Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tripping the light fantastic: Viktor & Rolf flick the switch on Paris

Backstage at the first big production of Paris Fashion Week: Viktor & Rolf, aka Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the Dutch design duo renowned for their elaborate, wildly-imaginative show productions. Working on the show as it turns out is Australian Kannon Rajah, who cut his teeth on Australian Fashion Week and now works out of New York for one of the world's biggest fashion show production companies, Bureau Betak.

For today's show, Rajah has taken care of the casting only but later in the week he'll be hands-on on some of the biggest productions. One of the models he's cast for this show is yes, white hot new Australian runway star Catherine McNeil.

I am now in an ante room, with a heap of other people, mainly photographers, standing
waiting to see the models. There are about 20 photographers.

The reason the models are taking so long, Rajah tells me, is because they are in fact being fitted with aluminium frames, on which lights and a sound system are to be suspended. Let's hope nothing short-circuits, otherwise this could prove a literal trial by fire for McNeil. First show in Paris, second week on the international modelling circuit and now a human lighting installation - you have to feel sorry for her.

Next to a makeup artist's bag sits a white cloth bear wearing a black mask. I wonder if it's a mascot - or an omen.

Unable to contain my curiosity, I take a peek through a curtain. And it's a bizarre sight. It is in fact hard to work out where the models arms and legs begin and where the aluminium structures end.

It's like the girls have morphed into clothes racks, and vice versa. About 25 of them are standing in their single outfits for the show. The garments have been fitted over the aluminium structures, which appear to be attached to the models via harnesses.

Lights protrude from structures over their heads. In several cases skirt panniers and other pieces of fabric have been stretched up to the corners of the light rigs like clothes on a washing line. One girl is wearing a blue and white floral tapestry coatdress, the edges of which pleated skirt have been fanned up at either side.

Another is in a black pencil skirt with an aluminium rod sticking up out of the back of her white blouse. To make the vision even more perverse - they are all wearing wooden Dutch clogs. Fashion versions of wooden Dutch clogs - with little heels and the "V&R" logo. Oi vei. I am reminded of leg calipers and the various aluminium accoutrements of the handicapped.

I weave my way through the metal mayhem to track down McNeil. She is wearing baggy black sarouel pants whose panniers have been strung up to both sides and a white shirt with exaggerated collars and cuffs.

The collar of the shirt has in fact been hoiked up around the side of her face and, courtesy of the alumnium rods, it has a kind of rectangular tent effect. I lift my tape recorder up near her face to grab some comments and am struck by the absurdity of the situation. It's like talking to someone whose head is trapped inside a cage.

So, when you signed up for modelling did you think this would be part of the deal?
Catherine McNeil: Ah no it's crazy, but I think it's going to look so cool.

What's it attached with?
It's around here [points to chest].

Is it light or heavy?
No it's quite heavy. It's just a balance thing.

Are you nervous?
Yeah - because if I fall I'm not getting back up.

You might take out a few people in the front row with you. Do you know which other shows you're doing yet?
Um, Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior. And Lagerfeld and Balenciaga.

What do you think your mother would say if she could see you now?
God, I don't know. I think she'd laugh.

It's minutes to showtime. I want to see this one from start to finish.

The lights come up - make that light, at the far end of the runway, illuminating a Viktor & Rolf logo. Apart from that it's very dark. Then the first model emerges in a black cocktail suit, illuminated by her own lighting display - and with her own personal music playing.

Apart from the models' mobile music, you can hear a pin drop - and the sounds of the models' feet clomping along the ground-level runway in their clogs.

Actually they sound a little like horses' shoes clip-clopping down the street - and that's an apt analogy because most of them look like frightened horses as well.

One after the other these human merchandising units emerge and parade their wares.

The music wafts past like fragments from a dream sequence.

At one point I can make out Kylie Minogue's Confide In Me, on another occasion the voice of Annie Lennox and some 40s music.

There are lots of 3/4-length gaucho trousers with tartan shirts, that floral tapestry fabric used also in a voluminous lampshade skirt, some shiny black corset jackets, the duo's signature white shirts and a pretty ruffled tartan evening dress.

With so much of the fabric stretched and distorted over the frames however it's nearly impossible to see exactly what many of the garments look like.

Most attention however seems to be on the models themselves and just how they are coping. Many look like they are about to go down at any moment. More than one comes close. There are several rounds of applause.

Backstage I manage to grab a few comments from Snoeren:

So what on earth was the idea behind this show?
Snoeren: To turn every model into a fashion show of her own. To turn the fashion show into a look and to turn the clothes into a show. And really to get back to like let's say the core being of who we are and who we feel we are. So it felt like a self-portrait.

By the end of last week in Milan quite a strong theme of S&M and bondage had emerged. There was something quite nightmarish about those contraptions your models were wearing.
No it was not meant as bondage. I think that there was a paradox between something that very traditional and something more technical. But in the end it was really more about a walking fashion show.

And what was the collection supposed to be about?
It was a bit inspired by Dutch folklore. So that's why the clogs and the pleating and the prints.

Were they all production garments or just showpieces?
No, I mean haute couture is always very important to us.

I run out to grab the media shuttle bus to head to the next show: Belgian brand, AF Vandevorst. I sit down but something doesn't feel quite right. Hmmm, let's see, that would be the champagne flute someone is handing me - and the tray of canapes.

I suddenly twig that I'm not on the official media bus at all - but the L'Officiel bus, operated by the French fashion magazine. It was parked right behind the other one. How was I to know?

Backstage now at AF Vandevorst.

The venue is a beautiful 19th century mansion called Dosne-Thiers. The girls are sitting around with crimped hair and very pale makeup - save for the faux black long 'eyelashes' that have been hand-painted, like black tears - or A Clockwork Orange, take your pick - hanging down from their lower lids.

A model called Dominika is sitting on a chair in a Wednesday Addams-style pleated black dress with a white collar. A perky American tv reporter comes up to her.

"Hi - I'm from the Style Network, do you mind if we ask you some questions?" says the reporter.

"Sorry - I don't speak English" the girl replies in what sounds like a heavy Russian accent.

"Oh - OK, no matter" says the presenter. "Would you like one of our T-shirts then?"

Without giving the model a chance to reply, the reporter whips out some Style Network merch and thrusts it in the girl's lap. The model sits there looking disinterestedly at the T-shirt, with her head cowed.

There is something sad about this - like a monkey that has just been handed a dud banana at the zoo.

The collection is in earthen tones. Hanging on one rack is a fab pair of cafe-coloured baggy wool trousers that have been pulled up over the bust like a strapless jumpsuit, complete with fly at the bodice.

There are quite a few natural-coloured patchwork sheepskin garments, using short lambskin and a longer, combed-out wool to give a "fur" effect. There are going to be a lot of shaggy coats next winter, that's for sure.

There's no time for me to get out to see this show - I am stuck backstage. The girls go out one by one and then do a two-level tour of the venue, where the seats have been positioned.

Apart from the lambskin, quite a few garments have been made out of a cream wool fabric with tobbaco tartan. It has a blanket-like look.

One model is wearing a large piece of the fabric that looks like it has just been wrapped around her body, like an Indian blanket. The thought that you could just tie an actual blanket around yourself, without the designer price tag, does cross my mind.

There are cream lace leggings and blouses, a chunky grey wrapped maxi-cardigan and one knockout red cocktail dress with long sleeves and frills down the front of the bodice.

We're off again to Yohji Yamamoto. This time I make the official bus. It's straight to the Bourse - the Paris Stock Exchange - for a show which appears to have a Spanish theme. The music sounds very Flamenco and the nearly all-black, raven-like silhouettes are definitely Flamenco-nosed, with a series of quite beautiful, layered tiered ruffle skirts worn over black trousers and topped with streamlined black top coats, many boasting asymmetric panels at the back.

There are also some sensational black and also burgundy leather bomber jackets, in addition to a series of garments, ranging from knit dresses to woven trousers and jackets, in what appears to be a mock Louis Vuitton logo - but fashioned from the letters "YY". Geddit?

At one point a half dozen models emerge on the runway wearing voluminous black, tiered skirts with metal crinolines peeking through the fabric. They take positions, then stop.

Seconds later, the tiers of the crinolines start to revolve. Anyone who was at last season's Paris shows is instantly reminded of the far more spectacular mechanical dresses of the Hussein Chalayan show.

I go backstage to try to talk to Yamamoto but no luck. The closest I get is his Japanese executive assistant, who offers the following explanation for the show.

She notes, "It was about multiculturalism and irony".

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The cat in the black: Rick Owens' flight from Porterville to Paris

My first Paris show this week and what a cool name: Exploder. That's the name of the collection as written on the model card backstage here at Rick Owens - the frequently-dubbed 'avant-garde' American designer who shows out of Paris, has now opened a Paris store and who has also (well, according to his mate Courtney Love) purchased property here.

I guess the main reason why Owens gets that perennial tag is because an avant-garde American designer is a bit of an oxymoron. The US is not a market that takes too kindly to conceptual fashion. A case in point The New York Times review of Rodarte's spring/summer 2007 collection, dubbing the collection (words to the effect) "some of the silliest clothes that ever walked a runway".

The same show made the cover of trade 'bible' WWD, with the headline "Can we keep the dream alive?" Probably not may well be the answer - which is presumably why designers like Owens feel the need to move away.

In spite of the at times freakish silhouettes and wacky soundtracks - the show this time last year was staged with the ear-piercing sounds of machine guns firing - it's relatively calm here.

