“It was a brothel!” exclaims Goga Ashkenazi delightedly by way of greeting. I have just walked into our private lunch room at Lapérouse in Paris. The Kazakh oligarch-turned-fashion-designer is pointing a perfectly manicured finger to the scratches in the mirror above her head, and reciting a story about the 19th-century courtesans who frequented these upstairs salons. “They were testing the diamonds that they were being paid with, and they would test whether or not they were authentic on the mirrors.”
Actually, we agree, some of the names scratched into the glass look suspiciously contemporary. Ashkenazi concludes: “It’s a very funny place but it’s got fantastic food.”
Ashkenazi is best-known for her social circle: a pal of Britain’s Prince Andrew, she has a glittering array of former boyfriends. Her surname comes from a brief marriage to American hotel heir Stefan Ashkenazy. Timur Kulibayev, the married billionaire son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s eternal president Nursultan Nazarbayev, fathered her two young sons. Fiat heir Lapo Elkann is her latest former boyfriend. Yet the 33-year-old, who recently jumped from the oil and gas industries to purchase the venerable French fashion house Vionnet, is also a case-study of how elites from resource-rich economies are buying up western Europe. This woman embodies the shifting global economy.
In the confines of our private salon, Ashkenazi is quite a presence: sharp central Asian cheekbones, long shiny black hair, full lips. One hand has green nail polish to match her trousers, the other black to match her top. In the place where other people wear a belt buckle, she has an upside-down black heart. Is she wearing Vionnet? She beams and gushes, in accented but fluent English: “Just for you. I just flew in from Tokyo, I didn’t have time to change. For your sake, I actually had to travel like this.” The clothes are her own creation: unusually, Ashkenazi is both creative director and owner of Vionnet.
She acquired the 100-year-old fashion house a year ago. Plugging its new collection, she has also whizzed through Hong Kong, Dubai, Istanbul, Beirut and Moscow within a fortnight. “I open my eyes and I don’t know where I am, so I’ve ordered coffee before you arrived, and I apologise.” A waiter discreetly opens our door bearing her cappuccino.
Ashkenazi is bubbly, laughing, and likeable. I ask whether, despite being a fashionista, she enjoys food. “Every now and then, absolutely. I love McDonald’s. Love. If I see one and I get a fixation on it, I can’t not eat it.”
Given her svelteness, this seems implausible. When did she last eat at McDonald’s? “In Hong Kong airport four days ago. If you see me order, you will think I’m crazy because I always have a Big Mac, a cheeseburger, chicken nuggets. I throw away the buns – I will leave one but not, like, all three. I eat with cutlery because otherwise you get very greasy. But when people see me, and I’m not big, they say, ‘You’re seriously going to eat that?’ And I go, like, ‘Watch me.’ ”
So we could have eaten at McDonald’s? “With pleasure actually, except it’s impossible to talk.”
A waiter materialises. Ashkenazi orders watercress soup with black truffle and grains of Baéri imperial caviar, followed by sole. I choose chicken ravioli in broth, then sole from the Menu Déjeuner. “Perfect,” she says but then adds: “This is something we in the fashion industry don’t ever touch: ravioli, carbohydrates.”
Does she meet many fashionistas with eating disorders? “We don’t talk about those things, of course. ‘Do you have an eating disorder?’ You don’t ask that.” Still, her paean to McDonald’s encourages me to believe she’s up for a feast. To jolly things along, I order a glass of white wine but she politely declines to join me.
Ashkenazi was born Gaukhar Berkalieva in Kazakhstan in 1980 but grew up in an apartment building for senior communist officials in Moscow. Her father was an engineer who sat in the Soviet party’s Central Committee under Mikhail Gorbachev. “To be completely honest with you, yes, I lived in privilege.” Aged eight, she packed off her red bicycle as a gift for the poor American children she learnt about at school. She was 11 when the Soviet Union dissolved. However, her parents, like most senior communist officials, didn’t exactly plunge into poverty. Aged 13, she joined the first generation of post-Soviet children to go to British boarding school. Despite being suspended for kissing a boy in her room, she got into Oxford to study modern history and economics. At university she spent so much time socialising in London that she left with a third-class degree. “I’m probably more British than anything else – though obviously not,” she muses. She may have in mind reports that she was recently stopped at the border trying to enter the UK on a Panamanian travel document, which she said involved an administrative error.
