Life and style

Tag Archives

Maria Grazia Chiuri on fashion, feminism and Dior: You must fight for your ideas

Diors new creative director the first female in its 70-year history to hold the post is fascinated by modern women and how she can reflect their lives in the clothes she makes

It is Christian Dior who gazes down gravely from the portrait in oils, whose dresses are in the silver-framed photographs that sit at an elegant slant beneath the white orchids, and whose name is stamped in distinctive sharp-serifed font on the reception desk at Dior HQ on Rue de Marignan. But the living, breathing creative force of todays Christian Dior, who darts in shaking the rain out of her tousled bob, is a woman. Whats more, Maria Grazia Chiuri is nothing like the full-skirted, doe-eyed figure whose image is conjured up by the name Dior. She wears a black sheepskin coat, flat buckled black shoes and black trousers with a Mod-sharp crease.

Maria Grazia Chiuri is here to reinvent Christian Dior. A house that has been selling feminine charm since 1947 has a woman in charge for the very first time. We walk the curved staircase to the first floor, into a salon with three tall white-shuttered windows, where oval-backed Louis XVI chairs are grouped gracefully around a generous expanse of freshly beeswaxed parquet.

On the staircase we passed Willy Maywalds famous photograph of 40s Dior house model Renee, her feet posed in a balletic fourth on a cobbled Parisian street in a full black skirt and a white bar jacket. But we are not here to talk about full skirts or the New Look. After 70 years of white-gloved elegance and dove-grey refinement, the house of Dior now stands for something else: feminism. For her Dior debut in the Muse Rodin in September last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri sent on to the catwalk a T-shirt with the slogan We Should All Be Feminists, the title of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Ted talk. So once Maria Grazia, as her team call her, has offloaded her D-fence saddlebag, a millennial-bait crossbody with the DIOR name spelt out in knuckleduster gold, on to the grey velvet upholstery, I ask her why she wanted to put feminism on the Paris catwalk.

Dior is feminine, she says. Thats what I kept hearing when I told people I was coming here. But as a woman, feminine means something different to me than it means to a man, perhaps. Feminine is about being a woman, no? I thought to myself: if Dior is about femininity, then it is about women. And not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but to be a woman today.

Maria Grazia herself is very much a woman of today. Her naturally dark hair is bleached a platinum blond, offset by sooty black eyes; the effect, teamed with her all-black outfit (I am part of the generation that wears black, she shrugs), is equal parts Debbie Harry and Donatella. The pussy bow of her sheer black blouse is tied in a rakish slim knot which is Mick Jagger rather than Nancy Reagan. Her hands, barnacled with rings, have an aesthetic that is more Hells Angel than chauffeur-driven: an eagle spreads across three fingers, an enormous pearl balances on another, a jagged flash of green on the other hand.

We Should All Be Feminists … making a statement at Paris fashion week in September 2016. Photograph: SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

In the days running up to that first Dior show, Chiuris debut was trailed by a series of mini films on the Dior social media accounts under the title The Women Behind My Dress. Women in the modern Dior ateliers, from seamstresses to calligraphers, talked about their role models. The names ranged from Princess Diana to US Senator Elizabeth Warren. As Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence, Bianca Jagger, Carla Bruni and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took their seats in the front row, Dior released a pre-show statement that championed Adichies work examining the question of racism and the place of women in society. In previews, Chiuri had talked to editors not about her obsession with tulle or embroidery but about the influence of Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Ests book about the Wild Woman archetype and the patriarchys attempts to suppress her force in society.

When you are a woman making clothes for women, then fashion is not just about how you look. It is about how you feel and how you think, she says. I ask her what feminism means to her, but she bats the question away with a wave of those rings. I am not interested in the old stereotypes, of what a feminist looks like or doesnt look like. I dont think there is one way to be a feminist.

This inclusive agenda is as radical in the arena of Parisian high fashion as the presence of a political slogan on the catwalk. The higher echelons of French fashion are a world in which an image of swan-like unrufflement is maintained at all times and the Dior empire, which dominates prime real estate along Avenue Montaigne and Rue de Marignan, has an atmosphere as rarefied as a Disney castle. It is run by an immaculate female army whose faultless manners never falter. When I choose a seat for the interview, one of the Dior team moves a glass tank of white roses to the adjacent side table, so that you have a nicer view.

If the creative director of Dior is a kind of unofficial art director for femininity, then the appointment of a woman to the job after decades of mansplaining is a feminist moment that goes beyond T-shirts. Chiuri has already had a very successful career, alongside bringing up two children who are now both in their early 20s. At 53, she finds herself in a position to seize a new opportunity in a new country, living alone in Paris from Monday to Friday and returning home to her husband in Rome most weekends. Feminism for me is about equal opportunities. If I am going to stand for something, I would like to stand for this idea: that if you are a woman you can have these opportunities in life.

Chiuri was born in Rome, studied fashion and spent three decades working in the city, first at Fendi, then for 17 years at Valentino. Her reputation was built on a Midas touch with accessories she was part of the team that created the Baguette at Fendi, and is credited with the Rockstud shoes and bags that played a huge role in raising both profile and profits at Valentino (the brand reached revenue of $1bn in 2015, two years ahead of forecast). For the last eight years of her Valentino tenure, she and her design partner, Pierpaolo Piccioli, were responsible for ready-to-wear, too. During that time, they blended Romes Renaissance past with a punky modern sensibility to create Valentinos modern bohemian mash-up of hippy-length hemlines, slender feminine sleeves, tightly braided hair and hardware-studded accessories. Chiuris husband, Paolo Regini, is a shirtmaker; their son Nicolo, now studying engineering in Rome, and daughter Rachele, a visual arts student at Goldsmiths in London, were born during her Fendi years. For any woman who works and has a family, its not easy. You get home from work and then you need more energy for your family. You need a lot of energy. But I was lucky to have had a husband who always supported me, and that I could afford to pay a babysitter.

The Dior job was not a decision she took lightly. We are a traditional Italian family. We ate together every night. So this was a very unusual idea, for us. But when I got the call I thought at this moment in my life, I could do this. In the past, maybe it wouldnt have been possible and in the future, well, who knows. Right now, I have the energy to do this. She left behind in Rome not only her family but Piccioli, with whom she had built a creative partnership. She plays down the significance of working as a solo designer after a career spent in a duo (All the time, the reality is that there is a team) but in scrutiny terms, the combination of the Dior scale, the exposure of flying solo and the novelty of her being female have shone a spotlight on Chiuri more glaring than anything she knew in Rome.

Signature looks from the house (l-r): Christian Diors New Look (1947); a Dior look by Yves Saint Laurent (1958-59); Dior couture by Galliano S&M with models hands bound together (A/W 00); Dior couture minimalist bar jacket by Raf Simons (A/W 12); We should all be feminists (S/S 17). Composite: Getty/Rex

Her first real challenge at Dior was more prosaic. The hardest thing was just to find my office. This place is not just a building, it is a village. (I can confirm this. Whats more, the miles of corridor and acres of stuccoed salon are done out entirely in the same pale grey and warm white, making orientation possible only by memorising the position of specific Avedon photographs.) One of the first times she left her office, she recalls with a throaty laugh, she had to call her assistant from the street for directions back. But though the dimensions were bigger than Id realised, the atmosphere was the opposite. This is a house that looks quite distant from the outside, and quite formal; instead I found a very relaxed, familiar atmosphere.

