One Haute Couple
posted by Daria on Mar 12, 2012 under: Articles,Photoshoots and commented by 0 fans
Together Olivia Palermo and Johannes Huebl are taking over planet fashion.
It can be thrilling to meet a phenomenon. To put a personality to a face that has become part of life’s wallpaper. To observe and dissect and appreciate what has sent the entire world into a spin. And Olivia Palermo is today’s big fashion news. Every day. A rather tired moniker is ‘The Real-Life Gossip Girl’ and one who shrugged off Manhattan social scandal to go global – she is a one-woman campaign for her own photogenic brand of fashion fantasy. Glossy, canny, commercial, but classy to the point of seeming middle-aged, she found her spotlight on MTV’s structured reality show The City in which she was loved and hated, admired and reviled, like all phenomenons. Alexa Chung had to spend a couple of years proving she was smart and grafty before she hit the front rows, but Olivia has been welcomed – nay, lured – by every big fashion name. She is flown from party to show to premiere to benefit with ne’er a crease or a frown to mar her perfection. What does she actually do? Well, she gets dressed in the morning and that is enough when you are this thin and this famous.
But when the time comes to meet her, things are not so thrilling. So let’s start with what she’s wearing. She is framed in a window at The Berkeley hotel in a shimmering, monochrome Armani evening dress: exquisite, tawny; her frame even slighter and her jawline even sharper than they appear in the tsunami of photographs wired round the web on a daily basis. A vulnerable little bird with a determined little mouth. As she twinkles, she gazes into the eyes of her fellow model, her boyfriend Johannes Huebl, who is doing an admirable job of working his wonderful suit. ‘Mr Armani is a very sweet gentleman and such a generous, friendly personality,’ he says later. ‘There is a handful of people like that in fashion. Maybe less.’ White of tooth, preppy of hair, blue of eye, Johannes, too, is more slender than he appears in his many campaigns (they starred together in the autumn 2010 Mango campaign).
Soon it is time for Olivia to change into her civvies: a beige lace Moschino blazer, a silk Tibi T-shirt, pale grey skinny jeans and Mulberry heels. She looks very nice. But she doesn’t want to start talking until her agent arrives to tell me that she will only talk about her latest projects, namely her new blog. She does not want to talk about the past. Or the future. She also does not want to tell me that she doesn’t want to talk about the past or the future. She wants someone else to tell me that.
Time is ticking on but she will not start. ‘Don’t worry,’ she sing-songs. ‘We’ll get it done. I’ll answer your questions.’ At very nearly 26, she is without a doubt the most patronising person I have ever attempted to interview. We sit in separate rooms, pink with fury. Eventually she manages to say, steely as you like, ‘I want to concentrate on my current projects because that’s what my readers are interested in.’ But this seems more about what Olivia Palermo is interested in: namely, building a brand; a process that begins with whitewashing, personality bypassing and exceedingly, almost oppressively, good manners.
Olivia is in London for Fashion Week. ‘I have been coming to London Fashion Week for many years,’ she says, going all authoritative and seasoned. ‘I think that the British Fashion Council has done a really nice job and there is so much young talent. When Erdem first showed his collection, you can see how well he’s done and the inspiring women who wear his clothes…’ she tails off, having lost her way in the quagmire of her own press release. In grand, fashion-maven style she doesn’t talk about British designers she likes so much as those she ‘supports’, who include Matthew Williamson, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Anya Hindmarch and Mulberry. ‘I am also supportive of the high street. Who doesn’t like Topshop?’
By the time Olivia appeared in The City, which ran from 2008 to 2010, she already had a degree of notoriety. Brought up between Greenwich, Connecticut, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the daughter of a property developer (who filed for bankruptcy in 2007, owing $2.75 million, only to have the case overturned when the judge discovered that he had been using fake organisations to obscure his actual worth from creditors) and an interior designer, she suffered from a learning disability as a child. ‘Reading comprehension,’ she clarifies, grim-faced. ‘I think it’s fantastic that I worked hard and never lost track.’ She has not carried a group of school friends forward into her glittering new life: ‘I had a few friends in school but I kept it disconnected,’ she says. ‘School was a place where I would work and focus.’
After high school she studied in Paris and then returned to New York and interned at the high-society magazine Quest. It was in 2006 that her photograph began to appear in the social pages, captured at galas and parties and openings displaying her already dazzling grown-up taste. She hired a publicist. Magazine requests for soundbites, style Q&As and pictures of her at parties began trickling in. She was set up as a rival to reigning society queen bee Tinsley Mortimer by a website called Socialite Rank, which echoed with Gossip Girl-style threats of social promotion or destruction, depending on the day-to-day choices of this gilded set. ‘Next time you think about skipping that certain gala, wearing that unknown designer, dating some weird band member, beware,’ it warned. ‘We’re watching. And your ranking is on the line!’ Calling her ‘the social-climbing heroine of the moment’, the same website published a letter, supposedly by Olivia, asking for acceptance from her peers. The problem was, Olivia hadn’t written the letter and her father Douglas hired some big-gun litigation lawyers. Socialite Rank shut down a month later.
