The future’s so bright… (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , on June 28, 2012 by markcoflaherty

The world of luxury is divided into those who like a logo, and those who don’t. For every woman who covets the gold chain, quilting and distinctive double C of a Chanel handbag, there’s another who wants a less showy, but no less statement-making Hermès Birkin. Over the last few years, the accessories market has become polarised: discreet branding accompanied by distinctive but subtle styling details, versus maximalist bells, whistles and prominent trademarks. The look of that essential summer purchase – a new pair of shades – has gone the same way. Whether you buy Vivienne Westwood’s, with her orb insignia emblazoned in crystals on the arm, or a pair of Cutler & Gross’s logo-free titanium aviators, your choice speaks volumes. “Customers at our Selfridges concessions are asking for timeless glamour and large frames,” says Richard Peck, MD of David Clulow. “Those who prefer a small logo browse Persol and Prada and those who don’t want to pass unnoticed will go for Chanel or Versace, or perhaps a Bulgari frame with Austrian crystals on the arm.”

Brioni 2012

Brioni 2012

Oliver Peoples – which celebrates 25 years in business this year – was one of the first brands to embrace the no-logo ethos. When its shades first appeared, the market was saturated with post-Risky Business Wayfarers; Ray Ban, with its distinctive script, was a household name. Though Ray Ban has plenty of chic, timeless frames in its canon, it was the Wayfarer that resurfaced in a big way some years ago, tinged with heavy 1980s irony. While the joke has worn paper thin, many irony-loving Rubik’s Cube fixated youths remain enthralled by the shorthand kitsch of the coloured-framed varieties. Oliver Peoples, however, has never been self consciously trendy, so never went out of fashion. It’s designs are classic, while being in tune with the vogue for all things mid century modern. “The influence in fashion of the 1950s era is driving fashion away from the big logo,” says Oliver Peoples founder Larry Leight. “I have always wanted our frames to speak for themselves. And our discreet branding keeps the brand discoverable.” Their classic designs, including the Sheldrake and the Benedict, are luxurious style perennials.

Discreet branding is more apparent than the bold logo right now. Some of it stems from a stealth approach to wealth during recession. The rest is to do with the revival of the 1970s Henry Kissinger and 1950s Clark Kent look, forged, in part, by Lower East Side opticians Moscot. “We’ve been selling that mid century mod-style look for decades,” says the company’s president, Harvey Moscot. “We’ve never chased trends. And our customers like to spot other customers in Moscot. It’s like a secret handshake.”

Moscot trades on its establishment image, but is hardwired into the New York fashion scene. They recently created a limited edition frame, The TERRY, with Terry Richardson. They’ve also worked with minimalist luxe-sneaker brand Common Projects. That particular collaboration nods to a parallel sea change in the style of men’s trainers. There are the heavily branded Technicolor sports brands, and the likes of Gucci – with all-over GG-web patterning – and then there is Common Projects’ minimally branded monochrome shoe, identifiable to insiders by a small, prosaic, product number on the side of the heel.

That kind of pared down, knowing branding is growing in popularity. Thom Browne’s collaboration with optical company Dita led to a range of shades – riffing on Browne’s skewed 1950s tailoring sensibilities – which replicate the tri-colour stripe from the labels on Browne’s garments, on the tip of each arm. When worn, it is barely visible. “Discreet, but detail heavy,” says Jeff Solorio, co-founder of Dita.

Then there are the companies that eschew any exterior motif. British brand Oliver Goldsmith was founded in 1926 and much of its style is embedded in the sharply tailored cinematic 1960s.  The Renzo – a swinging London Michael Caine favourite – is an understated classic. “Branding through design is much smarter,” says the company’s current owner, Claire Goldsmith “One of the design features of the collection is the contoured temple. People in the know recognise it as Goldsmith. New customers are so happy to find something without diamante and branding scribbled all over it.”

Where a logo does appear in 2012, it often has a modernist, matter of fact, Muji style to it. Jack Spade makes a virtue of its simple, low-key, upper case, san serif logo. The range of sunglasses the company has produced with Selima Optique bears it on the inside of the arms. “The new product is stylish because it fills a need and has a timeless appeal,” says Jack Spade’s designer Cuan Hanly. “Likewise, military issue chinos aren’t stylish because of a logo.”

The new range of shades from Brioni, in 15 variants, are as luxurious as they are stylish – taking aviator and rectangular shapes and refining them with Zeiss crystal lenses, deerskin cases, and hand finished horn arms that bend 180 degrees. The Brioni logo is discreetly etched in the corner of a lens. “We didn’t want to put the logo on the horn arms,” says artistic director Jason Basmajian. “We wanted to give the product a signature, but Brioni is about a man’s personal expression of style, and doesn’t need a major logo to justify it.”

While some people are shameless label whores, it’s more often the case that someone favours just one or two particular brands enough to sport their insignia. They feel an affinity with a label, whether it be Prada, Brioni or Versace, whose Medusa-emblazoned shades remain as maximalist as their other accessories. “We’re about sex and glamour,” says Donatella Versace. “We can dial our branding up, or dial it down, but it’s part of our look. Versace must always be Versace, and branding through graphic motifs, log and key colours like gold, is very much what people like us for.” Sometimes, more is definitely more and only more will do.



New aged (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Sometimes in fashion, wear and tear is the best accessory. Of all the items on display at Hermès’ Leather Forever exhibition, opening this week in London as part of the label’s 175th anniversary, it’s the vintage pieces that capture the attention most. Next to contemporary flights of fantasy, including a brightly coloured, winged horse’s saddle, there is luggage commissioned by the Duke of Windsor that has the handsome patina of decades of use. Many of the pieces, including belts, hats and a leather wheelbarrow used by Wallis Simpson to house her glove collection, tell a story beyond ‘royal appointment’ – there is depth, integrity and a little mystery. These are elements that no new chain store item could possibly emulate, but which some designers are now trying to weave into their work before it makes it to the point of first sale.

Paul Harndnen Shoemakers S/S 2012

For many niche brands, this is partly about distancing themselves from the mainstream – when everyone’s saying the same things with black jeans and a double breasted sports coat, you need to have your own voice. “These producers are the antithesis of big brand, big thinking,” says Mark Quinn of the Shoreditch menswear boutique Hostem, one of several stores that trades on the aesthetic. “They are driven by a dedication to craft.”

