Never play poker with Collette Dinnigan. I should state here that in years of knowing her, both as a designer and a friend, she’s never suggested a card game. But were she to do so, I’d decline. Goodness, can she keep things close to her chest.
Recently, I have seen quite a lot of Collette; at her Paris show, for afternoon tea, and then over drinks at Le Meurice she gave me her gorgeous new book (launched in Australia on Tuesday), many of the adventures within ones we shared. Her business grew as my fashion life in Australia began. Arriving in Sydney from London to edit Vogue, as I did in 1997, was a pretty lonely gig. Collette just plunged in and invited me home to dinner.
So when my colleague Katrina Strickland called seeking comment on Collette closing her business, I was stunned. Collette had just shown the freshest collection she’s done in years: genuinely lovely, bang on trend.
Close now? I haven’t been able to talk to Collette before writing this – the time difference from London and deadline didn’t allow. What follows is my guess of what might be happening.
What I know for sure is Collette is smart, ambitious, driven. Her husband Bradley, also in the business, is charming and strategic. Give up a career she has fought so hard for?
My hunch is that’s not what’s happening here.
Spending time looking for the right investor – not found – makes one examine a business. What went wrong? Perhaps this is a case instead of what to do right. Close stores? Why not, as rents and staff costs rocket. Bizarrely, Australian designers are online from overseas.
There’s a reason Matches Fashion – which grew to an e-commerce force from a store in south London – is bringing British designers on a “rock tour” of Australia. It is the same reason American retail giant Neiman Marcus is sending its creative director to meet the customers.
Last May, Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead was delighted to appear at The Australian Financial Review Bespoke conference because Australian men are the e-tailer’s second-biggest customers.
What astonished even Langmead was that the offer of three days’ free shipping after the event, announced from the Sydney Opera House stage, had a take-up over triple what he’d anticipated, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Who needs stores anyway?
MORE TO COME
Is Collette giving up altogether? I think she’s just pausing for breath before an even bigger next chapter. Her family is happiest at their organic farm down south.
Might this be the launch pad for a business like the UK’s Daylesford Organics? (Good food was important to Collette long before it was such a trend.) Maybe a Maggie Beer-meets-Donna Hay with seasonless, gorgeous, ethical clothes in the mix? And perhaps a really glorious collection of rural holiday rentals too, given Bradley has a background in hotels and she’s great at interiors?
Could this be the beginning of the business I longed for when I first arrived in Australia? One that encapsulates the uniqueness and makes the differences touchstones of chic – as Ralph Lauren did for America years ago?
The modern business model would be to sell that dream almost all online and have a gorgeous shop off-the-beaten track with places to stay to experience the lifestyle. If she is giving up a brand she’s fought for to bake cookies for the kids, she’ll bake those cookies into another even better Collette Dinnigan brand.
by Marion Hume
Hush hush, but have you heard the latest about cocagne? The source is limited but whispers are spreading through the French fashion crowd. Really, if you are planning to holiday in the snazziest summer enclaves in Europe next summer, (Cap d’Antibes, Ile de Re, St Paul de Vence….) you don’t want to miss out.
We are talking about something difficult to obtain but entirely legal of course. While you pronounce “cocagne” almost exactly like the marching powder which, some years ago, a supermodel allegedly put close to her nose, this column reaches you not from seedy late night London but from sun-drenched South West France, with its Medieval cities which grew rich thanks to the cocgane trade reaching every corner of the world.
What is cocagne? It’s about the size of a tennis ball and originally came with a distinct whiff of urine. In 15th century Toulouse, dealers built Medieval McMansions complete with blingy turrets and spiral staircases and probably tried to out-do each other with pimped-up ox carts too. The hit they sold was blue.
A cocagne is the solid, transportable form of a plant extract that releases blue dye. While abundant in nature, for centuries, blue was the trickiest hue to fix onto fabric. Your 12th century Game of Thrones warlord wasn’t wearing ecru because of a pre-Armani taste for beige but because no one had yet been able to take the taste for woad face paint and make it work for fashion. The breakthrough came when someone took the ordinary-looking plant called pastel, from which woad derives, pulped the leaves, dried them, fermented them in human urine, rolled them into balls then, about a year later, crushed these and hurled the powder into a vat of boiling water. When the offcuts from the loom were dipped into this brine, the cloth emerged a celestial blue.
So successful was the taste for pastel blue that by 1570, the pope decreed priests shouldn’t be seen in it as it was far too common. But the good times would end. Indigo – faster, cheaper – arrived from India. The French government tried to ban its import but by the mid 18th century, it was all over for the lords of cocagne. In turn, the 19th century saw indigo ousted in favour of synthetic dye, the 20th saw the pollution of rivers near European fashion factories. And so it came to pass that, by the 21st century, the poor of China started dying because dyeing had turned their water sources toxic. Those with a conscience are looking back to the environmentally-pure pastel of France.
A combination of university boffins plus eager artisans have been trying to bring pastel up to date for over a decade, the challenges, including finding an eco trigger for fermentation that does not whiff of the pissoir and making a labour-intensive process economically viable have taken time. First successes including (pee free) body products – soaps, lotions and the like – trumpeting the pastel plant’s antiseptic properties and labelled “Comptoir de Pastel” are now de rigeur in the chicest French holiday houses.
Now, at last, linen and cotton scarves dip-dyed a glorious Gallic blue are available via a completely sustainable reintroduction of a traditional artisanal trade and for around the 40 euro mark, making them viable additions to a holiday wardrobe. Gorgeous Gauls, who would never be seen dead out of darks while in Paris, are accessorizing their summer looks (white jeans, striped T-shirts – that chic cliche that keeps on looking good) with a swath of pastel blue scarf, worn either soft knotted at the neck, wafting in the evening breeze or even tied over an Eres swimsuit.
As far as I know, Pastel de Lectoure is the only producer to have launched an online source of pastel scarves with an English translation. Let the international trafficking of cocagne begin.
by Marion Hume
Now that the brouhaha about The Great Gatsby has settled — at least until it ramps up again for movie awards season — shall we take a moment to examine its sartorial legacy? As in, does it have one? Or does it not? You’d think the answer would be easy. Count the glossy pages devoted to “Gatsby style” in the past months. But is there now a taste for flapper dresses in a shade I still like to call “Queen Mum mauve”? Have oyster satin pyjamas moved from boudoir to street? For gentlemen, have pink suits taken off? The answer — to all — is no.
What is beyond reasonable doubt is that double Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin is on track for her third Oscar, for her fearless mixing of the historically accurate with the utterly contemporary. But when the looks filter down, what we have is fun, not fashion. The reason ‘20s style is the perpetual party theme that is so easy to do — with something spangly, a gold T-bar shoe and a cheap wig. Almost every woman looks like she’s having a good time when you add a feather boa.
A few years ago, I was reminded of the power of ‘20s dressing thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Remember the volcano erupted? To cut one of my all-time favourite stories short, I was halfway through airline online check-in when I realised I needed a swift plan B to reach Venice. I hitched a ride on the Orient Express, a fun-filled flapper heaven (other than for me: I didn’t have time to theme-pack). The only mirrors on board are make-up sized, which means no one has a full-length view. Everyone thus dresses how they think they would like to look and, thanks perhaps to some dry martinis, everyone looks lovely. Not fashionable, but superbly theme-party lovely.
What is lovely is how loudly Catherine Martin has acknowledged the roles Tiffany & Co, Prada and Brooks Bros played in her overall costume creation. When she brings her Oscar count to a trifecta, I’ll wager that, once she’s effusively thanked her collaborator in life and work, the film’s director Baz Luhrmann, she will name-check all the above. By so doing, Martin will be acting more than graciously — she will be setting right a wrong done when The Great Gatsby last garnered an Oscar, in 1974. If you recall that version at all, what you’re most likely to remember is Robert Redford’s clothes (Mia Farrow’s Daisy is a more misty memory). Yet when costume designer Theoni Alderedge caressed her Oscar at the podium, she did not thank Ralph Lauren, an omission that made clear the attention he had been getting for his suits had got right under her skin.
