“I don't spend days shopping,” says Giselle Farhat Kalkandis. “I am quite practical – maybe that’s the word. When I go to showings, my approach is to work through the collection first without any explanation from the sales agent – this relies on my intuition. After making a selection, there is often an in-house model that tries on each look. It’s at this time I prefer to gauge an understanding on the background to the key pieces … [and] the motivation of the designer.”
In an Altewai Saome shirt and Margiela sneakers, Farhat Kalkandis cuts a sharp, if unassuming, figure. The 35-year-old founder of fashion e-tailer MyChameleon is petite, in height and frame. She’s also serious about being taken seriously. At one point in the interview she discusses the importance of maintaining relationships with designers. “With some new labels we have to be patient, because they may have exclusivity agreements in place with another international store for their first couple of seasons. So I’ll stay in touch, I’ll make sure I meet them overseas.” She shrugs. “Business is business. It’s not just about fashion.”
Farhat Kalkandis is a businesswoman first. She’s direct and careful with her words, not one to gush or over-compliment. Prior to MyChameleon, she lived another life, managing commercial finance across state infrastructure, in-house at Telstra. She has a double degree in applied finance and actuarial studies. But she’s always been fond of good design – it was the reason she spent nights moonlighting as a shoemaker-in-training, learning the trade at TAFE after-hours. “It comes back to what you see and what appeals to your eye,” she says. “I think [this sensibility] is in everything: it’s in food, in architecture. It’s in objects. It’s like a taste level I guess. I think you appreciate design, or you don’t.”
Things have grown significantly since the launch of MyChameleon five years ago. Farhat Kalkandis ran a one-woman operation. She took all the website’s photographs herself. She contacted like-minded magazines, introducing her e-store as one with an inimitable mix of international and local designers. “I think my approach was a little bit different to someone in fashion,” she says, smiling wryly. “Because I wasn’t privy to how things in the industry worked, I approached it in a very matter-of-fact way. I came from finance, where it’s black and white.”
The store’s reigning aesthetic is one of discreetness: quieter garments from Dion Lee and Christopher Esber, suiting separates from Parisian label Cacharel, silk slips from Organic by Jon Patrick. Even the selection from fashion-world darling Jacquemus is unexpected: collared tunic shirts with pink panelling and coats in sky-blue wool are stocked over nuttier neon-bright numbers. London brand Marques’ Almeida, whose latest season includes silk chiffon and metallic Japanese denim, will be stocked from 2015. Each year, Farhat Kalkandis travels to the Paris shows so she can examine garments in the flesh. “[MyChameleon] is not loud,” she insists. “It’s about the woman wearing the clothes, rather than the clothes wearing her. All those branded things and bright colours often take over a person’s personality … Our woman is quite educated about brands. Fabric means something to her.”
MyChameleon has customers who buy something with them every week, others every month. Building loyalty without a physical space has been a laboured process: it is essential that all channels of communication are always open. “It’s making yourself accessible, via email and phone and all your social media … when the customer places the order, that’s not the end of it. There are so many other steps: the packaging and attention to detail, the fact we chase up and follow up with customers to check how things have gone.” Over the next year, further expansion beckons: a new website, a bigger space (including a by-appointment showroom, a fixed studio and a warehouse) and more “lifestyle” and sportswear products that give customers a more rounded experience.
Conversing with Farhat Kalkandis – with all her steely entrepreneurialism – brings to mind a recent piece by Alice Gregory for the Wall Street Journal: “We think of art appreciation as erudite, but an interest in fashion is considered with airheaded. When an art-lover buys art, it’s called ‘collecting’. When a fashion enthusiast buys clothing, it’s called ‘shopping’.” Of course, the serious versus frivolous binary is boring and dated: common dismissals of fashion are rooted in gender stereotypes. If anyone could be testament to the depth and intelligence that fashion can afford, it’s the founder of MyChameleon. She picks up the detail and care in everything. “We’re building a house at the moment and yesterday I met our landscape architect. She was in Ann Demeulemeester pieces, beautifully layered. It was sensational. She does everything by hand still, which I love.”