To continue its goal of realizing the potential of young creatives through its incubator program, LIGNES DE FUITE has initiated the interview series Words of Advice which brings together its protégés with industry leaders to discuss how they can succeed in their respective fields. In this edition, Anna-Maria Varriano, a Brand Management Expert, shares her impressive career path in great detail with aspiring designer Giovanni Caci.
Gio Caci: Can you please describe your background and how you got into fashion?
Anna-Maria Varriano: I actually wanted to be an art historian. I wanted to study art. Coming from a strict Italian background, my dad refused because I had to get married and have children. So, I went to LaSalle College in fashion merchandising. I worked my way through it working at The Hudson Bay for Levi’s, then from there I went to Dawson College and did a 3-year intensive program in graphic arts. I’ve always loved fashion. I had an opportunity to go to Europe. I was scouted by an Italian agent to model. So I went to Milan. I had just finished school. I actually hated modeling because I’m very very shy. The second day I was there, I wanted to come back home to Montreal, but I met my fiancé at the time, so I ended up staying. I went to a casting for a fit and showroom model for Alexander McQueen, and they hired me on the spot. So I was his fit model and showroom model for about two seasons. And that’s where I met my bosses, Elsa and Luca, who would grab upcoming talent, find them in production and distribute them worldwide. When Alexander McQueen was poached by a Japanese conglomerate, the company I worked for took on Olivier Theyskens, and that’s when I started selling in the showroom. So I was traveling with them and I was also traveling a lot with my fiancé because he was a pro athlete. I was always on a plane, train, automobile—you name it. And after Olivier Theyskens, they picked up Rick Owens, and that’s where my life started to boom.
How was it working with Rick Owens in the beginning?
Basically, it was my two bosses, Rick and his wife, Michele. They were introduced to him by Tommy Perse at Maxfield. That was for financing Rick (he’s from Los Angeles). He was producing everything in his house, in his washing machines: jersey, live cut, and everything. So, they wanted to bring him on board. It was a very difficult couple of seasons. It was my two bosses, myself, and the model Terry Anne. Italian production didn’t understand what the hell this guy was doing, so it was very very hard. “How do I wash a leather jacket?” “How do I live-cut jersey?” “We don’t understand the folding,” and all that. It was a big challenge, and from there a lot of hard work, a lot of pushing to find the right production, then they slowly started to climb and—that was it! Then it hit a boom and it was crazy.
How long have you been with Rick Owens?
The entire time. We were also at 9/11 together. We were very close to the attacks.
Oh my goodness! So you saw the whole thing?
Yeah, and we didn’t know what was happening because we were in the showroom. So it was very interesting. The protection that the bosses gave us—it was just the model, myself, Rick, Michele—the way they took care of us during that time was pretty crazy. They’re my family, ‘till today.
And do you still keep a close relationship with them?
Absolutely. My closest friend is still there. My other best friend recently left 2 years ago. He started his own collection which is doing really really well. I’ve been helping him a lot. At the same time, during all this experience that I was accumulating at Rick Owens, I was engaged to be married, but I was never home. He was never home. Our base was Milan, but he went to play in Greece, and then played in Tuscany. We were always traveling and then meeting up, so I was on the road a lot. At one point—I always remember this: a group of 3 beautiful girls walk into the Rick Owens showroom (because you can’t walk in without an appointment), and my boss Luca says, in Italian, “check out these chicks, they want to open a high-end luxury Barney’s online.” We didn’t know anything about online at that point. But at that time, I had already opened up a shoe store in Montreal. Every time I came home for the summer, people would ask, “where did you get your Ann [Demeulemeester] boots?” “Where did you get your Rick Shoes?” “Where did you get that?” “Where did you get the COMME des GARÇONS?” I would buy it in Europe. So I started researching it and, with Les Createurs—I don’t know if you remember her, you might be too
young. She carried all the Japanese and avant-garde designers on Sherbrooke. So I got her to come see Rick Owens, and she bought the collections. So, the first time Rick Owens was represented in Canada was from her. Of course, the complaints from customers: “there’s no shoes!” So I helped her research a little bit about the shoes and then she said to me, “Listen, it’s too much work, too many sizes. I have a financier for you, open up a shoe store.” That’s what we did: we opened up Mona Moore right below her.
Mona Moore was active in the early 2000s?
