Monday, June 30, 2008

A New Collaboration with Dia Diwan & The Polyglot

As the Paris haute couture season kicks off, The Polyglot would like to announce the beginning of a new collaboration with uber chic fashion zine Dia Diwan.

Not even a year into its launch and this online magazine has garnered considerable attention for being one of the first to showcase another face of the Middle East; one that is increasingly design savvy and capable of producing a vibrant artistic scene. Founded by a globe trotting group of individuals who grew up, studied and worked around the world (but still call the Middle East home), Dia Diwan strives to debunk preconceived notions of the Arab world, by showcasing just how small our globe has become through the region’s contemporary design and cultural scene.

As part of The Polyglot’s continued objective to bridge cultures through all things fashion and design, this meeting with Dia Diwan comes at a time when dialogue between the West and the Middle East has become all the more relevant. I will be contributing articles to the site in the coming weeks dealing with topics as diverse as architecture, fashion, and culture that shed light on people, events and places that are a common link between both cultures.

I look forward to announcing new and exciting projects in the future.

All the Best,
The Polyglot

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Can a designer make an impact outside of established centers of fashion? Melissa Serpico, a young Chicago designer is out to prove it's possible.

About seven years ago when Italian Vogue shot a photo spread in Chicago’s then up-and-coming neighborhood of Wicker Park, fashion pundits took note. Soon other style bibles such as Wallpaper followed the trail to the Windy City in the hopes of capturing a neccessant design scene; one that has been simmering beneath the weight of this city’s industrial past, waiting for a collective break-through moment to come about.

That particular moment, at least to those who follow the goings of the fashion industry, came in the form of the April 2008 issue of WWD, when the publication devoted a majority of its pages to chronicling the city’s up and coming designers; as well as influential individuals within the business who call Chicago home.

Amongst the handful of designers who caught the attention of New York editors, thus landing a spot in the 2008 issue, was Melissa Serpico Kamhout. In addition to being the recipient of the Marshall Field's Perry Ellis Award in 2005, this former graphic designer, who is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago’s fashion program, has been garnering serious attention since launching her own business less than two years ago.

As most people are aware, there are certain risks involved in establishing ones own fashion line in today’s saturated market, especially one that is based outside of traditional centers of design. There is the challenge of financing such an enterprise as well as sourcing materials, finding skilled patternmakers and seamstresses to fabricate clothes in large enough quantities. The survival rate is low, but there are inevitably a few stars that shine through, not simply because they are good designers or are capable of producing innovative ideas. Innovation after all is only the first step to sustaining a business, which leads one to ask what has enabled Serpico to stand out so early on in her career?

I was first introduced to Melissa Serpico last winter by the Chicago based metal smith (and the city’s design doyen) Gillian Carrara, at an event hosted by the Chicago Fashion Council. Like most industry events, the introduction was brief and like most conversations at such events, it did not revolve around fashion. We didn’t cross paths again until last Friday night.

I was invited to a friend’s gallery opening at the Fountainhead Lofts in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood; an area favored by artists and designers for its low rents. The building, which once housed a mattress factory, had been converted into a warren of studios housing a creative group of individuals. There is a fashion photographer who goes by the name of Miss Red, an artist who paints huge canvases depicting aerial views of Paris and Rome, and a young architect who created Design Lab Workshop as a side project, where he designs and fabricates furniture from cardboard and other found and recycled materials.

On this particular night the doors to the Fountainhead’s studios had been flung open, as part of the Chicago Arts District’s “2nd Fridays Gallery Night”. It’s an opportunity for Chicago residents (at least those who care about such things) to walk in and experience an artist or designer’s private work space, as well as galleries that are usually “by appointment only.” With the strums of a jazz quartet wafting through the building (and a generous glass of wine) patron’s make their way from floor to floor on a sort of creative treasure hunt, not knowing for certain what they will find around the corner or in the next studio.

It was in this way that I came upon Serpico’s studio, a split level loft housed between two artist’s collectives. Inside, two rails holding a sampling of her designs had been pushed to either side of the walls.