Aldredge was not the first costume designer to neglect to thank the input of fashion designers. When Edith Head collected an Oscar for Sabrina (1954), she seemed not to recall that French couturier Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the new neckline that so flattered elfin Audrey Hepburn, igniting a trend. Givenchy didn’t stake his claim to the “Sabrina neckline” until years after Head’s death, even though those who’d worked with her at Paramount Pictures had, by then, confided that the costumes had been made up from Givenchy’s sketches.
As to the current Gatsby changing the way we dress, I doubt it. But acknowledging that you need creative collaboration to make something great? Well, that’s bang on trend.
The Australian Financial Review | May 2013
For me, fashion is always about vision. That doesn’t fit in a basement, no matter how snazzy the chandeliers. When the idea of an Australian Financial Review luxury business conference was first mooted, the least interested person was me. Nothing inspires me less than the thought of spending an airless day listening to guys in ties drone on to a backdrop of PowerPoints. Maybe – if the facts are fascinating and your business is finance or mining – that floats your boat.
To succeed we had to be bold. So the AFR Bespoke Luxury and Fashion Summit, held on Thursday, was inspired by the most audacious example, the Sydney Opera House. That had to be our venue. It is, after all, the most triumphant example of what can be achieved when talents from many disciplines come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.
From the building itself came the theme of the day: creative collaboration. It could have been a boring box on Bennelong Point had not the star architect of the 1950s, the Finn Eero Saarinen, dared to defend the startling submission by a little-known Dane, Joern Utzon. We had to provide a forum for new thinking; the Opera House stands up thanks to the determination of its engineer, Ove Arup, to think outside the box.
The image of the fashion designer issuing edicts from an ivory tower is long gone. Today, the world of fashion and luxury is collaborative, across all manner of disciplines. At Bespoke, Parisian Ramdane Touhami – a marketing genius who claims not to like marketing – told stories of how he reaches back into history to find products for today. Photographer and Aquabumps founder Eugene Tan, who hails from Bondi Beach, recounted how he chucked in the desk job, picked up a (waterproof) camera, dived into the surf and now sees his images on Speedo swimwear and thongs by Havaianas.
Design today is about teamwork, exemplified on stage by the handsome lads from Saturdays Surf NYC, who like Tan, chucked in desk jobs and built a surf brand in the unlikely location of Manhattan. Making things look easy is one of fashion’s best illusions, yet this global industry is built on long hours and considerable brinksmanship, even though millionaire jeans genie, Jeff Rudes, of J Brand, made it all sound so easy.
In the run-up to Bespoke, some people asked me: “Why now?” “Why here?”. To be blunt, that just sounded like the old cultural cringe. Why not now? Why not here?
Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings – literally, as the drills make the ground shake at Barangaroo – and we are on the brink of a new era. A city once on the outer edge is perfectly positioned as luxury’s modern metropolis-on-the-ocean. Global economies have shifted. Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world, a reason why I was also delighted to welcome to the stage, from Hong Kong and Shanghai, Regina Lam and Lisa Chang, who advise luxury goods companies on how to break into China.
While the international speakers who had travelled the furthest were fascinating, I suspect Kiwi designer Karen Walker was the most surprising. Could she be the first person from fashion to enter political office? She was enormously compelling.
Yet Bespoke was not about that old model of “people from over there telling us what to do over here”; instead it was about the transfer of knowledge in both directions. On that, it was important to remind everyone of the raw luxuries of Australia. We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – but we are right at the world’s luxury source.
Sydney’s industrial architecture of massive wharves stretching out into the water remind us this city, this nation, was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the ongoing role played by wool in the luxury business. The superfine suits by Ermenegildo Zegna and Dunhill, robust yet light and with unmatched recovery thanks to the finest microns of yarn, are – always – of Australian wool. So are the rigorously fitted dresses with which Victoria Beckham has redefined modern business attire for women across the globe.
For the wealthy woman in Beijing considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellane opal ring from Dior, the trail starts here. The sunburst yellow diamonds of Tiffany & Co hail from the Ellendale mine in the Far North West, the peerless pink diamonds in the creations of Bollywood jeweller Nirav Modi come from the Argyle mine, and from out in the Arafura sea, beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, come the lustrous south sea pearls that find their way into the creations of the best jewellers of Place Vendome.
Which brings us back to Paris, a city which has its eye on us. A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault – took a stake in RM Williams. Some were perplexed. What could the chic French want with work boots worn here by the boss and the jackaroo?
One word – macho. The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke. Australian brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, (especially) to the purveyors of luxury looking to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds. The aim of Bespoke was to inform and inspire; a reason I fought (against nail-biting time constraints) for the work of fashion photographer/filmmaker/web publisher Nick Knight– to me, the greatest image maker of our age – to be projected up on three vast screens. Accompanied by fashion icon Daphne Guinness singing opera, the film left some in the stalls perplexed, but for those up in the cheap seats – 400 students – it was the session they told me they loved the most.
For me , what I hope was the main takeaway of the day is that, to be truly stylish, we have to make fashion more fair. Lessons must be learned from last month’s tragedy in Bangladesh. Women (and it is almost always women) must not be enslaved, or lose their lives in a locked factory with insufficient foundations, so that we can get a “bargain”. As Simone Cipriani of the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative put it, “I am not saying everything should be expensive – times can be tough, even in Australia – I am saying be fair and buy well. Fashion is never, ever to die for”. The luxury world’s most important creative collaboration is with those who did not appear on the Opera House stage – the workers who make the clothes on our backs, the bags in our hands. The best fashion companies, such as Hermes, have had corporate social responsibility embedded in what they do since long before anyone in fashion talked about CSR. Today, the world’s third biggest luxury group, PPR (being rebranded under the name Kering), is being recalibrated, to a deadline of 2016, so that its P&L becomes an EP&L – with environmental and ethical impact included in the bottom line.
I am far removed from the ethical hippy tree-hugging type. I work within the world’s most glamourous industry. Yet my driving ambition for Bespoke, always, was to use one of the world’s most celebrated stages to shift the needle. Maybe, just maybe, we did that.
Good morning everyone.
Welcome aboard Bespoke.
As you took your seats, you saw a visual celebration of Australia’s raw luxuries.
We may not be Paris – the undisputed capital of fashion – we ARE right at the world’s luxury source.
Let’s start on Sydney Harbour. The Australian Financial Review is headquartered at Pyrmont, on land once sold for a gallon of rum to Captain James Macarthur.
Sailing on the Second Fleet, it was Captain James Macarthur who brought the first merino sheep to Australia.
Industrial architecture – the massive finger wharfs stretching out into the water – reminds us that this city – this nation – was built on a sheep’s back. Yet perhaps we overlook the vital role played by wool in fashion today.
Superfine suits by Zegna, Paul Smith, Burberry?
Dion Lee reached the finals of the Woolmark awards in London, where one of the judges was Victoria Beckham, whose designs – in Australian superfine – have re-defined what women wear in the boardroom.
Our ancient island continent is rich indeed. For the wealthy woman in Shanghai considering the purchase of an Hermes Crocodile Birkin or the one in Paris who desires a Victoire de Castellaine opal ring from Dior; the trail starts here.
There’s Australian gold, sunburst yellow diamonds from Ellendale and from out beyond the tin-roofed town of Broome, in the sparkling Arafura sea; Pinctada maxima – the shells the size of dinner plates, south sea pearls lustrous to behold. These greenest of gems which thrive only in pristine waters – become jewelled creations by Paspaley, Kailis and Harry Winston and Tiffany & Co on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Our mineral wealth inspires our artists. In 1983, Jenny Kee created Opal Oz which Karl Lagerfeld used in his first ready-to-wear collection for Chanel.
In 2007, Gloria Pet-yar-ee’s art became “Gloria’s Dream”, a silk scarf for Hermes.
Just a few weeks ago, Zegna revealed a collaboration with Dorothy Nap-an-gardi, whose artwork, Salt, was incorporated in to the menswear collection.
