Saturday 18 March 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 18/3/2023

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Finer things

This edition, we ease into the weekend by marvelling at the multitasking talents of the art world’s selfie-stick-wielding ‘show-experience assistants’, giving you the skinny on the United Arab Emirates’ first fashion-industry talent incubator, pondering the significance of the UK chancellor’s red briefcase and more. First, Andrew Tuck spills the beans on a trip to Cannes…

The Opener / Andrew Tuck

French connection

This week I headed to Cannes with Carlota, one of the producers of The Urbanist, the podcast that I get to front every week. We went there to attend Mipim, the world’s largest property fair. It’s a gathering of developers, investors, city leaders, government ministers and various hustlers. Some 23,000 people descended on the city and, since the city in question was as modest in size as Cannes, the attendees took over the joint, especially come the end of the day when business gave way to ambitious entertaining. Every bar, restaurant and hotel was packed and buzzy, even if most of the party people were dressed in grey suits and buffed shoes (the men) or wearing crisp blouses and carrying expensive handbags (the women).

Places that make money from hosting epic trade events get used to being used as a stage, a backdrop for various industries’ giddy annual gatherings. In Cannes, that means one week it has the movie world in town for the film festival; another week, it’s the turn of the ad folk who come for Cannes Lions or the TV deal-makers for MipTV. And if, like this city, you embrace every cast change with gusto, it’s lucrative. Hotels unflinchingly raise their prices; Airbnb hosts aim for five-star-hotel rates. But it’s all done with a smile. Being socially disorganised, Carlota and I had no restaurant bookings in place but that wasn’t a problem; during this kind of feeding frenzy, even rammed joints find a way to squeeze one more table in. “This is the start of the season for us and it’s a nice crowd that spends,” said one maître d’ as he magicked up a perch for us. “It’s just so much fun.” That’s the Cannes-do spirit.

Do you like catfishing (catching big fish with whiskery faces, not luring in the unsuspecting)? Me neither. But something has happened to my social-media feeds that means that every day I see posts featuring men displaying some fine specimen and boasting about its size (yes, we are still on the fishing). I have made it clear that I don’t want to see posts of this kind but in they still pour, one mighty monster after another, writhing before my eyes. This sea of annoying content is one of the reasons why Monocle has been slow to embrace platforms such as Instagram – would we just become part of the distracting noise? But recently we have been using it to tell people about this newsletter and also our new travel show, The Concierge, on Monocle 24 and it’s clear that a new audience is finding us – perhaps that’s why you’re here today. But should we take the leap and start our own account?

One of the other reasons why I personally use Instagram is to track down contacts. This week a single post at Mipim (Carlota kindly added “social-media photographer” to her list of endless skills) rustled up several valuable hellos, including from a minister. And how else could I have let my contacts know so easily that we were in town? A sandwich board, perhaps? I did, however, spot some very nice cargo-style bikes converted to deliver newspapers at Mipim. They had smart, white containers at the front that were simply decorated with the word “News”. Perhaps The Urbanist could get a tandem version branded “Monocle” next year; then you would know we were there.

As we were reporting not just for the radio but for the magazine too, we had a photographer with us for two days. He came down from Paris and we got to talk – a theme that I have been banging on about for the past couple of weeks. I am often struck by how, if you just get someone to tell you their story, you will be all the richer for it. The photographer has a Greek first name, Iorgis, but doesn’t speak the language. He explained that his grandparents had been forced to flee Greece in the 1950s after the civil war because his grandfather, who had been a communist partisan, was suddenly seen as an enemy. Communist Hungary offered them safe haven but in the early 1980s his parents managed to make it to the West and settled in Paris. So now Iorgis speaks French and Hungarian but no Greek. The story has been on my mind all week – how can you have such displacement repeated over generations and somehow successfully build your own identity from all the parts? And I wondered whether this story, this awareness, fed into Iorgis’s success as a photographer. He had a way of winning people’s confidence within seconds of seeing them – and a way of getting to know them just as quickly through his lens too.

If you want more on all the folk who we met at Mipim, subscribe to Monocle today so you can read our report and see Iorgis’s pictures (the piece will run in the May issue). And you can listen to the episode of The Urbanist that Carlota has crafted about the event here.

The Look / The Chancellor’s red briefcase

On the case

Earlier this week the UK’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt (pictured), marked the announcement of his budget by brandishing a red briefcase outside 11 Downing Street, his official residence (writes Andrew Mueller). It was, in its quaint way, an important gesture of reassurance. Neither of the UK’s previous two chancellors, Kwasi Kwarteng and Nadhim Zahawi, lasted long enough to present a full budget to parliament (indeed, neither lasted long enough to consider changing No 11’s curtains). Even more than usual, Hunt’s lofting of the scarlet valise was intended to demonstrate continuity with a tradition of prudent government.

