Magic of a fashion Farhi tale

From city roofscape to a piece of pasta, fashion designer Nicole Farhi seeks inspiration from her surroundings. She talks to Alice Wyllie.

Nicole Farhi has had an idea. We’re having lunch at Harvey Nichols when the fashion designer stops to ask her assistant to arrange for a car to give her a tour of the city after our interview.

She’s struck by the skyline we’re gazing out over, asking me question after question about the landmarks. She finds inspiration everywhere, she tells me, even after 40 years in the business.

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This seems rather typical of Farhi. Her enthusiasm is palpable, her mind inquiring and focused. “I’m obsessive,” she says, “You have to be, a bit.”

When I ask her how she stays fresh in her approach to work after so long, she appears never to have considered the notion that this might be a challenge. She looks younger than her 65 years and possesses a certain steeliness which has helped her climb to the top of her industry.

Nicole Farhi is a fashion legend. She was born in Nice, where her father sold rugs and lighting and her mother kept the books for the business. She studied art and sculpture before moving to Paris in 1968 to study fashion. Two years later she moved to London to found the High Street powerhouse French Connection with her partner Stephen Marks, with whom she would go on to have a daughter, Candice.

In 1982 the couple set up the Nicole Farhi label, which has been showing at London Fashion Week since the event’s inception in 1984. In addition to menswear and womenswear, the Farhi empire now encompasses a diffusion line, homewares, accessories, shoes, fragrances, jewellery, a restaurant and two concept stores.

Her creations are known for their simplicity, quality and timelessness. And indeed, longevity. A pair of her perfectly- cut trousers will prop up your wardrobe forever. If Virginia Woolf were alive today, mused one fashion critic, she would wear Nicole Farhi.

Though they remain firm friends, she is no longer with Marks (“It was great until it was not,”) and has been married to the British playwright David Hare for 19 years. Between them, Farhi and Hare have four children and three grandchildren, with another on the way, and she’s just returned from a big family holiday. It’s this she begins to talk about when I ask her about her motivations.

“I like my life,” she says, her voice gentle, her accent strong. “I always wanted a big family so in that respect I’m very blessed. I’ve got it.” She pauses for a slightly guilty laugh. “But I was so pleased to get back to work where it was quiet! I still love designing as much as I did when I started. I love colour, I love to talk about design. And I know what Nicole Farhi is better than anybody.”

Nicole Farhi is understated. It is intellectual. It’s comfortable. It has strong tailoring and great knitwear at its heart. It’s about a love of colour and form but is an exercise in restraint. And Farhi herself is the perfect poster child for the brand. Today she wears simple black tailoring. She is lightly tanned and youthful-looking, her fair hair a halo of fluffy candy floss, a slick of red lipstick her one concession to decoration.

She wears mainly muted hues and her collections are known for their restrained palettes, yet she talks about colour with passion, her eyes lighting up as she mentions reds, ecru, turquoise. However, for her, the concept of “colour” is a broad one.

“I learned to sculpt with clay, and clay is brown,” she says. “My teacher would say, ‘Nicole there is not enough colour in your sculpture’. What she meant was the light and the idea of one shape reacting to another through shadow and light. That is the colour. Colour for me doesn’t mean bright yellows or anything like that. The colour is in the light and the shape of what you do.”

The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Farhi grew up in a fairly creative family, but while she had an interest in fashion, she wanted to be a painter. However, it was the influence of two aunts which swayed her towards design. While her mother’s more practical dress sense undoubtedly influenced Farhi’s pared-back aesthetic, it was perhaps these two women – who took 16-year-old Farhi to her first fashion show – who were responsible for injecting that all-important “colour” into her designs.

“They were very fashionable, very well-dressed,” she explains. “As a girl of 13, I was looking up to them, thinking how wonderful it was to have the bag and the shoes with the dress or the suit. They would have their clothes made by a couturier and they went to the couture shows in Paris.

“It was wonderful for me because my mother was dressed in trousers, a sweater and a shirt all her life, and still is at 95. So it was a fantastic for me to have those women in my family, so sophisticated and very beautiful.”

Those trousers, sweaters and shirts her mother wears all bear a Nicole Farhi label, naturally. Indeed, Farhi dresses her whole family including her husband, whom she met 20 years ago.

When I ask her if she has a muse, she describes the notion as “ridiculous” though she concedes that her family inspire her. Beyond that, she designs for herself.

“When I design clothes I want to be able to wear them,” she says with a slight shrug of the shoulders. “Even if I don’t wear many dresses I know that the dresses I do design are dresses I could wear.”