Then there’s the Argyle Diamond mine. Argyle’s peerless pinks find their way into the hands – or actually, the tweezers – of only the world’s finest jewellers – the Australians celebrated in the Beyond Rare brochure today – with others around the world including Chow Tai Fook in Beijing, Nirav Modi in Mumbai and Van Cleef & Arpels on Place Vendome… which takes us back, again, to Paris.
…A city which has its eye on us.
A few weeks ago, the world’s largest luxury group, LVMH – which is helmed by the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault – took a stake – through its investment arm – in RM Williams.
Some of my business colleagues at the AFR were perplexed. What could the chi-chic French want with work boots worn by everyone here, from the boss to a jackaroo?
One word – macho.
The French might have the lead on romance, but when it comes to footwear, a bloke wants to look like a bloke. The appeal is somewhat like our actors – Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Joel Edgerton, Sam Worthington, Jason Clark – we send em out tough and rugged.
Equally, Australia brands like RM Williams promise a deeply male authenticity, which, to the purveyors of luxury looking – especially – to sell menswear into China, is as desirable as our diamonds.
Akubra is not for sale. This family firm just turned 100 and the whispers are that the hatters of the Outback have exciting plans ahead. They certainly have unusual customers – the second biggest market for Australia’s celebrated hats? It’s … Tibet.
Might a brand go global from here? The best-known luxury brands trace their roots back to hard work; Louis Vuitton made steamer trunks, Thierry Hermes was a saddler. So why not one from the land of hard yakka?
Still, it’s got to be said, we’re pretty good at relaxing too – and creating sand-between-the-toes chic which labels – such as Zimmerman – export to the world.
Australia today has one of the world’s most robust economies, thanks largely to a resource not connected to the fashion world; iron ore.
Yet we also breed entrepreneurs who are focusing – not – on what we can sell over there, but on what – they – can buy over here.
I’m talking about a sophisticated focus on inbound tourism aimed in particular at top-tier Chinese visitors.
Their expenditure in Australia is expected to top $9 billion by 2020.
Our isolation of old has been replaced by a central position in the trade maps of a new world.
Global economies have shifted and Sydney is perfectly positioned as the modern metropolis-on-the-ocean.
And what does the tyranny of distance mean anymore, anyway?
In a scan-and-shop digital age?
The theme of Bespoke is creative collaboration. The Sydney Opera House is stunning example of what can be achieved when talents, from many disciplines, come together with a shared ambition to be outstanding.
Today, fashion has to be collaborative if it is to fly. The days of the designer issuing edits from an ivory tower are gone. This global industry thrives on partnerships. Yet we must not ignore new paradigms. Where we must be bold is in ways that make fashion more fair.
So what does Australian luxury mean?
To me, it is all about encapsulating how we live, how diverse we are, this vast land and the blue sea.
In the past few days, it’s been a joy to welcome our speakers from around the world and to watch them, falling in love, as I did when I first landed here in 1996.
“Why can’t I live here?”
“Why can’t I live by the water?”
They’ve been saying to me, “Why can’t I live like you do?”
Sydney is a shiny city of fresh thinking and new beginnings.
Literally – in that, every New Year’s Eve, the world turns in this direction and watches as fireworks on the Harbour Bridge illuminate the Opera House sails.
Our first speaker is the creative director of a brand which has a direct relationship to The Sydney Opera House.
Please welcome – in the brave and bold position of walking on first – Ana Maria Escobar, the Creative Director of Oroton Group.
by Marion Hume
Sometimes an adventure beckons and you have to follow the lead. When an interview was relocated from New York to Prague, I was thrilled, given I haven’t been to the Czech Republic since it was Czechoslovakia. I looked forward to going again to the mighty Prague castle, to walking the span of the historic Charles Bridge.
But then a half-lost nugget of something began to niggle. When, recently, had there been mention of something Czech? I realized it was a few weeks before, in Kenya, when I was watching Maasai women working their magic on a range of bags for Myer, including designs by Karen Walker, Fleur Wood and Jayson Brunsdon.
Maasai beading is every bit as good as in the ateliers of the Paris haute couture. (How lucky am I, to have witnessed both, and often). This is due to a mix of traditional skill and sheer bloody-mindedness. The Maasai won’t even touch beads from India or China (whisper it, but the French will). Only the Czech ones are perfect.
Today, glass seed beads are still traded through second, third, fourth parties, so it has taken a degree of investigative skill to trace the source to where I am standing now, inside an old glass foundry, up a mountain, near a village I will never learn how to pronounce. Getting all the way here from Prague has taken guts and the navigational skills of a girl scout (Ok, that’s not true, but it has required the essential fashion skill of knowing how to hire a cheap driver with a GPS).
Inside, it is roasting hot, as you’d expect when five furnaces hit over 1,000 degrees. What looks like needle-thin vermicelli is being extruded (protuded? Who to ask for vocab when I can’t speak Czech?) along thin, raised contraptions that stretch as far as the eye can see. The secrets of glass reached Bohemia from the Venetian isle of Murano. But they will get no further today. How does this clear vermicelli become tiny beads of more colours than I can describe? Before I work that out, I am ushered outside into the icy cold. With every step I take there’s the crunch of glittering fragments of glass, sparkling under my feet.
Where I am welcomed, warmly and officially, is at the offices of Preciosa Ornela from whence all top-end traditional seed beads, known as rocailles, hail. (Preciosa Ornela, best know for glass figurines, bought out an ailing company called Jablonex which pioneered rocailles). These beads range from so teeny, they are given the measure 13/0 – a percentage of a millimetre – to 4/0, which is just about big enough for me to see without glasses.
Over eggs, ham and pickles, my hosts explain the reason Preciosa Ornela, and previously Jablonex and originally, the way more famous Swarovski, (a Czech company before moving to Austria) all hail from a cluster of tiny mountain villages. While glass is hard work, it doesn’t need many people. What it did need, traditionally, was wood, sand and water a-plenty. Given the Venetians soon ran out of wood, that this landlocked region of icy streams and forests always had to import sand (today a complex mix of chemicals) soon made the competition about even. But while the venetians lent more towards chandeliers, here it was beads and buttons. Thence, from the top of this mountain, traders ventured around the world, all the way to Mexico, China, India and East Africa.
“But the world we have never conquered is fashion,” my hosts lament, comparing to the spectacular style success of Swarovski. That’s when I reveal that Vivienne Westwood evening clutch bags and Sass & Bide tote bags are beaded by the Maasai through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative in Kenya. My hosts are utterly delighted – although not as delighted as my Maasai mates will be when I hand over the new season’s disco beads in shimmering gold, bronze and silver.
by Marion Hume
Paris in the sunlight. As my taxi slows in traffic near the Hotel de Ville, I am once again convinced of the existence of a secret agency of the French government, or perhaps a hidden team within the offices of the mayor. Their mission? To hire gorgeous young people and send them out on the streets to kiss, thus maintaining a worldwide reputation for romance.
The codename, or so I like to think; “The Doisneau Department”.
The smart bit is that whoever is in charge doesn’t just reach into the costume cupboard for vintage pieces and send the actors out to “do a Doisneau”. The trick keeps working because the fashions are always up-to-date. But even if they did just try to stage literal recreations of Robert Doisneau’s eternal and endlessly-reproduced photograph, The Kiss (or Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, to give it the original title), the snapshots you’d catch from a cab would still look utterly contemporary.
If you can picture the original image, first published in Life magazine in 1950, in your mind’s eye, you’ll recall the young man is wearing an oversized double-breasted jacket which, today, you’d source from Yohji Yamamoto, plus a scarf like any you’d find in a good menswear store. The lass looks like she’s in Prada, although that nipped-in cardigan, pretty blouse and fit-and-flare skirt could just as easily be Marc Jacobs. Or Zara.