Girls are sitting and standing around with black headbands on, just out of makeup - which is very pale.

En route into the venue I passed Owens' new protege, Gareth Pugh, wearing one of the coats from his London show two weeks ago. And lots of black eyeliner.

About 15 pairs of khaki-coloured platform suede ankle boots are lined up down the centre of one of the two dressing areas. They are covered in long fur - which I am told is goat hair, and has a sort of wildebeest effect. I later hear Owens telling someone that the boots had been inspired by the cartoons of Dr Seuss.

Coco Rocha is having an oversized black beanie fitted. It sticks up at the back like a chimney stack and yes, she does look like Marj Simpson.

Dutch model Iekelienne Stange - dubbed "the face of the season" by Karl Lagerfeld last season due to her overnight runway success (a bit like Catherine McNeil this season) - is standing with me and Belgralian photographer Sonny Vandevelde. Where is Belgralia? Somewhere between Palm Beach and Antwerp, which is where Sonny spends a lot of time (he's Belgian, but grew up in Oz).

Stange has a very cool, kind of dorky, style. She is wearing blue skinny jeans, a silver sequinned long-sleeved T-shirt, black converse sneakers and what looks like a man's pinstriped waistcoat that is covered in rock badges saying things like 'Rock is Dead', 'Love Sucks', 'Ja til Gnu' and 'The Projects'. There's also a red plastic heart-shaped pendant inscribed with the words "Love is...Kisses".

Stange dishes some model goss from Milan. She wound up doing the Dolce e Gabbana show at the last minute, she says, after a Russian model fell during rehearsal and refused to do the show proper. Those skyscraper silver stilettos didn't just look dangerously high - they were. Especially on a mirrored runway which Stange reports is so dark, models can't see more than a few feet in front of them.

Stange, who is not very tall but very lean, didn't do Versace however. She seems to think her weight may have had something to do with it. Not specifically because of the 'skinny model' brouhaha per se, she thinks - but because of the fact that Versace's own daughter Allegra is anorexic.

Stange is probably just imagining things. And with every other big runway model of the moment in the Versace show, it's probably also just a complete coincidence that we didn't see Snejana Onopka in Versace as well.

Owens wanders around the models and racks. He's got a kind of Goth/Rock look: long straight black hair reaching down below his shoulders, tight black long-sleeved T-shirt which accentuates his muscles - he looks like he does a lot of weights - black skinny pants and high-heeled black boots. Not 'high' as in a woman's heel, but definitely higher than your average Cuban if you get my drift.

On the racks hang a series of draped wool jersey dresses in khaki, black and white. There's lots of fur and a fuzzy-looking fabric which appears at first glance to be synthetic. Olya is sitting on the floor between some of the wildebeest boots writing in a journal.

The girls start to get changed.

Sofi is now in a khaki 'fuzz' coat with matching leather gauntlets - yet another collecton with gauntlets - with a matching hood and wildebeest boots. Once the girls are dressed, makeup artists start applying shadow under their eyes.

With the most popular of these models averaging three hours of sleep a night for the past few weeks due to castings and fittings, as has been the case with Stange, you wonder why they need to apply any cosmetic dark shadows at all.

I run out and take a spot near the end of the runway. The music starts - it's unusually soft, kind of dreamlike - and the girls come out in their 'Exploder' clothes.

The fulcrum of the entire collection is a draped, asymmetric wool jersey skirt or dress. It is topped by some extraordinary jacket or other. They range from deconstructed black leather biker jackets with exaggerated peplums and gargantuan funnel collars to intricately-panelled leather dusters and voluminous cocoon coats in furs and shearlings.

The silhouette at once Medieval and futuristic. It's that post-apocalyptic Flight of the Navigator look. Needless to say you probably wouldn't see many of these coats walking down the main street of Porterville, California, where Owens hails from.

After the show I grab a few comments from him:

The collection was called 'Exploder' - why?
Rick Owens: Oh because there were a lot of pieces... there were jackets that had things sticking out, so exploder, I liked the name.

But the silhouettes were actually quite streamlined - certainly a lot of the jackets, with tailored bodices.
Yeah I mean if it didn't have a place to start from, there was no place to explode from so I mean yeah, you have to have a base and everything exploded. I mean it was silly but I liked the name because it sounded like 'Transformer', it sounded very glitter 80s rock, or 70s rock.

What were the fabrics? It looked like a mixture of real and fake fur?
There was real and fake fur, there was mohair, there was washed kind of... we washed it to make it look more like a drowned cat. There were all the sleek minks. So I really liked that contrast, kind of making it messy and refined..

Could you do what you do in America? And what do you think about the term 'avant-garde', with which you usually get tagged?
No I don't think I'm avant-garde at all. I mean some of the stuff is a little exaggerated and I guess in my personal universe that isn't considered that exaggerated. In the real world maybe... Yeah America is pretty conservative, that's why I'm here.

And now you've taken Gareth Pugh under your wing.
Well he worked with me. He interned with me. And the thing about Gareth is... I admire that he's a real technician and you don't see it that much. And when I have interns come to me they come to me with sketches and kind of fantasy collages which doesn't mean anything to me. And he can make something from the ground up. He can technically create clothes. He has a very focussed, concise vision that he's maintained, that I respect a lot and what I see when I see his clothes is a reckless joy. There's no reason for it. I mean he's not doing it to please anybody except himself and he's doing it beautifully and there's that kind of recklessness, kind of anti-establishment kind of just euphoria... You know, I want to help. And so I'm very happy to.

Do you see a little of yourself in him - how you started out?
The part that I identify with is that he knows how to make stuff and I mean, he works and he makes things. And he just keeps making things no matter what. If anyone's going to look at it or not, he'll just be making it. And I really appreciate that and I want to support that.

So what's your workout routine?
My what?

Your workout routine - you look like you do a lot of weight training.
Oh - everyday. I'm like the new generation. There's a generation that like drank and smoked and took too many drugs and then they totally go overboard and they like work out too much, but they still smoke. I'm from that generation. There's so many of us.

So you still smoke?

But you work out?
Yeah. It's just everything. I mean it's nothing special. I just work out with weights. It's been like eight years since I've been doing it and it's like a tension release too. I come up with better ideas when I work out. Actually I figured it out - it's a replacement for dancing. Because I used to love to go dancing and doing like a little line of coke and some martinis and dancing all night. This is kind of another version of that.

Releasing all those endorphins.
I have like those speakers that go inside your brain, they're so loud. And it's that euphoria of dancing.

So you don't dance anymore?
It's too late. I have to get up in the morning, I can't do that anymore. If they could do like an afternoon dance I'd be there.

There are tea dances.
An afternoon dance with an Orangina. I'm there.

Quite unexpectedly, I then stumble upon Owens' proud ma and pa Jack and Concita 'Connie' Owens who just happened to be at the show, and who volunteered some rather fascinating info about Owens' flight from Porterville to Paris.

So you've been over here 11 times to see Rick's shows?
Jack Owens: That's what my wife says. I lost count.

What did you think when he was a teenager and he wanted to be a fashion designer? Did you try to discourage him and tell him to go and be a lawyer or something?
No it was a very gradual thing. So there was no specific point in time when I wanted him to be something else.

Of course he's not just a fashion designer, but quite a conceptual designer. In the broader scheme of things - especially in the US - that is kind of unusual.
Well, one of the things we attribute that to is that we made him depend on himself a lot to entertain himself.

Really? So what, you shut him in his room?
No, no - the big thing is that just about every house in America has one or two, maybe three televisions. He didn't have any.

So you deprived him of tv - a kind of sensory deprivation?
Yes but I didn't consider it really a deprivation.

From what age was this?
Well he would go over to a neighbour's house from time to time and see tv but he didn't have that at home. What he had was a lot of books, a lot of what I consider good music and a lot of advice. For instance we got into Confucian Analycts.

Excuse me?
Are you familiar with that?

Um, no [and I do apologise for not asking him to spell it - I believe that is the correct spelling - I was a bit bamboozled by this stage].
Confucian Analycts. They have writings that come from supposedly directly Confucius. And that's one of the things that we tried to instill in him. But that was just one in a number of things that we worked on him with.

I see. What was the naughtiest thing he did as a teenager?
Broke a lamp in the living room, for which I spanked him and I think that was the only time I did it.

And did he always look like that: long hair, all black, high-heeled boots?
Oh no, no, no no. We dressed him when we went out, with a neck tie and the usual conventional clothing.

Until what age?
Well that's another one of those things where you can't draw a real line. It was a gradual drift.

But it wasn't like 30, surely, was it?
No, no, no.

Connie Owens takes over the answers:

So when did he turn into a Goth?
Connie Owens [heavy Spanish accent]: Probably around 15 or 16 years. He says he wanted me to get him dressed. I used to tell him, 'Why don't you wear this.....' But he said, 'I think it's time for me....you've already dressed me for a long time'.

So what did he start wearing?
Very tight pants.

Was he very rebellious?
Well he was in a way because he didn't want to stay in a small town. He kind of wanted to open his wings and go.

Was he designing clothes at that stage?
He started painting when he was 18, 17 and some of his friends told him, 'Why don't you just make those outfits that you paint?'.

Were you happy he wanted to be a fashion designer?
We wanted for him to have a professional probably that will....

Like what?

Oh well it's not too far from architecture surely?
But he was always very artistic. So I saw it kind of coming.

