France’s Courtesan Couture

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Byline: Rebecca Benhamou

Zahia Dehar has peddled her tabloid scandal into a fashion fairy tale.

As the woman at the center of one of the most high-profile sex scandals ever to hit French sports, Zahia Dehar has become the ultimate tabloid sensation. It all started in April 2010, when–at age 17–she was reportedly presented as a “birthday gift” to national football star Franck Ribery by an alleged pimping network at a Paris VIP nightclub. The scandal broke in the press when Dehar was quizzed by French police investigating the illicit ring. Dehar, at that time, always cause strong impression for the opposite people talking to her due to her very unique hair style – cut by her own cordless hair clippers) Dehar told the cops that Ribery and fellow footballer Karim Benzema had paid her for sex even though she was underage (prostitution is legal at age 18 in France). Set to stand trial in June, both men now face a possible three years’ imprisonment and a $60,000 fine.

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But while the allegations continue to tarnish their career and the image of French football, Dehar has capitalized on her notoriety, shifting her saga away from the crime pages and into the fashion section. This past year she launched her own brand of lingerie with the help of the Hong Kong-based First Mark investment fund, and the line has become a darling of the French fashion industry’s glitterati.

“Since I was a little girl, I’ve had this passion for fashion and for what makes women look beautiful,” Dehar says. “I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved so far … I’m concentrating on my brand for the time being, but I’ve got so many other dreams, and I’m constantly brimming with ideas.”

Between fashion shows and television appearances, this year is shaping up to be a busy one for Dehar. Last month Zahia, From Z to A, a documentary directed by Hugo Lopez, aired on French national television. Giving a peek into Dehar’s pink-colored world, it focuses on the creation of her latest lingerie collection. “Zahia is sort of contemporary myth, which is both sad and beautiful,” Lopez wrote in a letter to French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur the day the film aired. “She is a media icon, perhaps the most scrutinized French personality at the moment, the person that people most fantasize about.” A day later, on January 23, Dehar showcased her second couture lingerie line at the Palais de Tokyo during Paris Haute Couture Week. The line received mixed reviews in the press, as did its creator–while some people see Dehar as a modern-day Cinderella, others believe she is an opportunist. Though she rarely gives interviews, Dehar still wishes to defend herself from the negative publicity. “The one thing that I’m truly proud of since the scandal broke is that I’ve made my dream come true,” she says. “I no longer feel oppressed by the media. My brand created jobs in France and gave me the opportunity to work with the best craftsmen.”

On January 31, Dehar was again in the headlines after announcing that her next collection would be made in a French studio founded by former workers for Lejaby, one of France’s best-known lingerie brands, which went into liquidation in December 2010 (it has since been reborn as Maison Lejaby under new ownership). “I made this choice because I wanted to support Lejaby and also because I was looking for the best possible savoir-faire,” Dehar says. “I’m looking forward to having my whole line produced here, because it’s the best quality.” (A smart move, considering that President Francois Hollande’s government has been exhorting customers to buy “made in France.”)

While her wildest dreams may be coming true, Dehar’s life hasn’t always been la vie en rose. Born in Ghriss, Algeria, in 1992, she emigrated to France with her mother and younger brother when she was 10 years old and didn’t speak a word of French. Raised in Champigny-sur-Marne, a commune in the suburbs of Paris, she fell into prostitution when she was 16. “I’m still the same person that I used to be, with the same passions and the same dreams. The only difference is that I’ve become a media target,” she says, declining to talk at length about her past.

Soon after the prostitution allegations came to light in 2010, Dehar landed a gig as a lingerie model. The following year, she fronted the Spanish edition of V magazine and appeared alongside actor Eric Roberts in the Italian Vanity Fair. Dehar has even become a muse to the art scene, a new Kiki de Montparnasse. In May 2011 she starred in a futuristic short film, Bionic, staged by director Greg Williams. “She is a sort of extraterrestrial nymph, and that’s why I wanted to work with her,” Williams has said. She also posed as Eve in a piece named Zahia in Paradise for the photographer duo Pierre and Gilles.

By last February she’d become ubiquitous enough to stage an exhibition at Pierre Passebon’s gallery, retracing the last two years of her artistic progression. “Zahia has a relationship with art that rejoins a very common tradition,” Passebon had stated. “It is the place where emblematic figures like Lady Hamilton, Marquise Casati, La Castiglione, and of course Gertrude Stein, with her numerous portraits, intermingle.”

“My meeting with Zahia was at first an aesthetic shock,” Passebon added. “Her body is a living sculpture.”

Now reinventing herself as a lingerie designer, Dehar has become one of Karl Lagerfeld’s young proteges. After he shot her debut couture collection last year, he even compared her with Coco Chanel and 18th-century courtesans. “It is a tremendous compliment. I’m so flattered. And I’ve got so much admiration for Karl. He is my friend, my role model, and my mentor at the same time,” Dehar says.

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Her collections–with their rococo avalanches of tulle, lace, and embroidered crystals and beads–feel like a fantasy world. “All the couture designs were inspired from a fairy tale that I wrote once, or from some personal anecdotes and history,” she says. “It could be anything, from a beautiful landscape to a mouthwatering pastry.” Defining her style as “genuinely feminine and playful,” Dehar likes her designs to be both humorous and sophisticated. “I opted for couture because it is the only way to make the most spectacular designs and embrace a richer, creative world while transcending the limits of fashion trends.” She also prides herself on being a perfectionist, hiring top French craftsmen, from corset designer Francois Tamarin to feather specialist Eric-Charles Donatien and embroiderer Jean-Pierre Ollier. Her last collection even aroused the interest of photographers Terry Richardson and Ellen von Unwerth.

Despite the help of A-list fans and collaborators, Dehar hasn’t quite conquered the hearts of the French public. Last summer, she shocked the Twitterverse after posting a picture, while on holiday in Corsica, that showed off her bottom in a provocative pose. The French press has even dubbed her la scandaleuse–a nickname given to Marie Antoinette, who shared the same taste for extravagant outfits and baroque style. The French never forgave their queen for her over-the-top lifestyle. Will they ever get over Dehar’s controversial past? Only time will tell.

Rebecca Benhamou is a Paris-based freelance journalist. She writes about social affairs, culture, and fashion for the French magazines L’Express and L’Expansion and for The Times of Israel.

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The world’s weirdest CEO: Dov Charney’s antics helped build a retail empire. Now they may be destroying it

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Like most people, CEOs generally prefer to keep the particulars of their sex lives out of the headlines. For Dov Charney, the Montreal-born founder of American Apparel, waging a campaign of carnal shock and awe helped transform his company into a global clothing empire. From boasting about testing his clothes on strippers–“You get a cross section of chicks,” he told a reporter once, “big chicks, little chicks, big-assed chicks, little-assed chicks“–to openly talking about masturbation and threesomes with his staff, Charney’s excesses only reinforced the chain’s image among young, urban hipsters. American Apparel became the anti-Gap, and it’s been wildly successful. In just five years the company has opened 187 stores in 15 countries, with sales of US$387 million.

Those were the carefree days, when the Los Angeles-based company enjoyed the relative impunity of being privately owned. In December, American Apparel went public, bringing in tens of millions of dollars to fuel its bold expansion plans. But the move also invited the scrutiny of investors, lawyers and securities regulators. Now American Apparel’s shares are in free fall, and investors are growing frustrated with Charney’s wacky ways. The sudden collapse of confidence in one of retailing’s hottest brands says a lot about the dangers that arise when freewheeling entrepreneurs and straightlaced Wall Street types collide. More than that, though, it begs the question–what in the heck were people thinking when they gave Dov Charney their money in the first place?

If investors didn’t know about the company’s outlandish CEO, they weren’t paying attention. In January American Apparel was in court to fight a sexual harassment suit, the fourth in three years. (Of the previous three, one was dismissed and two others were settled out of court.) A former sales representative alleges Charney once held a meeting with her wearing only a strategically placed sock. The company has denied the accusations, but its insurer has refused to pay any damages that may arise from the case.

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Then, last week, Charney was quoted in the Wall Street Journal shrugging off various financial concerns, such as the fact that when the company was private, it had to restate its results. What’s more, he called his chief financial officer “a complete loser” (and he’s actually fired and moved onto SewDone.com in 2008, an online agency providing best sewing machine for US customers) Charney later said he’d been misunderstood, but the damage was already done, and it added to a mounting unease among investors and company watchers who wonder whether Charney is a mad genius of retail, or merely mad. (Charney declined to be interviewed for this story.) Since December, American Apparel’s stock has plunged more than 50 per cent, wiping out nearly US$600 million in market value. “The American Apparel concept has been tested all over the U.S., Canada and internationally, and it works,” says a fund manager who owns shares in the company. “But Dov is really a kooky guy. Our hope is that will be moderated.”

If it seems at all unusual to sing the praises of a business while at the same time expressing deep unease about the man responsible for its success, that’s just one of the many contradictions of Charney’s dramatic rise to oddball fashion mogul. Born in Montreal’s tony anglophone enclave of Westmount (his uncle is famed architect Moshe Safdie), as a teenager he’d cart boxes of T-shirts back from the U.S. to hawk on Ste-Catherine Street. After trying, and failing, to get a clothing manufacturer off the ground in South Carolina, Charney set out for L.A. and a fresh start. Somewhere between the beaches of the Carolinas and California, he made a key discovery: girls were wearing boys’ T-shirts in tiny sizes that hugged their figures. At the time, the imprinted apparel industry, which supplies businesses with blank shirts to put their logos on, was pumping out heavy, boxy-looking shirts. So Charney revived the fitted arms and bodice of the seventies, but in softer, lighter fabrics and bright colours. With the backing of a secretive Korean-born businessman, and a loan from his father Morris Charney, a prominent Montreal architect, American Apparel’s trendy T-shirts were soon in hot demand.