The two in my view now? They’re the “on-trend” versions. The boy (long black hair, thick as a paint brush and scrunched up with a rubber band) is in a T-shirt so sheer you can see a tattoo on his flank, worn with pants that are charcoal in tone and multiply slashed. The girl is in a jacket of this season’s Yves Klein blue + skinny jeans. J Brand? Citizens for Humanity? I’m not so close I can read the label. But I can spot Pierre Hardy strappy sandals at 100 paces, which signal the stylist has a considerable budget to work with.
The Paris Metro may be cheap and fast but the way I see it, cabs are a necessity to keep abreast of what the Doisneau Department is up to. This season, I’m noticing a marked casting choice towards Vanessa Paradis lookalikes, perhaps out of solidarity to the chanteuse since her split with Johnny Depp or maybe just because, if you are hiring an actress to look chic in a clinch, you go for the girl with the bee-stung lips.
As for the boys, if I were in charge, I’d be telling the prop stylist to stop handing out guitar cases – there’s been too much of that “Boho/busker” look lately. And all the boys grasping a plastic bag from techo-supermarket, FNAC, in their free hands? That doesn’t do much for romance, does it?
Ah! But maybe it does! For what better proof that Paris herself is ravishing, than “couples” who can’t help themselves, even if they only popped out to pick up an external hard-drive?
The Doisneau Department has a long history of getting it right. They’re good, these guys. They managed to keep a lid on the fact that the original picture was a set-up for 42 years. Word only got out when a real couple, who thought they were “the couple”, sued for a slice of the profits of a photo that launched a thousand fridge magnets. Only then, in 1992, did Robert Doisneau himself have to fess up to having hired a couple of actors; a girl of 20, a boy of 23.
Which is exactly the age I’d put on the pair lip-locked outside the Hotel de Ville now. As for me, I love that we’ll always have Paris, the city of love – even if, to keep the myth alive, civil servants are toiling away, somewhere behind these grand Haussman facades, calculating the day rates.
At The Court of Armani
Born in the year of the dog, Italy’s foremost designer is a China crowd pleaser, not least for the well dressed sophistication of his highly wearable clothes. But the succession question dogs the 78 year old all the way to Beijing, where Marion Hume joins him on a night of nights that proves Giorgio Armani is unlike any other of fashion’s living greats.
by Marion Hume
“Are you responsible, compassionate, reliable, honest, pessimistic and anxious?” Giorgio Armani’s ice blue eyes lock onto mine. Who dares ask fashion’s last emperor – his kingdom resolutely independent from the conglomerates that dominate the global luxury landscape – about his personal character? Yet we are in China, where a reporter, born under the year of the tiger, merely wishes to enquire whether the world’s wealthiest designer fits the description of those born under the year of the dog.
This emperor, who has absolute control as sole shareholder of a business worth billions, is shielded by a fiercely protective court. His mandarins – easy to spot because, like their ruler, they don’t wear socks – are stringent about vetting questions in advance. Tabled for today’s interview, taking place in a hotel penthouse 74 storeys above the streets of Beijing at the end of May, is discussion about Armani in China where the group has 289 of some 2125 stand-alone stores globally, with 50 more Chinese openings slated within the year.
There is a beat of silence. Then the interpreter translates the question into the designer’s native Italian (court protocol, as many suspect Armani understands English). “Perfecto!” Armani pronounces. Then he laughs. Then everyone is laughing and so it is that a reporter, distanced from greatness by ample space in which to kowtow, is allowed to stay upright in her chair.
When granted an audience with Armani, whether in the group’s palatial Milan headquarters or anywhere in his dominions, do not expect intimacy. The emperor must maintain distance (unlike, say, Tom Ford, who might start stroking your back). There will be a platoon of people. They will be dressed either just like him (T-shirt, sweater, immaculate casual) or they will ‘work’ his designs in studiously funky ways. The latter is a sartorial shift in a company that used to decree low heels, no earrings, nude nail polish – the change perhaps to semaphore a core brand message of ‘cool’, although the designer himself is 78.
Looking decidedly odd in such an on-trend crowd are the suits. The guy in the tie hand-signalling ‘five minutes to time’s up’ when we’ve only just got started? He’s Armani’s loyal assistant, Paul Lucchesi. The suited and booted guy standing all buff and bristling by the door? His palace guard.
Back in ancient China, it was believed that a man carried the creature of his birth year forever in his heart. Of all the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Shengxiao zodiac, the dog is the most determined. There is no need to ask Giorgio Armani if that is true of him. In 1975, he started a business with cash from selling a car. In 2011 alone, that business achieved a total turnover, including licensed products at retail value, of €6.73 billion ($7.9 billion). The dog is stubborn. When Sergio Galeotti, who was Armani’s partner in business and life, died in 1985, Armani expanded when expected to retreat and runs everything at one of the world’s most recognised brands.
It is written that dogs prefer saving money to spending it. At last report, Giorgio Armani SpA had some $817 million in cash on its books and even Armani’s yacht must earn its keep in charters. To a dog, a well organised home is important. Make that nine private homes, a homeware line called Armani Casa and, in partnership with the UAE property developer Emaar, hotels in Milan and Dubai. But dogs are sensitive, or you might say prickly, given Armani’s less than complimentary comments about other designers’ creations over the years (“molto porno”; “troppo Joan Collins”).
Being born in 1934 makes Armani specifically a ‘wood dog’, the kind that hunts in a pack. Where the emperor leads, others trot behind, even on his annual holiday to Pantelleria, a volcanic speck southwest of Sicily. Apparently, Armani snarls at those he loves the most. In a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, he admitted to “verbal violence. And sometimes I even use words, Italian ones – stronzo or cazzo!” Shithead, prick… “That is normal. [Among ourselves], this is what we say all the time.”
This visit to China is not holiday galavanting; it is an international show of brand power – or make that brands, plural. Within the group are Giorgio Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, plus eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics. On this evening, the emperor plans to dazzle all those who have received a gilded invitation – accompanied by a little box of nine (Chinese lucky number) Armani Dolce chocolates – with an extravaganza entitled ‘Giorgio Armani: One Night Only in Beijing’.
But overnight success is the opposite to how he got to be here. Along with talent and a singular vision are years of sheer hard work. Armani hails from Piacenza, a northern industrial town far removed from the Italy of La Dolce Vita. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, born two years after Armani (who was telling his mother how to dress when he was four and was famous by 21), Armani’s childhood stories are not of decorating paper dolls but of hiding in ditches while his home town was strafed in Allied bombing raids. His father worked in the offices of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and then as a shipping manager. His housewife mother could be as hard as nails. It took Armani years to see his name in lights, although for almost as many years since, a vast Emporio Armani sign arcing over Milan’s Linate airport has welcomed visitors.
Armani didn’t design under his own name until he was 40, making him something of a fashion George Clooney (often in Armani on screen), which is to say, old enough to know what to do when fame came knocking. That fame has been burnished through associations with many movie stars at awards ceremonies and in costume collaborations. Who can forget a cocksure Richard Gere, matching Armani shirts, pants, ties in the 1980 filmAmerican Gigolo?
This catapulted an Italian label to international stardom just as Western economies were booming and Young Urban Professionals were wondering what to wear. For men, Armani knocked the stuffing out of the suit. For women, his supple tailoring signalled soft power in a changing world of work.
But that is all known to fashion insiders. What we don’t know, when we show up in China, is the succession plan for a company that directly employs some 5700 people and it’s the scoop all of us are really after. In this imperial tale, there is no little Pu-Yi to ascend to the throne when the current occupant journeys to meet the ancestors, although Armani has two nieces (Silvana and Roberta Armani) and a nephew Andrea Camerana. Instead, two weeks after Armani’s appearances in Beijing, it will be revealed through the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, that the Giorgio Armani group will become a foundation once the emperor has gone.
This will benefit family members without giving any one of them control and ensure independence, keeping the kingdom safe from far mightier powers such as LVMH. (About a decade ago when LVMH titan, Bernard Arnault approached Armani with an offer few would refuse, Armani did just that.) Such a structure gets around the risks of selling to private equity, which can lead to strange bedfellows, and also protects against the vicissitudes of the stock market.
