With no real background in fashion, the glamorous, Oxford University-educated Ashkenazi -- who counts Britain's Prince Andrew as a friend -- is all too aware of her critics. Some in the industry hate her, she has said, adding that they see her as nothing more than a rich girl playing at fashion.
She has declared herself determined to prove them wrong, hiring a team of designers dedicated to making Vionnet great again -- the fashion house once rivalled Chanel -- and has thrown herself into both business and fashion-related roles herself.
"I feel I was destined to do it in a way and I'm doing it with all my heart... giving myself (to it) completely and utterly," she told AFP in Paris where her latest ready-to-wear collection is one of over 90 being staged this week and next. The daughter of a senior communist party official with links to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ashkenazi, who is in her thirties, grew up in Moscow before being sent to private school in Britain.
Taking on Vionnet has been "quite a task"After returning to Kazakhstan in the wake of independence, she made her fortune using her father's contacts to set up an engineering and construction company for the oil and gas industry. Harper's Bazaar magazine recently described her as paper-thin, fine-boned and fizzing with youthful enthusiasm. "It (taking on Vionnet) is quite a task and quite a responsibility," Ashkenazi said backstage at her spring/summer 2015 show late on Wednesday.
"We're trying to stay true to Vionnet and the clothes and in a way I think reinvention comes through the materials," she said, explaining that the collection used over 70 different fabrics including high-tech ones. Two years ago Ashkenazi's Go To Enterprise group acquired a majority stake in Vionnet, reportedly after she met the chairman Matteo Marzotto while buying a dress.
"People say 'why did you choose Vionnet?' and I say 'I didn't, Vionnet chose me'," she said. Currently living in Milan, Ashkenazi maintains close links with London where her two young sons live. She also remains close to her children's father, the married tycoon Timur Kulibayev who is the son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Since taking over, Ashkenazi has been assiduous about maintaining Vionnet's legacy. Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) was famously inspired by ancient Greek art and known for her Grecian-style dresses. She is considered one of the greatest French designers for her innovations which freed women's bodies from the constraints of the corset.
The fashion house, founded in 1912, went into liquidation in 1940 and the brand was then bought by the Lummen family in 1988. "It (the collection) is all about Vionnet; the spirit of Vionnet is there in every piece," Ashkenazi said. Reviews, however, have so far been mixed. Wednesday's collection of mostly white, nude and peach floor-length gowns with futuristic touches was described by website nowfashion.com as "magical, surreal and modern."
Another, style.com, noted "nice pieces scattered throughout" but said that others were a "seriously hard sell" and described the collection overall as a "rather daffy group of clothes." "Ashkenazi appears to want to update the Vionnet formula, make it seem aggressively modern; the trouble with that is that Madeleine Vionnet's ideas are timeless and look modern still," it added. (Helen Rowe, AFP)
Photos: British Vogue