Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The butterfly effect: Why couldn't Toni Maticevski take over the reins at Christian Dior?

Frockwriter popped down to Melbourne last week for the last leg of the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival (as a guest of the organisers, once again). Among the shows we caught was Toni Maticevski’s 'Red Carpet Runway' on Thursday night, which closed the event with 50 looks from Maticevski’s archive of 2000 pieces, collected since he launched his demi-couture label in 1999. There were plenty of his signature, heavily-embellished ballgowns and shorter, artfully-deconstructed tailored pieces that have made their way to New York Fashion Week, The Grammys, the Cannes Film Festival and a raft of other events on the backs of celebrities such as Beyoncé, Scarlett Johannson, Leighton Meester, Christina Ricci, Abbie Cornish, Gemma Ward and Kim Kardashian. At 35, Maticevksi is exactly the same age as was John Galliano in 1996, when the latter was appointed as the creative director of the storied Parisian haute couture house of Christian Dior. With Galliano fired last year, there is a vacant position to fill. Suspend your disbelief for a moment that an Australian designer could ever be considered for the creative director’s role of a major Paris fashion house (Martin Grant FYI once turned down the Céline gig) and ponder the hypothetical question, why couldn’t Maticevski fill Galliano’s shoes?

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Galliano and Maticevski share a little common ground.

Both hail from immigrant families and grew up in working class suburbs in London and Melbourne. Galliano migrated to the UK with his parents from Gibraltar; Maticevski’s parents migrated to Australia from Macedonia.

Both finished with first class honours degrees from their respective fashion design schools: Galliano, from Central Saint Martins in 1984; Maticevski, from RMIT in 1997.

Both started winning fashion industry awards straight off the starting block. Galliano first won British Designer of the Year in 1987, just three years out of college (he would go on to win another three).

While still a student in 1996, Maticevski won a Fashion Group International award which scored him a month-long internship at Donna Karan’s design studio in New York the following year. After turning down an assistant designer position there, he returned to Australia to complete his honours year, then headed to Paris and worked in the Cerruti studio for two seasons. In March 2002, he won the New Designer Award at the Melbourne Fashion Festival - at the time, arguably the most prestigious Australian fashion industry accolade. Two months later, assisted by that $10,000 prize purse, Maticevski made his solo debut at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney. He debuted at New York Fashion Week in September 2006.

Galliano launched his business in June 1984, when his entire graduation collection was bought by legendary British buyer Joan Burstein and prominently displayed in the front window of her high profile London boutique Browns. Galliano began showing at London Fashion Week later that year and at Paris Fashion Week in 1989. After gaining and losing several financial backers and eventually bankrupting himself, the brilliantly creative, but notoriously hard-partying and non business-minded designer decamped penniless from London to Paris in 1991, where he was taken under the wing of various influential figures. These included designer Azzedine Alaïa, who loaned him studio space and US Vogue’s British-born editor Anna Wintour, who made various introductions. 

A series of spectacular productions ensued, with favours called in from, among many others, supermodels Naomi Campbelll, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, who donated their services. Aided also by his longtime côterie of creative enablers - stylist Amanda Harlech, milliner Stephen Jones, DJ Jeremy Healey and lieutenant Stephen Robinson - Galliano wowed Paris with a series of over-the-top theatrical productions which drew attention to his fabulous clothes, which were noted for their exquisite tailoring and his reinvention of the bias-cut evening gown, first pioneered by Madeleine Vionnet in the 1920s. In 2004, when Galliano's name first pops up in WWD's archive, the paper referred to Galliano as “the toast of the Spring collections” and a “master of technique”, whose “passion for bias-cut glamour is influencing many couture collections” and whose “beautifully-executed clothes” with "couture-like finishes" included what WWD dubbed as simply “the best jackets in Paris”.

In 1995, when luxury conglomerate LVMH was looking for a new couturier to replace the soon-to-retire Hubert de Givenchy from his namesake maison, little wonder Galliano got the job. He was the talk of Paris. Nevertheless, his Givenchy debut earned mixed reviews: raves, predictably, from the British press; although Brit Suzy Menkes of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune slammed the collection on page one of the paper noting, "John Galliano's much-awaited show for Givenchy was a fashion moment that missed. For all its poetry and theater, the show did not propel haute couture into the next millennium or define a new image for the house." In 1996, LVMH swapped Galliano for Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and appointed Galliano as the new creative director of Givenchy’s LVMH stablemate, Christian Dior.