But while in China, reporters who have travelled across mountains and oceans to get ‘the succession scoop’ do not yet know of this imperial edict. And so it is that an Englishman, an Irishman and a dual nationality British/Australian walk into a hotel penthouse – not the opener to a joke but instead because we English-speaking journalists find ourselves bunched together. (Pressure of time, what with all the French, the Spanish, the Mandarin speakers also interviewing in teams).
We agree the Englishman will be the diplomat: “Can I ask Mr Armani about Beijing and his impressions of Beijing, especially coming back here after four years?” This Aussie will jest about cutting suits big enough for Russell Crowe’s beloved Rabbitohs, while the Irishman, fluent in Italian and in blarney, will watch for the moment to ask “what happens next?”. But do not forget the mandarins are skilled at games of cat and mouse, or shall we say dog-taunt-tiger, rabbit, monkey. An American journalist joins us just as we start, with more questions to be translated, yet with no extra time.
What Armani wants to talk about is clothes. The emperor pontificates, the interpreter waffles on. “He says that with the jacket, he uses more rational shapes, more easy to dress. He says the main difference is not in colours, is not in material, but especially in the structure, the shape.” The penthouse door swings open again and the reporters from across Asia take their seats as we four are ushered out of ours and forward to shake the imperial hand.
Later that day, it is in the subterranean Hades of Beijing’s fake markets, being suffocated by horrid handbags dangling with gewgaws, that the essential difference between the Giorgio Armani brand and almost every other mighty fashion marque slaps me in the face, almost literally. (“Look lady, best LV!”) As I swipe a gawdy Vuitton copy away from my eye line, there are no Armani logos to be seen, not on the cheap clutches piled high on the stalls or among the more convincing fakes I see in private cubbyholes, through doors concealed behind mirrors, or doors disguised as sets of shelves. There’s ‘Hermès’, there’s ‘Fendi’, there’s ‘Chanel’. Fundamentally, Giorgio Armani is a clothing brand with some bags on the side, thus much harder to rip off than those fashion giants which are bag companies with clothes on the side.
While some brands appear to be using China as a shop window (their rich Chinese customers buying abroad where taxes are lower), clothes are different. You might need something tomorrow for a business meeting or cocktail party. The Armani brands sell robustly within China. No numbers are given, but a figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of customers gets a nod from Paul Haouzi, who is offered up for the AFRMagazine to interview when it becomes clear that the most senior executive, group commercial director Livio Proli, will not be taking questions.
Haouzi, chief executive Asia Pacific, is a Frenchman fluent in Mandarin, as well as in the English he uses to explain that Armani customers in China “know what they want, understand what fashion is about and want the best. They won’t care too much about price. Armani is a big name and a great product, especially for menswear. And the men here, they really want to look good.”
Training sales staff is key, he says. “The people who serve the customers are not only nice, not only look good, the most important thing is that they are knowledgeable. They have to make sure the person who buys something not only buys the piece, but also buys the Armani experience: the love that Mr Armani has for beauty, for fashion. I want to make sure that our staff are able to deliver more than a piece of clothing.”
Yet while Armani is the king of clothes, paradoxically, the fashion world tends to get much more excited about showpieces spun out by those labels that principally sell bags. Armani does care, personally, that the fashion media shrugs off his wearable offerings as bland when, frankly, where could you go in what comes down the catwalk at Balenciaga?
To examine how good his clothing can be, you have only to take a look at his Australian celebrity clientele. No, not at Cate Blanchett (“In reality she can be very strong, so sometimes you are surprised about this strongness,” Armani says) because she looks good in anything, although it was Blanchett who got Armani to Australia. Not Nicole Kidman either, a natural clothes horse (“Ah, Nicole!”), nor even Russell Crowe, who scrubs up well (“He knows what he wants.”). But recall Armani also clothes the actor’s South Sydney rugby league football team, the Rabbitohs. (In the interview, Armani mimes thighs of magnificent girth accompanied by “molto machile”.) The day the Rabbitohs were fitted is one some of his staffers will never forget, given several players were ‘going commando’. These days, off field, they look impeccable.
As night falls, we are transported at a crawl across Beijing where five million cars have replaced those fabled 10 million bicycles, towards 798 Space, in the city’s Dashanzi art district. Within what was formerly a power plant is the shell of an enormous gasometer (scale: not quite Rome’s Coliseum, but large at 3500 square metres) where a thousand guests mingle for pre-show cocktails inside the perimeter, then are ushered into a stunning theatre-in-the-round. Off-white cushions, bleacher seats, ‘landing lights’ illuminating the catwalk, all echo Armani’s permanent show venue in Milan. American crooner Mary J. Blige is in her dressing room, the models are lined up backstage, all preparing to perform as part of a show which must be costing a fortune. (How much? Who knows, when Armani has to account to no one but himself?)
In this era of the fashion show mega-stylist, Armani does not appear to employ one. Perhaps he does that job himself too. He checks every model before they step out of the wings. Yet while the catwalk is peppered with pieces you’d grab if you could pick what you wanted from a store, on this night, fussed up to look heightened for the dramatic setting, more becomes less. Then, at last, the finale. In the Shengxiao zodiac, dogs are warned: be wary of dragons.
“The pinnacle of the fashion show is a sinuous black lacquered dress around which a spectacular three-dimensional embroidery of a dragon wraps itself, from whose jaws spout not flames, but the lightest of feathers,” is how the final gown is described in an official press release. Shall we just say that the gulf between how fashion scribes express themselves post-show, in private, and what appears in print is often not the same thing. Global reviews are euphoric.
In any case, Giorgio Armani’s true triumph lies not in such travelling circuses. He stands as a style colossus for a quiet elegance that cuts across class and geographical divides. He is a modernist, as Coco Chanel was a modernist, his key contribution to fashion’s lexicon being the calm clothes that promise at least one element of your day will be right. While he has been refining daywear since 1975, it is telling that he did not launch Giorgio Armani Privé, with its sparkling couture gowns, until 30 years later, in 2005.
Included in our Beijing itinerary is a visit to Tsinghua University, where Armani sponsors a program for fashion and textile students. He is here to tell Wen Ya and Wang Yilong that they have been awarded intensive six-month apprenticeships in Milan. It is in the company of these young women, surrounded by their peers, that an emperor becomes mortal, a man with a burning desire to transmit his knowledge to a new generation. Far more animated with the students than with the press, his sense of urgent need – palpable, even through the mire of translation – is to teach that the true power of clothes is to bring out the best in the person who wears them.
Armani leans into the wattage beam of eager young smiles: “I want to say this to all of you: when you design, you should not just think of external things, you should think of internal things. Maybe a woman’s exterior is not so good, so you think of how a woman’s inner beauty can benefit from your designs. This industry needs inner passion.” The lights in the lecture hall dim and some vintage images flash up on a slightly shabby screen. “When the hell is this video from?” snipes one of the press pack, looking up from trawling through emails on his smartphone, only to be plunged back into the 70s.
Then Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo comes through the speakers and here they come: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, an older Richard Gere going up the escalator holding a rose. Here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Yeoh, Julia Roberts. Armani’s army marches on with Rafael Nadal and a tattooed David Beckham in their underpants, Rihanna in her bra and (surprisingly) Lady Gaga in her clothes. Cut to Beyoncé shimmying in a spangly mini and even the hacks are a bit awed by the punch, punch, punch of it all.
But from where I am seated, light coming off the screen makes Giorgio Armani himself just visible through the blackness. As all those audacious achievements flash up on the screen to the side of him, a silver-haired senior in a tight fitting sweater stares out into nothingness, fine fingers extended in a cathedral of prayer. As a life in fashion plays out before us all, he is marble-still, like a knight on a tomb.
Armani is not like fashion’s other living greats. He is not a designer-for-hire like Karl Lagerfeld who could (although unlikely) spin on his Cuban heels and walk out on Chanel. He is not Ralph Lauren, six years his junior, whose namesake is a public company where one of his sons is senior vice-president. Calvin Klein, who is nine years younger, sold out to the highest bidder and withdrew. Armani has never been one for opulent indulgence like Valentino, who held an unforgettable farewell party and enjoys a luxurious retirement. We know that, one day, the Giorgio Armani Group will become a foundation. But until his last breath, the emperor rules alone.
