Everyday wisdom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am


This is turning out to be a good year for French designer Isabel Marant. As well as launching her new headquarters in Paris - a 21,500 sq ft space off the central Place des Victoires - the label will go from eight to 14 stores globally, with boutiques opening this year in Hong Kong, Seoul, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris and London.

Marant is in Hong Kong to launch her third boutique in the city. She looks relaxed when we meet and is dressed casually in a loose T-shirt, distressed leather jacket, skinny scarf and skin-tight cropped trousers.

'We were feeling that sometimes the image of Isabel Marant wasn't really being carried well,' she says of the new stores. 'It's very important to communicate well in key cities what the label stands for.'

The openings have been planned for almost four years, a crucial step in the label's expansion plans, which involve the Isabel Marant main line and the lower-priced Etoile label.

When her ready-to-wear line debuted in 1994 - the first show took place in a squat with her friends modelling the collection. Marant's pared-down, Parisian chic soon garnered a cult following in Europe and the US.

Marant has had an uncanny knack for producing 'it' accessories that have spawned countless high street and designer imitations, and her tight cropped trousers, studded boots and high top sneakers are sought-after staples.

'It's a grown-up label,' says Marant, 45. 'When I started, I was much younger. I didn't have the same concerns about garments. I'm growing up and I'm learning more about my work, and I think it's normal that I'm evolving this way.'

Marant is bright eyed and beaming - with good reason. The label has performed exceptionally well. Her company posted wholesale revenue of Euro62 million (HK$617 million) last year, a 44 per cent increase from 2010. Retailers have rushed in, and the label now has more than 670 points of sale globally.

'My aim in fashion was always to dress up an everyday woman. I don't have any big fantasy figure,' she says. 'For me the importance of a garment is to be able to wear it from morning to evening. I think a lot about why women chose certain pieces over others.'

This approach has given Marant a practical edge over some of the competition. At her catwalk shows, you'll rarely find an outfit that couldn't go straight off the runway and onto the streets. She believes that women tend to wear pieces that are not too complicated, but are looking for a certain attitude in the garments.

'For me, there are several levels in fashion. I'm doing something really pr?t-?-porter, and I don't really have any pretensions above that. I think it's important that there are designers who are experiencing new things and doing more conceptual fashion; that's the richness of fashion. But my talent is in the everyday,' she says.

Marant always had a strong sense of individual style. At 15, she began sewing her own clothes, because she didn't like what her parents were buying for her.

'I had a very precise idea of what I wanted to wear,' she says. Soon afterwards, friends began to ask her to make clothes for them, too. She eventually studied fashion at the famed Studio Bercot, from where she graduated in 1987.

After short stints working for designers such as Michel Klein, Bridget Yorke, and creating patterns for Claude Montana and Michael Perry, Marant launched her first line in 1989 - which was limited to accessories because she couldn't afford to start a full clothing line. It was only later that she developed a small knitwear company that would expand to become the official Isabel Marant label.

But it was reconnecting in recent years with her childhood friend Emmanuelle Alt, then fashion director and now editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, that helped give Marant a vision of how to communicate her label's image better. This impetus drove the Marant style into the wider consciousness of the public.

In 2010, her first US retail store opened in New York's Soho area and Marant's Otway studded biker bootie with triangle heel sparked a craze in the country.

'My garments are quite easy and simple,' says Marant. 'So I need to tell a story, a special taste to each collection. My silhouette is quite set up, so if I want to do something different each season, I have to work around a narrative.'

For her autumn-winter 2012 runway show in Paris, it was cowgirls and rodeo shows that provided this narrative. Models, including campaign girl Arizona Muse, walked the runway in laser-cut leathers, cowboy shirts and embroidery. There were frilly minis, relaxed low-slung waists and cute dresses.

'I got a book of rodeo girls from the end of the last century; it was born from that,' Marant says.

She singles out the embroidered jackets and trousers as personal favourites, but insists that the label is not about single hero pieces, but mixing different pieces together, 'like a patchwork'.

Creating pieces that have a cross-seasonal appeal that are not slavish to fast fashion trends is all part and parcel of the label's approach. Marant says she subscribes to the 'buy less but better quality' mantra - and is concerned about the proliferation of fashion. She joined in the online shopping trend relatively late, preferring to grow the label at a more relaxed pace.

'You know, I am quite anti-consumerist and it can be very difficult for me,' she says. 'I have to be at peace with myself about this also.'

She herself has a large collection of vintage clothing and likes to create that 'worn in' look. Marant says she starts each collection by asking herself questions such as: 'Why do we need more garments when we have so many already?' and 'What is going to make the difference to someone's wardrobe?'

Once she defines this, a silhouette begins to emerge.

Her own style ethos is simple: 'Be yourself as much as possible.'

The relaxed nature of her clothes might convey confidence, but Marant admits: 'Sometimes that is not as easy as it sounds ... it can be very tough to know yourself.'

Fill your boots

While Isabel Marant's new Western boutiques will be managed by the brand, the three Asian outlets will be run by local partners, including I.T in Hong Kong. For the store's opening, the label is launching limited-edition high tops, available only in Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris. The Tye & Dye sneakers (below, HK$5,999) feature distressed hems for a lived-in vibe. The new Isabel Marant store is at 10 Ice House Street, Central, tel: 2537 9523.