From kitsch to cool: Swarovski's message is crystal clear
Once known for its crystal animal figurines, Swarovski now collaborates with some of the biggest names in fashion and design. Divia Harilela meets the woman whose creative vision helped revive a family business
THERE WAS A time when the name Swarovski was associated with kitsch animal figurines and crystal baubles. Then along came Nadja Swarovski, the great-great granddaughter of founder Daniel Swarovski, and the brand quickly went from boring crystal maker to arbiter of style.
"I didn't plan to go into the family business. I grew up in the factory where every meal conversation was about the company. I wanted to get away from it, but had such an innate connection to the product, the heritage, the sense of pride. It was important to find my identity so I went to study in America before joining the business," says the German-born blonde, who now heads corporate communications.
"At university I was called Nadja S because people couldn't pronounce my surname even though they knew the brand because of the animal figures. It was my motivation that one day they would be able to pronounce my name but for the right reasons."
After completing a degree in art history, foreign languages and Latin American studies from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the young Swarovski dabbled in PR before accompanying her father on a business trip to Asia in 1992. By 1995 she had joined the family business and moved to Hong Kong, hoping to learn more about its international operations. Her tenure in the city was an eye opener and by the end of it she was determined to change the public image of the "stuffy" company.
"I told a designer from Shanghai Tang that I would send over a salesperson to show them our products. Before the meeting I bumped into the salesperson who was dressed in a grey suit carrying two suitcases. I thought, 'how can designers appreciate this?' It gave me an idea to launch a showroom."
In 1995 Nadja launched the Creative Service Centres, a showroom concept featuring 350,000 products. This, however, was just the beginning of her master plan that would see Swarovski return to its fashion roots.
"Our product initially was for fashion. Our first fashion client was Queen Victoria via couturier Charles Frederick Worth but we never thought to brand ourselves. My grandfather used to tell me stories about working with Coco Chanel and Christian Dior and I wondered what happened to that.
This is how I found my niche," she says.
Nadja opened an office in London and brought on fashion icon Isabella Blow as a consultant. Blow introduced her to the then-unknown Lee (Alexander) McQueen, who Nadja took under her wing. Once she collaborated with McQueen others followed and the Swarovksi Collective was born in 1999. To date the initiative has supported names such as Giles Deacon, Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane, Jen Kao and more recently Jason Wu, all of whom. used Swarovski products to create cutting-edge designs.
Nadja's next project was Crystal Palace in 2002, which enlisted acclaimed architects such as Zaha Hadid, Tord Boontje and Ron Arad to reinvent the concept of the chandelier using Swarovski crystals. Then came film - the brand originally supplied the stones for Dorothy's red slippers in The Wizard of Oz and Audrey Hepburn's tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany's - as Swarovski bling began to appear on costumes in films such as Black Swan, Die Another Day and Ocean's Thirteen. Nadja's latest project is Romeo & Juliet, by Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. The film, produced by Swarovski Entertainment, will be released in September next year.
"McQueen became a blueprint: Choose a cutting-edge designer, put the product in their hand and challenge them to create something."
Since then Swarovksi has dabbled in everything from perfume to eyewear, although Nadja's latest baby is the Atelier Swarovski, which recruits high-profile designers to create collections of jewellery. It has collaborated with Christopher Kane (his chunky necklaces are a bestseller), Nicholas Kirkwood and Stephen Webster, who recreated four designs to commemorate the Bond film, Skyfall.
"We want to work with Asian designers. It's good to have a global concept but a local consideration. We recently held an exhibition in Beijing and invited designers to see the product - and hopefully inspire them. Hong Kong followed. Right now we have our eye on three or four designers."
Swarovski is known for its many collaborations in the arts, design and fashion worlds. Here Nadja names her top five.
*Bell dress by Alexander McQueen SS/09
*Mary Katrantzou’s Jewel Tree dress SS/11
*Emily Blunt’s costumes as Queen Victoria for The Young Victoria film
*Celeste necklace by Zaha Hadid (circa 2008) for Runway Rocks
*Iris Gold Chandelier by London-based duo Fredrikson Stallard