St. Gallen, Switzerland is by no means a global fashion center. But one label based there is managing to attract discerning fashionistas from around the world: Akris.
The label’s focus on serving powerful women can be traced back to 1922, when it was founded by Alice Kriemler-Schloch, whose initials give the brand its name. Her grandson, Albert Kriemler, has led the company for a quarter-century now. As the 55-year-old prepared for the annual Akris show in Paris, he discussed the company’s fortunes and how it caters to women power brokers.
Handelsblatt: Do you understand women, Mr. Kriemler?
Mr. Kriemler: Even the great philosophers couldn’t manage that. All I have to think about is women’s clothing needs, so I have it a bit easier.
You recognized early on that professional women are striving to get to the top and need the appropriate attire to do it.
Yves Saint-Laurent, Jil Sander, and Giorgio Armani also recognized it. It developed very gradually with us, maybe because early on our fashions went to the U.S., where women were already a step ahead career-wise. The legendary department store, Bergdorf Goodman in New York, for example, strongly promotes business fashion. I quickly learned that I shouldn’t plan a fashion show without pantsuits.
Is there a difference in the way businesswomen dress in different countries? Or is there some sort of global dress code?
There are cultural differences even between the East and West coasts of America, or between Houston and Washington. In my opinion, the part of Europe with a significant Latin influence culturally has more people with taste and a sense for dealing with colors and fabrics. On the other hand, there is a kind of global educational canon that is certainly cultivating a lot these days…
…and also leveling things out?
I took a trip through Asia this summer, just to get a comparative feeling of how people are living in the major cities of China, Korea and Japan. Of course, I discovered a completely different world there, and not just because our fashion clientele there is, on average, 20 years younger than in Europe. Many differences in outfits owe to a passion for color or the climate. So, there probably will be differences for a long time to come for a variety of reasons. This is exciting and desirable.
Is it true that in the U. S. women choose their clothing with an eye toward the next step on their career ladder?
I don’t know if it can be generalized, but discipline in the dress code really does play a greater role in the U.S. than on other continents.
Video: Akris fall winter 2015/2016 fashion show.
What does the term “dress code” mean for the modern woman?
It’s a matter of broadcasting authority on the job and in public, while at the same time embracing femininity. Right now, we are experiencing for the first time how a dress code for women in influential positions is being developed that doesn’t mimic men’s clothes, but is both genuinely feminine and fashionable. Competence in matters of fashion is simply expected from women in these spheres. It belongs to the soft skills that are of great significance today. In this, a sense for the aesthetic and respect are discernable. The historical development can be traced to the young European royals. What the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall wear is feminine, but not necessarily fashion. Women of the younger generation are largely forming their image through fashion.
In the TV series “House of Cards,” actress Robin Wright plays the scheming Claire Underwood, who makes it all the way to becoming First Lady, while also wearing Akris gowns. Are you comfortable with that?
I admire her understatement and sense of reduction when it comes to her clothes. She manages to look marvelous with just a very few accents. And, naturally, I am pleased when the New York Times praises her first appearance as First Lady by noting she looked better than ever before in a sleek coat dress of mine. I declare myself not competent for any debate over the TV series character.
For me, it’s about fashion that gives the wearer a sense of well-being. Well-being affects body language and provides security based on sensual perception. This security has much to do with one’s own charisma and presence. Whether I am tailoring outfits for an Alicia Keys tour that must be as smart as they are practical, or it’s a dress for an evening reception in the Hamptons, all of that is a form of power women want to embrace today.
Why not just simply call it authority?
I think power is the better term. Authority has something very hierarchical, very antiquated about it. Power means more. It’s a matter of an attitude that envelops the determination and empathy in the modern, cultivated appearance of a self-confident woman.
Where do women have a particularly difficult time moving up through institutions?
They are still perceived differently for the simple reason they still represent a small minority in the management circles in industries dominated by men. Moreover, clothing is much more a part of judging women than it is for men, who wear suits as if they were wearing a uniform. By contrast, women communicate both actively and passively with clothing. And they certainly are aware that they also have use of the most beautiful kind of nonverbal communication.
But in many industries women executives are required to wear a uniform.
