THE MAN BE­HIND THE DRESS

Roland Mouret, who cre­ated the clas­sic Galaxy – the most widely copied dress of its time – had his first brush with drap­ery in his fa­ther’s butcher’s shop. He dropped out of art school at 18 and de­signed his first col­lec­tion at 36, links cre­ativ­ity with b

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Roland Mouret, the French fash­ion de­signer whose iconic dress, the Galaxy, be­came more fa­mous than the man him­self, is wait­ing for me at Har­vey Ni­chols in Mall of the Emi­rates. He is as French as they come – in that fear­somely ’and­some way, all brood­ing brow and per­fectly parted hair, mag­ni­fied by the thick and enun­ci­ated vow­els that pep­per his speech. He looks de­cid­edly out of place sit­ting among the raz­zle-daz­zle of this mega mall, the sur­round­ings some­how a lit­tle brash for such a clas­sic-look­ing chap. There is an awk­ward kiss­ing mo­ment when, in a panic, I go in for a third. “Are we go­ing for three?” he laughs. “Where I am from, you give one you take one,” he adds with a wink.

Mouret does smooth pro­lif­i­cally. He is the type to make you sit up straight and cross your legs at a cer­tain an­gle, a last-ditch at­tempt at de­mure. For those who have no in­ter­est in fash­ion, or who have been wear­ing a fairly large pair of blink­ers since 2005, Mouret is the cre­ator of what is ar­guably the most im­por­tant dress of the last decade, the de­signer who re-em­pha­sised the fe­male form and our ap­proach to artful drap­ery.

The son of a Lour­des butcher, Mouret de­scribes his childhood as idyl­lic. “I only re­alised later in life how much I was linked to my fa­ther. I learnt a lot from him. We worked side-by-side when I was younger. In fact, the butcher’s apron was the first fab­ric I learnt to deal with. I used to play with the square of fab­ric to get it to fit the body. Still, to this day, the only curve that I ac­cept is the curve of the fe­male body.”

At 18, Mouret le the co­coon of Lour­des for Paris. His plan to go to art school was a brief flir­ta­tion. “I did three months be­fore leav­ing. It was a French school – so snobby. They told me there are just two types of stu­dents here: the one who leads and the one who leaves. The one in the mid­dle was of no in­ter­est. I knew then that I had to get out. To do fash­ion, you need to go out into the world, and you have to have a life and you have to be cu­ri­ous. To be hon­est, it turned out to be the best de­ci­sion I have ever taken; to this day I find it re­ally dif­fi­cult to be con­trolled by other peo­ple.”

A few years later, Jean Paul Gaultier ap­proached Mouret in a night­club and asked him to model in one of his menswear shows. Gaultier was street-cast­ing and look­ing for some­one with a phys­i­cal pres­ence, some­one who would pro­voke a re­ac­tion and make the ob­server un­com­fort­able.

“It was re­ally funny. I was wear­ing a baggy pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of braces, and my zip was wide open on a pair of big un­der­pants. For him it was like, this is great! He was a mag­pie of street cul­ture. He asked me right there did I want to do his show and I said sure, why not?”

A er the show, Mouret asked Gaultier for a job but was turned down. “It was the only time in my life I ever asked to work for any­one and I was re­fused. I hated that. But you know, it wasn’t un­til re­cently, when one of my best friends who had worked for Gaultier for 10 years was strug­gling to start his own la­bel, that I re­alised it was for the best. It didn’t work for him, be­cause all of his best ideas were Jean Paul Gaultier’s ideas.” Again, Mouret was look­ing for a change, so he packed his bags and re­lo­cated to Lon­don, did a bit of styling and opened Free­dom, a cafe, bar and ex­hi­bi­tion space in the West End. It wasn’t un­til the age of 36 that he be­gan work on his own col­lec­tion.

“I knew if I didn’t start to be a fash­ion de­signer then, in four years’ time I was go­ing to be re­ally bit­ter about it, bad mouthing those that did it sim­ply be­cause, well, I didn’t. I had the urge to make all the time, but I needed to know what it would all be about. I went back to ba­sics and went through the whole process of drap­ing, set­ting my­self the tar­get of two months to present 15 pieces.”

