Vionnet’s larger-than-life Goga Ashkenazi opens a new chapter – taking Milan by storm. By J.J. Martin.
hen Goga Ashkenazi picked up stakes in London in 2012 and headed for Milan, European high society waited with bated breath to see what would happen next. The Oxford-educated oil mogul – who now helms the venerable French fashion house Vionnet – had taken England by storm, stirring London’s staunch upper echelons and giving the tabloids a field day over her glitzy outings with Prince Andrew, her GBP28 million (RM153 million) Holland Park manse, and her glittering array of former flames – from Fiat heir Lapo Elkann to Kazakh billionaire Timur Kulibayev, the father of her two young sons.
“Now, I’m a Milanese, darling!” says Ashkenazi, who moved into the first two stories of a lilac-shuttered 19th-Century palazzo in the city’s Centro Storico neighborhood in autumn 2012. “It’s great, isn’t it?” she asks rhetorically, flinging open the French doors of her bedroom and stepping onto an ivy-draped balcony. Below is a turquoise pool and a maze of magnolia and wisteria in the walled courtyard.
Everything exists on an epic scale here: Her walk-in closet, for example, spans two floors – one for Vionnet, another for favourite designers like Martin Margiela, Azzedine Alaïa, and Proenza Schouler. Even Ashkenazi’s hunting outfits have their own fur-packed room; an avid wolf hunter, she grew up fishing and hunting with her father. (“I do it everywhere: Spain for partridge, Germany for wild boar,” she says. “I’m always invited.”) And then there’s the new underground gym and spa with massage and manicure stations that rivals the one at the neighbouring Bulgari Hotel “It was like a dungeon before”), and a guest wing that comes equipped with a kitchenette, a sitting room, and two bathrooms because, as she questions in her
Her latest life, of course, is Vionnet, the company she bought the controlling shares in two years ago, even though her fashion experience was limited to customising her childhood school uniforms (“There is no Dior in Moscow, darling”) and shadowing her friend Eva Cavalli. “I spent nearly a year with Eva in Florence, looking, watching, learning, doing all these courses, Italian lessons, history of fashion, art,” she says. Ashkenazi considered other brands and did some bidding, but she didn’t dare inquire about Vionnet. “Never in a million years would I have thought that anyone who possessed such a jewel would be interested in parting with it.” As soon as she learned the label was looking for a partner, though, “I said, ‘Where do I sign?’” she recalls. “I didn’t choose Vionnet; Vionnet chose me. The stars were aligned. I was in love with Vionnet my whole life.”
The fashion world, however, was skeptical of her appointment. “Was I called vain? Too presumptuous? Of course!” she says. “But one of my biggest attributes is that I know what my weakness is – my lack of experience. So I’ve brought in a big team of people.” Also, Ashkenazi says, she didn’t plan on becoming its creative director; it happened by accident.
“I had designers who basically didn’t show up to work. I was left with half the collection done in July, and no creative director. I was like, ‘Holy mother of Christ, what have I done?’” explains Ashkenazi, who orchestrated the 101-year-old house’s first full-on ready-to-wear show, for Spring 2013, after seasons of cautious presentations. Though she admits the stress of that debut collection was enough to make her start smoking again. “I don’t know how I didn’t have a heart attack. But I took the bow at the first show. And the second.” typically expansive fashion, “How can you make your guests share?”
The interior boasts the same combination of over-the-top opulence and playful whimsy. During last year’s International Furniture Fair in Milan, Ashkenazi bought up much of the MidCentury inventory at Claudio Lorio’s Leclettico, along with Nacho Carbonell’s silver teardrop chandelier, which she has mixed together with various Picassos, Warhols, and Lucio Fontanas. (This is a woman, after all, who once accidentally bid GBP240,000 [RM1,311,000] on a painting while waving to her friend Jennifer Lopez at a charity auction.)
A neon-pink portrait of Marilyn Monroe is juxtaposed with her cherished collection of rocking horses. “The horses are because I want to remind myself always that I’m a child,” Ashkenazi explains. An oil series by the Russian artist Semyon Faibisovich dramatically frames a grand piano that Ashkenazi – an accomplished classical pianist – plays daily.
In the middle of all the enormity stands the preternaturally petite, Kazakhstan-born, Moscow-raised lady of the house. At 34, Ashkenazi is paper thin and so fine-boned that you wonder for a moment exactly how she manages to pedal her personalised Vionnet bicycle all over Milan. But it’s clear as soon as she opens her mouth that she’s a force to be reckoned with. “I’m living like a cat with nine lives!” She says, fizzing with youthful enthusiasm.