Return to me
Martine Sitbon is a familiar name on the fashion scene. The French-Morrocan designer, who was once creative director of Chloe, made a name for herself in the 1980s and 90s with clothes that were inspired by rock music and later evolved into something more feminine as she started to experiment with textiles and decoration.
She built an empire with her name splashed across a range of products, from candles and menswear to shoes, handbags and watches. Just when it looked like she was poised for even bigger things, Sitbon announced in 2004 that she would be showing her last collection.
'We had to stop because it got difficult with my previous partner. Like everything, it got complicated,' she says.
'For me it was horrible, but looking back it was the best thing that [could have] happened. I kept running for 20 years. I hardly had time to stop and think. Things had changed, fashion had changed, the customer had changed.'
Sitbon had been in the industry for so long that it was hard to imagine her doing anything else. Born in Casablanca, she moved to France at a young age. As a child of the 60s, she would spend her days listening to music and visiting the flea market.
'Although fashion wasn't obvious to me from the start, I always loved to draw as a young girl. Fortunately, my big sister, who is 10 years older than me, recognised that I had talent. After school I didn't want to go to university and naturally my parents were upset,' she says.
'Luckily, my sister was brilliant enough to find me an art school [Studio Bercot] in Paris and managed to convince my parents that I should go. When I first went there, I was ready to walk out. It seemed so odd to me. But then I met the owner and from then on I never questioned wanting to be in the creative field. I went on to study couture.'
After graduating with a degree in fashion design in 1974, Sitbon realised that her options in the industry were limited - at the time there were only a few couture houses in Paris - so she decided to travel while also freelancing. She settled in Italy, eager to start and build her own brand. After three years, she was approached by Chloe with an attractive offer.
'I was doing something very feminine which was really very much in the Chloe spirit. The job was important because it was the closest thing to couture. My own line, especially when I started, was extreme, but Chloe was a classical brand and I had so much room to change it. When you do something expensive, you want to give more, so I created special things. Chloe gave me the opportunity to do what I couldn't with my own line.'
Sitbon's contract expired after nine seasons, so she returned to her brand, determined to make it better. Along with a free-standing boutique came the other lines as well as various projects, including retrospectives and art exhibitions. And like any designer who has been in the industry a long time, her look also changed.
'As soon as I opened the shop, my designs became a lot more realistic. You don't want women to look ridiculous in your clothes. By this point I wanted to reconcile the extreme of creative clothes into something that was also wearable,' she says.
'In the beginning it was all about me and wanting to change the world and fashion with my clothes, but as you get more experienced you learn the reality. I don't have such a big message; I just want to be nice to women and want them to look good.'
It's with this same philosophy that she launched Rue du Mail in 2007, after taking a three-year break.
'After shutting down in 2004, I needed a new partner, but I really wanted to take my time. A few years ago I met Jimmy Chan, a Hong Kong-based investor, through a friend. We knew each other for two years before we started a partnership, because we wanted to have a friendship. Just a business relationship doesn't work. Now it's great because we talk together and discuss everything.'
To add to the mix they brought in Yasuo Umetada, an old friend and former president of Yohji Yamamoto, as well as Sitbon's long-term collaborator Marc Ascoli as director of image. The name they chose - Rue du Mail - came from the address of the brand's new atelier, showroom and studio. All that was left was for Sitbon to develop her own aesthetic.
'Once I changed, what I created changed. The difference now is that I have come back to couture. Martine Sitbon was a lot more young and edgy while Rue du Mail is more laboured with the detailing,' she says.
'With Martine it was also difficult to know where to place it - it was too cool, which is what I liked about it - but now what we are doing is much closer to the couture houses. It's young and modern and has a clearer vision, which I love. I can't just do garments to sell; I have to put a little bit of my soul into my clothes as well.'
The fruits of her labour have paid off with the brand receiving rave reviews after only three seasons. For spring/summer she has proposed a strong silhouette - sculptural shoulders, tight waist and hips - which is made light by details such as pleating and printed embroideries.
Celebrities such as Sofia Coppola and Kate Moss have been spotted wearing her clothes, while prestigious boutiques including Maria Luisa, D-Mop and Joyce in Hong Kong have snapped up the line.
With things going so well, all that's left is for Sitbon to rebuild her empire, while helping others along the way.
'I want to be here for the long run, I don't want to retire. I don't see myself doing anything else, this is my art. I have an affinity with Asia and eventually I would like to open more shops. The one here in Paris is private, but we want real boutiques and to eventually launch a men's line and accessories.
'I'm part of an industry so I want to be actively involved in it. Eventually, I would like to work with young designers and teach them about the industry. I really admire Rei Kawakubo and how she has helped Tao [Kurihara] and Junya Watanabe. As designers, we often forget that we have to create a future.'