A man for all seasons
A-listers everywhere are stepping out in eccentric designer Jerome Rousseau's sexy, edgy creations, writes Kavita Daswani
Jerome Rousseau opened the door to his studio/office clad in a black-and-white striped tee, scarlet pants and polka dot pony hair shoes, his dark hair artfully styled and a welcoming smile.
His appearance is the only sign that a visitor is in the right place: there is no name outside, no indication that this white door on a nondescript building in a semi-residential street in Hollywood leads to the atelier of one of fashion's most talked-about names.
Rousseau is, in the sparest of terms, having his moment. His shoes are stocked by illustrious names like Saks Fifth Avenue, Harvey Nichols, Dover Street Market and Le Bon Marche, with more top-flight retailers signing on every season.
This spring, he launched a new bag line that has caught the attention of buyers. A-listers everywhere are stepping out in his sexy, edgy creations: Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz, Scarlett Johansson. Just the other week, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was making her first public appearance after being hospitalised for bipolar disorder, wore a strappy pair of Rousseau sandals at the premiere of her latest film, Red 2. The actress looked so good that the picture of her was everywhere: the one on Yahoo! alone racked up 106 million hits.
"That photo had a ridiculous amount of placements," Rousseau says. "We got loads and loads of mentions."
When Rousseau speaks, his diction is a charming confluence of French (he was born in Quebec) and British (he studied at London's Cordwainers College) accents, with a smattering of Italian (he spent two years designing for Isabella Fiore).
He is enthusiastic and charismatic, and the best sort of designer to have on hand at a trunk show or personal appearance because he is so congenial and displays not a jot of artifice.
"That's genius, isn't it?" he will say, holding up a book filled with images that have inspired him.
When it's 4am and he is jet lagged, he will take to his Instagram account and write back to the legions of fans who tag him while wearing his shoes. "It might take a week, but I'll reply to all those comments," he says.
"People love that you've seen what they have to say about your shoe. I'm so proud when I see that, that I make a point of telling them as well."
Rousseau says his love for design took shape in his teens. He happened to catch a music video of the '90s club/house music group Deee-Lite (biggest hit: Groove is in the Heart) and was fascinated by their funky, outré footwear. He picked up a pad and pencil, began sketching shoes, and hasn't stopped since.
In 1998, he enrolled at Cordwainers College to study footwear and accessories design, and then went to work for top names such as Matthew Williamson, John Richmond and John Rocha. In 2004, Rousseau moved to Los Angeles and began working for Isabella Fiore, overseeing that brand's accessories.
In 2008, he struck out on his own, and Jerome Rousseau, the brand, was born. He worked out of his home, in the hip, beachside community of Playa del Rey. He launched his label just as the economy was tumbling, retailers were retracting, and other brands were shuttering.
"I was a small business," he says. "And I kept growing, at a very small pace."
Rousseau continues to describe himself as a small label, even though he has about 45 stockists worldwide - including heavy hitters such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's in the United States - with burgeoning interest coming from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
He has his own muse, fetching young French model-actress Roxane Mesquida, who is best known in the United States for her recurring role in Gossip Girl, as the sister-in-law of Leighton Meester's character. Her French repertoire, says Rousseau, is in "cult films that are edgy, and sometimes hard to watch".
Mesquida is the perfect foil for Rousseau's suggestive shoes: she has an ethereal, come-hither quality, which is fully on display in the new campaign she shot for Rousseau, a video and print series that involved dozens of people and a discreet-yet-dazzling cocktail lounge in Los Angeles called Pour Vous that has a dress code, chandeliers and a bird cage. "She's incredibly beautiful, naturally talented and effortlessly edgy," says Rousseau of Mesquida. "I am inspired by her."
Mesquida, alongside Sade, Bianca Jagger, dancing with abandon and the beauty rituals of African tribespeople, are all at the heart of Rousseau's spring 2014 collection, which he has just completed. The collection is based on provocative peep-toe booties, which Rouseau describes as "lurid, oversized animal prints", and his architectural new handbags, which he calls "statement bags that have authority".
Rousseau was at a bookstore in Hollywood several months ago when he came across a book by Hans Silvester, Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, stacked with photos of the nomadic Surma and Mursi tribes of Africa's Omo Valley, near Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, who paint their bodies with powdered volcanic rock and adorn themselves with lush leaves and chunks of carved horn. He was so moved by the images that glimmers of it show up in his latest collection: an asymmetrical strap informed by the way a slender branch sits atop a tribeswoman's head; the painted clay on a young girl's shoulder giving rise to a deep lava-coloured pump. He was equally inspired by songstress Sade - lean black skirts, crisp white blouse with a sexily draped back and hoop earrings.
"Her look in the '80s was absolutely striking," says Rousseau, indicating the adjectives he had penned onto his ideas board: "timeless", "exotic" and "classic". Former model/jetsetter Bianca Jagger is also referenced, her free-spiritedness imbuing the collection. "I don't make a decision to be inspired by something," Rousseau says. "I love a lot of things. And they somehow set themselves into the ones that will be key to a new collection."
Launched Jerome Rousseau collection.
First celebrity to wear: Charlize Theron
Designed shoes for Terry Gilliam's Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
Wins Vogue Italia award
Film collaborations for Tron and The Muppets
Sales doubled from previous year
Launched new handbag offering