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Christophe Lemaire Readies for the Big Time at Hermès

The designer presents his first collection for the venerable luxury house in March.

Christophe Lemaire

PARIS — After a quarter-century in fashion, Christophe Lemaire is finally ready for his close-up.

The low-key designer will vault into the big leagues next season when he presents his first collection for Hermès since replacing Jean Paul Gaultier as creative director for women’s ready-to-wear at the venerable luxury house in March 2011.

“I feel a little bit like a wine, actually,” Lemaire told WWD. “For a long time, I was a too-young wine, and I am improving with age.”

During a wide-ranging interview in the cramped workspace above the store he owns, Lemaire, 45, discussed his vision of modern dressing, his decade as creative director of sportswear brand Lacoste and the future of his own business.

“In the last two or three seasons, people have really started paying attention to my work,” he said. “I feel that I have reached a certain maturity and achieved a consistency that I did not always have in the past.”

Lemaire started his career as an assistant to Thierry Mugler in 1984 and, after a stint at Christian Lacroix, founded his own label in 1991. He joined Lacoste in 2000, winning critical acclaim for revamping the brand that is famous for its crocodile-logo polo shirts.

Though he said it was too early to talk specifics, the designer has clear ideas about where he wants to take Hermès, at a time when his style of minimalist fashion is enjoying a revival.

“I think that it’s time to go back to a more honest vision of fashion, and that there is room for a simpler, more pared-down wardrobe that is better suited to everyday life,” he said. “I have always campaigned to bring quality and, if possible, poetry to everyday life. You don’t change your wardrobe every six months. You build it up over time.”

Lemaire said he was proud and surprised that Hermès chose him to succeed Gaultier, despite his low media profile and relative lack of experience in luxury goods. Nonetheless, he is confident he is up to the challenge.

“It’s as if the moment had finally arrived for me to show what I’m capable of,” he said. “For various reasons, I have always lacked either the maturity or the means to develop my own brand, and at Lacoste, I was working under constraints that meant that, even though I think I did a good job, I was never able to unleash my full potential. So I hope to be able to do that at Hermès.”

Lemaire noted that during his tenure at Lacoste, his catwalk direction did not always filter down to the products sold in stores, but he pronounced himself satisfied with the legacy he left for his successor, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, whom he described as “intelligent and talented.”

“I think I succeeded in projecting a certain vision of the brand,” he said. “The problem with a brand is that if the designer has a vision and the management does not have the same vision, or does not understand that vision, then there is obviously a disconnect. So I think that is being addressed, but it was definitely an issue for me.”

In the meantime, Lemaire has taken advantage of the buzz generated by his new job by staging the first runway show since 2003 for his signature collection, on the sidelines of couture week in July. Held on a rooftop overlooking the Paris skyline, the display proved the perfect showcase for his East Meets West aesthetic, with shades of early Eighties sporty chic.

“My inspirations are Oriental and Western,” he said. “I can’t talk too much about Hermès, because for the time being nothing is concrete. I will feel more comfortable talking about it when I actually have something to show, but what is clear is that Hermès is all about this idea of traveling — traveling in space and time. It immediately conjures a nomadic spirit.”

Lemaire also said that Hermès would switch back to more intimate gatherings after Gaultier’s runway extravaganzas, which featured everything from cacti to motorcycles and — for his swan song collection in October — a real-life dressage display.

Lemaire’s sensibilities lie more with reclusive Belgian designer Martin Margiela, who designed for Hermès between 1998 and 2003. “I think I will be walking in the footsteps of Margiela more than Gaultier, even if I have a lot of respect for Jean Paul Gaultier and his virtuosity,” he said.

However, that probably does not include reverting to the Margiela tradition of staging shows in front of a handful of the faithful at the company’s recently renovated Paris flagship at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Lemaire may reject the fashion system, with its showmanship and insatiable cycle of trends, but he is beginning to appreciate the value of publicity after struggling for two decades as a small independent brand.

“I have reached a point where I understand that in this profession, everything is a question of circumstances,” Lemaire said. “You can have all the talent and vision in the world; if you don’t have the resources to express your ideas and showcase them in a very competitive environment, then it’s a bit like Don Quixote — the battle is lost in advance.”

His plans for expansion were scuttled after the Japanese financier spearheading the project suddenly died, leaving Lemaire with just one fully owned stand-alone store, in the Marais district of Paris. The designer is looking for new investors to guarantee the future of his label, which operates on a shoestring budget.

“Am I going to continue? That is the question we are asking ourselves now,” he said. “Of course, I would like to. It’s really just a question of financing.”

Lemaire did not exclude the possibility of approaching Hermès for funding in the future. “Why not? But it’s too early. We don’t know each other well enough yet, and I haven’t proved myself yet,” he said.

In the meantime, he is looking forward to the new horizons that working for a luxury powerhouse will open up.

“I think I’m going to learn a lot,” Lemaire predicted. “I feel very lucky and happy — but nervous, as well.”