Are you sad that he shows and spends so much time over here rather than in America?
Not really because if he's happy, we're happy. That's the bottom of it. Because if he was there probably he won't be doing what he's doing now. In fact he was thinking of getting married when he was 17. And we told him, 'You better open your wings. Do something else before you end up...' And now he says it would have been very difficult for him to stay around there because he always had this dream of going some place to do what he wanted to do.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Smoked out of Paris - and I only just got here

So welcome to the final leg of AW0708. Sadly my first Paris report has not been inspired by some fabulous Gallic fashion find. It's the smoke. After New York, London and even Milan, arriving in any Paris cafe or restaurant is like walking into a humidor. If there was ever a town out of which I was at grave risk of being smoked, I fear it could be this one.

I am sitting in a cafe near the Place du Chatelet.

Now you might think that I only have myself to blame since the name of this joint is the Tabac du Chatelet. But look, I've already walked out of one smoke-clogged cafe because I couldn't bear it and have concluded that it doesn't make much difference where I go.

It also appears to mean diddly squat if you sequester yourself in the cafes' 'non smoking' areas. This basically means a few chairs on one side of the room where the smoke reaches you anyway.

In this cafe a tobacconist's shop is located immediately inside the door flogging what I do believe may the biggest variety of cancer sticks known to man. There are display cabinets full of exotic cigars as well. All boast lovely little "Smoking kills" and "Smoking harms your health and that of your companions" stickers. But of course that all counts for nought and the bird behind the counter is doing a roaring trade. There's a line about 10-deep stretching through the door and onto the footpath.

All around me are people smoking. Including a couple with a small child about eight years old. Clearly they don't have any issue clogging his lungs as well. It's probably only a matter of time before he joins them anyway - at the moment he's playing with dad's ciggie lighter.

In order to survive lunch, I am wearing the turtleneck section of my bf's black Chiodo hoodie up over my nose. Yes it makes my grand creme and sandwich camembert a tad difficult to negotiate and me look like a complete twat but hell, I really don't care. They want to smoke themselves to death and take everybody with them, fine. By the same token I am at liberty to register my disgust - not to mention protect myself from their putrid exhaust - by shrouding myself like a ninja.

I should point out that this is not the first time I have been to Paris.

I once lived here for three years. But that was quite some time ago, when smokers ruled the world - on planes, in cinemas, at work. Now that they don't, non smokers really do notice things. We're sensitive creatures. This also happens to be my third Paris visit in twelve months. For some reason however it's really bugging me this time.

I should also add that while the relatively recent ban in Italy has meant that cafes and restaurants are now gloriously smoke-free, things can still get tricky.

In Milanese taxis and fashion media shuttle buses for example. You're not allowed to smoke in either however the reality is - you don't have to. The drivers of both take advantage of any downtime by smoking up a storm inside their vehicles, with all the windows wound down. When hapless hacks and customers turn up, they can hardly breathe.

That's it. A Chiodo hoodie can only do so much.

France has just introduced a smoking ban for public areas. As I go to pay I ask the waiter when any fullon ban is likely to be implemented. It's very good news: February 2008. Bring on AW0809.

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Oh bondage, up yours! From H&M to S&M on the winter runways

Did I, um, say conservative? I believe I did last week, right around the time of Gucci's bon chic bon genre collection - following as it did hot on the heels of Marc Jacobs' nattily-dressed laydees in New York. By Friday afternoon however, a far darker theme had reared its head and before we get to the Paris shows, I thought it was worth a few words.

Now it's not like 'tough chic' or 'pretty punk' is brand new.

The corset and bustier trend has been around for seasons and there was a hard edge to the punk-studded Giles Deacon and D&G shows of spring/summer 2007.

Even Burberry Prorsum showed a silver stud-encrusted silk cocktail series for summer - one dress from which series recently made the front cover of both British Tatler and Harpers Bazaar in the same month.

Flying out of Malpensa airport on Saturday, it was hard to miss D&G's new spring ad campaign with its punked-up disco slappers in chainmail microdresses and spiked stilettos. Although sexually-charged, it was however a far cry from current Dolce e Gabbana signature line ads - which have attracted much flack. Last week the company announced it would withdraw one image from the Spanish market after women's groups complained that it glorified violence against women. It featured a woman being pinned to the ground by one man, while other men look on. Last month, the winter campaign of their mens line, which featured men brandishing knives and guns, was banned in Britain.

Which brings us to the Dolce e Gabbana FW0708 show on Thursday afternoon: a suite of masked, whip-toting, silver chastity belt-wearing dominatrixes in gravity-defying silver stiletto pumps. Oh and some clothes, such as some sharp tuxedo pantsuits, leopard print PVC bubble skirts, black silicone corset dresses, studded silver bustier and shell dresses and some very pretty crystal- and silk flower-embellished, silk tulle evening dresses that seemed at counterpoint to the otherwise 'hardcore' theme.

Later that evening the designers presented an exhibition called "Secret Ceremony": a series of erotic images of themselves in various stages of undress taken by Steven Klein - supposedly the shots considered too risque for US glossy W, which originally commissioned the series.

On Friday afternoon, DSquared gave an angsty presentation that had many buzzing well into the evening.

Staged against a dungeon-like backdrop featuring a giant caged dome hung with moaning 'inmates' - but in fact a replica of the mis en scene of their recent menswear show - models stormed out in black leather breastplates, black skin-tight leather jeans, black 'urban' combat jackets/gilets over black microshorts, and all teamed with absurdly-high pink platform tart shoes, leather horse blinkers - with one model brandishing a black baseball bat.

At Iceberg, there were black, zippered, strappy bondage dresses and black bomber jackets with bondage straps.

That morning, even the normally refined Missoni had a touch of the dominatrix about it via some bizarre, multi-strap corset belts and a series of evening dresses that featured embellished, self-titled "bondage scarves".

And while Gianfranco Ferre showed some very architectonic kimono coats and metallic shift dresses, my money was on his raunchy, skinny, black leather combats with zippered pockets.

But is it bondage, punk, S&M, haute grunge urban or simply Lara Croft?

It's dark, that's for sure. He didn't tie his models up however with his slick, all-black collection shown on day two of the season in New York, Sydney's own Josh Goot seems to be on the money once again.

By convenient coincidence, at my first Paris show this afternoon - Rick Owens - I bumped into the director of the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, fashion historian and curator Valerie Steele. Steele might not have seen the shows first-hand in Milan but she is the author of the 1995 book Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. I figured she would have an interesting take on things.

Here's what she said:

What do you think about this emerging bondage/S&M theme at the Milan shows?
Valerie Steele: It seems to me that many S&M things in fashion just act as a kind of shortcut or signal for 'This is ultra-sexy fashion'. It's not even perverse anymore. It's very visual and theatrical and conveys easily to the public that it's about sex. Most things like body exposure don't - that sort of ho-hum, underwear-as-outerwear doesn't but if you do really flagrant S&M references then Jo Average will go 'Oh yes right, that means it's sexy and hot'. I remember when, after Versace had done all those things back in the early 90s that were sexy and sort of fetish-y [a case in point, Liz Hurley's famous safety pin dress], I talked to real fetishists and I said, 'So, what did you think of Versace?' and they said, 'We hate it - because now you can't tell if someone's really into it or if they're just making a fashion statement'. And I think at this point it has spread so rapidly into just being vernacular for 'This means sexy'.

The wowsers are saying its misogynistic. But terms such as 'dominatrix' don't really gel with the idea of submission, surely?
That was always the argument, about Versace and everyone else: was it chic or was it cruel? Was it putting the woman in a dominatrix position of power or making her act out a male fantasy of being the sexy woman of power?

Dolce and Gabbana have just had to pull one ad campaign in Spain after complaints.
The thing is of course, most dominatrixes are paid to do that for a male sexual fantasy...

A straight male sexual fantasy. It seems to be predominantly gay male designers who are coming up with these S&M references.
Yes but you know, the S&M is so theatrical it's not really about one gender versus another gender. It's just about actors playing on positions of power versus positions of submission. But it's all play acting anyway.

Do you think perhaps Dita Von Teese and the mainstreaming of burlesque that has been happening recently may have anything to do with it?
Oh I think it's part of the same phenomenon, sure. Theatrical sex is perfect for fashion because fashion is a kind of visual shorthand and you're not really going to be showing people engaging in sexual acts. You take your clothes off for that, usually. But with these kinds of things, you can be a kind of visual sartorial semaphor that says, 'This is about sex, this is about sex'. It's role-playing.

Why at this particular moment?
I think it's just a cycle. I think it comes back every couple of years. Like all of that corsetry. Every couple of years.

In fact, when you looked back, you realised that the whole bondage theme had really kicked off as far back as Monday's Burberry Prorsum collection.

Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey [pictured above with models Lily Donaldson, Freja Beha Erichsen and Sasha Pivovarova backstage] insisted at the time that it was all about armour and 'protection'.

Inspired by Burberry's 150 year-old jousting knight logo, Bailey reinvented the iconic Burberry trench into a series of artfully-constructed coats fashioned from everything from nappa leather to shaved mink, quilted python and tapestry jacquards.

Boasting studs, exposed brass zippers, armour-like shoulder guards - and layered over delicate, ruched silk slip dresses and skirts - the entire collection had a very medieval feel. The accessories were particularly noteworthy. Long leather gloves, which have become a recurring motif throughout this season [in part possibly to do with all the short sleeves on the coats and dresses] with quilted, gauntlet-like cuffs; dominatrix-style, shiny, black over-the-knee boots; foot-wide buckled black leather corset belts and handbags with punk hardware.

