A few years back, a fashion editor advised designer Nicole Farhi that she'd do well to reinvent herself as the British Donna Karan. This would, of course, require that she tilt her Modigliani face into the media limelight with a lot more frequency. And those nine stores in England would hardly be enough: She'd have to retool her working-woman-clothing chain as a global-franchising machine. The demure and press-shy Farhi -- until 1992, she had never staged a runway show -- refused. Instead of spending countless days in meetings and nights ricocheting around the party circuit, Farhi took the tortoise approach, spending quiet evenings in her Hampstead home with her husband, playwright David Hare.
The Nice-born designer had moved to Paris when she was 16 to study fashion briefly before she presented her first collection -- children's socks -- for an Italian company. A few years later, her career got some fizz when she met Stephen Marks, a seasoned retailer who was preparing to launch French Connection. Farhi would serve as his main designer until the early eighties, when she scissored out her own label within the empire. In England, she outsells that beloved dandy Paul Smith. Nicole Kidman picked up chunky knit sweaters in Farhi's London boutiques during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut. And at last year's Academy Awards, Judi Dench cut an elegant figure in a smoky-gray organza dress and matching cardigan. "She looked so beautiful that evening," says the designer, pointing out that her clothing is never overpowering: "I like people to carry my clothes, not for the clothes to carry them." Actors Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Norton are fans of her menswear, as are Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis; Farhi's washed herringbone and Donegal tweeds will be on the hangers later this fall.
Some have raised a well-pruned eyebrow at Farhi's debut in a 20,000-square-foot space at 10 East 60th Street -- just around the corner from the new DKNY flagship, which is only the size of the Queen Mary. Farhi explains: "After my shop on Bond Street opened in London, I had nothing left to top there." Farhi is also injecting a synergy booster, positioning wool-jersey jackets and soft linen trousers a few steps away from the furnishings and food. When it came to the store's blueprints, she drafted a proven winner: Michael Gabellini, who sliced a stark white boutique out of Paris's Avenue Montaigne for Jil Sander. An inveterate flea-market forager, Farhi jumbles one-of-a-kind thirties lamps with handwoven baskets; a line of alpaca blankets handmade in Peru were inspired by years of globe-trotting, while porcelain, stone tableware, and pottery with visible thumbprints recall her own work as an accomplished sculptor. The home collection is merely a natural extension of Farhi's own nest-building, she says. She has no interest in foisting a utopian lifestyle on her customers. In the basement of the shop, she's opened Nicole's, a sister restaurant to the one in London that remains a favorite lunch spot among Bond Street businessmen, with its grilled fish, salads, and fresh-fruit tarts. Expect more of the same here. "The food embodies the same principle as my clothes, in that it's not overdesigned," says Farhi. "It's simple -- and good."