Nicole Farhi's fashionable farewell

The acclaimed designer is handing over the creative reins at her label

By Brigit Grant, November 15, 2012
Classic Farhi design

Classic Farhi design

I’ve yet to consult a book of modern manners, but I bet flaunting designer labels in tough economic times is considered a social taboo.

I can’t be sure of course, but there’s bound to be a paragraph that deems parading in Prada as inappropriate during a recession, which is a great pity because there is no bigger fashion thrill than going designer.
Not that I’m an expert, what with my own wardrobe being a cornucopia of high street and “once upon a time” outfits that no longer fit.

But I do know the indescribable buzz that comes from stepping out in Louboutin boots (saved hard) or a Dolce & Gabbana dress (a present). There is nothing quite like it, which brings me neatly to my Nicole Farhi coat.
Purchased some years ago, my Nicole coat has retained the shape and feel of a brand-new garment and receives more compliments than anything I’ve ever owned.

But that’s Farhi for you. A designer who has always known how to create timeless, enchanting clothing and determine her own trends. It’s a gift, and one she has put to good use leading her brand for the past 30 years. But all that is coming to an end.

Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Which is appropriate for a woman who has been married to playwright Sir David Hare for 20 years. But as hard as it is to imagine the Jewish designer exiting fashion stage left, a company announcement in September declared she would be stepping aside for new creative director Joanna Sykes.

As the former design director at Aquascutum, Sykes is certainly a suitable successor and Farhi has described her as “the perfect appointment for the company”. That and the fact that the eponymous brand creator will continue as an ambassador and lead the homeware collection is all good, but it’s hard to think of Farhi no longer shaping a toile for the perfect dress.

That is, after all, what she does best (she is also an excellent sculptor), yet interestingly she is leaving with the belief that she never really arrived.

“Regardless of success, I don’t’ think a designer ever arrives,” she says in her lilting French accent. “There is always improvement to be made.”

Matter-of-fact about everything, including her own attire — “I always wear trousers and a white shirt or a sweater” — Farhi might never have become a designer if it hadn’t been for her fabulously flamboyant aunts.

“My mother only wore trousers and round-neck sweaters and never any make-up,” recalls Farhi, who grew up in Nice surrounded by a “large and colourful” Turkish Sephardi family who had survived the war in hiding.

“My aunts were very different, as they loved high heels and wore clothes made by couturieres in Paris. I never liked the way I was dressed as a kid, though I do remember a certain navy coat with a velvet collar made by French company, L’Empereur.

"But even as a teenager I had no interest in fashion and then one of my aunts took me to the fashion shows in Paris in the ’60s. First Balenciaga when I was 16. And then Yves Saint Laurent.”

Nicole Farhi: "Style comes from within"

Nicole Farhi: "Style comes from within"

Such is the potent lure of the designer label that Farhi, who wanted to study art locally, saw the opportunity to escape the restraints of orthodoxy at home and head for Paris to study fashion at Cours Bercot.

And the rest as they say is histoire, most of it well documented, as a designer at the forefront of British
fashion for so long cannot hide behind a pattern-cutting table. Thus over time we’ve read about her role as head designer at French Connection, her long relationship with its founder Stephen Marks, with whom she has an adult daughter and twin grandchildren, and the acquisition of her own company by a private equity group
in 2012.

Throughout all of this, Farhi has always kept her instantly recognisable head and held onto her client base with collections that cater to their needs. “You have to have continuity,” she says.“Magazines focus on the most extraordinary items, but it is the blazer in your collection that everybody still likes and wants to wear.

“Common sense should guide a woman in choosing her wardrobe, but it’s not really the clothes that give you style — that comes from within.”

Citing Yogi Yamamoto as her “number one designer forever”, Farhi, now 65, can still stir things up in the fickle fashion world and in March this year controversially condemned the practice of paying celebrities to attend catwalk shows.

“It is so unprofessional and I will never do it,” she said at the time, knowing she would face the fury of those who do. Her decision to highlight the issue as she semi-retires made the (voluntary) celebrity presence at her spring/summer 2013 collection at London Fashion Week all the more powerful, and in front of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Farhi demonstrated her skill before taking a final bow.

“My design process hasn’t changed much over the years,” she says. “I choose a colour palette, develop fabric and yarns and then start drawing shapes.”

So much for the formula, but after all this time is there a signature piece that is particularly special to her? She pauses for a moment to think. “I’d say it’s a certain wrap coat with fake fur down the front which remained one of our best sellers for more than 15 years.” Of course, I know exactly the coat she means, and wearing my designer label just got that much more thrilling.

Last updated: 3:24pm, November 15 2012