Joseph Ettedgui, R.I.P.
The obituaries have already distilled the career to its essence. Joseph Ettedgui, who died yesterday at the age of 74, transformed the international fashion landscape. But what makes his story truly unique was that the grandiosity of such an achievement was underpinned by a nature so humble and unassuming it was easy to forget that the little guy in the corner with the thick French accent, the owlish glasses, the fluff of hair, and the stubble was actually the most powerful man in the room. Although the big cigar might have been a giveaway.
One epochal day in 1972, the little guy was stacking striped sweaters in the window of his hairdressing salon on King’s Road when Michael Roberts noticed him. Then fashion editor of The Sunday Times, Roberts liked the sweaters, used them in a shoot that appeared (obviously) on a Sunday. By Monday afternoon, the entire stock had sold out. And thus was Joseph Ettedgui launched on a Britain that had no idea its appetite for adventurously minimal European style was about to be stimulated. As much as what he sold (those striped sweaters were by Kenzo—he would also introduce everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Helmut Lang to Martin Margiela to local aficionados), it was the way Joseph sold it, in high-tech, chrome-and-glass stores that had the streamlined ambience of an Art Deco cruise ship. The look may be a retail cliché now, but Joseph pioneered it, as he did the starchitect collaboration (Norman Foster designed his first Sloane Street outlet in 1979) and the in-store café. “He made you feel enthusiastic about fashion,” says Roberts, who remembers Joseph driving around late at night in his Rolls-Royce checking out the window displays in rival stores. “This huge car would come down the street, looking like a runaway Rolls with no one at the wheel. Then you’d see the top of his head and the puff of cigar smoke.”
Roberts went on to create memorable ad campaigns for Joseph. What he misses most is the complete freedom he was given, as though Joseph were the most visionary patron. “It was a Medici kind of thing to be given that kind of treatment,” he says. “It never happens anymore.” Like the best patrons, Joseph was an ardent champion of the new and the young. And he had a fruitful kinship with designers that others found tricky to work with, Alaïa in particular. Katharine Hamnett looks back on “a fantastic working relationship,” which began when Joseph rescued her from penury after a French company she was working for left her high and dry with a bagful of samples. He bought the lot on a sale-and-return basis. “And that was the beginning of one of the happiest times in my career,” Hamnett says. “He enabled things, he trusted his instincts, he loved what he did—and he was very good at it.”
Photo: Rex USA