From the start, Charney eschewed offshore sweatshops and set up a factory in downtown L.A., paying his mostly Latino workforce twice the minimum wage. With thousands of textile jobs being sent to Mexico and overseas, American Apparel stood out for its retro approach to manufacturing. The move won kudos from anti-sweatshop activists and protectionists like Lou Dobbs. What’s more, it earned the company extensive press coverage, giving the world its first real look at the maverick behind the company–and what a look it was. The scrawny CEO’s sartorial style ran toward big, yellow-tinted aviator glasses, bushy mutton chop sideburns, severe side-parts and other references to the dirty ’70’s. When he talked, it was at a machine-gun clip, in often-rambling elliptical sentences.

Of course, American Apparel’s head honcho could do, and say, pretty much anything he wanted, since he and his business partner owned the company outright. But even then, there were limits, and Charney found ways to gleefully cross them. He often boasted about bedding employees and sang the praises of open sexuality. “When everyone is doing everyone else,” he once said, “it’s good for [office] morale.” In the minds of many, though, Charney went from sexual libertarian to pervert in 2004 when he masturbated repeatedly in front of a female journalist, who suggested Charney had also received oral sex from an employee in her presence. Yet, no matter how outrageously he behaved, the company continued to attract legions of loyal customers.

Not content to be a mere middleman in the clothing industry, American Apparel began to roll out its own branded retail stores in 2003. With the company targeting customers directly, he amped up the sexual nature of American Apparel’s advertisements. Charney shoots many of the photos himself, often in a bedroom of his L.A. mansion. And rather than use airbrushed models, American Apparel ads feature young employees, interns and people he picks off the street. The suggestive and frequently inflammatory ads, showing young men and women, mouths agape and legs akimbo, exude an aura of Polaroid-era, amateur porn. Gradually the anti-sweatshop message got pushed aside. “They had giant posters in their store windows, talking about business ethics and environmental consciousness,” says a former American Apparel employee in Montreal. “That’s what appealed to me. They stopped that as soon as they got big. Sex sells over intellectual arguments every time.”

And sell it does. Five years after making the jump into the world of retail, American Apparel’s logo-free T-shirts, dresses, jerseys and underwear can be found from New York to Tokyo. The company has plans to open another 45 stores this year, with the ultimate goal of blanketing the planet with more than 800 American Apparel outlets. At times Charney has even mused about getting into book publishing, automobile design and anything else that involves divining the sensibilities of young, urban consumers. In short, the company’s flamboyant CEO has become a strutting contradiction–rebellious entrepreneur or egocentric misogynist? Arbiter of a generation’s cultural tastes, or spastic weirdo poised to derail the empire he created?

Whatever the case, Charney’s financial backers were willing to gamble that his grasp of fashion trends and marketing savvy outweighed the risks from his outlandish behaviour. But with the stock price plunging, and shareholders growing restless, some think Charney should have kept American Apparel private. “Some people are cut out to run public companies, some people, private companies,” says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York investment banking firm that specializes in the retail sector. “Going public is the thing that put him in the s–thouse. When you’re under a microscope, you can’t act crazy. The minute [the company signalled it would go public] I said, that’s the end.”

Charney isn’t the first entrepreneur to struggle once put under the investor spotlight. It takes drive and an oversized ego to bring a thriving business to life. Private businesses need to worry about only one thing: how their products are received in the market. Listing your shares on the stock market opens up a host of new concerns: quarterly financial reports to the public, conference calls with analysts, meetings with fund managers and the scrutiny of regulators. You don’t just have to do well financially, you have to project stability and transparency. Yet Charney made it clear years ago that if American Apparel ever listed its shares, investors should be prepared to put up, and shut up. “I want to do it on my own terms,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose in 2006, when asked if an IPO was a possibility. Charney assured Rose his company would meet all regulatory requirements, but he had a clear warning for his future shareholders. “I don’t want to be told what to do … If we go public it will be on the right conditions.” Perhaps to drive home the point, the front yard of Charney’s mansion includes a giant concrete fist, middle finger pointed to the sky. But Charney’s decision to go public may have been more a matter of necessity than choice. According to the Wall Street Journal, American Apparel’s lenders had begun to push the company to find additional financing. At least two attempts were made to borrow funds privately, but those went nowhere. At the same time the company is under intense pressure to expand its retail business, say experts. Big garment manufacturers such as Fruit of the Loom and Montreal-based Gildan Active-wear have begun to churn out fashionable T-shirts for the imprint market. And with their low-cost sewing factories in Mexico and the Caribbean, where workers toil for a fraction of what American Apparel pays its staff, competition is fierce. “Wholesale is the backbone that built American Apparel’s business,” says a venture capitalist familiar with the apparel industry. “The question is can they get the new [retail] ship built before the old [wholesale] ship sinks?”

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This all puts Charney on shakier ground than he might have hoped. The reverse takeover, in which a publicly traded shell company with gobs of cash but no operations bought American Apparel, injected US$125 million into the business, and left Charney still holding a majority stake. Not surprisingly, investors are beginning to push for Charney to step aside and let a seasoned executive take his place. “Outside management is brought in to run companies all the time, and it would make a lot of sense here,” one investor says. For instance, Charney could assume a creative director roll, while a name-brand CEO could take over day-to-day management of the business. “That’s been suggested to him. The question really is ‘will Dov agree to it?'”

So far, it’s a no-go, but there are signs Charney has been trying to clean up his act without being seen as selling out. Gone are the outlandish beards and moustaches. According to one news report, the company has stopped displaying copies of porn magazines like Playboy and Oui in its stores. And he’s been quick to dismiss talk of his sexual exploits as tabloid exaggerations. Charney’s hardly buttoned-down, but it’s not likely he’ll be posing naked in an advertisement for American Apparel, something he did, years ago, in a gay magazine.

There is an argument to be made that investors knew exactly what they were getting when they bought American Apparel shares. Charney has never tried to hide his free-spirited lifestyle. But experts say that won’t matter if the stock continues to fall. Company directors live in fear of shareholder lawsuits. And with Charney’s history of antics, the sexual harassment allegations, and his propensity to thumb his nose at critics, there’s plenty for investors to be upset about. “When a company is so infused with a particular person, there is a risk in getting rid of them” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago executive search firm. “But when a stock goes down 55 per cent, any CEO’s days are numbered.”

Which raises the questions: would there be an American Apparel without Dov Charney? It’s difficult to separate the two, conjoined as they are. The company’s own securities filings suggest Charney is irreplaceable, adding the entrepreneur is “intimately connected” to the brand and is the principal driver behind its “core concepts.” But the filings have also noted the company lacks basic expertise in generally accepted accounting principles, which illustrates the central contradiction at the heart of the company, and why it is both a retail phenomenon and a prohibitively risky stock. Even as American Apparel has grown into a business with nearly 7,000 employees, Charney still photographs models himself while taking a lead role in conjuring up new designs. For instance, during a recent conference call, he talked about a year-long project he’s been working on to design a new golf shirt. Yet the company’s frustrated shareholders aren’t buying it. “He’s a very brilliant guy, but I don’t think you need him to grow the business” says the fund manager. “You call Mickey Drexler [the highly regarded CEO of retailer J. Crew] and ask him, if he bought American Apparel, would he still need Dov Charney? The answer would be unequivocally ‘No.'” (Drexler couldn’t be reached for comment.)

As Charney works to rebuild confidence in American Apparel, he has insisted that he is a new type of executive, for a new generation of customers-young, plugged in and urban to the core. Forget the way capitalism was done before. That’s old school. Charney has said he’s pursuing a “hyper-capitalistsocialist fusion,” something, presumably, Wall Street could never hope to understand. But the truth is the people he desperately needs to win over now are his disgruntled investors. And they just happen to be more partial to silk ties and cufflinks than Baby Rib Fitted Short Sleeve T-shirts and organic underwear. American Apparel’s future depends on bringing those two worlds together. The question: is Dov Charney the man to do it?

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Reluctant revolutionaries

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DEGAS: HIS LIFE, TIMES, AND WORK

by Roy McMullen.

Houghton Mifflin, $24.50.

MATISSE

by Pierre Schneider.

Rizzoli, $95.00.

THE CONVENTIONAL portrait of a modern artist–the artist of the last hundred years–is easy to draw. He is a bohemian who behaves outrageously or a secular saint who, in making his mark, suffers abuse from the world. He is impotent or he is Don Juan. He is more interested (until recently) in form than content; he always “makes it new.” He is a genius, of course. Conventions of this kind, though entertaining, cheapen art. They make an idol of the artist and a melodrama of creation. Still worse, they turn art into something not quite itself, something streamlined for use by showbiz, art history, the museum.

These two books present a more complex picture of the making of a modernist. Neither Degas nor Matisse had a bohemian temperament. (Anything but, in the case of Degas.) Neither made an early splash. Each, revering the work of the past, was a reluctant revolutionary. For both, the principal drama was the struggle in the studio. In Roy McMullen’s fine biography of Degas, the man is not larger than life but “gifted, attractive and often disagreeably complicated.” In Pierre Schneider’s Matisse, an important and beautiful book, the art never seems smaller than life. For Schneider, Matisse is more than a brilliant brush, more too than an occasion for art history. He is nothing less than a great religious artist.