York Times, LA Times, Th e Gazette. We had so many celebrities shop withe carried all the top: Alaia, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten. We did only runway styles. We were hidden, we were a destination, we were right below her. Les Createurs gave us a huge helping hand by bringing customers to us. The first couple of seasons we became known and grew a very loyal client base. We were featured in the New York Times, LA Times, The Gazette. We had so many celebrities shop with us. In the beginning, some clients were hesitant, like, “why should I buy from you when I can go to Barney’s in New York or at Jeffrey’s?” But it grew into a monster. When I met the NET-A-PORTER girls, I listened to them. They’re onto something because Montreal is small. But to grow the business you always
need to buy more. And so we started the online business. We hired a young web designer—this is even before SSENSE—and a photographer, and we started putting our stuff online. The business just exploded. I was doing that full-time and working at Rick Owens full time, while being engaged, preparing
for a wedding in Italy.
That must’ve been really hectic!
Yeah, I love that! I never had time to stop and think. We opened a store in LA. My business partners were based there. But I was always with Rick. Like, I did every selling campaign, pre-collection—everything! Sometimes there would be an issue with distribution, so my boss would call me and say “go check this out.” I was doing everything.
How close were you with him throughout the whole process?
He was very private. He would come down to greet Tommy and Sarah (the head buyer) from Maxfield or Alan Bilzerian, but that’s it. He would never stop to talk with buyers. That’s our job. As a designer, you’re a bit more quiet. And Michele is just amazing. She’s his muse. She’d go around organizing the parties and getting the VIP in. And yeah—Rick’s a great guy.
I admire his work. That’s also why I was excited to interview you, so I can understand how he grew his business. Was there any reason why you left?
Well, I was being pressured into getting married. After 9/11, there was a lot of pressure on me from my in-laws and my fiancé, but I was a little bit off-kilter after what I just saw in New York. We were stuck there for 2 weeks. So, it was a little bit daunting. When I returned to Europe they were really pressuring me. I came home a bit early and had the opportunity to open Mona Moore. Then, after 8 years at La Maison Rick Owens, when our stores were working perfectly well, my business partners decided to get greedy on a certain aspect because I was a majority shareholder and sole-signing partner of Mona Moore Montreal,
MonaMoore.Com, and Mona Moore LA. So they decided to close Montreal and move to LA because they wanted the dotcom to be in the US. We fought litigation after litigation, then I just said, “buy me out, I’m good.” My bosses really helped me. Luca and Elsa were really behind me. Then it happened in January, right before Men’s week, I said, “I can’t come to Paris, I just need a moment,” because of what was happening. They said, “you come to Paris. You won’t have to work with clients, we’ll take care of you.” And that’s when they proposed that I become the Senior position of Rick Owens Corp, which meant I had to live in Paris, La Maison Rick Owens... Move to Paris and take on the position of Worldwide Commercial Director of Menswear. It took me a while to decide because I just came home. So I was like, “I owe it to them, they’ve been my family, so I’ll do it.” I loved my job, I loved everything about it. I loved the growth, I loved the travelling, but I didn’t like living in Paris. I was having a really hard time. The Rick Owens head office is in Torino, Italy, and La Maison Rick Owens is in Paris. I found it very difficult. For me, personally, as soon as everybody leaves, you’re in Paris alone. So it was very very difficult.
So you had to constantly be in Paris?
And also traveling all the time. My boss Luca knew that I was having a hard time living in Paris, so he would call and go, “ok you’re coming to Torino tomorrow for 3 days, we have a meeting,” or “get ready we’re going to Asia tomorrow.” So he had me on the road with him all the time. But that lingering of being in Paris was really difficult for me. So at one point my best friend, who was the wholesale director for womenswear, got pregnant so she was working from home, and the Italian commercial director (my best friend), was working from home in Caserta. So I asked Luca, out of the kindness of their heart, if I could work from home and still be on the road like I always was. (I never had an issue with that.) Because the company had grown so much and a lot of new people had come on board, they said to me “if I let you work from home then this person’s gonna wanna work from home, and that person’s gonna want to work from home. We can’t allow that. I need you in Paris, I need you at La Maison Rick Owens.” I came home for the summer and spent time with my family, and I just thought,“I don’t want to go back to Paris.” So, when I had to go back, I met them in Torino and I said, “I can’t live in Paris,” so they offered me to move to Torino. I said, “no, I just did that. I would love to continue working, but I just need to work from home.” They couldn’t accommodate me, which was perfectly understandable, so I still freelanced with them 4 to 6 times a year, then wrote beautiful emails to all the buyers explaining that I had to come home for a family emergency. But I still freelanced with them. After that, I was approached by Alexandre Plokhov.
Who’s Alexandre Plokhov?
Ah, you don’t know who Alexandre Plokhov is?
For the readers who don’t know (haha).
