An Interview with Nadja Swarovski

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From Charles Frederick Worth to Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, the Austrian crystal maker Swarovski has always had close ties with the worlds of fashion and jewelry, but there is no denying that in the last 20 years, Nadja Swarovski, member of the Swarovski executive board, has been able to bring this relationship to new levels, transforming the perception of the company from one that specializes in cute crystal animals to that of a serious player in the design world at large.

The seismic shift started in the late 1990s, when Swarovski struck a friendship with fashion consultant Isabella Blow who had helped launch the careers of a new generation of British designers, in particular Alexander McQueen. Swarovski decided to support No 13, McQueen’s Spring/ Summer 1999 collection, where he used fluid crystal mesh embedded with thousands of crystals, a material developed by the crystal maker. This marked the beginning of a longterm collaborative relationship, which on occasion extended to jeweler Shaun Leane and milliner Philip Treacy, key members of McQueen’s ‘Fashion Family.’

“I’d grown up hearing stories about Coco Chanel and Christian Dior visiting our factory floor, and I wanted to find the Dior of my generation,” recalls Swarovski about meeting McQueen, “Isabella introduced us and we invited him to visit our factory in Austria, to see and feel the product. We gave him the crystals for his creations and what he created that year was truly amazing. He was such an impactful and influential designer; whether he realized it or not at the time, the industry followed him and that was good news for us because soon others also wanted to use Swarovski crystal in their creations.”

“Working with McQueen revealed the magic that comes from putting our crystal into the hands of cutting-edge talent,” she adds. The relationship served as a blueprint for the Swarovski Collective, an international program that has gone on to support over 150 established and emerging designers, providing them with Swarovski crystals in all shapes and forms, allowing the designers to explore the creative boundaries of the material, while also encouraging the brand to innovate further. “What is gratifying is that some of the young designers we’ve supported early on have seen their career eventually take off,” she notes. One such young designer is Mary Katrantzou, whose Autumn/ Winter 2015 Collection used crystal both as something to print on and to add highlights and texture to three-dimensional fashion designs such as her ‘lampshade’ skirt. “Working with Swarovski has been a journey of explorations,” says Katrantzou, “I love that nothing is off limits! From shimmering, printed crystal mesh through to hand embroidered, vacuum formed silicon skirts, the crystals have helped me to communicate my vision in another dimension of luxury. To have access to such a beautiful medium is fantastic.”

Another London-based experimental designer and longtime Collective member, Hussein Chalayan, believes that working with the crystal maker “challenges you to do things you wouldn’t do.” He points out, “The really important thing about crystal is not to just put it on, it has to be integral to the idea. Crystal allows me to think inside out, so I try to think of what would work rather than just making something and putting crystal over it afterwards. It’s a much more integrated approach to design.”

For his Spring/Summer 2016 collection, he integrated crystal into nine runway looks with the presentation culminating in a trademark Chalayan avant-garde scene with innovative fabric treatments: two models wearing flat-back crystal body art and military-inspired uniforms sprayed from above with water that dissolved their soluble garments to reveal a 3D fabric complete with palm trees, Swarovski crystal coconuts, and a crystal strip framework.

Over the past 15 years, Swarovski’s interactions with creative talent has accelerated, reaching all corners of the design world, from jewelry to lighting. The crystal maker supported the installation at Versailles Palace of a giant contemporary chandelier — the palace’s first permanent contemporary artwork. The chandelier by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec uses energy-efficient crystal LED technology. This launched the Crystal Palace collection, which asked big names of the world of design — Zaha Hadid, Yves Béhar, the Campana Brothers, Arik Levy, Ron Arad, and Tom Dixon, to name a few — to reinvent the crystal chandelier.

Of late the pace of new collaborations seems to have increased. During the London Design Festival in September, the brand helped London-based Norwegian designer Kim Thomé unveil Zotem, a monolith embedded on both sides with more than 600 bespoke Swarovski crystals. The 18-meter-tall structure rises vertically through the central space of the V&A from the ground to the sixth floor creating a visual link throughout the museum.

In October, it was the turn of Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang to unveil a work incorporating crystal, this time at the FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain is a stunning installation and it was displayed on the Balcon d’Honneur of the Grand Palais. It is part of an ongoing series by the artist exploring the acoustic potential of the crystal medium and consisted of over a thousand specially beaded crystal strands that used 235,000 crystals, which together weigh nearly one ton. Wu says she had been thinking of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz — which included Swarovski crystals — when she started on the work that is her interpretation of the relationship between the disembodied authoritarian voice and the illusion of power.

“I wanted to use Swarovski crystals to create dazzling effects that explore metaphors of the voice and power,” she explains.

The commission was the first of the new annual Swarovski Series, which will further the crystal maker’s support to the most exciting contemporary creatives.“It’s always a very symbiotic situation: we support the designer and what we get in return is their vision and creativity. There is an understanding that it’s about pushing boundaries, we want to push their boundaries in terms of their use of crystal in design and they’re also interested in involving (us) in their art and repertoire,” Swarovski explains.

This year, Swarovski celebrates its 10th year in partnership with Design Miami/ and it has commissioned Fernando Romero of FR-EE Fernando Romero Enterprise to create an installation that explores humankind’s relationship with the sun. Entitled El Sol, the installation was inspired by the geometry used by the Aztecs and Mayans in constructing their pyramids and is composed of 2,880-custom-made Swarovski crystals.

Talking about the new project, the Mexican architect commented that it has allowed him to explore mathematics in relation to nature and his Mexican ancestry, “which is very important and personal to my practice.” Swarovski says Romero’s design was a true challenge for her product development team. The smooth outer surface of the spherical structure is a puzzle of four different types of crystals covered in Swarovski’s iconic Aurora Borealis coating. Faceted internally, the crystals augment the light emitted by a pool of LEDs from the installation’s core. Going forward, Swarovski has many new plans, acknowledging that “to enter the fashion arena with our own brand and label has always been a question.”

In the immediate future, Swarovski is working on a special collection of evening bags for the red carpet, with the confident vision that says “we should own that space.”

The clutches are expected to be unveiled in time for the Academy Awards in 2016. Plus, the company is also working on a new eyewear line for 2017. At this stage, the company is not marketing any of the collaborative design pieces, but Swarovski says it is something she is considering. And with the brand planning to present its first collection of tabletop and desk pieces by various designers at the Salone del Mobile next April, Swarovski aims to add a little more sparkle to everyday life.

As first published in Blouin Lifestyle Magazine