things, but it cannot, yet, provide a handsome man to spritz two tired women with zest of lime and bergamot…

And it’s not just me who’s impressed. Here’s Kanye West after a Harrolds shopping extravaganza in Sydney.

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FASHION + BUSINESS

I’m a useless entrepreneur.  Way too interested in the next thing, to concentrate on the same thing, I guess.

So who IS a great entrepreneur?

She is.  Elle who gives a whole new fabulous meaning to the term BODY CORPORATE.

And she’s not the only one to realize there’s cash in pants.

Sean Ashby was an Aussie beach Bum who took his idea of very small things to be worn by very big men to the departments stores and –he claims – you all said no.

Unlike Natalie Massenet, who maybe shed a little tear when she was knocked back, Sean probably spewed up a barrage of expletives.

Then got busy.  Millions and millions of internet-earned dollars busy.

The American summer blockbuster, opening May 2012, is Marvel Comics,  The Avengers, starring Robert Downey jr, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow etc. In other words HUGE.

When the producers were casting around for the perfect fashion brand to appear as the shop in the background of a key battle scene, who did it choose?

Not bad for a brand that has no bricks and mortar stores.

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Spot the odd one out?

I interview a lot of fashion CEOs. Are they smarter than the rest of us? Not always.

But what does every single one of them have in common?

CEOs get up early.

They are larks – except when I asked Erica to source a picture of a lark, she said “what’s a lark?” hence the sulphur crested cockatoo, although it squawks at dawn rather than sings melodically.

What else do CEOs all do?

They exercise.  I tell you, when I ask those Frenchmen in ties the work/life balance Q, it’s then hard to stop them telling me how great they are at tennis… and skiing…and competitive yachting.. and horse riding…. And how many kilometers they jog.

99% of my writing is at night. I am an owl, which is, I tell myself anyway, what stands between me and running a company.

Still, it is good to know there is always an exception to the rule.

No, not the bloke. Topshop tsar, Philip Green has to get up early to catch the jet from his home in the tax haven that is Monaco. But savvy business woman and superstar, Kate Moss, joins me in often seeing the dawn – before she’s gone to bed.

Although I suspect she’s having rather more fun.

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Here’s a pixilated man in his pants.

I want you now to think about the provenance of the clothes on our backs, or in this chap’s case, his front.

Why don’t we ask more questions? We do when it comes to food. Is it because the fashion answers make us …uncomfortable?

The majority of the world’s cotton is traded as a commodity, bundled together, which makes it difficult for us to trace where it was grown.  Some facts; Uzbekistan is the second biggest cotton exporter in the world. About 40% of it is picked by Year 11 teenagers, who are forced out of school for the harvest, alongside their teachers.

You want child labour with your knickers?

The internet does more than let us have everything we want delivered to our door. It allows allow us to ask and to act. Every fashion business wants to be seen to be doing good – some because they care, some because they fear the perilous price of a consumer boycott.

There’s always somewhere else to shop.

So use that connectivity at your finger tips.

You think they won’t listen? Then think of how the business of gemstones is cleaning up its act, due directly to campaigning, spreading information and then a rapidly declining for blood diamonds.

Here, I’m undercover in Burma – literally because I’m inside a temple illuminated only by very fast use of my photographer’s flash, trying to investigate the trade in rubies which, while are banned from being imported due to sanctions against the Myanmar regime – still find their way, via Thailand, into the stocks of —some – well known jewelers.

When it comes to food, we try to buy organic, local, from a responsible source.  So translating that to luxury,

aren’t we lucky here? Here’s a Kalis pearl, cultivated in the pristine waters off our far north western shores.

And I do like a diamond

Australia is home to the Ellendale mine, where health and safety rules are tough. There are workplace initiatives to ensure the promotion of indigenous people. Men and women are equal -  so girls get to drive the really big trucks.

As to environmental commitment, Ellendale even has a wallaby relocation officer.

Tiffany & Co has the rights to the top grade fancy yellows from Ellendale.

Local with an international twist

And from the international jeweler that leads the way in barring all Burmese rubies, using no dirty gold and refusing to trade in coral.

What’s not to love?

When I started as a fashion journalist, my ethics and my politics confused. How could I think the way I do yet love expensive handbags?

My answer is how could you favour cheap ones?

And especially fake ones. Fakes fund terrorism. Do think of that on that shopping jaunt to Bangkok or Bali.

You think she’s getting your dollars? Don’t kid yourself.

I do not own an Hermes Birkin, but when I can eventually afford one,  here’s my argument for anyone who thinks me an airhead for wanting a heritage treasure crafted by well paid artisans.

To compare. What happened to your last mobile phone? The one you had to have then fell out of love with when they launched an even snazzier model? The one with – it’s not unlikely – the copper for the connectors within that may well have been mined in Eastern Congo by trafficked slaves?

In contrast, Hermes artisans are supported by the family firm until the end of their lives – in Paris, there’s even a club for “les anciens”, the retired, where once a month the company shouts them lunch.

Here’s  Edun where a manageable proportion of the collection is made in Africa, this making the fashion chain more fair.

And here’s me in Nairobi with the Crochet Sisters who made those skirts, asking questions about their working conditions.

And it all adds up.

This bag is designed by Ilaria Fendi – of those Fendis – and made in East Africa with the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Let’s conclude with what I hope is fashion’s most important trend. I consult for the United Nations agency, the ITC where I am honoured to work with Simone Cipriani, a world expert on poverty reduction.

His brainwave? To harness the unrivalled glitter and power of fashion as a vehicle out of poverty. How?  We connect the best designers in the world with the poorest of the poor for mutual, profitable and long term collaborations. We facilitate a system of business which allows designers to move a small but significant percentage of production, at fair wages, to those otherwise excluded or exploited.

The mantra is NOT CHARITY, JUST WORK.

These bags, created in the slums that ring Nairobi, are shown on the Paris catwalk.

What’s great? This isn’t about pity purchasing, buying something because you think you should, then chucking it out on a one-way ticket to landfill.

The driving force in fashion – at every level – is –always — DESIRE.

Vivienne Westwood’s fans want these bags because they think they are fabulous.

It’s the ultimate gift with purchase that the bags also have a 100% ethical, environmentally sound backstory

We’re coming to the end of my stories, so those about travelling across Kenya with Dame Vivienne will have to wait.

In any case, the wonderful thing about this job, is I’m always on to the next adventure. A few weeks ago, that meant hanging out with that master of classic with a twist, Paul Smith, whose first Australian store opens in Collins Street – here’s a sneak peek of the AFR coverage out in March.

Thank you all for travelling with me through 25 years of fashion today.

Rainbow

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

How can you copyright a colour? The notion seems ludicrous. Imagine some swaggering luxury goods titan looking up at a rainbow and pronouncing, “I want red for this brand, orange for that brand, worldwide usage for yellow, all rights for green and I’m banning anyone else from blue, indigo, violet.” 

Yet who owns what tone has become a hot topic. A while back, I was asked to write a letter in support of the French shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s right to red and I was happy to do so. Louboutin’s red soles are a potent brand signifier. So no wonder he saw red and sued when Yves Saint Laurent offered red soled shoes too. The presiding judge found against him noting that no one designer should have a “monopoly” on any color. At time of writing, the case is on appeal.

Louboutin became associated with red by accident. He thought the black soles of his first designs for high heels looked depressingly dull so he grabbed some nail lacquer and added D.I.Y. pizazz. Does he own red? Powerful forces rallying to his support certainly hope so. Tiffany & Co. has filed something called an amicus curiae because if Loubi loses, who owns the blue the jewellers have been using since 1845?

There’s no question, surely, that Hermes owns orange. Yet like Loubi-red, Hermes orange was an accident. Until the end of the 1930s, the company’s packaging was brown. But under the Nazi occupation, paper stock became near-impossible to find. Someone heard of a cake shop that had had to close. The sunny packaging in which people had carried home gateaux in happier times was available because other luxury marques thought it too vulgar. And so orange came to signify hope, then chic and now – certainly if it is me who is the lucky recipient of an Hermes gift – absolute joy.

Hermes orange has gone even further, to the point that it is synonymous with Paris itself, for orange = Hermes = Parisian chic. Yet when you look at the fabric of Paris, it isn’t orange of course, it’s dove grey or in the watery light of early spring, the most ravishing lavender. And hardly anyone in Paris ever wears orange, with the exception of the Australian, Marc Newson, who has a penchant for vivid windcheaters. 