It wasn’t to be a par­tic­u­larly easy time for the de­signer. “I didn’t re­ally know how to do an out­fit at all. I am lucky as I can just start to fold. It is a gi , but I didn’t know how to make a jacket or do sleeves or trousers; I didn’t even know how to put in a zip. I was us­ing hat­pins and safety pins to se­cure things and heavy wools that were itchy on the skin, but I sup­pose they were there as a con­cept.” Mouret’s first col­lec­tion launched at Lon­don Fash­ion Week in Fe­bru­ary 1998, and de­spite the lack of pat­tern cut­ting, the fault­less drap­ery, made from raw silk, wools and organza, was crit­i­cally ac­claimed, and made the cover of the Ital­ian mag­a­zine, Collezioni.

If he is ter­ri­bly bored of talk­ing about the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of the Galaxy, which was un­veiled in his fall/ win­ter 2005 col­lec­tion, Mouret is too po­lite to say. “I was in­ter­ested to what ex­tent can a woman ac­cept to be con­trolled by an out­fit. It was an ex­treme vi­sion to re-em­pha­sise the fe­male form and set off curves at the time, but no­body re­ally knew the ef­fect it would have.”

This time around Mouret’s col­lec­tion had all the trim­mings – the zips, the lin­ing, the cut and the right fab­rics – not to men­tion a pat­tern, which meant it could be re­pro­duced. “I didn’t know about pat­terns. I had just draped be­fore, so it was quite amaz­ing start­ing to re­ally learn about clothes.”

He tells me that he had to use waist re­strain­ers for the mod­els as they were too thin for the de­signs and needed an ex­tra inch – a new con­cept for young girls who had pre­vi­ously had to closely mon­i­tor their weight for the run­way. “They were ter­ri­fied,” he laughs, “but they looked fab­u­lous. It was a real mo­ment of Bet­tie Page. Of course we didn’t re­alise what we were mak­ing in that mo­ment; we were too close to it.”

What Mouret had done was de­sign a dress that was draped so art­fully that it did mirac­u­lous things to the body, no mat­ter the size. It nipped waists, flat­tered the up­per arm, and gave promi­nence to that il­lu­sive S-curve. There was some­thing in the cut that seemed to heighten the sex­u­al­ity of the wearer.

