Fashion: The glitter band

Time was when Swarovski's crystals were just for your granny. But now they are the decoration of choice for designers such as Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. By Melanie Rickey. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Karena Perronet-Miller

warovski. The mention of the name brings to mind a world of little animals - mice, swans, birds, fish, polar bears, butterflies, even teddy bears - that grace mantelpieces and display cabinets around the world. There are over 300,000 official members of the Swarovski Collectors Society, and the people who collect these slightly naff crystal objects love them with an inexplicable passion. Even the singer Bjork loves Swarovski animals and has taken to wearing a crystal fish around her neck. But there is more to Swarovski than crystal animals...

At Alexander McQueen's most recent show, onlookers were transfixed as five breathtaking outfits shimmered, glittered and refracted shafts of light, as the models wearing them spun like ballerinas on rotating discs hidden within the catwalk. These outfits were crafted from Crystal Mesh, a fishnet gauze studded with thousands of crystals, just one of Swarovski's vast catalogue of products.

In the front row of the McQueen show sat Isabella Blow, the stylist appointed in June as fashion consultant to Swarovski, and 27-year-old Nadja Swarovski. The New York-based youngest and grooviest representative of the business, she is working to expand its fashion profile.

Karl Heinz Rampold runs Swarovski's curiously titled Creative Service Centre. His objective, like Nadja Swarovski's, is to establish links between the company and fashion designers of all profiles. "We provide information about the product, and the application of the product," he says. "And now Isabella is recommending designers to us. But you know we have always worked with fashion designers. Manfred Swarovski invented a stone with Christian Dior in the Fifties called the Aurora Borealis. It has been one of our most successful products ever."

Swarovski's brand of upmarket glitz has found its way into collections by Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Versace, Philip Treacy, Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler and Julien Macdonald. Antonio Berardi showed a Swarovski crystal jacket that cost pounds 7,000 to make. Last year, a Gucci coat had a lining encrusted with flashy Swarovski stones.

Philip Treacy discovered Swarovski eight years ago. "We use Swarovski stones because they have the most glitter," he says. "They are the best in the world at what they do."

It is not only high fashion that has embraced Swarovski crystals (actually intricately cut glass). In the Eighties, Diana, Princess of Wales began a trend for hosiery featuring a glittering bow at the ankle, or a row of sparkle up the back of the leg. Ros Carswell of Swarovski remembers, "We sold millions of adhesive crystals to the hosiery market, all thanks to Diana." The popularity of crystals on the high street continues, and Swarovski currently supplies Kookai, Warehouse, Karen Millen, Marks & Spencer, Bhs and Oasis.

The trend for what the fashion world calls "surface decoration" has helped Swarovski emerge into the limelight. But Swarovski crystal-strewn clothes don't necessarily replace jewellery. The company's crystals are also used by jewellers such as Butler & Wilson, Erikson Beamon and Angela Hale.

The company was founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski in Wattens, Austria. Originally from a family of stone cutters, he moved there from Bohemia to establish a factory for the cutting and polishing of crystal stones. Swarovski crystals are cut to make them the most brilliant on the market. The company makes 79,000 crystals a day, by secret methods.

"It's all very mysterious," says Isabella Blow. "Some people do one aspect of the process, then it gets passed onto another division, and never the twain shall meet."

Blow went to the Swarovski museum, Crystal Worlds, in Wattens. "I wanted to see what could be done, because I absolutely adore the product, and I can see endless opportunities for using it," she says.

The fashion designers Blow has already introduced to the wonders of Swarovski include Lainey Keogh, Tristan Webber, Laurence Steele, Julien Macdonald and her latest protege Jeremy Scott, as well as Philip Treacy, corsetmaker Mr Pearl, and Alexander McQueen.

McQueen has also made the trip to the Crystal Worlds museum. "I was like a wild child when I got there," he says. "I just wanted to touch and have everything. I've got to say, those pieces in my last collection were just a start. I don't just want to use Swarovski, I want to invent something new."

Nadja Swarovski is an important part of the fashion equation for the company. Since joining the business in 1995, she has been working towards reviving what she calls "the designer connection," particularly in New York. Nadja, a fifth-generation Swarovski, sees endless possibilities for the use of crystal in fashion. "People have a tacky association with table-top items and Swarovski," she says. "But we are opening the doors to creative designers. I loved what McQueen did with the mesh we gave him. I also love what Philip Treacy does." Indeed she loves Treacy so much that Swarovski is sponsoring his next catwalk show. Nadja admits this kind of sponsorship has been a long time coming. "My grandfather Manfred worked with Chanel and Dior, but we were not keeping up the contact. I guess we got complacent."

Over the next six months Nadja will be opening further Creative Service Centres: one in London, another in New York. These showrooms, like the one in Austria, are aimed at fashion designers and creative people, and they house every crystal available. "There are about 2,000 individual drawers full of crystals," she continues. "Together we can discuss ideas, create new relationships in fashion."

One person who will be ecstatic about this new development is the reclusive Mr Pearl, who has made some of the most memorable works of fashion art from Swarovski crystal. He works for Philip Treacy, and on intricate couture pieces for Thierry Mugler, Christian Lacroix, occasionally John Galliano, as well as having many private clients.

So what makes Swarovski so alluring to him? "Swarovski is magical and irresistible to the eye. I use it at every opportunity because what I make requires opulence and glamour. There is nothing as clean, sharp and beautiful as Swarovski," he continues. "Crystal gives a feeling of glamour and there is not enough of that in the world. I'm glad Swarovski is there to make dreams come true"

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