One bag in particular seems a quantum leap from Burberry's genteel English heritage: a large tote that is completely covered in silver studs and festooned with a series of buckled black leather bondage straps.

After the show I spoke with Bailey and had meant to post the interview immediately. Due to an internet issue in my hotel that night however, it became stuck on my backburner all week. We started off talking about bondage and then segued into a few other subjects. Here's the Q&A in full - I figured some may be interested in what else Bailey has to say.

We saw some 'tough chic' coming through in your summer collection with the silver-studded eveningwear, now you're moving even more hardcore. What do you think that says about fashion at the moment?
Christopher Bailey: In terms of fashion, I don't know. Certainly in terms of Burberry, we've just celebrated our 150th anniversary and I just wanted to move her forward.

By taking her back to the Dark Ages?
By making her a little tougher and by this idea of protection and kind of that security and kind of being almost camouflaged and looked after. And I think that was really the idea of this. And I think generally in fashion, to answer your question, there is a feeling of looking at modernity in a different way. And I think that harder edge is something that...

So like, protection on the outside?
Yeah I think we do. And I think we should never lose the romance.

Well Joan of Arc was romantic.
Absolutely and I think that there can be sex and some romance even with protection. And I think that's what I was exploring with this collection.

Could you just run through some of the fabrics?
A lot of leather, in every kind of form. I did it quilted and ruched and stitched and patterned, bonded... I did a lot of fur which was shaved, it was mink. And I did a lot of silk nylon outerwear. I did a lot of silk in both this and almost a lingerie satin.

What was that chain mail material - the trench at the end?
Basically they were all hand-stitched metal grommets that we just kind of made almost like armour. We did it also on the sleeves of the cashmere sweater.

Obviously you're a gun for hire there, and a very successful gun for hire, but does anyone ever freak when you say, 'Hey, this is my vision for Burberry for next season: S&M'?
No, you know, it doesn't really work like that. I work very very closely with Angela [Ahrendts], our ceo, and I have a vision for the aesthetics of the company. Angela has an amazing business point of view and vision and we work together. It's a collaborative thing. Angela would never say, 'Oh you should not do this, you should not do that'. Design isn't like that.

She had no problem when you told her you wanted to put bondage straps on one of the bags?
We weren't really looking at them as bondage straps, we were looking at them...

That's what they look like.
Everybody translates it in the way that they see it.

Are you going to actually produce those fabulous puss-in-boots boots and the long gloves, or were they just a styling thing?
Absolutely, yeah.

Just on the fashion brain drain from London. Why is it that all the great British designers ultimately have to leave?
I don't think they leave. Again, I see fashion in a different way. I don't see it that it has to be tied down to one city. I have my whole design creative team in London. We have our head offices in London, we do a lot of our manufacturing in the UK. And I think we have the most incredible design schools in the UK. But fashion is global. We have a lot of young talent, a lot of young design talent in the UK. And because it's a global design business I think we need everybody to have a global experience. I don't believe in this insular thing of just because you're trained in London, you have to stay in London.

Obviously some designers are saying no to big design jobs within large companies. What are you doing with Burberry that you couldn't do with your own label?
I really don't have any interest right now in creating my own label. I love to be saturated within the brand of Burberry. For me it's very, very inspiring. It's one of the great British luxury brands within the world. So for me it's an honour to work within a company like that. I don't know, I guess I'm not turned on by the idea of having my name out there. I'm the spokesperson for Burberry and I have the design vision and the aesthetic vision. And I'm certainly an integral part to this huge company. But it's not about me, it's not about Christopher Bailey. It's about Burberry and it's about me retranslating Burberry. And I always kind of talk about, you know, we've been around for 150 years and I'm this tiny little dot in that 150 years.

That reminds me of what Francisco Costa said after the Calvin Klein show in New York, when I asked why he doesn't do more there. He replied, 'I'm not a power freak'. Some say that when you worked at Gucci you used to design all the womens clothes for Tom Ford. Did you?
Did I design all the clothes? No I didn't design all the clothes. I designed a lot of them, of course.

Last week Julien Macdonald told the anti-fur lobby to piss off.
Oh did he? OK, that was very diplomatic.

I thought it was something of a progression from his previous 'no comment' on the subject. Do you have any sentiments to express to the anti-fur lobby?
You know again, for me, it's always about balance. I don't think it's about [being] radical and dictatorship. Everybody has a point of view. I don't believe in aggressive behaviour and that I really deplore. And really do not agree that that kind of a situation should happen within any kind of presentation or within any retail store.

Designers can show fur, but it doesn't it really come down to the fact that consumers want to buy fur?
The consumer will tell us when they believe that they shouldn't. And for me, fur is a part of our history, it's a part of Burberry's culture. And again, I don't react to radical statements and aggression.

Telling them to piss off was fairly radical though.
Oh well you know, Julien is Julien, so good for him.

Original post and comments.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hurley burley Versace girlies: Donatella arrivedercis Milan

And so to the last show of Milan. Well maybe not the last last show but with a handful of less stellar names such as Love Sex Money and Alviero Martini left on the agenda, some of us would like to go out on a high. I'm seeing the 6pm show at the Versace Teatro, and it's still a bit early so I am cooling my heels at an adjacent cafe. Unlike the refurbed cafe next to the Prada venue however, I would describe this particular decor as haute nouveau riche: red faux ostrich seat coverings, gold tabletops and arguably the world's ghastliest stucco effort on the ceiling and walls. It looks like someone has taken a large sheet of plastic, scrunched it up, glued it down and sprayed it gold. I look down at the receipt the waiter hands me for my absurdly overpriced Coke (eight euros) and can't help chuckling at the establishment's name: Cheese Cafe.

I'm now inside the venue's foyer facing two gargantuan urns stuffed with white roses and foliage. The displays are each about 4m x 2m and there have to be at least 500 roses in each one.

Bang in the middle of a circular vestibule between the foyer and show space stands a large black rectangular vase topped with a metre-wide pompom of yet more white roses - this time sprayed turquoise. It looks like a bridesmaid's posy from The Land Of The Giants.

A projection of Versace's medusa head logo rotates on the far wall, like a large Roman coin.

Everywhere I look there are smart Italian woman wearing black coats, pants, skirts and opaque stockings, with impeccable black footwear and handbags, not all of it Versace. The scene sums up the Italian luxury goods market in a nutshell: superlative quality, sexual power and big hair.

Into the show space and there's electricity in the air. Photographers and tv crews are trawling the runway for celebs. Trudie Styler and some Italian actress are already seated. And Liz Hurley is somewhere backstage.

Ten minutes to showtime and crews start to gather around two empty front row seats. The 20-strong pack, myself included, climbs onto the side of the mirrored runway - normally a major no-no at any show venue as it scuffs the floor and can ruin photos.

This is the biggest media scrum I've seen all week. And it feels like it could get ugly at any moment.

"Get down! Get down! The runway is about to crack!" screams a security guard.

I head for my seat but the photographers head back around to the other side of the runway to take their positions opposite Hurley's seat which is in the middle of the row. Hurley suddenly emerges from backstage at the far end of the runway with fiance Arun Nayer in tow - who she'll marry next week - and stands there for the photographers, who then rush en masse from the middle to the end of the room.

Adding to the farce: Jackie Frank, the normally dignified editor of Australian Marie Claire, leaps out of her seat on the other side and in fact crosses the runway - an even bigger no-no - to start taking happy snaps. "I'm doing it for Sunrise!" she tells me later.

At the pace Frank hauled ass, she should be working for Today Tonight.

Hurley heads to her seat. Yet more pics.

The show starts - with a graphic series of white and black dresses and suits in a 'techno' Duchesse satin, with horsehair padding and articulated seamwork that sculpt the fabric into subtle, bell-shaped curves, yes curves. Trapeze-line capes and coats reek of the Sixties, but with a modern, minimalist edge. Funny that - the colour palette was, according to the show notes, inspired by American minimalist artist Brice Marden.

There's a lot of grey and silver, shot with lipstick red and turquoise. Of note, some of the season's sharpest shell dresses - the Sixties-nosed sleeveless shift dress, but with a rounded neck and nipped-in waist - the best in lipstick red. It exits with a matching fox coat with sculpted waist. There are also some very urban, skin-tight, wetsuit-look dresses in shiny black techno jersey, a striking gunmetal grey croc zippered blouson and a turquoise mink puffball coat.

The eveningwear features both silver-sequinned microshifts with graphic square necklines and bold, graphic cutouts at the back, one in a futuristic metal mesh, and trademark Versace goddess gowns, in grey, black, violet, red and white, with diaphonous, flyaway chiffon panels that trail behind the models as they walk. Picking up on the season's emerging bondage theme, the gowns' plisse bodices feature galvanised Plexiglass chains.

Strappy Mary Janes and sandals boast Space Age silver platforms and skyscraper heels.

It's a knockout collection.

I spot Australia's next top model, 17 year-old Catherine McNeil, in the show.

Although modelling for four years - and seriously for the last one - in just one week McNeil has emerged from nowhere to become one of the world's hottest new runway stars. In her first international season she has walked for Versace, Roberto Cavalli, Anna Molinari, Pucci, Max Mara, among others. This morning I watched her open Missoni - a prestige gig (she also opened Alessandro dell'Aqua).

