Frugality is not a trait associated with Andrew Gn’s mega-rich clients. Even in the depths of the recent recession, demand remained constant for his $80,000 gowns, gorgeously embroidered confections that ensure their wealthy wearers make a dazzling impression at glittering parties and extravagant balls.
The Singapore-born haute couture designer has carved out a niche, making fabulous clothes for film stars and socialites in the US, princesses in the Middle East and, in recent times, nouveau riche women in China.
China is a fast growing segment of Gn’s business. Never slow in spotting a business opportunity, the Paris-based designer has been sending couture teams to major eastern seaboard cities of China to measure up socialites for gowns and other dresses.
“I am not merely a designer. I was brought up in a strong business environment and I have inherited the business gene from my father,” he says. “I am not ashamed of it. I design with a lot of marketing and merchandising ideas in my mind and that is so important. I am not Asian for nothing!”
His father, who was of Chiu Chow ancestry (coming from Chaoshan, a coastal region in east Guangdong province), made his money selling mother-of-pearl to the Japanese company Shiseido for use in beauty products; that fortune was used to fund further investments in property and financial services. His mother, Ang Gek Siang, now 85, gave her son the love of beautiful clothing.
“I was born into a family that collected antiques and loved luxury,” says Gn. “My mother always wore lots of Valentino and Chanel and Chloe by Karl Lagerfeld. It affected my approach, which is very much couture, to detail and handwork and luxury.
“I love beautiful things around me, whether it is flowers, or gourmet food, and that is reflected in my work. The higher I go the bigger the business is because there are so few people who do real couture these days.
“(In couture) everything is hand-sewn and the people who buy the clothes are the top notch of society. In my view, the world is divided into affordable fashion at the one end and couture at the other.”
Gn’s work, he says, has always been at the upper end. “The clothes are only in the very best stores worldwide and we do dress some of the richest people in the world. My whole goal is to create clothing that cannot be copied within 48 hours. I hate fast food and fast fashion!”
Paris-based Gn has a more cosmopolitan background and international outlook than many designers. An upbringing in Singapore, school and fashion college in London, Milan and New York, an assistant’s job in Paris with the fashion house Ungaro, and business in the US and Asia have given him a global outlook.
Gn acknowledges the extensive early-career backing from his affluent dad, who bankrolled the neophyte designer, allowing the creation of a small, high-quality collection of classy clothes. That first range of dresses and gowns was touted to major American store buyers who were wowed. A chain store in Texas snapped up the garments, knowing they would appeal to the socialite wives of oil tycoons, and Gn’s career was off to a flying start.
The thriving business allowed the designer to later move into more elaborate premises. The headquarters of Andrew Gn are located in an elegant stone building, once owned by a Parisian nobleman, now sub-divided into offices. The entrance is via huge wooden doors that open into a cobblestone courtyard; Gn’s studio and showroom are located to the right.
There the team painstakingly assembles the exquisite clothing. Some of the more intricate specialist work is done by artisans Gn has come to know well, and respect enormously, during more than a decade in Paris. The attention to minute detail is, of course, one reason for the sky-high prices: A special dress can cost $80,000 or more.
When immersed in the design process, Gn prefers to be alone, away from the concerns of the studio, so he heads to his late 18th century apartment for an afternoon of solitary sketching. Start Gn on the topic of his apartment — regularly featured in magazines — and it is difficult to stop him. The place is clearly his pride and joy.
“I like to design at home when I am all by myself and my apartment is very inspiring,” he says. “It is in the ninth arrondissement and is quite fabulous because all the parquet floors, paneling and everything else were untouched. It took me five years to restore it and I love it.”
Like his parents, Gn collects antiques, ceramics and antique embroidery. “I think we carry our past to move forward,” he says. “I don’t think anyone can say they don’t look back. It is not nostalgic, to me the 17th and 18th centuries are perfection in terms of aesthetics. It is important to see that as a reference. The reception rooms are really big and I have a smoking room with a cabinet where I store my blue and white 17th and 18th century antique porcelain.
“People say it is like the home of a writer from the 18th or 19th century. It is not ostentatious, it is the way it is. I am constantly traveling but I stay at home when I can. I have built my castle and I love closing the door and staying in.”
The near future, though, may see Gn spending more time in China, responding to the huge potential demand there for couture among the more sophisticated (and wealthy) fashionistas. The Andrew Gn way of operating is to set up shop in an impromptu private salon and invite select would-be clients.
“People from the upper layers do not want to shop in public, they want to shop behind closed doors and want the Queen of England treatment,” he says. “That is very me and my kind of product. We call it modern couture. You have to get it right that one time, you can’t come back for more fittings.
“We have found that people in China are big spenders. The VVIPs will come in for 45 minutes or an hour and spend $80,000 to $150,000. We are testing the temperature of the water there; I want to set up a salon eventually in Shanghai or Beijing.”
Gn is only too aware that he has to maintain the exclusivity of the label, so there is no danger of it being perceived as mass market. There are no plans to launch accessories or collaborate with chain stores, as many other designer labels have done. It is that distinctiveness, and exclusiveness, that draws celebrity clients such as pop singers Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, actress Natalie Portman, and Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Onassis.
“I cannot imagine designing some intellectual fashions,” he says. “My work is very well cut and beautifully done; it is fashionable and it is timeless at the same time. It is all about investing in a piece of luxury.
“You can’t pin down a specific detail that says it is my design but I am a man of detail, with gradings and trimmings. There is a certain kind of detail that is part of me.”
Singapore-born haute couture designer to the rich and famous
2011: Sends couture team to China to take orders
2010: Opens his own salon in Paris
1999: First collections sold at Colette in Paris, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in New York, Seibu in Tokyo
1996: Establishes his own fashion house
1994: Starts his career as assistant to Emanuel Ungaro in Paris
1993: Graduates from Domus Academy, an international postgraduate school of design in Milan
How do you chill?
When I am under pressure, nothing relaxes me more than going to a flower market and doing beautiful bouquets for my home. Wherever I go, I have my pencil case with all my drawing instruments, just in case I need to sketch down ideas.
Books and music?
I live surrounded by books. I am fascinated by the immense libraries like the King’s Library at London’s British Museum. Before going to sleep, I read a few pages, preferably in Chinese, by novelists such as Eileen Chang. I listen to music all day, everything from Bach to Beth Ditto.
About 30 per cent of my work is research. It goes back to choosing embroidery and having special fabric — a silk damask with metallic thread base on real crocodile skin.
First big break:
My first trunk show was in Houston. I started dressing all the socialites there. Money was no object for them. It started from $1,500 for a simple blouse to $60,000 to $80,000 for a handmade gown.
Born: February 11, 1966