She won’t do eveningwear or work for anyone else. But after 20 years, and with vast queues for her new range at Swedish multinational retail-clothing company, H&M, French designer Isabel Marant has burst her niche.
FRESH off the Eurostar from her home in Paris, the fashion designer, wrapped in fur, takes a seat in her central London Mayfair boutique and sips her coffee. But no, erase that mental image: Isabel Marant may be the buzziest fashion designer of 2013, but she is nothing like that sounds. In flat black suede boots, skinny leather trousers and a grey cashmere crew neck layered over a white T-shirt, she looks less like a Paris fashion week diva than a chic yoga teacher. The fur jacket she is wearing sells for several thousand pounds, but she tugs it around her shoulders as if it were an old blanket; she likes the salt-and-pepper colour, she says, because it matches her silvering hair, which, at 46, she does not dye. On the shopfloor, designer armchairs have been regally placed at either end of the immaculate cream rug, punctuation points intended to emphasise this grand expanse of top-dollar real estate. Marant picks one up, drags it towards the other and sits down, hands around a mug of coffee, leaning towards me between her knees as if we were beside a campfire.
Marant’s clothes have been a fashion insider’s obsession for a decade, but this year the brand went global. Since the label’s inception in 1994, fashion has been increasingly dominated by multibrand, global powerhouses such as LVMH, but Marant has bucked that trend, growing steadily while remaining independent. The clothes are now sold in over 800 boutiques and department stores worldwide. With her recent H&M collaboration, Marant joined a rollcall that includes Versace, Lanvin, Martin Margiela, Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld, and the publicity around the range has strengthened her place in the fashion constellation. The newly opened London boutique is just a few hundred yards from the H&M stores where, three weeks ago, crowds queued overnight for the chance to buy the fringed ankle boots, studded rock-chick jeans, washed-out sweatshirts and slouchy cardigans that are staples of Marant’s brand.
Marant is cheerfully unsnobbish about embracing the high street.
“I was flattered that they asked me, actually. Very proud, because H&M had worked with so many of the best designers that to me this meant I was a real established designer.”
Marant defines her brand as “a silhouette and an attitude”. I ask about her clothes, fabrics, inspirations; she answers me with a gesture or a pose, rather than a description of colour or style.
“A jacket should be a bit ... you know”, she says, filling the gap with a loose-limbed wriggle of her shoulders; or “when you wear jeans you feel ... cool, you know” with a crossing-and recrossing of her slender legs.
“I want my clothes to be perfect – but easy-perfect, you know?” she adds, plucking briefly at the cuffs of her sweater, to show how they finish at exactly the right point. French women are different from English women, she says, in that they will “pretend they are not paying attention to how they look, but really they are. I dress the same every day, but I love everything that I wear. A nice, leather trouser, a nice flat shoe, a nice linen T-shirt, cashmere, fur.”
There are two traditions of French chic, of course: the lap-dogged and coiffed, coutured and gold-buttoned Avenue Montaigne type, and the bohemian, Rive Gauche strand. Marant is the latter; her smile makes her look a little like Jane Birkin. She has a marvellously Hercule Poirot diction (“my eye, it is trained, of this I am certain”) enhanced by her low, raspy voice. (She smokes roll-ups.) Her hair is in a messy bun fixed with a black elastic tie – but she is careful to restyle it before she has her photo taken. She wears almost no make up, perhaps a smudge of eyeliner.
Marant designed the prototype for the concealed-wedge high-top trainers that became her best-selling, most-copied product when she was just 11 years old.
“I was a tomboy, so I would never wear heels. I wanted to look taller, but I wanted to look cool, so I put pieces of cork inside the sneakers. I just think it’s the coolest thing, to be in sneakers, but to be taller.” The wedge trainer – copied so widely, Marant says, it is “disgusting!” – captures the DNA of her brand: androgyny with feminine wiles.
“It was only a few years ago that I thought of going back to that idea I had had when I was 11. But I knew it would work. Because a high heel in your shoe positions your body in a certain way, it gives you confidence. And you are comfortable. You feel good, basically.”
