Understatement of the year
It’s a testament to the not-sofragile Entente Cordiale that when asked who, for her, typifies Parisian chic, Vanessa Bruno instantly names two Britons – Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin.
She says it’s because there’s something spontaneous and slightly ravaged about them, although to Anglo-Saxon eyes both women look polished on a Gallic scale. And that, perhaps, is the magic formula the modern Parisian seeks to copy. “Catherine Deneuve’s an incredible woman,” says Bruno, “but in her early days she was too done, too blow-dried. It’s not cool.”
As it happens, the Birkins are fans of Bruno. Jane’s daughter Lou Doillon has modelled for the label; her other daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, wears the clothes. Kate Moss has one of Bruno’s deep-green Cabas bags and I once spotted Julianne Moore shopping in one of the Paris branches. But I think Bruno, who moves like a languid sea nymph and has the choppy white-blonde hair of a West Highland terrier, draws her main inspiration from herself.
She wouldn’t be the only one. She was barely in her twenties when the designer Daniel Hechter asked her to head up his studio, mainly, it seems, because he liked the way she wore clothes. Growing up, she lived fashion through osmosis. Her Danish mother, Dorothee, was a star model for Nina Ricci. Her Italian father bought the fashion house Emmanuelle Khanh. Martine Sitbon, the designer avidly followed by every actual and honorary Parisienne in the Eighties and Nineties, used to pop around and take a small Vanessa roller skating.
Not that Bruno was ever that small. At 15 she became a house model. “Modelling wasn’t so serious then, I just did it for some pocket money and to get out of the house,” she says, shrugging. While striking a pose, Bruno was covertly looking and learning. “I’m a self-taught designer, so everything I know, I learnt from experience and observation. In the early days as a model, it was my job to say how the clothes felt.” That proved highly instructive, as did watching the pattern cutters and looking at women in the street – their posture, how they moved, figuring out which proportions worked.
Three decades years later, some of Bruno’s most treasured pieces are delicate antique blouses. The one she’s wearing here is a vintage-inspired number from her own label. “When I look back at pictures of my mother, she still seems very modern. There are so many women who change their look completely every few years, but why would you do that? It’s much better to put your energies into finding a style that works for you so that you don’t have to deviate too far from it.”
The clothes Bruno designs are elegant, simple yet sophisticated, with a whiff of the androgyne about them and priced, in the tradition of Daniel Hechter and Emmanuelle Khanh, at the affordable end of luxury. That’s important to her. Having had this sector of the market more or less to herself since she launched her label in 1992, she is now seeing others crowd into it.
Extremely modest, she begins the design process, she says, not with grandiose themes (that’s probably why women love her) but always with beautiful shoulders. “Not too strong or aggressive. I don’t like things to be fitted or so tight they change the way I move. Carine Roitfeld in a pencil skirt – I love it, but not on me.” She’s not crazy about exaggerated volumes either. “The oversized trend in vogue now is hard for anyone who isn’t really tall.”
If this sounds too sensible to be interesting, that’s because I haven’t mentioned Bruno’s knack for spinning classics into (understated) statements, a knack that attracts all ages. Bruno, an ethereal-looking 45-year-old, says, “Focusing on age is boring. It’s much more interesting to think about style.” She doesn’t lay down decrees about what should and shouldn’t be worn at a given age. She still wears shorts (with those legs, of course she does) and tries to be laissez-faire with her 17-year-old daughter Lune. “Lune has great style, but sometimes at night – whoo, it’s a little bit much. But in the end, it’s like, ‘OK – go ahead: you have to learn for yourself.’”
As Bruno reasonably points out, she wouldn’t have built a business of 30 stand-alone boutiques and 10 shops-withinshops by limiting her collections only to what she would wear (jackets – she has at least 20 on the go) or wouldn’t (skinny jeans and calf-length skirts – neither, she says, looks right on her). Nevertheless, the line is an extension of herself. Stella Tennant, face of the most recent campaign, is a brunette, Scottish version of Bruno. Even the bags are personal – one of the classic styles is called Lune.
Bruno’s is the not-too-done approach. She drinks a bit, exercises a bit – Pilates and cycling everywhere – likes clubbing when she’s on holiday and eats even when she’s not. “Only French women at the heart of fashion don’t eat,” she claims. I’m not sure about that. But hers is the Parisian life of fantasies: marriage to a charming art dealer with a stylish, sprawling-yetminimalist apartment in the third arrondissement (a short bicycle ride from her stylish, sprawlingyet-minimalist offices), a retreat in the Camargue and just enough insecurities to make her loveable.
Unpolished perfection: French designer Vanessa Bruno, main, drew inspiration from Lauren Hutton for her autumn-winter collection, left