There’s no doubt that Swarovski’s crystals have punctuated some major moments in fashion history over the last 120 years. The firm’s embellishments and technology have appeared on everything from the crystal-encrusted armadillo boots that Alexander McQueen created for his Plato’s Atlantis spring 2010 collection, to the twinkling, LED dress that Hussein Chalayan sent down his fall 2007 runway, to Christian Dior’s and Coco Chanel’s couture designs in the Fifties, and back to the embellishment on Queen Victoria’s gowns designed by Charles Frederick Worth.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
And just as the company’s founder Daniel Swarovski decided to locate Swarovski’s headquarters in Wattens, Austria, in 1895 partly because of its rail links to the center of the fashion world in Paris, Nadja Swarovski since 1995 has set about re-establishing Swarovski’s connection with designers.
“I grew up with my grandfather telling me stories about working with Coco Chanel and Christian Dior,” Swarovski said. “[But] once I started working in the business [in 1995], that kind of connection and collaboration didn’t exist anymore.”
The catalyst for a new era of designer collaborations turned out to be the late stylist Isabella Blow. When Blow sat next to Swarovski’s father, Helmut, at a lunch “in the English countryside,” Swarovski remembered, he was impressed that she could identify the crystals he had with him as Swarovski.
“At that time, people used to call them rhinestones, but she called them Swarovski crystals,” she recalled.
A meeting with Swarovski then followed, when Blow suggested that the brand work with a then-emerging talent Alexander McQueen. “[Blow] said, ‘The guy is brilliant, [but] he has no money and he’d love financial support. So you should give him some crystals to glam up his collection,’” Swarovski said.
The crystal house then began to work with McQueen, designer Julien Macdonald and milliner Philip Treacy, and helped them reinterpret the straightforwardly sparkling image of crystal embellishment.
“I always sensed that they didn’t want something blingy, they realized the huge assortments of crystals, in terms of style, cut, color and the type of intensity,” Swarovski said. “And what the three of them — Philip, Julien and McQueen — demonstrated [was] that the use [of crystals] is totally individually tailored.”
This month, Swarovski will honor its longtime partnership with McQueen by sponsoring the “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition, set to open March 14 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
“If I could credit one person with reintroducing Swarovski crystals to the forefront of fashion, it was McQueen,” Swarovski said. “He broke the stereotype that existed at that time, [of] bling, in-your-face [crystals.] He saw the beauty, the elegance, the delicateness, the intricacy [in crystals].”
Macdonald, meanwhile, remembers that Nadja Swarovski referred to him, McQueen and Treacy as “the crystal gang.”
“It was right at the beginning. Before that, people knew Swarovski for crystal animals, lenses for cameras and the reflective cats’ eyes on the road,” Macdonald said. “We flew to Wattens in a private jet and met Nadja’s father, who took us to see [Swarovski’s museum], Crystal Worlds. We also toured the company headquarters — but no one could see the factory floor. It was like Willy Wonka — you’re not allowed to see how everything is made.”
Macdonald has since undertaken countless projects with Swarovski, including creating a crystal yarn with help from the Italian yarn mill Lineapiù, which is spun with the crystals already attached. Macdonald has also worked on a world tour for Kylie Minogue — sponsored by Swarovski — where he covered her clothing in crystals, and he even recalls doing Harrods’ windows with the brand, where he mixed crystals with mohair, cashmere and transparent plastic.
And in 2013, for the Buckingham Palace Coronation Festival, he dressed 12 dancers from the English National Ballet in Swarovski crystals. The costumes were nude, he said, and were encrusted with colored components — “like a pirate’s treasure chest.”
Swarovski crystals are still a go-to for Macdonald’s collections, particularly if the initial idea for a look goes awry. “I always say ‘Add a bit of Swarovski, it’ll all be OK in the end,’” he noted.
Since working with those three designers, the “gang” has morphed into Swarovski’s official sponsorship program for designers, called the Swarovski Collective, which launched in 1999. As part of the program, the chosen designers are provided with their choice of crystals to use in their creations along with financial support. For fall, the collective sponsored designers including Prabal Gurung, Wes Gordon, Rodarte, Peter Pilotto, Iris van Herpen and Mary Katrantzou. Katrantzou, who’s known for prints and abundant embellishment, said she’s worked with Swarovski since showing her first collection in London in 2009.
“We’ve done so many things with the crystals,” Katrantzou said. “We’ve layered cashmere yarn over crystal mesh, printed banknote designs onto crystal mesh and we’ve rubberized and flocked crystals to make them look like concrete.”
She added that Swarovski “pushes people in how they perceive crystals.” And for Katrantzou, products that compete with Swarovski’s crystals don’t match the latter in terms of refraction and clarity of color. “We sometimes do prototypes in non-Swarovski crystal and there is no comparison,” Katrantzou said.
Alongside supporting individual designers, Swarovski also supports fashion organizations such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sponsoring the organization’s annual awards, and acts as the principal sponsor for the British Fashion Council’s British Fashion Awards. That’s in addition to providing scholarships at fashion and arts colleges such as Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in London; Parsons in New York; Donghua University in Shanghai; the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, and Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo.
“We appreciate the organizations that reward, recognize and celebrate emerging talent,” Swarovski said. “We are a supporter of that because it really increases the quality of what we do.”
And as Swarovski collaborated with Christian Dior in the Fifties to create the rainbowlike Aurora Borealis crystal coating, during the spring haute couture shows in Paris in January, Swarovski introduced a new crystal design created with Jean Paul Gaultier, called Kaputt. The crystal, designed to look uneven and broken, took a year to develop, and glistened both on Gaultier’s couture designs and a jewelry collection created by the designer.
The crystal design will be exclusive to Gaultier until September, and after that, will become part of Swarovski’s catalogue.
“[Gaultier] wanted to focus on the interplay of perfection and imperfection,” said loose crystal division head Markus Langes-Swarovski of Gaultier’s collaboration with the firm, noting that such partnerships are “very rewarding for us as a company.”
“Having this kind of exposure with these creative minds, at the forefront of developing taste, styles and trends, keeps us very much alert as a company…you literally can smell the l’air du temps,” he said.