She is tickled by the novelty of independent living in her new apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg. Its like a second life! I feel like maybe I am a student at university in a foreign city! She smiles. She misses Rome The weather, the light, the food. I realise how Italian I am about food, since I moved here but finds herself charmed by Paris. After the feminist splash of her ready-to-wear debut, the second Dior collection by Chiuri was a pre-fall line-up that took as its starting point Chiuris newly adopted city.

But the Chiuri take on Paris, as expressed in an eclectic line-up of slogan T-shirts, houndstooth capes, embroidered denim and tiered lace, is an instructively unconventional one. Not for her the Francophile cliches of caf crmes and bourgeois charm, or the familiar tropes of soignee French Girl dressing which have sold a thousand style books. Chiuri alighted instead on multicultural Paris and the citys alternative life, citing as influences Harmony Korines countercultural film-making and Walter Benjamins urban sociology. A city like Paris is not just French. Paris is a very specific space where many different people live. Chiuri interprets the ideas and values that this Paris represents to her in clothes. It is a very meta mindset, but she wears it lightly. There is not just one Paris. I live in Paris now, but in a way I still imagine Paris, do you know what I mean?

The two people to whom Chiuri most frequently refers are Christian Dior and her daughter Rachele. The two seem to be in conversation in her head: the man who wrote the boilerplate copy for femininity, and the living, breathing incarnation of the modern female. When she had accepted the job, but before she moved to Paris, she read Christian Dior et Moi, the couturiers autobiography. When he spoke about his job, he would say, this dress would be perfect for this woman. He wasnt making the dresses to please himself, he was making them for the women he dressed.

This idea, of helping women to express themselves, is how Chiuri hopes to channel the founder. Because it is not possible to have a reference that is a dress from the 50s. It is just too long ago. But the ideas are still modern. Meanwhile, Rachele regularly takes the Eurostar to Paris, and could be spotted backstage on the day of the first show, eating lunch with her mum. I listen to her because she is the new generation, and because she doesnt say anything to please me. I need her real, honest opinion. It is impossible to work in fashion now if you dont try to understand the new world.

One of Chiuris most radical angles on Dior is the way she collages images from throughout the brands history, rather than worshipping at the New Look as if one collection could unlock all secrets, like fashions Rosetta Stone. The Dior history cant be just about something that happened 70 years ago, she says. For many women now, when they think of Dior, they think of [Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a Dior T-shirt in] Sex And The City. Mr Dior was only here for 10 years, so this company is also about all the designers after him Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Raf Simons. And Hedi Slimane [at Dior Homme] influenced this brand a lot, so it is not possible to talk about Dior and not talk about Hedi. She sees herself as a curator of the idea of Dior.

The evening after her haute couture show in January, Chiuri had the venue reconfigured to host a blockbuster masked ball, an immersive extravaganza which invited suspension of disbelief at every stage from the unicorns who stood guard along the candlelit path (horses with gold horns and masked riders, but still) to the suspiciously handsome tarot card readers. On the banquet table, gold-painted lobsters, and tortoises carved from marble, tangled with swags of ripe grapes and quivering meringue gateaux, all lit as sumptuously as a Caravaggio still life. (Kendall Jenner channelling Audrey Hepburn in black shades, and Bella Hadid in a see-through dress on the dancefloor with A$AP Rocky that part really happened.) It seemed to stand for a new era of informality and unpredictability at Dior.

The day after the party I went back to the Dior showroom on Avenue Montaigne. I was there for a closer look at the Dior pre-fall collection in all its crazy glory leopard-print tailoring, blanket coats with logo-stamped hems, polka-dotted sheer knee-high boots but was struck, traversing those labyrinthine grey corridors, by something else about the Dior look. The female workforce seemed to be mostly wearing black trousersuits, with not a full skirt to be seen. Chiuri herself is, she says, obsessed with uniforms. Because a uniform is something that helps you live your life. When she was dreaming up her first Dior collection, she watched Viscontis 1976 film LInnocente and was charmed by the beautiful images of fencing. I thought to myself, this could be in some way a new bar jacket. And if I put it with pants, it could be a modern Dior uniform, she says. The first look in her first collection became a white fencing jacket modelled by the crop-haired Brit Ruth Bell. First I just loved the image, but after I saw the film, I started to read about fencing. I love the idea that you go into a duel, but you dont kill. I think in some ways this is very close to the way I think. I dont like violence at all. But I truly believe that you must fight for your ideas.

This article appears in the spring/summer 2017 edition of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observers biannual fashion supplement

Read more:

With a French partner, Im scared for my familys future post-Brexit

Hilary Freemans life has been turned upside down by the EU referendum vote she and her family feel like pawns in a very political game

Have you heard the one about the British woman who married an immigrant just so she could leave the country? Thats the joke that Ive been telling, ever since 24 June last year, when I woke up in some kind of parallel universe to find that my compatriots had voted to leave the EU. But Im not laughing and neither are the thousands of other people in the UK who are in a similar situation.

My partner, Mickael, father of our 19-month-old daughter, Sidonie, is French an EU immigrant. As things now stand, he might not be allowed to stay in the UK. Going to live in France assuming the British will still have rights and Ill be welcome there might be the only way we can stay together as a family. Exile from my homeland or the breakup of my family: its not a pleasant choice.

When Mickael and I met, having a relationship with an EU citizen was (aside from the air miles and the language difficulties) little different from dating the boy next door. I had gone to Nice to write a book; he worked at the apart-hotel I was staying in. For the first few years, we conducted our relationship as a long-distance one, taking advantage of low-cost flights to hop back and forth across the Channel before, in 2014, deciding to settle down and start a family. Mickael moved to London primarily because I have a mortgage and because his English is better than my French. Migrating for him, as for other EU arrivals, was as simple as getting on a plane, opening a bank account, registering with the local GP and securing a National Insurance number. And yet, two years after he gave up his home and his job and learned to play the theme tune to The Archers on his harmonica, he was told Sorry, but youre no longer welcome here and you might not be able to stay.

To date, the prime minister, Theresa May, has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK until those of UK citizens living in Europe are also guaranteed. But this game is messing not only with the lives and futures of Europeans, but also the British lives she claims to wish to protect. What she has failed to acknowledge is that EU immigrants do not live in ghettos in the UK. The three million are intimately connected with British people, as their partners, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents. They have mortgages together, businesses together, children together. My rights and those of my daughter, also a British citizen, are being threatened by Mays refusal to promise EU immigrants that they can stay. According to article 8 of the Human Rights Act which the government hasnt yet done away with we are entitled to a family life. So why isnt she ensuring this?

My family is particularly vulnerable. Mickael has lived here for less than three years and is therefore not yet entitled to permanent residence or citizenship (you qualify after five years). He is not highly skilled. In fact, he is exactly the kind of immigrant were told the country neither needs nor wants. Except my daughter and I want and need him.

