Luck, Lovely legs and Loads of venture Lolly

NATALIE MASSENET investigated her market and set up the technology to make Net-a-porter, the designer Internet shopping site, into a ‘huge’ success in June 2000. She had venture capital, all the skills and contacts from her days in glossy magazine journalism and a world class distribution network. She could not fail.

I had lots of luck writing ‘THE NEW BLACK MAGIC’ around the time Natalie Massenet was joining ‘The Sunday Times,’ Rich List,’ April 2009. A copy of the magazine was found on a train and it contained the photograph to inspire Anton Storey’s subtle image seen above.

Fashion retailers take on the challenge of restoring health to the economy by being more amusing, creative and bold. Paul Smith says, in his world they cannot rest on their laurels; they feel by being, even, globally successful, they cannot afford to stay the same.  Natalie Massenet became Britain’s 98th richest woman through her on-line designer shopping website Net-a-porter.

She devised a way of shopping for the ‘time poor, cash rich’. Certainly branded French, even Paris, possibly Milan, by its clever name, Massenet sold every label, worth reciting, from Adidas, by Stella McCartney, to Zac Posen and Zimmerman.  Said to have discovered the e-commerce pot of gold, a niche market of Internet savvy high spenders, she started her Fashion career as a journalist with Tatler

Beginning the business with three people, and £850,000 in a room, in Chelsea, she was always confident she had a winner: ‘I never thought it wouldn’t work.  I never once thought it wouldn’t be huge’. Taking on the challenge of riding economic storms, by widening her customer base, she launched theOutnet.com in 2009.  It is designed for ‘fashionistas who like a bargain as much as a designer label.

Favourite things….Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Givenchy’s

ONE magical turning point in Fashion’s fortunes was the release of Audrey Hepburn’s first significant Hollywood hit, ‘Roman Holiday,’ 1953. In Roland Barthes, Mythologies, his devastating take on consumerism and audiences, he describes Audrey Hepburn’s face as an ‘event.’ She had starred in only four major Hollywood films when she caused the French maestro and dilettante such sensation.

Barthes was proposing AH could represent meaning to audiences beyond those who watched her movies.  After her most significant films were released, in the 1950s and 1960s, she became an influence on Fashion followers in Britain and America, encouraging women to use home dressmaking in the class struggle.  As 21st century fans view Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s they witness the face that launched a thousand web sites and her popularity persists through digital media.

Audrey Hepburn stars in the second chapter of ‘FASHION MEDIA PROMOTION’ the collaboration between me and wonderful, Fashion illustrator and teacher, Anton Storey. ‘Vacanze Romane’ is based on a postcard, I had lying around. It was absolute genius for Anton to put the words from the back of it, which happened to be in Italian, across the main image. Super commissioning editor, Madeleine Metcalfe, who put her faith in me, also adored this pic. It was pinned above her desk when I visited her at Blackwell’s in Oxford.

At the political heart of ‘Roman Holiday’ is the script by Dalton Trumbo, part of the Hollywood Ten, the 10 motion-picture producers, directors, and screenwriters who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, who refused to answer questions regarding their possible communist affiliations, and, after spending time in prison for contempt of Congress, were mostly blacklisted by the Hollywood studios.

‘I’ve never been alone with a man before’ the fictional Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) tells the newsman Joe Bradley, (Gregory Peck). For the audience, there is dramatic irony, realising that an heir to a throne is wearing borrowed pyjamas.  He only realises who she is when he hears the news about her disappearance, next day.  In a scene between Joe Bradley and his editor they discuss angles and trends.  ‘Youth must lead the way,’ he is told.  In 1953, this was a topical theme in the context of access to a young princess. Her observations, on world conditions, would be worth a fee to the journalist, of $250, but her ‘views on clothes worth a lot more, perhaps a thousand’.  From that cinematic moment on, Audrey Hepburn would represent the dynamic interaction between Fashion and class structures.  It was to be both her on and off-screen character; a role in which she would demonstrate how position in society dictates how Fashion is consumed. 

Shopping with the Shocking Schiap

ELSA SCHIAPARELLI went from riches to rags and back again. Her signature Pink colour and perfume, ‘Shocking,’ were inspired by begonias, viewed from a pram in the grounds of her parents stunning Italian pallazzi. She spent a substantial living allowance; socialising in Europe and New York, so had to find ways to support herself and her daughter. And it just couldn’t be by designing a jumper and becoming a Surrealist.

