Goga Ashkenazi: The Oil Oligarch-Turned-Fashion-Designer

Goga Ashkenazi certainly is not ignored by the fashion press. She has been described as an "Oxford University-educated socialite, billionaire, and entrepreneur," the "oligarch-turned-fashion-designer [who] embodies the shifting global economy," a "social cyclone who hopscotches between Milan, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York," a "female Roman Abramovich," etc. The majority of descriptions of Ashkenazi also include the fun(?) facts that she is quite close with Prince Andrew, Duke of York and is the ex-girlfriend of Fiat heir and Italian street style god, Lapo Elkann. But there is more to Ashkenazi than her lavish lifestyle and her romantic dalliances. In fact, it is her relatively recently acquired titles as majority stake holder and creative director of historic Parisian label, Vionnet, that have put her on fashion’s radar.

IT’S GOGA’S SHOW NOW

In May 2012, Ashkenazi, then 32, whose background is primarily in oil (she is the founder and CEO of a private Kazakh oil and gas company) and finance, purchased a majority stake in Paris-based Vionnet. The storied house, which was founded in 1912 by designer Madeleine Vionnet, is known for pioneering the bias cut and creating elegant, sculptural, corset-free looks. The house was shuttered in 1939 at the height of World War II and was not formally resurrected until 2006.

The summer of 2012 brought the announcement that Ashkenazi had somewhat abruptly replaced sisters, Barbara and Lucia Croce as creative director. Publications largely referred to the change in directors as a "disruption." But in a way it is not completely shocking. As the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman noted recently in connection with Alber Elbaz and Lanvin: Creative directors serve at the pleasure of the brands’ majority stakeholders. And as the sole owner of Vionnet, this is Goga’s show now.

Under the helm of Ashkenazi and her design team, which as of March 2015, consisted of 5 people, Vionnet has unveiled just over a dozen or so collections (including Resort and Pre-Fall), which have all received largely mixed reviews and which all speak to Ashkenazi’s nature in some way or another. This includes regards to her social status, which certainly precedes her, a common occurrence when celebrities first attempt to navigate the fashion industry, with its high barriers of entry, and her vast fortune.

Vogue Runway, for instance, has referred to her – in its reviews of the house’s collections, of course – as "fabulously determined," noting that "lack of experience has done nothing to dampen her ambition.” Reviewing the label's Fall 2013 demi-couture presentation, one of the publication’s columnists called it a "testament to [Ashkenazi's] ambition, and deep pockets."

And lacking in experience Ashkenazi is. As a correspondent for the Independent noted in 2014: "[Ashkenazi] likes wearing clothes, sure. But she isn’t a designer." Ashkenazi lacks extensive formal design training; she, however, spent a year taking art and fashion design courses at Moscow State University of Design and Technology, according to a statement from Vionnet. She is also devoid of experience at the helm of a fashion house. Not surprisingly, much of the fashion world was skeptical of her appointment. As Vogue Runway’s refreshingly frank Luke Leitch noted in a review of the house’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection, “Ashkenazi is an energy gazillionaire whose Vionnet project is fueled by her fever for fashion: Rather than the professional aesthetics of Parsons or Saint Martins, the frame of reference is personal, rooted in the extravagance of opportunity and disintegration of post-glasnost Kazakhstan and Russia.”

However, Goga, who maintains a “fashion is art” mantra and boasts many famous fashion friends and supporters, does not seem to mind that she is in many ways out of her league in showing collections during Paris Fashion Week. According to a recent interview, Ashkenazi spoke of her biggest supporters. It reads like a roster of some of fashion’s most significant power players: “Stefano Tonchi [editor of W magazine] has been one of our biggest supporters. He’s been a friend since before I went into fashion, and I love W magazine. Carine Roitfeld [former editor in chief of Vogue Paris] has also been an extremely close friend and support. Babeth Djian, Olivier Zahm of Purple magazine, Fabien Baron of Interview, and Glenda Bailey of Harper’s Bazaar have all been extremely supportive.” In short, Ashkenazi has the support of fashion industry figureheads behind her.

TRADING FINANCE (AND OIL) FOR FASHION

As for why she decided to trade in finance for fashion, Ashkenazi (whose surname comes from a brief marriage to Stefan Ashkenazy, the heir to a Southern California real-estate fortune), says, “My old life wasn’t me. I kind of had a moment. Almost immediately, I sold my energy company. I realized I wanted creative.” So, she bought a fashion house.

For her, Vionnet is a special case: "I feel like everything I've done in my life has led me to this moment … I believe in heritage, I believe in the history. I believe especially in Vionnet because the tools that [Madeleine Vionnet] has given the fashion world form the basis of fashion. For me, the story is extremely important." Ms. Ashkenazi talks a delightfully romantic game, but how well does a pure passion project fit into the world of high fashion? It seems that while this is still to be decided, there are strong arguments for both sides. 