I havent slept very well since 24 June. Im still shocked, anxious and depressed by what has happened, grieving for the country I thought I lived in, for my identity and for the future I was promised. Im scared for my familys future. Most of all Im angry. You could say I have a giant bargaining-shaped chip on my shoulder. I feel like Ive been lied to all of my life, taught to think of myself as European, to take advantage of free movement, only to have the door slammed in my face at the age of 45. Even my educational choices were made because of the EU, my school persuading me to choose French A-level because the 1992 Maastricht treaty means the whole of Europe will be opening up for your generation.

You might think Im overreacting (or as the rightwing press would have it, that Im a remoaner). Most people do. Dont worry, they say. Everything will be fine. I see no evidence of this. Eight months on, and the three million EU immigrants are still being used as pawns in a political game with no discernible rules. EU families have had no assurances; we have been shown no compassion.

The second thing people say to me is: If youre worried about Mickael not being able to stay, why dont you just get married? Contrary to popular opinion, being married will grant Mickael no automatic right to live in the UK. The law quietly changed in 2012 when the then home secretary a certain Theresa May decided to put a stop to immigrants marrying Brits just so they could stay here.

Dont underestimate the levels of misery and fear Brexit has generated. Some people were actually scared to talk to me, for fear that being quoted in this article would mean their names would find their way on to a government list, and theyd be deported. This level of paranoia, whether it is warranted or not, in 21st century Britain, is deeply shocking.

A French friend Veronique Martin will speak out and say shes distraught. A writer, she has a British PhD, a PGCE and a British husband, and has lived in the UK for 30 years. Like the majority of EU citizens settled here, she didnt take citizenship because, until Brexit, it wasnt necessary. Now she finds herself caught in the legal minefield that faces any EU immigrant who hasnt been in continuous employment while living in the UK (carers, full-time mothers, disabled people, students etc) because she doesnt have Comprehensive Sickness Insurance, which was made a requirement for permanent residency in 2006. Why not? Because she was never told she needed it. Without it, she faces the possibility of deportation.

Miles and I have just celebrated 31 years together, she says. Yet our relationship is threatened by the British government. I came here in good faith, was told to consider Britain as my home, built my life here, yet overnight, through no fault of my own, Im being treated like a pariah. My only sin was to fall in love with a country that until now had welcomed me, and with a wonderful British man.

My husbands human rights are also being trampled on. His EU citizenship is going to be forcefully removed from him, and with it his freedom of movement. Where are we supposed to live? Is it moral or democratic or even just respecting basic human rights to separate families and couples? Where has my beloved, tolerant and open Britain gone? Where should we go?

The psychotherapist and philosopher Professor Emmy van Deurzen says she has numerous clients in cross-national relationships who are struggling with Brexit. I think the terror that has struck at the core of EU citizens is hard to understand, even for their British spouses. In one couple I work with, the British husband is finding it hard to believe that his Greek wife might no longer be allowed to stay in the country, having had no health insurance, and the wife is feeling greatly diminished and terrorised, and having nightmares about having to leave on a ship to escape from persecution. I work with a Polish lady who is remembering her parents war stories and feels she is reliving these at the moment.

I dont think people in the UK quite appreciate how EU citizens living here are beginning to feel like second-class citizens and therefore potentially fear becoming refugees. The sense of safety and individual rights that we normally take for granted has exploded, and it takes a lot in couples or families that are multi-national, to encompass and share those tensions equally. We are really creating a situation of grave human distress, which will channel down the generations, exactly as did the wars.

My head is telling me there will be no mass deportation of EU citizens. Not because of any benevolence on thepart of the government, but because it would be a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. For one thing, there is no register of EU arrivals, so just working out who is here would be close to impossible.

Whatever happens to Mickael and me, at least our daughter Sidonie will be able to live freely in whichever country she chooses. She is a dual national, entitled to both passports. As the granddaughter of German Jewish Holocaust refugees, I am in the process of obtaining a German passport, so that if I do have to move to France, I will still be an EU citizen with whatever rights that grants me.

Even if Mickael were to be offered permanent residency in the UK, that status would be revoked if he left the country for longer than a few months. Then we would not be able take our daughter to live in France to experience French culture and to embrace the French half of her identity. That is why, for us, as for many other thousands of people who dont wish to see the breakup of their mixed UK/EU families, only free movement will do. Otherwise, one partner will find themselves, whether willingly or unwillingly, for ever exiled in the others nation.

Read more:

‘The building creaks and sways’: life in a skyscraper

From Chicago to Dubai, Manchester to Melbourne, our cities are climbing above the clouds. Whats it like to live on the 64th floor?

Cities is supported by About this content

Manhattans avenues stretch north like tracks through a forest, eventually disappearing into Harlem. Below me, Central Park is laid out like a picnic blanket, its largest trees rendered shrub-like. To the south, the Empire State Building pierces the citys canopy of stone and iron, and the blue glass of the new World Trade Center glints beyond it. Between them, the Statue of Liberty is almost lost in the haze.

This is the view from the worlds highest home, as enjoyed virtually, using Google Earth. Because to enjoy it in person would require knowing the unnamed owner of the 800 sq m penthouse at 432 Park Avenue or buying it for more than the $88m (71m) it sold for last year.

But there are alternatives for those with a head for heights and the money to match. Next year, the 426m Park Avenue tower will lose its title to 111 West 57th Street, rising two blocks to the west. Meanwhile in India, the 442m Mumbai World One will push higher still, its Armani-designed penthouses on level 117 offering airliner views of the Arabian Sea.

Once, only offices reached so high. In 2000, there were 215 office towers worldwide above 200m high (the first, the Metropolitan Life Tower in New York, was completed in 1909), but only three residential towers that high. Today, there are 255 residential towers above that height, with a further 184 under construction. Mixed-use towers, with apartments as well as offices and hotels, include the Burj Khalifa, still the worlds tallest building, at 828m. The Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, due to be completed in 2020, will be the first to break 1,000m. Its highest apartments will be on the 156th floor.

What is life like up there? For decades, tower blocks typically comprised social or affordable housing in crowded cities or on new estates. Hundreds were built in the postwar social housing boom, in cities across Europe. But today the highest residential towers are overwhelmingly luxury developments, and many remain empty, weeks after selling. If skyscrapers broke ground as barometers of corporate hubris, increasingly they now stand for personal excess, applying gravity to the wealth divide.

Britain, traditionally a low-rise country, is part of the boom. Skyscraper clusters are casting shadows across London. In Manchester, the first 200m building outside the capital is due for completion next year. Even in Bristol, where St Mary Redcliffe church has been unrivalled in its heavenwards reach for more than six centuries, there are plans for a 22-storey residential tower that would come close.

Jason Gabel, an urban planner at the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which keeps a global skyscraper database, says advances in building technology partly explain the trend. Lifts can now travel at more than 40mph and climb for hundreds of metres, thanks to lightweight carbon fibre ropes. Sophisticated dampening systems at the tops of towers mean slender buildings can rise higher, on smaller urban plots, without toppling in a storm or swaying to the point of causing nausea.

For a growing number of city dwellers, day-to-day life can be a little different. The payoff for peace and endless views can be five-minute waits for the lift at rush hour and even sunburn. You could get tanned in winter if you sat right by the window: theres a bit of a greenhouse effect, the owner of a 64th-floor apartment above Chicago tells me. Vertigo can be another danger. At the top of a tower in east London, former taxi driver Sammy Dias rarely uses his balcony: I dont like heights, and if people go out and start messing about, I can get quite angry, he says from a safe distance inside.

