If brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior redefined fashion in the 20th century, then Zadig & Voltaire is creating a similar buzz in 2010. While its name may not be instantly recognisable, this achingly hip label has been revolutionising the way modern women dress with its affordable yet luxurious clothing since it was founded in Paris in 1999.
Now with a cult following that boasts famous names Vanessa Paradis, Audrey Tatou and Eva Longoria, the brand has a global presence, with stores in fashion capitals including Los Angeles, Seoul, New York, Dubai, London, Stockholm, and here in Hong Kong.
In Europe it is firmly established - 11 outlets opened in Britain in less than two years and owning a Zadig & Voltaire cashmere sweater has become a rite of passage for most European women.
Now the focus is shifting to Asia due to a growing demand for brands that bridge the gap between high-end luxury and mass-market retailers. Plans are afoot to open another store in the city next season and brands will be available on the mainland through retailer I.T.
'Asia is very difficult, but we are doing very well since it's a style that resonates everywhere,' says Thierry Gillier, founder of the brand. 'While Korea is our most developed market, I love Hong Kong's energy and really want to use this to our advantage.'
Gillier - who is also an artist, art collector and film buff, in addition to being a high-flying entrepreneur - is the driving force behind the brand together with creative director Cecilia Bonstrom. Both are the embodiment of the Zadig style - Gillier in his worn-in tee, black blazer, waxed jeans and pull-on boots, and Bonstrom in a female version of the same outfit.
'I wouldn't call the Zadig look androgynous although it's a mix of masculine and feminine,' says Bonstrom, a former model who heads up the design team. 'It's all about layering - taking, say, two thin T-shirts with unfinished edges and wearing them under a luxe cashmere sweater, with rock-star jeans and boots. It's very relaxed but put together and cool.
'Every season our customer comes in and knows what they want to buy, whether it's a V-neck top or a great knit. It's like Ralph Lauren - you always know Ralph will do fabulous shirts. For us, people always come back for the knitwear.'
Founding a label based on knitwear was a no-brainer for Gillier, whose family hails from the French knitwear capital, Troyes.
'My mother was a stylist and she was always doing fittings at home. Knitwear was also a family business - my grandfather manufactured for brands such as Lacoste ... we started doing production for other brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler.'
The idea for Zadig & Voltaire came a few years later when he witnessed the success of middle-tier, multibrand retailer Joseph, which was creating a storm in London.
'It made me realise that something was missing in the market in France - clothes that were casual that you could wear every day, that weren't low key and felt great. Basically, a line that was cool and that bridged high end and low end. Joseph really provided inspiration because they found a new way to make fashion accessible. People were going to London just to buy the clothes even though they weren't super high end. That was the model that I wanted to aspire to.'
Gillier chose the name Zadig after the character in philosopher Voltaire's book.
'I wanted it to be a name outside fashion ... It's difficult to have a brand name with your own name. It was too much responsibility. What happens when you get old and have no more talent? We aren't bigger than the brand, the brand is what's important, not the person behind it.'
The boutique started out stocking a selection of his favourite brands - including minimalist king Helmut Lang - before Gillier started to include a few cashmere sweaters he designed and made at his factory. With a combination of sporty chic and cool street edge, the pieces sold well and the brand's biggest best-seller to date was born.
Eleven years later the brand has expanded to encompass two seasonal collections for men, women and children, and accessories such as shoes and bags, as well as a perfume. 'People like it because it's something different,' Gillier says. 'School kids are very into Zadig - it's important for them, which is a sign of success for me. They are more important than the actors or famous people because they judge you for what you do and if they like it, it's genuine. They are not like editors or women who read fashion magazines and buy it because they say it's a cool brand.'
A look at the spring/summer collection sums up this fashion-forward style - faded denim, worn-out khaki, vintage-inspired tiered dresses and cowboy boots are mixed in with the brand's signatures, including open cardigans, worn-in jeans and banged-up leather jackets.
And this formula seems to be working. While many brands have suffered post-recession and launched more affordable diffusion lines, Zadig is heading in the opposite direction with its new luxury line.
'We decided on a luxury line using material that's too expensive for the normal line,' Bonstrom says. 'The shapes are the same but the material is more luxurious and I also add embellishments such as studs and sequins. It's fun to do because we can offer more than casual wear.'
Although the brand is hoping to entice with its limited high-end selection, Gillier insists on sticking to the core principals that made it successful in the first place.
'It's very important to keep it readily affordable,' he says. 'We are trying to create something which is with the times, that's of the moment, that's modern.'
Other chic but cheap French labels
Look for sophisticated and stylish staples such as smart blazers and dresses, mixed in with trendy pieces. At Rue Madame, Lee Gardens 2, Causeway Bay, tel: 2972 2021
The look at Maje is part boho, part cool urbanite. Its designs are more trend-orientated and popular with the younger crowd. Available at Rue Madame and Seibu, Pacific Place, Admiralty, tel: 2971 3888
If colour and glitz is what you're after, then Manoush is for you. Bright colours are peppered with details including lace, sequins and other embellishments. Available at Rue Madame
Known for classics with a twist, Bruno designs (left) feature details such as drapes and pleats on voluminous silhouettes. Also look out for the diffusion line, Athe. Available at Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, tel: 2118 3388
Fashion forward and cool, this line is inspired by vintage clothes. The look is unkempt yet hip with best-sellers including studded vests and supersoft, sheer tees. Available at Rue Madame and www.shopbop.com
A favourite with fashion editors for its effortlessly cool look. Look out for its lightweight denim, worn in tweed jackets and must-have ankle boots. At Paterson Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2808 4698