Leather Ties That Bind
The Cassegrains of Longchamp, Paris, makers of stylish handbags and practical travel bags, and the family behind Sydney based retailer Hunt Leather run businesses some 17,000 kilometres apart. But, writes Marion Hume, they haven’t let that stand in the way of a long running association.
The Australian Financial Review | September 2012
by Marion Hume
Sly and The Family Stone put it so eloquently: “It’s a family affair”, although in the case of Longchamp and Hunt Leather, it’s a two family affair. We are talking babies in bassinets under the desk during meetings, some of whom have grown up to be part of both families’ management teams. At Longchamp today, members of the Cassegrain family include the founder’s son Philippe and his wife, Michèle and their three children, current CEO Jean, Olivier (who manages the business in the Americas) and Sophie, the artistic director. This is a French family label that has one of its oldest international stockists in Australia – the first order was placed in 1975.
Hunt Leather is steered today by matriarch Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hunt– who founded the company with her late husband, John – and their daughter Sophie. The family operates five Longchamp stores: one in Melbourne, two in Sydney, a shop in shop in Perth and a just opened store on Edward Street, Brisbane, featuring the latest global interior design by British design star, Thomas Heatherwick. In addition, there are five multibrand Hunt Leather stores, one Hunt Luggage store and, about to open, a store dedicated to another luggage brand, Rimowa.
The best ideas – certainly those capable of enduring almost 40 years – often come from practical need. Betty and John Hunt knew about luggage; their marriage began with travel when he competed as an oarsman in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. (One might argue she topped that, given she modelled for Helmut Newton.) Business life saw the pair, and later their family, posted all over the world. And there’s nothing like longhaul travel with small children to concentrate the mind on what luggage works, and what doesn’t.
The Hunts returned to an Australia with few luxury stores, so off they set once more, this time with the aim of bringing back the best luggage and leather goods from Europe and America for a planned retail outlet. At a trade show in Paris, they spotted bags that sang to them of simple stylishness and practicality. Philippe Cassegrain, then CEO of Longchamp, was delighted to make the Australians’ acquaintance. (The French family already had an Australian connection in that the Cassegrain winemaking family of northern NSW, who have been in this country since the early 1950s, are cousins.)
Longchamp is named after the Parisian racecourse, although its founding family were tobacconists. To name the brand ‘Cassegrain’ was not an option – distant relatives who, to this day, sell fine papers in Paris, had already purloined that. Cassegrain (literally ‘crush grain’) is French for flour mill and in 1948 there was one of these still visible on the outskirts of Paris, at the end of the racecourse’s final furlong. The company first used the highly recognisable Longchamp motif of a galloping horse on paraphernalia for smoking, including small leather goods. And the tobacconist to luxury brand arc chimes with the founding of another bigger and once family firm, Dunhill, which took a similar path across the Channel.
The smoking line finally ceased in 1978, by which time the brand had become known for its lightweight travel goods. Staying on the subject of fashion parallels, Longchamp really expanded when it added nylon to its range in the ’80s and then, in 1993, launched its most famous bag, Le Pliage, the foldaway nylon number in many colours that remains the brand’s hero item to this day. You can now find a Pliage in any colour you care to name (the range is vast) or you can get a multicoloured bag, thanks to a bold, recent collaboration with the London print star, Mary Katrantzou.
When you think ‘nylon bag’ and ‘fashion’, thoughts turn to Prada. There is, however, no question who thought of a very good idea first. In the days when Miuccia Prada’s family ran a single store in the glassroofed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, Longchamp was a supplier whose product line included the nylon bag. “My father used to visit Miuccia Prada to sell his products to her [and] you can’t protect an idea like that and keep it totally for yourself,” says a magnanimous Jean Cassegrain. He says Prada’s support helped his family realise they were on to something big. More than 19 million Pliage travel pieces have been sold since 1993.
That Cassegrain and I meet during Paris fashion week in a packed showroom is indicative; all the big editors in town for the shows make sure to pop into Longchamp because so many of them actually carry the travel bags and they also want to check out what’s new in the innovative but ever practical handbag collection. There is also a range of ready to wear, designed by Cassegrain’s sister, creative director Sophie Delafontaine, to check out.
As a reporter whose beat is luxury, I often find I write about product that I may admire but have no first hand experience of using. I don’t own a Chanel suit nor have I ever worn a Lanvin cocktail dress. I have, however, used a Longchamp carry on bag for so long, I cannot remember when I bought it. As well as its endurance, a sign of its utility is that it is always getting pinched. People come to visit, perhaps have need of a bag and I lend them the Longchamp. Lend? It can take considerable effort to get it back.
Why is it special? It isn’t, if you just look at it. No bling, no big logo. It’s lightweight, it’s black, it’s nylon and so super strong I have kicked it around some of the less salubrious corners of the globe for decades. My Longchamp has a long, strong strap so it can balance securely on top of my big wheelie suitcases, or it can travel solo on a shorter trip. To me, bags that need their own bags to protect them make no sense. This bag makes sense.
Black is fast falling from being the No.1 colour choice, however. Researching this story, I lingered in the Paris store where my fellow shoppers were mainland Chinese who had one target in mind: a Longchamp bag in handy hot red. The brand has 14 stores in mainland China, where actress Gao Yuanyuanis its ambassador, with plans to reach 20 by the end this year. While Longchamp, as a private family company, is not obliged to report financial results, Cassegrain says that sales in China have doubled over the past two years. The company’s global revenue rose 22 per cent in 2011, to about €390 million ($495 million).
Not that the galloping horse is a onetrick pony. Take the artist collaborations with the likes of Brit Tracy Emin, whose patchwork Longchamp bag featuring the message ‘Me Every Time’, divided opinion. Then there was the signing in 2006 of Kate Moss. When one talks of Moss, who at 38 is demonstrating a longevity coupled with real ‘kerching!’ at the cash till (probably unmatched, even by her predecessors, those glamazon supermodels), one can only ask “before or after?”. “After,” confirms Jean Cassegrain, referring to signing Moss after the alleged cocaine scandalthat seemed then as if it would render her untouchable.
“Kate has worked very well for us,” says Cassegrain of the model whose Gloucester bag is still in the range, although she is no longer the ‘face’. “The fact Kate was unexpected was good. We had this quiet name and we are still fairly discreet as a company. But we always have lots of innovative products and we felt that maybe we were not expressing that part of ourselves forcefully enough. We figured that Kate would be a good ambassador, a good loudspeaker, if you will.”
So how much has Kate posing naked – but for a carefully placed bag – generated in terms of cold hard cash? “It’s impossible to say a figure,” says Cassegrain. “Kate helped us become more international and helped us to transform our image.” You can see why he might need to draft in some extra pizazz. He answers questions diligently, is earnest and knowledgeable, but the interview seems more like a tutorial with a mildmannered French professor than one of the usual ‘sell sell sell’ chief executives of international luxury houses. The 47 year old Cassegrain is quiet, although clearly quietly determined.
He leads a family firm that sparks off each other. “We are pretty relaxed; we enjoy working together,” Cassegrain says. “We discuss opinions and ideas, as would be the case in any other company where there is an exchange between the creative side and the management and a need for balance. But I think how it works is we give room to new proposals. We try and fail a lot. We have a number of failures because we try a lot of things. But it’s programmed, so that it’s OK. If it’s not working, we move on to something else.”
Across the world, it’s a similar story of mother, brother and sister all in it together. “We do get along,” says Sophie Hunt when I sit down for lunch in Sydney with her and her mother. Sophie, 42, is Hunt Leather’s managing director, having stepped in, with a toddler in arms, when her father passed away in 2005. She has two daughters, Gretel, 9, and Isobel, 6. Her mother Betty holds the title of director, while brother Sam, 38, who was present as a baby in a bassinet when his parents first met the Cassegrains, runs logistics. Older brother Bruce is a filmmaker and not directly involved in the company.