I spoke to residents around the world, and many reported feeling uplifted by their elevated perspective, but there are hidden downsides: a Canadian study of heart attack victims showed survival rates dropped markedly on higher floors, because they were harder for paramedics to reach.

Skyscraping homes have always held an allure; a house with a view, a life in the sky. They frequently evoke dystopian imagery; Ern Goldfingers troubled Trellick Tower in west London, completed in 1972, is thought to have inspired JG Ballards dark thriller High-Rise. It was originally entirely owned by the Greater London Council, and rented out as council flats. Now social tenants of the Grade II*-listed building, and its sister, Balfron Tower in east London, are being displaced by upwards gentrification. Less desirable council towers are reaching the end of their habitable lives, facing decay, demolition or expensive repair.

Meanwhile, the upper floors of many new luxury skyscrapers serve as foreign cash stores: giant briefcases with views. The highest homes in Britain are the 10 luxury apartments between floors 53 and 65 of the Shard. They are among the most opulent in London, yet almost five years after their completion, none is occupied or even for sale or rent. The reason remains a mystery.

Stacking people on shelves is a very efficient method of human isolation, says Jan Gehl, a veteran Danish architect and renowned urban design consultant. A critic of residential towers even where they are fully occupied, Gehl likens them to gated mansions in the sky. Humans, he says, did not evolve to look up or down: We have seen, in the past 20 years, a withdrawal from society into the private sphere, and towers are an easy way to achieve that.

Is this the experience of those who live above our rising cities? Finding out isnt easy; even when or if they are home, residents of the most rarefied apartments in the world are hard to identify, much less reach. But all human life is there, way up on the 64th floor.

Mike Palumbo, 50, trader; Water Tower Place, Chicago

Mike and Veronica Palumbo on the 64th floor of Water Tower Place, Chicago: Oprah used to live a few floors down. Photograph: Alyssa Schukar for the Guardian

Chicago born and raised, Mike Palumbo is a Bulls fan who grew up on the edge of the city, the son of a truck parts salesman. From a corner near his house, he would gaze at the John Hancock tower, the matt-black, tapering monolith near the lakeshore, and dream big. When I hit 13, I went to high school downtown, Palumbo says. I would take the L train to within a block of the John Hancock. Back then, there was this guy called Spiderman whod climb up it with suction cups. I loved it. Id walk around and I was like, man, Id rather be in the city where all the action is. This is me.

Palumbo became a fund manager and in 2007 made $100m. For 18 years, he has lived in an eight-bedroom apartment on the 64th floor of Water Tower Place, an exclusive residence right across the street from his favourite skyscraper. Oprah Winfrey used to live a few floors down, Palumbo says as we look out, and down, on a forest of skyscrapers. David Axelrod, President Obamas chief strategist, remains a neighbour and chairs the pets committee on the buildings management board. Im a dog lover, but there are people who dont want them in the building, says Palumbo, who also sits on the board. You try to get along, but youve got a lot of very successful people arguing over minuscule things.

The Palumbos view of Chicagos John Hancock Center. Photograph: Alyssa Schukar for the Guardian

Half of Palumbos apartment is a man cave, with cigars in a jar on a bar next to a pool table. The other half is crammed with the accessories of parenthood: Palumbo and his second wife, Veronica, had twins last year, and their nanny lives with them. They add five minutes to any journey to allow time to get everything into the elevator. He has four grown-up children from his first marriage, who often visit.

As a young trader, Palumbo got job offers from Wall Street, but never wanted to leave Chicago. I just love this view, he says. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is open the blinds and let the sun come in. It doesnt get any better. Yet he is also scared of heights. Im OK with the windows, but if this was a ledge, Id be freaking out right now. He opens the window and a gust of wind slaps our faces. A spiders web somehow still clings to the frame. I never understand how these guys get all the way up here, he says.

Below us, I count more than a dozen rooftop swimming pools. The 423m Trump Tower dominates the skyline to the south. Later, a cleaning cradle winds past and the men with rags avoid looking through the glass. I would not want that job, Palumbo says.

Ian Simpson, 61, architect; Beetham Tower, Manchester

We want to intensify the city, not spread it out, says Ian Simpson, at his home on the 47th floor of the Manchester skyscraper he designed. Photograph: Fabio de Paola for the Guardian

Ian Simpson is from a family of demolition experts and grew up in a poor northern suburb of Manchester. I spent my youth climbing up mill chimneys and blowing them up, he says. But, somewhere along the way, I went from knocking things down to putting them back up again.

Simpson became one of Britains leading architects and has been instrumental in Manchesters regeneration, not least since an IRA bomb destroyed large parts of the city centre in 1996. He now occupies a unique position at the top of his own skyscraper, a steel-and-glass eyrie from which he surveys a city he has helped shape. At 47 floors, Beetham Tower cuts a lonely, slender figure above south Manchester, the tallest building in Britain outside London. Nobody thought it was going to stand alone, Simpson says in his vast, two-storey penthouse, which includes what may be Manchesters only olive grove. Other tall buildings had consent, but then we hit the recession.

For 10 years, Simpson and his partner have enjoyed uninterrupted views. The light here is spectacular, he says. It animates the space as it moves around; I find it very uplifting. Its like a little oasis right in the city. But the architect is happy that Manchester is on the rise again. There are plans for almost a dozen new towers above 30 storeys, chief among them the Owen Street development. Designed by Simpsons practice, which he leads with architect Rachel Haugh, it will include a 200m tower of 49 floors, a new high for the city.

Simpsons view of Manchester. Photograph: Fabio de Paolo for the Guardian

This is what Manchester needs, Simpson says. Historically, nobody lived in the city centre. If you had money, you lived in the leafy suburbs to the south; if you didnt, you lived to the north like me. Thats changing, and we need to have a critical mass to create the jobs and demand for everything else, whether its bars and restaurants or infrastructure.

I have a lovely painting in my office down there of the city in the 18th century. It was a city of towers but they were mill chimneys. When that changed, there were gaps, which generally became car parks. We want to fill those gaps and intensify the city, not spread it out. Like those chimneys, Simpson says, tall buildings provide not only a function, but also an image of confidence.

We move from the living area into the olive grove, which occupies a sort of penthouse conservatory, facing south. Thirty miles to the west, Liverpool is visible on a clear day. The trees, more than 30 of them, were shipped from Italy and lowered through the roof before the buildings crane came down. They love it up here, Simpson says. But theres no pollination: we dont get any bees this high, so there are no olives.

Farimah Moeini, 35, media sales manager; Ocean Heights, Dubai

Its a bubble: when I was 16, you heard Arabic music and saw local people, says Farimah Moeini of Dubai, where she lives on the 68th floor. Photograph: Siddharth Siva for the Guardian

As a teenager in Tehran, Farimah Moeini would often fly to Dubai with family and friends. She knew only the old town because that was all there was. Everything you can see here was sand, she says via video call from the Dubai apartment she shares with her British husband, Luke, and their baby, Liam. The Palm, Dubai Marina, all these towers: none of it existed. I remember going to the older malls. Wed have shawarmas and use fake IDs to try to get into bars and clubs. Then it started to grow and it hasnt stopped.

