Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Conversations with Fashion Innovators: Hamish Bowles

Several weeks ago, Daniela and I attended the De Young Museum’s Symposium on Yves Saint Laurent where we met the very charming Hamish Bowles. He was part of a fashion panel that included Florence Müller, Farid Chenoune, and Pierre Bergé. The panel was moderated by De Young curator of textiles, Jill D’Alessandro.

Mr. Bowles, educated at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, is considered to be one of the most respected authorities on fashion and design and is currently the European Editor-at-Large for The American Vogue. As editor he is responsible for all lifestyle and interior design features, select celebrity profiles and event coverage, and is Vogue’s liaison to the international fashion markets.

Mr. Bowles is like a walking Encyclopedia of fashion. I remember when I asked a question about Yves Saint Laurent during the Symposium — Mr. Bowles responded politely to my question, but later approached me to further elaborate on his response. This is a man who takes fashion seriously and examines it with deep interest and respect. I was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Bowles agreed to be interviewed for IFCSF.

So I invite you to sit back and enjoy our exclusive interview with the stylishly dapper Mr. Bowles about his personal fashion collection, the world of Vogue and its formidable editor Anna Wintour, sustainable fashion, and his most recent visit to San Francisco. It was a true pleasure for us to interview him. Thank you again Mr. Bowles.

- Yetunde Schuhmann is President and Founder of The Innovative Fashion Council San Francisco

DP: How did you become involved with the current YSL exhibit at the De Young, as well as contributing to the exhibition book and participating in the recent YSL Symposium?

HB: I have a relationship with The Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. I wrote the catalog essay for the exhibition they did on Nan Kempner, which obviously came to San Francisco, but I wasn’t able to come to that opening. I have a historic relationship with the House going back from when I first started going to couture shows which I think was ’83 and it’s a House that’s always been run as a family in a way. I had a relationship there and they had asked me to contribute an essay to the catalog. And the exhibition was jointly curated as I understand by Montreal and San Francisco. I saw the selection of garments that the Montreal curator made, but I wasn’t involved in that selection.

YS: What was the difference between the selection of gowns in Montreal and the gowns chosen for San Francisco?

HB: It was the same exhibition, no difference. The pieces came from the Foundation’s own collection and not from private collections from the De Young or Montreal. I think the reason for that is Pierre Bergé wanted to stay very true to Saint Laurent’s vision. You know when you’re dealing with couture, obviously, garment has been adapted in some way to suit the client and I think he just wanted to show the clothes as Saint Laurent wanted to show them, so drawn from the runway sample as it were.

DP: I found it interesting how Yves Saint Laurent didn’t like to travel very much and that many of his collections were based on his own imagination and inspiration from what those places were in his mind. Do you think designers today have a harder time tapping into their own imagination or dreams because we have so much more access to places, people and information?

HB: Um, no. I think Saint Laurent pretty much just traveled between his residences. So he spent a lot of time in Morocco of course, where he had houses in Marrakesh and eventually in Tangiers, as well as the houses in Normandy and Paris, and Pierre Bergé had a house in the South of France as well, and that was really their access. And I’m sure for YSL that Marrakech kind of evoked memories of the Algeria of his childhood which then by the 1960’s after Algerian Independence, was probably not a place he might have happily settled.

But I think that you look at a designer like Christian Lacroix, who also never travels – I don’t think he’s ever been to India or Morocco, which is two hours from Paris, but you know, you look at his work and they’re so full of references, that you would imagine he’s the most traveled person on the planet, but he’s traveling in his mind and in his imagination. I think very much there are designers who do that, but someone like John Galliano will go with his team to Berlin, Tokyo or Shanghai and they’ll go to the flea markets and museums and saturate themselves with the physical experiences of being in that place. But some designers just travel in their imaginations.

YS: And why the flea market as a source?

HB: Well, I think Galliano was particularly inspired by the flea market in Shanghai and thought it was the most inspiring part of the city. I think it’s to find objects or textiles to have some resonance for them or inspire some kind of design.

YS: How do you think technology has affected fashion today? We come from a very technological kind of place here in the Bay Area.

