Tag Archives: New York

{Time Travel} Chronicles of Chic: Mighty milliner – a tale of perseverance

7 Mar

“Christian Lacroix once said, “a hat is the dot on the ‘i’; to me, this is exactly it; it finishes an outfit, it’s like an exclamation mark; it’s so small… It’s sculptural.’ Albertus Swanepoel’s stylish sculptures are often seen perched on the heads of Hollywood celebrities and dandling on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week; don’t be fooled, the road was long to make it in America. The milliner from Pretoria meets with EMILIE GAMBADE from Paris in midtown Manhattan.

Lafayette Street; Courtney Love walks by, swathed in a long brown shapeless coat, hair hanging loose, her shadow soon swallowed by the city. Albertus Swanepoel, a tall silhouette dressed head-to-toe in black, punctuated with an impassable smile, meets this reporter at a local coffee shop, down a steep staircase.

Seated at a round table in the darkness of a midtown Manhattan underground café, Swanepoel appears graceful despite his haute stature; it might be the softness of his voice or the light hopping in his eyes, but there is gentleness in his being, something that also shines through his creations. It could be two fuchsia and coral flowers on a straw hat, a piece of gold brocade, a cloche covered with tango-pink lace, a shweshwe ribbon crowning a wide-brimmed panama; there is grace and an undeniable distinctiveness in his elegant hats, a panache out of Africa.

Born in Pretoria, Swanepoel studied fashion design and worked for seven years in the country until he and his wife decided to leave South Africa for the US: “My big dream was to go to Paris; yet, I was so stunned by New York… it was in 1989; it was very glamorous.”

In 1991, the glamour dims as recession hits America and the aspiring fashion designer is forced to apply his creativity and talent to a more lucrative project. “I couldn’t get a job because I had to get sponsored and this wasn’t easy; I (was) more and more depressed; my wife and I bought gloves from Italy and started decorating them with rhinestones and other precious things; it was all done by hand… It (was) very chic.”

Fifth Avenue luxury goods store Bergdorf Goodman was suitably charmed: a $10,000 order followed, leading Swanepoel and his wife towards a growing fashion accessory commerce operating mainly in winter when temperatures drop and the demand for gloves blooms. “Because it was only a winter business, I had to do something for summer; I reluctantly went back to school and started to study millinery at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT); I interned for millinery for another seven years and was a hand-weaver over the weekend; at one point, I handled three jobs; things were really tough… It was miserable.”

The Swanepoel couple ran their small hat company until they separated in 2000; Albertus then stumbled into a series of what he calls “disasters”, from losing his job as style editor of Martha Stewart Wedding magazine to being evicted from his Manhattan flat. Yet, no matter the bumpy road, no matter the shared Brooklyn apartment with 11 other people and a storage room where all his belongings – hat blocks, books, clothes – were flooded and destroyed in one night, there is no bitterness in Swanepoel’s tone as he tells the story of his journey to New York; instead, he is a humble man who got used to constantly adjusting the helm and accepting hiccups as part of the ride.

It was only two years after separating from his wife, in 2002, that Swanepoel met his boyfriend who happens to know the head of design at Marc Jacobs. Jacobs’s team needed hats for the collection and soon Swanepoel designed a first range, quickly followed by another one for Proenza Schouler. “First, they (Proenza Schouler) ordered five cloches; then 10; the day before the show, they ordered 25 dark cloches. A hat is the last thing designers and stylists think about; it’s like ‘oh, okay, let’s put a hat on the model!’ I worked through the night for three days and, in the end, the show looked amazing.” So much so that Style.com featured Swanepoel in its digital magazine, 25 gallery-pages of his creations and the beginning of recognition; the wheel had turned.

“I didn’t have a collection at the time. I literally slammed a collection in a week, went to see Barney’s – they were the ultimate store to sell to – and they gave me an incredible order asking for exclusivity; that’s how my business really started.”

In 2008, Swanepoel entered the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund competition; founded to “support the next generation of American fashion designers”, it is to the world of fashion what the Academy Awards are to movies; doing well there it is to walk a Vogue walk of fame.