Elsewhere, when nature, light and beautiful architecture can’t be called upon, a splash of bright paint can be transforming in how we see a city. I’ve never been to Tirana, Albania, among the most isolated capitals in Europe. But my interest was piqued when the mayor decreed that brutalist architecture – and thus citizens’ lives – could be improved with bold stripes of yellow, green, blue and red applied all over the tower blocks. Similarly, in the favelo of Rio and the slums of Nairobi, painting rundown buildings in vibrant colours is starting to have the effect of cutting criminality, which it turn gives locals more power over their lives. 

This isn’t new to me. In 1851, a social experiment took place in a notorious London slum. When a row of cheap little terrace houses went up, each was rendered and painted a different colour to see if poor people might behave better if they lived in pretty houses. As my neighbours and I quip today, as we stand outside homes still painted primrose, pistachio and rose, we do. We also know our street brightens the day of many who walk through because they stop and tell us so. Colour is cheerful. Should fashion designers ever get ownership of it, then? I think, sometimes, yes. But given my suspicions that there are luxury goods titans out there would love to project brand logos onto the moon if we let them, we must stay vigilant. We hold the monopoly on how we colour our world.

The Bees Knees

The Bees Knees 

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

Cor blimey, I should have turned up in a “Pearly Queen” outfit, because I seem to have walked in to Old London Town. Fish and chips? Served in twists of newspaper by waiters in bowler hats.  A nip of gin? Coming right up. Red-jacketed Queen’s guards? Yes, but unlike those standing sentry outside Buckingham Palace, these lads are sporting Extra Wow Lash mascara under their towering bearskins.

The venue is an iconic London landmark, the Battersea Power Station that is truthfully too far from the steeple of Bow Bells for anyone to claim to be cockney. But that’s not going to stop supermodel “mockney” Kate Moss from arriving in style. Pump up London Calling by The Clash and look! That’s Kate’s chopper overhead!  It touches down and the ultimate London girl then runs down a red carpet in a little red dress to match her Lasting Finish shade #1 red lips.

That certainly gets the party started to celebrate her 10-year association with Rimmel London, (which used to be called just plain ‘Rimmel’ and was actually founded by a Frenchman). This birthday bash has been going on all day. Earlier, it was red, white and blue cupcakes and an English tea party at Claridge’s hotel, where fashion’s famous sphinx, (again sporting Lasting Finish shade #1) picked up a microphone and actually spoke, albeit briefly.

Interviewer: “What was it like filming the latest commercial?”

Kate: “It was so much fun.”

Interviewer: “What was the best bit?”

Kate: “The last shot was good, thank you for coming everyone.”

Come they have. The beauty press have been flown in from all corners of the globe to try New Lasting Finish 25 Hour Foundation and Vinyl Max Gloss. Me? While I admit I’ve grabbed a Scandaleyes mascara and Traffic Stopping eyeshadow in Over the Limit #001, I’m here to talk to the boss, Bernd Beetz, (and yes, it does sound like Burned Bees).

Beetz helms Coty Inc. (which has Rimmel London along with Calvin Klein fragrance and Sally Hansen nail varnish and Lancaster skincare and JOOP! body splash, etcetera, etcetera, in a vast portfolio). While Moss’s 10 years with Rimmel have seen her jumping off double decker buses and roaring past Big Ben on a motorbike  and going from “nought to Sexy in seconds”, Beetz has been the puppeteer, dramatically repositioning a ragtag of mass-market fragrances and toiletries as well as marshaling new launches and snapping up acquisitions to create a global beauty behemoth with revenues of more than $3.5 billion in 2010. A word on those acquisitions. In just two months this year, Coty snapped up four major beauty companies, Dr. Scheller Cosmetics, Philosophy inc, The nail line, OPI and TJoy, the latter a Chinese skincare brand.

Australia has a role to play in all this.  Talking just Rimmel alone, we rank fourth among key markets and are also viewed as a territory with the maximum upswing (which translates as “they could sell even more here and they’re certainly going to try”). Already successful is Rimmel’s value priced (cheap), self-serve (grab your own,) accessible (teenage), make-up, although even after HRH’s recent, well received visit to Queensland and beyond, you wouldn’t be betting on how many Union Jack eyeshadows in Royal Blue and Purple Reign will be sold on these shores.

By now Bernd Beetz (61 year old, wearing a suit, no tie he commutes between Coty’s Paris and New York HGs and is almost always in transit), is posing for the paps with Kate Moss and his close lieutenant Steve Mormoris, the Senior Vice-President, Global Marketing for Coty Beauty. Coty has two main divisions; Coty Prestige, which encompasses perfume and cosmetics for such brands as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga; and the somewhat more “masstige”Coty Beauty, with labels such as Kylie Minogue, Beyonce Knowles, David and Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss, also has a Coty perfume range that sells in supermarkets.

Moss has good reason to be hugging Beetz and Mormoris, considering these businessmen stuck by her when she was mired in an alleged cocaine scandal that saw much edgier fashion brands judge her too hot to handle. While Mormoris decided not to ditch her,  ultimate veto lay with Beetz. That he did not let Moss go is among a series of sometimes surprising decisions that made him the subject of a Harvard Business School paper; Bernd Beetz: Creating the New Coty by Professor Geoffrey Jones and Senior Researcher David Kiron.

“Is this an average day for you?” I ask Beetz, (and given the scene, what would you have tried as an opening gambit?) Beetz is German. He considers the question and replies with care. “It is not so average. After this, I go on to…normal business. This event is particular because it marks the 10 year anniversary of me taking over Coty. It is 10 years since working here with Steve and I took Kate Moss as the key spokesperson for Rimmel, which was my first big decision.”

And you’ve stuck with her. “Basically there were two things. She was loyal to us, so we were loyal to her. We are not people that dump a loyal supporter and we were also lucky because we are a private company. So even if our business would have gone down, it is something we could have afforded. Secondly, everything is not sugar-coated and straight-forward in life, so it seemed not be a bad idea to stick with her and show that life has difficulties. I think that in hindsight, it was a good idea.”Other businessmen might agree, especially if it were to lead to them partying with one of the most famous beauties on earth in the roped-off VIP area.

Bernd Beetz  comes from Heidelberg, was educated in Mannheim and is the son of an engineer who built power plants. He speaks English, French, Italian and Turkish fluently (“with conversational Spanish”). For 20 years, he worked across Europe for P&G ( the leading consumer product company, Procter & Gamble), then at LVMH, where he was president and CEO of Dior and is credited with the blockbuster success of J’Adore fragrance.

Securing the top job at Coty was not an inviting prospect in 2001. While the name dates back to 1904 and Francois Coty, a French perfumer who was much admired by Coco Chanel, Coty had been sold and amalgamated and downgraded to little more than a tattered umbrella over a bunch of brands with competing agendas and unimpressive market share. By 2001, Coty had been spun off from a chemicals conglomerate called Benckiser, privately-owned by the Reimann family and run by Peter Harf. However, Harf  did have to wisdom to realise that success flogging household cleaning products did not give him the skill set required to build an upscale beauty portfolio on the side.  For that, he had Beetz in his sights.

Back then, Beetz was the man-of-the-moment. He had doubled profits in two and a half years at Dior and earned a reputation as an inspired marketer. He was living in a luxury Paris apartment (complete with personal chef and chauffeur). Looking back now, he recalls the experience of working for LVMH boss Bernard Arnault as transforming, citing the luxury goods titan’s mastery at translating concepts into products  “He taught me a new aspect on how to approach a luxury brand”.  Beetz was surprised to find his old business acquaintance Peter Harf standing in the street outside his door one morning in 2001. Harf approached with an offer he could not refuse. If, after two years, he couldn’t fix Coty, he would be free to go with a big fat bonus. If he could, the company would be his to run as he liked.

Beetz said yes and by the way, he would make Coty one of the world’s top beauty companies within a decade as well. (At the time, Coty ranked 32nd). Today? It’s number 12 according to Women’s Wear Daily’s Top 100 Beauty listing after Kao Group, Johnson & Johnson, Chanel, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.  Coty now comprises more than 40 well-known brands available in over 90 markets worldwide.

Beetz has achieved the turnaround first pulling everyone into line and then setting them free. (The Harvard study dubbed this a “Faster, Further, Freer” corporate culture). But setting people free surely carries risk that they are free to fail? “It’s not luck,” is Beetz reply on that. “We didn’t have a major failure. I’m not afraid to admit that we have been by and large very successful.”  Part of that success has been wise acquisitions. An US$800 million acquisition of Unilever’s fragrance division, including the Calvin Klein fragrance license along with the romantic scents of Vera Wang and the fashion-forward Chloe made Coty the world’s largest fragrance company. But what of deals that got away? “I know but I’m not going to answer,” says Beetz.

