What hap­pens when de­sign­ers turn to their own lives for in­spi­ra­tion?

ELLE (Canada) - - Style - By OLIVIA STREN

THE AR­CHE­TYPAL MEET- CUTE be­tween fash­ion de­signer and muse is the stuff of leg­end. The most fa­mous ex­am­ple is that of Jane Birkin and Her­mès’ Jean- Louis Du­mas. Birkin was on an Air France flight when her bag fell over and spilled its con­tents. Du­mas, who was seated be­side her, re­marked, “You should have one with pock­ets.” Birkin replied, “The day Her­mès makes one with pock­ets, I will have that.” “But I am Her­mès,” Du­mas pro­nounced, “and I will put pock­ets in for you.” The love child of this ren­dezvous, of course, is the fa­mous Birkin bag. (I don’t know about you, but were my purse to some­how dis­gorge its con­tents mid­flight, I can as­sure you the in­ci­dent wouldn’t re­sult in an Her­mès bag be­ing named af­ter me.)

The (fla­grantly glam­orous) de­signer-muse sto­ry­line once went like this: Male cou­turier is in­spired by nu­bile fe­male ac­tress or model, and their ca­reers are for­ever but­toned to­gether (some clas­sics: Hu­bert de Givenchy and Au­drey Hep­burn; Yves Saint Laurent and Cather­ine Deneuve; Karl Lager­feld and Ines de la Fres­sange).

To­day, the plot has been up­ended. The num­ber of fe­male fash­ion de­sign­ers is on the rise, and Stella McCart­ney, The Row’s Ash­ley and Mary-Kate Olsen and dozens more are cast­ing them­selves (or their friends, sis­ters, col­leagues) as their own muses and their own mod­els. Just look at Vic­to­ria Beck­ham, who has built an en­tire brand based on how she likes to dress.

Mar­garet and Kather­ine Kleve­land, sis­ters and founders of L.A.-based brand Dôen, are quick to name mod­els Caro­line de Mai­gret and Alyssa Miller as their in­spi­ra­tion, but they also cite each other. If Yves Saint Laurent made Cather­ine Deneuve a dress (lit­er­ally) fit for a meet­ing with the Queen, then Dôen’s mis­sion is more down-to-earth. “We saw a glar­ing gap in the mar­ket for cloth­ing made for women by women that felt fem­i­nine, easy and nat­u­ral,” says Mar­garet. “Our cus­tomer needs pieces to wear to work, to din­ner and on the floor play­ing with Lego with her child,” adds Kather­ine. Dôen’s flow­ing prairie-style dresses seem fit for Laura In­galls—if Laura were to gam­bol into this cen­tury, move to Sil­ver Lake and start mak­ing her own oat milk. But a Dôen dress never looks more at home than when a Kleve­land sis­ter is wear­ing it, usu­ally at a farm­ers’ mar­ket with beau­ti­ful chil­dren or a baby an­i­mal in tow.

Jen Mank­ins, owner of Bird, a Brook­lyn-founded chain of bou­tiques, thinks de­sign­ers us­ing their own lives as mood boards is both in­spi­ra­tional and as­pi­ra­tional but also more ac­ces­si­ble than a Givenchy-clad Au­drey Hep­burn on the steps of the Lou­vre. “Shop­pers look to other peo­ple whose lives they con­nect to,” she says. “That’s why it’s so po­tent.”

The trend, of course, also comes by dint of tech­nol­ogy. In the di­rect-to-con­sumer age, there is a more open and in­ti­mate feed­back loop (or, at least, the il­lu­sion of one) be­tween de­sign­ers and their cus­tomers. De­sign­ers can model their clothes for all to see, lend­ing a warmth and ap­proach­a­bil­ity to their cre­ations. So at a time when au­then­tic­ity is cur­rency, the de­signer cast­ing her­self as her own muse also serves as a savvy busi­ness move.

There has, of course, long been an ap­petite for cloth­ing wrested from the male gaze. This might ex­plain the gen­eral out­rage when Hedi Sli­mane took over French brand Ce­line from Phoebe Philo last year. Philo was beloved as a “woman’s de­signer” and fash­ioned clothes that braided to­gether so­bri­ety with con­fi­dence and fem­i­nin­ity, mar­ry­ing the re­al­i­ties of life with the fan­tasy of how we long to live it. This priz­ing of func­tion­al­ity over theatre, of wear­a­bil­ity over art, seems at the heart of New York de­signer Rachel Comey’s brand. “When I think about de­sign­ing a gar­ment, I come from a more in­dus­trial-de­sign point of view; I’m think­ing about what she’s do­ing, how she wants to feel, what the tem­per­a­ture is,” Comey, who is a kind of de­signer lau­re­ate for the ur­ban, smart and un­re­lent­ingly cool, tells me over the phone. Then there’s Paris-based Kym Ellery, who serves as her own kind of fit model. “I al­ways want women to feel com­fort­able, and that’s some­thing you can only un­der­stand when you’re wear­ing the gar­ments your­self,” she says. Their in­clu­sive­ness—of re­al­ity, func­tion and fan­tasy—is ar­guably part of their al­lure (and suc­cess).

De­sign­ers and best friends Emily Cur­rent and Meritt El­liott founded their brand The Great in 2015 on pre­cisely this union of func­tion and fan­tasy. Even the name The Great is based on the idea that magic lives in the quo­tid­ian. Cur­rent and El­liott (who launched their denim brand, Cur­rent/El­liott, in 2008) met at UCLA and quickly bonded over a shared pas­sion for vin­tage jeans. The Great’s cloth­ing—nos­tal­gic em­broi­dered tops, apron dresses and sweat­pants softer than the pink-eared bunnies that make their way into its cam­paigns—conjures the fan­tasy of a life more gen­tle, more po­etic, more cozy. The softness and ease of the cloth­ing some­how tele­graph the com­fort Cur­rent and El­liott have with each other. When I met the duo last year at a sun­shiny Blue Bot­tle café in West Hol­ly­wood, I could not have felt more up­lifted if I had been hav­ing cof­fee with two Cal­i­for­nia sun­beams.

I wore a prairie dress (with pock­ets) and ten­nis shoes for our meet­ing. (Alas, I didn’t have a goat as an ideal ac­ces­sory.) But think­ing back on that ren­dezvous now, I wish I had, I don’t know, spilled my oat-milk cor­tado on my dress. Maybe they’d have pro­posed to de­sign an­other one for me in my name. A muse man­qué can dream. ®

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