When speaking to Melissa Serpico, you're not only getting a crash coarse in the realities of starting ones own business, but also the passion for design that drives an individual to want to make a difference in their chosen profession.

She had just come back from Milan where she had found a new manufacturer to produce her collection (as it happens, it is the same factory that produces the Burberry Prorsum line). Previously all her designs were fabricated by a company in New York’s garment district, but after careful consideration Serpico realized she needed to up the quality of her pieces. Italy was a natural choice for her, as she had been sourcing her fabrics from there for the last couple of seasons, and had already established a relationship with several showrooms in Milan.

For any designer will tell you, there is an element of risk involved when you take into consideration the costs of purchasing fabrics and manufacturing ones clothes abroad, especially for a fledgling designer. But for Serpico, who travels to Italy to check on the production of her line, there was no compromising on the quality and fabrication of her clothes.

As she pulls out pieces to show me from the racks of clothes, it quickly becomes apparent as to what makes her designs stand out from the rest of the pack. There is a level of detailing and execution in the pieces that is seldom seen in designers with similar years of experience. Serpico’s pieces often go against the prevailing notion of fast fashion, by employing a lot of handwork. After the clothes have been produced in the factory, they often return to her studio where they are then painstakingly finished with details and embellishment by hand. On the hanger is a black top of luxuriant washed cotton, which had been hand stitched with rows of tiny black discs, giving off the effect of armor or fish scales. I asked Serpico if the shiny discs were made out of vinyl, to which she smiled mischievously and said they were in fact cut from patent leather that had be treated in such a way to shine brilliantly.

Another aspect that comes through in Serpico’s work is her intense knowledge of draping and fabric construction. The process of creating a design is just as important as the initial sketch. In many instances she begins by draping the fabric on a dummy in order to understand its properties. She show’s me a semi-transparent shift composed of different colored strips of organza. “Organza can be very challenging to work with at times, as it has a tendency to catch or wrinkle,” she explained. “I had to rework this piece several times before it came out right,” she went on as she traced a finger along the stitched seams that hold the dress’s different pieces together, as well as provide its only embellishment.

We move to another part of her studio, where she points to a small tack board holding images that inspired the fall collection she’s currently working on. “The entire wall was covered in pictures when I first began designing the collection; it’s now down to these,” She explained. The images are an amalgam of Moorish palaces, black and white abstract prints and a smattering of modernist architecture. In fact Serpico has always had an affinity for the clean lines and fanciful detailing found in buildings of different periods. This influence comes through in the way she uses darts and seams not only as part of a garment’s structure, but also its decoration.

To further explain her process Melissa pulls out a large sketch book holding the blue prints for her new fall collection. Each piece has been meticulously drawn from the front, back, and inside out. While on the side were inscribed careful notes that describe how each item must be assembled, down to the type of thread and closures. Despite all this information she manages to leave enough spaces on the sheets for numbered fabric swatches.

Serpico’s love of working fabric and hand applied embellishment also gave birth to the “made-to-order” portion of her business, where she works with each client to create unique pieces. It’s a part of her work that has received a lot of attention of late, for the way she sculpts and drapes fabric in order to give drama and heft to some of her most unique pieces.

Although we discussed the challenges of starting up ones own business and establishing a niche in a larger fashion world, what became apparent is that this young designer is only just beginning to hit her stride and we can expect to see great things from her in the future.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ever Wonder Where French Fashion’s Elite Went to School?

Over the last few decades the Paris fashion scene, like the rest of the industry, has become increasingly international. A peak into the corporate offices and design studios of some of the French capital’s fashion houses can often resemble the United Nations general assembly; with individuals from places as diverse as India, Japan, Norway, and of coarse the United States. Dior is currently headed by the Brit John Galliano, at Louis Vuitton it’s the American Marc Jacobs, YSL is designed by the Italian Stefano Pilati, while Sonia Rykiel recently announced the appointment of the German born Gabrielle Greiss as its new creative director.