She lives in Milan now but retains a link with the UK, where her two sons live in her west London mansion. Does she miss her boys? “I’d be lying to you if I say I don’t sometimes feel very, very sad that I’m not spending time with my children. I don’t see them for sometimes weeks at a time. I hope they don’t have to go to therapy for the things I did to them,” she says, laughing. “But, you know, if they do, that’s their journey. I can’t change myself.”
In her early twenties she returned to Kazakhstan. Post-independence, the country had unexploited natural resources. She offered a killer combination: brains, charm and top contacts, both Kazakh and western. “Through family ties,” explains Ashkenazi, “we knew the general constructor for oil and gas infrastructure engineering, so he was probably the top engineer in the industry. He’s a genius, he sort of knows every pipeline in the Soviet Union. He came to my father, and my father wasn’t interested in doing business because at the time he went back into the government, so he sort of said, ‘If you feel like doing something, why don’t you sit down?’”
Ashkenazi became chairman and chief executive of MunaiGaz Engineering Group, her own engineering and construction company for the oil and gas industry. “I, as a girl, came and took a business that nobody wanted: nobody wanted to build compressor stations in Kazakhstan.” Ashkenazi also built oil and gas pipelines and pumping stations. Though she made her fortune, she says she treated her work in oil and gas as just a job. Fashion was always her passion. Now her sister oversees the old business, while Ashkenazi helps out only occasionally.
In the very male oil and gas business, she denies ever having used her feminine charms. “At the beginning,” she says, “I literally for a year dressed as a man. I dressed only in suits and even wore a tie. ‘I’m not a woman, I’m a working human being,’ you know.” But, she adds: “You can use the fact that men try to be overprotective of a woman. I’m not talking on a romantic level, just generally speaking.” She points to our door: “You will open the door for me before I walk through it. Sometimes there is that sense in business as well. Some people will not be as harsh with you because you are a woman. But I am harsh.”
Her watercress soup has arrived but Ashkenazi only has a few spoonfuls. Gearing myself up to dine with a beautiful fashionista, I had resolved to ditch my normal practice of scarfing everything in sight. In fact, restraint proves easy: my chicken ravioli is deeply mediocre.
I remark that her connections clearly helped her. Ashkenazi replies: “My family, yes, had connections and, yes, I had certain exposure but there’s a big pool of people sort of all the same [in Kazakhstan]. You can imagine the elite – everybody knows each other. So what?” Connections don’t matter much, she explains. Eagerly she expounds her philosophy of life: “If you want to be successful, work hard at it then you will get there. It’s just a matter of time.” So anyone can have success if they want it enough? “Completely. When I was growing up, my parents said, ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it.’ I said, ‘What, go into space?’ And my mother said, ‘Going into space is going to be easy because someone has done it before you. To do something nobody has done before is more difficult but it’s doable.’”
Yes, I say, but surely it’s more doable if your father was a leading communist who sent you to British boarding schools and introduced you to the top former Soviet engineer? It seems I am naively underestimating the power of will. To set me right, Ashkenazi tells a story about a boy from an ordinary Kazakh family who did a Master's degree at her Oxford college. “He did it all by himself,” she emphasises, sounding like a post-Soviet reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher.
I try again: isn’t it sad that the resources of the former USSR ended up with a few, mostly well-connected, billionaires while most of the population remain poor? Again Ashkenazi sets me straight: “If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my very diverse life, it’s that money has nothing to do with happiness – nothing. I know people who are ridiculously wealthy, who are the unhappiest people I know. Then I see other people and I get almost envious. I remember a maid of mine in one of the countries, in one of the houses, came from the weekend and I said, ‘How was the weekend?’ She said, ‘My God, I just had the most unbelievable weekend! You know, we decided to buy a hat for my daughter, and we went to this market and bought this hat and it was unbelievable and we also bought it much cheaper than we thought, and so my husband said, “Let’s buy a bottle of champagne!” And we came home and we cooked a meal and you know, it was just the most unbelievable weekend!’ And she had this smile on her face, like I don’t know, because they bought this hat for their daughter.”
