I wrote this piece about Isabel Marant in my cabin in the woods. My husband and I used to be able to boast that we had no electricity, but, alas, that convenient utility was hooked up last year, and so we are not the purists we once were. We also have Wi-Fi. As I transcribed my interview with the Parisian designer backstage after her fall/winter 2013 show, I strained to hear her throaty purr over the cluster of reporters offering breathy congratulations and the clatter of workmen taking down scaffolding in the 18th-century building just off Place Vendôme.
“I wanted a sober, minimal collection,” explained Marant. [Clang, clang, clang] “I was very inspired by the ’90s.” Ah, yes, this season’s ineluctable ’90s influence, which Marant translated into a procession of blacks and dark blues, cropped knit tops over skirts and leggings and a studded carpenter’s tool-belt skirt. There was a faint aura of long johns about the collection—they’re the kind of clothes one throws on to chop wood for a campfire. The backwoods impression was dispelled only by the very chic black ponyskin wedge booties.
I went out and chopped some wood. Back at my desk, I donned my headphones and heard Marant say: “We’re in an opulent period right now. There has been an overload of clothes, and it began to disgust me.” I stumbled onto a 2011 New York Times story about Marant called “Le Shack” as the designer continued, “I wanted something more precise, more real, more functional.” The article revealed that Marant and her husband, accessories designer Jérôme Dreyfuss, also owned a little cabin in the woods. At the time of writing, their Fontainebleau “shack” had no electricity, plumbing or heat. I began to understand fall’s subtle long-underwear references and the outback- inspired shearling jackets, tailored into Parisian submission. Here was a kindred spirit.
What inspired Marant’s boho-chic aesthetic? Find out on the next page…
If houses like Dior and Chanel are the Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. of the fashion world, Marant is the little indie film studio that puts out cool and offbeat lower-budget hits. Except that lately, Marant’s Frenchified hipster look is becoming blockbusterish itself. (This fall’s hotly anticipated collab with H&M is guaranteed to propel that particular momentum.) Marant has created her fair share of trends since she started her label in 1994. Those studded Otways with the deadly triangle heels and the white wedge sneakers started out on her runway and filtered down to high street shops faster than you could say “It boots.” Same went for her baseball jackets, cowgirl shirts and narrow-cut football jerseys worn with tailored jackets.
Marant’s clothes are bohemian and—there is no other word—chic. Her mother is German, her father is French and her stepmother is West Indian. That, and a great deal of travelling growing up, formed a Marant aesthetic that produced ethnic influences honed with French refinement. This hybrid quality has since metamorphosized into American tomboy sportswear sharpened by Parisian cut and tailoring. The silhouettes are always leggy, sexy and sporty—all adjectives that describe Marant herself. Unlike male designers, who pluck a new fantastical vision of a woman out of the air and hand it to us each season, Marant and colleagues like Stella McCartney and Céline’s Phoebe Philo are making clothes, essentially, for themselves.
Would Marant ever give up her fashion empire? Click through the next page to find out…
“I’m really very French,” Marant told me about her forays into American sportswear. “But I had a period in which I was very inspired by the American dream. So I’m a Frenchwoman who translates easy sportswear into something we can understand.” It is, however, perhaps what is unFrench about Marant that is boosting her label past similarly niched French labels like Paul & Joe and Vanessa Bruno. Marant is one of the very few Parisian women I have encountered who leave their hair grey. This is unusual in a culture that believes that nature can always use a little improvement. “Ah, I hate the idea of dyeing hair. In fact, I dream of having totally grey hair and people calling me ‘Madame’ in the street,” she said. “I hate going to the hairdresser’s and not feeling like myself afterward.”
Presumably, it’s in that little cabin in the woods where Marant truly feels like herself. She has fans like Kate Moss, Rachel Weisz and Beyoncé and a carefully cultivated empire that extends from Seoul and Hong Kong to L.A. and London. While I was backstage after Marant’s show, I talked to her husband, Dreyfuss, who told me about how fashion has turned into big business, how it was obsessed with movie stars. Dreyfuss confided, “Every night, Isabel says to me, ‘Cherie, we don’t give a damn about this whole fashion thing.’” Was he stating a fact, I wondered, or trying to convince himself? I asked Dreyfuss, “Could you ever just call it quits?” Without skipping a beat, he said: “Tomorrow. I could walk away from all of it.” But is Marant really immune to the glamour of it all? Could she walk away from all this, like Dreyfuss says he could?
“Well,” she stalled, laughing huskily, “I adore my work, but I also think it’s crazy. It’s too much. When I got into fashion, I loved it because I could really accomplish something; I could take an idea as far as I wanted. But now I feel like a machine that has to spit things out, and that’s not right. You have to be able to take time to do things.” She reconsidered, thinking about a Marant-less world. “But I think it would really annoy me to have to wear clothes that weren’t exactly the way I wanted them.”
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