PENNY McCORMICK talks to designer VANESSA SEWARD about living in Paris, working with KARL LAGERFELD and TOM FORD and why her Latin heritage informs her wardrobe choices …
“I now have four stores,” says Vanessa Seward, 46, proudly as I catch up with her on the day her new Notting Hill store opens. “Et me voilà à Londres,” she giggles and continues in a mix of English and French, “It’s exciting. The store has been designed by the same architect as all my stores – Laurent Deroo – he’s very talented. I knew him from my time at APC, however he has adapted his aesthetic with my own.” The result is a sleek marriage of stone and wood with brass lighting; the brand’s signature midnight blue colour prevails. Cushions and hangings are reminiscent of Argentinian gaucho sashes – a nod to her family origins, and the music has been selected by her husband, the producer and composer Bertrand Burgalat. She has two stores in Paris and one in Los Angeles and her designs can be found at Seagreen, Monkstown. “Retro modern” is how I would describe the look as well as the clothing. Seward’s designs are worn by the likes of Drew Barrymore, Julie Delphy and Léa Seydoux; women of character with a wardrobe that signals their non-“fashion victim” status. Self-deprecatingly, Seward emphasises her good fortune frequently though her enviable career success is the culmination of an impeccable design trajectory and a personal style evolution that began at home.
Her mother’s obsession with fashion clearly nurtured Seward’s vision. As the wife of a diplomat she was forever going to parties in an assortment of Gina Fratini and Ossie Clark dresses that left a lasting impression. “Even if my mother definitely gave me the basics and a love of glamour, I have two older sisters as well. We were all into watching golden oldie films – it was our thing,” says Seward about her peripatetic childhood spent between bases in Argentina, London and Paris. Her father was the Argentinian ambassador to London and she attended a convent school in St John’s Wood. “My mother spent her life at the hairdresser – she lived to go out and my sisters and I were in total admiration of her.” Scroll through Seward’s Instagram account [31K followers] and the seventies predominate, with vintage images of Jerry Hall, Sylvia Kristel and Charlie’s Angels providing a glimpse of her other style icons.
It’s no surprise that Seward rebelled sartorially against her strict convent uniform and, in her teenage years, column inches were dedicated to her flamboyant clubbing style which she has admitted was to detract from her innate shyness. She decided to parlay her personal style and interest in fashion into a career and after studying at Studio Berçot in Paris she joined the accessories department of Chanel, though at the time she would have preferred a cooler brand such as Martine Sitbon. “I worked with Karl Lagerfeld when I was 21. He was a really great boss – so nice with all his team yet so busy at the same time,” Seward reminisces. “At that time he was designing across four houses – Fendi, Chanel, Chloé and Karl Lagerfeld. He just seemed so quick and witty. When I think about it, I didn’t realise how lucky I was and took it for granted.” By night she frequented Les Bains Douches and Le Palace and by day she was kept busy (it was the era of the Supermodels). “There were 200 outfits per show and piles of accessories. You didn’t think too much about prices when you were working on something. But I think I was a bit dazed – I thought it was normal to see Anna Wintour all the time.”
Lucky break number two was her next job. After nine years she crossed rue Gambon for le rive gauche. Seward went to Yves Saint Laurent, at the time under the direction of Tom Ford. “I was with him for three years and he was very impressive – very smart, good looking and it wasn’t the same as Chanel. It was the beginning of marketing in fashion,” reflects Seward. “Chanel wasn’t commercial and there was no marketing department, whereas at Yves Saint Laurent all that existed. Tom was already working like that so I saw a completely new aspect and it was the first time. His aesthetic was sexy, perhaps overly so, but it was strong and brought another perspective.” Lucky break three was when she took the reins of the couture label Azzaro, [known for its 1970s-style eveningwear], as artistic director when the founder died in 2003. “Azzaro was my most important formative experience. It was my first time at the helm. What I loved is that I learned all about a flattering way to cut – I don’t like too many details unless they are necessary,” she says enthusiastically. “I care about the cut – it makes the difference. I learned about tricks to make legs look longer and waists smaller. There were ten commandments used for every fitting.”
