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The happy fashion designer

Text by Emily King
Portraits by Katja Rahlwes
Styling by Elodie David Touboul
Issue n° 7, Spring & Summer 2013

Ten years ago, Isabel Marant’s tiny Paris boutique was every fashion editor’s best-kept secret. Now she has 13 stores around the world, having opened a recession-defying six in the past 18 months. Her attitude to the ever-changing business of fashion is as laissez-faire as the clothes she designs – effortlessly stylish pieces for women who want to look fashion-aware rather than -led.

Isabel, who is 45, was born with a singularly Parisian sartorial DNA, but she’s rebelled against her traditional roots from an early age. Weekends are spent in a shack with no electricity, and three times a week, she begins her day with an hour of ashtanga yoga – ideal for a woman who spends a lot of time in her pants.

A few days before meeting Isabel Marant, I talked about her with Inez van Lamsweerde, the photographer of several of the designer’s advertising campaigns and a devoted customer. Isabel and Inez are good friends, and the conversation was peppered with warmth. “Isabel spends most of her day naked, just trying everything on,” Inez said. I loved the image, but as something of an interloper in Isabel’s studio near Place des Victoires in central Paris, I didn’t expect to experience the reality on the day I met her. And yet early in the afternoon, when a garment in the making was brought to Isabel’s attention, off came her outerwear and on it went.

The straight trousers were made from a rough-textured velvet more often used for upholstery. Isabel put them on and checked the height of the waistband at the front and what happened to the back when she sat down. Throughout this manoeuvre, she kept a small roll-up lodged between her fingers. She smokes incessantly but with determined inefficiency, dismantling filtered cigarettes and making them into tiny “joints.” These barely catch light, and, though Isabel fiddled with tobacco throughout the afternoon, she can’t have smoked more than one Gauloise worth.

Once she’d finished with the trousers, her assistant Virginie took off her own denim shorts and tights and put them on. Still in her knickers – black, reasonably substantial – Isabel spent the next ten minutes moving squares of fabric a centimetre here and a centimetre there. Inez had told me, “It would be a no-brainer for the brand to launch a lingerie line,” but when I mentioned the idea to Isabel, she wasn’t taken with it. She told me she’s had the same underwear since she was 14, which in terms of actual pairs I’m not sure I believe but in terms of style seems most likely true.

At the beginning of every September, Isabel takes size 38 in her own clothes. By the end of the intense period of design and production that stretches from then until March, during which she creates three collections for her main line and three for her second line, Étoile, she’s usually dropped to a 36. “She’s a 37,” said Virginie, herself a 36. Caught somewhere in the middle of her spectrum, Isabel is a very slim woman (the sizes on her garment labels aren’t artificially reduced to flatter) with an attractively androgynous figure. While I was in the studio, only Isabel and Virginie stripped off, but on some days she calls in other bodies, in particular a young woman who’s also a 38 but has curves in place of Isabel’s gamine angles.

In fashion’s broader circles, Isabel Marant is most recently known as the inventor of the high-top with the concealed wedge heel – using the word Parisians use for sneaker, she calls it the “basket”. Producing them in various colour combinations under an alliterative series of names such as Bayley and Bekket, she sold about 80,000 pairs last year. A quick glance at an online retailer shows the shoes priced at £370, but too bad if you’re tempted: they’re sold out in every style, size and colour. If you’re desperate, you could always buy one of the huge numbers of copies that have shuffled in at both ends of the market.

The “basket” alone takes Isabel’s annual turnover into the region of tens of millions of euros. Add the sales of her other shoes and accessories and the clothes in her main and Étoile lines, and you get the sense that her business is burgeoning. Daniela Vitale, who manages the brand at Barneys New York, told me the shop was “having a spectacular year with Isabel,” with everything “from the $4,000 jackets to the $120 T-shirts doing really well.” Likewise, Paula Reed, fashion director of Harvey Nichols in London, said, “As soon as we get it in, it goes straight out again. The shoes are selling like you wouldn’t believe.” In a March 2012 article in Women’s Wear Daily, Isabel’s managing director, Sophie Duruflé, reported wholesale revenues of €66 million for 2011, up 44 per cent on 2010. With six new shops opening in Paris, LA, Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul in the last 18 months, plus one forecast for London’s Bruton Street, which will take her total number of shops to 13, this rapid expansion is significant in a period of economic recession. Isabel credits her late father for her businesslike genes. He was a conservative Parisian company manager whose attitude she likens to that of the actor Jean Gabin, star of La Grande Illusion. Although their working methods may have something in common, I don’t suppose he ever sat around the office in his underpants.