McNeil is no doe-eyed, baby-faced Gemma Ward. With her chiselled features and smouldering, Vampirella-esque runway gaze, she's more reminiscent of an old-world screen siren, albeit one with a tongue piercing - and a second piercing at the back of her head that proved impractical with all the hair styling, she told me. McNeil has a kind of fierce beauty that synchs with the image of a tough, urban warrior woman who suddenly finds herself so very much in vogue.

Backstage I ask McNeil what the show was like from her perspective.

"Well it was scary because the shoes are very high, but it was a lot of fun" she replies.

And her first week in Milan?

"I'm glad it's over" replies McNeil, who is now headed for Paris but says she has as yet no idea just which shows she will do.

It's packed - and hot. I track down Hurley and manage to throw a few questions her way, while minders tap my back to wind up.

What did you think about the show?
Elizabeth Hurley: It was beautiful. I really thought that if Gianni were watching he would be so proud. Such pretty dresses, such beautiful coats. Long dresses and coats have always been my two favourite things and it's always been two things that Versace, I've always thought, excelled at. And sexy shoes, always.

Apparently they were hard to walk in.
I have a pair of them in my hotel room. I only got them earlier today. They really are - but worth the struggle.

They're real Take-Me-Homes aren't they?
They do beautiful accessories at Versace, they always have and they're stunningly beautiful. And there were the most extraordinarily, I thought, sweet little cloaks, little furry cloaks. I know you can't have them in Australia.

What do you mean?
No... oh you can wear them in air conditioning.

You owe your career, in one way, to a Versace dress don't you?
Yeah, I've had a long association with Versace. I wear lots of other things but I always come back to Versace.

I'm referring to that dress.
[Evasive] Lots of dresses. Lots of dresses.

I'm talking about the Versace safety pin dress [worn to the 1994 London premier of Four Weddings and a Funeral, pictures of which went all over the world]. Where is that dress now?
I think it's in a museum.

Versace is the one designer that I can pretty much put everything on and it fits. It's quite something. Most other things would be too tight in the rear or too high in the waist or too something. Versace suits me.

Donatella [Versace - the designer] seems to be getting her act together [rehab tends to do that].
I think she really has. I think she's evolved a lot and every year, every season, I think things just get more and more special. And this one really, very special.

How is your new swimwear line going?
Very well. A humble comparison to where we are today but it's actually going extremely well, thank-you.

For some reason Donatella Versace is even harder to get to. I manage however to squeeze in and grab a couple of comments before she is whisked away.

You've seen the pictures - but what you might not know is that Donatella Versace sounds exactly how you'd imagine Catwoman would sound, with an exaggerated, hyper-sultry drawl. It's so sultry in fact that, combined with all the backstage noise, I can't understand a thing she is saying while I'm actually talking to her and pray that I'll be able to make it out on the tape later.

Back in my hotel room, the Donetalla conversation is marginally easier to understand.

Exacerbating the problem is a technical malfunction, the result of which is that my tape recorder has started recorded background ambiance as well as what is directly in front of it. I've grown accustomed to tape recorders going on the blink when I'm on the road - having had to replace three of them now on similar trips.

Here's what I could make out:

What was the idea behind the collection?
Donatella Versace: I try to look at the future, what women will wear next. But I really..... the shape of the women's body... First of all I look at the fabric....

Was there a bondage theme?
No bondage.

We're starting to see a lot of bondage..
It wasn't bondage. It was about finding new materials.

It's time for a new tape recorder - and some sleep.

Tomorrow is a new day. And it will end in Paris.

Original post and comments.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thandie Newton: Fendi fur subversive?

OK so it's not been the best couple of days for the anti-fur lobby.

First you have Peter Costello - hell, who's not even at the Milan shows - proposing to pave the way for prosecuting groups who organise consumer boycotts for moral or ethical reasons.

Then, after that promising debut of Prada's alpaca wool "fur" and Armani's "eco" rabbit fur - the latter presumably a pelt that some exotic breed of rabbit is somehow able to shed and then instantly regenerate, without being subjected to the minor inconvenience of being terminated - you have an absolute orgy of fur on the Milanese runways. From Marni to Gucci to Pucci to Dolce e Gabbana to Fendi.

This afternoon Roman luxury house Fendi was naturally awash with all manner of pelts in a collection that creative director Karl Lagerfeld told me backstage had been inspired by a "geometric pattern... like a Brancusi bird".

Funny Lagerfeld should mention the word bird because feathers, as with a plethora of other autumn collections here, factored heavily into his Fendi designs. They were either layered on top of more traditional pelts in coats, many of them with cape details, or stuck to giant clutch purses, along with faggots of dyed raw wool, that looked very much like dreadlocks.

Fur, it should be noted, is something of a religion in Italy. And although they have made it onto one or two runways here, should animal rights activists ever be foolish enough to attempt to target fur-swathed Italian consumers on the streets here, I dare say they would probably be lynched.

I'm not sure just how many Fendi furs make it to Australian shores, but Australian consumers certainly don't seem to have a problem with Fendi's fur heritage. They're buying so many of the company's handbags and shoes, Fendi has recently experienced triple digit growth in Australia.

If they can manage to walk in them, Australian consumers are no doubt going to love Fendi's new strappy winter sandals in turquoise python with puffed-out platforms and 30cm heels, the new boxy timber-plated python bags and the bullet cartridge-look belts with massive bevelled glass buckles.

Added to PETA's problems of course is the recent swag of pro animal rights celebs who have either fallen off the perch due to heavy drug use [Anna Nicole Smith] or who blow hot-and-cold on pressing animal rights issues pending their upcoming ticket sales in Australia [Pink] or modelling contracts [Elle MacPherson, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss etc...].

I mean hate as they do apparently hate Anna Wintour, correct me if I'm wrong here, but at least Wintour never signed any Editors of Compassion petition claiming she wouldn't be seen dead in fur again - only to turn up in a different pelt every day as she has done throughout the AW0708 season. At least Wintour is consistent.

With animal rights celebs dropping like flies from an unmulesed sheep's bum, thank heavens then for Thandie Newton, the diminutive British/Zimbabwean star of such films as Flirting, Mission Impossible II and The Pursuit of Happyness into whom I bumped backstage at Fendi this afternoon.

Could Newton perhaps be at the cutting edge of a new breed of animal rights activist who doesn't throw tofu pies, but rather, eats them with their targets?

Here's what she told me:

What did you think about the show?
Thandie Newton: Loved it. Very animal. I wanted to leap up on stage like a little bobcat and just rip a mouthful out. And it wasn't because of all the fur. There was just something very sensual about it. It felt quite primal as well.

Do you wear a lot of Fendi?
I do at the moment. Not the furry stuff. I didn't have a long enough conversation with him then [Lagerfeld - ie backstage], but I'm going to try and tackle it with him at dinner.

So fur bothers you? I'm not sure I understand then why you would come and support the show of a brand like Fendi?
Well I feel that... I don't feel compromised in my appreciation of it because of the fur. But it's not something that I... And also I don't know what's going to be on the stage. And each kind of season I hope that the whole vogue for fur will go, as it did ten years ago.

The whole what?
The vogue for fur.

So hang on, you want it to go?
Oh yes, absolutely.

But fur is Fendi's leitmotiv.
I know, but I think it has been for a lot of designers and they occasionally decide to change things.

So you would like to see no fur at Fendi?
Or fake fur.

Couldn't it be perceived to be well, hypocritical of you to turn up to support such a fur-heavy brand?
Yes I think it is hypocritical. But at the same time I really appreciate his design, the elements to his design and I really wanted to meet him. And I think it's probably better for me to sit down with him and have a chat and ask him why he supports it still, than for me to not be here and to not have an opportunity to have a conversation with him.

So your plan is to twist his arm?
Yeah - tonight, I'll just talk to him about it. I think it's very reasonable to have a conversation about it.

And here's a preview of what Lagerfeld might ostensibly say to Newton over dinner, based on what he said to me on the subject, after this afternoon's show:

What were those shaggy faggots on the bags, coats and one gilet?
Karl Lagerfeld: Chunky wool - wool that looks like fur. All the things that look like fur, are not fur. That's the good thing about it.

You say that's 'the good thing', but there was also plenty of fur.
Yes there is tonnes of fur. But you know as long as we eat meat and wear leather, we can have fur too.

What about the anti-fur lobby. Have you ever been attacked?
They tried, but it fell on others and not on me.

Who did it fall on? Anna Wintour?
No... But Anna... she never even reacts and she told me, don't react. Because you know, fur is an industry. People make a living with it. And some of the hunters live in areas where no other jobs are there. So if the people from PETA are ready to make a rent for all those people and pay their living, it's OK. But as long as we eat meet, and as long as we have leather things, I don't see the difference.

The animal rights lobby uses very emotionally-charged arguments. Claims for example about animals who are farmed for fur, only ever being anally electrocuted [as opposed to more humane methods such as gassing. Certified fur farms in Europe and the US refute these claims]. What do you think about the concept of animals being anally electrocuted?.

This I don't know. I hope they should work that out that nobody suffers. But humans are cruel, we know that. They are cruel with humans too. Look at the newspapers.

Originally published on smh.com.au

Waiting for wood: Williamson's morning glory at Pucci

Milling around backstage before Pucci. As you'd expect, it's a kaleidoscope of colour.

