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Kazakh aristocrat gives struggling French label Vionnet a new life

Kazakh aristocrat's sharp instincts breathe new life into a label that once rivalled Chanel, writes Divia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 9:59am

For years, the fashion industry has been ruled by the Big Boys' Club, a group of powerful men that includes the likes of LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, Tod's owner Diego Della Valle, Only the Brave's Renzo Rosso and Kering's François-Henri Pinault.

But that's about to change with the addition of 33-year-old entrepreneur Goga Ashkenazi, following her recent acquisition of 100-year-old Parisian fashion label Vionnet.

While her name may not ring any bells in fashion circles (yet), the Kazakh multimillionaire is already a force to be reckoned with in the business world.

After graduating from Oxford University, Ashkenazi began a career in investment banking.

Then, while still in her 20s, she started her own oil, gas, engineering and construction company, brokering lucrative deals with the likes of the government of Kazakhstan. Other interests followed, ranging from gold mining to internet ventures.

As her influence grew, so did her circle of powerful friends, including Britain's Prince Andrew and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who had appointed her father to his central committee.

Even her love life is high-profile: she married and divorced hotel heir Stefan Ashkenazi, with whom she has a son, and she has another son with Kazakh oil billionaire Timur Kulibayev.

So why did Ashkenazi decide to add a fledging fashion house to her bulging portfolio?

"I believe in heritage, I believe in the history. I believe especially in Vionnet because the tools that [designer Madeleine Vionnet] has given the fashion world form the basis of fashion. For me, the story is extremely important," she says.

And her story is interesting. Known as the "architect among dressmakers", Vionnet - who would become one of Coco Chanel's biggest rivals - founded her couture house in 1912 and found success in the 1920s with distinctive creations including tunic and Grecian dresses.

She also invented the bias cut, which angles fabrics to accentuate the body's curves.

The tools that [designer Madeleine Vionnet] used form the basis of fashion
Goga Ashkenazi, business woman

Vionnet, known for progressive views on fashion, was one of the first to develop a lifestyle empire that spanned ready-to-wear lines, perfume and accessories.

In 1939, at the outbreak of the second world war, she closed shop and it remained dormant even after her death in 1975, until Italian businessman Matteo Marzotto and his partner bought it in 2009. The brand was struggling to make ends meet when Ashkenazi stepped in last year, acquiring all operations in November.

"I feel like everything I've done in my life has led me to this moment. I was always creative and I enjoy fashion so much that I don't consider it work," she says. "Of course, taking this on was a challenge, but the creative process suits me. It's a business of passion, which is why it's different to my other projects."

Ashkenazi cuts a striking figure: tall, with dramatic cheekbones and dark eyes. She arrives for her interview wearing a silk double-breasted jacket, white trousers and chic two-tone suede pumps. She exudes power, but underlying her strong demeanour is a sense of playfulness, seen in her funky mismatched nail polish and bias-cut hairstyle. ("It's my tribute to Vionnet," she says).

Although Ashkenazi has loved fashion since she was young (she recalls customising her communist school uniforms in Moscow and reading her mother's banned copies of Vogue), running a brand is a new challenge. Her first step was to get involved on all fronts including becoming creative director - a move many questioned since she did not have a design background, apart from having taken a few fashion courses in Italy.

"It was circumstantial," she explains. "I wanted to work with the [design team], but they were departing too much from [Vionnet's] heritage, and the market was not taking it well. A lot of customers dropped out, including big department stores.

"So I hired a stylist [George Cortina] and when he arrived [the team] just didn't turn up to work. It was mid-July and the collection had to be presented in Paris in September and all I could think of was, 'What am I going do now?' No creative director was going to take it on.

"Half of the collection was done so I had to tweak it. I wanted to show how well-versed we could be with what Vionnet stood for," she says.

The first runway collection received a lukewarm response from the press. A few days later Ashkenazi hosted a star-studded event to celebrate Vionnet's 100th anniversary and unveil a limited edition, 20-piece demi-couture collection, with models such as Natalia Vodianova and Karlie Kloss in attendance. All the while, Ashkenazi was thinking about how to create a better line.

Rather than take on a star designer like most luxury brands, Ashkenazi hired a team of experts - high-profile shoemaker Diego Dolcini and designer-stylist Albino D'Amato among them.

"I truly believe that to succeed today, you've got to go about it in an unconventional way," she says.

Under her guidance, they began researching the brand's heritage, examining archive pieces and studying sketches by Thayaht [Ernesto Michahelles], the Italian-born artist who worked exclusively with Vionnet.

After researching, Ashkenazi decides which direction to take. "Sometimes we sketch and other times we drape [the clothes] on an 80cm mannequin like Vionnet did because that means each piece is unique," she says.

"I tell my team that we have to find colours and materials that have never been used before. I tell them, 'Don't try to look at anybody else, let's find a new way, a completely modern look for the season. Something new.' You can use the heritage, but you can create a completely different look using the same DNA that we are very proud of."

The hard work paid off. Vionnet's most recent collection, shown in Paris in March, received positive reviews.

There was a definite modernity in the pops of colour (inspired by artist Roy Lichtenstein), and details such as bold metal belts and perforated leather. The silhouette referenced the 1930s and '80s, with strong shoulders over high-waist trousers.

Vionnet's legacy could be seen in the long gowns, from a white Grecian number to a black gown with a sexy keyhole slit down the front.

In just two seasons, Ashkenazi says sales have climbed 50 per cent, and many retailers have picked up the brand again, including Joyce in Hong Kong.

Now, she has her sights on new markets in South America, the Middle East and Japan. This season, she is launching her first global advertising campaign and developing a new store concept. There are also plans to move the Milan-based operation to Paris.

But global expansion aside, Ashkenazi's main mission, she says, is to spread the word about Vionnet and its contribution to fashion. She has plans to open a museum dedicated to Thayaht's drawings and a digital library on Vionnet.

The whirlwind of creativity doesn't stop there. She has commissioned Spanish artist Nacho Carbonell to create a Vionnet-inspired chandelier for the next Art Basel show. She also wants to establish a Vionnet art prize and residency programme. And for the brand, anything seems possible - from homeware to a more affordable women's collection.

"People ask me if I'm going to make the brand successful. Throughout my career, I've had the pleasure and honour of meeting heads of state and ministers … I'm not intimidated easily. At the same time I don't presume that I know it all - and I don't. I use every opportunity to learn.

"I'm going to be doing this for a long time so it's too early to think about legacy. But I would like to take Vionnet to a level that it deserves, to give it a second life."

divia.harilela@scmp.com

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