She doesn’t use celebrities in her campaigns or her shows, doesn’t court them like many designers do, and certainly won’t cite famous faces when it comes do discussing her design inspirations. Indeed, simply designing clothes that she herself might want to wear is a rather reassuring concept for the customer, and may go some way towards explaining why she has such a loyal fanbase. Quite simply, this woman inspires confidence – I want to wear whatever clothes she wants to wear.

Farhi designs for herself, and she certainly dresses for herself. (“I don’t want to dress for men, to please men,” she says.) Arriving in Paris in 1968, she was part of a generation rooting for change. It was a time, she says, when it was “important” to be a feminist.

“Women then didn’t have the right role in society and that’s probably when I started becoming much more of a feminist,” she says. “It was in the air, it was important to prove, as a woman, that you could get out and do something for yourself and be appreciated as much as a man.”

Naturally, her ideals influence her work. Her creations don’t pander to some rigid notion of “sexy”. “For me being sexy doesn’t mean showing the cleavage or the legs,” she says. “You can wear a polo neck and still be the sexiest person in the room.”

Similarly, she believes strongly in providing quality (which, admittedly, does come at a price) without promoting the elitism found elsewhere in fashion. “It’s about what I believe in social terms, because I don’t like clothes which are too expensive, which nobody can afford and are only being bought by the top end of society,” she says. “I want my clothes to be more affordable. If you are a political person, what you believe in reflects in what you do.”

As we dig into our main courses, the sun is bouncing off the spires and the clouds flit quickly across the sky, projecting patches of shadows and light onto the rooftops. “Ah, it’s so beautiful!” says Farhi with an unmistakably French note of passion in her voice.

After more than 30 years in the UK she has lost none of her Gallic charm. Her accent is pronounced, her mannerisms utterly French. There’s an insouciance to her, a sense of quiet and ease. Her brow furrows only once during our conversation when she describes how much she hates the word “trendy”.

She retains a very strong link to her home country. “I moved to London without a suitcase,” she says with a little chuckle, “so that I would always have a reason to go back.” And she returns on a regular basis. The same flat and old car she bought in her thirties are waiting for her back in Paris.

“It took me years to actually live in the UK,” she says. “I came here in 1974 but I could not live here. I kept going back to France because the food here, it was not good.”

If she found herself Channel-bound to eat, she would always come back to London for the fashion. Unlike many of her countrymen, with their obsession with “chic”, she is far more taken with the quirky British sense of style than with the Parisian uniform.

“I went to London in the late Sixties, because everything was happening there,” she says. “ I was getting all these vibrations from the street. That was exciting.”

We discuss her current collection and her eyes light up as she describes, in some detail, the process behind a particular shape of sequin used in a number of pieces in the collection.

“For fun, I did some sequins which were a take on ravioli,” she says. “The person who does my sequins, I said to her, ‘the round Italian ravioli, the one with the little pucker, can we make that in plastic?, She said ‘yes, yes, yes!’ I wanted this collection to be very graphic. Not a lot of colour. It was about volume and silhouette, the very slim against the very round. I like the sharpness of this collection.”

By contrast, her designs for spring/summer 2012 are a riot of colour and florals. Like much of her work, these pieces are an exercise in texture, featuring micro mesh, sequins, embellishment and laser-cut leather. To examine the two collections is to understand just how broad Farhi’s influences are and how keen she is to experiment, despite her reputation for classic pieces.

Does she still get nervous before a show? “Yes,” she says. “I get nervous as I’m doing a collection. The show itself is ten minutes. By the time of the show it’s too late to worry. It’s out there. But beforehand... you don’t sleep. It’s always been like that.”

Hare, she says, is endlessly supportive and helps to alleviate the nerves somewhat. “We do help each other in the way that we are very happy together and we are very supportive of each other’s work. He will come to my show and I will go to his first night. It’s something we always try to do unless something really major happens. It’s great when you are nervous and you go home with somebody who’s so calm, somebody who says nice things, who is positive. It helps a lot.”

Our time is up and she has a date with the city. It interests me that after decades in the industry she is still constantly seeking out inspiration, striving for the new, exploring her ideas with such endless enthusiasm. And indeed, finding her inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, from church spires to ravioli.

“The more you work the more you get ideas,” she says simply. “I don’t think you dry up in my profession. I think the opposite in fact. It’s exciting, I’m never tired and I’ve got a lot of energy.” With that, it’s time to say goodbye. Her car awaits.

Nicole Farhi designs are available at Harvey Nichols in Leeds . Visit harveynichols.com or nicolefarhi.com for more details.