Ashkenazi must be tiring of my attacks, because now she launches a counterattack. Western countries, she notes, aren’t exactly clean themselves. “Have you, has the western world, got it all figured out, to be judgmental like that? Britain: the atrocities during imperialism and colonialism … ” For good measure, she throws in the Iraq war. And anyway, she concludes, “If you want equality, you need to go to socialism.” Throughout this diatribe she continues to beam at me.
At this point Askhenazi’s sole is returned to the waiter so nearly intact that Lapérouse might as well serve it to someone else. Having eaten my entire fish, I sympathise with her abstinence. My neighbourhood cafés in Paris serve far better food at a fifth of the price. I realise my mistake: never let a fashionista choose the restaurant because they barely eat anyway.
Meanwhile, Ashkenazi has embarked on an ode to success. “I find generally dealing with people that are educated and confident and successful much easier than people who are bitter with whatever insecurities.”
Why are successful people easier? “Because they don’t have to take their insecurities out on you. Don’t get me wrong, for me success is not a money-related issue. For me success as a person is having achieved whatever goals you’ve set for yourself.”
Maybe success is not money-related but Ashkenazi does seem to like wealthy men. For instance, it was the British heir Robert Hanson who introduced her to Prince Andrew (“a fantastic human being”). Later she inadvertently plunged Andrew into scandal, by introducing him to Kulibayev, who bought the prince’s long-unsold mansion Sunninghill Park for £15m – a reported £3m above the asking price. “I can’t believe all the fuss about this stupid house!” exclaims Ashkenazi. “I introduced them, so what? I’m not a real estate agent. All the speculation about the price – I think they just didn’t want to barter with a royal.”
I point out that though she admires success, she seems very fond of heirs: Ashkenazy, Elkann, Prince Andrew, as well as her acquaintance Saif Gaddafi, son of the late colonel. Does inheritance count as success? “Certainly people who have achieved something on their own are a lot more successful in my definition than the ones that have just inherited. I’ve seen people who have come from great families and been expected to be great but they’re just not. Maybe they’re mediocre but because they’ve been expected to be great, they’re super unhappy. I find the people who inherit much more trouble.” When I ask about Elkann, who almost died after a drug overdose in 2005, she says: “He’s a very nice man. As everybody knows, he’s had his troubles, but he is doing better, I think. The grandfather [Gianni Agnelli], such a great man – you can imagine, to live in his shadow cannot be easy or fun.”
It’s time to ask about Vionnet. Ashkenazi met chairman Matteo Marzotto while trying to buy a dress, and ended up buying the company for an undisclosed sum. Has she encountered much resentment from western fashionistas who think a celebrated French brand shouldn’t be entrusted to an eastern newcomer? “Of course. I’m ‘a Kazakh nouveau riche girl that came to play fashion’. Some influential people in the fashion industry just sort of hate me. They’ve told editors not to attend Vionnet shows.” Still, she adds, most fashionistas are pleased she’s investing in their industry.
In fact, Vionnet has become her mission in life. “The French kept calling it a sleeping beauty. Well no longer, it’s been awakened. I’m either going to do it or I’m going to die trying.”
I compare her to Roman Abramovich: whereas the Russian oligarch pours money into his football club, Chelsea, she pours hers into her fashion house. Again, she bristles: “I’m the first person in the office and the last one to leave. I work in every single department, I’ve grown the team, I got the suppliers myself, I sketch with the team, I drape myself, I sew sometimes. I spend 95 per cent of my time and my energy on the business. I don’t think Roman Abramovich spends 95 per cent on Chelsea.”
How was her lunch? “Fantastic! Thank you so much.” Ashkenazi isn’t the kind of girl who does dessert. She has black tea and I have espresso. “Let me have a look at the time,” she says. “I’m so sorry: my plane is in an hour.” And flashing one last unforgettable smile, she’s off to Milan.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
51 Quai des Grands Augustins, 75006 Paris
Watercress soup with caviar Baéri €38.00
Menu Déjeuner €45.00
Glass of Château Doisy Daëne €13.00
Earl grey €10.00
Total (incl service) €174.00