Moeini left Tehran, where her father owned a textiles factory, to go to college in the US. In 2009, she got a job with Yahoo and moved to Dubai at a time when rents were cheap following the global financial downturn. She met Luke, who works in real estate, the following year. They live in a one-bed apartment on the 68th floor of Ocean Heights, a residential block in the marina. Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building, looms 13 miles along the coast.

Moeinis view of Dubai. Photograph: Siddharth Siva for the Guardian

You do feel as if youre in a bubble, Moeini says. Sometimes I pinch myself, because a lot of the lifestyle is not really real. Its all so clean and neat and safe. Theres a cultural bubble, too. When I was 16, you would hear Arabic music and see local people everywhere; it was more authentic. I also miss nature. In Iran, we have four seasons, and its beautiful when they change. Here, years go by and you dont know where you are.

But its a nice bubble. Its fun and easy to meet people from all around the world. Its a happy place. I also love being up here its insane how calm you feel. Just waking up every sunrise and staring out to sea is so soothing. If I sit on my sofa and look out, I can only see sea and sky. And they are real.

Sammy Dias, 77, retired taxi driver; Petticoat Tower, London

I cant go out on the balcony. They call this one the haunted flat, says Sammy Dias of his home on the 21st floor of Londons Petticoat Tower. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

For more than 30 years, Sammy Dias has lived in Petticoat Tower, a 1970s council block owned by the City of London Corporation, and for most of them hes been on the 21st floor, two down from the roof. On a sunny January afternoon, he draws back the net curtain in his living room and looks east towards Stratford.

Look at that you see the Olympic Stadium there? he asks. The buildings zigzag roof supports come into view three miles away. Since the 2012 Games, it has become dwarfed by taller apartment buildings. Just look at the amount of flats that have gone up: its unbelievable. Its almost happened overnight.

The Gherkin and 110 Bishopsgate flank Petticoat Tower. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Dias drove a black cab in and around the Square Mile for 45 years, until he retired five years ago. From street level and above, he has watched London rise. The Gherkin, just 200m away, casts a shadow over his building. 110 Bishopsgate, with its rooftop sushi restaurant and exposed lifts, rears up just two streets to the west.

Dias turns his gaze down over Aldgate, a hodgepodge of housing and mushrooming hotels, and Petticoat Lane market, where clothing has been sold for centuries. I worked down there when I was an 11-year-old, pulling barrows out, he says. Every stall sells the same thing now. You see that brown building there? Thats where I was born: number one Herbert House.

Dias didnt plan to live high up, and never uses his tiny balcony. He hates heights. Im OK sitting here, but I cant go out there. They call this the haunted flat theres been a suicide from that balcony.

His first flat here was on the 11th floor, but he and his wife, Phyllis, a jewellers bookkeeper, moved up in 1994, when a two-bed flat became available. Soon after, she developed Alzheimers disease; she died in 2001.

It took a while to get used to living here alone, but I have a good routine now, Dias says, sitting in one of the rooms two armchairs. Photos of the couple stand on an old dresser. Sometimes I wake up early and lie there and reminisce, or I might read the paper. Then I get up, have a wash and the radio goes on. I listen to Radio X with Chris Moyles. I cant stand him, but I love the music. Later, Ill go out and meet the little old boy on the estate with the frame. We go to the Bell, where I had my first drink aged 16. Ill have two pints of lager, then two maximum three gin and lemonades, come back up here, have my grub, get relaxed and go to bed.

Dias plans to live out the rest of his days here. My mind is all there. I went to school up until age 11, and I could still tell you everyone who was in my class. Its the genes; Ive got a 90-year-old sister and we have a conversation on the phone. April the first I was born, I was married April 1st and, the way I feel sometimes, Im gonna snuff it on April 1st. Ill do the treble.

A City of London housing officer recently came to discuss a move into a one-bed flat. Dias had suggested it himself, but declined when it became clear that it would mean leaving the building. I said, Ive got friends here! This is my area. Ive got everything and Im happy. Do you know what I call it? I call it my castle.

Traci Ann Wolfe, 40, actor; 8 Spruce Street, New York

Dreaming of a frugal Christmas? Meet the people whove stopped shopping

There is a growing minimalism movement that puts less emphasis on buying things, and more on people, places and happiness

Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz told his family he didnt want anything for Christmas. But when he opened his stocking to find a roll of duct tape, some cling film and tin foil, he relented. I was ecstatic. I could use everything, he says

The 33-year-old dancer from Canada was in the middle of a buy nothing year when he opened his present, and had managed to cut out spending on anything except a pre-defined list of basic groceries and necessities for 12 months.

Szuszkiewicz is part of an anti-consumerist movement, known as minimalism or mindful consumerism, that has been sweeping across the globe via blogs, self-help books and social media. This move towards buying less often attracts new converts during the festive season when people balk at the scale of Christmas spending.

According to the Nationwide building society, people on average spend roughly half their monthly pay on Christmas. One in three, meanwhile, pay for Christmas using a credit card or overdraft.

Mark Boyle bought a smallholding in the west of Ireland with the proceeds of his book, The Moneyless Man, after spending three years living entirely without money. I generally dont spend anything at all at Christmas now and Im much, much happier, he says.

I didnt buy or spend anything for those years Id grow or forage my food. Now I let people come and stay for free in my home, and run a moneyless pub. At Christmas, everyone from round here brings a bottle and we get together and have a shindig. For me, thats what Christmas is about meeting up and sharing food and drink. I avoid shopping at this time of the year in any way I can.

Moneyless Man Mark Boyle says he needs nothing and now puts a much greater value on time. Photograph: Leigh Pearson

Also among those who have embraced the more frugal lifestyle is financial journalist Michelle McGagh, who has been blogging about her no-spend year, and detailing the challenges and benefits of her new lifestyle. The savings she made helped her to pay off a substantial chunk of her mortgage. Last Christmas she spent just 14.53 on a meal for six people, did a presents amnesty with the adults in her family and made toy cars to give as gifts to her nephews.

Similarly, this Christmas will see Boyle make a few useful gifts for close friends and family out of wood, but he has stopped buying gifts completely and never receives any shop-bought presents. There isnt anything I need, even though I am supposedly living below the poverty line, he says.

Like many minimalists he now values time over money. I think the best gift you can give someone is time, when you are genuinely fully present. Step off the treadmill of rushing around earning money to pay for stuff and you find life goes much slower. I have so much more time now to do the things I love doing and not just at Christmas, but all year-round. I feel liberated, Boyle says.

Szuszkiewicz feels the same way. You experience this huge release and liberation from cultural norms when you stop spending, especially at Christmas. I used to feel obligated to spend money I didnt have on gifts I didnt know whether my family needed or wanted. Now, everyone knows my policy is to not buy any gifts, so I no longer feel that obligation and I enjoy Christmas much more, he said.

He is generous with his time instead, and during his buy nothing year made batches of chocolate, dried fruit and pickled vegetables which he gave to friends and family. Consumables are great because they get eaten and then theyre gone.

Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz saved 24,000 during his no-spend year. Photograph: Cris Cerdeira

Szuszkiewicz is currently using the 24,000 he saved over his no-spend year to travel around the world, and owns no possessions other than those he carries in his backpack. But he doesnt want anything for Christmas.

Physical things are literally a burden for me and thats not what Christmas means to me anymore. Its about being with the people I love.