Degas (1834-1917) started slowly. Born into the French grande bourgeoisie, he took lessons from conservative teachers; among painters he revered “Monsieur Ingres” above all. He liked to tell friends, “I once held Ingres in my arms”–referring to an incident when the elderly master had fainted in his presence. He made numerous copies of works in the Louvre and, like a proper young artist, studied in Italy. Even as a young man, however, he displayed the “ironic intelligence and veiled morosity” characteristic of one for whom very good is not good enough. Friends in Italy referred, affectionately, to the “Degas who grumbles” and the “Edgar who growls.” He himself worried about his detachment. “The heart is an instrument that rusts if it is not used,” he wrote. “Without a heart can one be an artist?”

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Once, reduced to tears before the early Renaissance frescoes in Assisi, he thought of becoming a monk. “Ah, these people had a feeling for life, for life,” he wrote. “They never rejected it…. If I am not a religious painter, at least let me feel as they felt.” In Paris, however, he soon adopted the rather artificial role of a member of his class. He was a friend of poor Impressionists, to be sure, but in other ways was a gentleman of the old school. He attended the theater, the ballet, and musical events. He developed a reputation as a scourge of fakes and a purveyor of amusing abuse. He particularly loathed the fashionable world of the arts, a milieu that McMullen evokes well. Degas complained of the endless “tittle-tattle,” the corrupting desire for fame, the collectors who regarded art as an investment, the eternal meanspirited critics. The muses do not discuss art after work, Degas said; they dance.

With age Degas soured into dignity. He was “ready at any moment to stop, settle back on his heels and cane, and then, as remembered by the critic Arsene Alexandre, ‘examine things and people with a sort of recoil of the bust and a bridling up of the head.'” He indulged in the operatic patriotism of his class during the Dreyfus affair, thereby destroying his relationship with his oldest friend, who was Jewish. McMullen makes a good case that Degas, who never married, was not a homosexual. Whether he was impotent, as McMullen believes, is less certain than that he found it necessary to remain alone.

In his painting Degas did not play the role of grand bourgeois. When young, he kept to the fringes of the official art world. He idolized Gustave Moreau (a teacher also important to Matisse), who opened his eyes to more-romantic art; he learned to appreciate Delacroix’s color as well as Ingres’s line. Most significant of all, he could not complete to his satisfaction grand historical paintings of the kind preferred at the official Salon. No doubt there are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most elemental was that in his art Degas could not tell lies–and history-painting had become by then a big shiny machine, theatrical and empty.

Degas retained a stage in his work, but one more suited to the private man. He portrayed, in his famous pictures of the ballet, the cropped, jerky, staccato theater typical of modern life. He looked for the freshly canted perspective or the unexpected moment, for the ephemeral and living rather than the eternal and dead. He savored the backstage feeling: the sawing of a violin bow, the jerk of a bicep, the scrape of a slipper. In Degas you rarely savor the supreme grace of a pas de deux; you see the awkward grace of flesh straining for art. In the artificial glow of gaslights–a shimmering smear of pastel–the girls strut and work.

Degas mostly portrayed women, such as “les petits rats” in the dancing class (many of them mistresses of bourgeois dandies) or ordinary women washing, ironing, and combing. What could be more unlike the dressed-up ladies of fashion than his earthy women in tubs? As McMullen says, Degas was a kind of voyeur, but there is something touching in the distant intimacy of his work. His contemporaries, accustomed to idealized nudes and ballerinas, often found him cruel. If he was, his was an exquisitely tender cruelty–a refined peeling back, to reveal something importantly, refreshingly raw. Asked once why he accompanied rich ladies to dress shops, the solitary bachelor, the unsentimental painter, the grand bourgeois, said, “It’s the red hands of the little girl who holds the pins.”

IF MCMULLEN PORTRAYS a man, Schneider delineates a mind. The facts of Matisse’s life (1869-1954), except those that directly pertain to his art, are in a brief appendix; a reader will learn little about the artist’s childhood, sexual tastes, or public face–though his conflict-ridden personality is often mentioned. This approach is useful. Thanks partly to well-known photographs of the elderly artist, Matisse the man has become a delightful prop: a cuddly papa surrounded by doves, nudes, and colorful arabesques. Matisse the artist has, in turn, become the great formalist, the liberator of color. Critics, when reading Matisse’s more spiritual musings, are thus inclined to think, “Yes, yes–but look at the play of the brush. The color! The singing line! The composition!”

Schneider recalls us to the abiding importance of the mind behind the brush, restoring to prominence the deep intelligence and the spiritual passion of the artist. He takes seriously Matisse’s stated desire to create an art that reflects “my almost religious awe before life.” Matisse’s painting may be rich, physical, and pleasure-loving, but it is not trivially so. As Schneider suggests, Matisse was serious about paradise much as Islamic artists are. There are, besides, many darker and less successful notes in his work, which was mostly a struggle toward paradise. He did not take shortcuts by borrowing old approaches to Eden, nor did he indulge in the sentimental hankering of many Europeans for the exotic. Matisse used the means of modern art and thought. Through simplification of line and color, through two-dimensional space and abstracted form, through the very reduction that led other modernists to a limiting formalism, Matisse found his way to the sacred.

Schneider’s book is a chart of tireless explorations, breakthroughs, revisions, doubts, and, finally, triumphant success. The author has analyzed the many influences on Matisse and has not stinted on iconographic or philosophical discussion. Three general points can suggest some idea of the book’s tone and scope.

First, Matisse had a deeply divided sensibility, despite his apparent ease. Like Degas, he schooled himself in widely different outlooks, from the sturdy realism of Dutch still life to the retinal quickness of Impressionism to the moody transcendence of Moreau. Through most of his life Matisse’s painting seesawed between the three-dimensional (European still life) and the two-dimensional (decorative and oriental fabric). Frequently he included both in one painting. He was also divided between the demands of realistic, tonal color and those of abstract decorative color. The competing claims of color and line tormented him. Far from hurting his painting, this tension gave his art some grittiness.

Second, his iconography matters. Schneider meticulously analyzes the varied import of windows, nudes, oriental carpets, studios, plants, still lifes. The goldfish bowl, a minor motif, nicely suggests the artist’s gift for serious play. Goldfish attracted Matisse partly because, in Schneider’s words, “they are eminently suited to the language of pure color,” as opposed to the tonal values of realism. The fish are “objects of contemplation” and “living reflections of the Golden Age,” when contemplation was the essential activity and men did not feel the need to be responsible and observant–“conscious, interested, grasping, historical.”

Matisse, “obsessed by transparency,” loved the idea of breaking free of material space into a “space in which there were no walls, just as there are none for the fish in the sea.” The glass bowl, Schneider says, “would cease to be depicted when the entire work became a radiance of forms and colors expanding in a limitless space of absolute transparency.” This would come when Matisse, at the end of his life, freed himself from realistic space and made his great cutouts. Until then the goldfish bowl evoked both three and two dimensions, both the Occident and the Orient.

Third, Matisse found his paradise only sporadically. This is hardly surprising, given his attraction to realism–to say nothing of the grisly, secular character of the twentieth century. His first great “sacred” works stem from his Fauvist outburst in 1904. For many vanguard artists, the breakdown of painting to its essentials, to just paint and canvas, had led a materialist and secular art. For Matisse, the liberation of color from mere description, undertaken by the Fauves, freed him momentarily from realism. Because realism is unsuited to religious ends (it stresses this world), Matisse could use color for a more spiritual purpose. In La Danse (1910)–a picture fierce with happiness–he brought together pure, radiant color, a two-dimensional sense of space, and the primordial imagery of the dance. Schneider quotes Zarathustra: “I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance.”

Matisse decorated the chapel in Vence, but his sense of the sacred remained more Oriental than Christian. In Islamic art, for example, Matisse found a decorative impulse akin to his own–that is, one deepened by the sacred repetitions of Islam, which suggest the logic, luxury, and boundlessness of paradise. In turn, the memory of Oceania (he visited Tahiti in 1930) gave him a feeling for an actual, rather than imaginary, world without boundaries–leafy, and full of air and water and light. “When you draw a tree,” he said, quoting a Chinese master, “you must feel yourself gradually growing with it.” He continued to draw from life, but with the hope of realizing, through long observation, something greater than the just copy. His line no longer described a woman; it caught her spirit on the wing.

In the cutouts Matisse finally gave himself up to the decorative. He resolved the separation he felt between line and color. Using scissors to “draw in color,” he sent his work up and away from the easel. It became simple and luminous; it defined a spiritual space. Schneider writes that “from 1950 on, Matisse’s space has the fragile, radiant nakedness of what is newly born and utterly alone.” A friend called Matisse a “hewer of light.” Matisse, asking himself if he believed in God, answered, “Yes, when I work.”

Matisse hoped to recover the lost communion between artists and the public. Resisting the contraction toward the private and idiosyncratic, to which Degas contributed, he once again sought the more universal in art. He refused to settle for brilliant fragments. Did he succeed in his religious aims? Of course not. In a secular society without a religious purpose no artist can succeed as the great religious artists of traditional cultures did. He will always remain an artist with spiritual aspirations, rather than the shared instrument of the community. But the aspiration counts. To make, without cheating, something that is at once modern and transcendent–nothing is more difficult today. Nothing has the same poignance. “The gods are departing from modern painting,” Degas said. Matisse lured them back, for a moment.

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In tracing Matisse’s development Schneider has written many penetrating asides on other painters, styles, writers, and cultures. For example, he makes a connection between Proust and the Impressionists, and presents the philosophy behind Islamic art. He is not a concise writer; his pen tends to run away with him during the rush of an idea. Too often he repeats the same quotations in different contexts, and he shows a weak ness for trite metaphors and purple prose. Matisse scholars may decide that he presumes too much about Matisse’s thinking; sometimes he may push his own interests on the artist a little too forcefully. Any such faults seem minor. This book, clearly a labor of love, does not diminish the rich and subtle evolution of a great artist’s mind. Few books can claim as much.