When we were doing a showroom in New York, my best friend—it was her first time leaving Italy and seeing New York—was always saying, “when I finish work, I wanna go have a New York hot-dog.” And we’d walk around New York. She was so fascinated. So Rick comes up to us: “girls, go see this show. I was invited but I can’t go. You have to see this show.” And it was written CLOAK. We looked at the invitations and—we’ve seen a lot of shows, so I’m like, “what do you want to do, go eat a hot-dog or go see this show?” She’s like, “let’s go eat a hot-dog.” CLOAK was a very famous collection that Rick admired at the time. It was the designer Alexandre Plokhov and Robert Geller. They then split up. But then Plokhov continued under his own label. They were also very important during that period. One of my friends who was flying to Paris was sitting next to Plokhov, and Plokhov says, “I need a commercial director.” So we met in New York and I decided to take this new opportunity to work with him. It was amazing. He’s Russian; he’s very different from Rick. We’re still really good friends ‘till this day. It was an amazing opportunity. But for personal reasons I needed to resign with him.
How long were you with Plokhov?
2 years; 4 seasons.
That’s interesting. And how long did you work as Worldwide Commercial Director of Menswear for Rick Owens in Paris?
Full-time, based in Paris for 2 years.
At that point you just really needed to come back to Montreal?
I just needed to come home. I had a friend that I met in the showroom (he was one of Michele’s friends), he helped me a lot because he brought me to see all of Paris. It’s not only about fashion, he would bring me to different areas of Paris. No matter what he did and where we went, I was always depressed. It’s just overwhelming, you know? I loved getting up in the morning to go to work. When work was finished I despised going back to my Parisian apartment. I mean you get invited to these parties and that part of town and it was just like, “oh, everybody’s gonna ask me questions and ask for a job,” and—yeah. So I’m more of a private girl; I’m more of a discreet girl; I know who my friends are. Now the company has completely exploded. We kept in touch, but out of respect for Rick, I never went back to one of his fashion shows. I took a break; a good hiatus from Europe and I was working to launch another project in Montreal. I was studying it with a client of mine and then COVID hit, so I needed to go back to basics. I went to work in a vintage handbag company. That was very different for me, but it’s a huge business, and I’ve learned a lot. I can’t even explain how big it is. Like, slightly used Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent—it’s so huge!
And did that ever take off, or did COVID just completely—
I saw what COVID did to my friends, to small restaurants and boutiques, and to the boutiques in the US. The price hikes, where fashion was going—nobody understood what the hell was going on. I just was like, “let me study this good.” I was the district manager for all the boutiques in Canada. I would train the staff, hire the staff, train product knowledge, report to the boss, and work with the buyers. But each store had specific needs in inventory. It was a nice challenge. I loved it. We used to purchase bags from clients, so we knew how to authenticate them and everything. Then we would let the buyers at HQ make the quotes and resale value.
It sounds like it was a great experience. How did it turn out?
The only sad thing about this is a huge Canadian company called LXR. They’re huge, they own the market of vintage luxury and wholesale here in Canada— without the clothing, but Canadian-based. The thing is that they only work in concession with The Hudson Bay, which is a pretty depressing place. That was the only downfall I had with them. Apart from that, I just loved everything else about doing it. It was very challenging. I love new challenges.
Are there any projects or challenges that you’re currently engaged in?
Well, I always had a project that’s been put aside, I don’t think it’s the time right now. I think fashion’s too crazy, too expensive. Right now it’s just really insane. There’s too much going on. I’m a pro at this, so when I look around I’m like, “this is not a good moment, this is really not a good moment.” The quality of high-end is not the same since Covid. I don’t care what anybody says or what label they put on it, you can tell. I’m an expert when it comes to quality, I’m an expert when it comes to touching: I can tell you if it’s cashmere, if it’s mixed. With Rick I also did the visual merchandising of their self-standing stores and I worked a lot with Rick himself on the shoes. I know quality and I just find it’s not there right now. But it’s still logo-mania and streetwear; everyone is copying everyone. Buyers are playing it safe and continue to buy the collections that they know will sell. As before it was fun to introduce new brands and buyers would give new designers a chance.
Is this happening across the board?
Across the board. It’s not what it used to be.
So would it be more difficult for someone like me who wants to build a brand to get started because of this?
Well it’s really cut-throat right now because streetwear is still dominating; it’s a sneaker culture. Rick came out at the right time.
Do you mean when he started, or exploded?
Exploded. I mean when he came out, there were 3 stores in the world that carried him, and he was doing everything from his LA loft. Right now is difficult; buyers are tired, prices are high so the spending has gone down, so they have to be very careful with their buys. Department stores are having the hardest time.
