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.
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.
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
Can I start by saying I don’t like cars? Couldn’t care less about them. Indeed, I am so not engaged with the world of hot rods, that every time I book my trusty minicab driver to collect me from an event, he has to get out of the car when I wander outside because, while I rarely forget a face, cars, well, I know his is silver but that’s all I can tell you.
So when, out of the blue, I was offered the chance to test-drive a Bentley, I shrugged, “Nah, not my thing”. You know the expression “steam coming out of your ears”? I actually think I saw that happening to my husband. Hence some backtracking and then a Bentley delivered to my door, (here, bear in mind I live in Riot Central, North London). I must state this treat was unconnected to AFR, (I write for other publications in the UK). I’m mentioning it because AFR’s readers are wealthy enough to buy fast cars. As to how much wealth you might need, don’t ask me. As I said; cars, couldn’t care less.
That was until I confronted a mighty power that goes way beyond a handbag’s. My neighbours; hard scrabble Londoners, came out of their doors not to key the car, but to purr. I let one of them sit inside, because he’s good at setting a GPS, while I finished a few phone calls. My lack of interest was genuine – until I got inside the vehicle.
What extraordinary, practical, beautiful, lovingly crafted design! And the smell of that leather; no wonder they are always trying to bottle it for men’s fragrance. On looks alone + the button that made the seat glide back, I was smitten, although the test drive was spoiled a bit by my realization I should have had my hair done up in a chignon.
Later, I was asked to comment on how design might be improved. I am surprised my suggestion of a device that says, “you cannot afford me” to those who get too close has not been taken on board. For it is disconcerting when you are trying to park and men in bad sandals start to stroke your vehicle.
Still, my other suggestion (not implemented either) of a bumper sticker reading “I’m not a footballer’s wife” must have been deemed innovative enough to score me an invitation to the London launch of a limited edition Continental Spur a few weeks’ later. This car can be ordered in a deep shade of chocolate brown, which, I assure you, is the new black. The armrest between the rear seats folds down to reveal a bar fridge. The make-up mirrors have better lighting than a West End theatre dressing room.
You, of course, already know a Bentley is a treasure-trove of great design. Whereas I am like the Chinese; on a voyage of discovery. In 2002, Bentley sold 41 cars in China. In 2011, it sold 1,103 from 13 dealerships. How much is a Bentley in China? Oh why sweat the small stuff? If I were a newly-minted billionaire, I’d be first in line with a big bag of yuan.
Have I been suckered in? Of course. Yet the experience has been useful. For I am left wanting something I know I can never own. I have spent so many years covering fashion, I realise I have become largely immune to feelings of covetousness. Those with their noses pressed against the glass, looking at handbags they can’t afford? BB (Before Bentley), I’d be saying something logical, like, “At the end of the day, a duck egg blue Birkin is not that practical. You’ll find another bag”. AB (After Bentley) despite recognizing the wisdom of “Thou shalt not covet thy (billionaire) neighbour’s Bentley”, I feel that pain.