Even through the prosaic rectangular prism of a Zoom call, Giovanna Engelbert still contrives to sparkle, and not merely by dint of the bold pink crystal choker snaking round her neck. ‘This one is Chroma – I call it a spiky punk version of a crystal mathematical equation,’ she says, reeling off the credit with the practised air of someone who has spent the past decade obligingly telling people what she’s wearing. Warm, engaging and elegant in a pink T-shirt (‘Attico, with shoulder pads – elevated casual wear’), she is speaking from her office at Swarovski’s Zürich HQ; behind her are stacks of clear acrylic boxes full of crystals.
In May last year, Swarovski appointed the 41-year-old model-turned-stylist-turned-brand consultant to be its global creative director – the first in the company’s history. The first collection she created was pure Giovanna: bold, colourful and quirky, designed to make as much of a statement on a video call as on the red carpet.
The small matter of a global pandemic did nothing to stall her momentum: rather, it crystallised (no pun intended) her vision for the brand, which she believes is to embellish the wearer and bring a touch of magic to their life, whether they’re at a party or working from home. ‘Collection one for Swarovski was born during Covid-19, and that pushed me to work even harder,’ she says. ‘In bad times, you need a mood boost even more, and crystal gives you that.’
Asked what she thinks she’s bringing to Swarovski that’s new, she says: ‘In a nutshell, nonchalance. It’s expressing yourself through accessorising, in an unapologetic way. I don’t want people to be afraid to sparkle and shine. Crystal is meant to be fun.’ But, Engelbert admits, the workload is tough. ‘It’s Zoom 24/7, WhatsApp messaging… Full-on, but exciting. You don’t often get to reshape a company that is 126 years old. It’s a cultural powerhouse.’
You could say the same of Engelbert, a woman whose polished appearance and phantasmagorically glamorous life would lead many to dismiss her as just another wealthy socialite with a surfeit of shoes and a paucity of intellect. Not so. If fashion is her livelihood, art, history and culture are her passions. You can tell a lot about a person by asking the first place they want to travel to when Covid permits. No tropical beaches for Gio (as she is known to her friends) – it’s cities all the way. ‘Cities that will have museums open,’ she clarifies. ‘Last time we were allowed to travel, I went to Marbella to see a Miró show. I want to feel the culture. The moment museums are open in London, I’ll parachute myself there.’
As for how Engelbert parachuted herself into such a plum job at Swarovski, the answer is: she didn’t. Like everyone else bitten by the fashion bug, she worked her way – gracefully, if rapidly – through the ranks, starting out as a model in her native Milan (in the Nineties she was a muse to Dolce & Gabbana). ‘I was too opinionated to be a model,’ she says. ‘I must have been the most annoying person on set. I knew modelling was not my thing, but it made me earn money. I was very independent by age 17 or 18, and I could buy any crazy fashion thing I wanted. I did it for fashion!’
Modelling led her to discover a love of styling, a vocation that allowed her to curate the looks rather than having them imposed on her. Her first job was at L’Uomo Vogue in 2003, where she worked under then-editor Anna Della Russo, before leaving to work for the legendary editor of Vogue Italia Franca Sozzani at Vogue Jewellery six years later. In 2011, feeling claustrophobic in Italy, she moved to New York and began working for W Magazine, where she remained as a contributing editor until 2017. As well as styling editorial, she has consulted for Carolina Herrera, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Max Mara, Bottega Veneta, Moncler and Christian Dior.
But Engelbert’s CV alone doesn’t explain her standing in the fashion world. Yes, she’s intelligent, well-connected, great fun and passionate about her work. But so are a thousand other women.
The simplest way to sum up her success? She has never, ever looked sh*t. She has never had an off day. She has never worn trousers whose cut and colour have caused others to snipe behind her back. She has never worn terrible shoes. Like the Queen, her style of dressing is unimpeachable. Like the Queen, she is greeted warmly and photographed wherever she goes. And I don’t mean now, in 2021, when everyone is photographing everyone. I mean back in the Before Times, when ‘street style’ was a niche industry and the word ‘influencer’ was yet to be invented.
She says she remembers the first time she was stopped and photographed ‘like yesterday’. ‘It was probably 2010, and I was on 14th Street [in New York], en route to Milk Studios to see a show. And this man, very well-dressed and polite, asked to take a picture. The man was Scott Schuman. Then, after another show, he gave me his card and told me he had a blog.’ She smiles. ‘That was the beginning.’ Schuman’s blog, The Sartorialist, was at the vanguard of a mushrooming global interest in street style, and Engelbert became one of his most photographed subjects. Her exuberant style – prints, colour, heels – was perfectly placed to make an impact. ‘Back then, the [prevailing] culture was very black, very Comme des Garçons, very intellectual. And there was me, in my Marni, loving colours.’
I’m curious to know how it felt when everyone and their granny tried to get in on the game. Was it annoying to suddenly be sharing pavement space with people who would arrive outside shows dressed to the nines, with no ticket and no other intention beyond being photographed? ‘I just saw that the shows were becoming bigger and more popular, which I thought was very good, because it made fashion more attainable to a larger audience,’ she shrugs. ‘Why not? At one point, I was mindful of wanting my editorial [work] to be more famous than me, not my looks more famous than my editorial. But by then, the internet was bigger than the printed magazine. Times change.’