Image: Reuters

These red boxes are a centuries-old feature of Westminster. They are currently supplied by upscale leather-goods outfit Barrow Hepburn & Gale. UK ministers and royalty use them to transport documents – whisky, cigars and other luxuries have also been rumoured to have been carried inside – but it is only the chancellor’s red box that is a standard prop in a ritual photocall. For an astonishingly long time, it was literally the same box. Aside from a couple of dour modernists (James Callaghan, Gordon Brown), every chancellor until 2010 clutched, with increasing anxiety about it falling ominously to pieces, the one commissioned for William Gladstone in 1860.

All parliaments have their quirks. If the UK’s seem weirder than most, it’s because they have lasted longer. Hunt accompanied his red-box debut with a forced, anxious grin. That is partly because he accompanies everything with a forced, anxious grin but – surely – also because he must fear, as Gladstone did not, the mockery shortly to be wrought via Photoshop.

How We Live / VIP Treatment

Private viewers

Luxury retail has a side that most people don’t see (writes James Chambers). That’s true of the art world too, where serious collectors are given special treatment at galleries and fairs. This privilege used to mean gaining outside-hours access but since the pandemic began a new kind of service has emerged to cater to important clientele who can’t physically attend: the show-experience assistant (SEA).

Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon

SEAs are the personal shoppers of the art world. If you have attended a major art fair in the past few years, you might have seen one standing in front of artworks with a selfie stick or an iPad or connecting collectors with gallerists. Unlike virtual showrooms and satellite booths, SEAs have survived the return to normality and will be making an appearance next week at Art Basel Hong Kong, where the job title originated in 2021. As annoying as they might be to other fair goers, SEAs are highly effective salespeople, according to the director of Art Basel Hong Kong, Angelle Siyang-Le.

Siyang-Le said that one in three appointments leads to a sale and that the service is particularly popular with Japanese and South Korean collectors. SEAs must have the knowledge of a docent and the flexibility to follow the whims and personal preferences of every collector. That requires memorising the floorplan of the fair and recognising the faces of gallery staff. Add to this the requirements of speaking multiple languages, tech-savviness and a service mentality and it’s little wonder that grounded pilots and air stewards filled most of these positions at the height of the pandemic. As a new generation of collectors who are more comfortable shopping online but no less demanding of special treatment emerges, SEAs will likely become an art-fair fixture.

Monocle Concierge / Your Questions Answered

Southern comforts

The Concierge enjoys nothing more than helping you to plan your next trip. In this endeavour we now have audio assistance. The Monocle Concierge has just launched a podcast. Like this segment, it features questions from readers (or, in this case, listeners) seeking expert recommendations about destinations around the world. Tune in to this week’s episode for top tips from Östersund, Amsterdam and Ibiza and direct your queries here. We will answer one every week.

Dear Concierge,

I’m surprising my partner with 10 days in southern Italy. What’s not to miss in terms of food and drink?

Johan Andersson,

Image: Andrea Pugiotto, Rocco Rorandelli
Image: Andrea Pugiotto, Rocco Rorandelli

Hi Johan,

Now is a glorious time to enjoy Italy’s south: the crowds are gone and the weather is warming up. While I wouldn’t recommend covering four regions in 10 days, you will have time to pack in a wide range of experiences. Start in Naples, Italy’s most boisterous city, where you can enjoy some old-school fine dining at Mimì alla Ferrovia or the superbly indulgent pizza tasting menu and a bottle of nice bubbly at Concettina ai Tre Santi. For an after-dinner drink, try stylish natural-wine bar Jus (pictured, bottom) or the nearby L’Antiquario cocktail bar. During the day, the Naples National Archaeological Museum and the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, including its modern wing, are unmissable.

If it’s warming up and you feel like hitting the beach, head to the Cilento region, where residents are famed for their long lives and delicious, locally grown food. Stop by Paestum’s still-standing Greek temples, then visit the stunning coastal vineyard of San Giovanni. Malabar, in Pisciotta, offers delicious meals in a movie-worthy piazza and the nearby beaches of Palinuro are equally cinematic. For a final dramatic experience, head to the ancient city of Matera in Basilicata and spend the night in the romantic Sextantio cave hotel. Evviva il sud!

Interrogator / Mai Nardone

Words to the wise

Bangkok-based Mai Nardone is a Thai and American writer whose debut short-story collection, Welcome Me to the Kingdom, was recently published by Random House (writes Naomi Xu Elegant). Here he tells us about his home city’s best bookshop and his fascination with Southeast Asia’s abandoned cinemas.

Image: Mailee Osten-Tan

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with the headlines?
Always coffee.

Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Dasa Book Café, probably Bangkok’s best second-hand bookshop (I’m open to challenges on this).

