French label Rue du Mail swims against the mainstream
Returning to its avant-garde roots has rejuvenated niche French label Rue du Mail, writes Jing Zhang
The world doesn't need one more coat, one more shirt or dress for the sake of it, so we want to say something with our clothes," says fashion designer Martine Sitbon of independent Parisian label Rue du Mail.
Sitbon has just shown a sultry autumn-winter 2013/14 collection at Paris Fashion Week, and the team, family and friends are gathered at a post-show dinner at an American restaurant in the Etienne-Marcel area. The low-key affair is very "non-fashion".
Rue du Mail, founded by Hong Kong entrepreneur Jimmy K.W. Chan of Semeiotics, is in its eighth year, and he and Sitbon are letting their hair down after another impressive show.
It's "an ethos of nurturing and educating creative talents" that drives the small fashion house, Chan says. This is particularly fitting because Sitbon herself has mentored a noted generation of designers, including Isabel Marant, Vanessa Bruno and new Sonia Rykiel artistic director Geraldo da Conceicao.
Describing Sitbon as a genius, Chan says "she is probably one of the only living women fashion designers that also can teach so well, with a history of mentoring all these big names".
For someone so influential in French fashion, Sitbon, a former creative director of Chloé as well as eponymous labels, flies remarkably under the radar. But come to one of her shows - and the line-up of VIPs and industry insiders coming to personally congratulate her is some small indication of Sitbon's standing in Paris. She also holds France's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite for her work.
This season Sitbon's vision saw graphic black and white houndstooth opening the collection at the studio headquarters, on a chic little street off Place des Victoires. Some pieces might have echoed spring-summer's modish monochrome prints, but this autumn Sitbon offers up a more sensual, moodier muse.
"I love music and movies, and I take inspiration from both. This time it was from movies like Le Charmes discret de la Bourgeoisie ," she explains, citing the French comedy satirising the social rituals of the upper middle classes.
The look was sophisticated, quirky and off-kilter. Smoky eyes and dark smudged lips hinted at a film noir femme fatale.
"I like nouveau vague, and things to be very off, not mainstream," Sitbon adds.
Sitbon is a master of contrasting textures, here employing thick plush furs (very bourgeois!) against wool knit, tweed, silk twill, organza and even futuristic glittering panels on svelte shift dresses. The woven knits, big belted wrap-around coats and intriguing peek-a-boo dresses also stand out. These are intricately crafted garments that beg to be touched.
Sitbon's artistic references are sometimes esoteric, and conversations with her about what influences a design can often veer into the abstract. But that is no bad thing. Especially when translating to beautiful, wearable garments expressing a very contemporary vision of Parisian cool.
"For me, the Rue du Mail woman is a woman with personality," Sitbon says, and over the years, she has evolved. "She still has this strong character, but at the same she is more easy going and curious."
Chan, a Parson's School of Design graduate, made his name in streetwear retail. He opened the first Evisu outside of Japan in Hong Kong and opened a Y-3 boutique in New York in 2009. But his venture into European high fashion might yet define his place in the style world. Chan also acquired avant-garde fashion label Aganovich last year, bringing the London label to Paris.
"Paris is fashion - people live and breathe it here," says Chan.
He met Sitbon and her husband Marc Ascoli (who now serves as Rue du Mail's image director) in Paris through a Hong Kong stylist Titi Kwan. Their collaboration began two years later.
"We got to know each other and talk about our vision," Sitbon says. "This is more important when doing something together than the details of a contract. Jimmy is totally supportive of my creativity and at the same time we get along really well."
The first three seasons led to huge successes, recalls Chan. But after developing the brand in a more commercial direction with work-heavy pre-collections, Rue du Mail had begun to lose its way.
"We kind of missed the point," says Chan, "and it came to this turning point in June 2010 where Martine walked into the showroom and someone showed her these two long dresses for the Middle Eastern market, asking her which one she liked.
"Martine lost it and said 'I don't care - look at them, they could be any big brand'."
A 20-minute walk together revealed Sitbon's frustrations. When the pair returned, they called a staff meeting to announce a new direction that was more true to their roots.
"I told everyone 'I'm sorry I failed to lead the company and we are now no better than any of these other companies we make fun of'," Chan says. "So starting that season, no more pre-collections, no more commercial lines. I'll give you a budget - just give me art. I want art - I don't want posters."
After that, Rue du Mail's fortunes took a turn for the better. Critical reviews of the past few seasons have been very favourable. The fashion world is clearly still intrigued by Sitbon.
"I think it's the fact that we are independent and we have a vision for the future. I was blessed to be able to teach so many people, but I still feel that I have something to say. I'm not yet finished."
Fashion has become a little too precise and clinical these days, she says.
"What's needed is more emotion. In the '90s, there was a real sense of this - designers like Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang, Hussein Chalayan and myself - we were interested in creating the future. It's not about just selling a shirt."