Despite this, the fashion industry constitutes a small slice of Paris’ expatriate community that numbers in the thousands, and to accommodate their offspring Paris can boast a number of international and bilingual schools.

Institutions such as the “International School of Paris,” “The American School,” “Bilingual Montessori School,” “The British School,” and the “Marymount,” have graduated a number of well known individuals over the decades. But there is one school in particular that has consistently produced some of Paris fashion’s brightest talents. It’s called Lubeck and counts amongst its alumni Dior’s haute jewelry designer, the creative director of Loris Azzaro, and a former First Lady of France.

But unlike many of the international players listed above this group is mostly French, with a few of its members representing the kind of blue-blood families that can trace their lineage back to pre-revolutionary days. It’s also a reminder of the strong French presence that still dominates Paris fashion’s inner circle, despite the prominence of foreign designers and CEO’s.

It’s a group that is notoriously tough to crack and well connected. Occasionally the public has been allowed a glimpse into their world, most recently when Carla Bruni married French president Nicolas Sarkozy in a private ceremony. One of the witnesses at the wedding of the French/Italian former model, who is also a product of Paris’ private education system, was Farida Khelfa. Although she may not be a household name, Khelfa, a muse to Azzedine Alaia and the former directrice of Gaultier’s couture salon, has for decades been a prominent figure on the Paris fashion scene.

Founded in 1882, Lubeck is run by a religious order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Religious of the Assumption. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s it was considered one of the best private schools for girls in Paris (today it is coed). Oddly enough its students bared a striking resemblance to the characters in the Madeleine series of books, with their navy uniforms and daily visits to the chapel.

Although this private school for 11-18 year old girls, located in Paris’ 16th Arrondissement, was off limits to boys, it did not deter the opposite sex. According to novelist Frederic Beigbeder, the street facing Lubeck was known as a sort of “male paradise.” “Whenever you went to Lubeck, there were always loads of guys outside, waiting on their mobilettes,” he recalled.

But despite a high concentration of girls from well to do families, the school also welcomed an equal number from middle and lower class families, as well as a mix of international students that provided a unique environment to learn in.

Several prominent figures in the fashion business either sent their daughters to Lubeck or had sisters and nieces who attended. This mix inevitably nurtured friendships that would last decades and shape professional careers. Today you find graduates from the school working in every field of the business from fashion design, to accessories and even publishing. Prominent alumni are frequently seen chatting at fashion shows and attending industry events together, despite working for different houses; exhibiting the sort of camaraderie that has lasted through time and the vagaries of fashion.

Here is a brief cross section of some of Lubeck’s illustrious alumni:

1. Emmanuelle Alt:

After working as the fashion editor in chief for the French publication “20 Ans” for five years, Alt became the fashion director of French Vogue. Together with editor in chief Carine Roitfeld, she was responsible for repositioning the magazine in 2001 as an influential fashion bible. With her tall thin frame she has come to embody the epitome of French cool, often sporting an androgynous mix of pants, leather bomber jackets and vertigoes heels. She’s frequently photographed in the front row at the international collections, while her fashion layouts for the French magazine have come to represent a new generation of photographers and stylists.

2. Vanessa Seward:

On Lubeck: The Argentine born designer moved to Paris as a child and was immediately enrolled at Lubeck. Seward believes that Lubeck’s connection to the fashion industry was the product of several factors, most notably, “exceptionally pretty girls who were very social, got photographed a lot, and had incredible connections”. “For many of us, working at the Chanel Studio became one of fashion’s rites of passages,” continued Seward, alluding to the fact that a number of graduates had put in some time at the famous couture house.

Fashion connection: In a somewhat prophetic twist of fate, Seward’s mother had worked at Loris Azzaro’s boutique during the 80’s. She also has an excellent fashion pedigree that includes a nine year stint working with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, and two years with Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. She counts fellow Lubeck alum Victoire de Castellane amongst her close friends, and worked with her while at Chanel.