There are racks of candy-coloured furs - apparently a new area for Pucci. One Glam Rock-look shaggy orange Mongolian lamb coat hangs waiting for, according to its rack tag, Sasha Pivovarova.

Matthew Williamson is flitting about. This is his third season as Pucci's creative director and with two seasons of lacklustre reviews (including The Sydney Morning Herald's), Williamson must be praying for some traction with this collection.

It's 11.30am, about 20 minutes to show time and the models are already in "first
looks" - in other words their first show outfits.

I walk into Elise Crombez, a tower of bright orange felted wool in a bellbottomed trousersuit and boxy belted jacket with little shoulder guards. There's that AW0708 'armour' theme again.

"All I need is orange juice" says Crombez to a minder.

Her catwalk colleague is wearing an aubergine car coat in the same felted wool, with the same shoulder detail - and aubergine leather sleeves. She's holding a little clutch purse on a gold chain, which has a Pucci print worked into a kind of enamelled Glomesh.

"I want you to turn right and left, sort of alternating circles" a show producer instructs Crombez for her end-of-runway turn. They're not the clearest instructions.

I squeeze past Kim Noorda having her photograph taken in a shagadelic patchwork suede shift dress.

An Asian model is wearing a knockout patchwork knit microdress in bright purple, green and orange with tobacco basques. She is holding a ginger fur courier satchel and has a striking gold cube mega-cuff on one wrist.

Another model walks over wearing an aubergine knit microdress with slashed V-front and a geometric gold in-built choker stretching from her neck to her navel. She has a matching aubergine fur chubby.

"Olya - you need to be carrying an eggplant" quips the show producer to her.

Another girl is wearing a rag cocktail dress that is completely covered in different-sized and -shaped sequins, in yellow, violet, black and sapphire blue.

US Vogue snapper Robert Fairer [who I first met at Gareth Pugh] is posing three models, including Crombez, all dressed in bright orange.

One is in an A-line felted wool skirt with little 'tough chic' gold-plated reinforced corners, bright orange stockings and yellow suede platform Mary Janes.

Walking around here blogging, it's a bit like being a fly-on-the-wall at a dozen simultaneous photoshoots.

There's Natashy Poly, glamming it up for another camera in an ultraviolet knit microdress with long, bell sleeves and a deep V-neck - with an oversized gold pendant necklace that looks like she's wearing a gargantuan makeup compact on a chain. Slap a few numbers on it, it could also double as one of those US-style police lineup ID plates in which people are snapped after arrest. In this instance, the relevant infraction would of course be DUIIC: driving under the influence of intense colour.

What else can I see?

Rhubarb-coloured velvet hipster flares hanging waiting for Julia Dunstall.

Right behind those, a harlequin-esque cape in hot pink, tobacco and tan-coloured patchwork fur. It's fastened with gold hardware clasps and the cape lining, which the audience of course won't see, is pretty: a Pucci plume print in turquoise, salmon pink and red.

At the end of every rack hangs the standard model-issue, flesh-toned G-string. With all the models already dressed however, I wonder why their underwear is on display.

I ask one dresser.

"If they have a similar one on already - they don't need" replies the dresser.

I guess it pays to have a spare nude thong.

"OK girls into line!" shouts the show producer and I realise I had better make tracks. I run to the end of the room and slap bang into the line of models waiting to go out on the runway - and Williamson, who has an exasperated look on his face. Without moving his head, he looks and points to the left to direct me outside.

It's too late to get to my seat so I walk to the end of the tent to stand at the beginning of the runway.

The collection was apparently modelled around a print from Pucci's 1950s archive. Called 'Ceramiche', it's based on wood blocks and was once apparently a favourite of Marilyn Monroe. The wood cues are also picked up in the staging: everything, from the runway to the backdrop, has been fashioned from what looks like untreated pine.

The show starts with a kind of Charlie's Angels tableau of five models - all kitted out in the bright orange felted wool suits and shift dresses, and some hot pink versions that I didn't see backstage.

It's a powerful start to an acid-bright, uptempo show. And one which, bar one or two dull patches which Williamson would do well to corrall to the showroom (and let's face it, few designers pull off a perfect collection), marks his turning point with the Pucci brand.

We had a quick chat afterwards:

Everyone backstage tells designers that they're fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. But you've had some harsh reviews over the last two seasons.
Matthew Williamson: I could write a book on that question... You know what, you have your fans and then you have people who are not fans. I'm doing the best that I can do and I'm trying to bring a modernity to the house and it's taking a long time. I think with the last collection, despite the reviews that you picked up on, I think people are starting to understand. I think the sales at Pucci have risen since I've been here. The editorial has certainly risen. So I think there's a slow move forward.

We can be a tough crowd.
A bloody tough crowd, yeah.

Do they really matter, the reviews?
Yeah it's very upsetting when it's not well received. It's six months of 24/7 hard work and of course all you want is for it to be well received.

Were you very disappointed by the reviews of the first collection?
You know what, I've been doing it for ten years and I have tough skin and I am toughened to it. And I have been there when it's been fabulous and I've been there when it's not been fabulous so...

....you can't believe the hype?
As cliched as it is, I think you don't believe it when it's great and you don't believe you know... There'll be people that don't like it and I'm prepared for that.

Obviously you can do what you like with your own line. But when you're designing for another house you're the brand custodian. Do you have complete creative freedom at Pucci?
I mean I love the brand. I have a passion for the house and the heritage and I absolutely want to respect what's been done to date. But I feel that I'm the right person to move it forward. I feel that the association between me and Pucci is appropriate.

It seems like a good fit.
Yeah I feel it is. So I don't feel out of my depth. If I did I'd be very uncomfortable but I feel happy with the job that I have.

What's the main difference between designing your own line and being a gun for hire at a big company like this (LVMH)?
Geographically it's difficult. Physically it's difficult. But I'm getting there. It's getting easier.

And have you learned things that you have been able to apply to your own brand?
Well the challenge moving forward now is to kind of really not let my label suffer. They've got to both kind of become strong and sing.

Would it help if LVMH was interested in acquiring equity in Matthew Williamson? [Williamson currently has one backer with a minority stake]
We'll see.

It's tough being independent.
Absolutely, yeah no we've been going for ten years. It's kind of amazing that we're still there. Were not McQueen or Stella, being bought by Gucci, we're still going.

Have you had knocks on the door?
Yeah in the past I have.

Why wouldn't you sell?
Because I'm really proud of what we've done and you know, we've kind of got this far and I'm very precious and protective over my label.

You're the king of bling. You always use very extreme accessories - you had those giant crystal-studded bracelets by Scott Wilson in your recent New York show, the last Pucci show had that great enamel jewellery from new designer Xenia [Bous]. Who did the jewellery this time?
That was Xenia again. She's brilliant, I love working with her.

You said Pucci doesn't normally do fur but you've done a lot this season.
I did fur in the first winter collection, but not in such a big way. But that seems to be a talking point. A lot of people have mentioned the furs.

It's a controversial issue. Doesn't the anti-fur flack bother you?
I've got bigger things to worry about. I obviously don't take a strong view on it.

So you're not worried about having your runway stormed by PETA next season?
I do worry about that but... we'll see.

You could always protect yourself with one of those mega cuffs.
Yeah [punches the air] - kapow.

Original post and comments.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

From disco slappers to Diana: Gucci trades up to BCBG

Sitting in the already-packed ballroom of the Diana hotel at Piazza Oberdan, the show venue of choice for Gucci.

It's another big Milan show that has to be split into two.

We're waiting for the 5pm version, which is already 22 minutes late. And while many showgoers think nothing of arriving 45 minutes late for many shows, because they know they probably won't start on time, due to today's show gridlock there was a bit of a panic earlier this afternoon when a series of media shuttle buses containing at least 100 people were shut out of the Roberto Cavalli show after the buses arrived too late.

In theory, noone who shows on the official schedule is supposed to start before the previous show has finished and the media throng has had a chance to hotfoot it - or at least hotbus it - from one to the other.

But with the organisers attempting to cram the usual eight days into seven this season, that is proving a challenge. Noone wanted to run the risk of getting shut out of this show so they have ditched anything immediately prior in order to get over.

Obscure Italian labels such as Frankie Morello, which was supposed to start at 4pm, but showed no sign of it some 50 minutes later, will have to stay that way. It's hard competing with the Gucci juggernaut.

The models are out - it's precisely 5.30pm. And the styling is pure... Rita Hayworth.

The hair is loose and parted to one side, like a 40s screen siren, the makeup is also very 1940s, with porcelain faces and dark red lips. Designer Frida Giannini is supposed to have been inspired by the 1940s American model/photographer Lee Miller but there's something almost well, Diana, about this show. And that's not just due to the name of the hotel.

Yes the silhouettes are 40s-nosed: cute bomber/aviator jackets in either leather or plaid over plaid plus fours, boxy knee-length skirts, sweet little floral print dresses with ruffles. But the plaid combo in particular looks like something straight out of Diana and Charles' honeymoon photos taken at Balmoral.

There's fur galore - while Prada may have ditched fur for alpaca this season, don't believe that there's not plenty of fur on this season's runways in Milan. Particularly at Gucci, where one super-luxe coat in particular layers fur-on-fur, with glossy mink arms over a coat base in something with a pattern that looks alarmingly like jaguar.