HB: Well, I think it’s just completely transformed our world, hasn’t it? On every level and it has certainly transformed the fashion world I think. First of all, it’s the nature of communication being so instant. I mean you look at the late 1950’s in Paris when Balenciaga and Givenchy were exasperated that the press coverage of their collections would come out before their personal couture clients had made their own choices. So they banned the press for two months so the press had to go back, especially for their collections, and in the meantime the private clients had made their own selections and they prioritized them over the press.

But I mean now, someone could be doing sort of a “cam-cast” from the collection itself as it’s happening. And goodness knows there could be a factory somewhere on the other side of the globe making patterns as the show progresses. And there are great “fast fashion” resources that have literally workrooms on the boat that are bringing the stuff from Asia to Europe and they’re creating the garments as the show unfolds. They can get their interpretation into the store before the designer can possibly make pieces or get them in the store. So I think that’s changed things. I think designers have to think about all these things in a very different way. I think it’s opened up the world in a very exciting way, and it’s made things globally accessible. It’s brought fashion into the lives of people who might not be immediately engaged by it or who have had an opportunity to be engaged by it.

DP: Definitely, with Vogue having all the show podcasts on Style.com, which I think are great for people to watch.

HB: Yes, I think the whole Vogue.com and Style.com have been incredibly potent — Style.com is definitely the go-to reference- even designers will say “It’s Look 17 on Style.com” when it might actually have been Look 23 in their Lookbook, but referencing Style.com has become this universal language.

YS: Do you think technology has had any effect on the actual textiles?

HB: Yes, very much so. Absolutely. I think that’s probably the most incredible transformation is this idea of the textiles. I think that the fact someone like Miuccia Prada can create a look, that to the eye, looks very 1960s, late 1950’s - but if you had that original garment in your hand, it would be this very heavy thing with a lot of infrastructure and the body of the fabric itself this weight. Whereas you know, she can create the illusion of that fabric now so that basically it seems the same, but actually it has all these different properties and its own body, but it’s totally light and has kind of heat/cold resistant or absorbent qualities that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago.

YS: Our organization (IFCSF) is based in San Francisco and is focused on creating this vibrant fashion community and creating a green fashion district with a focus on sustainable design. And today we think innovation in design is about sustainability. What do you think about the future of sustainable design and do you think that people see it as only a trend?

HB: Obviously there are designers who are far more engaged with that thought process – Stella McCartney for instance. It’s one of those things that are becoming more and more sophisticated. Right now, it’s like a T-shirt, a basic white shirt and maybe some kids clothes in the mainstream of what is available. I think it’s going to get more and more sophisticated. At the moment it’s very difficult to think of a brand, you know whomever it might be, like a Gucci or Dolce and Gabbana or Yves Saint Laurent transforming their infrastructure to that degree. But, that’s not to say it can’t happen. It’s the way you think of the automotive industry. I think that looking at the automotive industry you realize that it’s essential to be very proactive about these developments. And I think the fashion industry eventually needs to take it on board, and I think it needs to be an essential part of our lives.

YS: How do you think fashion editors can educate consumers on sustainable fashion while keeping it chic, and is it even possible with what’s around today and how do you think for an organization like ours we can try to begin this process of getting the large fashion houses to change and become more sustainable? Is there a way to make eco-fashion relevant to the masses outside of the wealthy? In my impression, outside of Wal-Mart and Target, it seems that to be sustainable and eco seems to be more for the wealthy or upper middle classes of America.

HB: Well yes, it’s the irony isn’t it? Like organic food, it costs so much more to produce that it becomes like a luxury product, but that’s something one hopes will evolve as more people take it on board and work out ways to make sustainable fashion sustainable.

YS: Do you think there’s anything an organization like ours can do to help tip the scale for big fashion houses to become sustainable?

HB: Fashion is all about creating desire and certainly at a time like this with the economy in such shambles, there is a sense of guilt about spending money on what might be perceived as luxury items. I think it’s even more about creating desire, and ultimately the only way to seduce a customer is to create products that are desirable and irresistible, and that’s what’s going to educate the customer. It needs to be something people want and that they feel is not a substitute or a compromise, but a wonderful thing in its own right. So that’s the challenge – to make it as desirable as possible.

