VF Group retail managing director Michelle farrugia on the luxury fashion world, her passion for fabrics – and how it feels to work with your dad

Text by Katryna Storace -§- Photography by Brian Grech

Hair: Georgette Galea, Jewellery: Victor Azzopardi Jewellers, Clothes: SARTO

The first time Michelle Farrugia entered the world of fashion retail, she was just 13 years old. Her father, Vincent, chairman of VFGroup, took her along on a business trip to a textile fair.

“It is a fantastic world – a rainbow world of threads and textures, buttons and fabrics,” she remarks. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. Today, Michelle manages the fashion division of the company and is responsible for some leading brands, namely Blumarine, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Emporio Armani, French Connection, Giuseppe Zanotti, Hugo Boss, Mexx, Samsonite and Valentino.

As we talk over a bottle of wine, clad from head to toe in unassuming designer wear, she oozes simplicity and class. Fashion, however, wasn’t always on the cards.“When I was a child I wanted to be a number of things,” she says, “including an air hostess, a lawyer and, to my mother’s horror, a nun!”

The apple never falls far from the tree, however, and Michelle found herself walking in the footsteps of her father and her grandparents. “I think commitment to quality, attention to detail and love for design run in the family DNA,” she says. “My great grandmother used to sell imported textiles during the Second World War, while my grandfather was a master of tailoring through the early fifties up until the late seventies.”

VFGroup is the brainchild of Michelle’s father, conceived a good 35 years ago. It started as a small manufacturing unit which today houses the company’s head office in Floriana. At the time, the company was producing high quality men’s trousers, which were mainly being exported to North Africa, Russia and East Germany. The company continued to grow and eventually ventured into retail, media, design and uniformity.

Michelle remembers spending her summers at the factory as she was growing up. “I would start work early each morning. Each time my father would get me to do something different. I remember that with my first pay I bought myself a watch.”

She joined the company officially at 19, after the considerable feat of opening the first Mexx store in Mosta when franchising was still in its early days. Work is very much a family affair. Michelle’s younger sister, Elaine, is also part of the company, and this means that the discussion over dinner inevitably tends to fall back onto work.

“It’s endearing, but can become exhausting.” What’s it like having her father as your colleague and boss? “My father has given me a lot,” she says. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, maybe because we’re so alike. We’re both dreamers… My mother’s the one who keeps us both grounded. He always has my best interest in mind.”

Both her parents, she adds, have given her a very good background, having worked hard all their lives, having taught her to always strive for what she wanted to achieve.

“Nothing is easy and one must be patient,humble and disciplined while always staying true to one’s self and one’s passion.”

This past year Michelle has steered the opening of two luxury stores – Hugo Boss and Sarto – in St Julian’s. This is part of the personal vision that she wishes to see through for the company. I wonder whether this is the right time to be investing in luxury brands, or whether she considers it a calculated risk.

“Yes, investing in luxury stores is a calculated risk,” she says without hesitation. “However, the way I see it, while the competition is fighting for large square metres for their shops, we feel the need to distinguish ourselves by focusing more on customer service and targeting a more sophisticated market offering higher-end brands and products.” The idea was to place Malta on the international map for luxury, giving Maltese customers access to luxury products in their own country.

Why is “luxury” so desirable? “I think that luxury, today, is no
longer a sign of wealth but a personal desire to seek uniqueness
through an object, a garment, a way of living, or a distinct experience. Luxury is a treat. It is also tied down to the idea of
investment. Owning an Armani, Valentino or Burberry makes you
feel unique, valuable and special.”

The opening of Hugo Boss, and now Sarto, mark two major personal
milestones in her career. “I was so excited when I travelled to Milan to meet the fashion houses for the first time. We placed our first order, attended the first runway show, discussed the first plans for the  store with the design team, branded the logo and the stationery, recruited our staff… it was so amazing.”

Travel is an important part of Michelle’s job. For five months of the year, she is away, attending fashion shows and business meetings, buying merchandise and consolidating business relations. She enjoys meeting different people from different cultures, and has formed some invaluable bonds through the years. “My next trip will be to South Africa,” she says excitedly. “Part work, part fun. I’ll be attending a big event organised by Hugo Boss over there.”

Each year, Michelle flies to Milan for Fashion Week. This, she admits, is every woman’s dream. “Milan is booming with people during Fashion Week. There are shows every day, which gives you the choice to attend those of your favourite brand. The shows are spectacular: the clothes, the atmosphere, the people. Sometimes, you also get to meet the designers, which is a thrill.” In the evening, there are lavish parties, which provide the perfect occasion for mingling and getting a real feel for the colourful world of fashion.

From a distance, one would be inclined to ask whether all this talk of fashion is a little too frivolous. I couldn’t be more mistaken, however.

“Fashion is a process, it is beauty, sensitivity and attention to the world and what it’s going through”

“It is also a business that is deemed by what one should be wearing at a moment in time. Every day we dress up we’re living a different dream and that’s the whole point of dressing up.” And style? Is it the same thing? “Style is different, you can be poor and have style. You can be wealthy or beautiful, and have terrible style.”

When asked what it’s like being a career woman in what is primarily a male-dominated business, Michelle isn’t too keen to play along.
“Modern women today are capable of achieving any task… Success has nothing to do with the gender,” she says in her characteristic
matter-of-fact tone. “If you want a career, you need to fight for what you want. It’s not an easy decision, but I think it is possible for a woman to have her career and to have a family too. If you have a supportive partner, then it’s possible.”

And what about her, is it something she aspires to? “Yes, of course. I think it’s something most women wish for.” Despite a very busy schedule, which calls for a lot of personal sacrifices, Michelle has a strong network of friends whom she adores. She has recently bought a maisonette in Balzan and is in the process of doing it up. “I’m really looking forward to having friends and family over. I love entertaining. I find it so relaxing.”

In her work, she finds her energy, no matter how tough things get. “If I am awake, I work. I believe that work is an important part of who I am and I enjoy it. Honestly, I would be lost without it. I feel very content and at peace in my life right now.”