The rules are stricter in the world of lawyers and bankers. There are more possibilities for differentiation in creative professions. In any case, women senior executives already are being rated, even when they aren’t yet at the top. And there are role models for that, women who have adopted a dress code of their own.
Angela Merkel. She has formulated her own personal style. In fashion, too, there is the principle of being consistent…
…which sounds like a polite way of saying that if someone just does the wrong thing long enough, at some point it becomes a style.
I really don’t see it that way. It depends on the awareness. And, by the way, I think it’s downright cruel how harsly women are judged for their looks compared to men.
How can a fashion label set itself apart from the others?
If they want to have a say globally, they must have their own unique and original identity, like the women who wear it. And they have to contribute to the development of fashion.
There have always been strong women in politics who consciously made use of their looks, from Margaret Thatcher’s hairdo and handbag to Indira Gandhi’s saris.
Political figures such as (former U.S. Secretaries of State) Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice are among your customers. What can be learned from such women?
Ms. Albright has written history, not only as a politician, but also as a fashion icon. She likes to make statements with her vast collection of animal brooches, since she has such a great variety in her portfolio. And that fits this brilliant woman. Condoleezza Rice always underscored her femininity with fashion when acting in a male-dominated environment. It was only when she was among other women or traveling that she occasionally appeared in pantsuits.
Is fashion a matter of politics?
It is certainly a tool of diplomacy. There have always been strong women in politics who consciously made use of their looks, from Margaret Thatcher’s hairdo and handbag to Indira Gandhi’s saris. When Michelle Obama attends a state banquet with the president of Korea, then she searches out a designer from Korea ahead of time in New York. Those are things the First Lady does to provide a subtle accent.
You also design clothes for Princess Charlène of Monaco. Is it an injustice to describe you as Monaco’s court tailor?
Since Monte Carlo borders France and Italy, fashion houses in Paris and Milan also work for them, which is perfectly alright. I have had a close rapport with Charlène from the beginning. In this case, it happened just as with all our prominent clientele. We didn’t look for them. They came to us. For a relatively small undertaking like ours, that’s the only way. We don’t have the money to support such connections with huge marketing budgets.
The stars’ stylists have long had a major say in the choice of fashion labels.
That’s true enough. And for that reason, major labels have their own teams in Los Angeles, for example, who do nothing but cultivate contacts with these stylists. But, in the end, even those companies can’t be sure when or whether their gowns will be worn.
Personally, I find a bit of understatement now and then more attractive than what the red carpet demands in glamour.
How does it happen? Do stars just come into one of your boutiques?
Although there also are consultants and stylists, it was that way in Charlène’s case. Originally, it was said she needed something for a photo session in the garden. Later, it turned out it was her engagement to Prince Albert. That’s how it began.
What specific fashion questions does a princess of Monaco answer for herself?
She is subject to very specific and predominantly conservative dress codes in many places. With her help, I try to find a modern interpretation.
You also tailored a garment she wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William, the heir to the British throne. What do showcases like this do for your sales?
That is difficult to measure. Naturally, it gets us a huge amount of media exposure. Every class in society is unquestionably interested in fashion and royalty. And when Angelina Jolie wears several of our outfits in one week, it’s certainly a pivotal moment for a little Swiss fashion house like ours.
The red carpets of the world have long been both stage and display window. What role do they actually play?
That is difficult to say since it is perfectly possible that Tilda Swinton will be scolded by the infotainment media for a simply-contoured evening gown on the red carpet, just because it isn’t considered glamorous enough. Personally, I find a bit of understatement now and then more attractive than what the red carpet demands in glamour. And don’t underestimate fashion shows. A fashion show is a very efficient means of communication. Whatever your theme is, within minutes, and while the show is still running, it is being transmitted on channels in all conceivable circles via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and later in the classic media.
How much sexiness are working women allowed to exude today, and why is it so little in our overly sexualized world?
The question actually should be what is sexy in general? I believe it’s about a certain sensuality. A woman can wear something high-necked and still be sexy, simply through her awareness of her body and what she radiates. In the same way, a bikini can be totally unsexy. Women have a good sense of what works for them and when, and what is right.
Thomas Tuma is a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com