Life & Culture

Nicole Farhi: fashion means nothing, sculpture's my passion


Nicole Farhi and I are in her Hampstead sitting room playing with our hair, literally.

She's giving me some tips – and there is no one else I would rather take hair-care lessons from.

Aged 25, she stopped straightening her trademark fiery curls. "I decided, 'that's enough!'" she says in her distinctive French accent.

"We were doing a Mexicain," she adds, grabbing a chunk of hair to demonstrate. "You would take your hair, pull it to one side and then dry it. Then you pull the other side and put in some big clips – and you go under the hairdryer and it would be very straight. Then you would do brushing.

"I did that for years until a friend of mine said on holiday in Morocco: 'Stop with your brushing!'".

'I so love being on my own now, after a career spent amongst so many people'

And she did.

Ever since, everything she has done has been her own. She is best known for launching the award-winning Nicole Farhi brand with her then husband Stephen Marks, with whom she has a daughter, Candice.

The inspiration she took from art books, gardens and her travels to India made her a coveted name in the industry. She was made a CBE for her services to the fashion industry in 2007 and was awarded the honorary Légion d'honneur by her native France in 2010.

But the designer - who famously condemned colleagues who pay celebrities to sit on catwalk front row seats – has put it all behind her. Farhi - whose brand went into administration after she left the company -has turned her back on the industry she spent 40 years living and breathing.

Now, aged 68, she is carving herself out a career as a sculptor.

"My name is there on the shops, but I have no relationship with that Nicole Farhi anymore," she says. "I have turned that page.

"When I left it [the fashion industry], had changed a lot. When I started as a fashion designer in the early 1970s, it was so much more about free activity. It was a challenge and every season you had to do something different.

"But, at the end, it was only about surviving, making money and becoming bigger and bigger - otherwise you would go under. The pressure became enormous. And it was not fun anymore."

Does she miss anything about it? "Not at all," she says.

Her first ''From the Neck Up'' sculpture exhibition was launched in September at a gallery in London. She created pieces modelled on her close friends - Anna Wintour, Helena Bonham Carter and Dame Judi Dench among others - because it was "easier" to ask them rather than strangers.

"I have been sculpting for over 30 years," says Farhi, who was mentored by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. "I used to take one day off a week, evening classes and weekend. It was really my passion, and fashion was my work. It was much easier to make a living out of designing.

"The older I became, it was sculpture I wanted to do. But it was impossible to do two things seriously. For me, sculpture is not a hobby. I knew that one day I would give it 100 per cent. I knew I would give my time and life to it. I gave 40 years of my life to fashion. Whatever I've got [left], I am going to give it to sculpture."

And she has. Farhi has turned a rather large shed in her garden into her work space, and the conservatory into her display room.

I wonder whether the quiet, the silence that goes with working in her North London home, where she lives with husband, left-leaning playwright Sir David Hare, and her 99-year-old mother, is lonely compared to the flurry and excitement of the fashion industry?

"With a fashion company, you have a team around you - pattern cutters and seamstresses. It was a huge family. Now, it's one person all day long; it's me," she says.

"It's totally different in that respect. You're on your own. Having spent my life surrounded by people, I find it fantastic. I find it wonderful to be on my own.

"I don't think you will find one artist saying it's lonely to be alone, working. You cannot be with other people when you create."

She says, of sculpting, "it's a need to express things. I am not a writer, so I cannot express it in writing. I think fashion is an expression of yourself, [but] I think sculpture comes from much deeper within yourself. It comes from your gut. It's so personal."

And the personal definitely plays strongly in her work. Her passion for animal rights comes through in a sculpture of a hippopotamus and crocodile who have been injured - or "destroyed" – by surrounding forces.

She continues: "I enjoy doing faces; I enjoy doing everything… abstract work. It depends what you want to express at that moment. I do not think I have risked anything by doing it. I believe that I am doing it with all my heart and I am not faking it. It is honest. Whether people like it or not, it does not change the fact that I like to carry on sculpting."

Sitting on her couch, in a room filled with art books and surrounded by sculptures, there is no disputing the passion for art of which she speaks. I wonder whether her Turkish Jewish family, who settled in Nice, had any influence on this.

"There were no painters or sculptors in my family," she says. "Fashion was something which interested my family. I had some great aunts and grandmothers who loved being well-dressed, they used to go to couturiers. So, when I was young, I always admired those very good-looking Turkish women."

Her family spoke the Sephardi Ladino language at home. But Farhi is indisputably French to her core. She is an atheist who says going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish festivals stopped when her maternal grandfather died.

"He was the one holding the flame; gathering us for holidays and going to synagogue," she explains. "We did it all to please him. I think once he died - I was 14 at the time - nobody took it on. We were left to our own beliefs."

While Farhi says she is reluctant to stray into politics - particularly relating to Israel - she seems unable to rein herself in. In 2007, she signed an Independent Jewish Voices letter, which openly distanced itself from the British Jewish establishment, accusing communal institutions of supporting Israel over Palestinian rights. The controversial letter accused British Jewish leaders of putting "support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people".

Farhi stands by that: "I said what I had to say. Every time I go there, there are so many arguments with my friends who are Jewish. I do not want to stir it." She says she reluctantly visits Israel. "I only go if I have to - weddings or something. I don't particularly like Israel. There are other places in the world that I would prefer to go to. I don't feel my heart is there at all."

Farhi has cousins who -along with a swathe of French Jews - have made aliyah. But it is not because of rising antisemitism in Paris, she believes: "I think it is the offer that Israel is giving the Jews who are coming, who are not going to be paying tax for a few years. I think this is one of the reasons that so many Jewish people are leaving."

We are meeting the day before John Galliano - who fell into disrepute in 2010 after he was filmed telling two Jewish women he loved Hitler - was due to speak at a Jewish event. Farhi agreed to come, and on the night, embraced the designer. I asked whether she was angered by what he said. "No, I felt sorry for him," she shrugged. "He took so much s*** after."

"I will always remember when I was 14. I had a best friend in my class, Odile. We were in the school yard with my cousin and they argued. She got so angry with my cousin that she said: 'You are a dirty Jew'. My cousin burst into tears and she told her parents. They wanted Odile to be expelled from school, to have said such a horrible thing. I carried on being her friend. Deep down, I understood the anger. Do you always mean what you say when you are angry? I was angrier with my cousin than I was with this girl. She never forgave her. She treated her like dirt and turned the whole class against the poor girl. She was ostracised. I thought that was wrong."

It is clear that Farhi has always spoken her mind. "I always say what I think. I do not say anything I do not believe in. If people do not like it, if they do not like my point of view – I do not care. I do what I want."

"I have nothing to teach anybody. I just want to be the best for myself and people around me. I want to be a good person but I am not a teacher.

"Maybe it is a selfish attitude, but what people think of me is irrelevant to what I am and what makes me. There is nothing in my life that I would have done any differently. I have done it with my heart."

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