Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008

Bag Man

Some years after Ava Gardner first arrived in Spain to shoot the 1951 Albert Lewin film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, she returned to Madrid to find herself in love with a bullfighter and out of love with her husband Frank Sinatra. It was at this time that her friend Ernest Hemingway took her shopping at Loewe. On that warm afternoon, the green-eyed beauty, who was garnering quite a reputation for nights spent dancing on tabletops, emerged from the Gran Vía store looking absolutely a lady, her chic ensemble accessorized with a chocolate brown crocodile handbag.

No surprise, then, that among the first bags offered by Loewe's creative director, Stuart Vevers, who joined the company last January, is a hip remake of that Ava bag, now in white croc punctuated by shiny gold hardware. Add to that the Paloma, a structured bag that manages to be both proper and sexy and is named after Paloma Picasso. Then, in contrast, there's a completely new design: the slouchy, oversize Calle, thus called because the Spanish word for street was one of the first terms that Vevers, a Brit who hails from the north of England, learned in his twice-weekly intensive Spanish lessons.

It's now almost a year since the 35-year-old Vevers, whose name isn't that well known even within the fashion pack, became the surprise hire at one of the oldest luxury houses in the world. Loewe (pronounced Low-way-vay) was founded in 1846, less than a decade after Hermès and eight years before Louis Vuitton, and has been wholly owned by the Paris-based luxury group LVMH since 1996. Yet the Spanish brand remains something of a sleeper. This could change in 2009, a big year for Vevers. He will present his first full womenswear runway show in Paris in March. The spring will see the opening of the first revamped store, designed by Peter Marino, in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia. New packaging — a rich khaki with the company logo in shiny black — is in the works, while in New York City, Vevers' fall creations have been gathering notice at Jeffrey, the downtown multibrand store.

Although one of the star pieces is a leather trench coat so soft that it feels almost liquid and so pared down that its edges are razor-cut, what pops are the bags. Vevers arrived with the nickname "the It-bag man" because he has created so many of them. He was behind the Givenchy Pumpkin and the Luella Gisele — as well as the Roxanne, the Bayswater, the Araline, the Astor and the Ayler, all for Mulberry — and also best sellers for Louis Vuitton. While he does have womenswear-design experience too — he started his career in 1996 at Calvin Klein in New York City and before moving to Spain was in London, beefing up both the bags and the clothes for Mulberry — he's earned his gold stars designing bags. Who better to helm a leather house that owes its heritage not to the horse-and-carriage trade, like Hermès, or to travel, like Vuitton, founded by a trunkmaker, but instead — from the very beginning — to bags that are held in the hand?

Loewe's heritage stretches back to the time when Enrique Loewe Roessberg, a German émigré to Madrid, was so impressed with the know-how of craftsmen making bags, wallets and tobacco pouches that he decided to form a partnership, merging his work methodology with their creativity. Today the factory, on the outskirts of Madrid, remains the embodiment of this fusion as master craftsmen using hand tools work alongside state-of-the-art technology.

Yet in today's tough economic climate, is heritage enough? Especially given that Loewe has been revamped twice already since LVMH took control? In 1997, Narciso Rodriguez was enlisted to head to Spain as fashion director; he left in 2001, citing a wish to build his own brand. The mantle passed to José Enrique Oña Selfa (who, despite a name traced back to Andalusia, is Belgian). Oña Selfa never quite reignited the fire, and his contract terminated in 2007. Unlike his predecessors, Vevers, charged with revitalizing womenswear, menswear, costume jewelry, bags, shoes, image, stores, windows — an across-the-board sweep akin in scope to Tom Ford's 1990s revamping of Gucci — has the grander title of creative director, the first in the company to hold that post since the late, legendary José Pérez de Rozas.

Who? "If Pérez de Rozas had lived in Paris, he would be as famous as Christian Dior," asserts Enrique Loewe, the 67-year-old honorary president and the very last Loewe associated with the firm founded by his great-grandfather. Vevers had never heard of Pérez de Rozas before he started opening the workaday Ikea cupboards that house Loewe's treasures. "Then I kept having these 'Oh, my God!' moments," he says. Especially exciting was the late Spaniard's use of what Vevers calls an "elegant industrial hinge" as a handbag clasp — now adapted for the Paloma handbag. Vevers also spent time poring over a dusty old book full of paintings and photographs of extraordinary window displays created in the '40s and '50s.

Pérez de Rozas gave Loewe its creative lead from 1945 to '78, years that encompass the aftermath of a bloody civil war and a long, dark dictatorship that ended with the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. It is difficult now, when one strolls through the bustling streets of stately yet lively Madrid, its side alleys full of restaurants with bright tiled walls and bars that, even midweek, are abuzz way past midnight, to imagine what this city — and Loewe — has survived. There is little in the company archive from before Pérez de Rozas' time — a few leather boxes, a pouch just large enough to hold a map and compass, a small medical kit. Fire, theft and the flight of those who escaped with whatever they could carry mean archivists today actively trawl eBay and search auctions, particularly in South America, to buy back early creations.