Elsewhere in the beauty business where both the profits – and the losses – are potentially enormous – (for example, 90% of new perfume launches fail within a year) , it is not unusual for big decisions to be made by consensus. Senior executives might be polled on what a teenage fragrance should smell like (mostly just like an earlier success), how the bottle should be shaped (like one that exists)  – in other words, companies can be hampered by highly accomplished staffers being part of decisions that have little to do with what they are good at. One of Beetz’ skills has been to let the people best placed to make creative decisions do so. In this, it helps that the company is private. “I don’t think we could have accomplished what we did in the last ten years without the strong support of the family of the mother company,” Beetz says.

“Actually we have the best of both worlds. We have the support of the family which is part of the 7th generation. But they are not involved in the management so we have a clear meritocracy. This entitled me to the job and I have been successful ever since. Nobody in the family works here, not even on the board.”

There are 3 key product pillars of Coty inc:- There’s colour cosmetics, anchored by the storming success of  Rimmel, which legitimately earned its “London” tag in 1834 after Eugene Rimmel set up shop away from his native France, then his British-born sons developed the first non toxic mascara. But Rimmel was barely known outside of Britain ten years ago. The strategy since then has been to invest in R&D, to align the brand closely with the vibrant street style of urban tribes, to pump up the image while pushing down the price (its lipsticks sell  for as much as 20% less than close competitors).

Next come the sun and skincare lines, which range from Lancaster, which traces its heritage to the jet-set of 1950s Monte Carlo, to TJoy. This has provided a foothold into China through TJoy’s existing distribution channels as well as a platform for expansion. But there’s a challenge inherent here.

Coty’s biggest product category by far, (62% of total revenues) is fragrance. In much of Asia, dabbing on perfume is neither a tradition nor is it popular.  Give it time; for Asian markets, Coty now create “flankers”, softer versions of star scents, hence Calvin Klein Euphoria becomes the lighter, entry-level Calvin Klein Euphoria Blossom. Cracking China is the goal of many western beauty conglomerates and here, Coty is far from the front runner. “We are the challenger in that game and we only have a very low presence,” concedes Beetz.  “We started off in Europe and then we conquered America and we were a bit behind in China. We acquired TJoy to develop a meaningful presence.” With a bridge to Beijing, will Rimmel be roaring into town? How well is Kate Moss known in China? “She’s known,” says Beetz gnomically.

At the turn of the millennium, you might have described Jennifer Lopez more as notorious; given her relationship with rap mogul, Sean “P Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs and an incident involving a gun in a New York nightclub. So although J.Lo’s “people” were shopping around the notion that the Latina bombshell might front a fragrance, not surprisingly, there were not a lot of takers. In any case, the category was moribund.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth Taylor had become almost as well known for the fragrance White Diamonds as her role as Cleopatra but, with her notable exception, over the next decade, celebrity scent had diminished to dime store sales for cable TV stars.

Yet against this backdrop, Beetz’ gut told him a celebrity scent was exactly what was needed to power out his re-energised Coty. He let “his people” talk to J Lo’s “people”. He proved willing to sign the cheques that allowed an executive to hang out with Lopez, to learn what she was really like (far sweeter than her reputation, apparently) and then to encapsulate that in a flacon based on her body (a trick first tried in the 1930s when Mae West posed for a bottle based on her Hollywood curves).

It could have been a tacky disaster story. Instead, a range of JLo fragrances – which still sell, despite most fragrances having somewhat short “lives”  – has generated cumulative revenues topping US$1 billion. The launch of Lopez’ first fragrance with Coty, J.Lo Glow is often attributed with reinvigorating the entire celebrity fragrance category.

The rumour back then was that Beetz identified J Lo or Madonna as his ideal collaborators. On the day Beetz and I meet there’s a faint rumour going around that Madonna is, at last, entering the scent scene. So who is the diva’s industry partner and how do you bottle Madge? “What are you talking about?” Beetz shoots back (It has since been announced that Coty’s Truth or Dare by Madonna, with topnotes of gardenias and tuberose, will launch at Macy’s New York on March 26 followed by an international roll out in May. “She was always on my list,” Beetz told fashion industry paper, WWD.)

Anyway, next up, for sure, are new launches from the Beckhams, plus Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recently announced the launch of a new Soul2Soul fragrance at their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And Lady Gaga will be gearing up to conquer perfume counters. For if you can sell 13 million plus albums worldwide and garner more than a billion views online and with 6.9million followers on Twitter, why wouldn’t you bottle it?

But it may come as a surprise to discover Coty does not do that. The world’s leading fragrance company does not make scent. Instead, it comes up with a concept then shops it out to the likes of Givaudan, Firmenich or IFF  (none of these are household names) to create the liquid in the bottle, or in industry parlance, “the juice”.

Once the juice is right, whether floral, spicy, mossy, citrus, chypre or fougere (the latter perfume term translates as “fern”), Coty bottles it, packages it, promotes it and hopes that we buy it labelled Kate Moss or Playboy or Adidas or – coming soon – four Elite Model fragrances: Paris Baby, London Queen, New York Muse, Rio Glam Girl -  tapping into the zeitgeist of Next Top Model TV shows.  At the prestige end of the spectrum, there’s Bottega Veneta, Cerruti, Davidoff, Jil Sander, and a new scent by Roberto Cavalli. Coty has also developed scents with Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, Renée Fleming and Celine Dion.

Flagged up in the Beetz Harvard study is a warning that the amount of travel endured by senior staffers threatens life/work balance; although, as the Rimmel London party ramps up, Beetz shows no sign of weariness. “I don’t force myself to be fit for the job, I just like it. I like the lifestyle. I like the rhythm of it. So I don’t know if I keep fit for the job or if the job is just shaped in the way I live,” he tells me. As to keeping everything spinning, he replies, “I think I balance it very well. I’m basically working around the clock. Work is life.” Let’s drink to that.

It’s a Powerland,* darling

It’s a Powerland,* darling 

 

Sunday Times Stella | 04 December 2011

 

By Marion Hume 

 

*That’s Powerland, the Chinese answer to Prada. Never heard of it? You soon will have, along with a host of other super-brands now being hatched in the world’s emerging economies. Report by MARION HUME 

 

At the Paris shows in October, the hot rumour was of a meeting between Anna and Uma. While ‘Anna’ does indeed refer to the editor of American Vogue, the Uma in question is a Shanghainese designer who fashion insiders believe is on target to achieve international acclaim.

Uma Wang’s creations are sophisticated and chic; in style more Belgian than any cliché of what one might consider Chinese. As word circulated that ‘Vogue is doing a piece,’ everyone checked out the buzz. ‘Thanks for the tip off!’ one retailer texted me after I directed her to Wang’s tiny, temporary showroom. ‘Love it. Brought it. Uma is a star!!!!!!’

Just as Western luxury brands colonise and coin it in China, it is inevitable that Chinese companies will want to do the same right back. While some might currently be lacking in savoir faire, what those with big ambitions won’t lack is money; Beijing and Shanghai are backed with newly minted billionaires looking for glamorous investment opportunities.

The French and the Italians of course just shrug at all this. For what Chinese brand can realistically give a grand marquee with 50, 100, 150-lus years behind it a run for it’s money? But those much-vaunted years do somewhat depend on how you count. Sometimes the moniker ‘luxury brand’ really translates as ‘company able to flog mountains of pricy handbags with some other stuff on the side’. While Louis Vuitton has indeed an artisanal heritage arcing back to 1854, it is in trunk-making for which construction techniques could ‘hold their own on avenue Montaigne’, thanks to ‘a long history of exquisite craftsmanship, a wealth of beautiful stones, an emotional relationship with fold, and the talent to design and create ornaments with a very distinct identity’. She also points out the popularity of the jewellery brand Amrapali among American celebrities. The actress Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the singer Rihanna, have all worn pieces on the red carpet this year.

Sheetal Mafatlal, a Paris front-row fixture who introduced the Valentino label to Mumbai, also insists that local jewellers such as TBZ are the best anywhere, but cautions that their strengths lie not in the global brand reach but in their spectacular bespoke offerings.