Perhaps Schneider’s monograph will lead art historians to discuss the kinds of meaning that cannot easily be described. Art is full of them. (Matisse himself liked the dictum “That which can be learned is not worth teaching.”) Both books should help restore subject matter as an important, if not decisive, player in the meaning of a work of art. They should also help remove the slick shine that surrounds great artists. Neither Matisse nor Degas, it should be clear, was a romantic figure. Each studied, worked, and thought seriously. Each was willing, alone in the studio, to ask devilishly hard questions of himself and his talent. In neither does genius seem to have been a gift. Great art looks given, but it is usually earned.

Mark Stevens is an art critic for Newsweek. His first novel, Summer in the City, was published last year.

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Don’t shop New York without her: Pamela Parisi’s Tightwad Treks guide visiting shoppers to the best buys in the city

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Pamela Parisi’s bargain finds in the thrift stores of Manhattan are legendary: a Kate Spade bag in the $15 bin, a wool Ellen Tracy jacket for $22 (retail price $500), a $400 Coach bag with the tags still on for $68. The former showroom model bills herself as the “Elegant Tightwad.” Shoppers from Canada and the U.K. pay her to guide them to the best buys in New York. “You can get a pair of Jimmy Choos for $100, or what’s-his-name, Manolo Blahnik,” she says. “You can get him for $100 or $150.”

Bargain shopping became Parisi’s career after she fell ill in 1992 and had to shut her clothing manufacturing business. “Money was very tight,” she explains. “I had to figure out the best ways to get the best clothes at the lowest prices. I became a great bargain hunter, and my tours evolved.”

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Her “Uptown Consignment Crawl”–one of four Tightwad Treks to choose from-costs $60 and includes three hours of guided shopping, plus a copy of Parisi’s book, Dress Like a Million Bucks While Spending Only Pennies. First stop is Margoth Consignment Shop on E. 81st. “The Upper East Side of Manhattan is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods,” she says. The store’s merchandise, she adds, “reflects the type of clothing that the locals bring in.”

One of the “locals” is a “size 4 to 6 actress” who regularly brings in her cast-offs. Shop owner Margoth Arroyo holds up the actress’s never-worn, one-of-a-kind Louis Vuitton maroon skirt-suit with Peter Pan collar from the fall ’06 collection. To price the suit, Margoth’s daughter, Stephanie Arroyo, called the fashion house. “We have people we talk to, and we discuss how much it retailed for, and to verify that it’s real.” (The same verification process applies to the shop’s inventory of used, high-end handbags.) The suit, which checked out as authentic, retailed for $5,000. The shop is asking $650.

Margoth disappears again, returning with three more of the actress’s never-worn skirts. The price tag on the Ralph Lauren jet black sequined one is $3,750. The shop’s price is $425.

Around the corner on Lexington, Second Chance consignment owner Maria Ridolfi explains, “A lot of women buy this season’s shoes and never wear them, believe it or not. They get calls from the stores and they get them shipped, and for whatever reason, they keep them too long, and then they bring them to us. We get handbags that are new in boxes. People with money to burn, I guess.”

Two weeks ago, Ridolfi sold a used Hermes handbag for $4,500. “We’ve had [used] Birkin [made by Hermes] bags that sell for $7,500.” The same price Hermes charges, brand-new, says Ridolfi. “You can’t get the bag anymore,” she explains. Demand is so overwhelming for the Birkin that Hermes has stopped taking orders. Now it’s the consignment shops that keep a wait list.

One time a woman brought in a rare crocodile Birkin that she paid $28,000 for. “It was incredible, a year old,” says Margoth. The store resold it for $15,000. Consignment shops “aren’t going to try to sell you something if they know it’s fake,” says Parisi. The thrift shops are different: “Many of the people who work there volunteer. They don’t know the difference.”

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Recently, Parisi noticed that one of her British shoppers admired a second-hand Chanel bag but then didn’t buy it. When Parisi asked why not, the woman told her it was too expensive. “Why didn’t you offer her what you would pay?” Parisi asked. The woman said, “Oh, I would never do that. In England, they’d ask you to leave the store?’

“Well they don’t here,” said Parisi. At consignment shops, it’s okay to offer what you’re willing to pay, she says. “Another negotiation tip is take your money out of your handbag. Cash speaks louder than credit cards. Store owners don’t like to see you put money back in your bag.”

At the CancerCare Thrift Shop on Third Avenue, a shopper spots a size 8, black leather Ellen Tracy trench coat, priced at $50. Parisi estimates the retail value at $800. Still, the shopper is ambivalent. Parisi tells her to ask herself three questions. What would I wear it with? What would I wear it to? Would I buy it at full price?

“Sometimes you’re on the fence,” she says. “Maybe you’d wear it, maybe you wouldn’t, and you’re like, ‘But it’s such a good price!’ Well, don’t be sucked in by that,” she says. “That’s all the stuff that sits in your closet.”

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Points of interest

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Backstreet Boy joins cast of new Balderson film

WAMEGO – Acclaimed gay filmmaker Steve Balderson has cast Kevin Richardson, formerly of The Backstreet Boys, in the leading role of his new film The Casserole Club, to be filmed in Wamego in October.

The film, a drama set in 1969, co-stars Daniela Sea (The L Word), Garrett Swann (Fashion House) and Michael Maize (CSI: NY).

The Casserole Club is Richardson’s first major film role, but he appeared on Broadway, and in London’s West End, in the musical Chicago as shady lawyer Billy Flynn.

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The 16th annual Sweet A’fair Backyard Picnic

WICHITA — The Sweet A’fair is back! From 6-9pm on Thursday, Sept. 16 everyone will again gather at #6 Crestview Lakes for the annual “family” get-together. Details are the same-park at 21st and Oliver and take the free trolley, which will drop attendees off directly at the picnic and return them to their car afterwards.

The food and theme used to change every year, but ever since Popeye’s fried chicken made an appearance there’s been no looking back! And of course there is live music, cotton candy, silent and live auctions and lots of friends.

The suggested donation is $25, which will raise funds for the Sweet Emergency Fund.

Additional contributions are generated though over 150 items in the silent and live auctions. Items include original art pieces, jewelry, gift baskets, food and beverage packages, household and garden items, entertainment and spa certificates and many more unique items–including Fritz Capone memorabilia.

In the early 90’s the Sweet Emergency Fund raised funds to help patients living with HIV or AIDS, who were unable to afford their medical expenses. Twenty years later, people are living longer but often with additional medical issues beyond HIV. The Fund annually helps hundreds of patients in Wichita whose medical expenses are not covered through insurance or Ryan White grant funds.

For more information contact Michael Madecky at 316-293-3405 or mmadecky@kumc.edu.

Praxis scholarship apps now being taken

MANHATTAN – The Flint Hills Human Rights Project is now accepting applications for the 2010 Praxis Scholarship.

The Praxis Scholarship rewards college students, both undergraduate and graduate, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who have demonstrated positive reaffirmation for the LGBTTIQ community through their service, artistic, academic/research, activism, or advocacy efforts.

At least one $500 scholarship will be awarded to a full-time student at Kansas State University, Manhattan Christian College, Manhattan Area Technical College, Barton County Community College-Ft. Riley, or Highland Community College-Wamego. They can be either undergraduate or graduate students.

An application, essay and letters of recommendation must be submitted by midnight, Sept. 17. E-mail fhhrp@yahoo.com to request an application.

Combatting Phelps

In March 2010, Fred Phelps and his gang went to Richmond, Virginia to protest local LGBT and Jewish organizations. Instead of fighting the hate with more anger, four local moms came together and used the visit as an opportunity to spread kindness through the community. In less than a week, they founded Pennies in Protest, raised over $14,000, and gave it directly to the targeted organizations.

The moms have finished setting up a “how-to” website that teaches anyone, anywhere how to do what they did: www.penniesinprotest.com.

One of them also made a video, available on YouTube, about the effort in Richmond.

Sarah Allen-Short of Pennies in Protest says, “Anyone is free to use the name and materials on our website, including sample letters, press releases, tweets, etc. We even have a photograph of the thank you note we sent to the Westboro Baptist Church on behalf of the GLBT and Jewish organizations who got all the money. The thank you note was a very fun and satisfying part of the process!”

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Upcoming events in Manhattan!

MANHATTAN – Gamma Rho Lambda (GRL), K-State’s lesbian sorority, starts recruitment and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan (UUFM) is starting an LGBTQ movie night series–all happening in September!

GRL activities include: Sept. 8 Game Night-board and video games in the K-State Student Union; Sept. 14 Family Dinner-potluck for potential new members and all those considered family; Sept. 17 Bon Fire-roast s’mores and hang out by the fire.

More info at gamma rholambda.org/kstate or contact Maria Snyder at msnyder@k-state.edu.

UUFM’s movie night is part of its community support as a Welcoming Congregation. This monthly event begins Sept. 19. Movie titles can’t be publicized, but contact dre@uufm.net or minister@uufm.net for more info.

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Bernard Arnault rethinks the cult of fashion gurus

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Byline: Robin Givhan

The LVMH chief shakes up his empire after the fall of Dior’s star designer, John Galliano.

It was the Fourth of July in America, but in Paris a different sort of spectacle was unfolding. Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the French conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), took his place of honor in the front row of an elegant tent in the courtyard of the Musee Rodin, where he presided over the start of the fall haute-couture fashion week. The late-afternoon show was the most highly anticipated of them all: Christian Dior, one of Arnault’s many brands and one that in recent months was rocked by scandal.