After the Spanish Civil War, while Loewe's core customers included the wives of politicians and wealthy traditionalists wanting little black bags to carry to Mass, Pérez de Rozas revealed a rebel soul in window displays that were, says Enrique Loewe, then a child in the city, "about dreams." Explains Loewe's heritage expert, Ana Vázquez Casco: "What he did was create rays of light in dark times." Vevers, who grew up the son of a probation officer and a domestic worker, without access to luxury goods, says, "I couldn't believe it when I saw them. Not only were they wonderful, they were democratic. People who could not go into the store could enjoy them."

In hindsight, Enrique Loewe acknowledges that the tough years during which Spain was largely closed to the outside world benefited the company in a way because it had zero competition and workers did not dare change jobs, which preserved time-honored know-how. Under Franco's regime, focused on traditional values and nationalism, Spain was economically isolated from other countries, with the result that the luxury brands that started to conquer the world in the 1950s appeared much later in Spain (and, in fact, sold their ready-to-wear through Loewe's stores). Glamour arrived in the form of the Hollywood stars who often filmed in Spain: Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren all shopped at Loewe.

What the brand stood for was the essence of Spanishness. Even today a third of the company's worldwide turnover is from sales within Spain. Vevers sees part of his role as emphasizing a unique heritage. "While I don't think anyone outside of Spain will buy Loewe only because it's Spanish, the place is part of the depth," he says. So how does that translate into product? "The color palette — the golden baked soil, the shiny black and red. And the rich, opulent, almost aristocratic sexiness. People are very pulled together here," says Vevers, who has himself taken to adding sharp jackets from the revamped menswear line to his laid-back London look of T shirt, Gap jeans and Converse sneakers. "What I'm trying to do is a provocative take on it." Hence, from the capsule collection for fall '08: a body-skimming, to-the-knee, red suede dress teamed with black stockings, high-vernis goatskin sandals and oversize bangles — part of Vevers' aim to cement nationality into the brand's visual code "so that people can say, 'Wow! That's really Loewe,'" he says.

Key to the brand's arsenal is also an ultra-soft, organically dyed, painstakingly buffed lamb's leather, only 0.7 mm in thickness, that comes only from the cordero entrefino español, a breed of sheep living in the cool heights of the Spanish Pyrenees. The hides require skilled handling, and the resident master craftsman is Angel Fernández, who has served 51 years with the company he joined at the age of just 14. "I'm not a conceptual designer," says Vevers, who is often found seated at Fernández's workbench. "I genuinely love to work with craft, and we develop all the bags together. I literally do the sketch, take it to the factory, and then Angel starts putting it together, and I sit there going, 'Can you change that for that? What about if we do the inside in bright yellow?' If you are sending sketches to a factory far away, that's impossible."

Central among Vevers' other collaborators is a London posse that has relocated with him, including menswear designer Keith Warren and shoe designer Michael Lewis, both of whom he met at Vuitton, and Nicola Stewart, with whom he worked on bags for Luella Bartley. Habitués of the London Heathrow-to-Madrid Barajas flight also include stylist Katie Grand and accessories designer Katie Hillier.

Vevers is confident that this combination of old and new, of Madrid and London, is what's needed to power Loewe through the unease that everyone in fashion expects lies ahead. "We're talking about a brand with an absolute authority, a real soul, a tradition that can't be taken away. Plus, it doesn't feel frivolous," says Vevers, who concedes that the It-bag phenomenon "has run out of steam." But what it did, he believes, was "democratize" luxury, opening up the world of the best to many more people, who still have that desire. "I think the challenge is to take those iconic bags which transcend just one season — which Loewe has, of course — and give them heat, make them cult," explains Vevers. "You still want something new now, but you want it to last five, maybe 10 years."

Senior vice president Xavier de Royere says Loewe's difference from other and better-known brands may be its strength today. "Obviously the boat is rocking, but being slightly smaller means that we don't have huge stores, so our costs tend to be lower. We have been quite careful in terms of profitability. And being as old as we are, it gives you perspective," he says. "We have been handed a heritage that we must preserve for the long term. Do we have the right guy designing? Yes. Can we do a good job in a crisis? Yes." This will translate most visibly in store openings. The brand is surprisingly underrepresented in the Latin world, and that will change, especially in Mexico. Stores are opening across the Middle East. In China, Loewe has been promoting artistic programs that center on the deep cultural roots of that nation and Spain. In Russia, the brand has been underperforming, says De Royere, although this should change now that Vevers is upping the sexiness, upping the bling.

"Of course you'd prefer to get your big break not in a recession!" Vevers says with a laugh as he wanders into a café and confidently orders an afternoon pick-me-up, café cortado. "But I feel optimistic. I see my job as tweaking Loewe so it can be the best it can be for today. And being in Madrid means we're kind of in a bubble as far as the fashion map is concerned, which actually, I think, is going to be a really big advantage."