“They chose 10 finalists; I was one of them… you then become part of that very elite Vogue/CFDA clique. It helped my career unbelievably.” With a panel of judges including Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg and Patrick Robinson, ex-Director of GAP, it sure helps connect with the select “who is who” of the fashion family and fast-forward the climb to recognition; and if this wasn’t glamorous enough, there is always the occasional party at Wintour’s house. “They have this incredible network of business people who can help you… and of course, every year, there is a fabulous party.”

As a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner up, Swanepoel soon received press attention and his hats were regularly featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE or the New York Times. He also collaborated with Kate Winslet on her book The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism in which 100 celebrities wear his hat with proceeds being used to “build innovative living campuses for people with autism.”

Another benefit of being part of the CFDA/Vogue elite is exposure; the milliner was recently in Paris, part of the CFDA/Vogue exhibition called “Americans in Paris”; 10 carefully handpicked winners of the Fashion Fund competition presenting their range rue Marbeuf. PR-ed by KCD, the public relations house for Cartier, Balmain, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Gap, to name but a few, the exhibition is for the 10 designers a marketing coup on RedBull; if all sales fail, they have been presented as Wintour’s protégés, her reputable eye and non-dismissible opinion like a stamp of hype embossed on the designers’ creations.

Swanepoel can boast about covering the heads of Julia Roberts, Aretha Franklin, the über-trendy Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard; he can brag about designing hats to crown the collections of Thakoon, Caroline Herrera and Alexander Wang or drinking cocktails with Wintour, but he surprisingly doesn’t; he has a particularly sharp understanding of his place in a highly capricious world and a compassionate look at his struggling past.

“I was very upset the first few years… All I wanted was to be a fashion designer; it didn’t work… I always loved craft so it was easy to break into the fashion accessories world. I have a really small business, but I’m highly regarded and it’s a niche market; there are literally five of us in New York, who design hats for men and women.”

Would have it been the same in his home country? “I don’t think I would have had the same success story in South Africa; there is not the same hat culture, although one could think people should wear hats because of the sun; I feel in South Africa, it’s more  show business, it’s really ostentatious; people are trying to make a statement, which is not what I do. My hats are very much wearable.”

Swanepoel assessment of South Africa’s weak fashion sector that is handicapped by a lack of excellence in education, the decline of the manufacturing industry and a poor access to quality fabrics, is damning in its precision. “My teacher studied in London, there are brilliant pattern makers and tailors; they share their craftsmanship; there is no one in South Africa who can pass on that sort of legacy anymore. Do people travel? Get experience? In South Africa, ego seems to be bigger than talent… If you want to play on the bigger stage, then get real.”

Despite his obvious love for his birth country –, his constant use of African textures, fabrics, bits and pieces from the mother land – Swanepoel gives a piercing review of our local fashion design landscape: “I truly think that in South Africa there is amazing advertising, there are people doing incredible furniture design, industrial design, but fashion design stinks; there is nobody who gets it right; except maybe Marianne (Fassler), or Black Coffee; everybody else either copies Europe or it looks like a Broadway musical. I don’t understand it; I’m just fascinated.

Talent without knowledge, passion and perseverance often fades; but when it all comes together, it becomes like the dot on the “i”. Essential.

“I must say, I was a little bit the same when I started and I had never been overseas; I called myself a couture designer; I went to London, to New York and I walked into Barney’s; I saw what people can do; I was depressed out of my skull. I was like, what the hell have I been thinking?”  DM

This story was first published in the Daily Maverick



Chronicles of Chic: Some call it fashion, some call it the epic fight between good and evil

6 Mar
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South Africa has been engaged in some hefty gender debates lately, and with good reason. But on a more subtle level, the lens through which women are viewed is being bent in a hundred creative ways on the world at large’s catwalks. From powerful women in tailored outfits to models in sexualised positions, from a celebration of the female body to its abuse, fashion itself wobbles between the best and the worst. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, one could have been forgiven for wishing that one (South African) part of the split-screen would disappear in the ether of bad, bad horror fantasy. From the bottom of Africa and in the eyes of a fashion reporter, the news was divided between flashes of the New York Fashion Week and the horrible death of Reeva Steenkamp. While some were celebrating women modelling in a creative frenzy of the latest designs by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs, braving the blizzard left by the snowstorm Nemo, others were still stunned by the brutal deaths of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp.

