Fashion: Out of Africa

As the doyenne of classic simplicity, Nicole Farhi is celebrating a quarter century at the top of her profession. She talks to Carola Long about the exotic inspiration for her new collection and her passion for interior design
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Nicole Farhi arrives at her light, airy showroom in an ensemble of such crisp simplicity that it's hard not to renounce all clothing that isn't classic, tailored, and navy or white, on the spot. She is wearing fluid tailored navy trousers, an understated gold watch, and a white shirt; the French-born designer almost always wears trousers and believes shirts give you "a bit of posture, and correctness, like a jacket". While fashion lovers have only just started to get excited about a new, more sophisticated mood on the high street, Nicole Farhi has consistently been creating affordable clothes that exude understated, timeless chic for 25 years.

This year is the quarter-century anniversary of Farhi establishing her own label, and now her fashion business has grown to encompass eight stand-alone shops in London, as well as numerous concessions across the country, a shop in Kuwait, menswear, a restaurant called Nicole's in her smart flagship shop on New Bond Street, another brasserie, homewares and perfume. Farhi was born in Nice in 1946, where she grew up and, after training in fashion design in Paris, she moved to London in the early 1970s, where she worked as the head designer at French Connection with her long-term partner Stephen Marks. She and Marks created the Nicole Farhi label in 1982 with clothes for the spring/summer 1983 season, and although their relationship didn't last – Farhi is now married to the playwright David Hare – they still have a strong professional association.

Since the launch of her own label, Farhi has become known for her fluid tailoring, her light-handed take on masculine and feminine influences, and her ability to design clothes that look contemporary years after you bought them. "People always say to me, 'I still have a coat that I bought from you 10 years ago'," she enthuses in a slightly smoky French accent, "and I think 'Great!' because I always wear clothes that I have had for a while. I am wearing a pair of trousers today that are at least three years old."

She doesn't look down on the concept of "fast fashion", however: "I think it's something else from what I am doing, and so I don't have a problem with it. If young people don't have much money but they want to express themselves and change their look often, then why not?" She is much more scathing about the "ridiculous" celebrity culture, saying, with a slight shake of her light-auburn curls. "I have never wanted to send my clothes to all these stylists who ask you to send clothes for the Oscars, so that they have their wardrobes. I love to build a relationship with an actress, but not to send blindly for a rail to be full of clothes and then a stylist to pick a piece to send back to you or not send back to you."

Not only does Farhi refuse to pander to celebrity, she doesn't follow trends as such. Tribal prints might have featured heavily on this season's catwalks but, the designer admits, "I don't know whether or not the Africa theme behind my spring/summer collection is a trend." However, she has become more experimental over the past 25 years: "When I started out, I wanted the clothes to be successful – I didn't want to fall flat on my face," she explains, "and, of course, they still have to sell, but I feel much more free, and less anxious. Now I am a bit more adventurous with my big balloon dresses – they don't fit everybody – but I think they are gorgeous."

The balloon dresses in question are the voluminous, print dresses from her spring/summer collection. With such vibrant, exotic fabrics, it's hardly surprising that Farhi wanted to give the prints room to breathe on billowing maxidresses and loose tunics. She was inspired by her trips to Africa, and particularly Morocco, where she had collected, "bits of jewellery and vintage fabric". Although Farhi doesn't usually work with an overall theme, when she saw all her pieces of inspiration together she decided that African imagery would be perfect for summer.

Another link to Africa came in the form of Farhi's recent collaboration with the war artist John Keane and the charity Christian Aid, on a range of limited-edition clothing aimed at drawing attention to the plight of millions of children in war-torn Angola. After a friend mentioned his work, Farhi went to his studio, and "thought the art there was incredible. He had seen all these children who had been caught up in the conflict and been injured by landmines, and created images using African fabric as the background. So we made the prints, which feature mines, oil rigs and footballs, into limited-edition bags, T-shirts and shirts, the proceeds from which go to helping children in Angola."

Farhi's enthusiasm for Keane's work is hardly surprising as she is something of a renaissance woman, even down to a passion for sculpture. She has a studio at the end of her garden, she designed the bottles for her perfumes – and won an award for the men's eau de toilette container – and designs a range of glassware, and, as if to underline her appreciation of the arts, she always shows her collection at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Farhi's personal passions – travel, art, literature and design – inform her business, and there are common motifs running across different parts of it. She will use colours from her clothing fabric on throws, or similar embroidery on dresses and cushions, while it was the furniture that she used in her shops – sourced on weekends browsing around antique shops and auction houses – that led to her homewares business. She would always put, "a pair of battered leather chairs, or an old lamp in my shop and then people kept asking to buy them. I didn't want to sell them because I didn't think I'd have time to replace them, so Stephen [Marks] suggested that I should start an interiors line."

Does she see herself as a lifestyle brand? "I guess the fact that I went into homewares 10 years ago gives that impression, but it isn't a put-together style. It's more a put-together-what-you-like style." Then Farhi recalls an anecdote that seems to encapsulate her unique combination of cerebral interests, and broad appeal. "I met Ian McEwan a while ago, and he said to me, 'I did all my Christmas shopping for men and women in your shop because I found something for everybody there.' And I thought, that is such a compliment."

All clothes from the Nicole Farhi spring/ summer collections, available from 158 New Bond Street, London W1 (020-7499 8368) or visit www.nicolefarhi.com

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