In public, Arnault, 62, is controlled and dignified, tall and trim, with a broad forehead and boyishly unruly gray hair. His English is thickly accented but precise. In business, he is known for being both aggressive and stealthy. And he is not prone to displays of emotion. At the Dior show, he was accompanied by his son Antoine–who looks like a younger, less burdened version of his father–and his daughter Delphine, a slender blonde with her father’s high forehead. France’s former first lady Bernadette Chirac sat nearby.

Established in 1947, Christian Dior is considered France’s most prestigious label. Its founder was credited with reviving the country’s stagnant fashion industry after World War II with a single collection of lush skirts and wasp-waist jackets that came to be known as the “New Look.”

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Over time, the brand captivated Princess Diana, who popularized the Lady Dior handbag with its quilted body and dangling CD charms. Today it’s a darling of red-carpet butterflies and is the de facto couturier of French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The Dior show tried to conjure that storied legacy. But as soon as the lights dimmed and the first model emerged, the Twitter universe exploded with fashion commentary, most of it negative–and understandably so. This fall collection was an ’80s-inspired kaleidoscope of chaotic colors, awkward ball gowns, ungainly architectural silhouettes, and even a puzzling homage to the clown Pierrot, complete with pointy little hat.

When it was over, the virtually unknown atelier director, Bill Gaytten, and his first assistant, Susanna Venegas, stepped out and gave the audience a wave.

Haute couture, the craft of handmade garments, is supposed to be the pinnacle of fashion–the concept car of the garment business. This show was meant to be an expression of a couturier’s most dazzling, singular vision–clothes as they could be. But such virtuosity was missing.

And all because the great French fashion house is in limbo.

For nearly 15 years, John Galliano served as creative director of Dior. He was a whirlwind of outre ideas and ruckus-raising controversy, and Arnault reveled in Galliano’s audacity. The designer’s runway bows rivaled his collections in imagination and swagger. The tent would go black and the lights would flash as if to herald the arrival of a rock star. As the music built, Galliano would strike a catalog-model pose. He’d linger on the runway, allowing his star power to radiate outward.

The designer–musclebound, with a face out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting–summed up what luxury fashion had become at the hand of Arnault: an industry driven by flamboyant stars, glittering brand names, and hype.

But then Galliano crashed to earth in March, after allegedly spewing anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Paris bistro. Hate speech is illegal in France, and soon he was fired and shipped off to rehab. On June 22, when Galliano showed up in court, he was a beaten man who confessed to multiple addictions and claimed no recollection of what came hurtling from his mouth. A verdict is expected in September.

Arnault, meanwhile, must reinvent Dior. At first blush, it seems not such a tall order for the most powerful man in the global fashion industry. He is also the wealthiest man in France–Forbes estimates his worth at $41 billion–and controls luxury labels ranging from Dior and Louis Vuitton to Donna Karan, Celine, and even Galliano’s own signature label (from which the designer was also dismissed). Arnault’s empire extends from New York to Mongolia and includes the airport retailer DFS, Sephora cosmetics stores, and even Dom Perignon.

His decisions carry enormous influence, and they are often imitated. He reordered the fashion universe in the 1990s when he hired New York’s downtown hipster Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Jacobs unleashed monogram handbags in colorful Takashi Murakami prints and Stephen Sprouse graffiti. The era of the “it” bag was born. Arnault brought Alexander McQueen to Givenchy, helping to propel him into the international fashion limelight. And, of course, he hired Galliano.

Arnault’s philosophy of merging subversive talent with dusty, historical brands became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study and the corporate blueprint for reviving stagnant fashion companies, from Yves Saint Laurent to Rochas. He arrived at the pinnacle of fashion through buyouts and mergers and occasionally through bruising takeovers, only one of which–Gucci–he has lost thus far. His expansion of LVMH has been a model for other luxury conglomerates.

Arnault, who prides himself on managing creativity–on giving it room to be disorganized and spontaneous–took Galliano’s meltdown personally. “I’m surprised that I did not get a call or a word of excuse from him,” he told me not long after Galliano’s banishment. “After all that I did for him?”

Forgiveness has not been forthcoming. “Not yet,” Arnault said.

Galliano’s alleged hate speech was an assault on Arnault’s beloved Dior, the first luxury label he acquired and the one he watches over with the greatest care. The behavior also called into question Arnault’s long-held strategy of hiring rakish and unpredictable designers to create star brands.

Signaling a new direction, Arnault has been going out of his way recently to spotlight the low-key craftspeople of the atelier. He is waxing enthusiastic about the philosophy of discretion that designer Phoebe Philo has brought to Celine–incremental change, not topsy-turvy innovation.

In Arnault’s new reality, buzz and brashness are taking a break.

When Arnault plucked Galliano from nearly Dickensian circumstances, installing him at Dior in 1996, a supporting cast of 200 artisans already had been working behind the scenes for decades.

During a recent visit to the Dior atelier, I met Lili Nassar, a plump, brown-skinned Frenchwoman with a bashful smile who has been at Dior for 38 years. She came to Paris from Africa and studied at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, which produces the country’s skilled seamstresses and tailors. She was only 21 when she joined the atelier, working under designers Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre, and, of course, Galliano. She has outlasted them all.

When Galliano first arrived, he had to adapt, not the atelier. He didn’t sketch; his ideas were fragments in his head. People like Nassar helped coax them into reality.

“A lot of schools produce designers, but the technical people–this is what we have to protect,” Sidney Toledano, the Dior chief executive, told me. “They work very hard here, and they live outside of Paris. They are not living like the designer. They are simple people. Some of them have a difficult life. They have their feet on the ground.”

In short, Toledano said, “They’re sustaining the house.”

Arnault has great faith in the team’s ability to stitch a perfect corset or jacket. That skill is at the heart of the Dior mythology–and right now, that’s all he’s got.

He’s indebted to them for carrying on without a creative leader. “I think we have the equivalent of the Vienna Philharmonic,” Arnault says. “From time to time, the Vienna Philharmonic could play without a conductor because they are so good. But that cannot last forever. We want to [make] the best choice for the house and find the best conductor.”

But as the fall couture show proved, a leader is essential. Gaytten’s poor reviews suggest that Dior’s transition will not be as seamless as the recent one at Alexander McQueen. After that house’s namesake committed suicide last year, his assistant Sarah Burton took over and has been an able, low-key successor–even shunning the attention sparked by Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. When I asked Arnault about other possibilities, including his rumored interest in Haider Ackermann, he noted that the Paris-based designer with the sensual color aesthetic is talented, but his business is tiny. Could the top job at Dior be his ticket to the big leagues? “That I cannot tell you,” Arnault said with a chuckle.

If any brand hints at how Arnault might solve his Dior problem, it’s Celine. For years, the company was a bland purveyor of bourgeois sportswear before Philo was given free rein. If Dior was defined by bold, swashbuckling strokes, Celine is design innovation measured in millimeters. What Philo created is understatedly, exquisitely chic–without a cult of personality.

Arnault has been dazzled by Celine. It has seen triple-digit growth, according to Arnault, who believes it has the potential to be the next major brand, even in critical emerging markets like China, where many of the newly rich are still enamored of glitz. In 2010, Asia–excluding Japan–had the distinction of being the largest market for all LVMH products.

“It will take time, but [Celine] is on the way,” Arnault says. “Phoebe has the potential. She is doing a style which is completely in line with our time.”

And if Celine needed any further endorsement: “My daughter Delphine, she’s working at Dior,” Arnault says. “But she wears Celine.”

(Arnault, by the way, thinks Celine isn’t expensive–although a starter dress runs $2,000. “You think it’s expensive?” he asks. “It’s not Dior.” No. But still. Bless his billionaire’s heart.)

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Arnault says he has no plans to transform Dior into a minimalist label. But his pronounced affection for Celine and its focus on clothes, clothes, clothes, along with his powerful appreciation for the deeply rooted atelier, raises several existential questions: Had the spotlight on a star like Galliano gotten so hot that everything else disappeared in the glare? Did it all become some overstuffed dream? Did the world lose sight of Dior’s history, its vaunted craftsmanship, and perhaps even of the frocks themselves?

Arnault suggests it’s time for change, time to recast his global, glittering, status-laden empire as something else. The watchwords are: intimate, Old World, artful. And the timing feels right.

During my visit to Paris, Arnault wanted me to see the rest of his empire. He showed off the picturesque L’Abbaye d’Hautvillers, home to the rarefied vintages of Dom Perignon. And he organized a tour of his Frank Gehry-designed art foundation rising on the edges of the Bois de Boulogne.

The point of it all was that these landmarks celebrate characteristics that are the antithesis of the big-top fashion the mogul once reveled in. He’s no longer bragging about that.

After all, Arnault has learned that rock-star designers come and go. “A good product,” he says, “can last forever.”

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Fashion Trends

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Byline: Robin Givhan

Forget Kanye and Gaga. The biggest shake-ups of the year happened far from the runway–and at a computer near you.

The fashion industry marks shifts in style by seasons, not years. Yet despite the constant churning of trends, real change–the kind that upends business models, subverts traditions, and shakes up aesthetics–isn’t so common.

There was plenty of fashion news in 2011, but making news isn’t the same thing as instigating change. Lady Gaga captured the imagination of the frock industry and helped to propel Nicola Formichetti to fame as the new designer for a relaunched Mugler. But there’s little evidence that Gaga’s predilection for perilously high heels and spiked thongs has caused the fashion world–or the culture–to rethink its assumptions about anything.