Where is she now: Seward was handpicked by Loris Azzaro as his successor before he passed away in 2004. A favorite of Jane Birkin and Marisa Berenson in the 70’s, Azzaro was known for his glamorous and languid evening gowns. Since Seward took over the design helm, the house has seen a renewed interest in its designs as well as attracting a new clientele that includes Carine Roitfeld of French Vogue and Claudia Schiffer.

“My mother worked in his shop during the Eighties and he made a big impression on me early in my life,” said Seward. “I have always loved Seventies glamour and so it seemed natural to carry on his legacy. In fact it’s my perfect job.”

3. Caroline Deroche:

On Lubeck: Like most of her classmates who went into the fashion business, Deroche had some definite opinions on how the school’s uniforms shaped her early perceptions of fashion. According to her they definitely gave students “a sense of discipline,” but added that “to make up for being dressed alike, everyone made a huge effort with their hair.”

Fashion connection: Deroche was literally born into fashion. Her mother worked at Yves Saint Laurent, and when she arrived at the illustrious couture house on Avenue Marceau, it was simply as a temporary replacement for someone on maternity leave. She ended up staying for ten years. Next followed a five year stint at Louis Vuitton where she worked with another Lubeck grad, Camille Miceli.

Where is she now: As director of public relations at the house of Givenchy, Deroche is considered a style icon and has even been featured in the pages of French Vogue (no doubt courtesy of friend Emmanuelle Alt).

She has been at Givenchy for less than a year, yet describes the house’s atmosphere as a “modern, crazy, familial” environment, where she is completely in tune with the dark gothic aesthetic that Riccardo Tisci has been cultivating for the label. Today she tends to wear a lot Givenchy, occasionaly mixing in vintage pieces by Yves Saint Laurent that she’s accumulated over the years (a swell as a few from her mother’s closet). One piece of clothing that she can never part with is a black Alaia jersey dress that she’s had for “a few years” but continues to wear.

4. Camille Miceli:

On Lubeck: For Miceli, the school’s unique mix of students left a lasting impression on her. She described the experience as “very free thinking and international,” adding “where the daughters of diplomats and daughters of concierges,” mixed in an open educational environment.

Fashion connection: The daughter of a top stylist, the half-French half-Italian Miceli landed her first fashion job at Azzendine Alaia’s studio, quickly moving on to Chanel. At the time she wanted to gain as much experience as possible in the business, so she became Chanel’s public relations director, as well as producing and casting many of its fashion shows. During this period she learnt a lot about the business by working closely with Karl Lagerfeld.

Where is she now: Often sited as the chicest woman working in Paris fashion today, most of us got our first glimpse of Miceli at work in Loïc Prigent's recent documentary on Marc Jacobs. In the first scene we find her on the roof top of Louis Vuitton’s headquarters on the Rue du Pont Neuf, dipping necklaces composed of fabric covered spheres into a large bowl of bleach. Next you see her cajoling a fournisseur, trying to convince him to procure additional flower ornaments for the upcoming spring collection.

For the last ten years Miceli has been the head accessories and jewelry designer at Louis Vuitton, having been lured away from Chanel in 1997 by Robert Duffy to become a part of the label’s creative dream team. At the time she joined Vuitton she was looking for a more creative position in the fashion industry. She recently collaborated with Pharrell Williams on a new jewelry collection for Vuitton that was unveiled at a sumptuous Avenue Foch mansion owned by a wealthy Saudi Arabian Sheikh.

She often sites fellow Lubeck grad Victoire de Castellane as a jewelry designer whose work she greatly admires.

5. Victoire de Castellane:

On Lubeck: The school’s strict rules and uniforms provided de Castellane with a crash coarse in the power of accessorizing, in order to standout from her fellow classmates. According to de Castellane, “They were a needed self-expression and, in many ways, a sort of Step One to getting interested in fashion.”