From couture she was drawn to contemporary styling; collaborating with the APC founder Jean Touitou and helping to define the brand’s appeal – described as the sweet spot between cool and hip. Launching her own label seemed an inevitable progression though Seward admits she was hesitant. “I discussed my plan to launch with Jean Touitou and we really studied the gap in the market.” That being what she defines as a sensible price point (average cost €400) and classic designs. “We’re not cheap but we’re cheaper than luxury labels and what I like is the quality; it’s intelligent luxury as we don’t compromise on quality, production or style.” She also admits that she would not have taken the step without the support of Touitou. “Obviously I don’t have the same team as at Chanel but I am very fortunate to share the resources of APC – their workshop, production and scheduling. It has alleviated many of the stresses associated with a new label. Without them I don’t think I would have gone solo.” Again Seward is conscious of her good fortune. “I’m lucky that I am not like other designers who perhaps are stuck with brands and wishing to launch their own label. I am not bound to other houses and need someone like LVMH to invest in me. I am not going to leave VS (how she refers to her label) this is my final post and I want it to be a success.” The latter seems assured; Carine Roitfeld was one of her first fans when she debuted two years ago, and family support has been invaluable. “My husband is very involved; he doesn’t compromise in his own work and he helps me with my battles. When you are creating a brand it’s important to forge an identity and he has been there to keep that strength. He has great taste, of course, and I do like a man’s point of view – perhaps that’s my Latin side coming out. I sometimes feel in fashion as if we dress for ourselves and others in that world, while those outside don’t really understand it.” This pragmatic approach is also mixed with a flirty perspective. If Tory Burch has distilled waspy American style (and also had a strong maternal influence), Seward offers us nostalgic Parisian classics with a hint of sexiness. “After 35 years in Paris I am completely assimilated. I have travelled a lot but I am that thing everyone wants to be Parisian.” Living in the 17th arrondissement, she makes no apologies for saying, “I like it when your husband or partner finds you seductive. For this reason I like a man’s point of view. There is no point in investing in a piece if your partner is not going to like it. Clothes should make you feel confident and sexy.”
This season’s offering is a case in point. In the mix are peasant dresses, crocheted caftans, chambray button-down shirts worn with denim culottes and wearable shorts paired with patriotic, striped sweaters. “I want my clothes to be timeless. My inspiration was the Riviera and the same silhouettes as Bardot and Birkin wore. St Tropez of the 60s and 70s was on my moodboard. The clogs probably come from summers I spend in the Pyrenées. I wanted easy glamour – the mix of the long dress and the basket – it can be broken down.” Yes, it’s eminently wearable while the handmade baskets are the result of a collaboration with artisan Jason Glasser with whom she worked at APC. As for her own wardrobe, she admits, “It’s a reflection of my brand. I don’t change my wardrobe each season – I keep things, bring them out but wear them in a different way.” Staples include, “A trench, a pair of high-heeled boots for winter and sandals for summer which are comfortable, and a flattering pair of high-waisted jeans (one of her signatures).” While she tells me her beauty essentials are “lipstick, mascara and eye brow brush.”
Finally, I ask Seward about my favourite design – the shamrock dress and its inspiration. “Yes, it’s from my first collection,” says Seward. “I’m superstitious and I thought the print was so beautiful. It’s funny it wasn’t an obvious choice but I wanted it for luck. We didn’t order that many and so it sold out in two minutes as it was worn on many French actresses and was featured in lots of magazines as being emblematic of the collection.” That Seward might have had some Irish luck to help her is a romantic notion though fans will be glad to hear the print is making a comeback. “All I can say is that we are bringing it back for the autumn/winter collection but in a different colour way.” I’ll see you in the queue ladies.
Vanessa Seward is at Seagreen, Monkstown.
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