Not to be confused with fads for distressed-denim, faux aged leather and clumsy patchwork stitching that appear every few fashion cycles, the current move toward the “new aged” has more to do with the fact that spending over four figures on a jacket in a quality hide is an investment and for men, in particular, its gradual softening and scuffing suggests a life well lived and a certain insousiance. Many men don’t have a buttoned-down existence. They want to feel that they are the masters of their wardrobes, away from the tyranny of box-fresh, crease-free dressing. The architect and the art director have their own notions of what constitutes well dressed. The fashion designer too: “I will never, as long as I live wear a tie”, declares Yohji Yamamoto.

Indeed, the allure of the “old” is not limited to leather. A handful of contemporary designers have pioneered a similar approach to other textiles. Comme des Garçons Homme Plus suits, for example, are often made in boiled wool or polyester, with both options looking as good plucked from an overhead bin after a 12 hour flight as they do on boarding. Then there are the sneakers by Maison Martin Margiela that have been artfully whitewashed; for men who remember having box-fresh trainers stamped on by classmates at school to “christen them”, there’s something reassuringly “ready” about these shoes. And at Belstaff, “Antique Black” is the new black – certain boots are available in the former, but not the latter.

This is, of course, a matter of taste. Many men – particularly those who would never consider vintage – will not succumb to what they see as pretention in fashion. Mark Quinn of Hostem disagrees: “These labels are actually a refuge for the unpretentious. It’s not showy and it’s not the instant ageing of All Saints or Levis. What might be perceived as imperfections are highly desirable – the result of fabrication sourced from the few family run mills left in business.”

These clothes aren’t meant to look preworn or distressed, merely relaxed and luxurious, with subtle of evidence of their artisan craft. It less as about an attempt to age, and more to do with painstaking construction and extraordinary detail. “Brands like A1923 and Lost &Found produce clothing that has a story to tell,” says Michael Takkou of Mayfair boutique Layers. “We recently stocked a collaboration between LAYER-0 and Avantindietro where footwear was constructed with leather that had been buried for 10 years.” Such avant-garde techniques can only be employed by small design houses. “These designers don’t follow trends,” says Mark Quinn. “Geoffrey B. Small hand makes his buttons and Carol Christian Poell dyes his leather in ox blood. Customers buy their clothes for decades, not seasons.”

Some labels, like Casey Vidalenc – known for their boiled wools and what they call “tight and tough fabrics” – aren’t even produced via traditionally structured collections. “We just make things when we want to wear them ourselves,” says Gareth Casey. “If clients want to buy them, then fine.” Much of what’s currently on sale at Dover Street Market and Hostem features fabrics that have been dyed, shrunk, laundered and distressed; many one-off Casey Vidalenc garments are made from short runs of textiles that Casey and his design partner Philippe Vidalenc “wash, wash and wash” and then twist by hand. The result is surprisingly subtle, and appeals to an intellectual customer who sees himself as being above the pervading smart casual look. It’s also very well made – there’s no vast production line in China, most of it comes straight from the atelier, as it would have done before the advent of prêt a porter.

The shop assistants in Rick Owens’ stores wear their proprietor’s black and “dark dust” coloured T-shirts to work, often in tatters, and serve as an instruction manual for newcomers to the brand; Owens designs some of his raw-edged items, like his sheer cotton T-shirts to distress, artfully, over time, while others such as this season’s stonewashed, buttery soft leathers are sold with a subtle weathering to the texture or a pre-worn tone. “I see it as a restrained patina,” says Owens. “Think of British gentleman who used to give their new shoes to a valet to reduce the newness. It can appear affected very easily,” acknowledges the designer, however, so “It’s best to approach it as a gentle finishing and let the client create their own authenticity” through wear.

Across the Channel, meanwhile, Brighton-based designer Paul Harnden creates tailoring that has the warped heft and, often, the weirdness, of a Joseph Beuys installation. Described as “very Greta Garbo” by long-standing customer John Galliano, Harnden makes music and underground Super-8 movies but has never produced a catwalk show. He refuses party invitations, interviews and online retail, selling exclusively at a few stores (Dover Street Market in London; IF in New York; L’Eclaireur in Paris). Much of his work resembles wrinkled, rugged, American Civil War costume, with heavy cottons and twists of Victoriana. Nevertheless, he has a slavish following amongst fans, including Galliano and Brad Pitt, prepared to pay over £1,o00 for a coat. Much of each new collection sells out on arrival because of scarcity and growing demand. As Gareth Casey says, “Quality garments, like good wine, improve with the patina of age.”

Aesop: the stuff of fables (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2012 by markcoflaherty

The area around Silver Place in London’s Soho has become a satellite to some of Australia’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. The most luscious flat white coffees in the city are served at Fernandez & Wells, there’s a neon-dinosaur in the window of the Zero10 Gallery and The Society Club next door identifies itself via a chalkboard outside as a “bookshop serving tea and coffee and toast with jam.” These are typical elements of Melbourne’s bohemian laneways. The arrival of a new store for Australian skincare brand Aesop, with untreated-wood floors and row upon row of the brand’s now iconic brown apothecary bottles on enamel shelves, has completed the scene.

Aesop is one of the biggest international success stories in skincare today. At the end of this year, in which the brand celebrates its 25th anniversary, there will be 45 stores across the world – Soho’s being the first new opening of 2012.  Founder Dennis Paphitis started out as a hairdresser with a salon, an idea and a few bottles of his own formulation of rosemary and sage oil in 1987. Inspired by an architectural firm he’d encountered three years earlier in Florence, which had switched from working with buildings to experimental design with recycled paper, he honed Aesop’s imagery. Since then, Aesop has become a creative pioneer in its own right. Despite its determination to fly just a fraction above the radar, its influence on the look and ethos of other skincare brands has also crossed over into fashion retail, restaurants, print media and advertising agency strategy.

Paphitis’s masterstroke is his very visible collaboration with architects and artists. Earlier this year he worked with filmmaker Lucy McRae, who describes herself as a “body architect”, on a serious and arresting short film that mixes offbeat beauty imagery with plasma packs and syringes within the milieu of an operating theatre. It has some of the unsettling body-conscious essence of vintage David Cronenberg. “It’s inspired by physicist Herman Ludwig Helmholtz and his research on human perception,” says McRae. “As he said, ‘Everything is an event on the skin’.” As a visual artist, McRae feels empathy with the historical resonance of Aesop’s presentation. “It feels pre-digital,” she says. “Like a relic from the past that might always have been there.”

