Fashion guru Catherine Schwaab on ‘Talk About Fashion’

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Catherine Schwaab, Editor-in-chief at ‘Paris Match’, in an exclusive interview with Arabian Gazette reveals a few secrets on fashion in her new book ‘Talk about Fashion’ within the context of a globalized world.

Fashion fascinates those in awe of it and repels those who criticize it. The criticisms are often because one often doesn’t know fashion codes and because they have not been linked to the depth of the real craft of this sector which is reflected in its immense contribution to the global economy. France enjoyed a €31 billion turnover through its fashion industry, within the luxury sector which generated €212 billion overall in 2013. This was a 10% increase in revenues over the previous year in the French luxury sector, despite the prevalence economic and financial crisis.

In the Middle East, the fashion industry stood at €6.3 billion in 2012 with an increase of five percent in 2013. Dubai, an international platform, represented 30% of fashion-oriented sales in the region thanks to its ability to attract not only domestic consumers but also Russian, Indian and African clientele.

The success and the sustenance that the fashion industry boasts in Dubai has given way to the region joining the league of global fashion capitals with the inaugural edition of Dubai Fashion launched by Vogue Italia in October, last year.

The very first event of its kind to be held in the Middle East, Dubai Fashion, held at the Dubai Mall ? the largest mall in the world ? welcomed over 4,00, 000 visitors, all of them high fashion clientele. The event, organised by Emaar, raised AED five million to promote education of disadvantaged children, in a prestigious celebration where over 250 global brands had gathered, highlighting their collections. Mrs. Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Vogue Italia put all her efforts with Mr. Mohamed Alabbar, Emaar’s chairman, in making the event a success and in helping put Dubai under the much-deserved spotlight in terms of the international fashion circuit.

Fashion is often synonymously used with couture because of the emblematic Parisian masters of ‘haute couture‘ like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Givenchy, Patou and Courrèges to name a few.

Catherine Schwaab
Catherine Schwaab

It is therefore only natural that Catherine Schwaab, editor-in-chief at ‘Paris Match’, impart some secrets of fashion to us in a didactic manual that will benefit fashion-users. Her book Talk about Fashion is highly documented about fashion with plenty of rich references both of globalization and regional specifications and offers a chronological thread in the lineage of excellence in the art of fashion.

Arabian Gazette’s Rahma Rachdi sat down with Catherine Schwaab and had a candid conversation about passion, knowledge and astounding success of her book.  So let’s talk about Fashion!

AG: You studied fashion at the Institute of Fashion in Paris  and graduated in ‘Fashion Management.’ What  did you learn and why this diploma?

Catherine Schwaab: I discovered the technical operation of the textile chain as from sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing till the building of a collection and arranging and displaying a store, more globally marketing and advertising.. This is a diploma that was missing in the fashion industry in France, where we learned the styling, as well as the management. However, in order to manage well one must understand its creative operation and to shape up, a good designer must understand the logic of the market.

AG: In the editorial of your book you explain that you ‘Learned fashion, very early by a certain idea of coquetry through your mother, who had her outfits tailored by her dressmaker?’ That was already the seed of someone who would go on to be a ‘Fashion Victim?’ Can fashion be taught from a very young age?

Catherine Schwaab : I reject the word fashion victim as I’m not a victim! But you’re right, fashion, aesthetics in general can be learned from a very young age. And to me, this had always been my passion. I can remember, since I was being a little girl of five years old, I did whims if my mother would not let me dress myself alone as I wanted! But the taste of fashion is like using muscles. It is enough to exercise it, and at any age, you can tone it and acquire a sharpened look. It can be learned at any age.

AG: That’s a nice metaphor! Do you think that fashion belongs is in perpetual motion; around for millennia, through various existing social codes?

Catherine Schwaab:  Yes, in all countries, even the most traditional, even under the chador, fashion that we speak about, talks about environment and time. Nowadays, the emergence of the ‘hijabistas’ ? a portmanteau of ‘hijab’ and ‘fashionista’ ? are so creative despite the prohibitive existence of these terms.

AG: You say that fashion sets merciless rules. Is fashion then is a kind of bondage by appearance?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes. Someone badly dressed, in Paris, is immediately classified as low-end, vulgar and ignorant. It’s my clothing that defines me, impossible to be indifferent to it. The brain registers. Wearing stilettos, high heels, moccasins or sneakers, consciously or unconsciously, the judgment on me is influenced. Get dressed in a certain way, it is also a way to get a message.

AG: Where do you place the birth of fashion? Was fashion born in Europe or elsewhere? Paris is often cited as the capital of the fashion world, do you agree?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes. More than Paris, Milan, London or New York, for it is in these cities that were born haute couture, the first fashion gazettes ? through the noble and royal outfits of the 17th and 18th centuries ? presentations shows and catwalks. Then as now, the foreign artists came to seek dedications and sharp audiences.

