Andrew Gn chose to present his new spring 2012 collection last month in the ornate and intimate surroundings of the Hotel Crillon in Paris. While many fashion designers opt for big auditoria, Gn prefers a presentation that recalls the exclusivity of the haute couture salons of the past. This way, the audience can see the fabrics, the finely beaded detail and the craftsmanship at close quarters. Given the workmanship, or savoir faire, as the French would say, that goes into the clothes, why doesn't he do haute couture?
"I don't need to because I already have that kind of client," Gn explains. "My clothes are very couture without being couture."
What he does is very luxurious, with a lot of hand-crafted detail, which he regards as "the modern approach to expressing oneself in a high-couture way".
To endorse that viewpoint, the Singaporean designer guides us around his own opulent private salon, which he opened in an 18th-century townhouse in Paris's Marais district a year ago. Here, well-heeled customers book appointments to order pieces from his chic ready-to-wear collection or special pieces made exclusively for them.
His salon recreates the shopping experience a client might have had 50 or 60 years ago at Schiaparelli, Chanel or Dior. They relax in intimate surroundings filled with artwork and antiques, sip drinks and nibble on macaroons while a house model shows off the clothes. This level of service is tailored to his high-end clientele who treasure their privacy, including celebrities such as Beyoncé, Eva Mendes, Amy Adams, Middle Eastern royalty, Chinese billionaires and prominent Europeans and Americans.
The Middle East accounts for about 25 per cent of his business now, with the collection selling in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. There are many clients who like to travel to Paris, however, for private shopping appointments, he says. "We have a lot of clients, including the royal families of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Five or six princesses may come in - we close the salon for them and our VIP executive tends to them. I have to be absent; they are very traditional about that." Nevertheless, he will meet them if there is a highly exclusive design project.
"I feel couture is important, but women do not necessarily have time for five fittings. It is very time-consuming and we are trying to modernise it."
Now he will make a toile (a test garment) and send that with one of the team from his atelier to be pinned and fitted on the client. The dress is then made from that. "It's much easier that way and we are very precise."
While much of the new summer collection is ultra short, Gn will always adapt elements like length, sleeves and neckline for his clientele. "Fashion changes all the time - the coming season is all about print and colour, and tastes change accordingly because clients are now very much tuned into trends. Our Middle Eastern clientele is very sophisticated and no longer reflect the predictable Middle Eastern look."
The designer is inherently drawn to luxury. Even in his early days, when he designed a T-shirt, it had to be a cashmere T-shirt. He is renowned for his ornate embellishment and love of plush fabrics and he is one of the few still to make everything in France, which he says "makes a hell of a difference".
Clients come to him for his coats, dresses and beautiful shirts and blouses, which sell in all the best stores from Harrods, to Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Boutique 1 and Saks Fifth Avenue (including Dubai and Riyadh). "My goal is to design something that cannot be copied in 48 hours by fast fashion."
Jackets start at €2,500 (Dh12,800) and gowns at €7,000, but the special designs are considerably more.
A personal taste for art and antiques initially tempted Gn to study at London's Victoria & Albert Museum or Sotheby's to become a curator or auctioneer. "Finally, I decided to make fashion my career and collecting antiques my hobby," says Gn. He trained at St Martin's in London and the Domus Academy in Milan in the 1980s, then worked for Emanuel Ungaro in Paris before launching his own business in 1996.
Evidence of his passion and discerning taste fill his 18th-century apartment in Paris's funky ninth arrondissement where he retreats to design his collections as well as to this salon. The salon was originally his design studio, which he found 10 years ago when he was having breakfast in the Marais. For years, clients would visit the showroom in the studio, but success meant the business outgrew the space. "Sometimes, staff would be pushing through plastic bags and boxes to get to the US$25,000 (Dh92,000) gowns, which was fun at first, but after a while you have to justify the price of that gown."
When he found new studio space across the road, he set about transforming his former headquarters into a glamorous new environment evoking the elegant couture salons of old. The design was inspired by couturier Paul Poiret's Atelier de Martine decorative arts workshop, founded in 1911. The eclectic décor echoes the cosmopolitan world of the early 20th century when people started to travel to more exotic places and brought things back. Working with architects, artists and artisans, Gn set about the transformation.
"I wasn't going to leave this pleasure to an interior decorator," he exclaims with amusement. "Interior design is another of my passions."
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