They say the family that plays together stays together and this is certainly true of the Hunts, who share a passion for sailing. Embracing her father’s love of the water, Sophie Hunt has been known to run her work schedule around B14 races; Sam has competed at pro level and taken part in the Sydney to Hobart; and it is not unknown for Betty to take up the tiller.
As for the Hunt family history in leather, it goes way back. It was in 1850 that Josiah Hunt, the present generation’s great, great, great grandfather, established a leather boot factory in Balmain in Sydney’s inner west, selling to diggers headed to the goldfields. Today, the family firm still has its own Hunt label. But the special affection for Longchamp is evident. “What label is my carry on?” replies Betty Hunt, good humouredly querulous at the question.
Family companies can get so comfortable the cosiness eats away at the energy needed to advance. That Longchamp remains dynamic is demonstrated best by its current ad campaign of a trio of girls dancing their way through downtown New York. It is utterly charming. So is Betty Hunt, although anyone who has seen her sell – she still puts in time on the sales floor – can see she is a force to be reckoned with.
And she’s selling against the considerable obstacle that it’s a challenge to generate repeat business on bags that last for decades. Thank heavens for the Chinese and their new quest for the perfect black travel bag – in red.
by Marion Hume
A thrill goes through your body like a shiver when you stumble on an absolute master of the art of fashion writing.
What? You think it is not an art? Just a lot of waffle about frocks? Try this; “Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body…The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.”
Even if you don’t yet know who this Anne is, you do know she is a dangerous woman. When you find out the lady described is Anne Boleyn and that she has schemed to win a king and dipped her hands in blood to be crowned queen, the writing is more powerful still. For you see ahead the puddle of gore in which her little head will lie once severed by an executioner’s sword.
The words are penned by the peerless Hilary Mantel, before whom even the judges of the world’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, bow down. Mantel is the author of “Wolf Hall” and its 2012 follow-up, “Bring Up the Bodies”, both of which chart the rise of Henry VIII’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Even if you have zero taste for the Tudors, might I urge you to reach for Mantel’s double bill set in 16th century England, despite this requiring a considerable commitment to 2 x 400 pages? For within lie not only some of the greatest descriptions of clothing put to the page but also perhaps the most sage and searing portrait of businessman-as-survivor that you will ever find.
You don’t know anything about Thomas Cromwell? Neither did I; indeed I had him confused with Oliver Cromwell, the “Roundhead” who came along more half a century later, wore monochrome black and white and decreed that the cavaliers must stop wearing such jaunty outfits. (Were fashion of little importance, why, throughout history, have powerful men been so determined to ban it?)
Thomas Cromwell, in contrast, sported a nana-style black coat with a fur collar, accessorized by a horrible hat, (at least when he sat for the court painter, Holbein). He was Henry VIII’s wingman, from the days when the young king looked a bit like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the US TV series “the Tudors” right through to when the monarch was as massive as Gerald Depardieu.
Cromwell was executed in 1540 then had a long wait for a truly great biographer. For until Mantel turned her eagle eye and diamond lines upon him, who knew it was this Machiavelian minister who first noticed the it-bag? “This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped….” Thomas Cromwell observes in “Bring up the Bodies”.
My reading matter is more often Grazia than great literature. (And what’s not to love about a glossy where the wordsmiths come up with new vocabulary weekly? Currently, I’m liking the economy of “FROWers” meaning the front row set). But when time, or being in bed with flu allow, what better than to behold a young queen, busy spending recklessly on the luxury goods of the 1530s – damask clothes, Spanish leather, gold-fringed gloves – while a minister in a bad hat and plain Jane Seymour, dressed in black and dispatching messengers to the king to return his gift of jewels undo and outsmart her? The power of clothes indeed.
by Marion Hume
Is there a seasoned celebrity who still enjoys the red carpet? Or does it become akin to running the gauntlet in high heels: a trial to be endured while starved of oxygen in a gussied-up gown?
For if it really were fun – beyond that thrilling first time – why, in every interview, do celebrity couples (The Beckhams, the Jolie-Pitts) insist they prefer staying home? You can see where they are coming from. Even in a not famous life, the lure of a glass of wine and a box set is strong.
But whatever business you are in, you can’t just stay on the sofa; not when showing up counts towards success and you’ve got to be seen building your “brand”. For we’re all brands these days, on message, out there, smiling. What can make it even harder is the party presence of those glistening, glamourous people, the kind who don’t appear to be bogged with the hard work of a day job. Add to that too much champagne and the fact that, of course, you’ve got to tweet and blog and facebook and it all adds up to exhausting.
And so, a solution to this modern dilemma; a job share, if you will. What if, indeed you did stay home (pass the remote) thus clearing space by the velvet rope for the paps to snap the beautiful people head-to-toe? What if you got on with the work side, working late if need be, and you simply hired a “ghost celebrity” (duties to include anodyne tweeting) to dress up, go out and be a better you?
A better you? Of course. Ghost writers are always way smarter than those they’re doubling for. Sending out someone with a body of death or at least all their own hair is merely the flip of a supermodel or a sportsman hiring a brainy, flabby, shabby-looking scribe.
The requirement for a ghost celebrity would not be restricted to those with red carpet lives. You might even explore a ghost celebrity time share, so you could hire someone smoking hot on a job-by-job basis, perhaps to show up at your school reunion or to attend that tax planning conference in Adelaide. Given everyone is already ameliorating the images they post on social networking sites, or at the very least keeping up the photos that are, in truth, ages old, this shouldn’t be that shocking. And you’ve got to admit the absolute brilliance of someone else watching their weight for you.
How would you select your ghost celebrity? It would be a two-way process, with either side entitled to walk away before the contract was signed. When I was approached to be a ghost writer, I was excited until I met the celebrity and it dawned on me than there could be no worse purgatory than a year spent sieving through what was – or in this case, was not, in her head and that no amount of cash would compensate. As with a ghost writer, the contract would be detailed and legalled. (Personally, I might insist no leopard print be worn in my name and that an over-reliance on ozone-destroying hairspray be deemed unacceptable).
What you could not then do is show up yourself, any more than a ghost writer can pop out from behind the floral arrangement at the press launch of a glittering tell all autobiography and shout “I’m…. fill famous name in here”. Ah I can see I might need to workshop this more. For why, by delegating to someone else, would I risk missing out? How could I be sure that an event I was ducking out of might not morph into the time of my life? Guess it’s time to polish the party shoes and not let some other Cinderella go to the ball, after all.
Style in and of itself has power
AFR | April 2012
by Marion Hume
Right now, I’m obsessed with how accessories can grab attention. This is far from unique; I know women who position their latest Louboutins at the end of the bed at night so their first sight in the morning is guaranteed to be gorgeous. I know others – and perhaps you do too – whose idea of relaxation is window-shopping the latest Brian Atwood stacks online. I don’t know Asma al Assad (at time of writing, Syria’s first lady, but things can change fast in a bloody conflict…) but surely one of the only vaguely normal things about a contemporary woman in the most abnormal situation is that she was known to press ‘add to basket’ in times of stress?
I know this is risky, but let’s workshop Asma (first ladies, whether courageous or cowardly, tend to be first-name only). She shopped just like her former colleagues when she was a London-based investment banker. Then recall what happened when the GFC hit like a slap in 2008. Pre GFC, the City of London was the leading ‘delivery to desk’ market for net-a-porter. After the crash, it is whispered that the same high fliers shopped not less, but more, although they ticked the ‘no packaging’ option and had their nannies sign for the deliveries at home instead of having anything turn up at the office.