I would like to know, since I just recently graduated from Lasalle—
Yeah, in fashion design.
Thanks! So my goal is to eventually build a design brand of my own. Based on the information you’ve given about the difficulties in the industry, where should I begin?
My only advice to you: if you want to grow in the fashion business, go take an internship in a fashion company in Europe. Internship, part-time—just go to Europe. There’s nothing here.
You mean nothing in North America, Montreal, or—
The experience you’ll acquire abroad, the professionalism they teach you, and the ethics they teach you are not the same as here. It’s really about paying attention to details, listening, and watching. Nobody here in Canada will teach you that anywhere. Being a team, listening, and really watching and learning different
methods. Lasalle College is gonna teach you as much as they know, they taught me as much as I knew, but my experience was being in Europe.
Going to Europe is the best option to gain the experience needed to develop?
Your experience touching, working with professional pattern-makers, watching how it’s done, being careful where and how stuff is produced—it’s very different from here. Many people outsource their production. For example, Alexandre Plokhov. He’s a genius, he would make his own patterns and sew them in front of me. Olivier Theyskens, 21 years old, would be doing fucking bustiers 2 minutes before the show. There’s just this culture that we don’t have here.
How would you describe it? More hustle?
The hustle and the beauty of the artisanal work of the designer. You need to go to Europe, you need to go to Paris, you need to go see the fabrics, you need to go to these fairs, you need to, like—there’s so much to learn. There’s so much. That’s my advice to you. I was lucky to go as a model, and I landed at the right
place. It taught me so much. I had Alexander McQueen fitting all types of fabrics and even plastic on me,
and I’m just like, “oh, that’s cool... Who’s this guy?”—you know? But you learn so much, it’s like also when I had the shoe store, we’d go to the Dries van Noten show and the first appointment the next day would be for my business partner and I to go buy our shoes. You’re presented with over 100 styles in front of you, and you have to make a selection. Dries himself would come to brainstorm with us. He wanted that appointment with us before all the other appointments opened because we were known to be the best shoe store in North America. They have a lot of shoes. It’s overwhelming because you have a lot of shoes and you have to think about sizing. So he would sit there and ask us our opinion on which ones would be the best sellers. We would sit on the floor, and my business partner and I would pick out the shoes that we liked, that we knew we could sell and that were different and—you know me, I’m all in black, our shoe
store was anything but black except for Ann Demeulemeester, which was our best seller (combat boots and everything). So, it’s just an experience. You can’t learn that here.
Let’s say I get this experience in Europe and decide to return, do you think there’s a market here too?
There’s a market all over the world. One of the most important markets is Asia, Russia (believe it or not), Japan—even better experience if you can go do an internship in Japan! Like at UNDERCOVER, Junya Watanabe, or COMME des GARÇONS.
I hear it’s really about the craft in Japan.
It really is about the craft. Take apart a COMME des GARÇONS jacket, it’s a maze. That’s why I love Rei Kawakubo so much; I love what she does. I love UNDERCOVER. I just love what they’re doing, where they’re going. I went to visit Japan. Rick Owens has an agent in Japan because the Japanese don’t speak much English. Communication was very difficult. So because Japan was such a huge market for Rick, they onboarded an agent. Luca and I went to Tokyo to visit the Rick Owens boutique and I was completely hallucinating. It was so beautiful! I actually wanted to go live in Tokyo and learn the language.
Japan sounds like an interesting option too. Now, I have a question: when I start developing my brand, do you think I should begin by doing more production, or should I be doing more in-house, individual pieces?
You can do anything. Focus on fabric, on production, and on marketing.
I understand. But nonetheless, I would have a better chance to develop in Europe?
Montreal’s a great city. Especially for fashion connoisseurs. There’s a lot of talent here when it comes to music, movies—I’m one of the biggest Xavier Dolan fans. There’s also Denis Villeneuve and Jean Marc Vallée, Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, and Patrick Watson. So much talent here. Anything that comes out of Montreal, for me, I’m like, “yay yay yay,” you know? Fashion-wise, however... So what would be your price point? Mid-to-high or mid-to-low?
I would definitely start off at an emergent designer price range: something exclusive but also affordable to my consumer. So it would be mid-to-high.
Good. You need to stay strong and do what you believe in. I mean, Olivier Theyskens gave up his name for 10 years because he didn’t want to conform to his financer who bought his name. He stuck to his gut, so he went to work at Theory, then he went to work at Rochas, then Nina Ricci—he moved around a lot. Now, he started his own collection again. It’s not an easy road because Olivier Theyskens thinks that women over size 2 should not wear his clothes. So, it’s very interesting—you have to move abroad. If it’s to study or—I know it’s difficult financially if you think about it, but find a way to get in somewhere.
