Two weeks ago I was invited to Beijing for the opening of Etro’s first flagship store on the mainland and to meet with Veronic Etro, the founder’s daughter and creative director of women’s wear. While the brand is a household name in Italy and even here in Asia, I presumed its success was based on its rich heritage and ubiquitous paisley design more than anything else.
I was proven wrong when I had the opportunity to spend some time with Veronica and learn about her inspirations and see her work. I was surprised at how wearable so many of her pieces are (I’ve never seen so many women in one room look good in paisley!) and how she has combined the house’s past with a modern and relevant look for women. Below is the unedited piece I wrote which was published in the South China Morning Post newspaper.
IT’S A RARE, clear day in Beijing as I sit in the Shangri-La hotel waiting for designer Veronica Etro to arrive for our interview. The stillness in the room quickly evaporates as soon as she walks in, like a breath of fresh air to match the sunny skies outside.
With her long dark hair and bold red lips, it’s not her chic ensemble of skirt and printed blouse that’s brightening up the room. Instead it’s the vibrant scarf wound loosely around her neck, featuring the house’s signature swirls and paisley combined with Chinoiserie inspired motifs.
“It really looks Chinese, no,” she says, unravelling the scarf to reveal a rainbow of colours and more geometric prints. “I have always been inspired by China. Two seasons ago we did a collection based on the country’s history, the embroideries and colours which I loved. It’s amazing to see it all now. Beijing has such an incredible energy and history,” she says excitedly.
Even though Veronica has always looked East for inspiration, this trip to Beijing is her first visit to the mainland. As the only daughter of Gimmo Etro, the brand’s founder and patriarch, she has travelled here especially to celebrate the opening of its first flagship in the region, where the brand already boasts four stores in Hong Kong and nine in China. But despite her reignited love for all things Chinese, she says it’s her family’s rich history and storied past that continues to inspire and shape her designs.
Etro has been synonymous with Italian style and luxury since it was founded by Gimmo Etro in 1968. A passionate historian and traveller, Gimmo started the business as a textile manufacturer, later branching out into furnishing textiles in 1981. Over the years its paisley design, which was inspired by one of Gimmo’s grandmother’s morning coats, became the brand’s most distinguishing figure and would later serve as the mark of recognition for Etro worldwide.
In the early 1990s, they launched men’s and women’s fashion collections, as the second generation joined the family business. Veronica’s brother Kean oversaw the ready-to-wear collections, while her other siblings Jacopo and Ippolito were responsible for textile, home and leather collections, and the financial side of the business, respectively.
It was only in the late 1990s that Veronica decided it was time to join her siblings in the family business.
“It was quite natural for me. Everyone asks us how everyone decided to work together as a family but it came together quite naturally. Many of my first memories are of my father coming home with swatches of silk, jerseys and prints and asking me which I preferred. I was only seven at the time but for me it was a game. I always liked to work with my hands, making collages and sewing dolls with fabrics. I remember going to the office, and thinking it was a place where everything was possible. It was all fun, I didn’t see it as work,” says the down-to-earth 38-year-old.
After studying at a German school, Veronica moved to London where she enrolled at the Central Saint Martin’s School of Design to study fashion. What attracted her most to the college was their broad approach to the subject, which placed more emphasis on the creative process behind design, rather than the actual construction of clothing.
“I liked the research – working in libraries and doing moodboards, which is how I still work today. Working with prints means that you need to have inspiration and research a new way to interpret something. That’s what I love, for me it wasn’t just about the clothes,” she says.
A year before graduating she received a call from Kean, who needed help designing the women’s collections. Veronica however was determined to finish her degree, so continued with her studies while also embarking on a short internship with London print designers Clements and Ribeiro. After graduating she finally made the bold step into the family business, starting at the bottom before working her way up to become creative director for women’s wear, while also overseeing shoes, jewellery and accessories.
“At the beginning everything is new, it’s not like studying. All of a sudden I was learning super fast. I started from zero – I observed, I helped, I drew, I did everything. I had to learn the whole process, and it took me three years before I really started to design a proper collection in 2000.
“At the beginning, I wanted to keep the brand identity of course but being a woman, maybe more feminine in a way. I wasn’t interested in the idea of creating something just for the show. I think about things I would wear, things that are easy, no too tight. I am not that type of woman who is interested in the type of fashion that needs to drive a man crazy. Italian fashion isn’t always molto sexy,” she says.
Naturally the starting point for her all her collections were the company’s archives, with its multitude of fabrics and patterns. This combined with Veronica’s love for travelling, art, cultures and antiques (her mother was an antique dealer) resulted in a look for women that is colourful and eclectic, yet modern and sophisticated.
“I never start a collection with a theme, like Africa for example. That’s boring. I want to leave myself free and be instinctive about it. So maybe in the beginning we will go to the archives and have a look at what I like and dislike and see what direction I will take.
“The Etro woman doesn’t want to take fashion too seriously. She is not about the latest trend of the moment. We want to create timeless fashion that lasts long, but for women who love to dare and have fun with clothes,” she says.
This can be seen in the current autumn/winter collection, which is inspired by antique carpets, tapestries and embroideries. Prints look aged and faded, while the silhouette includes wrap dresses that twist around the neck and torso with multiple layers while wide pleated trousers and printed dresses with tuxedo jackets add a masculine edge.
“We are always finding old things and changing them to make them modern but I wanted to keep the history. We put patchworks together and did prints on a metallic liquid silk, which added a modern touch,” she says.
Of course, the core of each collection continues to be the house’s prints, which are a recurrent theme each season. Many are designed months in advance and hand drawn first – she says they still use an artist in France who has been designing paisleys for the brand since the beginning – before manipulating it on the computer. Her latest experiment for the recently shown spring/summer 2012 collection sees her removing all the decorative elements to leave behind an outline or shadow.
“There was not one paisley in the 40 years worth of archives that did this. It took seven times to get it right, people didn’t understand why I was taking most of it away,” she says with a laugh.
As the only woman in a family of four men, it often means that Veronica is outnumbered in the office (funnily enough, it’s the same situation at home, where she is mother to two young boys). That being said, she says that her brothers, in particular Kean, share a similar vision for the brand.
“Yes I am totally surrounded, at home and at work. I always used to wear trousers to fit in,” she says with a laugh. “But seriously, it’s always interesting to see how Kean and I, more or less, have the same feeling before each collection and then interpret it in a different way. It’s interesting because we are both free to do what we want, but in the end you can see a connection.
“There are many pros to working together in a family business. You don’t lose time making decisions and we know each other well. With my father we always fight over the music for the show. We always have to find a compromise; he finds it too loud and modern. It’s nice because we are quite different but at the end it comes together,” she says with a smile.
Another thing the family also agree on is the long term vision for Etro. Veronica says they want to grow the company organically, while developing the business in emerging markets such as South America, the Middle East, India and of course China. For this reason the brand doesn’t have any licences apart from shoes, which they monitor carefully. There are also no plans to sell the business to a large luxury conglomerate, even though its been a growing trend in the fashion world.
“For now no, we don’t want to sell but you never know. For now everyone is involved, we all have fun, why change it? When things get complicated we still have control,” she says.
Later that evening at a private dinner at Beijing hotspot Capital M, guests are transported to the world of Etro where the brand’s iconic paisley print covers every corner of the room, from the cushions and tables to the waiter’s aprons. A few hours later the same room is stripped bare as guests fight over the last remaining paisley-covered cushion as if their lives depended on it. If this is a sign of things to come, then Etro is set to enjoy a long and glorious future in fashion’s new promise land.