AG: What is the union ? Chambre Syndicale ? of ready to wear and haute couture in Paris? What is this exclusive club? Is it important that the major fashion capitals are associated with the Chambre Syndicale of Fashion?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes. In countries with high fashion industry, it is very important to coordinate. It is known that these companies employ more than 35,000 people, worldwide directly. You should know that thirty companies of the Federation of couture and ready to wear garments – except perfumes ? have a turnover of €15 billion. They even export their products, to the extent of 46% in Asia and 17% in the United States. So we must work together on such legislation on counterfeiting (which is so damaging our luxury industry), for taxes for import or export (to be negotiated with supplier countries of fabric, for instance). There are also decisions to be taken about dates of shows and fairs. The foreign big luxurious houses are mostly thus members of the Chambre Syndicale of Fashion.

AG  In your book you have chosen to present 30 artists today through Agnès B, Azzedine Alaia, Giorgio Armani, Marc Jacobs or Rabih Kayrouz. How did you select them?

Catherine Schwaab: Unfortunately, I did not have the right to develop more than 30! And it was heartbreaking because I had so much more! I tried to expand the range to foreign creators, not just French. Rabih Kayrouz, for instance is Lebanese and has an incredible talent.

AG: Do the characteristics of a country and region convey the strong levers of a culture? Or is it due to the features of the origins of the creator?

Catherine Schwaab: Both, of course my dear! In France, our chefs and our noses perfumers are ? almost ? as important as our fashion designers to locate us culturally. I think of A. Alaia, for example who is of Tunisian origin, to evoke the French femininity, or the Belgian, Raf Simons who translates our minimalist elegance to perfection. They come from different backgrounds but their creations fundamentally have the Parisian touch. In Italy, it is more homogeneous. Armani reflects the Italian chic while Dolce and Gabbana speak about the Italian Baroque. However, I find the Italian Giambattista Valli, very French! Moreover, he lives in Rome but presents his fashion shows in Paris.

AGCan fashion start a new page in some countries, recent as the UAE for example with Dubai being the platform for sale of luxury brands?

Catherine Schwaab: A new page? Not at all! It is rather a part of the story. The UAE, there is a knowledge of luxury, precious fabrics and ornaments deserving to be exploited. There are traditions of costumes, male clothing, pageantry for weddings and celebrations. Not to mention the dress requirements which forces to have imagination. In this way, fashion can be a factor of emancipation for women. One of the largest Muslim fashion shows is taking place in Malaysia. And there, there are other artists who are part of their history mode.

AG: Do we have  to have a big budget to be fashionable? Or can we learn to be fashionable while shopping in flea markets and still find rare coins as you did during your adolescence?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes, unlike 30 or 40 years ago, one can dress well with little money, running though thrift stores and flea markets and even though the internet on deposit sales sites and other private websites. Today, you can, for example, create a full evening dress for less than €100.

AG: In your book you explain profiles probably Eccentric, classic, romantic, sports, sophisticated, arty and ultrasexy. Is it that precisely what determines the fashion style?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes, we can summarize that. We must know, what fits wrongly, when we dress which is ‘not me.’ However the advantage of the fashion is that you cannot lock in one style ? classic today can become eccentric the day after.

AG: In your book you have spoken about ‘The Vintage in 3 lessons’, what hallmark of style is this exactly?

Catherine Schwaab: Having style is not limited to ‘vintage’ but it helps to have vintage style because they are unique pieces that refer to our history 50’s style, Courrèges’ style and Woodstock style for example. However to have a style is also not to follow the trends. To pick what we like, mix the current and retro, chic and casual, and add a personal touch. That is style. It is a creation.

AG: Is fashion necessarily related to new designs or related to ‘vintage?’

Catherine Schwaab: Fashion always refers to the past. It re-interprets. For example Raf Simons for Dior excels to reinterpret the ‘Bar’ jacket and the ‘New Look 1947’, with narrow shoulders, constricted waist and small Basque. Similarly Hedi Slimane at the Yves Saint Laurent house, re-interprets black transparencies, tuxedo or seventie’s mind. Many Japanese and Belgians try something new, with asymmetries, incongruous volumes, inserts humorous as the jacket three rounds of ‘Comme des Garçons.’

AG: Does clothing or fashion accessory can give the wearer class or is it independent of what you wear?

Catherine Schwaab: I think class ? the distinction, chic, elegance ? is as much in the way of wearing a garment or accessory . Someone can be vulgar in a Chanel suit while being so elegant in an H & M item! Besides, I think the total look betrays a lack of imagination. It may be ‘class as you say, but without substance. In order to have good fashion practice, you need to have personality!

AG: Do you think Dubai, which combines more than 190 nationalities, is an interesting pool to create new fashion trends?

Catherine Schwaab: Yes I’m sure, because it’s too old nowadays to have prejudices and rigid rules, And it’s only by breaking the rules we can advance creatively. Besides, the Belgian Dries Van Noten as creative as it is, draws heavily in its collections of costumes, Indian, Arab or Japanese fabrics.  The Italian Marni house too has creatively used the magnificent African fabrics for many of its collections.

AG:  What advice would you give to ‘Dubai Fashionistas?’

Catherine Schwaab: I would tell them not to be too swayed by Western Fashion but continue to explore colours and mixtures, and care quality fabrics, the way they are doing presently. And monitor their silhouette without exaggeration. Because their sex appeal is their biggest treasure.


Read ‘Fashion instructions’, Flammarion, English version available at Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall

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