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Exclusive interview: the House of Vionnet

Goga Ashkenazi is the creative director, chairwoman and owner of the century-old Vionnet fashion house. Born in Kazakhstan, she was raised in Moscow, where her father was a high-ranking official. Educated in Britain, she graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern history and economics; she worked in investment banking, then founded the MunaiGaz-Engineering Group with her sister Meruert before taking over the historic House of Vionnet in 2012. She tells Emma Cheevers, Global Blue’s editor-in-chief, about her inspiration, her personal story, and her love for Madeleine Vionnet, the founder of the company she now helms

Emma Cheevers
Emma Cheevers,

Tell me the story of how you acquired Vionnet.
‘It’s such a long story. I truly believe that everything that happened in my life, and all my life experience, led me up to that moment. It was when I got involved with Vionnet that I felt that I finally arrived, in a way.

‘My father was in the Communist government in Moscow, which allowed my mother to make all her clothes, so I grew up with her constantly making designs because she wanted to be fashionable. I remember the Vogue magazines that were passed around from family to family, pages that had been touched so many times – and loved and admired – and then copied. In Communist Russia at the time, you could only buy things made there, but my mother made all our clothing, even my uniforms, and so fashion was a big part of my life, growing up.

‘Communism broke down and my life turned around. My father became successful in business so I was sent to an English boarding school. I was creative and wanted to pursue a creative field more than anything else, but my parents wanted me to get an education. That did not include anything to do with fashion – they wanted me to be academic and go to an established institution that would provide me with a good job. They explained to me that life can be difficult; they had seen a lot of turmoil and experienced difficulties in their lifetimes. So I went to Oxford. I enjoyed myself. I went outside my passion into something lucrative. Oil and gas made me very successful financially, but perhaps not spiritually.

‘I’m extremely grateful for the experience – it allowed me to get to the point during my career where I was able to choose what I wanted to do. I moved to Florence and started studying the history of fashion, the history of art, painting and photography – and looked for a brand. I was interested in reviving a heritage brand. I looked at Gianfranco Ferré and a few other brands and then I heard that Vionnet was available: a brand that I knew from my childhood, from my mother, when we were researching patterns to advise the dressmakers what to make for her wardrobe.

‘When I got involved with Vionnet I finally felt – and am still feeling – the happiness of just living every moment of every day, feeling fortunate to be able to enjoy what I do every day. When work is work – that’s one thing. But when work is not work – when it’s the love of your life – it’s a very different thing.’

What inspires you?
‘Everything that I do influences me. The majority of my time is spent in Milan, but I’m constantly on a plane. I’m a big art lover; I just came from a big art fair in Milan. Between the art fairs, my work and my children – only about one-fifteenth of my life is my social life! I’m very active and dynamic – always on the move. Everything I see, everything I do, every little detail is inspiration. The last collection, for instance, was based on my piano – I photographed the inside of my piano. Another time was a Calder sculpture. And my children influence me; a picture that my son has done – I did an inspirational trip to Iceland with him, and we went to Greenland and saw the Aurora Borealis. Every single day I learn, and I see, and I love details. I suppose all of those things influence me, including living in Milan.’

What are your goals for the brand?
‘To put the brand of Vionnet where it belongs, which is, I guess, on a pedestal. For me, Madeleine Vionnet was the most important and most revolutionary designer out there. I would describe her as not only a couturier, but also as a revolutionary in terms of the way she dealt with her work; her work ethic. She is known for her revolutionary designs, the bias cut being the main revolutionary introduction. People don’t realise that she also invented the use of silk as outer clothing. The first time she used the fabric, the saleswomen refused to sell it, as they found it indecent. In her time, Vionnet was the biggest and most important name in fashion. My goal is to put the brand back there. It will take a lot of time and action – but I’m ready.

‘Not everybody welcomed me [into the fashion industry] with open arms. I was this big-time outsider, and they didn’t know if I was going to stay, or if it was a vanity game, but I think most people realise that I’m here to stay. I am very committed and will do everything in my power to making my goals with Vionnet come true.’

How has your past influenced your work at Vionnet?
‘There are more correlations between oil and gas and fashion than you’d imagine. Business is business. I’m creative director, but I’m also the chairwoman and the owner and so I also have to take care of the financial side, so my experience in oil and gas and finance are beneficial.

‘You see more people in fashion who are passionate about what they do. Lots of people in oil and gas, or finance, are interested in the result and gains, but not really passionate. But here, working with creative people – it doesn’t feel like time is passing at work. You see how much love there is in the creative field for the craft. I consider one of my biggest successes at Vionnet is creating this team that has become the core and nucleus of what Vionnet is today. Not only are they talented, but they love what they do. That’s the biggest difference.’

Which designers – past and present – do you admire?
‘I’ll have to say Madeleine Vionnet, of course. Past and present. Number one completely! However, I do admire and have tremendous respect for many other designers, of course. I love Yohji Yamamoto, for instance, who I think is extremely interesting and innovative. I think Alexander McQueen is absolutely fantastic. I love Alaïa, his earlier pieces – from the end of the 70s and the 80s, there are some really brilliant pieces. Some of them are very reminiscent of Vionnet. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. But I do also admire a bunch of very new designers – there are so many that I respect.

Who is the Vionnet signature woman?
‘I find a lot of women beautiful. Beauty for me is individuality; and, for me, every woman is beautiful in a way.

‘I describe the Vionnet look by saying: you walk in the room and there is a crowd of women and you look at one woman and you think, “Wow she’s beautiful and she dresses beautifully.” Then you look at my Vionnet woman; you find her aesthetically beautiful and admire the way she dresses, but there is something that you can’t quite pin down that makes you want to come to her and dig a little deeper because you feel there is more than what you see. There is depth, there are layers. There is more than meets the eye, you want to find out more – and there is beauty in this subtlety.’



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