Much of the appeal of Aesop is the matter-of-fact nature of the brand’s product. Less is more. As Suzanne Santos, Aesop’s long standing “product advocate” explains: “the very first products that Dennis formulated self-sold themselves because of their difference to what was available. There was no colour or artificial fragrance. The formulation was startlingly new.” Similarly, today, there is no quasi-religious experience promised with your morning toilette, no comparison with the results of surgical procedure and no airbrushed advertising. As Ed Burstell, buying director at key Aesop stockist Liberty, who also introduced the brand to the US at Henri Bendel says: “They launched at a time when there was a general trend for anti-ageing products to make statements that weren’t backed by science.” Instead, Aesop’s focus is on preventative measures, and is transparently scientific. The two main Vitamin C types they use are empirically quantified anti-oxidant free radical scavengers. Free radicals sit at the start of a chain-reaction commonly believed to damage skin, and they are generated in abundance in polluted urban environments. “They were one of the first brands to talk about anti-oxidants,” says Sarah Lerfel from Colette in Paris, the brand’s first French stockist. The Perfect Facial Hydrating Cream (£73) and B Triple C Balancing Gel (£67) are two of Aesop’s most premium anti-oxidant products. Along with perfect form and persuasive function, the Aesop aromas of orange, rose, parsley seed and frankincense are consistently seductive; the house style never veers from a fragrance axis of herbal and citrus, with touches of incense that evoke chapels, Byzantium and stately libraries.

Aesop Paris, design by March Studios

Aesop’s products are cruelty free: they aren’t tested on animals and – with the exception of one shaving brush containing badger hair – 100% vegan. Their ethics make them surprisingly unusual in the modern marketplace. While an EU-wide ban on the marketing of any new beauty products tested on animals is imminent, PETA’s current online directory of the guilty – even if the guilt is by association, as a subsidiary – still reads like an audit of many bathroom cabinets, including well loved brands like Kiehl’s and Aveeno. Big companies are working their way off the list via sizeable investment into alternatives, but Aesop has never been anywhere it. At the same time, Aesop’s formulation shuns the fashionable but arguably shallow marketing drive of “100% organic” – after all, you could, theoretically, formulate organic poison. Aveda-founder Horst Rechelbacher, who now runs the edible body product range Intelligent Nutrients believes there are red herrings aplenty: “It is toxins that count, not whether something is labelled organic or natural”.

The presence of parabens in skincare products has been a major industry and consumer issue, after ongoing studies pointed towards possible carcinogenic properties. Some highly credible companies that cheerlead for antioxidants contain pareabens. Aesop’s range is 100% paraben free, while mixing toxin-free synthetics and botanics, for very specific aims, for a distinct urban consumer who has now developed affinity with the range. A case in point: the Oil Free Facial Hydrating Serum with aloe vera juice (£39) has been formulated to moisturise skin in particularly humid cities. When you’re on your way to your first meeting of the day in Bangkok, it doesn’t slide off your face.

Laboratory dynamism aside, Aesop’s presentation has provoked a quiet but visible revolution within a sector of retail. “There are now over 15 companies that use those brown bottles,” says CEO Michael O’Keefe. Aesop’s creative collaborations are similarly influential. Companies like REN now produce provocative, adult-oriented short films, distributed via their website and social media, to support their products. Fragrance company Le Labo echoes the lo-fi Aesop style with its typewriter and rubber-stamp typefaces, and the new Heliocosm store in Paris could, if you squint, be a new branch of Aesop, with its sparse but bold high-concept wood-tunnel interior, bare bulbs and dark refillable flaçons.

The “less is more” approach – reductionist stores that bring the product to the fore; the simple, bookish, sans-serif typography – fits snugly into the lifestyle Zeitgeist, between Camper’s shoes and hotels and the concrete stairwells of Dover Street Market. It’s a self-aware modernism. Like a heavy-twill navy French workman’s jacket, or dinner within the whitewashed walls of St John, it speaks to an intellectual customer who feels they are above artifice and the glossy hard sell. They want functionality, authenticity and restrained luxury. “The Italian design firm that inspired me in the 1980s, called &A, were working with recycled paper as a reaction against decorative Florentine marbled stationery,” says Paphitis. “Aesop is now part of a small movement that’s best described as the Muji-Hermes paradigm. That’s design with the simplicity and utility of Muji and the luxury and materiality of Hermes. They are healthy contradictions. The best examples can be evidenced by the way many serious chefs now treat foraged produce with a sense of preciousness.” That lifestyle Zeitgeist and paradigm is expanding: There’s even Aesop-branded Yarra Valley Cabernet Shiraz and chocolate – “for customers and friends – not for sale”. Both would, no doubt, be a roaring success if made commercially available.

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Aesop Singapore, design by March Studios

Paphitis is nothing if not a perfectionist. The Aesop HQ in Melbourne – housed within an immaculate, industrial building with blacked-out brickwork – is mission control for a team of 300 worldwide. The scores of Melbourne employees sit on black Herman Miller chairs in all-white rooms, at pale wood desks, with black PCs, communicate via email exclusively in Arial Narrow and use only one single style of black pen – a classic Bic. “The least significant details and those that are less publically visible still matter,” says Paphitis, pointing out the empty seats at midday. “We prohibit the consumption of lunches at desks,” he says. “Because people should see the sun, take a break, eat good food and not be tapping out emails simultaneously.”

Aesop’s style of modernism can be habit forming. Many customers use only Aesop products. “I don’t like to see brands or logos in my home,” says Jean Luc Colonna, the managing director of the concept store Merci, in Paris. “I feel better seeing an Aesop bottle every morning in my bathroom than an over-marketed brand.” Sarah Temple, an influential voice in graphic design in the UK and a course director at the University of Arts enjoys Aesop’s alignment with intellect and creativity: “I’ve never been treated to quotes from Hunter S Thompson or directed to art movies before by a face cream. And there’s a strange other-worldliness about the stores, with the dark liquid and stark interiors.” Aesop is playful, but doesn’t play on their customer’s anxieties. As Jo Nagasaka, the architect behind the brands stores in Aoyama and Ginza, says: “The Aesop approach is liked by real women for whom the fantasy of the traditional beauty industry is too extreme.”

Nagasaka is one of a handful of creatives with whom Paphitis has worked to elaborate on Aesop’s visibility. The new Soho store is by designers Ciguë, who also created an installation at Merci in Paris and the standalone Aesop store in the Marais, creating shelving from 427 steel caps from the French capital’s plumbing network. Within Grand Central Station, Brooklyn-based designers Tacklebox fashioned an Aesop booth from stacks of copies of the New York Times; in Singapore, March Studio hung 30km of coconut-husk string in strands from the ceiling – the effect was more art installation than retail space. “They have an earthy, vernacular approach that has more in common with hotel, restaurant or bar design,” says Marcus Fairs, the editor of influential design blog Dezeen. “You can see the same philosophy of earthiness and modesty in other brands, such as Cowshed. And if you walk down Redchurch Street in London, where Aesop have a store, you’ll see many cutting edge fashion brands starting to use the same combination of raw display materials and nostalgic marketing.”