The black and white eveningwear series, accented with Art Deco-inspired embroidery and jewellery, will no doubt look beautiful in Gucci's advertising campaign. Save for the finale dress however - a very Alix Gres-inspired white gown with plisse bodice and metal hardware detail - on a runway, it doesn't really catch fire.

Apart from a few nods to Gucci's recent sex-drenched past under Tom Ford, and even Giannini's own autumn/winter 0607 disco diva collection - notably the skinny anthracite grey pants with matching, contoured jacket with wetsuit-look seamwork and large plastic zippers - it's overall a very demure collection.

There seems to be a wind of conservatism blowing through fashion this season.

This time last year, notably after Marc Jacobs' layered, edgy "neo grunge" collection in New York, many talked about "the new sobriety" in fashion.

The current mood isn't so much sobre as well, bourgeois. Two weeks ago Jacobs shocked many with his finely-tailored, frightfully ladylike collection. Giannini seems to have picked up the same cue card.

However this collection is critically received, make no mistake: Gucci, like so many other luxury goods companies, makes most of its money out of leathergoods. In some companies 80percent of business is derived from same. The new Gucci bag this season is the 'Aviator' - a structured tote in leather or a diamante-infused wool and exxie crocodile.

Being unable to secure any comments from Giannini herself, who is sequestered backstage prepping for the 6pm show, I am obliged to settle for the next best thing by grabbing a mini iv with the man who signs Giannini's pay cheques: Gucci Group ceo Robert Polet.

Bailing Polet up as he heads out the door, I ask him what he thinks about Gucci's new conservative mood.

Marc Jacobs showed this very ladylike, bourgeois collection in New York, and now Gucci. Giannini's collection this time last year was sex on legs.
Robert Polet: What we see I think in general in the market is what you call 'up trading'. And people looking for a more higher value, higher quality, timeless quality. And you see that in our portfolio of brands, as we have Balenciaga, Bottega Venete, Boucheron growing very fast. We also see it within a brand like Gucci: the constant quest for higher quality and more desirable products.

But how does that translate to a more classic design?
First of all, I run the company, I am not the designer. But from my observation, if I look at the marketplace... first of all the uptrading, what I just said, and secondly, I think things evolve and go in cycles and I think we have evolved from overt sexuality much more to sensuality and refinement. And we are right in the middle of that stage.

The price points are higher?
I didn't say up-pricing, I said uptrading. And uptrading in offering actually much more desirable products with even higher quality, with precious skins and so on and so forth - with of course a price that is the consequence of that.

Yes however the prices in the luxury market are going up, right across the board. As absurd as it might sound to most people, a $20,000 handbag is not that uncommon these days.
I think the quality and creativity goes up. And with that the sales of products that are of higher quality and (have) more 'specialness'. And we probably have more expensive products.

How do you marry that 'specialness' with growing a brand: opening stores, making products that you want to be accessible to the average consumer but by the same token, attempting to maintain that sense of exclusivity with the ultra rich?
It's a buildup. It's a pyramid of luxury, where we focus on bringing more and more and more creativity at the higher end of the luxury pyramid. At the same time we offer products where people can actually add to the brand. And that's also related to a category - you would have small leathergoods or belts, or sunglasses or in the sense of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, people are able to buy perfume, which of course is a way to enter and be part of the dream of the brand.

Yes but more and more 'average' people now think nothing of paying over $1000 for a handbag - that was unheard of 10 years ago.
You've got to push your (stop) button now.

Original post and comments.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The devil wears llama: Prada's alpaca moment

I've always thought it was supposed to be uncool to wear a band's T-shirt to its concert. But there was Paris Vogue editrix Carine Roitfeld this afternoon, when I spotted her hightailing it out of the Alberta Ferretti show in her own bit of Prada homage on the same day as the Prada show: one of Prada's Pocahontas-look brown fringed tunics from the spring/summer 2007 collection, worn over black leggings, violet satin stiletto pumps and just a black sheepskin bomber jacket to keep her warm. Then again Roitfeld does has a driver.

As I blog it's been a few hours since the Ferretti show.

In the interim I've seen Bottega Veneta ('tough chic' grommet-embellished shifts and bustier dresses, with big maribou feather stoles) and Pollini (a Mod nod to the '60s) and am now a throng is waiting for Prada to start. The 7pm Prada show to be precise.

As with a few of the bigger brands here, Prada has two shows, back-to-back.

When the shows are on, the entire street outside Prada's show venue swarms for several hours with fashion folk, all trying to squeeze through a ludicrously small doorway manned by three burly security guards. There are a couple of cafes across the road which do a roaring trade at these times of the year. I'm in the same one I was in this time six months ago and it's had a bit of a refurb in the interim - apart from swish new silver tables and chairs (actually I preferred the grungy old ones), they've installed poker machines next to the loo.

Two tables away from me sits Italian eccentric Anna Piaggi, she of the gazillion garish getups and contributor to Vogue Italia.

Piaggi's way too cool for a Prada homage on the show day. She's wearing a pair of black and white harlequin pants, a black and white maxi cardi with tribal face intarsia motif across the back, a matching B/W mini top hat cocked to the side atop her blue-tinted grey mop of hair - and enough face powder and rouge to put Marie Antoinette out of business.

I do believe Piaggi is having a beer. I'm having a hot chocolate - which, as anyone who has ever ordered such a thing in Italy would know, has the consistency of warm chocolate cake icing. This is my seventh show today - six of them without tickets. Believe me, I need the sugar hit.

The 6pm show crowd starts to emerge and the 7pm'ers are all off, out of the cafe and into the Prada melee.

"Trying ... to... get... through... the... door" stutters one fashionista to her friend as the crowd surges forward.

"What the hell would happen if there was a fire?" mutters another.

Once inside I ask a mate who saw the first show, "What's the theme?".

"Futuristic" he replies, which surprises me given that so many of the fashion pack went back to the future last season and Prada generally doesn't like to fall into line.

Inside, the warehouse space has been transformed into a sort of sci-fi Coliseum: the seats, white foam cubes, have been arranged in a large circle, and enclosed by a series of large, curved plastic screens in eye-popping safety orange.

"Oh it's EasyJet orange" quips one Brit tv anchor, referring to the UK budget airline (whose livery is not dissimilar to that of JetStar).

The lights go down, the models walk out on the ground-level runway that meanders through the seating by way of a series of black lacquer varnish "tracks" - so glossy that at least one model almost slips over as she walks along.

Although the venue looked sci-fi, and certainly some of the fabrics appear new age synthetic, as it later emerges there's more hands-on craft to their design than manufacturing.

After the first series of suits, coats and shift dresses with plain fronts but boasting back poufs, in a severe grey wool - and the season's by now ubiquitous cape, in Prada's case a cape coat with slashes for the armholes - there's a series of other far more complicated garments.

Almost the entire collection is trompe l'oeil: Glam Rock-look three-quarter-length coats, chubbies and even tanks in what at first appears to be some kind of fur, but which I am later told is whorled alpaca wool.

A series of colour-graduated woollen dresses, sleeveless coat dresses and skirts are transformed from top to bottom with what appears at first to be a spraypaint and blister-look silk applique effect, but emerges is Shetland wool shot with a silk thread that has been 'pulled' out of the fabric, with a layer of silk fused on top. Chubby T-shirts and A-line skirts in bright orange, forget-me-not blue and astroturf green appear to be fashioned from some uncomfortable foam packing material - but which in fact is soft mohair knit painted with an acrylic gaze.

Little black cocktail dresses have literally cock tails: bustles and poufs made from real cock feathers and black plastic paillette strips. About the only garments that are exactly what they seem are the pencil and box pleat skirts with loose, boxy matching jackets in a natural leather.

It's another intellectual tour de force from Prada who, I once read, agonises over whether her new collections are "new" enough each season - and a volte face from the previous day's show by Armani, who has been stuck in the same design rut since the Eighties.

It's also a radical departure from Prada's previous winter's "savage" collection which boasted luxurious fur trims and entire fur backs on garments ranging from parkas to trench coats.

Backstage, Prada flatly denies the anti-fur movement has had anything to do with her fabric choices this season.

A line of wellwishers treks through to give Prada their regards - including Roitfeld who makes a point of drawing Prada's attention to the fact that she's wearing a Prada outfit, making a stupid grin as if to say, "Yeah, Prada advertising this way thanks".

A troika of journos, including me, gathers to prod the normally interview-shy designer - before she abruptly cuts us off.

These are some of the direct responses to my questions:

The material in the "fur" coats was not in fact fur?
Miuccia Prada: Alpaca, something that looked like fur but not fur at all. A very expensive, strange material that nearly doesn't exist anymore.

What was your starting point for the collection?
The idea was to do like fake classics, the starting point was that no shapes, no volume, no couture, something very simple but with interesting material. Material that was completely new - a lot of research went into the material. And also colours.

But it is in fact almost couture-like, since it's a very complicated effect.
Yes but the result should be very strict in a way.

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Skinny my ass: Snejana and Sasha bite back at the lipo-Nazis

So I'm meandering around backstage before the Burberry show and I do a double-take.

Actually, I did the first double-take a few hours earlier at the D&G show when I thought I spied Ukrainian top 10 catwalker Snejana Onopka on the runway there. I was unable to confirm it on the spot however.

After my joke about her being potentially yanked off the runway at this week's Dolce e Gabbana show in light of Milan's supposedly draconian new model regulations - a comment I made in last week's "Paying lip service to skinny models at London Fashion Week" post - I had in fact read that Snejana was unlikely to be doing the European shows at all.