Isabel here wears a selection of favourite items from her personal wardrobe and ISABEL MARANT collections, past and present.

On the day we met, Isabel was wearing a slim red wool jumper with three gold buttons on either shoulder over a lightweight grey cotton T-shirt, along with a pair of close-fitting but not skin-tight snakeskin print trousers. When she took off the sweater in the warmth of her studio, she rolled the T-shirt’s short sleeves up over her shoulders. “As a woman, my attitude to clothes is that I open my cupboard in the morning and think, Ok, what do I want to wear?” she said. On her feet were completely flat black suede booties. “I never wear heels in my everyday life. I’m crouching on the floor pinning garments all the time. I am not a high-heel person.” This surprised me, as I’d always associated the Isabel Marant look with elevation, not just the high-heeled trainer but also the Poppy – a bow-embellished suede stiletto that was part of the fashion editor’s uniform in the autumn of 2010. The images associated with Isabel Marant – from the brand’s campaigns and from photographs of the fashion establishment wearing her clothes – are a beat away from Isabel’s own look. She’s arguably the best, though not the most commercial, incarnation of her brand.

The Isabel Marant collections are based around a few simple pieces: tight, straight and often cropped trousers; soft, unstructured shirts and blouses; unusual, chunky knits; and tailored jackets and coats. Garments are often embellished with prints, fringes, embroidery, appliqué, studs or lace. A typical Isabel Marant outfit – a loose peasant blouse and a pair of tight, cropped leather trousers – allows the wearer to tread the line between boho and rock chick. The collections may shift, but they never change radically, so it’s easy to combine pieces from different seasons.

It’s a casual, no-frills formula that Isabel carries through to her personal grooming. Her hair is most often pulled back from her face into a high topknot. She leaves her smattering of greys untroubled, and likewise, at our meeting she wore absolutely no make-up – not no-make-up make-up, but no make-up. Isabel smiles and laughs constantly. She has the kind of cool that’s compatible with absolute approachability, and it’s a pleasure to be in her company. This feeling seems to be shared by everyone she works with. Members of her staff all but purr when she comes close.

I arrived at Isabel’s office at 1pm, and we went straight to lunch at Chez Georges, a nearby restaurant that, like Isabel’s father, is conservative Parisian in the best possible sense. As we made the short walk across Place des Victoires, Isabel carried an entire restaurant place setting with her. Dropping in to book our table the morning before, she’d placed a maverick order for a takeaway steak. Most Parisian restaurants balk at the idea of doggy bags, let alone off-site eating, but Isabel softens rules. Installed at our table, we were given a plate of radishes and a dish of butter, which Isabel ate by lobbing small bits of butter in her mouth and following them with bites of radish. She ordered foie gras and red wine, and I tried to match her by only having a starter, but she insisted I have the sole meunière. “It will be much better!” she said, and she was right. The buttery fish had that property unique to French food of being delicate but also extremely rich, which somehow makes you feel full for hours.

“Having shops in key cities is important, but I would hate to be on every street corner.”

Tucked in tight between neighbouring tables, she told me the story that’s become familiar from interviews, of the girl born in 1967 and raised in the fancy Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine who refused to wear dresses and used to carry alternative outfits to school in a plastic bag (“From the age of six, nobody could tell me what to wear”). She also spoke of the traditional French father, the German model-turned-knitwear-designer mother, Christa Fiedler (“I didn’t discover she’d been a model until much later, because for our father that was not part of our life”) and of the stepmother from Martinique who dressed stylishly but conservatively in Yves St Laurent. Isabel’s fashion sense grew out of her rejection of the clothes that surrounded her. “I came to garments because I found everything around me so disgusting,” she said. Aged 14, Isabel had her hair cut like Patti Smith’s, and her clothes were largely customised menswear. She must have looked as enviably cool then as now, because her friends started asking if she could make them clothes too. When she was around 16, she really engaged with fashion. “It was the end of all that Montana/Mugler, which was not my cup of tea at all, and the time of Jean Paul Gaultier. Then the Japanese brands arrived – Yohji, Comme des Garçons – and Vivienne Westwood. I was totally crazy about Westwood. It was a more grungy mood, and it appealed to me.”