Aesop is intrepid with its openings, arriving in areas before any of their peers would see them as viable. They moved into Redchurch Street after Shoreditch House and Boundary opened there, but while there was still just tumbleweed in terms of retail. “Now the big Italian brands are desperate for space there,” says O’Keefe. “So we’re looking at areas like Dalston.”

As well as having a nose for the next place to be, Aesop pinpoint on-message hotels, cafes and restaurants. In the past that has included Claska in Tokyo, London’s Rochelle Canteen and Hakkasan and, back home in Melbourne, the cavernous Seven Seeds coffee shop, with its exposed pipework and sliding factory doors. It’s also in the toilets of the upstairs, VIP, private tailoring consultation room at Brioni on Old Bond Street. Many loyal customers have come to the brand via a trip to the bathroom during a meal, where they’ve discovered the Resurrection Duet of Aromatique Handwash (£27) and Balm (£67). Even if they aren’t the first brand to make handwash sexy, it’s now their pump dispensers that punctuate the sleekest interiors shoots and showrooms.

Aesop New York City, design by TACKLEBOX

Aesop New York City, design by Tacklebox

The rise of Aesop has gone hand in hand with a mainstream interest in typography: The font Helvetica inspired a feature length documentary and Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, “a book about fonts”, is a best seller. Many customers love Aesop for its simple, modern mix of serif and sans-serif fonts: Aesop doesn’t have a logo per se, it’s just “Aesop” in Optima Medium. “You can communicate as much with a font as a photograph now,” says Rasmus Ibfelt, Managing Director of the e-Type design agency, which also runs the typography store Playtype in Copenhagen. “Aesop’s labelling takes everything that is usually on the back side of a product and puts it on the front. It’s a strong reference to pharmacy products.” It’s a style that sits comfortably with the brown glass and rubber and glass pipette of the best selling Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum (£39). It’s about simplicity, authenticity and credibility.

Whatever the connotations, Aesop has become a runaway success. It speaks to a well-travelled, urbane customer. Tellingly, there is only one set of Aesop treatments offered outside of the Aesop stores in Melbourne, Sydney and Hong Kong, and they are three men’s treatments at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. It’s that kind of a brand – one that collaborates with A.P.C to create the perfect Fine Fabric Care detergent for clothing (£23), calls one of its gift sets Celestial Mechanics, and produces a Ginger Flight Therapy stick (£19) to apply to your pulse points on that long-haul journey at the front of an A380. It represents a new kind of modernism, with a keen sense of play as much as business aptitude. Lying on your back in the treatment room in the basement of Aesop’s South Yarra store, all is serene and white, apart from a single line of text written on the ceiling above your head, a quote attributed to Janis Joplin: ‘Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.’

Life through a lens (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Take a walk around any major gallery this weekend and observe how in love with the digital image we all are. Forget what’s on the walls and count the people snapping exhibits with their iPhones. For some, it’s a way to own an aspect of the environment, for others it’s a distraction from the truth that they’d rather be having lunch. From holidays to food blogs, the digital image now serves as our brain’s external hard drive – a visual diary. For fashion designers working with photo prints it’s also a way to incorporate intimate experiences and personalise their work.

Zero + Maria Cornejo S/S 2012

Zero + Maria Cornejo’s spring collection is full of electric-bright, draped abstracts that began life as candid images shot in the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. For an earlier collection, Maria Cornejo used her iPhone to capture details of the Bosphorus from the deck of a ferry. “Taking pictures has become my starting point,” she says. “I am always looking for patterns and colour – it’s how I look at the world and it lends a more personal narrative to the collection. We’ve started creating tags that go with each printed garment so that clients can read the story and feel connected to the clothes.”

For Cornejo, travel is vital for inspiration. Like Cornejo, Christopher De Vos and Peter Pilotto of the Peter Pilotto label shoot images while on a journey and then abstract the results until they are nearly unrecognisable. Still, an emotional connection to the source material remains. “We took many photos on a recent trip to Indonesia,” says Pilotto. “Some images went on the mood board and some began as a starting for a print. But we always rework everything.” Like those gallery and museum visitors with their iPhones, they are staking a very personal claim on an experience and a captured image.

Last summer, Bruno Basso of the London design duo Basso & Brooke drove across Siberia with two friends, a couple of smart phones and two cameras. The new spring collection that stemmed from it features a mix of images from Russia, manipulated with unlikely tropical colours. “I shot water, forests and skies,” says Basso, “The countryside was beautiful but very bleak; it’s hypnotic and never changes. I found myself fantasising about my childhood and luscious Brazilian flora for comfort, and I put the elements together.” Chris Brooke received the prints back in London and worked them into garments: “There was a clear and emotional feeling to them from Bruno’s unique experience of the journey.”

Basso & Brooke S/S 2012 © Fernanda Calfat

Many designers manipulate photographs out of all recognition, but some reproduce them faithfully and directly. Dries Van Noten discovered the work of James Reeve while judging at the Hyères Festival of International Fashion and Photography and reproduced some of his unpopulated nighttime landscapes on dresses this season. Reeve’s work is quiet and dark. Distant light sources punctuate his landscapes in a way that makes them work as abstract patterns, but on Van Noten’s garments they remain works of art in their own right. “I liked them for their urban and modern sentiment,” says Van Noten. “Although they are dark, I hope they lend the clothes an optimistic mood.” Fellow Belgian Ann Demeulemeester has used a monochrome photograph of a bird in flight as a T-shirt print this season.  It’s been blurred through Photoshop, but it’s still clearly figurative. “It’s an image that my husband shot,” she says. “I have adapted it to represent the memory of a bird; something that has faded away. I like the mystery and freedom of birds – you can’t own them.” Both Van Noten and Demeulemeester embrace photography as a fine art form in a traditional sense, with respect for the integrity of the original image. Demeulemeester’s first experiment with recontextualising imagery was via the painter Jim Dine. She put photo prints of his raven paintings onto dresses in over a decade ago. “I saw the original image and fell in love with it,” she says. “I got in touch with Dine and told him that I wanted to wear the image as a photograph, not just make a garment with it.”