Onopka was noticeably absent from the New York shows - and, given the photos of her after the last season, it didn't seem very surprising.

Onopka, 20, who looks like an elongated version of Marlene Dietrich, became the poster girl for the skinny model brouhaha after dropping what industry types speculated last season had been a dress size, or possibly two, in between the AW0607 and SS07 shows. Subsequent images of her limbs on the SS07 runways raised eyebrows.

But there she was indeed in the flesh - so to speak - at Burberry. And surprisingly perhaps, she was happy enough to have a chat about the subject. Her supermodel mate Sasha Pivovarova, who looks like a cross between Gemma Ward and Leonardo di Caprio, also added her two cents worth.

So here's the interview in total. I do apologise for the gaps. With a room full of hairdryers, jabbering models, hair stylists and makeup artists, not to mention heavy Ukrainian/Russian accents, it was a little hard to hear at times. I've transcribed as accurately as possible under the circumstances:

We didn't see you in New York. There was some speculation that you might not do Europe.
Snejana Onopka: No, I did Shiseido this time. I have a contract with Shiseido so I can't be in New York because I did Shiseido this time.

You became a focus of the whole skinny model debate. Has this upset you?
Onopka: I think, I'm natural thin, I'm not skinny. My mum is natural thin. I don't think it's a problem. Of course I really like a healthy look but I think I'm really healthy. I'm just natural thin.

But how did you cope with the stories and pictures?
Onopka: I saw something but I don't really...

May I ask how much you weigh?
Onopka: Um, I think like 54 (kgs), something like this.

And how tall are you?
Onopka: 174.

What do you think about the whole debate?
Onopka: I don't really know. I'm not really thinking about this.

Is it something that a lot of models are talking about?
Onopka: No, we're not talking about this.

Really? Everyone else is talking about it
Sasha Pivovarova: We're working instead of talking.

So what do you think about it then?
Pivovarova: I think it's very good, healthy look for young girls. I think it's very good, the promotion of young, like healthy look. Like, all the young girls look at us. So that's why all of us... and everywhere... are trying to you know, show, when you are a 15 years old girl, that I am doing exercise every morning, I practise kung fu, I'm trying to eat healthy. It's a very good healthy look.

Do models eat backstage? There's a lot of food backstage.
Onopka: Yeah.

But all I see models eating is fruit. Not the panini etc...
Onopka: We just eat with Sasha, a lot of sandwiches. Like 30 minutes ago.

Pivovarova: No it's very good, like everywhere backstage they have food. Everybody is scared. So if you ate somewhere you can say that you had a dinner and not kind of worry about it. We're very happy about that.

So obviously it is a subject that you guys at least discuss?
Pivovarova: I don't know any anorexic models so I don't even know with whom I have to talk.

What about the fashion companies? In Milan they said they were going to ban people.
Onopka: I came here, I didn't hear anything about this yet.

May I ask how old you are?
Onopka: I'm 20.

They're also talking about trying to ban young girls - under 16. But I've seen Tania D on the runway today and she's what, 13?
Onopka: I think she's 16 [she is definitely under 16 - and chaperoned].

Pivovarova: And she's a Russian girl and Russian girls they grow very fast.

Do you think it's unfair or discriminatory to ban people?
Pivovarova: You are skinny as well. Are you anorexic?

God, someone else just said I look thin. I think I've lost a couple of kilos since New York. It's true, you just don't have time to eat.
Pivovarova: No you have time to eat.

So you're saying this is not an issue with the fashion companies?
Pivovarova: No it's not an issue. We just have so many things that we talk about, so it's not the first thing on the list.

It's a fact however that those three South American girls died recently. They were all models and they all had eating disorders.
Onopka: But it was like 27 kgs.

Pivovarova: But how many girls, how many people die from fat?

Onopka: But in all those girls, all those models, it was like 27 kgs. They were like 175, something like this. This is anorexia. I am not anorexic. I am naturally thin. Maybe it's a problem right now, but I'm just like this. I'm always like this. My bum is like this. I'm healthy. I eat a lot.

Pivovarova: ......it's a very good healthy look. I think it's very good, just to promote... for young girls, you know, they look at us, they want to be like we are and I think it's very good so we are trying to look healthy.

Yes but you're also tall and naturally thin. I think a lot of young girls probably don't really understand that.
Pivovarova: Yeah, if they try to be like me but please, I want to say, if you're going to publish it, I want to say (to) all these girls, all these little girls, please don't try to be like me. Just because I am naturally thin. So don't do all these diets, all this stuff, I never did it, I don't need it.

Original post and comments.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Beyond thunderthighs: Tina Turner weighs in on microminis, high energy workouts and runway 'rumps' at Armani

Such is the size of Giorgio Armani's business, that he usually has not one but three shows during Milan Fashion Week to present his collections (two for his signature line and one for Emporio Armani). Make that four this season. Five hours after seeing the main Armani show, I find myself wandering around a retrospective of his work which has just opened at the Triennale.

The last leg of a travelling show which originally kicked off at the Guggenheum Museum in New York in 2000, and which will now terminate in Milan, it's an exhaustive exhibition comprised of hundreds of garments ranging from the designer's first collections through to the most recent (having clearly been updated along the way).

Of particular note, a Hollywood room that features a number of dresses and suits worn either in films as costumes or on the red carpet by a myriad of stars, from Richard Gere to Jodie Foster, Ornella Muti, Katie Holmes, Leonardo di Caprio and Tina Turner. As you walk from room to room, wording on a series of large wall plaques provides a running ode to the minimalist maestro.

A few cases in point:
"It is Giorgio Armani's successful mediation of the complex and sometimes contradictory impulses of contemporary fashion that has come to define the image of dress in our time.... The minimalist cut, inseparable from the Armani name, is a reflection of the rising democratisation of contemporary society".

"Armani has always believed that fashion should be simple, pure and clean.... Minimalism in fashion is sometimes criticised as being dull, but it is never so with Armani".

"The subtle richness of the Armani style is achieved by the designer's virtuoso poising of contradictory elements into a delicate and serene balance".

"While the Armani palette encompasses the entire colour spectrum it is the designer's expressive range of neutrals that is most closely associated with his oeuvre.... The ambiguous results have inspired fashion writers to poetic evocations of moss, lichen and even mist to describe the subtle richness of his colours".

Beginning in 2004 however, some four years after this exhibition opened, Armani's collections have tended to inspire some fashion writers to a few other evocations - in fact, some quite trenchant criticisms.

Armani has since said that he doesn't care what fashion writers say. It's not that there aren't some beautiful clothes in his collections. The eveningwear in particular is striking. It's just that Armani's shows tend to be a little like his museum retrospective: Armani's greatest hits, as opposed to Armani pushing the edges of fashion's current creative envelope, which is what the fashion press would really like to see. But what do we know anyway?

The fussy styling frequently also seems anathema to the designer's minimalist mantra of "simple, pure and clean".

In the autumn/winter 0708 show at least, he stripped the styling back to one sequin-covered skullcap for every model.

Beyond the interminable bubble and tulip skirts there was some spectacular eveningwear, notably one silver, bugle-beaded and fringed flapper skirt and the finale dress, a scintillating, Swarovski crystal-encrusted sheath that would no doubt look fabulous on Cate Blanchett should Blanchett, as Armani has claimed she will, committ to wear Armani at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Just as I am pondering the 600th outfit, and the umpteenth ode, I stumble upon Armani muse, Tina Turner. Besieged by photographers at the 3pm show, it was virtually impossible to approach her then. Wandering through the moodily-lit exhibition, she was happy to stop for a quick chat:

Your thoughts on the exhibition?
Tina Turner: Well I have quite a few things that are here (laughs), I think in my closet. I could make something look like this. Yeah, I have many of his clothes. I collect them. Some of them are so beautiful, that I don't wear them that often but it's just an inspiration to look at the beading and the work that went into it. So that was nice to see. The show this evening was...it's always just inspired me to really want to make sure that I stay in shape and that I look good. It's that kind of a motivation for me when I watch his shows. It really is.

That's an interesting comment in the context of the current skinny model debate.
Well yes I think it is possible....but also I know, I've seen a few of the ones now where girls with heavy rumps are walkin' the rampway.

The heavy what?
The heavy backsides. And that doesn't look so good. So I think it's difficult to really get the right size to please everybody. But it's not about the model anyhow, it's about the clothes.

I noticed in the Hollywood room, nestled amongst the long flowing Oscar columns and red carpet ballgowns, is one beaded microdress - with your name on it.

Have you only ever worn short dresses? It's been something of a signature hasn't it?
Well yes I work, you know, my high energy working and I used to wear the (long) gowns and it was very glamorous but it just wasn't my style and I was falling about and tearing them and ripping them. And I just started to wear the short dresses and I stayed with it. It was comfortable, it worked for me and that was why.

Do you still wear them?
Yeah, I'm looking to try to change but I haven't actually replaced it because usually when I do short shows, only 45minutes to an hour long, I wear boots, short dresses, because it's kind of expected. If I come out in a gown, everybody goes like, 'What happened here?'

What is the secret to your longevity?
I think I did something right along the way obviously because it's a very young crowd that is still inspired by me and my work and what I've done. When I listen to my music it still really sounds really quite current, so it means when I was there doing the work I did it the best I could and I think I made the right choices. And I think that is why I'm lasting as well as I am in this business.

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