For two years, between the ages of 16 and 18, Isabel went out with Christophe Lemaire, who is now both the creative director at Hermès and the designer of his own line. “I tell this story because I think it’s very cute,” said Isabel. “Christophe was a couple of years older than I, and studying literature, but he was also a very good designer. He designed things, and I would sew them on my machine, and together we started a brand, Allée Simple [One Way]. There was a shop in Paris, Le Depot on Rue Quincampoix, where you could drop off your creations and they would pay you when they sold.” The Allée Simple best seller was a top made from four loose-weave cleaning cloths: one each for the front and back and one folded for each sleeve. “We were totally influenced by this English band called Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and it was also very Japanese in a way because everything was very square – I didn’t know how to cut curves!” Isabel had wanted to study economics, but, realising she couldn’t build a business without specialist training, she instead went to the private Parisian fashion school Studio Berçot. There, head Marie Rucki gave her some invaluable advice: Don’t try and make people wear things you wouldn’t wear yourself. “That’s my leading rule in fashion,” said Isabel.

On graduating, Isabel spent a few months assisting the renowned art director Marc Ascoli, who was then working with his partner, Martine Sitbon, and with Chloé and Yohji Yamamoto. “It was a very nice period, with Nick Knight and Max Vadukal, but I was not designing,” she said. “I was doing production for pictures, and that is not my talent at all. I had to book models, but to me they were all the same – they would ask for Linda Evangelista and I would get Claudia Schiffer instead.” Marc Ascoli told me Isabel looked almost exactly the same then as she does now. “She had a very funny way of dressing, not really in the style of the ’80s and not at all Parisienne – she was really a massive hippie,” he said. “She was very attractive. She often wore miniskirts and had beautiful legs. I remember when Yohji Yamamoto met Isabel, he said, ‘Finally, Marc, you have a pretty girl around you!’ I was very surprised. I’d always thought of Yohji preferring women like, you know, Pina Bausch!”

In 1990, Isabel started working on a younger line for her mother’s eponymous knitwear brand, but in terms of business savvy, she surpassed her parent quickly. “My mother was always very bad in business,” Isabel said. “She went bankrupt, and I was always the one giving her advice. I am more the mother of my mother.” Isabel Marant launched in 1994, and the first shop opened on Rue Charonne, near the Bastille in eastern Paris, in 1998. Mid-2012, Isabel opened her fourth Paris shop in a beautiful Art Nouveau corner building in the 16th arrondissement, close to her childhood home of Neuilly. She’s beginning to find a market among the very class of woman whose style she once rejected so vehemently.

Much of the press around Isabel Marant implies that the brand lay dormant for years and has recently exploded. Isabel rejects this idea, claiming to have built the company “brick by brick” over the last two decades. Either way, the label has reached a tipping point where it can no longer enjoy under-the-radar status. Paula Reed told me she became aware of the brand about ten years ago in her previous life as a fashion journalist. “Fashion editors started talking among themselves about this cute brand that had a shop in the Marais: ‘Oh, it’s got really cool things, and it’s not full-on fashion.’ We would all make a pilgrimage when we were in Paris for the shows. It’s a bit of a relief for a fashion editor to feel they’re getting away from the big brands.” The challenge for Isabel Marant will be to sustain its appealing offbeat mood in the face of expansion. In France, the word tendance (trend) is often used pejoratively. In the past, Isabel has proclaimed herself “toujours anti-tendances”. But what happens when your anti-tendance approach becomes the tendance du jour?