Demeulemeester works predominantly in monochrome, which takes an image one step away from the obvious Kodak moment and two steps in the direction of wearability. Designers working with identifiable images, in colour, have to walk a more perilous tight rope; to wrong-foot would be to land in the realm of 1970s kitsch. “Mary Katrantzou and Erdem both use digital prints that are immediately recognisable,” says Samantha Lewis, one of the head buyers for the influential Italian store and online portal Luisa Via Roma. “But both have a feminine touch that doesn’t limit wearability. Erdem’s floral prints are soft, often with delicately embroidered overlayers.”

As with any graphic, a photo print lends a garment an often dramatic new level of style and meaning – from Maria Grachvogal and her pretty eveningwear florals to Mary Katrantzou and her edgy metal flowers. The democracy of the camera phone and the immense capacity of digital memory have now changed the kind of imagery that designers are experimenting with. It’s now less obvious, more intimate. “There’s a line in the film One Hour Photo about analog photography,” says Bruno Basso. “It’s about how most people don’t take snapshots of the little things – the used Band-Aid and the guy at the gas station, the wasp on the Jell-O, and how these are the things that make up the true picture of our lives. But now, with digital, they do.”

Mid century modernismo (Privatair)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by markcoflaherty

In the heart of the well-groomed Jardins district of Sao Paulo, tucked away in the shadows of an otherwise non descript street, is South America’s most celebrated restaurant. Dinner at Alex Atala’s D.O.M is a Really Big Deal. Reservations are highly prized, and everything about a visit suggests an extraordinary event, from the double-height, Disney-theatrical front-door to the couples frantically taking pictures of their pretty, floral, green tomato gel salads. Instead of a granita palate cleanser, a waiter spins potato and Gruyere dough over each table, and unfurls it into a perfect swirl on each plate. This is the new Brazil: luxe, a little avant-garde, with incredible attention to detail. And when you visit this new Brazil, you dine on vintage, modernist Sergio Rodrigues chairs, with hexagonal split cane panels. They’re the same chairs that chef Atala has at home, and the same chairs that the first dignitaries to visit the sci-fi white concrete domes of Brasilia sat on. 21st century Brazil is passionately embracing its modernist design heritage. And there’s a lot to love, from the work of Gregori Warchavchik, who built the first modernist house in the country in the 1920s, to Etel Carmona’s meticulous licensed reproductions of pieces originally created by the architects behind the seminal Branco & Preto store in Sao Paulo at the start of the 1950s.

Brazilian modernist furniture from the middle of the last century to the 1970s has, for years, been something of an insider interiors secret. Now it’s gaining momentum and visibility, with vintage pieces by the likes of Rodrigues becoming sought after at auction, classic pieces going back into production, and new designers channelling the aesthetic. Manahttan hotelier and champion of modernist design Andre Balazs furnished his SoHo loft recently with several vintage Rodrigues pieces, which now sit next to original artwork by Bacon, Schnabal and Warhol. “I’ve become very interested in South American design,” he says. “Rodrigues’ work has incredible detail.”

Brazilian design specialists Espasso in New York City and Los Angeles, and Silvia Nayla in London, attract clients who have an attachment to the quietly flash and au courant mid-century modern aesthetic, but who want something less obvious than the usual Scandic suspects. Brazilian modernism has an organic and seductively tropical element to it that makes it unique. And unlike its international cousins, it hasn’t been done to death. If there’s an equivalent to the Eames lounge chair, it might be Rodrigues’ generously upholstered Poltrona Mole, which first appeared in 1957. When it won first prize at the Concurso Internacional do Móvel in Cantu, Italy in 1961, Arne Jacobson – one of the judges – hailed it as “the only model with up-to-date characteristics… not influenced by passing whims, and absolutely representative of its region of origin”. But even the Poltrona Mole, for all its awards and recognition, hasn’t ventured near the precipice of design cliché. There is no bargain basement “inspired by” copy available online, just the $10,150 model, made to order via Espasso. Pieces by key Brazilian designers run at a premium through their scarcity. Isay Weinfeld’s Huguinho bar sells for $20,500, while Warchavchic’s Leque magazine holder goes for $18,600. This is serious investment furniture.

You can still customer order Rodrigues’ work direct from his atelier in Rio de Janeiro, and select from myriad models, leathers and finishes. He’s still there, larger than life, with his iconic Yosemite Sam moustache, working on new designs in his Botafogo workshop. In the late 1960s, his work become more playful, and he switched from being a master of modernism, to a practitioner of post modernism. His more recent pieces – like the 2002 Diz chair, which appears on the balconies of the Hotel Fasano, the chicest beachfront property in Rio – pay homage to both movements. But it’s still all distinctively Rodrigues. “I don’t care if people say postmodern or modernist, I just do what I like,” he says. “When I create a piece, I’m my own client. I always think that if I like it, then someone else will.”

Rodrigues’ style is organic and slightly wild. It is passionate and sensual – the Mole chair invites you to spread out and sprawl. If there are shades of the sharpness of Italian modernist Gio Ponti in some of Rodrigues’ work (and indeed in the work of much of the Brazilian modernists), then there are also more savage hints of horn and tusk-shapes, and pure Amazonian spirit in their wooden frames. “I’ve always worked with wood,” he says. “When I was a child, my uncle was a carpenter, and I studied with him. We had so many types of tropical wood at our fingertips, and it became a major feature in my work. Even if I work in metal, I still add wood to it, because it changes the meaning.”

Most of Rodrigues’ early pieces were crafted from jacaranda, but from the 1980s onwards – when the sub-tropical tree neared extinction from over-logging – he shifted to eucalyptus, cinnamon, cedar and ivory palm. A walk around the Ipanema branch of Arquivo Contemporaneo, the multi-levelled store and definitive showroom for Brazilian design in Rio, confirms that wood remains the focus for most of the country’s designers. There are the svelte and bow-legged chairs by Aristeu Pires and Jader Almeida and squared-off tables and sofa decks by Bernardo Figueiredo. All are crafted in wood. Then there are the pieces from the Etel collection, produced by Etel Carmona – Warchavchik’s aforementioned 1930 magazine holder, the Poltrona MF5 from 1950 by Branco & Preto, and the beautifully ornate Cacos console by Carmona herself.

There is a strong eco-slant to much of this work. Carmona established the Aver Amazonica factory in Xapuri in 2002, founded on the principle of producing pieces from sustainable sources, in an ecologically sound manner, and in a way that was respectful and supportive of local communities. It’s an ethos shared by many of the key Brazilian brands. “Most of our current designers work in wood, and all of them use only ethically sourced materials,” says Cassidy Hughes, the manager of the Silvia Nayla store in London. “There is something magical about so much of their work, as if they’ve been pulled from an enchanted forest. Hugo França’s pieces highlight the beauty of wood in its natural state, yet each one is still a completely functional piece. And Paulo Alves’ Pedra stools combine traditional wood carving techniques with modern technology.”