Shweta Shiware is the former fashion editor of Mid Day (India’s afternoon newspaper with a circulation of five million.) She explains that designerwear is synonymous with bridalwear in India because that’s where people spend money. ‘Bridal masters like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra control the market in a far tighter grip than any international luxury brands can hope to’. Of course, among the Indian diaspora, top sari labels are already international brands. Manish Malhotra is known as the Cavalli of Mumbai, while creations by TT (as Tarun Tahiliani is known) are accessorised with Bottega Veneta clutches and Louboutin heels at all the best Bollywood parties. To woo India, Hermes now offers its famous scarves expanded to sari size. Expect others to copy that idea.

Brazilian brands have already made some serious headway. Fernanda Paronetto, head of corporate marketing for the Brazilian operation of the concierge company Quintessentially, has a hot-list of local brands-gone-global at her fingertips. There’s the jeweller H Stern, with 165 stones in 12 countries; the fashion designer Carlos Miele- who has shown at New York Fashion Week since 2002 and is worn by mega-stars such as Jennifer Lopez Beyonce. Alexandre Herchovitch is another Brazilian designer, who is currently big in Japan. For shoes, Alexandre Birman is known as the Brazilian Manolo Blanhik and is a hit both on net-a-porter.com and the red carpet. The lingerie label Rosa Cha is Brazil’s answer to La Perla, Osklen is the South American Polo Ralph Lauren and there’s the model Gisele Bundchen’s favourite Havaianas – the flip-flops that wouldn’t be considered luxurious except that every female Oscar nominee gets given a pair. ‘And don’t forget Jack Vartanian,’ adds Paronetto. ‘Nowadays his jewels are worn by Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.’

With many an economist’s eye on South Korea’s emerging economy, if the name Lie Sang Bong is not yet familiar to you, it should become so. The McQueen of Korea has been showing at Paris fashion week for almost a decade, and is the most prominent designer in his home country, dressing the first lady and collaborating on design projects as wide ranging as home décor, cigarettes and computing (the Lie Sang Bong limited edition mobile phone is a highly desirable piece of kit). ‘And Lady Gaga loves him!’ adds the Seoul-based interior designer Rea Kim.

Such is Korea’s success that it has threatened to budge Russia out of its own acronym, with some economists vaunting a change from BRIC, the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to BRICK. In fact, as far as new local luxury brands are concerned, the Russian’s don’t seem to be son interested. The designer Valentin Yudashkin has been showing at Paris Fashion Week for decades and is the only Russian designer to be honoured with membership of the city’s Syndicate of High Fashion. But his brand is still not one with global recognition.

Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Paris Vogue who has Russian blood, is a supporter of Yudashkin, and she also has a hand in the revival of the Russian jewellery house Faberge. Faberge thrived from 1842 until the 1927 revolution ad is famous for its exquisite bejewelled eggs (valued at about £12 million each). The Brand, now owned by the London-based consortium Pallinghurst Resources, is no longer based in Russia, and is returning to London and New York with new stores. The flagship stores is in Geneva rather than St Petersburg these days and the brand’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, isn’t Russian, but the talented designer Natalia Shugaeva is. And what could be more Russian than a history full of opulence, tragedy and exile?

Of all local brands that could take on luxury giants, the wise woman might place her quilted gold, pave gem-set jewelled chips on Faberge..

Holidaying with Ikea

That IKEA has caught on, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is in part directly due to my mother, who will always drive out of her way for napkins and a jar of herrings. 

Holidaying with IKEA

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

I was really excited. I had travelled to the source – a bit like Burton and Speke and the source of the Nile, except for the details, such as Burton didn’t actually make it to Lake Victoria and I didn’t have a camel. No need for camels with such a massive parking lot. What lay before me was not nile green, but the world’s most recognized colour combination, yellow and blue. I had reached the birthplace of IKEA.

Actually, I’ve just lied a bit and I’m sad about that. Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA in Smaland. But my Swedish friend insisted the Goteburg branch was better, so while I missed the thrill of the most ancient temple of flat­-packing, a still historic source of self­-assembly was good enough. I could barely contain my excitement as I grabbed my yellow ‘for use in store’ bag.

I should confess here that I love IKEA. I just do not understand why people hate it. I mean, even I can follow instructions and build a drawer. I also love that the designs are democratic, which is to say affordable and widely applicable. Not for you with your ‘shabby chic’ sitting room? But have you thought of how happily one of the $10 tables will sit next to your overstuffed armchair were you only to cover it in a pretty chintz cloth?

As for hiding in plain sight, one swanky decorator of my acquaintance stocks up on LACK bookshelves for oligarch clients’ homes. Sure, she puts the IKEA mostly in the chauffeurs and security guards’ accommodation, but she always sneaks a bit into the main house(s) because it fills the gaps. Then there’s the eco­-thought, the sustainability, the effort that has gone in to flushing all those toilets with reclaimed grey water. I’m not crazy about the meatballs, but why linger in the canteen when there are wash bags to snap up, just like the ones at Prada but with more useful mesh pockets?

Still, I’ll concede that few people, when booking a holiday, want a Swedish farm house, by water, no internet access (on vacation from email) and an easy drive to IKEA. But then few can rival my connections to this mighty brand. Back in the 1950s, my parents, students at The Glasgow School of Art, both won travel scholarships to study Scandinavian design. Fueled by a shared love of skandi­chic, they returned to Sweden a second time just as an empire was dawning. I’ll say this for my canny Scots folks; while many others would have doubted anyone would pay to make their own furniture while there were craftsmen in every village, my Mum and Dad took one look at the LOVET table with removable legs (so it packed easily into the Volvo) and decided IKEA would could catch on. That it has, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is still, in part, directly due to my moth Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it 

Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it is drawn to me. I once sat next to an IKEA kitchen designer on the plane to Shanghai; then I was on a little plane in Kenya and the woman next to me was part of an initiative to support women’s rights in communities. “Which NGO do you work for?” I asked. “IKEA,” she answered. But there’d be no need for an allen key in a manyatta mud hut.

Here’s what I observed in Gotenberg. In the kitchen sales area, there were people actually cooking. In the bed area, blondes of various sizes were testing a mattress via a family group hug. But most novel of all, people in workout gear were walking ‘the long natural way’ (the route designed to encourage the customer to see the store in its entirety) using those arctic ski poles. In an empire born in a cold country and on a bedrock of practical ideas, who could say they shouldn’t?

The Critical Choices

Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues. 

The Critical Choices 

AFR | 2011

by Marion Hume 

There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true­-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.

In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-­star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th­ century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-­star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.

The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-­crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.

Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26­-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.

So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequent­flier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.

When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.

The People’s Republic of Luxe

The People’s Republic of Luxe


10 Mag | Issue 41 November 2011

When I was a little girl, before you were born, China was the place they made cheap stuff. Now it’s the place where all the luxury labels have to have their snazziest stores in the world. When I was a teenager, China remained closed  – they only let them out to scoop up all the medals at the Olympics. Now, of course, if you are in fashion, you have to go there to scoop up your share of an annual consumer expenditure estimated to top 1.3 trillion yuan (about £122 billion) by 2020.

by Marion Hume

And we’re not just talking Dior, Chanel, Vuitton. You want a yacht with that handbag? British yacht brand, Sunseeker is out there flogging its Manhattan 73 model for 31.4 million yuan (£3 million). You could toast your purchase with Chateau Lafite 1982 at 445,186 yuan (£42,115) Oh stop fretting, that’s for half a case. Did you think anyone would pay that much for a bottle?

When I started work, Hong Kong was the gateway to “Mainland China” as it was known (those in the know call it “the PRC” today). Back when Honkers was still a British colony, you could almost count the grains of rice in people’s dinner bowls as the plane swerved around mountains and tower blocks to touch down at Kai Tak, the world’s sixth most dangerous airport. Now, the PRC is peppered with super-dooper airports designed by “star-chitects”. But China’s billionaires don’t fly commercial, although some hire rather than own their own Gulfstreams. Price for Beijing-Shanghai return on a Gulfstream G550: 276,500 yuan (£26,157).

From the far south of Guangzhou, where Louis Vuitton has its largest Chinese flagship store, to the the old silk road staging post of Urumqi, the most inland city in the world – yup, they’ve got a Vuitton there too – China is fashion profit central, even if a recent store renovation is rumoured to have cost Vuitton in the eight digits. The first fashion person I knew who reached “real” China, as in Beijing, was sent by Zara to find a cheap production source. Now, Zara has 70 stores in the PRC.