In many ways, the paradox between women being abused, their rights being scorned all over the world, and pictures of models walking down the runway in luxury outfits, heels hammering the floor, projections of powerful and confident women, is rather ironic.

But it is not unsurprising: fashion battles with its own schizophrenia, partly iconic and inspiring, partly domineering. Fashion is pulled between feminism, a plea to empower and beautify women through their clothes and, on the opposite, an ultra-sexualisation of the woman’s body with a tendency to present models as objects instead of human beings. As feminist writer Meg Clark said, fashion is “An instrument of gender oppression and a means to feminist liberation.”

It is, without a doubt, dichotomous; on the good side, it is a symbol of women’s playful self-expression, a tool that can help shape someone’s public persona. Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan explains that “fashion is the way we choose to present ourselves in the public square. It captures whether or not we choose to be on trend, but also addresses those people who have a belligerence towards fashion and are very stern in the announcing of their lack of interest in the subject.”

Fashion could also be a liberation: French designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet freed women from corsets and stiff structures in the 1920s, liberating their natural curves; years of social caging suddenly disappeared. Coco Chanel inspired many to think for themselves, “aloud”, offering sportive masculine silhouettes, short haircuts, wide pants that made ruffles and long skirts look very passé. Yves Saint Laurent dressed women in ‘le smoking’ (a tuxedo for women) showing off what the New York Times called a “lavishly moneyed kind” of woman, comfortable in her own pants.

Economically, the fashion industry, mainly the Haute Couture houses, kept shining a bright light on craftsmanship, showing the importance of technical skills and hand-made works. Parisian atelier François Lesage is one example of prestige given to craft. The incredible embroideries added finesse and sophistication to clothes and brought local workmanship back to the front stage, a deep contrast with the today’s controversial trio of fast-fashion, cheap labour and poor quality.

On the darker side, fashion rhymes with gender oppression. Fashion imagery is often scandalous, offering women’s ti(r)ed, battered and strapped bodies to the public eye as a socially acceptable and even desirable norm. Photographer Helmut Newton, the master of ‘porn chic,’ who transformed fashion photography with his breathtaking black and white portraits, depicted a woman that was either a femme fatale or afemme objet. Although men were often seen servile in the background, it didn’t go without some heavy controversy, the idea that a woman cannot be anything else but a sexual object.


Photo: The work of Helmut Newton

Last year, Bulgarian magazine 12 made the fashion headlines for choosing disturbing images of battered women for its editorial “Victim of Beauty” in an attempt to present the art and ‘magic’ of make-up. The result was shocking, as the series depicted abused women as possible fashion icons. At its best, it did show how effective special-effects make-up could be. At its worst, it was an outrageous shoot by Vasil Germanov, using violence on women as a possible trend-setting fashion editorial.

Fashion is also the driving force behind a long-lasting stereotype that defines a ‘beautiful’ woman as eternally young and skinny. The ghosts of anorexia still haunt the backstage of fashion weeks, and magazines, although they sometimes welcome front covers with curves and voluptuousness, mainly feature androgynous girls.

Naomi Wolf noted in The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Thinness persists, and millions of women still bend under the weight of their scales, echoing the silent scream of an all-too obedient woman, who wants to please and appeal, prisoner of her own image.

Also on the list of controversies is the use of animal fur, which is a recurrent drama on the catwalks, PETA on the starting blocks of every fashion weeks, buckets of fresh blood in hand. Not to mention the race debates: white firmly remains the new white as seasons go by and racial diversity seems forever forgotten on international ramps; the fashion industry often sparks some heavy controversies about under-age labour in Asian countries.