The key strength of Brazilian modernism – both vintage, from the 1950s and 1960s, and the current modernism redux – is that it fits into the most contemporary of environments in such a fresh and sophisticated way, even in the case of the more directional pieces. Carlos Motta, who is one of Rodrigues’ favourite designers, is the superstar of the contemporary scene. He lives in a beach house on the Brazilian coast that he describes as “very hippie”, surfs regularly, and works entirely in wood certified by the Brazilian Forest Stewardship Council. His work has a truly Latin beauty to it: his raw-surfaced rocking chairs and lounge pieces have a recycled appearance coupled with visual heft, while his Horizonte desk is one of the stand-out pieces at Espasso. He’s one of the most in-demand brands at Arquivo Contemporaneo, and the Museu Oscar Niemeyer staged an exhibition of his work last year in Curitiba. The cover of the exhibition catalogue was a detail of his Mesa Não Me Toque (“Do Not Touch Me”), a glass coffee table with the most extraordinary wooden base consisting of a polished globe covered with immense, menacing, mace-like spikes. It’s a statement piece in more ways than one. Motta created it when he was invited by IBAMA (the Brazilian Department of Natural Resources) to create a piece for a show they were curating. They provided the wood, which Motta discovered was not certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. “I was furious,” he says. “So I created a piece that no one could touch to make a point.” While the Mesa Não Me Toque is an absolute one-off, it’s a testament to Motta’s genius that many potential customers have enquired about orders. This particular school of Brazilian design is absolutely about integrity as much as beauty.




Menswear: the definite article (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Fresh off the plane from Tokyo – where he has a cult-like following – and back at his desk in the studio that sits at the end of his back garden in Newcastle, Nigel Cabourn is at work on his new collection. Sketches and fabric swatches are shuffled amidst racks and racks of vintage clothing finds – and antique globes. Gradually a story about Scott of the Antarctic is taking shape. “Next year is the 100th anniversary of his death, so I’m basing a whole collection on him,” he says. “I went to the Scott Polar Museum and studied the detail on the clothes from the last expedition. They’re made out of Burberry gabardine, with a woven windowpane check on it. You’ll never see that on a photograph.”

While Cabourn crafts the detail into next season’s clothes, the spring line makes its way on to the racks of department stores around the world. The new collection features a camouflage that he’s had adapted and printed from a pair of British Army trousers he spotted being worn by a customer in his shop in Japan. On seeing them walk through the door, he promptly bartered some of his own stock to add them to his collection of vintage inspirations. Much of the current collection (£395–£1000) is based on the uniforms of Field Marshal Montgomery, with stiff khaki drill and linens, inspired by jackets and trousers bleached by the desert sun.

Cabourn is the master of an ongoing and ever refining trend in casual menswear for faithful recreations of archive and historical garments. Sometimes they are based on vintage finds, sometimes on photographs. There’s a romance and integrity to this necessarily high-end pursuit of perfection (uniqueness in textiles doesn’t come cheap), and many customers love the romance and the backstory as much as the attention to construction and detail. Maison Martin Margiela has had a “replica line” in its 14 range since autumn 1994 – many of the items based on vintage store discoveries. “The Maison collectively sources special pieces from around the world during research trips,” explains a spokesperson. Each piece has a label identifying its style, the provenance of the original item and period of production. For spring there are sunglasses, (£335-£360) wing-tipped shirts from the 1920s and wide collared ones from the 1970s (£270-£280).

Some fashion recreations might be seen as postmodern art pieces. Last year Salvatore Ferragamo recreated a limited edition of the only man’s shoe that the eponymous company’s founder ever designed, using the pair that Andy Warhol used to wear in his studio. Each fleck of paint and imperfection on the pair, sourced at auction, was recreated. At the more prosaic end of the spectrum, US performance footwear brand Wolverine recently released a limited edition of its Wolverine 721 boot (£721), based on the very first footwear that the company made, pulled from archives that date back to the early 1900s. Recreated faithfully out of shell cordovan equine leather, it’s a standout, special piece for spring.

“Heritage, vintage and archive are all massive buzzwords in men’s fashion right now,” says Craig Ford, of the influential London-based contemporary menswear trade show Jacket Required. “Many of the brands who show with us have a part in it, from Carhartt reproducing their original workwear from 1889 to Chevignon remaking their brightly coloured iconic Togs down jackets that were popular in the late 1980s.” It’s not a case of “nothing new” happening in fashion – it’s just that in terms of casual off-duty and functional clothing, the market is dominated by either elegance-free sportswear or disposable rubbish. This is the reaction against these. Private White V.C is a Manchester-based casualwear label based on the wardrobe of WWI Victoria Cross recipient Jack White. After the war, White took an apprenticeship at, and subsequently went on to own, what has ultimately become the Private White V.C factory, Cooper and Stollbrand. Designer Nick Ashley – son of Laura, and previously on the team at Kenzo, Tod’s and Dunhill – has access to 5,000 vintage garments in the Private White V.C archive, and focuses on their heavy-duty detailing to create contemporary, muscular, menswear classics.Designers such as Ashley and Cabourn look back to heavy-duty garments that were often developed for military or expedition use and can afford to recreate or rework them with a modern and lighter fit for the most discerning of consumers. The original articles predate the idea of ready to wear and seasonality in men’s fashion, and were built at the very least to last – at best to keep the wearer alive.

“I was buying a lot of Second World War jackets and they were all in the same kind of cotton,” says Cabourn. “I asked an elderly gentleman who I’d been buying the garments off what it was, and he told me it was something he’d actually helped invent. It’s called Ventile, developed by the Shirley Institute in the late 30s for aircraftmen flying across the North Sea. If they were shot down, it kept them afloat and warm.” None of which is a concern over at Top Man or All Saints, whose garments are intended to wear out and be replaced as quickly as possible, but hip men’s style blogs like Selectism obsess about this kind of thing, along with the sizing of belt loops and the perfect length of trouser. At the highest end of casualwear, the attention to detail and fabrication is as luxurious as the most perfect bespoke suit.

