women

French Revolution: How One Parisianis Shaping Women’s Wardrobes Worldwide? (Part 1)

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Understated enough to look like you haven’t tried, cool enough to count. It’s this approach that propelled Emmanuelle Alt onto the radar, in her skinny black jeans, punch-black eyes and spike-heel boots. Alt styled Marant’s shows until she took the job as editor of French Vouge last year; Alt’s hustband, Franck Durand, has been Marant’s artistic director since 2005. You’ll see something similar on all the French girls in the front row at shows: Clémence Poésy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon … they all wear designer labels, but warp them with age-old sneakers or beaten-up jeans.

Description: Charlotte, Lou Doillon, Jane Berkin

This is what I love about the one piece of Isabel Marant I own – a slight-shouldered bouclé jacket in a granite grey. I wear it most days, probably because it manges to be unpretentious yet French (tough gig). It is Paris by design, Paris by attitude, Paris by default. Sexy and dark, like chocolate.

Marant’s approach makes for an infinitely more interesting appraisal of French style than the drivel we hear about how French women don’t get fat, wear frilly knickers, smoke Gauloises, ignore their children, never match their bags and shoes, and don’t do jokes. There’s more to being a French woman than “two lipsticks and a lover” (UK writer Helena Frith Powell’s take on the matter). Better, I think, is a description from French actress Sara Forestier: “French women are like magnets. Sometimes we attract; other times we repulse. We are alternately hot and cold. Distant and passionate. It is to do with our origins, a mix of Latin and Celtic.”

Marant takes her eight year old son, Tal, to schook each day, “dressed in a scruffy jacket, with the hood up” and cringes as other mothers at the gates compare new Isabel Marant boots. “I hate it!” she shudders, seemingly repelled by her own success.

Her desire for privacy explains why, each weekend, Marant and her husband (accessories designer Jérôme Dreyfuss) take Tal to a tiny hut on the Loing river in Fontainebleau, 70km from Paris. The fridge is a vintage icebox by the riverbank; the toilet is flushed with a bucket. As Dreyfuss has said, “It’s surprising how little you need.”

Description: Jérôme Dreyfuss at Liberty

“She’s probably the least materialistic person I’ve ever come across in fashion,” claims How. It may seem an odd description of someone who produces $2000 leggings, but apparently her designs are as much artistic pursuit as money-making enterprise.

“My clothes reflect who I am,” says Marant. “When I start each collection, there’s a lot of introspection, philosophical questions: ‘Why would I buy one thing more than another? What didn’t I do well last time that I can achieve better now?’ It’s a gestation. “My aim in fashion when I started was to open my wardrobe and ask, ‘What can I wear today?’ There are a lot of garments that are very beautiful, but too beautiful to wear. Some of my favourite clothes are the ones I’ve had for ages, rough maybe, but they just feel right.”

Marant’s achievement has been to give busy, middle-aged women a new uniform – sexy edgy, practical. No wonder it’s spawning so many look-alikes. Almost everything I buy these days owes a debt to Marant. “Becoming a global brand is hard for her,” admits How. “She has to perform. [The label] is growing almost faster than she can cope with, despite having fantastic staff. She’s stretched because she wants her hand on everything and doesn’t want anything to slip through her fingers – actually she can’t leave it alone, which is why it’s so successful. For Isabel, it’s all about the process. Whereas most designers manufacture their collections in Italy, her clothes are mostly produced on-site.”

“I do all the prototypes here,” confirms Marant as she leads me through the atelier. “I need to see the garment being built up step by step. Sometimes from first drawing to final garment, it is totally different. I’m bever happy. I’m never enthusiastic. But it’s what drives me. A week before the last [spring/summer] show, I was already drawing winter, precisely from the frustration I had with summer. I knew it wasn’t right. And then I start to sketch again. I cannot allow myself to have no ideas.”

Description: Isabel Marant Dresses

No wonder she looks as exhausted as her sneakers. Her relaxation (“I was a big party girl in the past,” she grins) is to listen to indie rockers Arcade Fire on her headphones.

“I need that comedown. I have crazy days. Everybody comes to me and I can’t leave the office without putting my music on, going back into myself and saying, ‘OK, you had this in your soul and you’ve seen this today, does it correspond?’ – because I must give answers, right away, to everything.”

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