According to many reviews, the collections – both in terms of the garments and the general presentation – are simply not up to par. Of Ashkenazi's Spring/Summer 2014 collection for Vionnet, Vogue Runway had qualms with the format/presentation of the runway show, noting that while Ashkenazi scored big name models, "Her catwalk was scattered with high walls that ended up obscuring the audience's view." Of the garments that season, some were more praiseworthy than others, such as the "men's white jersey T-shirts that she layered underneath draped tulle evening gowns," which Vogue Runway’s columinst called "a misguided attempt at raising the label's cool factor." More recently, for Fall/Winter 2014, the reviews were not as kind. The influential industry site, wrote:

Ashkenazi and her team ventured further afield from Vionnet's fluid signatures for Fall … There are no rules for brand revivals anymore. Honor the archives or don't—it doesn't matter as long as the clothes are desirable. You just couldn't say that about enough of the pieces here.

Fast forward to Spring/Summer 2015, when Vogue Runway’s Maya Singer wrote: “There were other nice pieces scattered throughout—the fabrics here were choice, and it was hard not to like most of them—but the button-down-plus-bubble-skirt and bodysuit-plus-anything propositions were a seriously hard sell.”

Things have seemed to look up to some extent since the house welcomed celebrated designer Hussein Chalayan to the design team for its ready-to-wear collections. Most recently, Vogue Runway’s Leitch took on the house’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection, noting: “Ashkenazi’s project at Vionnet is sincere if sometimes touched by naivety. Today, fueled by the insertion of Hussein Chalayan into her team, she presented a collection that convincingly tipped its hat to Madame Vionnet herself plus incorporated Vionnet’s own classical source code.” It was not all good, though. He labeled the vibe as “snobbery” and wrote of some of the garments, “There were unfortunate diversions.” (Note: Critics seem to be harsher of Ashkenazi’s work than say, Kanye West, the rapper, who similarly launched a fashion passion project, founded on audacity (think: making his debut at Paris Fashion Week) and little experience, and yet, has been back rather significantly by Anna Wintour and the rest of her Vogue team, amongst others).

THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN REVIEWS

Despite the majority of less-than-praising reviews, Vionnet is something of a red carpet hit. Carey Milligan has worn Vionnet a number of times, including a gown from the brand’s Fall 2013 for the red carpet in Cannes in 2013. A year later, actresses Eva Longoria (who actually wore a vintage dress from the label), Amber Heard, and Beatrice Rosen stepped out in Vionnet at the famed film festival, as did model Jessica Hart. Actresses Blake Lively, Olivia Munn, Rosario Dawson, and Margot Robbie all wore frocks from the house's Spring/Summer 2014 collection, as did model Liu Wen. More recently, Sandra Bullock, Taylor Schilling, Madonna, Natasha Poly, Naomi Watts, Karolina Kurkova, Diane Kruger, and Amal Clooney, among others, have been spotted in Vionnet designs.

Moreover, Ashkenazi diffused any suggestions that the house may not be thriving 2013 when she told Harper's Bazaar that "sales [had] surged by more than 50 percent." Did I forget to mention that in addition to taking over the creative director duties, Ashkenazi is also handling quite a bit of the business aspects of the brand? She says that in addition to major growth in terms of sales, many retailers have begun stocking the brand again, including Joyce in Hong Kong. Ashkenazi now has her sights on new markets in South America, the Middle East and Japan. In addition, there are also plans to move the Milan-based operation to Paris. While exact figures are not known (as Vionnet is a privately held company), the company was expecting revenues of 9.5 million euros ($12.12 million) for 2012.

Unlike other celebrities-turned-designers (read: the Olsens) who have grown tired of the fashion press asking whether they actually do design work, Ashkenazi is also happy to dispel what she deems to be misconceptions about herself that have been perpetuated by the press, namely that she does not actually work on the collection. She told the Daily Front Row – albeit vaguely – this past September: “I very much enjoy my work and that I’m here from the early morning until the very late evening. I’m not somebody who sits at home and who came into this business just to speak to the press and do nice photo shoots. I just enjoy the process of creating clothes.”