He acknowledges that he makes a choice not to spend, rather than being forced into that position by circumstance. But I think theres nothing wrong with living this way, if you do have a choice. Why should you buy stuff that you dont need to buy, just because you have more money to spend than other people?

For people with children, the idea of an abstemious festive season might prove difficult. However, Sarah Koontz, a Christian writer from South Dakota who has two young children, says it teaches willpower. Completing two no-spend Christmases taught me that it is OK to accept a gift from someone knowing that I cannot reciprocate, or that Ive spent far less on them. Everyone is entitled to their own gift-giving strategy, and comparison is a trap I prefer to avoid, she says.

She says that she has been called stingy or even Scrooge from time to time, but her convictions carried her through. Our family is able to enjoy the traditions of Christmas more now that we have eliminated consumerism from the holiday. We still exchange small gifts, many of them homemade, but we have learned that true generosity requires more than a credit card. Spending less money on Christmas forced us to be generous with our time, energy, and talents. Those are the best gifts of all because they are priceless.

Sarah and Ryan Koontz, with daughters Anya, left, and Nadia, right. Photograph: Kristi Foreman

She is not alone in feeling this way. Sal Crosland, a 33-year-old holistic therapist from Huddersfield, writes the minimalist blog She has got rid of everything in her home she doesnt need, and now focuses on giving experiences and making memories with her loved ones at Christmas.

When I was doing my no-spend year and I thought back to past Christmases, I realised I couldnt remember what I got, but I could remember where I was and who I was with, she says. Now, instead of stressing about buying presents, I place more importance on relaxation and family time and I look forward to Christmas much more.

She always asks her family not to buy her anything for Christmas, and even when other people are given gifts in front of her she says she doesnt feel like she is missing out. I know it is my choice and my decision to opt out and that makes all the difference.

The act of cutting back on giving gifts at Christmas can be catching. Canadian blogger Cait Flanders went on a two-year-long shopping ban to try to pay off a Can$30,000 debt (18,000), and in solidarity her family stopped exchanging gifts on Christmas Day. This year, even though the ban is over and the debt repaid, they have decided not to exchange gifts again. It took so much pressure off everyone, and resulted in a much more meaningful holiday.

Now she says that she would prefer to give someone a random gift on any other day of the year. I hate feeling like I need to give gifts out of obligation.

Regina Wong, founder of the Live Well With Less website, has similar motivations for reducing her spending at Christmas this year. I have become uncomfortable with the highly commercial nature of Christmas and the general pressure and expectations of the season. Im not against consumption Im just against mindless consumption, and consumption one cant afford. Ive realised I already have all I want or need.


Tell people in advance that you wont be buying gifts. When I explained why I wasnt spending at Christmas, the general reaction was relief, Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz says. People respected and understood my decision. If anyone doesnt understand your reasons for cutting back, and still wants you to buy them something, I would recommend re-evaluating that relationship.

Dont underestimate your skills or the value of a homemade gift, says Mark Boyle, especially one that celebrates what you think is wonderful about the person you are giving it to. Every single person alive has got some sort of skill or hobby they can use to give someone a gift or an experience. And I think theres a lot more heart and soul in something you make yourself for another person, especially if it is something unique and distinctive that you think that particular person will like and need.

Remember that your presence can be a present too. A kid might want a computer at Christmas – but is that going to be the deepest longing of that kids heart? Boyle says. At another level, perhaps without even knowing how to articulate it, what that kid may really want is a deeper connection to his or her parents through quality time. Try to understand the person you are giving to, and what they long for, instead of feeding an addiction to consumerism.

Read more:

Fitbitters of the world, unite! How the Soviets invented fitness tracking

Health and fitness monitoring devices promise a future of good health and pre-emptive diagnosis. Not to mention reduced (for some) insurance premiums. So what connects our new obsession with personal productivity with the dogma of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin?

At this years Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medicine. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal parts inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social catastrophe. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry all those Jawbones and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches that promises to top $50bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices arent particularly accurate (yet), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient gets sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkmans terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the making and hacking and quantified self movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.

The Fitbit. Photograph: Fitbit

The responsibility for improvement and reform inevitably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevskys novel What Is to Be Done? according to Lenin, the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx. Even more hysterical, Tolstoys The Kreutzer Sonata prefers the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed (read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew came the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred time cells were set up in the army, factories, government departments and schools. The Timists carried chronocards in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passage of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous time discipline. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the leagues personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself, Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs during work, walk, play the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.

The poet Alexei Gastev whose forbidding toothbrush-moustache and crew cut concealed a lot of mischief took Trotsky at his word. He built a social-engineering machine. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable use whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a sort of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenins personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in set positions, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance. (Judging by the sheer popularity of the classes, and the speed of the institutes expansion, the classes must have been quite enjoyable.)

Bernsteins kymocyclograph. Photograph: HANDOUT

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and building models of steam engines and bridges, set him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each exposed a fraction of a second after its neighbour. (Motion-capture cinema, VR and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit begin here.)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian reflexes. His more nuanced model of motor responses amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union gathered unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, making it a world leader in the field. A new kind of human being healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable disease seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single shift. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Alexey Stakhanov explains his system to a fellow miner, 1936. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Others rushed to follow Stakhanovs example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, a worker in a car factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single shift. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female Stakhanovites proved they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such workers were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. In factories and even in scientific institutes, wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, the workers names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the shock brigade worker.

For as long as human beings labour for others, their lot will improve only so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point makes no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920s was an impoverished state dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Coming to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives around a 10th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will make. So wheres the harm?

Joseph Stalin: imagine how he could have exploited your Fitbit data Photograph: Hulton Getty

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer said no to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blame: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, making redundant the entire gamble of insurance. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccols excellent 1997 film Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are begging to be used as tools of surveillance, and thats not because anybodys actually doing anything wrong. Its because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can make the most use of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with making and hacking, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast radical self-reliance and failed.

Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings, is published by Faber & Faber (20).

Read more:

New Yorkers left in a pickle by news famous Carnegie Deli to close

Restaurant in shadow of Billionaires Row was setting for a Woody Allen masterpiece but legal beefs and business pressures grew too much for owner

Theyre calling it pastrami on cry: after nearly eight decades of serving 4in-high sandwiches to hungry New Yorkers and tourists, the Carnegie Deli has announced that it will close its doors at the end of 2016.

The Jewish delicatessen, open since 1937 and known for its gruff wait staff and massive sandwiches its motto: If you can finish your meal, weve done something wrong announced its impending closure in a Facebook post on Friday.

Speaking to staff in an emotional address, owner Marian Harper Levine said the stresses of running a restaurant in New York City had grown too much to bear.

The restaurant business is one of the hardest jobs in New York City, she said. At this stage in my life, the early morning to late-night days have taken a toll, along with my sleepless nights and gruelling hours.

On Seventh Avenue at West 55th, in midtown Manhattan and in the shadow of rising towers on Billionaires Row, the Carnegie is one of few businesses surviving from an era before rampant corporate investment and rising commercial rents. Recently, though, times have been hard.

In 2014, the delis owners were ordered to pay a $2.65m settlement to 25 employees who alleged they had been cheated out of fair wages. Harper then went through a contentious divorce, in which she claimed her husband, Sandy Levine, had shared secret recipes with his girlfriend, whose family allegedly launched a rogue Carnegie Deli in Thailand.

