Isabel Marant is pretty much naked when I enter the room. Her androgynous frame is barely covered by a faded, loosely draped black vest and cut-off denim shorts so abbreviated that the pockets hang beneath their fraying hem. Her feet are bare. Her hair has been pulled into a careless bun, and she’s not wearing any makeup. She’s beautiful in that particularly insouciant French way. With a broad, friendly smile, she gestures toward her state of undress and shrugs as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary: “I am always almost naked when I work.”
Marant is one of those designers who is mistaken for being an overnight success, when in reality she has been quietly refining her vision for 16 years. “My brand has a real identity,” she reasons. “It’s me; it’s my personality. My fashion is always about who I am and what I love.”
Marant’s attitude and aesthetic are the same: cool yet low-key, glamorous yet effortless, bohemian yet definitely Parisian. “For a long time, the idea of a designer making clothes for real women was kind of an insult— it wasn’t proper fashion if it wasn’t theatrical or showy,” she says. “Suddenly, trends caught up with me. The philosophy of my work now corresponds with fashion much more than before.”
The fashion buzz around her designs started in 2009 with a pair of boots. But that’s the funny thing: She was already a cult figure among fashion editors and models when her heavily studded, slouchy black suede boots appeared in her fall/winter 2009 show. Not long after that, there were waiting lists around the world and news stories commenting on the boots’ extraordinary, inexplicable success. Apparently, you could find them on eBay for thousands of euros, but nobody knew anybody who had managed to snag a pair. They were genuinely iconic.
However, the boots were not the only desirable item in that collection. Soon, a particular leopard-print silk dress—worn on the red carpet by Rachel Weisz, off-duty by Miranda Kerr and on every front row during the following season—became another talking point. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about Isabel Marant. “My vision never changed. Never!” she exclaims, rolling her eyes at the idea of this hype. “It’s about a way of being, an attitude that I try to bring to my clothes—I always speak through the same kind of fashion. I launched my own label when I was quite young and inexperienced. Now, it feels like the climax of all I have been working on—I have grown up!”
Born in Paris to a French father and a German mother, Marant studied at Studio Berçot but couldn’t afford to launch her own label when she graduated. Instead, she designed jewellery and worked on clothing in her spare time. In 1994, she finally had enough money to put on a show. Since then, she has quietly built up the brand, without a lot of fuss or fanfare.
There are always the same kinds of pieces in an Isabel Marant collection—slouchy, sheer T-shirts, soft sweatshirts, loose little dresses, cropped jackets, skinny silk trousers— although her aesthetic seems to have become slightly more sophisticated over time. The collections usually include denim, a bit of fur, leather, something sparkly, interesting prints and washed-out colours. Everything can be thrown on together—or at least it looks that way. “Key words for me are always discretion, style, attitude and, above all, comfort,” elaborates Marant. “If a French girl has to go out, she starts by dressing up and then, at the last minute, grabs the old jeans she was wearing and says ‘F*** it!’” Unlike most designers, Marant is her own fit model because she wants to have a “personal relationship” with her collections—to be as in love with the designs as the woman who will eventually buy them.
Scanning her spring/summer 2011 mood boards gives you a hint at what has inspired her latest collection. There’s Alexa Chung in a brocade skirt and denim shirt, screwing up her beautiful face. (“She is a really important influence for me this season,” says Marant.) There’s Katie Holmes, wrapped in a camel coat and clutching a red Hermès Birkin, dark glasses shielding her eyes from the paparazzi. Rihanna stares straight at the lens—stiletto heels and a parka her only protection. “As a designer, I am often compared to Vanessa Bruno, but, as I always say, she designs for blondes and I do brunettes!”
The mood-board paparazzi images are interspersed with a scrapbook of catwalk shots and magazine editorials, stuck up in untidy rows. Each shows a girl with some kind of attitude and a distinct personal style.
Marant doesn’t indulge in meaningless, vacant or contrived beauty. “I like sexiness, but it has to be done with discretion,” she says. “For me, something sexy could be a neckline or a shoulder; it’s never about breasts. Maybe that’s because I don’t have any! I like androgynous girls. I am not about blondes with fake boobs.”
It’s interesting to note that Marant’s inspiration comes from individual girls rather than the themes or films that designers usually admit to. “The more I follow my instincts, the more I’m successful,” she says. “Whenever you start to compromise, it becomes fake. People sense that. Truly, I am doing what I want—and what I want is right. I mean, it’s what the customer wants so…fantastique!” She is quick to qualify her success, however. “I never had any ambition, which is quite surprising, but I didn’t think I would be what I am today,” she says. “It was never my dream to be known all over the world. My only ambition was to design the clothes that I like and to reach what I have in my soul. I’m never happy with my collections— in fact, I always hate them—and it’s running after perfection that pushes me. It’s about selling out. I don’t care about money; I care about my life with my family.”
Marant’s partner is French handbag designer Jérôme Dreyfuss, with whom she has a six-year-old son, Tal. “We have been together for 12 years, but we never have time to get married,” she says. “I never really go out. I just work all the time and then go home to him and my son.” She says that the weekends they spend together, always in a tiny cabin an hour’s drive from Paris, are what keep her sane. “The cabin is in the forest where Monet and Cézanne used to paint. It’s very beautiful, but there’s nothing there. We don’t even have electricity or heating. We just sit outside and eat or swim in the river.”
And what happens in the winter? “We have hotwater bottles!” she exclaims, with a flash of that unaffected smile. And with that, Marant stands up, shrugs and says that there’s work to be done.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.