Interview: Arfaq hussain: Off the wall
Would you pay pounds 47,000 for a bottle of perfume? No? Well, you're probably not one of The Chosen. E Jane Dickson meets Arfaq Hussain, Michael Jackson's costumier and would-be perfumier extraordinaire. Photographs by Dan Burn-Forti
"I called it `Healing Hands'," says the glove's creator Arfaq Hussain, "because I do believe that Michael Jackson is blessed with the power to heal."
Given the general strangeness of the situation, it seems perfectly possible that Arfaq, design director of the House of Gianni Vive Sulman, means this literally.
"No-oo," The idea is dismissed, but regretfully. "But he - Mr Jackson - is very, very rich."
Arfaq, 26, has a holy respect for riches: "What hurts me is when I see people who are less fortunate than us," he explains. "I want to get into a position where I can hold out my hand and help them. I know some super-rich people, awesomely rich, and these people do so much. It's endless. I could go on for ever ..."
This is probably true, but we are here to discuss Gianni Vive Sulman's new perfume, V1, launched in a blaze of publicity this week. Powerfully rosy with an aftershock of musk, V1 may well be composed of essences "which only the Caesars, the Generals and Pharoahs regarded as good enough for themselves". As for its lasting power, the press release goes on to tell us that these very essences were found in Tutankhamun's tomb, smelling as "fascinating and mysterious" as they did 2,000 years ago. But the pong is not the point. The marvellous thing about V1, what makes it truly unique (and for once this is not marketing hyperbole) is its price: around pounds 47,000.
Yup. Forty seven thousand pounds. For a bottle of perfume. But, as Arfaq points out, the bottle is rather special, crafted from pure platinum, 18-carat gold and ruby crystal and encrusted with diamonds. And if that's not special enough for you, the bottle - or "The Jewel" as it is called - comes in a box covered in the finest Connolly hide and lined with the leather they use in Lamborghinis. And if you're still lying in your Jacuzzi, sucking your teeth and thinking, "Well maybe, maybe not," the Connolly hide box comes inside another case hand-crafted in burr walnut by SC Gordon Ltd, the authorised coachbuilders for Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
Oh, and the box can only be opened by a diamond-and-ruby-encrusted key from Graff the Jewellers, which will be delivered, by hand, anywhere in the world and presented on a red silk cushion, by the naked film star of your choice.
All right, then, so the bit about the film star isn't true, but the rest is all down there, word for breathless word, in the brochure.
"I've always had a complete fascination with perfume," says Arfaq. "I love the romance and that type of thing. OK, so some people might be shocked at the idea of paying pounds 50,000 for a bottle of perfume, but we're not aiming for a day-to-day perfume and we're not aiming for day-to-day clients. These jewels are created for people who have everything, Bentleys, Ferraris, Sunseeker yachts, private jets. I know people who will spend half a million pounds on a watch and this is going to make you smell like those people!"
Fair enough. This is exactly the premise that sells billions of gallons of Chanel or Versace. "If I was coming from Milan or New York," reasons Arfaq, "nobody would turn a hair. But when you come from Yorkshire, it's just not the same."
He has a point. The House or, to be brutally accurate, the bungalow, of Gianni Vive Sulman, sits opposite a flour refinery in Birstwith, a village near Harrogate. In New York or Milan, the scrupulous beige interior with its Dralon three-piece suite and lace antimacassars would doubtless be read as le dernier cri in postmodern wit, though it might be harder to argue the case for the black ceramic cats flanking the electric fire. Prints of Michael Jackson in shiny military garb line the walls, while a printed acknowledgement from the Queen's private secretary expressing Her Majesty's pleasure at receiving Christmas greetings from Gianni Vive Sulman and sending hers right back takes pride of place in a clip frame on the windowsill. A similar message, on better-quality card, from the King of Morocco, is also on display. And, of course, there is The Healing Hand, shimmering away in its corner. Of Gianni Vive himself, however, there is no sign.
"Well, it's me." says Arfaq. "I didn't think Arfaq was a designer name. With Gianni Vive Sulman, you get a bit of Italian, a bit of French and a bit of Muslim. And it looks nice written on the labels."
Arfaq Hussain was born in Yorkshire, the son of a businessman from Pakistan. He attended Burnley High School, where he customised his school jacket with military pips in the manner of Michael Jackson and came in for a fair bit of teasing. "It was just because of the way I would do things," he says, without rancour. "I was one of those chaps who was always looking out of the window, dreaming, putting together outfits for Michael Jackson in my head." On leaving school he started to make clothes for friends of friends. "I have always chosen my clients," he explains, "In fact, I call them `The Chosen'. I can't say who they are because they are very wealthy people - I look at them and I think, `Can they do justice to my designs? They may have the wealth, but do they have style as well?'"
It must have been the strength of his conviction, coupled with his shy and impeccably polite manner, that breached the corporate defences when, at the age of 19, Arfaq decided that he would dispense with The Chosen and concentrate on designing for "The One", Michael Jackson himself.
"When I first approached his agents, they said I had more chance of designing for the President of the United States," says Arfaq, brushing a gelled curl from his face in a diffident gesture borrowed from his idol. (He looks surprised, but entirely pleased, when the similarity is remarked on.) "But I just kept on and on. All I wanted was the chance for Michael Jackson to see my designs. I honestly didn't care if he bought them or not. I just wanted him to see them."
Working round the clock to finance his Michael habit ("at one stage I was doing five jobs at once and working in a burger bar at nights"), Arfaq pieced together a collection for The One and flew to Chicago, where he had been told that the superstar might just have five minutes to look at his work.
"He just loved it," says Arfaq, pressing his palms together in a gesture of fervent thanksgiving. "He purchased the whole collection and we've done loads of stuff since. You just don't realise until you meet him what a down-to-earth person he is."
These things are relative. Certainly Jackson was the ideal client for Arfaq to develop his fantastic schemes with. Stage costumes for The One have included the world's first air-conditioned jacket, which pipes cool, purified air around Jackson's body, rhodium-plated, self-adjusting shoes, the Healing Hands glove and "The Crystal Miracle", a jacket composed of 275,000 rock crystals and sewn on to metal mesh to "recreate the effect of the Aurora Borealis".
"It was so shiny," says Arfaq, happily. "Each crystal had eight facets you see. It's not technically possible to get more shine than that."
When it comes to Michael's outfits, nothing is too much trouble. Arfaq makes a point of delivering each costume to the star on hangers specially produced by Rolls-Royce in burr elm and hand-stitched hide. "I could use a pounds 20 hanger," he says doubtfully, "but I really need to know that my garments are resting on quality."
The obsession with luxury, with expensiveness, is clearly a compulsive thing, beyond reason, beyond aesthetics, the kind of incomprehensible compulsion that drives people to break the world boiled-egg-eating record. But Arfaq is convinced that there are enough people out there who share this excitement, for whom owning the most expensive perfume in the world would be not just a thrill, but a mission. He has sensibly limited the edition of "The Jewel" to 173 bottles (don't ask, he just likes the number), but will not be drawn on how many orders have been placed. Press him for details on his "chosen" client list and it's like running into a duvet. However, a call to his PR reveals that sales are still at the "confirmed interest" stage. But if his gamble pays off, and there really are people out there with more money than sense, for whom, let's face it, the whole money: sense ratio has gone out of the window, then Arfaq Hussain could be a very rich young man by Christmas.
"The Jewel would make the perfect Christmas gift," he muses. "It would show someone you really cared. And you know," beams Arfaq-Gianni-Vive- Sulman-Hussain, his flawless features unclouded by irony, "it's the thought that counts"
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