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Fashion aficionados were stunned when an alcohol- and drug-addicted John Galliano was dismissed from Christian Dior after spewing anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Paris bistro. Galliano’s troubles sparked an industrywide conversation about the pressures facing the modern corporate designer. But that debate soon faded, and Christian Dior carried on handily without Galliano–and without any lead designer for an extended period of time. The company’s bottom line showed no signs of faltering. In the first nine months of 2011, Dior’s revenue was up 15 percent over the same period last year.

There were, as always, provocative collections that made audiences think. One can hope that Kanye West’s inauspicious ready-to-wear debut made other celebrities reconsider a part-time career in fashion. Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo critiqued the cultural traditions of weddings. And fashion’s definition of beauty became more ethnically diverse thanks to the sweeping grace of world traveler Haider Ackermann.

London-based designers wooed independent retailers like Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender in Birmingham, Mich. The unique sensibility and limited distribution of labels such as Erdem and Peter Pilotto help her stand out as a David amid a bunch of Goliath merchants. “I can’t compete with department stores,” Daskas says. “And I don’t want to compete with them. I’m constantly looking for new things.”

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Fashion grappled with a lousy economy by simultaneously going more upmarket and more mass market. It rewarded new media’s bloggers with front-row seats at fashion shows and, in some cases, free frocks and trips. The industry’s favorite heiress, Daphne Guinness, dressed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala while posing in the windows of Barneys New York and had her own exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Fashion teased and titillated, but there were no bolts of lightning in 2011. Change came on quietly, and often it came in counterintuitive ways.

These three events made folks question the status quo. In some cases, insiders were filled with optimism. But often the change was neither all good nor all bad. Sometimes change just meant that it was time for something different.

China Leads In Luxury

China has become a fashion-industry obsession. First came the fretting over its cheap labor and low overheads. Now comes the fixation on its consumers. They represent the key market for producers of luxury goods, from Louis Vuitton to Prada. But American designers, particularly less established ones, seemed to be missing out on those status-hungry customers. The China Design Program may be a turning point.

Established this year, bankrolled by fashion industrialist Silas Chou and overseen by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue, this is a business and cultural-exchange program for young fashion designers. “We want to see how it goes,” says CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. “Assuming all goes well, we’ll continue.”

In the spring of 2012, Chinese designer Uma Wang will spend a month in New York working with Theory executive Andrew Rosen and designer Michael Kors. She’ll attend the CFDA awards in June, visit museums, and take the pulse of American consumers.

American designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler will spend time in Beijing. They’ll focus on Chinese consumers: how do they spend their free time, what kind of art do they like, where do they prefer to eat? “It’ll give them an understanding of who their potential customer is,” says Kolb, “and help them develop a strategy for China.”

Couture Explodes Online

The Internet continues its march on the fashion industry, most notably with the flood of high-end designs into the world of e-commerce. Net-a-Porter was first to demonstrate that shoppers would spend $2,000 online for a dress. This year, Moda Operandi began offering impatient customers a way to order designer merchandise straight off the runway. The online trunk show, which launched in February, landed a $10 million investment from venture capitalists four months later.

Across the Atlantic, former Gucci designer Alessandra Facchinetti partnered with the Italian company Pinko to launch Uniqueness, another straight-off-the-runway virtual shop–this one offering immediate delivery.

Especially notable, says Robert Burke, a luxury-products consultant, is the rise of high-end menswear sales online. Mr Porter, the menswear cousin to Net-a-Porter, launched this year, along with Gilt Groupe’s Park & Bond.

They’re revolutionary,” Burke says. “People didn’t think men bought on the Internet.” Now a $7,695 Loro Piana shearling-lined suede coat isn’t out of the question.

Mcqueen Rocks the Met

Design house Alexander McQueen had a busy 2011. Its new creative director, Sarah Burton, designed Kate Middleton’s wedding gown and dressed first lady Michelle Obama for the China state dinner. But the true blockbuster event was Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, an exhibition at the Costume Institute that examined the career of the house’s founder, who committed suicide in 2010 at age 40.

Savage Beauty drew 661,509 visitors over the summer and ranked as the eighth-most-visited exhibition in the Met’s history, alongside such cultural blockbusters as The Treasures of Tutankhamen and Mona Lisa. Lee McQueen’s artistry drew more visitors than the mythology of Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years and the pop-culture dazzle of Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

This was a show buoyed by fashion at its most creative, provocative, and personal.

Every Costume Institute exhibition is unique–the next major one looks at the work of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada–and sometimes success is all in the luck of timing. Still, curator Harold Koda points to some significant attributes of Savage Beauty.

These weren’t clothes that had influenced the wardrobes of ordinary people–in the manner of, say, a Chanel little black dress. “There was a kind of ‘otherness’ to the clothes,” says Koda. “They weren’t clothes that you’d see on the street.” He adds that the story of McQueen’s work had a concise arc, though tragically so. “The quality of the material allowed for a true expression of his creative life. But it was easy to handle. It had a beginning and an end.”

And an emotional undercurrent that moved the public’s soul.

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Letter from Italy

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MILAN. In 1965, when my parents relocated the family from Italy to the United States, our first stop was the New York World’s Fair. It was a futuristic paradise constructed on 650 acres of former marshland in the Borough of Queens. A giant stainless steel model of the earth, called the Unisphere, welcomed us. It had orbit rings around it to celebrate both the Space Age and the Atomic Age.

The theme was “Peace Through Understanding,” which roughly translated as prosperity through American products. Computers, an elevated monorail, sleek modernistic buildings, vehicles of tomorrow. Soon I’d be flying to school with my jetpack, vacationing on Mars, and relying on a robot to do my chores.

Fifty years later, I’m back in Italy, and my first destination is the 2015 Milan Expo, as this year’s World’s Fair is called. Times have most definitely changed. The signature structure at the entrance mimics rolling hills from the center of Italy and is entirely clad in wood. Called Pavilion Zero, it addresses Expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The interior includes a reconstruction of a wood-paneled ancient library where memory drawers hold the history of food production.

Walking through the fantastically elegant structure–Milan is the home of Italian design, after all–one quickly realizes that the futuristic promises from New York are but a distant memory. Steel is out, while wood and fabric are in as the architectural materials of choice.

No futuristic transportation here. Be prepared to walk a mile to reach the far end of Expo, along what is essentially a covered fairway with pavilions from 145 countries running alongside. There are gardens and vegetable plots galore, small countries celebrating their coffee, their cocoa, their natural wonders. The theme of food and sustainability gazes back on a lost past of grand scale and still grander dreams of technology as savior.

Halfway down the fairway, after marveling at the way the Israelis used a vertical garden of wheat and corn (and some crops I didn’t recognize) as one wall of their exhibit, I come to the Eataly pavilion, which is composed of 20 restaurants from all the regions of Italy in a space that dwarfs many national pavilions.

Eataly, the brainchild of Oscar Farinetti, an entrepreneur from Turin who was an early promoter of the slow-food movement, is what the Expo is really about: how to aggregate small producers to make them economically competitive–and how to use the Italian brand to market high-end-niche products. Farinetti is certainly a living advertisement for the concept; he has opened 29 fabulously successful megastores on four continents, with at least two more on the way.

Nitpickers question how truly slow-foodish the whole thing is: is this a model for helping small artisanal producers thrive or one for making a boatload of money? Farinetti, who exudes optimism, thinks he can do both. And, I suspect, the hungry mobs that descend each day on Eataly outposts in New York, Istanbul, Turin, San Paulo, Tokyo and parts soon to be announced are inclined to agree.

Expo also embodies the rising optimism palpable in at least some regions of Italy, which finally seem to be surfacing from almost a decade of stagnation, punishing unemployment and Berlin-mandated austerity. Expo might even contribute to the turnaround, stimulating innovation and productivity long after its six-month run. It’s (extremely optimistic) promoters project that the fair will generate somewhere around $75 billion in demand for the regional economy over the next decade, after accounting for all the multiplier effects.

Reality check: this being Italy, it was touch-and-go whether Expo would be ready to open on time. This being Milan, it did. Still, a number of officials in charge of construction have been arrested on charges of–what else?–corruption.

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GOING HOME AGAIN

A short train ride later, I’m in the center of Milan, and it doesn’t take long walking the streets to get the sense that this is a city on the way up. Literally. The landmark monuments the 32-story Pirelli building and, of course, the Duomo (the fifth-largest church in the world) –are now dwarfed by skyscrapers built in the past decade and designed by architectural luminaries like Cesare Pelli and Arata Isozaki.

Equally striking, the older buildings, like the iconic Duomo, are no longer the sootstained dirty grey of my childhood; they’ve been scrubbed to reveal a palette of off-white-and-cream limestone and marble. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which leads to Piazza del Duomo, has been fully restored and is trafficked by multitudes ogling the structure and the high-end stores inside. In fact, much of Milan’s center now teems with tourists, many of whom seem intent on feeding their high-end-shopping joneses.

The great contemporary city does not live by expensive baubles alone. Outside the center, companies that include Pirelli and Prada have transformed gritty industrial buildings into museums and cultural centers. At the Prada museum, created by Miuccia Prada, whose Milanese fashion empire has made her the richest woman in Italy, the guards are all young, dressed in elegant eponymous uniforms –and, most astonishingly, all seem to be art-history majors who can talk knowledgeably about the nearby splendors.

Italian tourism has been on the rebound for a couple of years now, and is expected to keep growing briskly in spite of the Eurozone’s doldrums, bringing in close to $50 billion this year. More generally, the growth of service businesses is giving Italians hope that dwindling employment in heavy industry like autos and rubber can be offset by office and shop jobs. Florence, Rome and Venice are still the most popular tourist destinations. But Milan, especially with the arrival of the Expo, is giving them a run.

