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The new Austrian fashion elite


Austria’s style credentials, established centuries ago, remain as influential and relevant as ever, says Fiona McKenzie Johnston

Fiona McKenzie Johnston ,

The July 2013 wedding of Austrian couple Caroline Sieber, stylist and Chanel ambassador, and Fritz von Westenholz was described as ‘the most fashionable wedding ever’ by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper and afforded a nine-page spread in the September issue of Vogue US. ‘It was one of the most exquisite and elegant of all the European social events of the summer,’ says international fashion and style editor Gianluca Longo, a guest at the wedding. ‘It had the best-looking and most international guests, and took place in the most romantic location.’ That location was Vienna, and it put the Austrian capital firmly back on the international hotlist. 

Bridal beauty
The bride walked down the aisle in a couture Chanel gown and later changed into a custom-made Christopher Kane creation. Both dresses were exquisite. However, the night before the wedding, the couple hosted a tracht party – a gathering at which all guests wear traditional Austrian dress. Erdem, Christopher Kane, Clare Waight Keller of Chloé (who created clothes for Sieber’s pageboys and flower girls), Lauren Santo Domingo, Sieber’s former client Emma Watson and British aristocrat Pippa Middleton all worked the Austrian look. ‘Austria has always been a stylish country, in particular for its costumes of lederhosen for boys and dirndls for girls – and of course the Austrian-born Loden coat has been a wardrobe classic for decades, the world over,’ remarks Longo. Indeed, Coco Chanel took her inspiration for the original Chanel tweed jacket from a lift boy’s Tyrolean uniform at a hotel near Salzburg. One only has to look at the catalogue for the Fashions of the Hapsburg Era exhibition which took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1979-1980, to see just how stylish Austria has always been.

Habsburg high fashion
That exhibition focused on the period from the 17th century to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1916, and traced the evolution of Habsburg style from the long reign of Empress Maria Theresa (the mother of Marie Antoinette, the inspiration for Karl Lagerfeld’s 2012 Chanel resort collection) – one of the most romantic periods in European history, with clothes and costumes to match – through the Biedermeier period and into the time of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth, the last rulers of the Hapsburg Empire. Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi, was famous for her preoccupation with fashion and beauty, spending two or three hours a day on her coiffure and being sewn into her leather corsets.

And Austria is still an influence on today’s fashions.

If the shoe fits
Olympia Le-Tan’s autumn/winter 2013 collection, Schnitzel with Noodles, was inspired by the country. Shapes were updated from traditional Austro-German clothes and included felt hats, breeches, capes – and lederhosen, for girls, with heart-shaped cut-outs at the back. The collection’s clutch bags featured images from The Sound of Music, among other Austro-German classics. And while Vienna Fashion Week might not get the same level of attention as Paris, London, New York and Milan, there is hardly a lack of Austrian talent. The exceptional design history of the Habsburg Empire did not die out. Biedermeier style, with its emphasis on clean lines and minimal ornamentation, fed into the Bauhaus movement.  Minimalism, deconstructed garments and the use of high-tech fabrics became the trademarks of perhaps the best-known Austrian fashion designer of recent years: Helmut Lang, who started his eponymous line, now owned by the Prada Group, in 1986.

Austrian aesthetic
‘Tradition, minimalism and understatement are our first thoughts about Austrian fashion in general,’ declare Franziska Fürpass and Sia Kermani, founders of Femme Maison, an Austrian luxury womenswear and accessories line. Fürpass trained at the Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien (University of Applied Arts Vienna) in Vienna, under Raf Simons and Veronique Branquinho. Also worth looking out for is Isabelle Steger, who graduated from the same university in 2009 and has since worked for Maison Martin Margiela, and Balenciaga and Jil Sander menswear.  Martina Tiefenthaler also studied at the University of Applied Arts and worked for Maison Martin Margiela, before taking up a position at Louis Vuitton in Paris.  Nedra Chachoua, a recent graduate, was picked out by AnOther Magazine as ‘one to watch’. ‘The fashion scene in Vienna is small, but there are some very talented and interesting designers who are internationally renowned,’ says Chachoua.

Crystal country
Swarovski, the famous Austrian crystal house, has, over the years, supplied crystals to embellish Queen Victoria’s dresses, worked with Christian Dior to create an effect that mimics the Aurora Borealis, and, more recently, collaborated with Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussain Chalayan, Erdem and Giles Deacon. Nadja Swarovski, the great-great granddaughter of Daniel Swarovski, the founder of the company, joined the family firm in 1995 and has since become a figurehead both for the brand and for Austria – she is a regular on the red-carpet and best-dressed lists. There is no doubt that Caroline Sieber, now Baroness Caroline von Westenholz, is also going to keep Austria on the style map. ‘The way she wears a Chanel jacket, for example, is both cool and smart,’ says Longo. Both Sieber and the jacket originate in Austria – a country with solid style credentials.

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