What about fashion weeks? Apart from being a barometer of international trends, a marketplace for buyers from around the globe, and a recurrent live show for fashion controversies, it sometimes is and should be an epitome of femininity mixed with feminism, a tribute to women’s persona, as they are, ultimately, the clients. Madeleine Vionnet used to say, “The final aim of our métier is to create dresses that make a harmonious body and a pleasing silhouette. It is about making beauty. That’s what it’s all about.” Yves Saint Laurent claimed that what was “important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”

This is a concept that shone brightly at some of the collections presented this season in New York and London; the art of empowering women seemed to find its way between feminine and masculine combinations, ample and restrained volumes, round edges and sharp cuts, heavy fabrics and sheer layers. For Autumn/ Winter 2013-2014, designers who managed to dress the woman’s body with attention, engaged in a look that embraced genders’ union.

Timo Weiland in New York showed a ‘strictly comes Manhattan’ look that was extremely flattering. It was boyish without lacking femininity, the yin and the yang combined in blue marine checked pattern, red chiffon and above-the-knee long leather and sheep shearling coats; they added a touch of elegant fun with inverted-bowl-shaped caps by South African Albertus Swanepoel.

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Photos: Timo Weiland

Tommy Hilfiger also played with the feminine-meets-masculine, wide coats floating over the body, empowering women with classic elegance. Victoria Beckham’s voluminous silhouettes and tailored cuts, in herringbone, tweed and tartan were definitely modern, while Max Mara went for wide shapes, men’s coats, pyjama’s style in shades of bronze and deep black.

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Photo: Max Mara

A similar trend was seen at Alexander Wang, the new fashion ‘chéri’ at the helm of Balenciaga, with elongated silhouettes punctuated with bombers, hooded pullovers in cashmere and long gloves in black fur. At Pierre Balmain and Rag & Bone, the woman rocks, simply, an air of decisive confidence on her shoulders, black leather pants, tailored jackets and pointy boots.

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Photos: Alexander Wang

In London, Paul Smith painted his manly women’s collection in bright colours, pleated pants, men’s shirts and reefer jackets. It was impeccable and casually chic.

Not all shows presented collections with a masculine twist, and the ones that didn’t were still remarkable. But pictures of an urban woman, showing that confidence, spirit and strictness are not mutually exclusive and that fashion and feminism can work, were refreshing and soul-soothing.

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Photo: Paul Smith

And then there were the barbarians.

The few designers who thought that caging woman’s body in some impossible outfits or leaving them naked, maybe under the idea that fashion is art, was somehow appealing.

Thom Browne, a relatively low-key designer until Michelle Obama graced the world in one of his coats for last January inaugural day, produced an interesting collection, borderline between the witch from Snow White and a woman jumping out of a geometry book. Shoulders were wide; patterns were straight and in line and roses were red. All in all, his woman looked stiff and stuck in some motionless era. This said, once deconstructed and pieces taken individually, it could work.

Veteran British designer Pam Hogg went for bold outfits, as in loud and extravagant, and uncontrolled hats; imagine an infatuated Chapka in white fur toping up a full body transparent jumpsuit, with bits of bunny hair hiding the chest and the pelvic area. She also was inspired enough or lazy enough to present models in total nudity, pushing the ‘less is more’ to the new depths of meaninglessness. She should have listened to Robin Givhan’s comment: “What’s troubling is when you come across a rogue expression of sexuality or one that is disrespectful or dismissive of women’s power. If you express sexuality without a sense of power and control, fashion enters very troubling waters.”

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Photo: Pam Hogg

Also in London, Ekaterina Kukhareva’s knitwear collection was interesting, but the Desperate Housewives impossible hairstyle and higher-than-high platform shoes seemed fitter to Lady Gaga’s shows than to real life. Women do want to have fun, but not at the price of a broken leg.

After Paris, Johannesburg will host the AFI Fashion Week, from the 7 to the 9 March, and the South African Fashion Week, from 10 to 13 April. In the end, it will be a month and a half of fashion weeks.

“It pains me physically to see a woman victimised, rendered pathetic, by fashion,” said Yves Saint Laurent. In the light of the recent murders and the rise of violence on women, it is more than necessary that fashion stops trivialising women’s bodies, featuring restrained limbs, battered figures as something desirable or even trendy. Our troubled culture doesn’t need fashion to be a bitch; it needs inspiration and respect. Urgently. DM

 This article was first published in the Daily Maverick