Once she took centre stage on The City – and she really did take centre stage; the original star Whitney Port found herself somewhat eclipsed – she became an unstoppable fashion force, which can only happen when you never, ever have an off day. The City portrayed her as having the odd off day in terms of temperament, but in terms of style she had, and continues to have, a 100 per cent hit rate. She was playing the long game. She had entered television with a gimlet-eyed view about where it might take her. ‘I have always been a long-term thinker,’ she says. ‘I have never been one to think in the moment because, at the end of the day, for me, my brand is so important.’ I can’t help feeling that Olivia must have been bitterly disappointed that Mulberry chose to name its new handbag the ‘Del Rey’, after another immaculately marketed, ruthlessly branded arriviste artiste, rather than the ‘Palermo’. Still, she’s just been named as the face of the new Rochas fragrance.
Olivia and Johannes have become a sort of offshoot brand. Perhaps the aim is to make the brand bigger than the sum of its parts. The Beckhams have pulled that one off to the tune of £165 million so there is a nice, juicy precedent. She visibly relaxes when he is in the room and his presence certainly humanises her. Rather chirpy, he is a successful male model who has starred in campaigns for Boss, Ralph Lauren and Dunhill among others. Born in Hanover to two doctors, he was sent to boarding school near Dublin, where he was scouted at 17. Now 34, he has been living in New York for eight years and met Olivia at an after-party for a film premiere. ‘I was with my brother, a neurologist [his other brother is a philosophy professor], and Olivia came up to say hello to the guy we were with, and then we went to a bar and had a good time and over the course of the next few weeks we met up and that’s how it went…’ he says. They live in Brooklyn and he co-parents Olivia’s dog Mr Butler, who stays with her mother when the couple fly their 300,000 miles a year – they aim to be apart for no longer than a week at a time. ‘We’d been together for some time when the whole MTV thing started,’ he says, ‘so we had a pretty strong bond already.’ According to Johannes, they haven’t yet talked about getting married. ‘That is not stuff you talk about,’ he says. ‘When it happens it should be a surprise.’
Johannes likes to take pictures, both fashion and ‘arty’. Doesn’t ‘arty’ sound a bit like porn? At this, he gets quite German and clipped saying, ‘I take serious pictures and galleries have already asked me to show them.’ Jokes about porn are clearly way, way off brand. My mistake. He also takes pictures of Olivia for a street fashion slot, ‘I Want What She’s Wearing’, on her website, which launched last autumn and falls somewhere between a blog and a magazine. ‘It’s a taste-maker in a sense,’ she elucidates. ‘Absolutely I can write. I do my editor’s letter every month. I go through basically all the layouts. I have a great group of writers and they will report back to me and ask questions and then I’ll give them the focus of my perspective. Anything where I have my name attached I am very specific about what I want.’
I sympathise with her, in a way. She is aiming for total control as well as utter perfection, which is a big ask. She has always been aware of consequences. ‘I was never rebellious because I knew that anything negative I did would have repercussions and that I would be responsible for those, so I never wanted to screw up,’ she says. ‘I’m a little too uptight, a little too conservative.’ I sense that off duty she is potentially adorable. The problem with a life like hers is that off duty can be absorbed into a blanket on-duty existence. And all this ambition is played out against a backdrop of chronic back pain. Not that you’ll ever see a grimace. ‘Pills,’ says Johannes. ‘I’m not one to take a serious amount of medication,’ she says quickly, ‘but it can be paralysing and if I have to work…’
It would make sense for her to turn designer. Such is the fascination with what she wears that, well-handled, her image could translate lucratively into a label. ‘That is something I want to do but I want to hold off,’ she says. ‘I want my own company and to do it properly, instead of screwing up the first time and then going back and doing it again.’ She does not claim to be trained. ‘I took a few design classes in Paris and I took a sketching class. Should I take another one? Absolutely. It’s a slow work in progress.’ And suddenly there is a glimpse of humility, a flash of humour, a whiff of something more interesting than her brand. Ambition is admirable but brands can be hungry, they can swallow up entire personalities in a one-dimensional quest for clarity and message.
Well-mannered, well-dressed, well-behaved, well-managed, Olivia and Johannes are certainly poster people. But the sooner the label is launched the better (she can model in her campaign, he can shoot it), because looking luminous again and again on the red carpet could eventually turn today’s entirely current Olivia Palermo into something a little bit yesterday. And, for a fashion person, that would never do.