Marant’s German mother was a model, “beautifully dressed, a lot of Kenzo”. Her parents divorced when she was little; later her father remarried “a very chic black woman, always in Yves Saint Laurent. So, I grew up surrounded by beautiful clothes. Of course, at the time I didn’t like it – it turned me into a tomboy, but I learnt a lot. I grew up wearing my father’s old cashmere, making something out of his best Harvey Nichols (luxury London department store) robe with the silk lining”.
At 16, she was selling the clothes she made: skirts made out of the coarse, red-and-white striped cotton of traditional French kitchen linen.
“I was obsessed with Vivienne Westwood. A bit crazy. Supergrungey!”
She studied at the prestigious Studio Bercot in Paris, and later worked as a fitting model for Michel Klein, wearing early versions of the clothes in the studio, so the design team could see how they worked on the body.
“I learned a lot from that, because as the fitting model you see the clothes from the woman’s point of view, and from the designer’s point of view. That’s still how I think when I work.” Before long, Marant had launched her own label, with her first catwalk show held in a squat, with friends as models.
“No one else was designing the clothes I wanted to wear, so I made those clothes, and I found other women who wanted them, too.” It wasn’t long before a word-of-mouth cult label was born.
The nicest thing any journalist has written about her clothes, she says, is “that they look like clothes you already have, that belong in your wardrobe”. She looks thrilled, which is striking, as she is hardly starved of praise: every stylist in Paris seems to see Marant as the cool older sister they never had. But Marant loves the idea that her new clothes look like old favourites.
“I love old clothes, the way they fall. A leather jacket that has softened into your shape – there is nothing prettier.”
Where other designers charge endlessly through new territory to ring the changes Marant’s aesthetic is more zen. The metaphor she uses is cooking.
“I am stirring, and tasting, and adding seasoning, always thinking, is this right? Is it perfect? And everytime I cook the same dish, it tastes a bit different.” She makes tiny seasonal adjustments – “it could be a gesture of a woman in the street that makes me notice how her jacket falls, it could be a fabric, a length, a feeling” - to update a look, though its essence never really changes.
“Sometimes it’s about how a garment falls that makes it feel special, that makes a woman feel good. And you always have to have the pocket in the right place, to flatter the hips. Mostly I just do what I like, but when I am really in love with something that I design, usually that piece will be the bestseller. It’s funny seeing this autumn collection on the rails now, because when it was finished I thought to myself that it wasn’t my strongest. But now it comes to this time of year and this is exactly what I want to wear this winter. And all those leggings, those long sweaters – they are sold out.”
One of her motives for agreeing to the H&M range, she says, was the chance to recreate personal favourites from past collections.
“I have some things I made ages ago that are the first things I put in any suitcase, and one day I thought: what happens if this suitcase gets lost? These are my treasures. At the end I was so surprised, because I am not usually a crazy person for new clothes, but I ended up buying some of the pieces.”
The oversized knits – “my Big Lebowski cardigans” – are her favourites.
Marant does not design eveningwear. Her nose wrinkles at the word. “I hate it. I don’t think it’s modern. It’s as if you are disguising yourself.”
For a designer, this is a significant decision. Red-carpet dressing takes up a growing proportion of fashion coverage. But she is adamant.“
That’s just not how I want to look. I love to do something feminine, but I put it with something masculine, because for me that is harmony. If I do white, I will do black.”
Marant is married to Jerome Dreyfuss, an accessory designer, and they have a 10-year-old son. They live and work in Paris, but their “salvation” is a cabin with no electricity 50km away.
“It is tiny, just a small, wooden house by a river. It’s more like a boat, in a way – we have a gas stove, we have candles, and when night falls, we go to bed.” On Saturdays they work in the garden.
“We don’t even have a letterbox. It is very reassuring to know you can live with almost nothing.”
Her one regret is that she launched her own label before working for anyone else, but at this point she rules out taking a job at a major house. The brand will continue growing, she says, “for as long as it can grow and stay the same. I won’t let it change, or it won’t have a soul. I am proud I have many of the same employees working with me since the beginning. I want to expand, but it’s more important to keep my roots. I’m good at doing Isabel Marant, and that’s it. Why do anything else?” – Guardian News & Media 2013