I know I’m on a knife edge here, but can I state that it isn’t the taste for fashion that’s the sin. If it were, how explain that one of the most charismatic activists I know wears Ferragamo pumps, polished to a perfect sheen? “No one cares about your image; we care about your action” was the slogan adopted by the wives of ambassadors to the United Nations in a commendable effort to grab Asma’s attention with a YouTube video, International letter & petition to Asma al Assad, signed by women all over the world, posted back in April. “Some women care for style and some women care for their people” went the commentary, suggesting these interests are mutually exclusive. Yet I’ve spotted plenty of on-trend handbags at human rights conferences. My point is, it isn’t what’s on Asma’s feet that is of concern; it’s what’s in her heart. “Stop being a bystander,” begged the video. Perhaps, by the time you read this, she will have found the courage to stand up to be counted. If she manages to do the right thing, who cares whether she does so wearing Louboutins or cheap shoes?
Someone who was just a bystander in another strife-torn country – she was visiting her sick mother when students wounded in a military crackdown were brought into the hospital – is another British-educated woman who knows the power of accessories. When this woman made a decision that she could not remain indifferent to what was going on outside the walls of her family’s comfortable lakeside villa, she stepped centre stage in front of half a million people wearing a look from which she has never wavered: tailored blouse, ‘longyi’ wrap skirt, signature flourish of flowers in her hair. Recognising the power of style, Aung San Suu Kyi has never let it slide, despite two decades of mental torture under a brutal regime. When she walked towards a platoon of soldiers, their rifles cocked to fire, she did so shielded by nothing but the power of that iconic image, earning her the moniker ‘steel orchid’. The great prodemocracy campaigner will make her first overseas trip in 24 years this June, and she will be recognised wherever she goes. Image and action – now that’s the potent combination.
by Marion Hume
By the time you read this, you may either have been delighted by the feel-good movie of the season or have vowed that a herd of Indian elephants wouldn’t drag you to see a bunch of old folk cavorting about “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”.
For myself, while I loved witnessing the finest thesps show how terrific they are at enunciating, what pleased me even more was that not one of the seniors looks like a dowdy old nana, in stark contrast to how those beyond their Botox years are usually depicted on screen (if, of course, they appear at all).
What this movie gets spot on is that today, those of advanced years are as diverse in their clothing choices as everyone else, although perhaps with longer sleeves. Dame Judi Dench (78) plays the widow, Evelyn, who looks lovely in loose linens of a tonal palette flattering to a silvery pixie crop hairdo. Evelyn’s light layers semaphore that she is the innocent ingenue – despite her years – who embraces a new world with an open heart and in very pretty scarves.
But how satisfying that, just as the villain often gets all the best lines, in “Best Exotic” Penelope Wilton (66) plays Jean, and is by far the best dressed. Jean hates the heat and dust. She simmers with righteous anger that she has been robbed of the retirement she imagined, back home. That she does this while looking well turned out shows she is not some awful cliche of an old lady “losing it”, instead she is simply not in love with India or indeed, with the man she has stayed married to through habit. She wears a bang “on trend” and flattering indigo tie-dye shirt waister for the scene in which she proves she is brave enough to go home alone.
Jean’s travel attire is anchored by a tailored beige jacket in a good cloth that doesn’t crease. Here is a woman who will never slum it in a comfy top, despite the indignation of a seat at the back of the plane. We see Jean chasing down the high court judge while wearing a long line floral shirt (its sartorial message; “spirited” but not “young”). What’s clever is we see her working the same seperates into different combinations. Jean may not be the heroine but she knows how to get full use out of a 23kg budget flight luggage limit.
It’s no surprise “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is proving a worldwide hit with retirees or that audiences emerging from cinemas are so stylish. While no sensible fashion label markets to the “old” – if they did, who would buy? – the grey dollar is a segment ignored at peril, given this generation discovered their dress sense before the rise of fast fashion and while they may indeed be interested in “good value”, are loath to accept second-best.
Indeed, some of the Best Dressed anywhere are of this age group. Look at the red carpet and how the likes of Dame Helen Mirren (67) always nail it. Among the chicest women in Sydney is the best selling author, Marion von Adlerstein, who, at 79, has just completed a book tour for “The Freudian Slip” dressed head to toe in daringly bright combinations of Issey Miyake. Maggie Tabberer is still, deservedly, an Australian fashion icon at 76 (her breezy summer elegance remains a lesson in chic for our climate). And should you ever walk past the pyjama emporium, Peter Alexander, and wonder who wears the brightest picks, with the parrots in hot pink, that would be my always adventurous godmother (80), although of course her taste is tame in comparison with what Dame Vivienne Westwood (71) would dare to wear.
In 1961, a 29 year old poet called Jenny Joseph promised; “When I am old, I shall wear purple and a red hat that doesn’t go…” Instead, the poet (80) has lived to an age where purple and red do go, if you want them to. As to the cliche of “nana dressing”, there’s still a place for wooly cardies and furry slippers. The under 25s rock that combination and look terrific.
by Marion Hume
Fashion exhibitions are, if not ten-a-penny, given they are costly to stage, certainly pretty ubiquitous.
But can you remember when fashion wasn’t thought to be “serious” enough to deserve gallery space or attention in a museum calendar? An upside of that was one might stumble on an unexpected gem, as a friend and I did when we noticed the gates of a usually private Parisian mansion were open in order to share a bijou collection of artifacts celebrating the client-couturier relationship between the late, lady of the house and that greatest couturier of the 20th century, Cristobal Balenciaga.
The last time I saw a Balenciaga exhibition, it was at Le Louvre. It featured as many clothes by today’s designer for the brand, Nicolas Ghesquiere as by the long dead namesake. Fashion exhibitions have become like movie blockbusters, enjoyable in that they are mega, but with the commercial preoccupation of reinforcing brand message definitely front of mind.
What a joy then, to be in Singapore in time to catch “In the Mood for the Cheongsam” at The National Museum – the title echoing, of course, the movie that introduced Asian cinema, Maggie Cheung and the serene sexiness of a covered-up style that follows every curve to a wider world.
While the exhibition has now closed, I have a hunch its influence will spread. Fashion creatives throw their nets very wide and surely, by now, someone has shared the images from the excellent catalogue on Pinterest. (Who bothers with Facebook anymore?) For alongside the expected (black satin, gold dragons) were groovy geometric and intriguing hot floral prints that looked so contemporary. The cheongsam provides a broad canvas for decorative experiment, although not too broad, given its second-skin proportions, these part of the reason it dipped out of fashion once Western styles became widely available across Asia.
It disappeared from sight in mainland China, where it began, for other, political reasons. On a trip back to Beijing recently, I met students from the nation’s leading fashion university. To those who have grown up with Western labels and with mothers, perhaps grandmothers, who wore Mao suits, the cheongsam is as exotic as it is to me, except perhaps through the threads that tangle back to a long-ago history. So at the exhibition in Singapore, I started thinking; given we are anticipating a new generation of designers to emerge from China, what might they do to reclaim, reinvent, reinvigorate this glamourous garment?
That’s been done already of course. Shanghai Tang, the witty Hong Kong label that takes a culture’s cliches, then, gloriously, spins these right back at you always has a cheongsam in its collections. Vivienne Tam in New York, Shiatzy Chen from Taiwan, often play with the sartorial markers of their heritage. The exhibition introduced me to the fresh talent of Priscilla Shunmugan, whose heritage is part-Chinese, part Indian and that got me thinking about how in India, the seductive beauty of the sari absolutely competes alongside Valentino, Versace, Cavalli while Hermes sells Lyon-silk printed saris there. Might the cheongsam, in some uncliched way, stage a bigger comeback?
The exhibition included a gown from John Galliano’s 1997 Dior show, inspired by the handover of Hong Kong, which I saw and adored. Yet while Galliano created so many ravishingly riffs right across a mash-up of cultures during his time at Dior, in retrospect, the cheongsam tripped him up, veering perilously close to drag. A cheongsam-inspired cocktail dress by the late Alexander McQueen looked leaden. “It needs an Asian Miuccia Prada,” I thought; a designer who takes historical references forward to create something new. I stopped in my tracks at a studio portrait of a woman in a loose, wildly patterned cotton cheongsam, accessorized with beguilingly elongated Mary Jane shoes. So modern. The date, “late 1920s”.
I bet that’s already been shared via Pinterest and has someone’s creative juices flowing.