Fashion Connection: Her uncle is Gilles Dufour, for many years Karl Lagerfeld’s right hand man at Chanel. It was through him that de Castellane gained an introduction to Lagerfeld and went on to become Chanel’s head accessories designer for 14 years (even taking the occasional turn down the Chanel runway). Despite such early connections it quickly became apparent that de Castellane had talent, going on to create some of the house's most iconic accessories.

She has been a jewelry fanatic since she grew up watching her grandmother, Sylvia Hennessy (of the Hennessy cognac family) changing her baubles to match her different outfits several times a day. By the time she was 11 de Castellane was sketching her jewelry designs and having them made at an atelier. She even melted down her catechism medals and turned them into trinkets.

Where is she now: It’s hard to miss de Castellane in a room with her trademark bangs and platform wedges. Since being appointed as Dior’s haute jewelry designer in 1998, she’s managed to turn the conservative world of fine jewelry on its head. Her creations often reinterpret the house’s codes, such as ribbons, hounds tooth checks and pastel hues into bold and whimsical creations. Thus a flaming starfish necklace composed of 3000 yellow and orange sapphires, or a ring of coral roses that has been blown up to massive proportions to include a bumble bee alighting from one of its petals.

“I like things that are exaggerated,” declared de Castellane. “Big, comic book-style jewelry.”

6. Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz:

On Lubeck: The former French first lady counts amongst her closest friends Mathilde Agostinelli and her sister Victoire de Castellane who not only attended Lubeck together but also frequently played at each others homes as children. Their friendship continued through adulthood, attending each others weddings, with Agostinelli even helping pick out Cecilia’s wardrobe during her former husband’s inauguration.

Fashion connection: After graduating from Lubeck she went on to study law, only to drop out of law school in order to become a fitting model for the couturier Schiaparelli. Albeniz has always been well connected within the upper echelons of French fashion. When she married Nicolas Sarkozy in 1996, Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, was one of two witnesses at their wedding. Her father Andre Ciganer, who immigrated to France from Russia was a furrier. While her mother, Spanish-Belgian Teresita Albeniz de Swert was the daughter of a Spanish diplomat.

Where is she now: In the short period she inhabited the Elysee Palace, Cecilia simultaneously managed to redefine the role of France’s first lady and project a modern vision of French chic across the world. The day her former husband was sworn into office she wore an ivory duchess satin Prada dress, while her daughters wore black dresses by Mui Mui (courtesy of her friend Mathilde Agostinelli).

She often appeared at official functions in Lanvin, Dior, and Azzedine Alaia slip dresses instead of the prim suits typically favored by first ladies around the world. Albeniz also frequently outshone women half her age who appeared overly made up, by avoiding excessive jewelry, hair, makeup and even a handbag, in favor of a more natural look.

The French press, which traditionally paid little attention to the wardrobe of its first ladies, suddenly began commenting on her taste in clothes. So much so that French Elle devoted two issues to analyzing her style, and comparing her to the late Jacqueline Onassis.

After divorcing her husband in 2007, she married Moroccan born public relations executive Richard Attias in a private ceremony at New York’s landmark Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center.

7. Mathilde Agostinelli:

On Lubeck: According to Agostinelli, by the time she graduated from Lubeck, the years of adhering to a rigid dress code of navy uniforms had a somewhat negative affect on her, “it swore me off that color for life.”

Fashion Connection: The blue blooded de Castellanes are not only considered fashion royalty, but can trace their lineage back to the land owning aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France. So much so that Mathilde and her sister Victoire were given a cameo appearance in Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette.” By now most people are also aware that her uncle is Gilles Dufour, Lagerfeld’s former assistant at Chanel and her sister Victoire de Castellane is Dior’s haute jewelry designer.

Where is she now: As Prada and Miu Miu public-relations manager and official ambassador for the brand in France, she holds the tricky position of being a go-between for Miuccia Prada and the fashion press. “The French say, Naviguer en l’eau douce (sail in friendly waters). You have to be very careful,” according to Agostinelli. She continues to be a prominent figure during Paris fashion week and can frequently be seen during the collections with her close friend and fellow Lubeck alum Camille Miceli.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS