Dressing for Fame: Versace, J.Lo, RiRi Gone Rogue, and More Career Tidbits from Stylists Mariel Haenn and Rob Zangardi-------
If celebrity status is conferred in red-carpet appearances, then no actress today can compete without the help of just the right stylist. As Kerry Washington once told Glamour after she noticeably upped the sartorial ante, “There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand careerwise—because they knew how to work that red carpet.” A carefully crafted collaboration between stylist and client, the perfect look can create an indelible impact on agents, casting directors, and those of us watching from the sidelines. Straight from the epicenter of all things celebrity, we’ve asked some of the industry’s top stylists to share their experiences and impressions from their perch above Tinseltown. With our Dressing for Fame series, we bring you an exclusive, insider look at everything it takes to create those iconic moments captured by a million photo flashes.
Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn
It takes quite the fashion force to dress J.Lo for the stage, Rachel McAdams for the Cannes red carpet, and Pharrell for his many (sartorially daring) public outings, but the powerhouse styling duo of Mariel Haenn and Rob Zangardi have proved they’re nothing if not up to the task. Whether they’re commissioning original pieces to bring an idea to life, going back to their roots on music video sets, or forging relationships with up-and-coming talent, their scene-stealing tastes draw a uniquely diverse client mix that includes the abovementioned stars and beyond. Here, the duo talks exclusively to Style.com about going rogue with RiRi (they worked with the songstress for four years), being equal-opportunity stylists, and why women are more complex to style than men.
How did you both begin styling?
Rob Zangardi: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated with a fashion merchandising degree from Ohio University. After college, my twin brother was working in NYC as a casting director, casting the audience for the VH1 Vogue Fashion Awards. He knew I would love it, so I stood in the pit to watch the show and ended up meeting a stylist who worked at MTV. I had no idea what a stylist was until then, but it sounded like my dream job. Because of her, I ended up getting hired at MTV to help with their New Year’s Eve show, which turned into a full-time job—right place, right time. And the rest is history.
Mariel Haenn: I was in school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for fashion design and I met someone who introduced me to the music video world. I started as a seamstress on videos, and then was assistant-styling while still in college. Once I graduated, I was fortunate enough to keep getting called to assist, but in the back of my mind, I was focusing on working at a design studio. I considered styling my means of making a living until I found the job I really wanted. Cut to 13 years later, turns out this is the job I wanted.
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve created thus far?
RZ: Rachel McAdams in the red Marchesa at the Cannes Film Festival was pretty memorable. She just looked like a movie star—you couldn’t take your eyes off of her. That train added the perfect amount of glamour and drama but didn’t overpower the woman wearing it. It was definitely a moment.
MH: Rihanna in the Dolce & Gabbana tux at the  Met Gala. That was a special moment because we went completely rogue. It was a Marc Jacobs year and we got a call 30 minutes prior that so-and-so was wearing the same boots we’d planned on putting Ri in. So last minute, we went for plan B, and plan B ended up being this complete outlaw moment for both Rihanna and in Met history. It was something special.
RZ: Working with Versace to re-create Jennifer Lopez’s iconic Grammys dress for her most recent performances was also huge. It was pretty unbelievable to see her in the print that started it all.
How do you find working in New York different from working in L.A.?
MH: Styling-wise, New York tends to be much more avant-garde and fashion-forward. L.A. is a bit more risk averse and tends to focus on glamour more so than experimentation. There’s also a different level of polish. In L.A., you never want to look like you’re trying too hard—it’s almost as if people put even more effort into looking “effortless” than anything else—while in New York, there’s a broader range in dressing up and down.
RZ: It might sound cliché, but New York’s pace and tone also feels a lot quicker and has this undeniable sense of purpose. The way people walk in New York is representative of how they are. There’s a bigger hustle. It feels more natural for us, honestly, since we are always on the move and juggling multiple projects. The collaborations in L.A. tend to also be more commercial. New York is a greater creative playground. We get to be more forward-thinking and innovative.
What’s your favorite event to dress clients for and why?
RZ: Working on tours and music videos is definitely something we both really enjoy because there is more storytelling involved. There’s an entire arc that goes beyond a broad theme, so to speak. The looks have to work together with different elements to communicate so much. It’s not simply a supplement or continuation of the story, it’s a significant part of it.
MH: Collaborating with designers on custom pieces is a big thrill for us, too. Red carpet is fun, but there’s something to be said for bringing an idea to life rather than plucking from what already exists. A great example is having had the honor of working with Versace for Jen [Lopez]‘s stage looks in NYC. The experience itself was pretty surreal and the end result was nothing short of exceptional.
How do you manage to juggle multiple clients with multiple obligations and aesthetics all at once?
RZ: This is where it’s great to have two people rather than one. We like to joke that we are carbon copies of each other, so it’s like being in two places at once.
MH: The reason we started working together to begin with is because Rob was the only one I trusted to hand my clients over to if I wasn’t available for a job. The partnership was very organic. In terms of balancing the different aesthetics, you sort of train your mind to understand each client and their personality. There’s a lot of relationship-building there. After that, it’s almost impossible to mix aesthetics because you associate the person with the look so instantly.
How do you think working as a pair strengthens your styling? What has this relationship been like?
RZ: Our taste is practically the same, yet we complement each other well in terms of workflow and personality. The relationship is like an old married couple meets brother and sister, if that makes sense.
MH: For lack of a better phrase, two heads are truly better than one. It’s great to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, especially when in a more risk-taking scenario. It’s also great to have someone challenge you or ask the right questions when you’re dead set that something might look great but it could actually be better.
How do you balance dressing clients in looks by emerging designers as well as clothes by respected, longstanding favorites?
RZ: We try to be “equal opportunity” stylists and simply pull what we think will work best for the client in that particular scenario, despite notoriety. The designers we have relationships with always end up in that mix because we sincerely admire their work. That relationship is built from using their pieces over and over as opposed to an obligation.
MH: Plus, we know which clients love which designers and will want to try their pieces no matter what, like Jen with Zuhair Murad, for example.
Do you approach styling men and women differently?
MH: Men usually go one of two ways: very classic or completely modern. You have someone like Will Smith, who is just dapper Old Hollywood movie star head to toe, and then on the flip side, somebody like Pharrell, who loves to play with fashion and sees it as an extension of his art. Styling women has a much greater spectrum, and there are many more shades of gray. It’s equally important to understand the client’s personality and experiences, regardless of gender, and women, by nature, tend to have more complexity. This reflects in how many different ways you can go with a look.
What do you think of the “stylist as celebrity” trend?
RZ: In a more open, share-friendly, social-media-driven world, anyone can be a “celebrity” for their craft or, in some cases, their lifestyle. The definition of celebrity has shifted in that regard. From a creative standpoint, that’s a great thing, because regardless of what you do, you can be found and your work can be followed, admired, and act as inspiration for somebody else. This creates an elevated benchmark for everybody and their work, and in turn, much more interesting, provocative, and creative end products.
If Michel Gondry’s films such as The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are known for the liberties they take with reality, his latest, Mood Indigo, fairly flies in the face of it. Following the acclaimed indie The We and the I (and 2011′s somewhat less-than-acclaimed blockbuster The Green Hornet), Gondry has returned to his native France and pulled out all the stops when it comes to art direction and sheer whiz-bang whimsy. His CV directing sumptuous music videos for the likes of the White Stripes and Kanye West lends much of his work a kinetic feel, and Mood Indigo is no exception.
Based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours, the film chronicles a well-to-do man’s (Romain Duris) fanciful courtship and marriage to the girl of his dreams (Audrey Tautou). But it’s not all elastic limbs, trips through Parisian skies in cloud-shaped vehicles, and boxcar races to the altar; things take a turn for the tragic when the story’s heroine is discovered to have a water lily growing in her lung.
We sat down with the director to talk his new flick, parenting a young artist, and actors who take home Oscars for the wrong reasons.
Do you consider yourself a dyed-in-the-wool romantic?
I think so. My father called me a pervers naïf. That’s not very romantic! I am romantic, [but] with a bit of weirdness to it.
You first read the novel that Mood Indigo is based on as a teenager. What was your initial connection to the text?
It described the world in the similar way that I was feeling. Very intimate, very detailed, and very intriguing in the way it treated physical phenomena, like lightning, or what water sounds like—stuff like that. Very romantic and very obsessed with death. That was appealing to me.
Did you always know you wanted to do something with L’Écume des Jours ?
Yeah, sort of. In fact, I had some images that stayed with me since I read it the first time, even though I had no idea I would become a director. Like this idea of the film starting in color and finishing in black and white—it’s the image I had when I read the book. But I had no ambition to make it a movie, because I had no idea how to use a camera at the time!
What are the greatest challenges of taking a text like that and turning it into a screenplay?
There were a lot of things that seemed to be overscaled, overly complicated, or technically challenging. I had to find ways to make them really come to life, to find an original way to construct them or to make them look in a similar way to the text. [The novel] was written by mixing words, sticking pieces of them together, so I did the same with objects. For instance, the car [a transparent limo in which the couple embark on their honeymoon]…it was a car stuck together, and it had to work. So making those physical objects based on these plays on words was really part of the challenge. It was really important to me. And, of course, carrying the love story of a tragedy through this crazy world.
What is your process like with your production designer, Stéphane Rosenbaum? Do you come to him with ideas fully fleshed out?
I think I have a precise idea of what I want. Of course, he brings his vision too; he has a huge basement with tons of objects he collects, all these details and furniture, props, and we build a lot. So we try to imagine how it could work, then I have people working with mechanics or soldering—that brings them to life. It’s really fun to watch.
Did you always know this would be a film made in France, or did you ever entertain the idea of making it in the U.S.?
No, I think it had to be French, otherwise it would not be faithful to the spirit of the book. It’s a very French story. You can see the influence of American culture, but it’s important to see it through the eyes of the French author. You can tell there are some American references there, how American music influenced the way of life after the war in France. Jazz music was part of this particular heritage. This is really important to see through French culture. And surrealism was born in France, and even though Vian wasn’t really part of surrealism, he was on the edge of it.
Do have to be mindful to maintain a sense of humanity when you’re working with such fantastical stuff, or do you think that the storyline does that itself?
I think it’s very important for me to keep some humanity. We don’t shoot on a blue screen—we shoot with a back projection, a lot of lighting effects. It’s complicated, but it’s very important that I find a way of capturing the humanity of the actors. That’s been the most important thing to me since I started doing movies. Some directors, specifically from music video directing, they glorify the actor—they make the actor like a hero. That’s not what I do. For me, it was always the most important thing to feel as if the actor is my brother or my cousin; a very human connection that makes you feel natural and welcomed into a space with him, even if the film is being created from scratch. Some actors I’ve found are very renowned and very appreciated in America; I really don’t like them because they do too many tics and mimicry and imitations.
Can you name a specific example of that?
There are some actors who win Oscars for the wrong reasons, because they portray a character with a lot of transformation. I think a lot of times the Academy Awards get confused about what’s really important as an actor, all the effort it takes. They can’t appreciate a painting because there are a lot of details. Sometimes acting is like that, when they can do a lot of imitation, like when they portray a famous character, and it’s really an imitation. This is not acting to me. It’s a performance. You don’t bring a heart into the story. It doesn’t interest me.
Did you always have a clear vision of who would be your leads in the film?
In this film, yes. I always wanted to have Audrey, and then I had to find somebody who worked with her, and I thought my friend Romain would be perfect. But Audrey was the first person I imagined.
And I read that you’re working with her on another film; is that true?
Yes, she has a small part in my next project.
Can you speak at all about that?
It’s a movie I start to shoot in two to three weeks with two teenagers who are sort of outcasts in their school in France. They become very close friends and they decide to build their own car so they can drive across France for the holidays.
Your son [Paul Gondry] is an artist, yes?
Yeah. He makes art videos, and he has a collective called Tiny Leg, and they create movies and art and design.
What do you try most to impress upon him about the creative process, if anything?
I tried to stimulate him as much as I could when he was a kid, and he was super-talented at a very young age. I separated from his mother when he was 3, and I saw him regularly between 3 and 11. When he had issues with his mother, I said, “OK, you’re coming to New York to live with me, but there will be no TV, no computer games. You have to find other ways to entertain yourself.” So he started to do skateboarding, comic books, and he became super-creative. And now he’s very good with computers, but he didn’t waste his time doing video games. He’s always been creative. His mother works with us on movies—she’s a costume designer; she’s a great artist. I think he inherited [his creativity] from both of us. And he’s really a very accomplished artist. But I don’t try to interrupt him. Actually, I don’t really understand what he does; I think it has to go over my head, because he’s the next generation, so he has to be above me.
You won’t be seeing any more of Andrej Pejic, the androgynous male model who rose to fame in 2010 after Carine Roitfeld had him photographed in womenswear for Paris Vogue. An onslaught of editorials followed (including a shirtless Dossier Journal cover that was essentially banned by Barnes & Noble for fear their customers would think he was a naked woman), and he even walked as the beautiful bride in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring ’11 Couture show (below). But Andrej’s days on the runway are over. However, Andreja’s career is just getting started.
Earlier this year, Andreja underwent sex reassignment surgery (SRS). She always knew she was a woman, but her body, or at least parts of it, didn’t match up. Yesterday, the model trekked from her current Williamsburg digs to LGBT advocacy group GLAAD’s Chelsea headquarters to speak, for the first time, about her transition. Donning a white crop top and embellished Ports 1961 skirt, Pejic, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina but was raised in Melbourne (hence her charming Aussie accent), looked as angelic as ever. “I feel good,” she told me before sitting down. It showed.
You can bet you’ll be seeing quite a bit of Andreja Pejic—she has a role in Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming rendition of The Little Mermaid, and plans for fashion week are already in the works. Here, the six-foot-one stunner (who, it should be noted, has cheekbones that could cut glass) opens up to Style.com about her SRS, the challenges of being a transgender model, and why, at long last, she’s “ready to face the world.”
How do you identify?
I identify as a female.
How did you identify before the sex reassignment surgery?
I figured out who I was very early on—actually, at the age of 13, with the help of the Internet—so I knew that a transition, becoming a woman, was always something I needed to do. But it wasn’t possible at the time, and I put it off, and androgyny became a way of expressing my femininity without having to explain myself to people too much. Especially to my peers [who] couldn’t understand things like “trans” and gender identity. And then obviously the modeling thing came up, and I became this androgynous male model, and that was a big part of my growing up and my self-discovery. But I always kept in mind that, ultimately, my biggest dream was to be a girl. I wasn’t ready to talk about it before in a public way because I was scared that I would not be understood. I didn’t know if people would like me. But now I’m taking that step because I’m a little older—I’m 22—and I think my story can help people. My goal is to give a human face to this struggle, and I feel like I have a responsibility.
You seem to have had a firm understanding of your identity at an early age. Was growing up as a boy difficult?
Gender dysphoria is never an easy thing to live with, mainly because people don’t understand it. For most of my childhood, I knew that I preferred all things feminine, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that there was an explanation. I didn’t know about the possibilities. And then I went on sort of a boyhood campaign from age 9 to about 13. I tried to be a “normal” boy because I felt like my options were either to be a gay boy or a straight boy. I didn’t feel that I was gay, so I didn’t know that there were any other options until the age of 13, when I went online and discovered that there’s a whole community of trans people out there. There are doctors, there’s medical care, there’s research, and that was an eye-opener for me. From that day on, I knew what I had to do.
Some people write off SRS as a purely cosmetic surgery. Can you speak a little bit about that, and why it’s not the case?
Yeah, a lot of people view it as a plastic procedure, like you go to a surgeon and say, “Oh, I want to be a woman.” It’s so much more complicated than that. You have to get a psychiatric evaluation, which I started at the age of 13. I started seeing psychiatrists, and then I stopped when I started modeling, and I started again about a year and a half ago. But medical attention is crucial for any trans person because it helps you figure out who you are. You go through some really strict testing before you’re even allowed to have the surgery.
Are there any other myths you’d like to debunk? Or is there anything else you want the general public to understand about SRS and transgender people?
I would like them to understand that we are people. We’re human beings, and this is a human life. This is reality for us, and all we ask for is acceptance and validation for what we say that we are. It’s a basic human right.
You’ve legally changed your name from Andrej to Andreja. Why was that important to you?
I added an “a” because it’s not a full transformation —it’s just an evolution. I thought about whether I should change it or not for a while. In the West, Andrej isn’t really a masculine name. But I think [the name change] is something that my mom really wanted because, traditionally, Andrej is a Christian Orthodox name, and in that religion, it’s definitely a male name. So I kept the “j” and added an “a,” which actually becomes a name that I don’t think exists. But I wanted to keep the “j” because that’s me. That’s my name.
How did your modeling agents react when you told them you were having SRS?
It’s been an interesting experience. I had the surgery early this year, and I told my men’s agent at DNA about two weeks before the operation. I just said, “This is what’s happening,” because I didn’t want anything to stop me. I had decided. And then recently, I had a meeting with the women’s [team], and they’ve been very positive about moving from the men’s board to the women’s board, which is amazing. It’s something I guess no one’s ever done.
Weren’t you on both the men’s and women’s boards before the surgery?
Actually, all over the world I was, but not in New York. I guess the American market isn’t as progressive.
How do you feel your transition from an androgynous male model to a female model will impact your career?
I hope everything goes well. [SRS] was a personal decision. I took this step, and I said to myself, My career is just going to have to fall into place around it. So I hope that I can continue my success. I think I’ve shown that I have skills as a model, and those skills don’t just go away. I’ve had experience. I’ve been around the block.
Androgyny and the transgender community seem to be at the center of the cultural and, more specifically, the fashion conversation at the moment. Hood by Air by Shayne Oliver, who enlisted voguers to model at the Fall ’14 show, is a prime example. Where do you think this focus on the transgender community is coming from?
The trend of androgyny and the exploration of trans beauty started around 2010, and that’s when Lea T and I both started [modeling]. Everyone was kind of saying, “Oh, it’s just a trend, it’s going to go away,” and it hasn’t. I think that’s because it represents a social layer of people who feel that they don’t want to conform to traditional forms of gender—who feel traditional forms of gender are outdated. That social base feeds the trend, and it feeds the exploration in fashion.
Do you feel the fashion industry has been welcoming and supportive throughout your career?
I got my success very quickly, and the media attention has been pretty positive. People like Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfeld, and Juergen Teller have been extremely supportive. But my biggest challenge was to not always be pigeonholed, and also to make [androgyny] commercially successful, because when I started, it was such a new thing. Still, there are a lot of roadblocks, particularly when working with cosmetic brands or perfumes or those sort of commercial, corporate things. It’s been more difficult to break into that world than “fashion” because it hasn’t been done before. They don’t have any market research, and people in that world aren’t risk takers. You have to prove to them over and over that you are liked by people, you have a skill, and you can sell a product.
Is landing a beauty campaign something you aspire to do?
It’s a goal for any model! It would be cray cray. But we’ll see. I’m happy to keep doing what I love, and for me it’s like I’m already living the dream.
Have you had any experiences in castings, etc., that have been particularly frustrating?
Oh, yeah, especially in the beginning, when I first moved to London. It was like, I’d walk into the boys’ casting, and they were like, “No…you don’t belong here.” And then at the girls’ casting, they were like, “Why are they sending us boys?” So it took time for everyone to get on board. It wasn’t all sweet sailing.
What do you think the fashion industry can do to further embrace the transgender community?
It would be lovely to live in a world where trans-female models were treated as female models, and trans-male models were treated the same as male models, rather than being a niche commodity. I think that that is the biggest struggle in all this. It’s almost like African-American models back in the nineties. It was like, “Oh, you can do this, but you can’t do that. You can do runway, but no print.” So I think that’s what needs to change.
When I first met you last year, you already seemed like a pretty confident individual. Do you feel more comfortable—or more you— since having the SRS?
I think from my teenage years, when I decided I needed to express my femininity, I was happy with the way I looked. But SRS is kind of the last part—it’s sort of the icing on the cake. It makes me feel freer than ever. Now I can stand naked in front of a mirror and really enjoy my reflection. And those personal moments are important.
But you’ve always been gorgeous. Did you not enjoy your reflection before?
Not fully naked.
I know you’re close with your mom. Has she been supportive throughout this transition?
I came out to my mom at the age of 14. She didn’t understand it at first, but she’s been very supportive since.
Has going through this transition as a public figure been very difficult?
There’s a difference between coming out to your family and close friends, and coming out to the whole world and opening yourself up to judgment. When I was younger, I just wasn’t ready for that. Even now, it’s hard to navigate. I try to concentrate on myself and what I really need, but there are so many other factors that go into it. You have to figure out timing, you have to figure out agencies. Public perception influences that. It’s a lot of pressure, and modeling is a lot of pressure anyway. I think most models have to live up to something, and they struggle with that. So to have that on top of this, there have definitely been difficult moments.
If I may ask, how do you think the SRS will impact your personal and romantic life? Is that something you’re excited about exploring?
Yeah, I’m very happy with this new situation, and I’m happy to keep exploring.
Are you dating anyone?
No, I’m single. I’m open to love, so I’m taking some time off for myself now. I think that’s necessary. We’ll see. But you know, I feel more comfortable than ever, more confident than ever, and I’m ready to face the world.
Simone Rocha may not have taken home the LVMH Prize, but the 27-year-old designer is in greater demand than ever. This month she’s poised (like Christopher Kane before her) to launch a collaboration with J Brand, and in Love‘s latest issue, she sits down with Comme des Garçons International president (and husband to designer Rei Kawakubo) Adrian Joffe. Joffe has been a staunch supporter since Rocha debuted her first collection with Fashion East back in 2010, and he also happens to have known the designer since she was a child. In the Q&A, moderated by Love editor Jack Sunnucks, Rocha and Joffe talk cultural identity, her “abysmal” academic performance, and the six dearly departed Joffe-Kawakubo cats. Also of note? The possibility that a Simone Rocha scent may just be hitting Dover Street Market shelves in the future.
An exclusive excerpt as well as a Patrick Demarchelier-lensed, Katie Grand-styled portrait of Rocha (sporting her own design) debuts below. To read the full interview, pick up Love Issue 12, as covered by Christy Turlington (shot by Inez & Vinoodh, and pictured above), Adriana Lima, Kendall Jenner, and Amy Adams. It hits newsstands July 28.
When Love joins Simone Rocha and Adrian Joffe, the pair are debating the very important topic of pets: Adrian has just revealed that he and his wife, Rei Kawakubo, used to have six cats at home in Japan.
Adrian Joffe: We liked cats, but there’s none left—they’re all gone. So nothing at the moment. But with traveling and everything it’s sad to leave animals alone, isn’t it?
Simone Rocha: That’s exactly what happened to me. We ended up moving around so much. They really need company.
AJ: Being half Chinese, half Irish—does that influence your work, do you think? Do you feel Chinese or Irish? Or does it not matter?
SR: I think it does matter. They’re so different. But one thing that is very important in both Irish culture and Chinese culture is family. So both my mum and dad have really big families and really important relationships with all their family. I love being Irish and not looking Irish, and I love going to Hong Kong and knowing that my granny lives there and my aunts and uncles, and I can go out and they’ll all speak Cantonese and play mah-jongg.
AJ: I’m guessing, though, that you don’t like to be referred to as Simone Rocha, the half-Chinese, half-Irish designer. That limits you, doesn’t it?
SR: I’d rather just be a designer. But I am very proud. I don’t mind being called an Irish designer, because a lot of people call me a British designer. I can feel the whole Ireland kicking off when that happens!
AJ: Do you remember your first memory of liking fashion? Was there one thing that set your love of fashion in motion?
SR: It actually just felt totally natural being around fashion, being around clothes. I absolutely love the smell of plastic bags—you know, when everything’s being hung up and shipped out.
I decided to do fine art originally, because I thought fashion would be a cliché. But after a year in college I’d done sculpture, ceramics, print—and then the very last discipline was fashion. And then I was like, Oh no, this is it—this is how I can translate my creativity.
I was actually a terrible student. I was abysmal in my B.A. None of my teachers thought I cared. And I didn’t. But I was still producing work, and there was obviously something in it!
AJ: You were having fun, I hope!
SR: That was the problem! I was having far too much fun—far too interested in socializing. But then I got in on the M.A., and around two weeks into it… Well, I’d never cared so much about something in my whole life.
AJ: So now you’ve done three shops with Dover Street. Can we do your perfume, too?
SR: That would be fabulous! I’d love that. I already know what it will smell like. Something real, but something really special.
Since launching Edun in 2005, Ali Hewson and husband Bono have been candid about the challenges they’ve faced in developing and maintaining a fashion brand—particularly one with an ambitious mandate to source materials and employ artisans across Africa. But then, when the name of your label is nude spelled backward, perhaps transparency is a given. While Edun has been partially owned by LVMH for the past five years, only recently, with the appointment of creative director Danielle Sherman in April 2013, has the brand come into its own. Shortly before guests arrived chez Bono for a three-part party hosted by MyTheresa.com to celebrate the company’s launch on the site, Sherman (formerly of Alexander Wang and The Row) and Hewson settled into an outdoor nook overlooking the Mediterranean to discuss the state of Edun today.
Danielle, you’ve just been made a member of the CFDA. What does that mean to you?
Danielle Sherman: I’m very lucky to be a part of that community now. It puts us on another platform. With Edun, so much of what we do is about a meeting of the minds. This is another way of connecting to a larger community.
Now that Danielle has two seasons behind her, how has the team settled into this new chapter at Edun?
Ali Hewson: I think Danielle has done an amazing job in rewriting us aesthetically and finding exactly how to work in Africa and how we produce. We’re now producing 85 percent in Africa, which was our goal from the beginning—we just could never really get there. But with Danielle’s commitment, we are there.
How did you finally reach this goal?
DS: It’s in the details. Everyone [in this industry] is creating and manufacturing stuff, but the details are what make things special. We do this by talking to the people who are making our clothing. But then also setting up a structure where they can understand our language—certain details like necklines—and then they can successfully achieve it. So it’s not like we just send packages away and then expect to get something back. The way we work at Edun and the factories we work with in Africa—it’s all extremely intimate.
Ali, how did you determine that Danielle would be a good fit?
AH: Bono and I met her in Switzerland at a hotel. We were on our way someplace; she came to see us, and we had an hour and a half together. But it was very clear to us just by meeting her that this was someone who was really going to think through every step of the process and who had the excitement and imagination to do the creative side. It kind of just oozes out of her; you can feel it. So we felt very confident once we met with Danielle—as if we found home.
How does access to artisanal techniques benefit the collections?
DS: Madagascar has a vast history of embroidery, for example. So if anything, it’s us going there and learning from them. That’s why we say it’s reciprocal—not purely a transfer of skills from our end or their end. When I visited last year, we were walking on a beach and saw some fishermen’s homes—essentially long leaves interwoven into honeycomb structures. It was so beautiful and so straightforward. Little things like that can inspire the total direction of a season.
Your most recent collection drew from your visit to the archives at the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris. But it hardly feels like a trip back in time. How do you keep the collections current?
DS: I think being a woman and being able to relate intimately to the clothing that you’re working with and that you’re wearing—you see something and you’re influenced by it. And then the way we like to interpret it is in a nuanced way, not an obvious way. When I went to the Musée du Quai Branly, I met with Héléne Joubert, who oversees the African textile archive, and the history is all there. The textiles that were really interesting to me were from North Africa, especially Morocco. They’re geometric and graphic and have a lot of stripes. That’s what gave me the idea to take something classic like a herringbone and intersect it with a stripe.
Danielle, you clearly have the basics figured out from your stints at Alexander Wang and The Row. Were the directional runway looks a challenge?
DS: I think in order to really push Edun and give it new direction creatively, we had to introduce more transformative or aspirational pieces. This took more time to develop because I needed to still relate to it in some capacity; it couldn’t be totally foreign. Nothing that we do is really fantastical or frivolous and there’s no excess. Everything is quite stripped down, very reduced to an essence. The stuff you see in the show is definitely stuff we have worked and reworked. But I read that Fitzgerald rewrote The Great Gatsby something like 76 times. And if he wrote that book 76 times, then I could redo this collection a few times. For Edun to be a viable and relevant brand, people need to relate and understand the core basics and classics, because that is the everyday. But people still need to get excited by something, and those pieces have to be what you see in the show.
With MyTheresa, are you after greater brand visibility and reach?
AH: Absolutely. And to introduce Danielle as the creative director of Edun internationally—to get people to understand and recognize who she is and what she does. MyTheresa really wants to support us. As Jens [Jens Riewenherm, MyTheresa's CEO] was saying to me earlier, “We’re not into a one-night stand; we’re into commitment.” Which is so important for us because we’re still a small brand working in Africa.
Have you been able to speak with clients and retailers about their opinions and expectations?
DS: That’s probably been one of the biggest challenges; we don’t have our own store, so we are relying on retailers to give us information. Justin [Justin O'Shea, MyTheresa's buying director] came in a few times and we’ve had conversations to understand his market and who his customer is, because it varies significantly from other dot-coms. And MyTheresa has such a unique angle. They’re the ones picking up those showpieces. I really like honesty. My mom and my sister talk about things a lot. Ali might say why she likes something or what she’s not into.
AH: Danielle is very open, which for a creative person, is amazing. She’s really open to what people think and what they want to wear and to making Edun a success. At the end of the day, you can have the most beautiful clothes, but if people don’t want to wear them, it’s not going to go anywhere. And the whole point of the mission is that we do sell clothes, and then the company grows and therefore we work more in Africa.
Do you find this is a motivator for you—that it gives the fashion another dimension?
DS: It’s unlike any experience I’ve had. I ask myself, How can I be tired when there’s a bigger hill to climb? It’s something that’s bigger than us. And that’s what this is about.
What will Edun look like in five years?
DS: I still think it will have its essence of purity, just by the way we tend to dress ourselves. It always feels honest and very real, and I hope it still has that. I think it will become more diverse, if anything. Our goal eventually is to enter into other categories, which will also fulfill the mission.
AH: It’s very exciting because you’re standing at the bottom of this thing and you don’t know quite how it’s going to grow. But you know it’s going to grow and it has huge potential and great energy moving forward, especially at the moment.
Is it important that Danielle shift the focus from a Bono/Ali story to Edun proper?
AH: We realized from the beginning that no matter what the mission, the aesthetic is the most important thing. Or else it’s not fashion and it’s not going to be a business. And it needs to be a business to achieve its mission. So the aesthetic is what makes it sustainable, and that’s where Danielle comes in.
Danielle, have Ali and Bono influenced the way you think about design?
DS: I have always loved to travel, but most of my research has been from books and things I get inspired by from my friends who are artists. Ali and Bono have shown me a whole other world that exists, and there’s so much incredible inspiration and so many people we have met and a culture I was more or less foreign to that I am starting to get to know. They also continue to encourage me to travel. Bono said to me, “You need to make time to dream.” What he meant is I really need to take that time to clear my head, and see something and have an experience—and then to bring it back to Edun and interpret it and translate it in some way that people can also experience.