Functionality aside, there’s a strong ongoing movement in men’s style away from “youth”. Men in their twenties are wearing the same Barbour jackets as their fathers. It’s about a kind of seriousness and masculinity that day-glo trainers and T-shirt patterns eroded for the longest time. Men are drawn to heritage brands for the same reason they have started to listen to folk music rather than coffee table pop; they want something with longevity and depth and an emotional attachment to it. And they want to be men, not boys. One of the most revered items in heritage circles is the Guernsey sweater. It’s a frequently lead-heavy boat-necked fisherman’s jumper, with a plain knit but a highly detailed chest panel. Private White V.C have a most excellent lambswool version (£170).

Sunspel recently reworked a pair of long johns (£95) previously owned by Peter Hill, whose great grandfather founded the company. Long johns seem like an inherently fogey item, but they’re functional right through a Scandic or Highland spring, and for a brand that trades on classics, the backstory is seductive. “It’s a nod to our heritage,” says CEO Nicholas Brooke. “The faithful recreation even includes Peter Hill’s initials, sewn into the back. We kept the loops at the waist – originally used to hold braces – and the combination of knitted and wove fabric, but updated the fit which gives the garment a more contemporary feel.”

Sometimes the garment that catches a designer’s eye isn’t physically available to study. Often there are documentary photographs, or perhaps film stills, that capture the essence of an item that has long since disintegrated or been lost. Last February, Charles Finch launched the “dive and mountain” label Chucs, and at the heart of the range is the Holden jacket (£685), which comes in spring and winter weights and is based on a photograph that Finch saw of the actor William Holden wearing it in Africa – offscreen – with his father Peter Finch. This might well be the perfect safari jacket, with its dark brown elbow patches, matching buttons and bold, functional multi-pockets. It’s the second version Finch has had made of the original – the first was made for his personal wardrobe by tailor John Pearse. For Finch, Holden represents the contemporary Chucs man. “I’m very inspired by him,” he says. “He was the quiet, strong type of artist – no frills, good work, a class act. The crew and actors in films in the 1950s were explorers, making their films in far off places. Look at Bogart, Bacall, John Huston and African Queen. Even the director’s chairs fitted the image and were used on safari and movie sets. Holden embodied this look when he was in Africa.”

The Private White V.C factory, Manchester

For many labels with a long history, it’s a matter of merely opening up the archives. When Aquascutum was asked to provide some of the wardrobe for Gary Oldman’s character in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, they recreated the 1950s Sheerwater raincoat, now a part of the spring collection (£550). “It’s a timeless style staple,” says design director Joanna Sykes. “It has a long, lean silhouette, emphasised by side-slant welt pockets and detailed with contrasting horn buttons. It’s iconic and quintessentially British.” Belstaff, founded in 1924 has, in recent years, gained attention by recreating archive pieces right down to every scuff and repair mark on the rediscovered original. The current range includes their classic three-quarter length biker’s coat, the Trialmaster (£456), reproduced in pristine condition and in a new, “deluxe” version (£540) for spring. “The original Trialmaster is seen as a trophy by collectors and enthusiasts,” says Belstaff CEO Harry Slatkin. “Now it’s a must-have for the most demanding modern motorcyclist who wants a product to be highly protective and breathable at the same time.” It looks excellent on a pedestrian too. The hugely functional waxed cotton used has been reversed, so the surface appears matt, and there are extra waterproofing and quilting details. Another heritage brand, Gloverall, widely regarded as the company that wrangled the trad duffle coat into being a fashion item, celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. They have created three different men’s coats (two car coats, £280 and £295, and a duffle, £500) that they’ve recreated from archive originals. Fabric has been rewoven to match the pieces in their archives; the checked Harold model, with leather pocket detailing, is the most appealing and graphic of the bunch.

While recreating classics is a newly fashionable pursuit, its origins are in the early 1980s. “It was me, the late Massimo Osti and Katharine Hamnett,” says Nigel Cabourn, recalling the heady days of Hamnett as the London catwalk’s most visible fashion force, with her chic take on army surplus. “Osti built a very big collection.” With his CP Company label, Osti created the most premium technical outerwear label on the planet. He was a fashion scientist, pushing the boundaries of wear-resistant and performance fabrics, threading steel through wool and reworking vintage into something high tech. Now the Massimo Osti Archive – which includes 60,000 fabric samples from over 30 years – has inspired the MA.STRUM project by designer Donrad Duncan. For spring, there are three outerwear pieces (£210–£250) using nylon rip-stop material originally produced for parachutes. “Osti used rip-stop parachute fabric, and we’ve advanced it with applications and techniques so that it’s soft to the touch and highly breathable. Men love the idea of the backstory in fashion, but fundamentally they love something that is well built and that works.”

Denim has had connotations of nostalgia ever since Nick Kamen strolled into a laundrette and removed his Levi’s 501s in 1985. There’s also a trainspotter-driven industry that continues to grow around faithful recreations of the earliest pieces. Aero Leathers – who work on collections for Nigel Cabourn – are the go-to people for perfect replicas of early 20th century leathers and have been “busier than ever… and getting busier still over the last five years,” reports co-founder Will Lauder. Aficionados love them for their detailing, which includes the offer of original WWII dead-stock zips to put into new jackets. Their website also offers rare denim pieces sourced from Japan, like the recreated 1930s Lee Single Pocket Cinch Back Jacket (£180). Such is the obsession people have with rare denim that originals of this particular jacket have sold for $40,000. The Levi’s 501 may have had its big renaissance in the 1980s, but it pre-dates the costly Lee jacket by forty years. It was christened in 1890, and Levi’s make perfect replicas of what was on sale that year (£210), in a 9oz plain selvedge with cinch and suspender buttons and crotch rivet, as part of their premium Levi’s Vintage Clothing range. As design director for the label, Miles Johnson, says: “This is part of a global vintage trend. There’s a romance to wearing authentic styles and seeing the fading changes to the denim over time. Men are interested in original styles as opposed to overdesigned fashion, which just doesn’t last.”



Aero Leathers (01896 755353;

Aquascutum, 160 Sloane Street (0800 282 922; and stockists/branches.

Belstaff, 13 Conduit Street, London W1 (020-7495 5897,

Nigel Cabourn, and see Liberty and

Chucs Dive & Mountain Shop (

Dover Street Market, 17-18 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7518 0680,

Gloverall ( and stockists.

Levi’s Vintage Clothing, 5 Newburgh Street, London W1 (020-7287 4941,

Liberty, 208-222 Regent Street, London W1 (020-7734 1234;

LN-CC.Com, 18 Shacklewell Lane, Dalston London E8 (

Maison Martin Margiela, 22 Bruton Street, London W1 (020-7629 2682; and branches/stockists.

MA.STRUM ( and stockists.