Again and again Schiaparelli blazed new trails: she was the first conceptual designer, the first to do thematic collections, the first to produce fashion shows as spectacle and entertainment rather than glamorous business appointments. She was the first couturier to use man-made fabrics and to replace buttons with zippers, and the first designer of any kind to issue press releases. But more than anything else, she was the first to understand the power of marketing.

In 1933 Schiaparelli opened her own London salon and began featuring British woollen fabrics in her collections; tweeds and hand-knits, loving Scotland with its tartans, bonnets and tams.  This sourcing of British textiles was a practice taken up by clever creative descendants Jean Muir and Vivienne Westwood.  Her career prospered through her alliance with the British film and theatre industry and between 1933 and 1939 she designed costumes for 30 films and plays. 

By 1935 the business woman in Schiaparelli was flourishing.  She and her talented, American, public relations supremo, Hortense Macdonald, took a stand at the first French trade fair in Moscow. As sole representatives of French couture, they lined their booth with press-clippings printed on silk, with the floor covered in exclusive, Colcombet’s black ‘tree-bark,’ crepe with a fan-shaped display of international Fashion magazines.  Writing for a student pack, which accompanied the 2003/4 Philadelphia exhibition, curator Dilys Blum captures the excitement of the Art Deco era:

“Since 1935, Schiaparelli had been presenting thematic collections at her salon, theatrically staged with dramatic lighting, backdrops and music.  A fashion editor who regularly attended these events recalls that the front rows were filled with royalty, politicians, artists, film stars who pushed towards the models ‘as if it were rush hour’

The birth of the Cult of Cool

AFTER months of misery the Fashion industry usually fights back and there is delight in dressing up and going out.  Paris, with its years of austerity, rationing and separation, during WW2, was revitalised by Christian Dior, Art director, dilettante, Europe’s other famous Norman.

With four years of Nazi rule Paris, ‘city of lights,’ was dim, but after liberation by the American forces there was the discovery of be-bop. It swept the city and black Americans stayed on, rather than return to the segregated USA.

On the streets the cult of cool was about to be born, and women wanted a designer to help them shake off the ‘horrible overalls’ and the boxy shapes of war-time clothes. They wanted to look sexy and feminine. It was then, in February 1947, that 30, Avenue Montaigne would become the world headquarters of Fashion.

Half a century before the internet Christian Dior, who had spent much of the war dressing the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators, revived pre-war looks for post-war customers targeted at Hollywood’s world wide audience. He created feminised ‘flower women,’ happy to turn their backs on careers and military uniforms.

NewLookDior’s New Look, in 1947, made every other dress look outmoded. There was an electric tension – ‘wasp waist of jacket, weight of skirt barely worn by human beings, real old fashioned corsets to create shape,’ in direct contrast to the 40s look.

Christian Dior’s publicity machine was so effective that in a Vogue feature, proposing numerous routes through Europe by car by inventive motorists, Dior was featured by the magazine rather in the way Alexandra Shulman writes of Victoria Beckham for Vogue UK, April 2008.

Dior’s New Look was very good for fabric manufacturers, and especially good for his sponsor, Marcell Bussac. The ‘Bar’ suit, famously photographed by Willy Maywald. With its padded, static jacket and its heavy 80lbs, long, black wool pleated skirt, depended for its sculptural form on the 19th century skills of the corset maker.   Coco Chanel said of her rival: “Christian Dior doesn’t dress women. He upholsters them”.

Dior became the ‘master of marketing;’ selling perfumes, and realising the ‘importance of the public identifying with the designer.’ Dior had his personal and business journeys mapped and followed by the Media, becoming the first celebrity couturier. Recognising the importance of trade between the House and buyers by 1948, he and his team include Cuba, Finland, Holland, Mexico, and Sweden in their contact lists. When Bettina Ballard, the journalist who was editor-in-chief of Vogue, America in the 1950s, heard that designs were being geared towards department store owners’ wives she said, “I would not put it past Dior!”