FRIENDS FROM ALL THE WRONG PLACES

But Italy has also become a destination of a very different sort. The Italy I left as a kid, a country of net emigration, is now a magnet for immigrants. The phenomenon has roiled Italian society and stands in stark contrast to the optimism generated by Expo and the signs of renewed growth.

I went to Catholic University of the Sacred Heart to speak to Prof. Laura Zanfrini, a leading immigration expert. “Unlike the U.S. and Canada, here in Europe you’re taught that, if you’re Italian or German, it is because you have it in the blood,” she explained. “We have a very ethnic conception of what it means to be a nation. Given this, I find it a bit of a miracle that in the last few years we’ve been able to absorb five million immigrants.

Most of these immigrants, who now make up eight percent of the Italian population, have settled in the North, where the jobs are. In this respect, Italy is two countries: the North of the post-World War II boom, where the economy grew at an average of more than five percent until the ’70s, and the South, which remains an agrarian society dogged by corruption, organized crime and dependence on state subsidies. Most emigration to the United States came out of the South well into the 20 th century. And it continued internally, with Southerners heading to the North after World War II.

Over the years, Rome has vacillated between discouraging immigration and protecting immigrant rights. But the quotas associated with the former are essentially meaningless, since enforcement is so difficult. Italy has asked other European countries to bear more of the burden. The appeal, though, has largely fallen on deaf ears on a continent preoccupied with high unemployment, tight budgets and Greece’s ongoing agonies. And it has largely fallen to Italy to accept–and rescue at sea when necessary–untold numbers of migrants who sail from Libya in overcrowded or unseaworthy craft.

Some of the slack has been taken up at the local level, regardless of ideology, but that letter from italy reflects the Italian phenomenon of generally strong local government,” Zanfrini says. And volunteer organizations like Caritas, an umbrella group for Catholic charities, “have stepped in where public assistance was lacking.” Ironically, immigration may prove part of the solution to another looming social problem. Italy is on a demographic death spiral: Italians, along with the Germans and Japanese, are now the oldest people on earth. Life expectancy for retirees keeps rising, even as reproduction remains stuck far below the rate needed to offset aging.

Throw in youth unemployment (above 40 percent), which means few new workers paying into pension plans, and you have the makings of a serious Social Security crisis in the not-too-distant future. That is, unless immigrants can help take up the slack.

Here in Milan we have a foreign child for every three or four Italians born,” Zanfrini says. “We have this idea that the immigrants will come and do the work that Italians don’t want to do, which is discriminatory.”

That may be right, but there’s good reason to believe that young Italians are reluctant to do the heavy lifting. The universities are packed with students aiming for professions, but those jobs are hard to come by. In the meantime, the fashion industry is struggling to find Italians willing to cobble shoes or tailor clothes. Immigrants gladly take those jobs–if they are permitted to do so.

GROUND ZERO

I leave Catholic University and head across town to the central train station, just a few blocks from where I grew up. The building’s Fascist-era architecture seems as imposing as it did as when I was a child. But as I approach, I’m distracted by the sight of hundreds of immigrants hanging out on the steps. Others sleep in corners, under trees and on the lawn.

Inside, in sections of the station that have been cordoned off, entire families are gathered on mats. A plexiglass bubble that had housed a Victoria’s Secret store is now filled with immigrants slumped in rows of folding chairs and staring vacantly into space. Under a portico, volunteers are providing free meals to the hungry. Here, it’s mostly Eritreans, with some Syrians recognizable by the women completely covered by chadors.

In front of the station, dueling groups of demonstrators are lined up on either side of a police cordon. On one side, the signs read “benvenuti” (welcome), on the other, “basta” (enough) or variations on the theme. Eventually, this current scrum of immigrants will be taken to relocation centers in other parts of the city. But the numbers overwhelm the capacity to house them. Given the rest of the EU’s stance of malign neglect, Italy (along with Greece) must bear the brunt of this seemingly endless wave of the tired and poor yearning to breathe free.

WHERE THE OTHER HALF LIVES

Heading north from Milan, travelers pass through the region known as Brianza, one of the most prosperous in Italy. A century ago, silk production and agriculture were the economic mainstays. Today, the economy runs the gamut from furniture to textiles, machine tools, plastics and a smattering of high tech. Just a few miles north of Monza, home of the famed Formula One circuit, the auto-parts maker Dell’Orto SpA typifies the sort of medium-sized businesses so important to the Italian economy.

Andrea Dell’Orto is vice president of the company, which his grandfather founded in 1933. “2009 was the toughest moment for us,” he recalls. “We lost 40 percent of our sales. But since 2013, things have turned around. Even during the crisis,” he said, referring to the Great Recession, “we never stopped innovating and even hiring. Today we make parts for both high-volume customers and for high-end-niche customers.” (His clients include Fiat, BMW, GM, Ferrari, Audi and Aston Martin.) As in the food and fashion industries, high-end-niche seems to be the mantra when talk turns to Italy’s economic recovery.

Dell’Orto says it was not easy, but his firm has adapted to the dynamic of globalization. “The companies with the best performance are the ones that are open to international markets,” he says. He now has divisions in China and India.

SAY “CHEESE”

Further north, on the shores of Lake Como, sits Lecco, a small city with a farmers’ market known to Milanese connoisseurs who have frequented it for generations. Dozens of local cheeses are available, all still made on a small scale. It’s the Eataly-Expo concept in the flesh. And the flesh seems healthy.

The day I was there was one of the final days of campaigning in regional elections. Walking through the crowd of shoppers, surrounded by a small entourage, was Matteo Salvini, the head of the Lega Nord, a rightwing party founded in 1991 on a platform of greater autonomy for Italy’s regions. It grew out of the Lega Lombarda (Lombardy League), which essentially espoused secession of the wealthy Lombardy region, in which Milan is situated, from the rest of Italy. But in particular it expressed the Northerners’ wish to decouple from the South and its corrupt, handout-seeking ways.

The Lega, as it commonly known, was an important ally for then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But now the party has reinvented itself as the Italian equivalent of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing-populist National Front in France, staking its future on an anti-immigration platform and a rejection of the European Union and the euro.

Salvini tells me: “We want an immigration system like the one you have in the U.S. Quotas, laws against entering illegally, the ability to ship out those that do so. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Well, not quite all. “We have enough immigrants as it is,” he continues. “If more boats arrive, we should give them food and water, but not let them land.” And when it comes to Muslim immigrants, Salvini says their culture is “incompatible” with Italy’s–a view widely held not just in Italy, but in much of Europe.

Salvini isn’t your traditional Italian politician. He trolls the crowd in shorts and polo shirt, glad-handing and taking selfies with admirers. An ex-journalist, he knows how to create sound bites that are both controversial and effective. Given the warm reception he gets in the market and the way the immigration debate is heading, Salvini’s prospects as a major player in Italian politics seem bright. The elections gave the Lega leadership of the Veneto and Ligurian regions, and the party made serious inroads elsewhere.

Italy has had 61 governments since the end of World War II. But most were merely iterations of the Christian Democrats, a center-right party whose extended rule started with the generous assistance of the United States and was thereafter supported by a CIA-organized campaign to ensure that the Communists, who had emerged as a force to be reckoned with after the war, would not win national elections.

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Berlusconi represented the first definite break from clubhouse politics-as-usual, not only in his personal excesses but also because he came to power (in 1994) with a party he founded, Forza Italia. Even though Berlusconi was new to politics, his vast wealth and ownership of much of the Italian media made him a force to be reckoned with.

He advocated free markets, a la Reagan and Thatcher. The economy did well for a while during his reign, but eventually growth sputtered under the burden of increased debt and government mismanagement.

Throughout his tenure, Berlusconi was enveloped in scandal, whether for corruption, conflict of interest or sexual improprieties. Eventually, he was found guilty of soliciting sex from an underage prostitute and then trying to cover it up. He was banned for life from holding office, but Forza Italia was resurrected during the last regional elections. It appears that Berlusconi, a Mussolini look-alike known for Trump-like faux pas, will be around a bit longer–a reality that bewilders outsiders and even some Italians.

One only has to look at the current government’s composition to see how much things have changed since Berlusconi’s stumble from office. Women, a scarce species in previous governments, now occupy half the cabinet positions. By the same token, the average age of cabinet members in a political system not known for speedy promotions is now just 47.

The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is the former mayor of Florence and, at age 40, is the youngest man to have ever led Italy. His politics are sometimes described as center-left, but he often refers to Bill Clinton as his post-ideological model.

He came into office at the beginning of 2014 vowing to turn the calcified Italian political system on its head. Indeed, he moved quickly to change until-then-sacrosanct labor laws, giving employers more flexibility to hire and fire. This put him at loggerheads with the labor unions, but he managed to pass the reforms and his standing in the polls went up.

Renzi sold off luxury cars that had been routine perks of state officials, a signal that, in his Rome, bureaucrats really are supposed to be the servants of the people. More important, he is pressing for constitutional changes that he said were needed to make the political system more representative.

The changes would also increase the power of the executive, which has drawn heavy criticism from the left wing of his own party. Still, Renzi’s standing among Italians of all political stripes has only improved. He has also staked out a middle ground on Greek debt, advocating relief while managing to maintain cordial relations with the dark princess of austerity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. For once, it isn’t only Italians who seem uncharacteristically positive about their prime minister; even political leaders of the EU seem to be taking Renzi seriously.

WORDS FROM A NOBELIST

I take the ferry to the other side of Lake Como, where Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, is at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, working on a book on inequality.

