Tomorrow morning in an old locksmith's atelier in Paris' once industrial 11th arrondissement, Christophe Lemaire will hold a show for his eponymous brand. It is his first in a long time. For the past two years, Lemaire has been the women's designer for Hermès. Before that, he made the crocodile look chic in mens- and womenswear for Lacoste.
Lemaire's love affair with fashion began when he served as an intern for Yves Saint Laurent back in 1985. Or maybe it started earlier, inspired by his mother and grandmother who wore YSL or by observing his chic uncle, a French Vogue director. Lemaire is a "mélomane" (music lover) with a DJ reputation and a compilation to his credit, but he gradually gave up his nighttime music for his daytime fashion life. Over the past 22 years, Lemaire has quietly been building his own men's and women's brand. Today, Christophe Lemaire is sold at its own store on Paris' rue Poitou in the Marais, downstairs from the design studio. It's also carried by independent shops all over the world, including Paris's Bon Marché; New York's Atelier, Bird, and Assembly; and online at thecorner.com. Lemaire's look is natural and chic, which might sound banal if you don't know what a rare commodity that is today. He believes clothes should look smart and be practical. He prefers shiny hair to hats; loves warm browns, including taupe, in tonal combinations; high-waist trousers for women; sweaters with side slits so you can put your hands in your pockets; and sweeping trench coats, like the one pictured here from the Fall/Winter 2013/14 collection, a stunner in waxed cotton.
We sat down with Christophe Lemaire in his studio last Saturday to talk about his style and to preview some of the winter pieces he will show tomorrow.
REBECCA VOIGHT: How long have you had the beard?
CHRISTOPHE LEMAIRE: It's been a year. Sarah-Linh (Tran, Christophe Lemaire's Studio Director and partner) says, "This way, it's like I've got a new guy."
VOIGHT: You have a great job as the designer of Hermès womenswear. That would be enough for anybody, but you're still interested in doing your own thing. Why?
LEMAIRE: Hermès and my own brand share the same philosophy, the same vision of women, but the two aren't identical.
VOIGHT: How long have you been designing?
LEMAIRE: I was thinking about that recently. I began my own collection in 1991. So it's been 22 years with a break. Now I think I began a bit young. I was 25 years old. If I could do it over again, I'd wait a few years. I made mistakes that taught me so much.
VOIGHT: And if we don't make mistakes, how can we learn anything?
LEMAIRE: That's true. But I have regrets. Don't we all? For the past three years there's been a real evolution. I'm very clear about what I want to say. I have a great team and it's going well. I have a feeling of maturity.
VOIGHT: How many people work with you?
LEMAIRE: There's a team of 11 now. It's a completely independent atelier and company. We develop the prototypes here. There's a pattern maker, a sample maker, a commercial team, a head of sales, an in-house production team. That's the price of independence. And in the studio I work closely with Sarah-Linh on the collection, and Nao takes care of development.
VOIGHT: There were times in your career when you were living in Japan, weren't there?
LEMAIRE: No. I sold a lot in Japan. I have been fascinated by Japan since I visited for the first time in 1995. Back then, I was there twice a year and my collection had 110 sales points there, which is huge. There was a point when almost all my sales were to Japanese stores. I didn't have a real commercial team in Europe. It was a strange situation. I designed in Paris. And I didn't have much success here or in Europe, but I was enormously successful in Japan.
VOIGHT: You were "Big In Japan"...
LEMAIRE: Well, by then I was already doing collections that were very functional and chic with lots of sportswear elements and workwear, and so it was already this idea of making a very special wardrobe based on everyday pieces. That wasn't a look people understood here. Europe was in the middle of a big designer boom. You had to have a big concept. Simple was hard to understand. It was considered a bit banal back then.
[In Japan,] I was French pop. Even though I never cultivated my French side, I had the references. My way to do fashion is very French; it's embedded in our culture.
VOIGHT: This sweater is great! All these beige colors. Don't they make you think of—
LEMAIRE: It's a little bit '70s.
VOIGHT: Yeah, and even the loose shape of the sleeves.
LEMAIRE: They are a bit loose. It's always about finding balance between strict and loose.
VOIGHT: What's was the worst time ever in fashion?
LEMAIRE: I think that the '90s were difficult. At the end of the '90s, there were extraordinary things. I was a big fan of Martin Margiela, but it was a strange era.