DP: The magazine industry has been hit so hard recently by the economy – there are daily layoffs and advertisers are cutting pages – have you felt that effect at Vogue yet or do you feel it’s still the magazine that will keep going strong through this time?

HB: I think it’s fair to say we’re going through a challenging time and obviously it affects everyone on every level. Happily, Vogue is in the preeminent market position so I think if advertisers are cutting back across the board this is the one place they’re going to continue to make their investment. But you know, I think it’s so dramatic what’s happening that it’s impossible not to feel it on some level. And I think also it’s key for Vogue, and I think it’s something Anna and all our editors are aware of, to address it in practical ways and to make sure that whilst we still have the element of fantasy and aspiration, there is a great deal of realistically priced fashion in the magazine at the same time.

DP: In your personal and professional life, you get to meet and mingle with an incredible group of people from society and all over the world. How do you find yourself able to stay “neutral” or an observer as a journalist when going to these events and do you ever feel intimidated by it all?

HB: I don’t think there’s anything neutral about it. I think if you’re putting something in Vogue it’s because you want to celebrate and endorse it. By the same token, if you’re excluding something from Vogue, well we’re not about doing negative things, and I would say we criticize by exclusion. I think what is overwhelming is not the experience of being in these things, although sometimes I do pinch myself, but I think what is more overwhelming is just the fact that I am doing so much and keeping it all in, and sorting everything out in my mind.

YS: In reading more about you, we heard about your love for design. Have you ever though about going back to designing? I also wanted to know how many couture pieces you have, and do you think you’ll ever have an exhibit of your own archives?

HB: Yes, I would love to do that. The collection is near about 2,000 now, and we’re just finishing up cataloging. I think that I would certainly love to have an exhibition and that is a long-term plan. And also just the nature of the way one collects things, is that you buy one thing as a pendant to another or as a consummate to something – I’m always thinking in terms of the exhibition in my head and what would look good with what, how pieces are complimentary from different periods even when you think of a Lacroix from the late 1980’s that references a Jacques Fath from the 1940’s. And so I know what I have when I’m looking at auctions or going to dealers that I might find something that will trigger a reference to another piece or a complimentary piece to another designer.

DP: Do you have a favorite museum where you’d like to have the exhibit?

HB: Well it’d be fun to have it at the De Young Museum.

YS: And do you ever think you’ll go back to designing?

HB: It’s such a difficult life. I have so many designer friends and I see what they have to go through, so you have to be careful for what you wish for. But I think it would be fun to have some creative input in an existing house, yes.

YS: This is outside the fashion questions – obviously we met you here in San Francisco recently. Do you come to San Francisco often?

HB: That was my second visit.

YS: In the last two times you’ve been here, what were your favorite places to go and was there anything that hit you about the energy of the city, maybe from a fashion perspective?

HB: I think the city’s museum culture is incredibly dynamic and exciting, I went to the SFMOMA, the De Young obviously, the extraordinary new Renzo Piano museum (Academy of Sciences), and The Legion of Honor. I think there are so many sophisticated collectors through the generations, and obviously the city’s museums have been and continue to be extraordinarily enriched by the vision of those people. It’s a very exciting experience for me in that it’s so ongoing, and even the new Academy of Sciences evokes a sort of childlike delight, it’s like one’s childhood memories of going to a natural history museum and discovering the revelations of the planet. And then the absolutely exquisite and sublime things at The Legion of Honor.

YS: Were you able to venture into any of the neighborhoods in San Francisco? I know you were here for a very short time this past visit.

HB: The time before I was able to venture into the Napa Valley, but more immediate neighborhoods I haven’t explored. But the one exciting thing about the city is that it really has an incredible spell, and I very much want to come back and explore it in greater depth and detail. I just think physically it’s so peaceful with those turn of the century houses, tumbling hills and views of the Bay. It’s a magically situated city. I love the climate – coming from England and spending time in Ireland I can relate to the mist.

YS: I wanted to ask you a question about the recent Italian Vogue – filled entirely with black models that was sold out everywhere. I was curious about this idea of first whether they’ll do another one, and as an African-American women, I was in Paris with local designer Colleen Quen and we went and visited all of these modeling agencies looking for women of color, and only 10% of their models were of color. People were saying a lot of the individuals who choose the layouts tend to veer away from women of color. When I look at these US magazines I don’t see a lot of woman of color. Why don’t we see a lot of diversity in American fashion magazines and do you think with our new president and first lady we’ll see this start to change?