“I had wanted to de­sign a dress that a woman could wear with a bra, which you never think about with a model. That dress gave me a chal­lenge be­cause some­thing so re­stric­tive be­came lib­er­at­ing for me as a de­signer, and for women. I knew then I wanted to go in that di­rec­tion.” And the celebri­ties soon fol­lowed. “Demi Moore was the first to take the Galaxy. Scar­lett Jo­hans­son came next and a er that it just went boom boom boom.” As did the copies – within weeks, the whole of the high street was tout­ing its own ver­sions of the Galaxy. How did it feel to be copied so in­tru­sively, I won­der. “It de­pends on my mood. I made my pas­sion my busi­ness and I have to sur­vive it. At the same time I can’t stop peo­ple. I un­der­stand there is a need for a dif­fer­ing level of prod­uct in the mar­ket but the mo­ment it be­comes an ho­mage we should be able to in­voice with the price of the copy­right.” Un­be­known to the fash­ion world, Mouret was about to do some­thing that would el­e­vate the dress even fur­ther: re­sign from his own la­bel. He had fallen out with his in­vestor, Sharai Mey­ers, in an almighty bust-up that would leave him with­out a la­bel or the right to de­sign un­der his own name (he had signed away his rights to man­age­ment in 2000). What hap­pened that was so bad that he would walk away from ev­ery­thing he had built? “The words we said, per­haps they were not the right ones, but I just knew they couldn’t take me where I wanted to go. I just told them I don’t recog­nise you any­more, you don’t have it, you don’t have enough for me.” He was right, for one year later he was back, cre­at­ing un­der the la­bel “RM by Roland Mouret”, and picked up right where he had le off. It wasn’t un­til 2007 that Mouret found a new backer in Si­mon Fuller, the man be­hind the Spice Girls and the Pop Idol phe­nom­e­non. It was a strange choice, con­sid­er­ing that many of the ma­jor fash­ion houses were woo­ing Mouret. The some­what-cu­ri­ous part­ner­ship had the po­ten­tial to go blun­der­ingly wrong. But, de­spite ini­tial spec­u­la­tion of im­pend­ing dis­as­ter, it did not. Quite the con­trary, in fact. Mouret’s re­cent col­lec­tions have had myr­iad suc­cesses, not to men­tion a smat­ter­ing of red-car­pet show­stop­pers. And on Septem­ber 9, 2010, Mouret ac­quired the rights to use his own name again. He tells me that he has just hired a head of de­sign this year. Up un­til then ev­ery­thing went through his own hands. I ask him if that is why his pieces are so ex­pen­sive. “I don’t per­ceive them as ex­pen­sive,” he says, in be­tween laughs. “The price re­flects a com­pany that works things prop­erly. I pro­duce in Eng­land, France, Por­tu­gal and Italy, and the fab­rics are Euro­pean. It would be easy to go cheap and get ev­ery­thing pro­duced in China, but you need con­sis­tency with qual­ity. I em­ploy 55 peo­ple in my head­quar­ters in May­fair [that in­cludes wom­enswear, menswear, de­sign work­shops, stu­dios, a show­room and the de­signer’s pri­vate ate­lier]. It’s a busi­ness – I have to pay peo­ple. I think that the prices of my out­fits re­flect that.”

Th­ese days, Mouret lives a quiet(ish) life in Suf­folk. He spends three days a week in Lon­don, one in Paris and three at his cot­tage. I ask him if he is happy, as things seem to be go­ing pretty well. “It’s the sim­ple things that are not based in Lon­don that make me happy; the cot­tage, the dog, friends, that kind of thing. I am con­tent be­cause I still have the op­por­tu­nity to search for more.” But there is a fun­da­men­tal fear of age­ing that may be the source of some angst. “You know, at some point all of this will stop. I think about it all the time. Youth al­lows us to be cre­ative. I don’t want to age. In­side I am still that per­son I was. Youth is about plea­sure. With­out plea­sure, you are not ex­ist­ing.” Per­haps the best thing about the Galaxy was that it ended up over­shad­ow­ing the de­signer, al­low­ing Mouret to hover on the pe­riph­ery of fame – al­though he has a some­what con­tra­dic­tory view of his jour­ney so far. “In a way I wish I could be more so­cia­ble. If I knew be­fore that I was meant to be build­ing a life all this time, I may have been bet­ter at it. I was too busy en­joy­ing it.” Mouret is what some may call a pro­fes­sional provo­ca­teur (he has un­abashedly de­clared that his dresses are made for un­dress­ing). Re­gard­less, this is clearly a man who loves women and has a knack for com­bin­ing the avant-garde with the tra­di­tional. And each of his metic­u­lously cra ed piece reminds us that the true essence of clas­sic de­sign is still very much alive.

HERE AND NOW Roland Mouret was in Dubai in Novem­ber for a pre­view of his spring/ sum­mer 2014 col­lec­tion, which is avail­able from Bloom­ing­dale’s, Bou­tique 1 and now Har­vey Ni­chols.

MAS­TER DRAPER A model at the spring/sum­mer 2014 fash­ion show in Paris. Op­po­site page, the de­signer at a dress fit­ting at his head­quar­ters in Car­los Place, Lon­don.

GA­LAC­TIC SUC­CESS Mod­els at the iconic 2005 show wear­ing the fig­ure-flat­ter­ing Galaxy dress, which be­came pop­u­lar with celebri­ties such as Demi Moore, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Dita Von Teese (pic­tured, cen­tre). Op­po­site page, Roland Mouret at Har­vey Ni­chols in Dubai.

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