To be sure, there is only one John Galliano, just as there was only one Alexander McQueen, another legendary fashion showman and incredible tailor. But McQueen is dead and Galliano is disgraced, having been convicted and fined for public insult, after a series of drunken, racist tirades at Parisian watering hole La Perle last year. Galliano was sacked from not only his post at Dior, but even his own eponymous label, 91percent of which is reportedly owned by LVMH.  

Now, LVMH urgently needs to appoint a Dior successor. The latest in a long line of names thrown into the ring as potential candidates is Colombian Haider Ackermann.

toni maticevski at new york fashion week (various)/sonny vandevelde
In these turbulent economic times, when even well established and respected designers such as Raf Simons and Stefano Pilati can shockingly be jettisoned at the drop of a hat from their respective creative directorships at Jil Sander and Yves Saint Laurent, in favour of founder Jil Sander herself and Hedi Slimane, it appears that the big end of the fashion business looks to be on the hunt for designer superstars, rather than quiet achievers who can get the job done. 
Maticevski definitely falls into the latter category. He laughed when I asked him backstage in Melbourne on Thursday if he had considered throwing his hat into the Dior ring. And yet he subsequently revealed that some time around 2003, when Kuwaiti luxury retailer sheikh Majed Al-Sabah first announced plans to relaunch the Vionnet brand, Maticevski contacted him about the creative director position. He was turned down.

How does one even get considered for jobs like this? There are luxury industry headhunters, for starters. Paris-based Australian Michelle Jank - who once told me Dior would be her dream job - has had discussions with one such headhunter

Personal recommendations are not to be underestimated. Maticevski’s career was not borne of the British fashion system and the support of the influential British fashion press – which includes a figure no less authoritative than Wintour. As for rave reviews, however, Maticevski has had more than his fair share, at least in Australia. In 2001, Vogue Australia fashion director Gabriele Mihajlovski told The Sydney Morning Herald, "We saw him about 18 months ago and it was obvious he had an eye for clothes that no-one else has. Each piece was like a couture piece... he's one of the most exciting designers we have at the moment."

Maticevski initially got a foot in the door at New York Fashion Week in 2006 via an IMG/UPS fashion incubator initiative but really, should he have stayed in that market? With some 300 designers showing around town every season, New York Fashion Week is ridiculously overcrowded and it is extremely hard for emerging designers to get any publicity cut-through. 

The US is also a very commercially-driven sportswear market. A reviewer on Condé Nast’s website, for instance, tut-tutted over the showstopper acid-bright 'doona' dresses in Maticevksi's Fall/Winter 2008/2009 collection - which noted brought another Australian to mind (“freak legend Leigh Bowery”.) "I thought fuck it, I'm just going to show weird shit" Maticevski told me backstage after the show - a tactic that of course rarely failed Galliano, at least right up until the point last year when he declared his love for Hitler. The doona dresses were spectacular editorial pieces which would have fared much better on a London runway. One eventually appeared on the cover of Thames & Hudson's 2010 book, FASHION: Australian & New Zealand Designers, authored by Mitchell Oakley-Smith.

Maticevski wound up showing in New York for seven seasons, with generally good reviews from, WWD, US Vogue, among many others. Thirty percent of his business is now private order, with clients in the US, the Middle East and Australia happy to pay the AUD 5,500-25,000 price tags of his made-to-measure confections. The read-to-wear ranges from AUD 150-1200 and sells through a handful of highend Australian boutiques and the Myer department store chain.

No, Maticevski is not a flamboyant showman à la Galliano. Nor has he ever been bankrupt, by the way, or had outside financial backing.

But he is exceptionally talented and he has certainly done his time. And how incredible would it be to see just what a quiet achiever like Maticevski could do with unlimited resources and the fabled craftsmanship of the Paris haute couture ateliers?


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