The couturier Anne-Valérie talks about wisdom in design, John Galliano's downfall and why fashion is a man's world.
Fashion designer Anne-Valérie Hash on why fashion is a man's world
If you've ever seen Zoolander, you'll know that, for actors and audience alike, fashion is all about theatre. The Mugatus of the world find a comfortable home among the dramatic gestures and creative outbursts of this glamorous industry - and when the pressures of business are too great they can explode in spectacular fashion. This season's John Galliano debacle, and the rumours surrounding Christophe Decarnin, the now-former creative director of Balmain who was a no-show at Paris Fashion Week because he was being treated for depression, are just the latest examples where designers burn so brightly they burn out.
Anne-Valérie Hash, though, has little time for the fireworks and histrionics of the career she has chosen; she is an altogether quieter proposition, in every way.
Her clothes, for instance: they are complex in construction, luxurious in fabrication and progressive in design, reflecting her training at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, yet even her couture collection is eminently wearable and utterly Parisian. For all the work that attends each piece, the effect is effortless and simple, and it's an aesthetic that goes across each of her lines, from ready-to-wear to bridal, childrenswear and her more modestly priced AVHASHBY Anne Valérie Hash collection, launched last summer. Add in the newly launched e-commerce endeavour, www.a-v-h-boutique.com, and suddenly you have one very understated designer who has quietly created a whole fashion empire.
She is characteristically modest on the subject of her success, though, pointing out that she has no interest in working herself into the ground for the sake of clothes - however much her success proves otherwise - and showing little enthusiasm in taking on a high-profile role at another label, a Dior or a Givenchy.
"If tomorrow someone came and said you had to take a brand, I'd say OK, but only if mine was stopping or slowing for two years. It's hard to say, but you become crazy for what, for fashion? To make clothes? No way! Except if you are a robot or superman - for me I'm not a superwoman at all."
Her views on the "crazy" world of fashion would certainly shock some of the exotically coiffed fashionistas that had earlier that week crammed into her extraordinary neo-Gothic, gold-mosaic-lined cabaret-theatre-turned-salon for one of the several shows she put on to display her autumn/winter 2011/12 collection. She simply has no time for the drama-queen airs and cliques of high fashion.
"It's something I hate in fashion," she says emphatically, her French accent broadening as she becomes more vehement. "All the fake part. It's something I hate, and I think it misses philosophy, it misses wisdom. Maybe you say, OK, it's not the part of the fashion industry to have wisdom. But why not? I mean for me, Phoebe [Philo] has wisdom in her clothes. After all the pushing to the maximum, even Lady Gaga at [Thierry] Mugler, it has become for me ridiculous. This is what I see. Fashion shouldn't be so ridiculous."
But it is ridiculous in so many ways, and the danger of getting swept up into that crazed world is great - as we learnt at Dior this season. Hash understands the pressures under which Galliano worked, but hopes that his downfall might bring to a halt the trend-a-minute culture that has changed fashion so much since the internet transformed the media.
"I think it's going to be worse and worse unless from the inside we stop the process," she says. "In the 1970s there was one fashion - the woman has flares, a miniskirt... Everybody had his moment for two to three years. With icons like Audrey Hepburn with Givenchy, and Catherine Deneuve with Saint Laurent, it was a statement. Now even celebrities, they compete. Everything is fluid. There's so much competition there is no style any more! It's over. So I'm not sure it's going to slow down."
For Hash, a designer who continues to pursue the handcrafted ethos of couture even while selling her ready-to-wear and capsule lines online, it will be the role of the business giants, the likes of LVMH, to combat the frenetic pace and the hunger for the new that currently characterises fashion, and the need to appoint a new creative director at Dior is an opportunity to rein things in a little.
"That's why I hope that LVMH is going to take someone for Dior with a mind. It doesn't mean that John doesn't have a mind. Of course he has. It just means not too much in the image, more inside the mind, inside the body of a woman, inside the desire again, and not pow! pow!" She mimes explosions with her hands. "We don't want power in the image any more; we want that we be seduced by something more philosophical, like Phoebe: new style, new elegance."
Like many commentators, Hash's tip for the top job is Haider Ackermann. "You see the mind, the spirit? The silhouette? I'm sure it will be Haider."
Hash is someone with the inside track on the machinations of the Paris clothing industry: since being appointed to the coveted list of official haute couturiers by the Chambre Syndicale, she has been part of the tiny, but hugely powerful, group that chooses which designers to allow into the haute couture fashion weeks, and she is very open about the politics of fashion. She is certain, for example, that even were she to desire the position of designing the Dior collections, or Givenchy or Balmain, she would be unlikely to receive an offer for one very simple reason.
"First, I'm a woman. To be honest, if I had a choice to travel all over the world to work for a big house like Dior or to have half of my time sharing with my family, I don't even think twice: I need my family, I need my balance. So I will never... For that they need a man who doesn't have children, who doesn't have family. Somebody [who will] breathe, sleep, think for the house. The problem was, John had his brand and Dior, and at one moment you don't have such pleasure. My recommendation would have been, OK, you have to stop one."
She is also happy to admit that politics came into her own acceptance into the Chambre Syndicale. "They wanted new blood," she says. "You can see in New York how they push the new generation, and the same in England. In France they don't encourage anyone because there are 180 shows so they don't want one more. But during the couture, which is a very special moment, we have to push because if not it's going to be two days of couture: Chanel, Dior, that's it. Dior, Chanel, Givenchy - they had to vote for me, so now as I'm a member I can vote and I can see that there's a lot of discussion: 'Yes, we need new blood, OK no, we don't like this but we will see next year...'"
She might have had the big names behind her, but Hash is all about the "petites mains", the ateliers, the workmanship, and it is François Lesage, the proprietor of probably the world's finest embroidery atelier, Lesage, that she credits with helping her tackle the potentially ruinous expense of creating a couture collection. The fact that the 82-year-old attended her show this season implies the affection is mutual.
"When I started, Lesage was the first to say, OK, I'll help you; Chanel [which owns Lesage's atelier] can pay for you. I remember they were taking 30 embroideries and we took one. And we didn't sleep for two nights because it was François Lesage who was going to make the embroideries. He is such a good man."
Hash's passion for this sort of detail is one of the reasons she still wholeheartedly believes in couture, a discipline that is periodically dismissed as being out of date, overpriced and archaic.
"The petites mains are really people who are in love with this work. It's their life!" she exclaims. "They don't sleep. And when it's not right they start again."
And while she is adamant that she seeks a balance in her life between her work and her husband and two young daughters, it is clear that Hash feels the same. For her, couture is not something that takes her away from family: it's something that is about family.
"I don't think couture is over," she insists. "It's the first job that man did after eating. Even before building a house, he covered himself. To me couture is hand-work, and the hand is emotion. When you are a baby you are born, and the first thing you have in your memory is the mother who put your hand on the face, on the hair, the mother who took your hand and gave emotion. So I don't see why one day the couture will disappear. Even if it stays in one country with few houses, couture - emotion - will never disappear."