From April 2015, the deli was closed for more than nine months after the utility firm Con Edison discovered an illegal gas line hookup that had been working for six years, similar to a hookup that caused an explosion in the East Village, killing two people and destroying Pommes Frites, another famous restaurant. A fine and a backdated utilities bill of more than $40,000 followed.

Read more:

Paris haute couture leaps into the 21st century

Vetements revolutionary show, held in a department store, saw weird and wonderful display from alt-thinking label

Disruption is a vogue-ish word as overused in the modern fashion industry as iconic was in the last decade. But when evening wear at Paris haute couture fashion week means pink velour Juicy Couture palazzo pants worn with a promotional T-shirt for lager rather than ball gowns, then disruption is definitely happening.

The invitation to join the haute couture schedule extended to the alternative design collective Vetements, whose previous show featured Kanye West on the front row and repurposed Justin Bieber tour merchandise on the catwalk, is nothing short of revolutionary. Paris haute couture, which until now has maintained a defiantly pre-revolution Versailles image think organza and corsetry has taken a leap into the 21st century.

The Vetements show was held in the Galeries Lafayette department store. This is the haute couture equivalent of Alexander McQueen staging his 90s London Fashion Week shows in freezing, leaky warehouses. Department stores, where the clothes have price tags, are frankly dclass in the haute couture realm of the bespoke and unique.

The runway for the Vetements show in the Galeries Lafayette department store. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

The clothes were deliberately off-kilter. Trousers are cropped above boot level, as if the models have outgrown them, or shrunken eye-poppingly tight at the groin. Models dont look like models, or walk like them. They look pale, and awkward, and anxious.

There have been weird clothes at couture before Gallianos Dior was outre in its day but the difference with Vetements is that the alt-thinking permeates everything the label does. Status, and the value placed on craftmanship, are the bedrocks on which haute couture and its billionaire-class price tags are built. But Vetements have a mischievous, Warholian viewpoint which sees beauty in the everyday (the DHL logo, which they adopted as a signature) and venerates mass-produced brands such as Levis and Hanes.

Vetements is led by Guram and Demna Gvasalia, who moved with their family from civil war-torn Georgia to Dusseldorf as children, and are now based in Paris. With Demna now installed as designer at Balenciaga, they are an unlikely but formidable new power duo in Paris fashion. This show replaces the Vetements ready-to-wear show that would have taken place in October, meaning that the team had three months rather than six to produce that collection.

In direct opposition to the seamstress-in-an-atelier heritage of haute couture, Vetements tackled the challenge of this short lead time by collaborating with 18 best-in-class brands ranging from Italian tailoring house Brioni to Reebok. In this way Vetements, granted a golden ticket to couture, opened the doors to 18 other labels. Even the Vetements own-label tracksuit a holy item in the 2016 fashion world was poked fun at with a collaboration with Britney Spears favourite, Juicy Couture.

Meanwhile at Versace, the essential alchemy of the brand is a cocktail of mass sex appeal and high class. Before the show, Donatella Versace said of this haute couture collection that it reveals a womans power and her allure. The verb is telling, reminding us that strategic exposure is all part of the Versace gameplan. A combination of sex and status gives the Versace woman an air of bomb-proof, self-confidence that any consumer in her right mind would want a piece of.

The dresses at Versace were the most sumptuous of body-conscious gowns. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

It is a much-emulated formula, which means that every Versace show is an important opportunity for Donatella to remind the world who owns this piece of aesthetic real estate. The Italian brand has a new British CEO in Jonathan Akeroyd, who joined less than a month ago from Alexander McQueen, but the aesthetic on the catwalk was pure Donatella. All the firepower of Atelier Versaces formidable army of tailors and embroiderers were laser-focused on creating the most sumptuous of body-conscious gowns. Think drapery that would become a classical goddess, with a thigh-high slit for good measure.

But Versace has to be about fashion as well as sex, because the younger consumers Versace needs to communicate with if it is to stay relevant are hardwired to demand constant newness. The messy buns and oversized hoop earrings were based on contemporary model-off-duty style rather than on traditional couture beauty tropes, while oversized evening coats worn dramatically falling off the shoulder reflected fashions new proportions.

Read more:

If I lived in that house: my addiction to the fantasy of online real estate

In the midst of peak moving season, Melody Warnick ponders her obsession with real estate websites that are constructed to elicit desire for a new reality

My friend Sarah was scrolling through listings of homes on the real estate app Zillow when she experienced the homebuyers equivalent of a meet-cute. There, in full-color photos, was her dream house. Acreage for fruit trees! Big bedrooms for all three kids! Giddy, Sarah called the listing agent, and five minutes after being let inside, she knew. This was it. Her house.

Except it wasnt. Sarah already owns a house, a gut renovation job into which her husband has distilled 18 months of sweat equity. Which is why Im calling her Sarah instead of her real name, because if her husband knew she was having an emotional affair with another property while he hammered roof shingles, he would not be pleased.

The home where F Scott Fitzgerald lived for two years in the 1920s on Long Island, the asking price for which was over $3.8m in 2015. Photograph: Steven Bababekov/AP

Just to clarify, I said, you bought a house, but youre still looking at Zillow?

Every day, Sarah said. I have the app on my phone.

No judgment here. My pernicious habit has outlasted every home Ive ever lived in, from the Maryland colonial that smelled like cigarette smoke to the Texas ranch house we sold for $1,000 less than we paid. Were renting now, but it wouldnt matter if we werent. I look at houses online when I own and when I rent, when Ive just moved and when Im pondering moving again. I wake up, open my laptop, check my email and Facebook, then click on

As the tidy rows of homes populate my screen, I am a junkie getting a fix. My pulse quickens. I scroll fast through the photos, pausing at a kitchens Shaker cabinetry or a bathrooms marble counters. Occasionally I text my husband a link. I love this one, I write. So I bought it.

I didnt buy it. Of course not. I just look, intently and uncontrollably, drawn in by an omnipresent world of online real estate listings. The many sites that aggregate data from the Multiple Listing Service platform, including, Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, Estately,, StreetEasy and Curbed make it possible for anyone to digitally stroll through a strangers home. You do not have to prequalify for a mortgage. You do not need a real estate agent. You just look.

We are, many of us, looking. Summer is peak relocation season, when 40% of American moves happen, and last July Zillow had 141 million unique users. Yet that same month, only about 5.4 million homes were purchased in the country, suggesting that some serious window shopping was going on. According to a 2014 survey by Discover Home Loans, two-thirds of home buyers admitted that looking at online property listings had become addicting.

Last July, Zillow had 141 million unique users. Yet that same month, only about 5.4 million homes were purchased in the country. Photograph: Andreas Kuehn/Getty Images

Whatever is driving this obsession restlessness? technology? the paradox of choice? it hasnt fueled the housing market. In 2015, homeownership rates hit a 48-year low. Millennials in particular are finding homeownership both undesirable they dont want to be tied down and financially out of reach. And yet obsessing over real estate listings is often tinged by a fear of missing out. Oh, the homes not purchased! The lives not lived!