The first time I went to Beijing, it was to interview newly-successful women, several of whom thought they were wearing designer clothes, but these were funny fake brands that I had never heard of. Then the fake market started to thrive and I seemed to always be clambering through some fat-filled restaurant kitchen, then down a back alley and into a room the size of a toilet pretending to be a customer. The criminal salesmen pretended to believe me as they took photographs of my (real) Fendi Selleria bag. The fake business shows no sign of slowing down as China’s love of luxury booms. The new trend is in counterfeiting an entire experience, although who knew there was anywhere on earth that they would welcome a completely fake branch of IKEA?

Even as recently as five years ago, the picture the photographer had to get was the “contrast shot” of the toothless guy parking his bicycle next to the Louis Vuitton superstore in Shanghai. The shoppers within were still so delighted in the newness of being able to express their individuality through fashion, that they would willingly stop and talk to a stranger with a tape recorder, a photographer and a translator. They told such sad stories of their Mao suit years. One shopper never knew her father. When her mother was pregnant, her parents had been sent to the country to be “re-educated” and they locked her father in a shed until he died. Her mother survived eating frogs and birds eggs. Another was once given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that. The power of fashion is powerful indeed.

Now, the bulk of luxury shoppers – and there are more than 200 million young adults under 30 in the PRC – were born after The Cultural Revolution so have not “eaten bitterness” as their parents did. Far from envying their lifestyles, their mothers tend to encourage them. “If I dress a little bit sexy, she thinks I look beautiful,” one girl told me when I returned to Beijing in 2008. “I’m the youth she didn’t have.”

For the luxury tsars, China’s love of the new is a great plus. “They don’t have a generation before them to refer to style-wise, so they are daring with the choices they make,” one CEO told me, eyes ablaze. The rules are still being written in this high profit battle ground. Beijinger and Shanghainese girls like to write off those from the “second tier cities” as bumpkins who have just learned to say Vuitton, but that doesn’t stop those in cities you’ve hardly heard wanting designer bags. No surprise then that as well as opening stores everywhere,  the likes of Chloe now have Chinese language blogs. Faye Wong, a Chinese singer and actress, does print campaigns for Céline. One of Louis Vuitton’s male models is Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Godfrey Gao. No prizes for guessing (beyond those gorgeous cheekbones) why he got the gig.

It might be hard to believe this now, but British designers used to quake in their boots when the American department stores came calling. China is expected to be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015 and if the USA doesn’t pull its economy out of tailspin, it could come sooner. Guess which buyers get the champers and the Rose Bakery cupcakes these days? But forget any cliches about Chinese shoppers liking the logo-a-gogo stuff. The level of sophistication is obvious when you walk past racks of Vanessa Bruno, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens at the Lane Crawford department store in Beijing.

A year ago, I got a call from Francois-Henri Pinault’s office. Would I like to join him on a trip to 10 Chinese cities, few of which I had actually heard of (and I’m up on Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian…)? Alas, I was in a diamond mine in Australia (key global market for Tiffany? Yes, you got that one too) so had to pass on the PPR titan’s tempting invite, but I did once interview Pinault’s rival, Bernard Arnault of LVMH, in a penthouse suite in Beijing. Trying to get to Arnault, both the richest man in fashion and the richest man in France, when you are actually in France is well-nigh impossible. Yet in China, he was as relaxed and warm as a chilly billionaire can be, although he was probably totting up what you get when even 0.001% of a population headed towards 1.35 billion people wants Dior.

But you should never count your Chinese chickens. When Arnault’s mate President Sarkozy said he would be meeting the Dalai Lama (do, please Google exactly why Richard Gere is so passionate about Tibet), the Chinese ambassador in Paris apparently had the luxury titan quaking in his handmade Berlotti shoes at the thought of Chinese Vuitton customers asking for their money back.

Those customers get wooed. Last year it was the Dior extravaganza staged on the Bund in Shanghai; there was the “Culture Chanel” exhibition, the Fendi’s show on the Great Wall and the Ferragamo show within the Forbidden City. But it is not just about wooing the girls. One of the glories of modern China, if you are a luxury tycoon, is this is one of the few markets where men outdo women in their regard of expensive designer goods as trophies of success. Good news for Dunhill and Hugo Boss,

You can’t keep up with who is opening, who is expanding where. There’s Burberry’s upcoming Hong Kong megastore which promises to be a smart shopping destination for an annual 23 million Chinese tourists who come to town. Niche brands like Moncler are making a splash in Beijing, Miu Miu is expanding in Shanghai – the list goes on.

Susan Owens is a China expert whose blog, Paris Cherie, links the world of Paris fashion to Shanghai. She admits she can hardly post content up fast enough or keep track of the Western brands keen to snap up the services of Shanghai model, Du Juan.

What the Chinese luxury consumer is not madly interested in – up to now – is the vast nation’s sartorial past. “There’s no vintage—Chinese don’t wear old clothes,” someone told me. Hello Ralph Lauren, who visited China last year. Cue an autumn-winter 2011 collection of cheongsams inspired by the old silk road. When Ralph Lauren opened his first stores in Britain, back when Princess Diana was young, few thought his coals-to-Newcastle – or more precisely chintz-to-Downton Abbey -offering would work in a land where some people actually owned family silver. How wrong we were so expect to see fashion folk in the PCR dressing “Chinese”

Coming soon, more homegrown designers, more competition. And I leave you with this. In 1997, I was editing Vogue Australia, which meant I was “Asia Pacific” on the Paris show seating plans and thus in the worst seats in the house. Around me would be the first few fashion editors from the PRC. Where are they now? Locate Suzy Menkes and track along a couple of chairs, that’s where. All power to China.

Net Prophet – AFR

Net Prophet

The Business of Fashion: The man behind Yoox, Katie Grand’s pyramid, Designer of the moment, China fashion week, ALT’s exhibition

AFR Magazine | November 2011

By Marion Hume 

 

In 1998, which was way back in the dark ages before global internet connectivity, the Australian ‘success guru’ Siimon Reynolds published a little book with the catchy title, When they zig, you zag . Two years later, in 2000, Federico Marchetti, who was born in a small town below Venice on Italy’s Adriatic coast – and has never heard of the book – launched an innovative e-commerce business that has made him an industry titan. The planning that led up to the launch and what has happened since surely distinguish Marchetti as the ultimate ‘zagger’.