Isabel is sensitive to this question. “I think we are close to reaching the limit of what we can do,” she said. “I don’t want to do more. I never thought about being a big, internationally known brand. I don’t think of myself as a designer with a big ‘D’. I’m not a Nicolas Ghesquière, doing very innovative things. I’m more like a Coco Chanel or a Sonia Rykiel – women of their time who dressed several generations during their lives. Being a woman designer, for me, is not about fantasy; it’s about dressing women properly with an energy that corresponds to now.” Having shops in key cities in the world is important, she explained, since it permits greater control over which clothes are available in each territory. “Then you’re not reliant on the way multi-brand stores buy your clothes. Customers need to understand the brand, but I never want to be on every street corner – I would hate that.”

Isabel’s focus, apart from her business, is her family. Her husband, Jerome Dreyfuss, is also a fashion designer, and they have a 9-year-old son, Tal. Jerome and Isabel met while taking part in a French TV programme about 16 years ago and became a couple as soon as he persuaded her that his being seven years younger was immaterial. At the time, Jerome was an assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier; since 2002, he’s designed handbags. Though his work has much in common with Isabel’s, she insists that they “never speak about work.” In recent years, the family have left Paris nearly every weekend to go to Fontainebleau, 50km southeast of the city, where they split their time between a house close to her mother’s and a shack in the countryside with no electricity or plumbing where Tal can run wild. They welcome visitors, mostly old friends who now work in fields such as music and film. When I asked her what she’d seen lately, though, Isabel laughed. “We managed to go to the cinema maybe twice last year.”

To create room for socialising, she requires an ordered existence. Two nights a week, Jerome takes charge of Tal, and Isabel stays at the studio as long as she needs to. Sometimes it’s 11 at night, at other times 3 in the morning, before she gets on her moped and returns home to Belleville (the Parisian equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg or London’s Columbia Road). When her staff leave at 7.30pm, “another day starts,” Isabel said. “I need to be on my own to create things. I put on my music super loud, and I’m in my bubble. I look at my pictures. I redesign things. I try and solve things.”

When it comes to fashion shows, though, Isabel prefers company. Jerome, she said, plays the critical role her father used to: that of “the only one telling me the truth”. Her father died just over ten years ago. He was in the south of France, and Isabel was in Paris. She missed talking to him in the hours before his passing, she said, because she stayed at work to “choose between two shades of grey”.

The runway is her least favourite arena: “All the celebrities and models – it’s quite depressing. All this energy, and then two minutes after the show there’s nobody, nothing.” Addressing her self-proclaimed “lacking” on that side, from spring 2008 she began collaborating with Emmanuelle Alt – then fashion director at Vogue Paris, now its editor in chief – on Isabel Marant shows and advertising campaigns. Fashion observers noticed a shift away from boho and toward rock chick from that collection on, but Isabel underplays the transformation. “Emmanuelle and I are the same age, and we had the same upbringing in fashion. It is true that she helped a lot with styling, but she would come in when the collection was finished. She never interfered in the design.”

When Alt was appointed editor of Vogue Paris in early 2011 and became unable to do brand consultancy, she ended her formal relationship with the company, but Isabel carried on working with significant models and photographers she’d brought in. David Sims, for example, took the pictures for the spring 2013 Isabel Marant campaign.

Isabel acknowledged that the perception of her brand has changed over the past five years but expressed slight ambivalence about the shift in it’s customer base. “For years, I’ve had lots of customers dressed top to toe in Isabel Marant, but now I have celebrities wearing my clothes. Often, these are people who just follow fashion without using their brain. When you have Kate Moss in your ad, they just want to look like Kate Moss.” Inez van Lamsweerde, the photographer of the campaign starring Moss, perhaps represents the perfect balance between Isabel’s old and new clientele. “When you wear Isabel Marant, you look like you understand fashion, but you don’t look all tricked up,” she said. “It’s really great for me, because I can move around and work in it, but I can also go out in the evening and look like I know what’s going on.”

Of the long-term future of her brand, Isabel said, “I’d like to pass it on to a super nice assistant who deserves it.” She added, “Everybody tells me, ‘Ach, you’ll never be able to stop!’ but I think I will. You correspond to a certain time, your time, and you must realise when it’s not your time. I’m not a fashion beast. I totally understand a Margiela or a Helmut Lang – people who have something in their life besides fashion. When you give so much to it for so many years, you need to do something else.” But what else? “In fashion you spend a lot of energy on something that is not essential. I think if designers were putting all their energy into, I don’t know, social matters, then we would become very good politicians.”