VOIGHT: Are you still into sportswear?
LEMAIRE: Clothes should be practical. I like the concept of easy wear. I think [86-year-old] actress Emmanuelle Riva was extremely chic. She's super stylish. At the Cesars, she was wearing this beautiful red silk dress. I don't know whose it was. [ed.: It was Lanvin.]
I don't like clothes that constrict. The idea is that they should accompany and help you. There's nothing superficial about getting dressed. Clothes can give you self-confidence and help you be yourself. We have a direct contact with our clothes; they're like a little house. You have to feel good and at home in what you wear and. I think that's elegance. Chanel said something like: "When a woman is badly dressed, one sees the dress, and when she is well dressed, one sees the woman." That's what I'm talking about.
VOIGHT: The term "retro" is taboo in fashion now, because it has been so overused. How can fashion go forward without looking at the past?
LEMAIRE: It's true fashion has always been nourished by the past. At the end of the day, where the inspiration comes from doesn't matter. It's what you do with it. How you treat it, how you translate it into a contemporary wardrobe. You put it in a shaker.
VOIGHT: You've decided to have a show this season.
LEMAIRE: Yeah, Lucien [Pages, Lemaire's PR rep] pushed me, but it's not really a show.
VOIGHT: What did you do previously?
LEMAIRE: We had a presentation last October. It was very intimate. This time, it's still going to be intimate, too.
VOIGHT: When you say you had a presentation, do you mean there were models and you had them pose like a tableau vivant? And this time it's going to be models walking back and forth in front of an audience sitting in chairs with music at a precise time?
LEMAIRE: Yes. It's a show for 180 people. There's a beginning and an end. It's a show because it starts at a precise time...
VOIGHT: And where is the show going to be?
LEMAIRE: It's an old factory. It's very special. The floor is made of wooden bricks, and there's a skylight. So at 10:00 am, it will be like daylight in there.
VOIGHT: How many days does it take you to do the casting and fittings?
LEMAIRE: All that happens during the last three days before the show.
VOIGHT: What about models—are you completely head over heels about certain girls?
LEMAIRE: Yes, we are extremely precise about the girls we like; they're not necessarily the "It" girls of the season. Sometimes this "It" girl business gets a bit hysterical. It's all about which girl did which shoot with which photographer. What's important for me is to find the right kind of girls who express a vision of a woman. We like girls who look smart and intelligent with natural beauty—a certain quality of skin and hair. And she doesn't look exactly like a model. I'm happy when I see a girl on the bus, or on the street, and start wondering about her. Sometimes I see a woman and I ask myself: Who is she? You want to know what her job is. Who she is? You start fantasizing. There's a certain aura, a certain charm that we try to reproduce.
VOIGHT: Did you do street casting?
LEMAIRE: It's very difficult to do street casting with girls, because a beautiful girl in real life won't necessarily have the silhouette or the presence needed for a show.
VOIGHT: How many models are there in the show?
LEMAIRE: There's going to be a dozen.
VOIGHT: Hair and makeup?
LEMAIRE: A loose, relaxed feeling, but it's really worked. Carole Colomabni is doing makeup. And it's Delphine Courtail for hair.
VOIGHT: Who's doing the styling?
LEMAIRE: It's Sarah-Linh and me.
VOIGHT: Just you two. That's quite old-school.
LEMAIRE: That's because we love styling.
VOIGHT: Tell me about your menswear jacket.
LEMAIRE: What I like to do is take something from a man's wardrobe and re-proportion it slightly. We've got another jacket in this collection with a smaller shoulder. It's the idea of subtle feminization, to make the clothes more delicate.
VOIGHT: Have you done dresses?
LEMAIRE: Yes, but there aren't lots of them this season. I love them, but I think women don't want dresses much right now. This collection is more about pants and skirts.
VOIGHT: Are you doing shoes and belts?
LEMAIRE: We're doing shoes with an independent developer and we're doing belts also directly with a manufacturer.
LEMAIRE: No hats, because I don't really like them. I've never been really interested in hats. I like beautiful hair.
VOIGHT: What about sunglasses? Christophe Lemaire is a real brand now.
LEMAIRE: We're not at that stage yet. We're now ready to invite an investor to join us.