Definition of chic
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 lapdogged 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:
Isabel marant Fall 2013 collection.
‘The collection is infused with this kind of easiness and attitude,’ says French designer Isabel marant about her collaboration with high street fashion label H&m.