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Goga Ashkenazi Explains Why She Bought Vionnet and Where It's Headed

"I’m either going to do it, or I’m going to die trying," she says of her efforts to revive the label.

Kazak Goga Ashkenazi, a former gas and oil tycoon, made headlines in 2012 when she purchased a majority stake of Vionnet, the iconic French fashion house known for its ethereal, goddess-like gowns by Madeleine Vionnet, until it was shuttered in 1939 at the height of World War II. She became not just owner of Vionnet, but also its creative director, despite not being a designer by trade. The transition has had its ups and downs.

Fashionista caught Ashkenazi in Turkey Sunday at the Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival, where she had a discussion with Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and W magazine deputy editor Armand Limnander on why she entered the fashion world, her plans for the label and the challenges on reviving such a revered name in fashion. Here are some of the highlights:

On working in oil and gas:

“I was in oil and gas, and also the mining business, but that was more means to an end, I suppose. I wasn’t growing up thinking, ‘my god I really want to be in oil and gas.’ I was growing up really more interested in fashion and my mother was making all of her clothes in atelier, and all of my uniforms and she was obsessed. I guess I kind of inherited this love for fashion.”

On why she purchased Vionnet:

“Madeleine Vionnet was collaborating very closely with an artist called Ernesto Thayaht from Florence, and they created very beautiful illustrations, and worked together, and so it just somehow clicked. I was doing these courses in fashion and arts, for a year, rebooting my system, and looking for a brand, and when I heard Vionnet was looking for a partner, I grabbed that opportunity. That was not an opportunity I could pass either, because it was like a dream come true, and it’s a very different feeling when you know that this is an opportunity you were waiting your entire life for. So I was very clear about that.”

On her lifelong commitment to Vionnet:

“This is a lifelong project. It’s not something I would move on. People ask me if I were in another industry before and then you moved to fashion, and then maybe you’ll move again. I don’t think it’s going to be happening.”

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On whether her incarnation of the label will be a success:

“People have tried before, and I always say, it’s either going to happen, I’m either going to do it, or I’m going to die trying, because this is for me a lifelong dream.”

On the DNA of Vionnet:

“I will always keep the DNA of the brand. I guess an interpretation is, I will probably be persecuted, maybe some people will agree with me, also in the future with the approach that I’m taking, but I’m doing my very best to preserve the legacy, but also be true to who Madeleine Vionnet was, and she was a revolutionary in a huge way, so that spirit is also for me, something to consider and keep true to. The DNA will always be there in terms of form, but we move on in a way with all the new capabilities, so hopefully we’ll be able, with my team, to take it slightly forward as well and be worthy of the Vionnet name and put it back on the pedestal where it belongs, so there’s a lot of effort going towards that not only in the design, but also on the business side. We’ll be opening stores all over and we’re already in 200 locations around the world, so it’s growing, it’s getting there, it just requires time and support, so your support counts, for sure.”

On the challenges of the fashion industry:

“In the arts world today I find that people are more collaborative, and historically it has been like this. In fashion there is a lot of tensions that people are very egotistical and egocentric... It’s a challenging industry for sure, you can only go in if you are obsessed with the process because all the rest of the dealings are very difficult.”

On whether people should pursue a career in fashion:

“I love it, so I can’t discourage people. I love every minute of it, so if anyone feels that this is their path and the sky is the limit, and if you will persevere, you nurture your talent, and you set your height and you will get there.”