Before coming to Bellagio, Stiglitz spent some time in Trento at an economics festival attended by Renzi. The prime minister’s criticism of Chancellor Merkel’s emphasis on austerity impressed Stiglitz, who is an outspoken opponent of Germany’s hard line on Greece. “The Europeans don’t want to recognize that they put together” a fiscal-austerity program in 2010 that was badly conceived, he believes. “So they are insisting you have to stick to the program,” he said, “as if by reaffirming it they’re getting the Greeks to agree that that program makes sense.”

When asked about Italy’s prospects, Stiglitz sips from a glass half empty. The prospect of a serious recovery is very bleak, he says. “Italy’s trading partners in the Eurozone are growing weakly, domestic demand is not going to grow very strongly, and the outside source of demand, China, is also not growing very strongly.”

Make that glass just plain empty: “I think that Italy, and Europe as a whole, is going for a lost decade,” Stiglitz says. The real question, he adds, is whether “it is going to be a lost quarter-century.”

When I explain what I saw at Expo and the emphasis on high-end-niche markets, even Stiglitz brightens a bit. “The strategy they have had of very highly tailored goods, this is an important difference between China and Italy,” he says. “Over the long run, it makes a lot of sense because the mass production of cheap goods” in Europe cannot compete against China.

I mention Dell’Orto, which is manufacturing precision parts just a few miles to the south. “Italy is finding niches in the world of globalization where you have high-end engineering, high training, lots of tacit knowledge,” Stiglitz says. “If they can survive this patch, they could come out in good shape.”

Italians certainly don’t lack survival skills; surviving in style is a well-honed tradition, something quite evident in Milan and its surroundings. The problem is that Italy’s success depends in large part on the kindness–or at least the exercise of enlightened self-interest on the part of Northern Europeans. And thus far, there’s little reason to believe that Northern Europe will come through.

Charles Castaldi is a former National Public Radio reporter and producer.

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China by Design; Fashion Week in Hong Kong is serious business

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Byline: Samantha Sault

Hong Kong

Fifteen years after the transfer of power to Beijing, Hong Kong is far from the utopia envisioned by Mao. On the contrary, as Hong Kong Fashion Week demonstrated recently, Hong Kong is the gateway to capitalism and consumerism in China, if not the world.

When Great Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, thousands fled, expecting life to change for the worse: Goodbye free market, hello communism. But Beijing seems to have kept its promise of ‘one country, two systems,’ and China’s first ‘Special Administrative Region’ has flourished as Asia’s vibrant center of capitalism. Hong Kong, in fact, is one of the freest economies in the world, ranking first in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom and second in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (behind Singapore). Goodbye communism, hello consumerism.

Hong Kong is also Asia’s center of luxury shopping. The bustling streets are filled with shops selling ancient Chinese antiques and sleek minimalist furniture, stalls of fake designer handbags alongside red-and-gold paper lanterns for the Chinese New Year, even smoky storefronts hocking offal-on-a-stick.

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Yet Hong Kong is making a name for itself no longer as the place to haggle for your fake Louis Vuitton handbag but the place to finally buy your real bag from one of the seven sparkling Louis Vuitton stores in greater Hong Kong. (Paris has just six.) And as I heard from numerous industry insiders, while many Hong Kongers cross the border to shop the deals in Shenzhen, many more mainland Chinese travel to Hong Kong to ensure they’re buying genuine luxury goods, lining up outside the stores, from Armani to Shanghai Tang, to shop without sales tax. In 2011, Hong Kong welcomed 28.1 million visitors from the mainland, four times the size of Hong Kong’s population, who contributed to total retail sales of $52.3 billion during the same year, according to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department.

International brands are taking notice of the need to solidify their presence in Hong Kong and greater China, the second-largest market in the world for luxury goods and home to a million millionaires. (The American luxury-accessories brand Coach and the Italian fashion powerhouse Prada made headlines last year when they became the first companies from their respective countries to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.) And Hong Kong Fashion Week, held at the gargantuan Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, showcased the importance of Hong Kong to the growing consumer culture in China, and provided the opportunity for designers and brands from around the world to enter the Chinese market.

Hong Kong Fashion Week is Asia’s largest fashion event, featuring over 1,600 exhibitors of apparel, accessories, and other merchandise, alongside the Hong Kong World Boutique, which features high-end designers from around the world. ‘The fairs have again received great support from global fashion designers and brands, cementing Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s trendsetting hub,’ according to Benjamin Chau of the Trade and Development Council. The participants represented over two dozen countries, with buyers from dozens more on missions to find the latest in fast fashion, denim, accessories, even couture. Fashion Week is an opportunity not just for Hong Kong-based designers to grow their brands but for international designers to gain exposure in Asia, especially China, as well. The flagship fashion show of the week, the Hong Kong Fashion Extravaganza, brought together four unique, rising-star designers from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris, and London.

Hidy Ng is one of Hong Kong’s better-known designers, and already sells her ready-to-wear in Harvey Nichols department stores in Hong Kong as well as international boutiques. Ng introduced her Fall/Winter 2012 line at the Extravaganza, and her chic, polished collection inspired by Parisian women could make her an even bigger name in the global fashion scene. For Craig Lawrence, a London-based designer whose avant-garde knitwear has been worn by Lady Gaga, the Extravaganza was an opportunity to solidify his existing relationships and expand his brand. ‘Asia has always been a really big support to Craig in terms of press and interest at the beginning of his career,’ press rep Ella Dror told a small group of reporters. ‘It’s really important that he’s here in terms of picking up new stocklists.’ Lawrence agreed: ‘The more people who see my work, the better.’

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Aside from the high-profile runway shows, Fashion Week and World Boutique offered fledgling designers the best opportunity to develop their brands. Glori Tsui, creative director of a new sustainable leather line called Methodology, showed her studded convertible jackets in Hong Kong to gauge interest from buyers, though the line will officially launch later this year in New York. ‘Hong Kong Fashion Week is a starting ground for designers,’ she says. ‘Designers can meet buyers from around the world and get a kickstart.’ Aniket Satam, a recent graduate of the Somani Institute of Art and Fashion Technology in Mumbai, stood out in the sea of exhibitors for his punchy fabrics inspired by vintage gypsy embroidery, neon zippers, and skillful tailoring. He launched his label, A+ by Aniket, in the fall and exhibited this year in Hong Kong to obtain ‘diverse exposure’ for his brand.

As the Hong Kong market grows in importance, both to China and the world, the designers coming out of Hong Kong will grow in importance to the fashion industry as well. Mao notwithstanding, it’s a fact that when designers make it in competitive China, they’re on track for a lucrative career.

Samantha Sault is a writer in Washington.

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A Fashionable Turkey

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Byline: Winston Ross

On a recent sunny Tuesday in Istanbul’s upscale Nisantasi district, a small group of fashion designers gathered in the showroom of Paris-based L’Appart PR agency to showcase their latest lines, and their local roots.

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There was VSP, the leather brand of Kadri Soygul, a graduate of Istanbul’s prestigious Bosphorus University; White Posture, the chic white-shirt collection of Pelin Dumlu, who grew up in Istanbul; Freak is the New Black, from Melis Acar, the granddaughter of famous Turkish painter Mehmet Ruhi, and 33-year-old Merve Bayindir, standing before a display of fantastic and fantastical hats made of flowers and feathers and butterflies. Until she returned to her native Turkey in 2009, Bayindir was working as a psychologist in Toronto. Just a few years ago, Bayindir would have been certifiable if she’d abandoned that career to design whimsical hats. Fashion design is still such a newborn in Turkey that Bayindir couldn’t find the wood blocks hat makers often use to mold new creations – she crafted her own, out of Play-Doh.

That said, Bayindir is doing just fine. She’s part of a growing legion of designers forcing the fashion world to pay attention to Turkey. Istanbul’s biannual fashion weeks were, five years ago, held in a tent with no air conditioning. Now, it’s put on by media titan IMG at the posh Istanbul Modern museum.

Turkey’s fashion scene is blowing up thanks to Istanbul’s status as an international “it” city, a nationwide effort to boost the value of exports, the Internet, a geographical positioning that allows it to easily access both Europe and Asia, and 8,000 years of a rich and diverse cultural heritage designers can draw upon for inspiration.

Istanbul is no Paris or Milan, and Turkish designs aren’t spilling off the shelves in Barneys and Saks, but they are increasingly available in high-end Middle Eastern shops, and U.K. luxury stores like Harvey Nichols. Designers all over the city are finding themselves successful enough to start their own brands, move to bigger studios, open showrooms and even storefronts.

After seven years in Milan working at an export company, Gul AAA[+ or -]A was promoted to head of design, with clients from Zara to H&M, before her boss encouraged her to move home and start her own line, in 2008. Her products are now sold in high-end shops across Europe and the Middle East. AAA[+ or -]A draws inspiration from her country’s long history but also its dynamic present. She once did a fashion show in a hamam (Turkish bath house) and she’s often one to push political buttons. One of her recent collections deals with the longstanding practice in some parts of Turkey of young women forcibly married by their families to much older men. She posed her models next to geezers and called the show Married at an Early Age.

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Designer Mehtap Elaidi remembers when attending shows in other countries meant inevitable embarrassment, after buyers who may have loved her collection found out she’s from Turkey, and immediately thought, Copy or Production. No more. Perhaps the best signifier of Istanbul as a real player in the fashion scene is the arrival of IMG six years ago, Elaidi told Newsweek.

Bayindir, the hat designer, is ecstatic to be home again, in a country that she says has always cared about how it’s dressed. “People take care of their looks in Turkey,” she told Newsweek. “In Canada, it’s about comfort. In Turkey, we will still wear our heels even if we cry out loud.”

As for her hats fashioned from feathers and flowers, Bayindir is confident she can make some sales. There remains an arcane law on the books in Turkey that requires all citizens to cover their domes in public, at all times. Now, if she can only find someone to enforce it.

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