Private White V.C, 55 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC1 (020-7831 3344;

Sunspel, 7 Redchurch Street, London E2 (020-7739 9729;

Wolverine ( and see Dover Street Market.


Outer site! (Spear’s Wealth Management)

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by markcoflaherty

There’s a lot of flying to do before you reach Minaret Station. After half-circling the world in one of Singapore Airlines’ caramel-leather armchairs on an A380, there’s a short-hop to Queenstown in an Air New Zealand 72-500 turboprop and then another in a three-bladed Squirrel chopper. Up and over Lake Wanaka, around the gulley, past dazzling sapphire-snakes of river and deep into the valley towards the glaciers in the Southern Alps it goes… ‘Look down there,’ says the helicopter pilot. ‘It’s an island on a lake, on an island on a lake.’


You can’t reach Minaret Station any other way. There are no roads or trails to it. Every stick of furniture at this incredible tented lodge, currently in its first summer season, was ferried in by helicopter. It took 600 flights to put together and the finishing touches were made in December. It’s a new twist on the super-lodges that have come to define a distinctive kind of luxury in New Zealand. From the plush log cabins of the Fiordland Lodge on the shores of Lake Te Anau to the Pacific Rim haute cuisine at Blanket Bay in Glenorchy, there’s a level of sophistication to Kiwi hospitality on the South Island that really is the business.

Minaret Station is, essentially, an offshoot of the Wallis family farm, one of the most successful in New Zealand. Tim Wallis made a name for himself by pioneering live-deer capturing using helicopters. He subsequently made fortunes in the deer export business and aviation industry in the Seventies, took over an ailing farm at Lake Wanaka that dated back to the 1860s and ploughed millions into it. Now run by his four sons — who all display the muscular, outdoorsy, derring-do of their father — it’s a money-spinning sheep-farming operation. Wallis himself, who was knighted in 1994, oversees things and looks after the local biannual air show of historic war planes, Warbirds over Wanaka, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

One of his sons, Matt, had the idea for Minaret Station after three months spent in tented lodges on safari in Africa. ‘I wondered if a version of this could be done in the high country in New Zealand,’ he says. ‘I envisaged something luxurious, with amazing bathrooms but still using canvas for the bedrooms, so that it was romantic and you still knew you were in the Southern Alps.’

The result is remarkable. Totally isolated, guests come here and can heli-ski, trout fish, explore the glaciers, or just fritter away afternoons in a hot tub, watching the deer and chamois play on the hillside. And while the cons are mod in the extreme (a hydroelectric plant has been custom-designed and built into a waterfall to run the whole show, and you can have a ten-hour, roaring hot power shower if you like), it’s still part of a working high-country station in the wilds. One minute you might see 2,000 sheep on their way to graze, the next you might feel the need to pull your possum–fur blanket over yourself as a hurricane-force wind sails around the valley and rattles the army-green canvas walls.

Many guests at Minaret are combining their stay with a few nights at one of the neighbouring Relais & Chateaux properties. There’s Whare Kea Lodge, with its high-design, contemporary Alpine Chalet on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, and then there’s Matakauri Lodge, which was given a radical makeover by interior designer Virginia Fisher in 2010. All the suites here face Lake Wakatipu, with walls of glass and epic vistas on the water side, and complete privacy. The only way to see in would be to take a set of binoculars on to the 1912-built coal-powered TSS Earnslaw steamship when it’s performing one of its regular loops of the lake.

Matakauri is one of those scientifically meticulous five-star-plus resorts, where the service is so good that it borders on unnerving. Dinner is served at a table with panoramic views over the lake and entails colourful, flamboyantly arranged locally sourced ingredients, accompanied by rusted-claret Pinot Noirs and butch Syrahs.

The level of luxury in this corner of the globe should come as no surprise. Both New Zealand and Australia continue to enjoy a phenomenal economic boom, and geography dictates that jetlag-free domestic and trans-Tasman Sea tourism continues to thrive. The all-inclusive super-lodge is a 21st-century model that will continue to roll out. Longitude 131° has been doing it for years over in Australia’s Red Centre, and there are two new luxury camps — the five-room Kuri Bay and eight-cabin Windayi River Camp, both accessible only by helicopter — scheduled to open on the coast of the Kimberley, in north-west Australia, later this year.  

Apart from the high level of luxury and the rack rate (a night in one of the four luxury tented suites at Minaret starts at £1,675), the one thing that these lodges and camps have in common is their site-specific nature. Longitude 131° is all about sunrise and sunset tours of Uluru, and each of its tents faces the rock, while the very fabric of Minaret Station is infused with the history of the high country.

The wood used for the flooring in the main lodge is reclaimed Rimu — celebrated for its integrity, brightness and an absence of knots. Originally milled in the late 1800s, the wood was floated down the nearby river as a raft and then used to build a primary school. When the school closed, Matt Wallis bought it and had it flown beam by beam to the Station. The thick, snowy, wall-to-wall sheepskin flooring in each of the tented suites is, of course, from Wallis’s own sheep, and the excellent wine list — including Pinot Noir from Mount Difficulty and Rippon’s mature vines — is focused on Otago varietals.

The draw for guests to somewhere like Minaret Station is, in part, an inaccessibility equating to a very literal kind of exclusivity. One of the most popular day trips that Wallis offers is a helicopter trip to the mouth of Gorge River, where he goes diving for crustacea in waters well known to be great-white-infested. ‘I wear a special sonar device so that when they get within a few metres of me, it repels them,’ he says nonchalantly.

The only other human life around Gorge River is the hermit, Robert Long — known as ‘Beansprout’ — and his wife. Beansprout left most people’s idea of modern life behind three decades ago to bring up a family here in his ramshackle shack. Wallis often brings him a newspaper when he’s on a heli-fishing trip with Minaret guests — it’s a three-day walk to civilisation otherwise. Beansprout settled here after, as he puts it, ‘picking a bright western star and following it’. His is a romantic, if occasionally difficult, idyll.

Few would want to follow his example, but many thrill to a touch of true wilderness, wrapped in the guise of ‘soft adventure’, as tour operators are wont to call it. And at Minaret Station it doesn’t get much more remote, or wilder. As you walk towards the old stone remains of a shepherd’s hut — once home to a single solitary man, with hundreds of sheep, for three and a half months of the year — the Station’s little cluster of buildings seems to disappear within the surrounding mountainous, emerald landscape. You could, you feel, be the first human to ever walk this most beautiful part of the earth.
Mark C O’Flaherty was a guest of Minaret Station (, Singapore Airlines ( and Tourism New Zealand (