Do you recommend that I find an internship, or continue my education in Europe?
Since I only have a college degree and not a bachelor’s degree, does it really matter as long as I just get the experience?
Get the experience. Go to France or Italy. Even in Milan there are great homes that you can work for. Personally, my dream would be to work with Raf Simons right now. But it’s hard to get in and it would mean me moving back to Europe, right? You need to have a connection somewhere, or go study. I’m being honest with you.
You really motivated me. I already knew this in the back of my mind, and everyone’s always talking about going to Europe, but I needed somebody of your status to just really tell me straightforwardly.
Go to Europe. It’s the biggest blessing I’ve had in my life. I have absolutely no regrets. I wasn’t scared, I was like, “ok let’s do this.” I was a go-getter. Give me anything, I wanted to learn. Give me challenges—“oh, there’s a fork in the road, well let me go see it.” I’ve always been curious. I’ve never been afraid of life. Things just fall into place. When I had my own business, I was still working at Rick Owens, but who was I learning from? Ok I carried the best, but why did I get all these designers that are impossible to get? Because of my status with Rick. And then another store was like, “go see this line—this is an upcoming line,” and we go see it and you block it for exclusivity. That’s what it’s all about: it’s word of mouth, the friends you’ve made. I would tell anybody who wants to succeed in the fashion world to go do an internship, study, get another degree—go to Europe! You’re not gonna learn anything here. What is there in Montreal? There’s SSENSE and Holt Renfrew. What else?
Nothing else, really
Right now there’s nothing really new happening. You know, Rick plateaued, now the challenge is to stabilize. His fashion shows are shock value, fun, and artistic, but where they make the money is in the pre-collection and denim collection, which he has nothing to do with.
That’s so interesting considering how big he‘s gotten. How did he initially start off?
Rick was in LA struggling to be a designer. He had a talent. Tommy at Maxfield saw it and financed him, Maria-Louisa (who passed away sadly), one of the most important stores in Paris, saw it, Henry Bendel saw it, but nobody else understood it. I remember doing 3 showrooms in a row. The buyers would come in—because Rick likes the dilapidated, condemned buildings without heating, and with pigeons flying in. These top buyers in the world would walk in and dust was just everywhere. We’re covered in dust. The buyers were covered in dust and were like, “what the hell is this?” He didn’t care. He sticks to his gut.
And then people eventually embraced him—that’s encouraging.
Yeah! It wasn’t easy, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned in life is teamwork. You’re gonna meet a lot of people with arrogance, chips on their shoulders; you need to learn to swim with the crocodiles, sleep in snake pits—it’s not easy. I was very lucky: because I was a senior, I was very protected. Even at that, the other employees were still doing things because everybody’s jealous of what you have. You have to learn to push that energy out, you know? It’s a rough world, but there’s nothing in Montreal. I’m being really honest with you, there’s nothing in Montreal.
I really appreciate the honesty. Every aspiring designer thinks about this— whether to stay home or go to Europe. But now you’ve made me realize the best choice.
Even if you can go do an internship at Balenciaga. I mean, I don’t like Balenciaga but they created something so big that I’m still studying it. But I love Nicolas Ghesquière Balenciaga. Like, when we finished work, my best friend and I would run to the Balenciaga store and get their jeans and their jacket—you have no idea! I carried it in the stores. I remember I used to drive Luca crazy: he’s like, “what’s this Balenciaga stuff?”
But not Demna Gvasalia?
No, I think it’s a joke. I think they’re actually quite funny. However, they somehow did it and conquered the market.
It’s interesting because he’s on top of the world right now, you know? You can’t open social media without seeing Balenciaga. it’s everywhere!
The funny thing that I learned just recently: I was researching a lot of streetwear stores and I study SSENSE a lot. I always go check it out, but I find at SSENSE you get lost! There’s just so much, you just get lost! All the websites have just too much. You start looking at some designers that you like and then you go look at upcoming designers and you’re just like, “it’s two- dimensional.” I want to touch it, I want to see it, I want a person to serve me. I don’t know if you understand, I think you’re young, so you’re used to the two-dimensional online shopping.
Personally, it’s difficult for me to order expensive garments online. I also need to first interact with the item and try it on before I consider buying. After all, it needs to fit an ideal image of myself. That’s what fashion is to me: expressing your ideal self.
Conversation transcript and editing Gio Caci Images Connory Ballantyne
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Originally published in LIGNES DE FUITE vol.3