Social powerhouse Goga Ashkenazi has tapped cerebral designer Hussein Chalayan for Vionnet’s demi-couture line.
“I’m not jazz hands,” says Hussein Chalayan in his typical even tone, stating the obvious. We’re at the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris, just about to take a look at the demi-couture collection he has designed for Vionnet, which is to be presented that night. “No, I’m the jazz hands,” cuts in Vionnet’s creative director, Goga Ashkenazi, before exploding into a coughing fit. Ashkenazi is Vionnet’s owner, responsible not just for the look and feel of the brand but also for its bottom line. She has not been spared from the preshow all-nighters, or from the cold that often comes as a result.
When she hired Chalayan last fall, it was not the most obvious match. A 43-year-old introverted Turkish Cypriot raised in North London, Chalayan is best known for his highly conceptual architectural experiments that push the limits of what we call clothes: sugar-glass dresses that models smashed onstage with hammers; a resin dress with moving airplane parts; a collapsible wooden table that turned into a circle skirt. Ashkenazi, meanwhile, is a 34-year-old Kazakh social cyclone who hopscotches between Milan, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York; has palled around with Prince Andrew; and once accidentally bid a quarter of a million pounds on a painting because she was waving to her friend J. Lo during an auction.
Still, when Chalayan and Ashkenazi met to see if her idea to hire him had legs, they hit it off immediately. Now they bring to mind a well-dressed Mutt and Jeff, finishing each other’s sentences. For their second meeting, Chalayan showed up with a stack of sketches. “I had some work in my suitcase I thought I could show, just in case,” he demurs. “It was like, a lot,” Ashkenazi interjects. “And Goga just spread them out on the floor and started saying…” “I said, ‘Let’s do this and this and this…’ ” “And I was so pleased because you just never know how it’s going to work out,” Chalayan concludes. Admittedly, there were some bumps in the road: “I remember once with the sketches…” Ashkenazi confesses, laughing. “Yes, Goga drew on them once, and I was like…” Chalayan says before Ashkenazi picks up again. “He was like, ‘Who drew on the sketches?!’ And everyone said, ‘Goga did!’ ”
But Chalayan swears that his biggest fear—that there would be too many cooks in Vionnet’s kitchen—has not materialized. In fact, he and Ashkenazi have more in common than meets the eye: Chalayan is a believer in the power of technology to push fashion forward, and Ashkenazi is always happy to point out that Madeleine Vionnet’s experiments with bias cuts and knife pleats were considered revolutionary in her day. It helps explain why Chalayan’s first collection for the label included unorthodox references such as spiral staircases, electrical wiring, and pattern-cutting paper.
And yet, the results did not come off as academic: A multi-layered nude organza column—cut on the bias, of course—that featured laser cutaways forming concentric circles would not be out of place on the red carpet. Several halter dresses were suspended from beaded harnesses and embellished with an array of sunray, straight, and irregular pleats. All the looks are available in a variety of sizes and can be tailored in just one fitting, as opposed to the three or four that a couture garment requires. Cutting out the extra fittings means prices start at just over $4,000—a fraction of traditional haute couture. This makes the pieces a lot easier to sell, though the idea of pushing her label does not sit so well with Ashkenazi. “I work in the salesroom too, and that part of the business interests me,” she says. “But to my friends I just say: ‘Listen, if you like it, buy it. If you don’t, don’t.’ ”