Was there a point where she realised that her personal style could become a career? ‘It never became a career,’ she says firmly. ‘My professional life was never linked to that. I never made a living out of it, just to be clear. I was never paid for posts, or things like that. Everything comes from the pure pleasure of sharing fashion with others.’ That pleasure, by the way, has earned her 1.2 million Instagram followers.
It’s understandable that she needs to make this disclaimer. Engelbert never set out to be an influencer, yet an influencer she has become, despite the fact the word is now so debased that no one working seriously in fashion would want to be described as such. ‘It would be good to redo the fashion dictionary,’ she says. ‘What is a stylist, a fashion editor, a creator? It’s all very foggy nowadays. What I understand to be an influencer is someone who makes a living out of paid posts, and who has a lot of followers. And then there are influential people who are not paid for that.’ She looks a little bashful. ‘Maybe I’m more “influential” than “influencer”, in that sense.’
If those on the fashion circuit have been in awe of Engelbert’s personal style for over a decade, it wasn’t until 2016 – when photos of her wedding to businessman Oscar Engelbert went viral on social media – that the wider world sat up and took notice. Who was this woman in the flawless Alexander McQueen gown, her glossy brown hair in a chignon, like a sunkissed, modern-day Audrey Hepburn? Suddenly, everyone wanted to get married in Capri, to a laconic blonde Swedish real-estate mogul. ‘[Designer] Sarah Burton used almost 500 metres of organza for the train, which was four-metres long,’ Engelbert said in an interview at the time. ‘The dress felt alive, mimicking the sea and rocks of Capri.’
If Engelbert was less smart, she’d rise to the bait of me asking her to reminisce about a wedding that spanned two countries, four events and six outfit changes, including couture gowns by Alaïa and Valentino. She would also spill the tea about her entourage, her Courrèges couture, her private jewellery collection and the location of her many homes. But none of these are apposite talking points so soon after a global pandemic has wrecked lives and livelihoods. And so, she demurs, she will talk about her husband. ‘It was a set up by a friend,’ she says of their first meeting. ‘My husband was on a hunt for me. He told me he’d wanted to meet me, and by chance we had friends in common. So it was very romantic, in a way.’ Does she believe in fate? ‘I’m a Christian, so I believe in faith. It’s the base of everything.’
Her daughter Talitha Italia is now two, but if motherhood has compromised her style, you’d never know it from her Instagram feed or from her look on the day we speak. (At one point, she daintily raised her left leg to show me her pink Roger Vivier shoes.) ‘I have way less time to think about what I wear, so I have become faster at getting ready,’ she admits. ‘Talitha loves shoes and jewellery. She’s already very opinionated, so I’m dressing her like a doll while I still can, knowing it’s going to be over soon. I’m so fascinated in an anthropological way by how she’s been born with certain things built in. It’s wonderful to see things through a kid’s eyes.’
Home, for now, is Stockholm. ‘I used to say Europe,’ she says wistfully. ‘But when Covid-19 came along, it made us more grounded in one place. But New York will always be home for me, too; it’s my work and fun home. My roots are in Milan, my life is in Stockholm. It sounds pretentious, but I have a global home mindset.’ How many languages does she speak? ‘All – very badly,’ she deadpans. ‘No. I used to speak French. I don’t even dare to speak Spanish any more. So English and Italian – both bad. I’m going to learn Swedish. The “hchh” sound is hard for Italians to make, but I will learn because I must understand my daughter when she starts school.’
I can’t help but imagine the decadent pre-pandemic dinner parties the Engelberts would have hosted in their global homes for a glittering coterie of fashion and culture’s most charismatic creatives – though ‘Dua Lipa, Cleopatra, Barack Obama, Salvador Dalí and Rihanna’ would be her choice of fantasy guests. ‘Me and Cleopatra could have interesting conversations about jewellery and being boss ladies,’ she laughs. As host, she’s more interested in keeping the drinks and the conversation flowing than she is the food (leave that to the professional chef hired for such occasions). Her tipple of choice is tequila. ‘But good tequila. [Don Julio] 1942. And George Clooney’s [Casamigos] is good.’
Our time is almost over, and Engelbert has back-to-back Zoom meetings for the rest of the day, where she will consult with her design team on forthcoming collections and brainstorm ideas for expanding the Swarovski brand from crystal into lifestyle – bags, watches and more. She is also spearheading the British Fashion Council’s Changemakers Prize, an innovation that seeks to recognise those working behind the scenes of fashion. ‘It’s intense,’ she says, of all of these different roles. ‘And because of the pandemic and working remotely, I still haven’t met 80% of the people I work with every day.’
I wonder from whom she inherited her work ethic: her painter father? Her sculptor mother, who teaches at Milan’s Accademia di Brera fine art university? ‘My grandfather on my mum’s side was a very big inspiration for me. He used to say to me that if you want – if you strongly, strongly want – then you do, and then it happens.’
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