A quick whizz through his zags goes like this: As a teen, while others did what they wanted, Marchetti, in the quest for his long term goal, did what he didn’t want in the short term. An entrepreneur, he chose to launch into the online arena while living in a nation which, back then, boasted little expertise in internet technology. When did he launch? Just as the internet stock bubble was bursting. What did he do after asking his best friends to review a list of brand names? He chose Yoox – the one none of them liked. In 2008, as the financial crisis roiled markets, an undeterred Marchetti started the process of taking his global internet retailer public. Fast-forward to 2011 when, in the six months to June, Yoox Group’s net sales rose 36 per cent on the previous year to €131.2 million. All this by never going zig.
Marchetti (not to be confused with the Italian footballer) doesn’t even look the part. He is nervy and intense and when he speaks he sounds more like a literature professor than one of fashion’s category shifters. As for his style, there isn’t even the status indicator of an expensive watch – instead no watch. And swagger? None. Marchetti hates socialising, preferring to stay home reading books and eating minestrone. What did he do the night after Yoox successfully went public after a nail-biting run-up through the worst financial meltdown in decades? He went home and had soup. Damn it but – working two days a week in Milan, two in Bologna, the rest wherever needed – he doesn’t even drive a Ferrari. “I’m not a big fan of these symbols,” shrugs Marchetti, having ordered us two single, tart espressos when we meet in Florence, where he has travelled by train, as he insists all his staff do too.
You may not have heard of Yoox and you wouldn’t be alone; many in fashion who are all-too-familiar with its key competitor, Net-a-Porter, haven’t heard of it either. Yoox is headquartered in Milan and has a vast warehousing complex at Interporto near Bologna as well as logistics centres in New Jersey, Shanghai and just outside Tokyo. In the past decade, Yoox has shifted more than 1 million shirts, 800,000 pairs of shoes and 700,000 pairs of jeans to more than 100 countries by either same-day or next-day delivery (the company’s biggest single expense is its UPS [United Parcel Service] account). Yet the man behind it all is low key. “I hate networking,” he says. “I think it’s the worst. When I don’t work, I stay home by myself or with my girlfriend. I don’t do anything. I hate people that need to meet other people to feel important.”
Federico Marchetti has always judged only one person’s view to be important: his own. Even as a boy he knew that what he wanted was to be the king of a single big idea. He has been astonishingly pragmatic in accomplishing this. Claiming that his independence, determination and clarity comes from “my childhood”, he then adds that neither of his parents – “cultured people” – had any entrepreneurial spirit at all.
Yet even at school, Marchetti gravitated to subjects he didn’t like much because he thought they would be useful. At university, he picked economics while his heart said psychology. “I wanted to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time in order to make the fewest possible mistakes,” is how he puts it now. So, after leaving home at 19 (unusual in Italy, where undergraduates tend to live at home) and reading business at Bocconi, Milan, he took jobs in corporate finance and management consulting, got an MBA from Columbia, New York and then, eureka!
It was late in 1999 and the first big fashion internet start-ups were pressing panic buttons because they were about to tank. Yet Marchetti knew, with certainty, that gold lay in marrying fashion’s exclusivity with the accessibility of the net – not in the US, where he had been living, but back in Italy, then a country with minimal I know-how, yet world famous for its fashion.
First, Marchetti found venture capital funding from the US, then he joined forces with a bricks and mortar store in Bologna, taking stock on consignment and selling it online. Next, he started cultivating big fashion names, acutely aware of how sensitive they were to selling in an arena which, back then, seemed somewhat downmarket. So he worked with them to shift end-of season stock on the multi-brand site of yoox.com, never obviously “on sale” but instead at a “Yoox price”
Then he persuaded some of the mightiest brands to use Yoox’s established logistics, warehousing, customer care, to create their own mono-brand online stores, powered by Yoox. Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Alberta Ferretti, Moncler are just a few of the leading fashion brand websites where everything – from radio frequency identification tags, to the studios full of photographers taking the pictures – is done by Yoox, which then supplies customer demand in more than 100 countries from hubs on three continents. Yoox started in menswear and now covers womenswear, kids, home, even pets.
The name Yoox came, recalls Marchetti “from my own imagination. The Y and the X are like the chromosomes for men and women; that’s why we are so good at talking about men and women – it is part of our DNA – and then the OO is also like the DNA of the internet, because it’s the zero from the binary code.” Marchetti had a list of possible names, “and I asked friends and everybody liked brands that were more common … I realised they liked the past, I liked the future, so I picked the one no one chose”.
And it’s very contemporary. If I go to Japan, they think it’s Japanese. If I go to China, they think it’s Chinese. If I go to America, they think it’s American. It’s very neutral, very global and I never wanted to be a local player.” He adds: “I consider myself a miracle. Every day when I wake up, I say thank god for this gift of knowing what I want.”
Starting with menswear proved a competitive advantage; the long-held belief in the luxury business that men hated to shop left the category more open. Online, it soon became clear that without the fuss of sales assistants, in anonymity and with a “no questions asked” returns policy, men were keen to buy.
After more than a decade of e-commerce, it can be assessed that, while men rarely browse and are not frequent purchasers when they do shop, they buy more and often at the beginning of the season rather than waiting to purchase on impulse in the sales. Yoox research shows Americans buy the most bow ties, the French like hats and Italians prefer briefs to boxers. Irrespective of nationality, men like black, navy and grey, although the Spanish also like red. Swedes and Norwegians are most likely to tick the eco-shipping option.
Yoox offers all the basics and the big brands. For those of more esoteric tastes, thecorner.com, launched in 2008 for men and a year later for women, is a series of mini boutiques, each highly customised in keeping with the brand messages of cutting-edge designers including Viktor & Rolf and Hussein Chalayan. Designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann and Dries Van Noten choose thecorner.com as their official internet retailing partner.
Yoox’s listing on the Milan bourse at the end of 2009 was the first in the European tech sector since the financial downturn, and Marchetti admits there was a time when he felt he was running towards a cliff not knowing if he would take flight or tumble. “I did have a very strong feeling it was the right thing to do,” he says now, although he admits advisers (Goldman Sachs and Mediobanca were the co-ordinators of the sale) told him they might suddenly suggest he call a halt. The high pricing came as a collective relief.
Right now, as the Italian economy wobbles, that Yoox Group is both international and nimble is a considerable advantage, especially for a company with a vast warehouse in Shanghai. China’s online adventures are just beginning. McKinsey research shows that while more than one-third of the world’s most populous nation are web users, less than a third of that number have started shopping online (against a global average of 86 per cent), implying considerable upswing ahead, even in a nation where the likes of Armani Group already has close to 200 real-life stores. The other area of growth, albeit much smaller, says Marchetti, is Australia, thanks to a hunger for international luxury goods and a robust economy. “It’s not big, but it is significant as one of the highest-growing markets for us. In the last couple of years, it has grown 10 times over,” he says.
To a question of life-work balance, Marchetti responds: “It’s easy to answer because fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t consider what I’m doing to be work. It’s not work, it’s my child that I’m very proud of; it’s part of my style – I put a lot of myself into it.” Yet he is, he claims, “quite well balanced” about switching off. “This year, I went on holiday with some friends and I took four days off. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, four days in Greece and I turned [my BlackBerry] off.” He adds that, for the first two hours, it was hell.
He tries to trade in as ecological a manner as possible – ECO_mmerce as it is referred to in Yoox-speak – to the point where there’s a complete ‘green site’ within the site, called Yooxygen, dedicated to ethical fashion. The industry-wide challenge is that some of the clothes on offer in this niche are less than enticing (a notable exception being Vivienne Westwood’s snazzy 100 per cent ethical bags made in Africa with UN agency ITC. But as I consult on the project, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
Marchetti says regretfully he doesn’t think ethical fashion will become just’fashion’- that all fashion will have wised up to ethics-any time soon. “It is a niche,” he says and one where Yoox may face competition when ex=Barneys New York buying guru, Julie Gilhart, who had impeccable ‘green’ credentials, finds her feet in her new role as fashion consultant for amazon.com. Still, Yoox scores marks for its ecobox packaging, which is made using cellulose gathered under environmentally socially and economically sustainable conditions.
Yet in cyber world, things get ever more glossy, as brands sign movie stars and tap Hollywood special effects guys, such as Avatar’s James Lima, to bring more bang. “We are still so close to the beginning of the story,” says Marachetti who tells me his favourite activity away from work is “nothing. I get all the adrenalin I need with Yoox” (having conducted this whole interview on just one small sniff of Florentine coffee). “Elsewhere in my life, I don’t look for more.”

©afr.co

Anatomy of a Maison

maison

Anatomy of a Maison

The Australian Financial Review | November 2011

In the Medieval age, the sight of a towering spire signalled a city of splendour. Today, it is cathedrals of retailing that indicate metropolitan status in the global pecking order. The December 3 opening, not of another Louis Vuitton store – there are already 460 of those worldwide – but of a much grander Louis Vuitton ‘Maison’ (of which there are just 13) proves Sydney must be a very smart town indeed. Kar-Hwa Ho is the man responsible for the latest Australian opening, as well as such landmark stores as Louis Vuitton Singapore, housed on its very own island. Vuitton’s design director for the Asia-Pacific region tells Marion Hume about the new maison in the company of the brand’s Paris-based director of architecture, David McNulty.

A CATHEDRAL FOR A SECULAR AGE

“Is that a compliment?” asks David McNulty. “I suppose fashion houses are becoming architectural theatre in the way opera houses were and cathedrals used to be. For us, there is always a question of visibility. We cannot be tucked away. We must be seen.” So how big a footprint is needed for a maison? “About 2000 square metres” says McNulty. Walk-ins are welcome at the Sydney Maison, because busy George Street means there’s nowhere to park, let alone a space for your limo to wait. But what of those Vuitton stores where you can’t walk in? The line at the Paris Champs Élysées flagship store often numbers in the hundreds. “It’s really not good to have people waiting,” protests McNulty, revealing that staff serve hot beverages to waiting crowds and the company sometimes lays on transport to the other five Vuitton stores in Paris, “but everyone wants to go to that one because it’s the biggest.”

IF WE BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

To semaphore to the customer that a maison is more than just a place to pick up a monogram wallet, it helps if the building itself is jaw-droppingly attractive and the Sydney Maison certainly is chic. “But we don’t own the building, which means there are restrictions,” explains Ho. Even without these, sometimes the most arresting designs don’t get built. All the architecture models that didn’t make it are in the Vuitton head office, including one of shining metal rods by Zaha Hadid. “One day!” says Ho, wistfully. Do the challenges of preserving history lead to better stores? Not always. “While we’re not interested in destroying heritage buildings, our original concepts are usually better,” says McNulty, who adds that, sometimes, keeping the history can go too far. At the recently opened Milan Maison, he says, “there’s a really ugly mural on the wall. Really ugly. It has a preservation order on it so we built a wall in front of it, so some archaeologist in the future can come in and find it.”