Because, in the end, Zillow is about the fantasy of living other lives. We look at online real estate for the same reason people binge-watch House Huntersor tour model homes they cant afford becausewhat would it be like to live in that place? Because wouldnt our lives be vastly improved by a three-car garage and a kitchen island? Because, as the essayist Meghan Daum wrote: Life would be better if I lived in that house.

Im relatively happy as a renter. For less than wed pay for a mortgage, my family lives in a four-bedroom house. Lawn care is included. When our kitchen faucet leaks, the landlord sends a plumber. I love the ease of it, the way renting gives me permission to disengage from decisions about flooring and backsplashes. My place is enough.

Then Zillow tells me that there is a 5,200-square foot Craftsman with a granite-encrusted kitchen island, heart of pine floors, and a white beadboard mudroom for sale in my town. Never in my life will I have the $795,000 it takes to buy it, but that doesnt keep me from clicking through all 118 photos on Zillow.

What happens next? Mostly misery.

Perusing other peoples real estate is a habit so soul-killing that one of the 10 commandments warned against coveting your neighbors house. Were simply wired to think that the grass is always greener, and we suffer for it. In a 2015 Singaporean study, participants who were asked to compare their purchases with seemingly superior alternatives experienced a decline in happiness, regardless of how pleased theyd originally been. In effect, aspirational house photos make your builders grade cabinets seem like a personal failing, a comment not only on your home but on your career success, earning capabilities and life choices.

This three-story luxury home in Southampton, New York, can be rented for $395,000 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian

A few months ago, I decided to detox. I deleted the Zilllow app and blocked on my computer. As soon as I stopped wasting time clicking through photographs of strangers wood-paneled rec rooms, my self-loathing decreased. I felt more at peace.

If Id managed to stop there, this would be an entirely different kind of story. But heres the truth. Within a few weeks I started sneaking peeks at Zillow again. My inability to give it up seemed like a sign. Maybe it was time to buy again! My husband and I got a realtor and, one rainy afternoon, went to visit some of the homes Id swooned over online.

What I remembered then is that digital real estate is, like any other social media representation, a carefully crafted fiction. Wear and tear doesnt exist in Zillowland. Its Photoshopped and filtered and sponged away. In person, a bay window, beautiful in the photos, was too crooked to close. A hardwood floor was so slanted you could roll a marble down it. After that day, my desire to buy began ebbing, replaced by gratitude for all the ways my rental wasnt falling apart.

I still look at real estate websites every day, but I look with the understanding that Im perusing a dreamscape. That any house Im able to buy will almost certainly disappoint me. That in reality, the perfect house is not for sale. It exists only online.

I look at these places, and I lust a little, and then I make toast in my builders grade kitchen.

Read more:

Zimbabwes trillion-dollar note: from worthless paper to hot investment

The central bank of Zimbabwe issued $100,000,000,000,000 notes during the last days of hyperinflation in 2009, and they barely paid for a loaf of bread. But their value has shot up

Whats been one of the best-performing investments of the past seven years? Shares in Facebook? London property? Bitcoin? Up there with the best, believe it or not, are Zimbabwean 100 trillion dollar notes.

A trillion, by the way, is a million million. There are 12 zeros in a trillion. Add another two to reach the total on the Zimbabwean 100 trillion dollar bill, the note with the most zeroes of any legal tender in all recorded history. The bills circulated for a few months in 2009 at the zenith or, more precisely, the nadir of one of the most terrible instances of hyperinflation in history, before Harare finally abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in favour of the South African rand, the US dollar and several other foreign currencies.

At one stage a hundred trillion dollar note would not even cover a bus fare. You needed a bale of notes just to buy a few household essentials. However, its thought that only a few million of them were ever printed.

I remember buying one on eBay. It is on the wall in my office. John Wolstencroft, a private investor, bought a batch of them to give away. I always found they were a good conversation starter, he says.

In 2010-11, Wolstencroft was living in New Zealand where he joined an investment club, made up mostly of locals and US expats. At the time, the great central banking experiment of quantitative easing and a 0% interest rate policy was making a lot of people nervous. He brought a handful of the Zimbabwean notes along to his first meeting to give out as a way of saying thank you for letting him join the club, but there were more people there than he was expecting.

I didnt have enough notes to go round, he says. People started offering me money for them. I tried to explain they were just a gift, but they just upped their offer. I realised then these notes were going to become a collectors item.

John (left) and Vishal Wolstencroft sell trillion dollar notes from the defunct Zimbabwean currency to collectors

Wolstencroft went away and bought several hundred more notes. The price had already risen since his first purchase; they were 1.50 each. He gave some out to members of the club, as promised, and kept the rest. When he returned to Britain he gave some to a financial company he works with. One of the independent financial advisers used to give the notes out to prospective clients to show why they should invest away from cash in a diverse range of assets, such as real estate, gold, stocks and shares, he says. Over the long term, cash loses its value.

Wolstencroft wasnt alone in seeing the potential of trillion dollar notes. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that David Laties, owner of the Educational Coin Company in New York, had speculated about $150,000 (104,000) importing the notes from Zimbabwe, sensing they would become the best notes ever. Frank Templeton, a retired Wall Street equities trader, bought quintillions of Zimbabwe dollars (thats thousands of trillions) for between $1 and $2 each, via a broker from the Zimbabwe central bank. He would then sell them on for several times the price.

Vishal Wolstencroft, Johns 12-year-old son, noticed late last year that these same 100 trillion dollar notes were now changing hands on eBay for as much as 40 each. He talked his father into a joint venture. Vishal is responsible for the listing, photographs, posting, packing and advertising, while father John supplies the goods. Their profits are shared 50:50. Business is good. According to Vishal, its quite a step up from his previous venture selling old toys at a local market stall. Most 100 trillion dollar notes fetch close to 20-25 on eBay, but set against the 1.50 paid by Wolstencroft in 2011 it is a striking return. In percentage terms, it is close to 1,500%, compared with the miserable 5% rise in the FTSE 100 over the same period.

In an extraordinary irony, the 100trillion dollar note a symbol of financial mismanagement on a colossal scale has turned into one of the best-performing asset classes of recent years.

The disappearing currency

A Zimbabwean lady with a basketful of cash Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

When the Zimbabwean dollar first came into existence in 1980 it had a similar value to the US dollar, writes Patrick Collinson. But by 2009, $1 was worth Z$2,621,984,228, 675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228. TheBank of England worries if inflation in the UK goes over 2% a year; in Zimbabwe it hit 79.6 billion per cent.

The countrys central bank could not even afford the paper on which to print its worthless trillion-dollar notes. President Mugabe issued edicts to ban price rises, of comedic value were it not for the devastation that hyperinflation wrought upon the people. The miserably low savings and incomes of the impoverished population were wiped out; shopkeepers would frequently double prices between the morning and afternoon, leaving workers pay almost valueless by the end of the day.

In 2009 the government scrapped the currency, leaving US dollars and South African rand as the main notes and coins in circulation. To this day, Zimbabwe still has no currency of its own, although the government last year offered to swap old deposit accounts into US dollars, giving savers $5 for each 175 quadrillion (175,000,000,000,000,000) Zimbabwean dollars.

In an extraordinary irony, Zimbabwe now suffers among the worlds worst deflation, currently at -2.3%.

Read more:

Recent Tweets

Call Now Button