WHEN I DISCOVERED that of all the Swarovski crystals collectors’ clubs around the world, Italy’s ranks as the most subscribed, it didn’t really come as a surprise. Growing up in the bel paese, I was surrounded by those tiny crystal figurines from as early as I can remember – they usually appeared in the guise of party favours given out to family and friends to commemorate christenings, first communions and weddings, or as characters and baubles adorning Christmas trees and nativities, all examples of a kind of Italian kitsch that can be quite endearing.
Italy’s, and the rest of the world’s, love affair with those statuettes is still going strong – they represent the bread and butter of the company’s profits – but in the last decade the Austrian firm, which was founded in a tiny Alpine village by Daniel Swarovski in 1895, has joined the ranks of Parisian haute couture houses and cuttingedge design studios, thanks to a woman on a mission: Daniel’s great granddaughter Nadja Swarovski.
Before joining the family company, the American-educated and now Londonbased head of corporate communications at Swarovski learned the ropes of the trade working in fashion public relations and for art heavyweight Larry Gagosian, an experience that certainly had an influence on her plan to revitalise the previously unassuming crystal manufacturer. “After working in the art world, I would have never thought of the combination of that background with crystal, but gradually we’ve made our way into the artistic arena – and we’ve been trying to do so for the last 10 years to demonstrate the creative use of crystals within fashion, jewellery and architecture,” Swarovski says about the company’s foray into such a wide array of creative fields.
When she decided to reinvent Swarovski and to move it away from the staid image of those figurines, her endeavour was met with some apprehension on the part of the more traditional members of the family. It didn’t take long for her to be vindicated, to the extent that nowadays the statuesque blonde is without any doubt the ambassador of Swarovski, something that “is becoming a bit overwhelming, because I would have never considered myself the face of Swarovski until now and that makes me think I should spend more time in the gym,” she says, displaying a touch of her sharp sense of humour.
Nadja has turned Swarovski into a creative hub that supports young fashion designers showing their first collections in New York or London, and collaborates with design luminaries such as Zaha Hadid, who incorporate crystal in their creations and find new ways to use such a versatile material. However, as Nadja points out, the connection between Swarovski and the world of fashion, for instance, dates back to the early days of the company.
Of the introduction of divisions such as Atelier Swarovski, which works with designers to create jewellery, or Swarovski Art, Architecture and Design, devoted to the creation of more experimental pieces, she says, “I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather, of how he would visit Coco Chanel and Christian Dior in Paris and how they would visit him in Austria at the factory to work on various projects. Then I just realised, ‘Wait a minute. Why around the world was it only about the crystal animals?’ I felt that people didn’t know the Swarovski that I knew, and that was my ambition: to make everyone discover that part of it that I loved so much.”
Working with all kinds of creative minds, Swarovski asks them to use crystal as an original ingredient, giving them free rein to be as innovative as possible. It’s a give-and-take relationship in which they inspire Swarovski and Swarovski inspires them. Looking at how something as simple as crystal can change in the skilled hands of talented designers gives you insight into the possibilities of such a beautiful material. As Swarovski explains, “We choose the designers very carefully and select those who we know will not disappoint us. They need to have something special so you don’t have to give them directions. It’s very hard to tell somebody like Zaha Hadid what to do.”
When I ask what sparked her desire to start all these new projects when she could have been happily cashing in on those small pieces that still represent the lion’s share of the company coffers, Swarovski recounts the story of her first meeting with two of fashion’s most visionary personalities, the late tastemakers Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen who, Swarovski says, was single-handedly responsible “for bringing Swarovski back into the fashion fold more than 10 years ago, when he used crystal mesh for a helmet that was teamed up with a silk skirt – that juxtaposition between the hard and the soft, flowing material was so powerful.” Blow, who had met Swarovski’s father at a dinner, was the one to introduce her to McQueen and Philip Treacy, starting what would become the brand’s grand entrance into the world of modern couture.
Many of the designers Swarovski has championed so far are up-and-coming talents who often need the help of the industry in order to build a name for themselves. “The idea to give them support came up when I was living in New York,” she says, “where all these young designers were just not coming above the surface because there was no money, and I thought that if we just gave them a little bit of support then they could afford getting a better make-up artist, better lighting, and suddenly somebody who went from not being able to have a show could be noticed by the press and by customers, and that would just get a very positive spin goin.” She also emphasises that the house has worked with giants such as Armani and Versace.
One can’t help wondering if one day the company might contemplate creating its first clothing line and become a fully fledged player in the fashion arena. “I think that is something we would not exclude. The question is, ‘What would our style be?’ So in the meantime I’d like to concentrate on the accessories, but that might be the next step,” says Swarovski about what would be the ultimate accomplishment in her tenure at the family firm. Although it’s hard to guess Swarovski’s next move, we can rest assured that creations such as the light-as-a-feather crystal mesh of a sparkling column gown by Hussein Chalayan or the dazzling appliqués used by London designer Mary Katrantzou in her sculptural lampshade dresses will continue to propel the house forward and make you forget, at least for the duration of a fashion show, that there’s more, much more, than those cute multifaceted crystal creatures.