Do you listen to podcasts?
I love good literature ones, such as David Naimon’s Between the Covers or Mitzi Rapkin’s First Draft.

What’s the best thing that you’ve seen on TV recently?
Slow Horses for its quippy, failing spies and largely irrelevant plot.

Any film recommendations?
Elizabeth Lo’s Stray. I went in knowing almost nothing about the documentary, which was an excellent way to approach it.

What about books?
Gothataone Moeng’s superb story collection Call and Response, which was the first book that I bought on a recent trip to the US.

Is there a book that you keep returning to?
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

Who or what is your cultural obsession?
Do Southeast Asia’s abandoned cinemas count? Photographer Philip Jablon has a spectacular blog capturing the region’s disappearing stand-alone theatres.

What music do you listen to?
Music that I can work to with lyrics, if there are any, that aren’t in English. So Shanghai Restoration Project, Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band and William Byrd.

Image: Dario Lasagni

Culture Cuts / Read, Visit, Listen

Horses for courses

‘Kick the Latch’, Kathryn Scanlan. US writer Kathryn Scanlan takes us behind the scenes of horse racing through stories told to her by Sonia, a woman who has spent her life as a trainer. This acerbic and poetic account conveys the sport’s mundane moments and ecstatic highs, from the tricks of the jockey trade to the art of mucking out, for a result that belongs in the winner’s circle.

‘From Depero to Rotella’, Center for Italian Modern Art, New York. In its rejection of all things ancient and traditional, Italy’s futurist avant-garde had an affinity with the fascist politics of the 1920s. But its zeal for new, industrial-era products also shaped the visual language of the country’s 20th-century commercial posters. This exhibition’s iconic adverts for Barilla, Pirelli, Olivetti, Campari and more demonstrate how the evolution of Italian graphic design is also a story of its shifting political and economic fortunes.

‘Praise a Lord Who Chews but Which Does Not Consume (or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)’, Yves Tumor. As its title suggests, there’s not much that’s straightforward about Yves Tumor’s new record but the shapeshifting result is all the better for it. Born in Florida, Tumor now lives in Turin but seems to have absorbed little of its genteel atmosphere. Instead, this album’s mesmerising mixture of R&B, shoegaze and funk suggests a boundary-pushing, experimental mind (try “Echolalia” and you’ll see what we mean).

Fashion Update / Qasimi Rising, UAE

Connective threads

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has inaugurated its first talent-incubator programme for fashion designers, part of a wider regional effort to build a local fashion industry (writes Natalie Theodosi). Behind the project is Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who runs menswear label Qasimi, founded by her late brother Khalid in 2015. Dubbed Qasimi Rising, the idea is to handpick two winners every year and provide them with long-term investment, including three years of funding and seven of business mentoring.

Image: Aqib Anwar
Image: Aqib Anwar

The incubator’s first winners, announced this week as part of the Sharjah Biennial, are Lebanese-born Salim Azzam (pictured, bottom, on left) and Sudanese designer Omer Asim (pictured, top, on left). Azzam is best known for elegant cotton shirts and light coats, hand-embroidered by artisans from near his home on Mount Lebanon. Asim, who studied architecture before training on London’s Savile Row, takes a more sculptural approach to design, with intricately draped and pleated garments that also take inspiration from the traditional Sudanese thawb.

There is a growing appetite for local fashion in the Middle East. According to a recent report by The Business of Fashion website, the region’s industry is worth more than €84bn in the Middle East; in the UAE alone, as much as 50 per cent of high-earners spend an average of $1,000 (€940) a month on fashion purchases. Until now the focus has been on European brands coming into the region but a new generation of local designers is casting a modern eye on their own traditional garments and crafts.

What Am I Bid? / Flatiron Building

Fork in the road

There are few property bargains to be found in Manhattan – and this will not be one of them. The Flatiron building, wedged between Broadway and 5th Avenue on East 23rd Street, is not the tallest of New York’s skyscrapers but it is among its most famous. The district surrounding it bears its name and the narrow point of its distinctive façade is a fixture of T-shirts and sundry souvenir tchotchkes. And it could be yours.

Image: Alamy

The Flatiron is being sold by Mannion Auctions on Wednesday. The sale is the consequence of a dispute between its present owners – a consortium of real estate firms that holds 75 per cent and a man named Nathan Silverstein who owns the rest. A standoff over renovations and other issues has kept the building unprofitably empty since 2019. As for price, it is difficult to know where to even start guessing. One of the most expensive office blocks sold in New York in recent times was the 1960s CBS building in Midtown, which fetched $760m (€716m). While taller than the Flatiron and handsome enough in its grimly modernist way, it possesses nowhere near the same architectural cachet.

Whether revived as offices or repurposed as a grand hotel, the Flatiron should maintain value – and some of the cost could be made back by bringing copyright suits against the retailers of fridge magnets.


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