1.4 - dior 4

The recovery of the French Fashion industry was in the hands of Dior, who saved haute couture in the face of a ‘growing market of ready to wear, especially in the United States’. Paris was put into a position where it was also able to set the template for London couture and Fashion training. During the war there was the fear that American design would take over. So the Paris group, Chambre Syndicale, put together ‘Theatre de la Mode,’ a collection of dolls which were on display during the V&A exhibition in London. Said, to have been designed to raise funds for war victims they, really, were commissioned to raise the profile of Haute Couture.

SUCH DEVOTED SISTERS

RODARTE, the  American clothing and accessories label, founded and headquartered in Los Angeles, California by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, is going Goth on the catwalk.

Laura and Kate Mulleavy added to the vampire pantheon in their 2020 Fall collection in the dimly lit nave of St. Bartholomew’s church in Midtown, Manhattan, NY, providing a fittingly gothic stage as the Mulleavys sent their army of the ethereally chic, undead, out to stalk the night.

When designers work with influences from Art, Music and Cinema they are drawing on inspiration from Elsa Schiaparelli, the star struck twentieth century Surrealist clothes maker and  trend setter. She was however less likely to use images from the dark arts and more to be gazing into the galaxy. Rodarte

Midtown Manhattan audiences were wowed by the 17th look to parade into view.  It reminds me of a 1950s fine wool, black, shirt-waister patterned with white, miniature, dancing sailors, worn by my mother, Trixie Greenwood–Sparks, as she explained the wondrous life of the legendary Schiap.  Do the tassels look like comets?

Scent Noir

No.5 Coco Chanel is the controversial figure of Fashion.  It’s part of the label’s allure!

Students working on cosmetic floors of department stores all want to be selling the fascinating brand yet the genius behind it is a calculating, nonchalant, femme fatale!

In Thursday night’s feature  on BBC 4  a story, I thought was just a re-telling of a rumour, proves to be about her actual devious plotting and career building subterfuge!

Coco Chanel’s revolutionary perfume concept was as audacious as her outlandish designer clothing. At its launch, in 1921, it was an instant hit but in the 1920s and 1940s the Number 5 brand was at the centre of a war between the celebrated designer and her entrepreneurial business partners, the Wertheimer brothers.

In the thrilling and dark development of the world’s most famous perfume friends and colleagues become enemies and adversaries!

During WWII, with the help of her high-ranking Nazi lover, Coco Chanel attempted to oust her Jewish partners – who had fled German-occupied France and were operating the business from New Jersey – to take control of the highly lucrative business.

On Thursday these shocking revelations were confirmed, with archive footage of Gabrielle herself and her secret staircase at the Ritz.  Directed by Stephane Benhamou, the Wertheimer brothers Paul and Pierre did not make personal archive appearances but were represented by animated cut outs!

“The No. 5 War,” documentary  premiered at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival in January 2017. Here director Stephane Benhamou told audiences that his long days burrowing in French archives, not only let him tell the story of one of the most popular fragrances in the world, but proved beyond doubt that Chanel was ready to exploit the Nazi race laws to increase her wealth and power.

Forget the broomstick for London Fashion Week!

DevilIssieThe last time I saw Toby Howarth it was Hallow’een.  The seven years old ingenuous angel asked, “Haven’t you come on your broomstick?’ It wasn’t difficult to guess the sort of thing his aunt and mother had been saying about me!

I’m superstitious about wearing black when visiting children, so I expect he thinks I’m at least a white witch!

Because I’m going to see him again, en route from London, I’ll be clad in shades of blue from head to toe.  I did plan on wearing ‘Le Casual de Marithe Francois Girbaud’ in gris et noir for the Burberry A/W show in Kensington Gardens.

Must try to get to Sassoon’s on  way to the 2pm Fashion bash.  I need to have a look for the Anne et Valentin ‘Objet 3’ spex now necessary for the little blue-stockinged teacher rather than the post-Chanel, Parisienne, fashion writer!

If Christopher Bailey spots me at the show, in close-up, maybe his next collection will be the look this strange little narcissist can adopt whether as witch, blue-stocking or fairy godmother in glasses.

Rushing off to Dorset means I’ll miss the Isabella Blow at Somerset House but here she is, above left, in a scene from ‘FASHION MEDIA PROMOTION  the new black magic,’  with another wonderful maverick Anna Piaggi! I will fantasise a meeting with them on the train!