Because Ashkenazi is the majority owner of Vionnet, her rather unusually large role is not frowned upon quite like it as at other brands. Burberry shareholders, for instance, have frowned upon the fact that Chief Creative Officer, Christopher Bailey, also moonlights as CEO as of May 2014. In this role, replacing Angela Ahrendts, who left to head up the retail division at Apple, Bailey is responsible for the company’s overall image, including advertising and store design. Hedi Slimane plays a similarly active role at Saint Laurent. Since being named creative director in 2012, Slimane relocated the historic house’s design studio to West Hollywood and renamed the brand’s ready-to-wear collection. He has control over everything from the designs, themselves, and the ad campaigns, to the design of the brand’s stores, the sets and the music for the runway shows (and the ad campaigns) and maybe most importantly, the complete overhaul of the brand’s image. He also has the final say on all castings, and for a while there, he even had control over the brand’s social media. Slimane technically holds the title of creative director, as he arguably shares quite a bit of work with Francesca Bellettini (the company’s CEO following Paul Deneve’s move to Apple).

JUST HOW WELL IS VIONNET ACTUALLY DOING?

As an increasing number of brands welcome creatives into the business and branding aspects of established houses, it may not be terribly unconventional for the likes of Ashkenazi to be significantly involved in many aspects of the brand she calls her own. However, based on the fact that Vionnet is a privately owned company, we may never really know just how well it is doing in terms of revenue. There are indications, though, that suggest things may be going well for this recently relaunched brand.

For instance, in September 2015, the house revealed that Hussein Chalayan, who came on board in 2014 to work on the house’s demi couture collection, would join its ready-to-wear senior design team, which consists of Albino D’Amato and Diego Dolcini. Of Chalayan, Ashkenazi told W Magazine: "Hussein will bring his unique approach into our creative debate, where we all will be organically integrating our views with the Vionnet aesthetic.” And of his role at the house, Chalayan said, “Goga is the creative director and owner of the brand. The rest of us, we contribute to the vision. I try to introduce ideas that complement what they’re doing, but also support the Vionnet language. My role is to add a bit of difference and harmonize with what they’re doing.”

A few weeks after the Chalayan announcement, Vionnet opened its Paris store on Rue Francois 1er, around the corner from the Paris flagships of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Photos from the celebratory dinner show Ashkenazi cozying up to actresses Sienna Miller and Jada Pinkett Smith; other guests included editor Caroline Issa, models Jessica Hart and Magdalena Frackowiak, Elie Saab, Jr. and Jean-Thierry Besins, among others. The Paris store joins a growing roster of brick and mortar retail locations in Milan and Bucharest. A stateside store in New York, on Greene Street, in fact, has also been in the works. The brand is in talks with potential licensees for new product categories, including eyewear and fragrances, and according to Ashkenazi: “We are just beginning our retail expansion. Vionnet has expanded in Asia by being recently stocked in several dozen of new stores. I’m looking into a location in London, as well.”

All the while, the interest surrounding Ashkenazi’s personal life does not seem to have lessened – at least not when it comes to the fashion press, which may prove an asset for the brand, especially since such gossip fodder helps to maintain a brand’s relevance when the average person seems to case quite little for fashion. In early 2015, you may recall that New York Magazine’s The Cut blog posted a lengthy profile on Ashkenazi, which resulted in a flood of strongly-worded comments. The profile, entitled, “The First Female Oligarch of Fashion,” detailed Ashkenazi’s real estate portfolio, her penchant for throwing lavish parties (“She had parties that lasted for days—murder-mystery weekend, truffle hunting—and we talked about finding the right label to purchase,” Eva Cavalli, wife to Roberto, has noted), her famous friends, and maybe the most controversial: her reflections on her communist upbringing. Born to Communist parents, Goga (then going by the name Gaukhar Berkalieva) grew up in Moscow, where her father served in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Central Committee. As New York Magazine noted:

She rhapsodizes about her privileged life as one of the ruling party’s elite in pre-glasnost Eastern Europe. ‘There was more to communism than people realize,’ she says. ‘We lived very well. I thought everybody did. Our building was all officials and their families—so much fun. We went to weekends in the country, a compound with horses and hunting. All the camps were given out to different ministries according to your status.’

Meanwhile, as Racked noted in response to New York magazine’s article: “Human Rights Watch details the conditions for the less privileged in Kazahkstan, including the use of torture (‘perpetrators of torture often go unpunished’), restrictions on the freedom of religion and assembly, forced labor and child labor, and the arrest and detention of government critics.” The fashion site also summarized the many, many comments to The Cut’s article: “The most common theme in the comments section is ‘this article makes me want to vomit’ and ‘One word: despicable.’"

Such arguably bad press has not stopped the industry – at least some of it – from welcoming Ashkenazi’s efforts. This past September, for instance, Ashkenazi’s house took home the prize for Ad Campaign of the Year at the Fashion Media Awards – for its Fall/Winter 2015 campaign, starring model Anna Cleveland. Upon accepting the award Ashkenazi, said: “We so much needed the encouragement. It’s a great honor and it comes at the best time possible. We much, much needed it and we’re doing much better with it.”

As for whether the house will go on to win other awards, we will have to wait and see.