MAKING AN ENTRANCE

There is no grander gesture than empty space, given retail rents are charged by the (astronomical) square metre and here is 59 sq m of glittering floor over which you must walk to reach the central altar of retailing. Walking directly ahead, you enter a ‘fast lane’ leading to what is known as the ‘hot zone’. Here’s where you find the bag that stars in the latest advertising campaign. “The bags that are the ‘fashion moment’ can always be seen from the entrance to the store,” says McNulty. But does one turn left or right? “We don’t want to control that,” he says. “We want to convey to the visitor that there are many things on offer; leather goods, travel, the men’s universe, the women’s universe.”

FAMILIARITY BREEDS EXCITEMENT

The aim is to attract a customer who knows exactly what to expect yet is also in search of novel retail entertainment. Uniform across all Vuitton stores is a colour palette of caramel and toffee, a reference to the checkerboard Damier canvas of 1888, which in turn led to Louis’s son, Georges, inventing the famous monogram canvas of 1896. And, rather as a cathedral has a smaller, perhaps more opulent, altar behind the main one – this only visible to those allowed to venture behind a parclose – so too does the Sydney Maison have its hidden treasure: literally, given the watch and jewellery sales area is tucked behind the ground floor’s central selling station. “The aim is to create a more intimate area, away from the flow,” Ho says.

GOING UP

In all retailing, the challenge is to encourage traffic to upper floors. That’s been somewhat easier since 1857, when the first commercial passenger elevator was installed in a New York City department store. Yet the Sydney Maison has just one customer lift. “It’s not necessary to have more,” McNulty says. “What tends to happen is that people walk around and discover the store by themselves, including taking the stairs. A sweeping staircase – all steel substructure and timber veneer – is visible centre-left as you enter the Maison, inviting you to mount a stairway to heaven – or more precisely menswear first and then, on the second floor, ‘women’s universe’ for fabulous fashion by Marc Jacobs.

HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR

As Gloria Swanson knew, one must be well lit. While the primary function of store lighting is to make sure you can see everything, at Vuitton, spotlights are trained on the hottest products just as kliegs were once directed on a movie star’s cheekbones. “Whenever we can bring natural light into the store, we do,” says McNulty, who adds that, despite a menu of lighting options, sales staff always choose the brightest setting. But in the ‘try rooms’ (this is Vuittonese for what you and I usually refer to as a fitting room), it is you who control the light, via a panel that allows you to check an outfit under the noonday sun, at twilight and by night.

DESIGN FOR MEN

Even in equal Australia, men rarely shop midweek, which risks a very empty floor. The solution: stick menswear on the first floor so women must go past it and thus might think, “I’ll get him a belt to soften the blow of all the stuff I’ve bought for me.” And when men do shop? “If a man sees a mannequin with an outfit on it, he could well buy the [lot],” says McNulty. Expect to see rows of mannequins. The primary male quest is for shoes. Your shoe guy wants to choose shoes, sit down, try them and buy them. So the chairs here (just one of 10 different designs in use by Vuitton) are the optimum height and tilt for trying on footwear. This is less of a concern in China where, “they have no problem waiting for a seat to be freed up; they’ll do it standing on one foot and they’ll even try clothes on without using a changing room,” McNulty says.

VIP

When spending a penny (as opposed to $4500 on the latest Tiger clutch bag), every customer is a VIP – given the VIP loo is for you. But there’s VIPs and VVIPs. Tucked into a corner of the second floor is an area code-named ‘constellation’, as in ‘star’. Here, those who require additional privacy can be accommodated behind a closed door. As for the old saying that common folk sweat, the rest of us perspire and stars glow, here’s why: the VVIP area has its own dedicated air con. It’s here that the most exclusive service – the chance to get a bag in shapes and leathers of your choice – will be offered. It’s called ‘haute maroquinerie’ in Vuittonese. ‘Hot maroc’ in Sydney-speak? Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

SECRET DOORS

While an exceptional sales associate cannot actually walk through walls, she can tap a mirror to reveal a door that allows her to reach the tills. Cash-and-wrap is hidden from your view, “although we have to make sure that this works well with the flow of the selling ceremony,” says Ho. “You don’t want your salesperson to disappear for too long with your things while you are sitting around waiting.” But what about disappearing with one’s credit card while, even in restaurants, they bring the machine to you these days? “Mostly, people don’t mind,” Ho says. “But in Asia, customers follow their salesperson to the till. People pay cash and need a secure area to count it.”

ECOLOGY

Everything is as ecological as possible, from the certified woods you can see to the basement unpacking area you can’t, where paper and cardboard are stored. “Our Guam store is powered by solar panels,” Ho says. This not an option for Sydney where the building is rented.

AUSTRALIANA

While big-brand stores look somewhat the same around the world, Vuitton makes the effort to help shoppers remember what country they are in. In Auckland, the store features model lambs created by a Kiwi. In Jakarta, there are Indonesian lamps and stools. So for Sydney? The eagle-eyed will spot eucalyptus motifs played out in wood marquetry. Coming soon – although not in time for the opening – LV monogrammed surfboards should provide a clue.

WINDOW ON A NEW WORLD

Windows are an invitation, and a global mega-brand requires lavish displays. “From our standpoint, that means providing the right space and lighting and access,” says McNulty. The secret to quick changes? Panels that can move in and out and doors big enough to accommodate a window dresser carrying a zebra. That is not a joke. The windows in London’s Bond Street currently feature a herd of life-sized African fauna.

Catching the Moment

Catching the Moment

AFR | September 2011

Where is fashion marching now, asks international fashion editor Marion Hume. Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus with the oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides.

When fashion wants to look back, it is a sure sign of its unease at looking forward. Of course, fashion continually takes inspiration from ‘vintage’ but that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, it seems to me, people are looking in the rear view mirror as if wondering, “how on earth did we get here?”

‘Here’ is a world where luxury labels have us so addicted, you almost suspect there’s nicotine in the handbag leather. ‘Here’ is a world where, when it comes to basics, we seem to believe it is others who should take responsibility that the cotton in our clothes is not the same cotton that causes lakes to run dry. ‘Here’ is a place where a clutch bag in iridescent python is described as “so on trend!” despite grave concern elsewhere that the number of snakes slaughtered for style could lead to an explosion of the rat population and then a spread of human contagion.

It can be ugly, this business driven by desire for beautiful things. So thank heavens for Botox, injected into snakeskin to make that clutch bag feel scaly not flakey. I had no idea of that little detail until I read “To Die For. Is Fashion Wearing out the World?” by Lucy Siegle. I’ll hold back on her description of what happens in the slow process of snakes being slaughtered only because losing you too early hardly serves my purpose in writing the rest of this article.

But who’d want such a ludicrous display of wealth as a python purse anyway? Not you, of course; you prefer to dress down. So that cotton T­shirt? Did you check it hasn’t reached your back via the labour of schoolchildren – and their teachers – who are forced out of the classroom every summer to harvest the cotton crops of Uzbekistan? Those new jeans that already look old? We need other people – poorer people – to get the look for us by sandblasting, which is big in Bangladesh, where garment workers are dying of silicosis. Sandblasting is the new fur. You shouldn’t be seen dead in it. Donatella Versace is the latest designer to join the campaign to outlaw it. Expect the next trend in denim to be a direct reaction; dark indigo, except that’s turning vital rivers in India bright blue. It would be wrong to suggest that all the big fashion brands are up to no good. Most of them try quite hard not to be bad.

I can’t think of a single one that has ignored consumer pressure to get with the eco agenda. But now they have done the easy stuff (cutting down on packaging, changing the light bulbs, re­routing grey water to flush the loos), it’s a hard road ahead. For those just entering the business, that road must seem almost impassable. Even if a young designer does get a break, financial pressure now translates as shareholder demands front of mind. And if our young talent still believes in fashion as ‘art’, what chilling examples are to be found: Alexander McQueen dead by his own hand in London; John Galliano, who killed his career with anti­semitic rantings in a Paris bar.

The pressures of producing endless fantastical collections generating those endless dollars can prove unbearable. Which leads me to looking back. About a year ago, I started getting random requests for a six ­part BBC fashion documentary called The Look which I worked on from 1990 to 1992. In the past six months, interest has increased from England, Australia, Korea . . . and unsolicited emails arrive from those just born when it was first broadcast. They are reacting to the six episodes posted on vimeo (video­sharing website used by creatives) with the wonder of archeologists stumbling into Tutankhamun’s tomb. (OK, that’s a gigantic exaggeration, but one thing that will never go out of fashion is the industry’s ease with hyperbole).