HB: I think that American Vogue has specifically (and I can only speak to that) always been very keen to and conscious of diversity. In our December issue, we have our accessories story which features the models of the moment — just there you have six exciting new models coming up and three are women of color which is an exciting statement in itself. That’s certainly something Vogue has always been very conscious of and we’re aware that’s what our society is, and that it’s important to reflect. And I think André Leon Talley has been a forceful and potent element in that. He is not shy about the reigning designers who do not reflect diversity on the runway and I think Vogue has helped to change that. I think it’s something Vogue has been very historically conscious of, as it should, and it’s a part of what we do. And to address the second part of your question, I think obviously this extraordinarily dynamic and exciting first family will have an impact.

DP: You work very closely with Anna Wintour and I’m fascinated by her mystique. What do you think it is about her that has kept her at the top of the industry and in such a powerful role for so long? Is there a certain quality that stands out?

HB: She has an extraordinary instinct and is an editor that works in an incredibly instinctive way. She is very, very, very hands-on. She looks at every image that comes into the magazine, she reads every caption, every piece of text. Nothing is left to chance and I think that incredible focus reflects on the magazine because you see the magazine itself has an extraordinary focus and I think that she is an extremely loyal person and she surrounds herself with a great team she really trusts, but I think she has a sort of uncanny instinct. It’s very difficult to articulate but I think that’s essentially the way she works and I think that she’s also extremely direct. There is never any grey area, she knows what she likes and vice versa. She’s just extraordinarily hard-working, focused, and very, very direct and that is the sort of person who is incredibly easy to work for because there is no grey area. You know what she likes and she’ll let you know. It makes an editor’s job much easier because you can focus your work.

DP: So do you think if she decides to ever leave Vogue, she’ll stay engaged in the industry? Obviously she does a lot outside of Vogue already.

HB: I wouldn’t want to speculate on that, but it’s incredible to me how I struggle to get my two to three stories a month done, and it’s incredible to me how she manages to juggle all these things. Of course she’s tremendously involved and focused in her philanthropic and charity work, whether for the museum or for the Seventh on Sale initiative, breast cancer, charities, or research programs. So I think that Anna is an essential part of the global fashion community.

YS: I read an article recently in The New York Times about finding the next “it” designer and we wanted to know where you think this next genius designer might come from? Social communities seem to play a big role today, whereas in the past you came directly from fashion houses.

HB: I think that in today’s environment it’s pretty important for any designer to have some kind of mentoring and apprenticeship because it’s so tough and so competitive. I think that you need so many qualities now to be a successful designer above and beyond pure inspiration and vision, and the ability to create your own world, which is already an astonishing thing to do. You also need to be able to sell and promote yourself, and you need to have a world view, and you either need to have an uncanny instinct for business or be somehow allied to someone who does. It’s not enough just to have the vision, but that’s still an essential part of it. It’s vitally important for anyone seriously considering this world to really have experienced life in a design house and to understand the challenges that designers face every day and the level of infrastructure that is required, and so on.

But you know, this person can come from anywhere around the globe, and that is so exciting. You look at the great fashion schools like Central St. Martin’s in London and the Antwerp Academy and they’re filled with students who really come from around the world and in fashion - anyone can have access to Style.com or FashionTV – it’s globally available, so I think that’s also exciting and that is what has made fashion so thrilling for me even from the time I’ve been going to shows, which started when I was a student myself at Saint Martin’s in the early 1980s. Suddenly you had Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yoji Yamamoto coming from Japan and totally challenging the status quo. They were coming into a world of Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Azzedine Alaia and a certain vision of fashion, and they came with a completely different vision that was rooted in what they had been exposed to aesthetically in their lives and environments and it was so radical and exciting. It’s thrilling to think that those waves of influence can still happen and totally transform the way we think about dressing.

YS: The last question I have is kind of a Californian question. What sign are you?

HB: I’m a Leo. My rising sign is Taurus.

Photography: Francois Halard