Anyway, the other day, I too found The Look online. I understood instantly why the clothes appeal now; they are so utterly out of fashion, they are on the way back in. I suppose watching the late Gianni Versace, Moschino and Yves Saint Laurent appeals to this constituency the way The History Channel does to guys obsessed with WWII.

In The Look, names now thought of as brands still belong to people; in the program Donna Karan admits in it she has only recently stopped opened all the mail with her name on it. The supermodels are in their prime.  “I don’t know what a supermodel is. Does it mean I’m super?” squeaks Linda Evangelista, her voice surely as shocking as when silent stars switched to talkies. And there’s Carla Bruni, with the face she was born with, wisely saying nothing, missing nothing; good training for the future First Lady of France.

The doco seems to capture a golden age; a moment in time before things went absolutely crazy. Not that all was calm. In 1992, the series was aired around the world, perhaps to the chagrin of marie claire editor, Jackie Frank, then a New York based stylist, whose feisty reaction to a scrum scene outside a Jean-Paul Gaultier show was viewed by the folks back in Melbourne. Crowd control has much improved, but otherwise, that lack of organization had advantages. PRs were posh women in pearls. Today’s media managers would never let anyone get the equivalent of a shot that goes on and on as Yves Saint Laurent ‘Elnetts’ his bouffant backstage.

Lurking about was a guy in a tie we never bothered to interview. Bernard Arnault was in his early 40s when The Look was being filmed and looks vulpine, stealthy, as he circles his prey. The rhetoric the chairman and chief executive of LVMH pushes today is that fashion stars don’t matter as much as they did. Now it’s all about the product. (This from the man who – at time of writing – has no viable designer for Dior).

But in 1990, he was the star maker to Christian Lacroix, an experiment that would fail to the tune of  €150 million in losses over the years. That Arnault’s other instincts were more sound is evidenced by his current status as the wealthiest man in France, with a Forbes-estimated worth of US$41 billion.

Today, the money is on the quiet ones, specifically Phoebe Philo, who heads up Celine and is independent of spirit (though not in business, Celine is part of LVMH). She creates uncluttered clothes for busy women and references her own needs as the stylish mother of two young children. Yet her sartorial statements echo those of the leading minimalist we talked to back in the early ‘90s. Giorgio Armani’s muted palate and unadorned silhouettes were exactly what sophisticated women yearned for back then, although this being TV, we cut away from frocks to shots of his home, complete with five colour-coordinated Persian cats.

The landscape of fashion was expanding, literally; it was the beginning of the identikit designer superstore in London, New York, LA (although we would have to wait until the millennium for most brands to open in Australia). That territorial land grab goes on. Twenty years ago, China was the place that made the cheap stuff. Now 20% of goods labelled Prada are, legitimately, made in China.

Where else is fashion marching? Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus and its oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Where there’s muck, there’s frocks and fashion mags; Cosmo Mongolia launched in the wake of Rio Tinto mining the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposits. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides, thanks to e-commerce.

Asked in 1990 what her life’s ambition was, New Yorker, Donna Karan shot back, “A Broadway Show!” Today, her response would be more holistic; her company is, for example, among pioneers trying to source product out of Haiti to aid its reconstruction. Vivienne Westwood played the pantomime dame in The Look; her fault and ours, given she was the one cavorting around in a nude body suit with a gold fig leaf. But we didn’t listen when she went on about global responsibility. We just thought she was bonkers. And great TV.

Recently I’ve been working closely with Dame Vivienne and know her to be wise. I consult for the UN-World-Trade Organization agency, the International Trade Centre, on the Ethical Fashion Program which links top designers to some of the world’s poorest people. A growing percentage of Vivienne Westwood accessories is produced in the slums and drought-stricken regions of East Africa. Driving across Northern Kenya, seeing hardly a tree because those farmers whose animals had died had felled them to burn and sell for charcoal in order to feed their families, the designer’s ardent advocacy that climate change cannot be ignored makes poignant, sound sense.

Fashion as a vehicle out of poverty? Who would have thought that in 1990 when we were getting excited by who had a mansion, who had a yacht? Yet you can create lovely beads from the carcasses of cows dumped in a slum, you can make handbag hardware from brass salvaged from abandoned cars. Artisan skills, from screen printing to embroidery, can be done by those displaced by conflict, quickly earning them a living wage.

Not that the Mighty UN is the only body to have identified fashion’s unique power. There are scores of smaller initiatives: from Ecuador (The Andean Collection, which offers natty felt hats to Manhattan urbanites) to Ethiopia (Sammy Ethiopia, whose featherlight scarves, wrapped over bikinis, are a summer hit among the Med set). Spurred by its success in Uganda and Cambodia, the Spotlight Stitch in Time program operates in Australia’s Top End where, it is hoped, the provision of sewing machines and support could mean that indigenous women, among the world’s most marginalised, may earn a place in a lucrative value chain.

While small companies can react to changing needs and, designers such as Vivienne Westwood can be nimble because she retains control of a business (with estimated annual sales in excess of £120 million ($189 million), plus ownership of all key retail real estate. Who’s bonkers now?), the fast fashion juggernauts require a longer turning curve. It is encouraging that Pablo Isla, the new man at the top of Inditex (owner of Zara) has pledged to make sustainability a cornerstone of all of activities and has announced that his company has signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative and The CEO Water Mandate.

At the dawn of the ‘90s, it was the Ladies-who-lunch who fascinated. I’d certainly never met anyone like couture-clad Texan, Lynn Wyatt, a damn good sport who agreed to wear a wire so we could listen in to the front row set. Now, those I record (entirely legally) might be scientists, hardly a profession known as best dressed.  Fashion professional Helen Storey works with boffin, Tony Ryan, to create dresses which disappear, thereby demonstrating that detergent bottles of the same material  (polyvinyl alcohol) can “knowingly” reduce to a compostable gel once empty. There’s Dr. Helen Crowley of the Wildlife Conservation Society whose biodiversity objectives include sustainable cashmere, this to stop over-grazing of goats and so save the rare Przewalski’s horse from extinction.

Fashion really is everywhere, (Benin Fashion Week followed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, by the way), its glitter sprinkled  even on Magnum ice-creams (Karl Lagerfeld just shot the TV commercial). Yet the given is, it always reacts to what has gone before, hence Tom Ford, – he of Gucci runways vast enough to land an A380 – now favours salon presentations, no cameras allowed. While Vuitton-checkered flags flutter over all points of the compass, upcomers want just a handful of stores, or only one, in Paris. When you can get everything everywhere, a thrill lies in something you can only find somewhere.

In the days of The Look, we never spoke about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); now those in power recognise fashion must become more fair to respond to consumer demand. While eco is a trend with staying power, claims for eco cred must become more intelligent. Pack purchases in paper in a world short on trees yet littered in plastic bags? Let’s rethink that. Marginalized women across Africa are cleaning and crocheting waste that would otherwise be burned releasing dangerous dioxins. A plastic-bag crocheted tote from Zambia, with no designer label, has replaced the Birkin as the schlepp bag of choice for a New York tastemaker I know.

Last year, Naomi Campbell was called to testify at the international court of justice at the Hague. Her memories of 1997 when she was given those “dirty looking stones” reminded us what a filthy business the diamond trade used to be. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), formally adopted in November 2002, has done much to clean up things, to the point that if you splash out on something sparkly from a reputable jeweller, you can be confident there’s no blood on your hands.

Fashion is much more diverse than the international gem trade (itself still grappling with the transit of illicit precious stones from Burma, Zimbabwe, etcetera and it should be noted, the KPCS does not cover environmental concerns nor guarantee fair trade). It will take wisdom, time, effort for a clear international system of ethical labeling to become as useful as the one inside your jacket that directs you to cool iron or dry clean. While the 21st century journey of that jacket to your back is way too complex to fit on an actual label, there are positive developments.

Just as e-commerce has made it possible for the consumer to voice concerns (much easier via pressing “contact us” than trying to get answers from a harried shop assistant), so might m-commerce on smartphones allow us to receive the life story of clothes just as we are deciding whether of not to buy them.

There are no plans I’m aware of to make a sequel to The Look but if there were, what moment might it capture now? I think this is the time where those of us who love fashion face up to responsibilities that include saying “no” if something seems too cheap, in the awareness that it may carry other costs we can’t countenance. The Look captured a moment of style. If a sequel could capture the moment of style equaling substance, wouldn’t that be good?

Fashion Journalist and Ethical Consultant