NEW YORK — Sitting in a limousine headed downtown, François Girbaud gesticulated wildly: "All the fabrics we create, in polyester and polyamide, they will not be destroyed."
Girbaud was talking about the centerpiece of his under-construction Manhattan flagship, which will be a wall of plants and polyester. It’s an idea the designer is importing from France, where horticulturist Patrick Blanc told him about epiphytes, a variety of plants that derive their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain, but don’t need soil. They live on the bark of trees, in cracks on rock walls and in this case, in little pockets of a three-millimeter-thick sheet of polyester that will hang down from the roughly 20-foot-high ceiling at 47 Wooster Street in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.
Girbaud took this piece of information, added it to his observation that many major cities are rich in vertical space — atriums in tall buildings, exterior walls — but are lacking unoccupied ground space and concluded that planting epiphytes could be a way to improve urban air quality.
"Even as you take something synthetic, the nature is still going to come through," he said.
But Girbaud’s reasoning didn’t stop there. He mentioned the tons of synthetic-fiber garments that are discarded every year and envisioned a day when the world’s garbage dumps could be covered in blooming, oxygen-generating plants.
"I know it’s not a good solution," he said. "But it’s something."
In Paris, one wall of the Girbaud store has a fabric screen covered in epiphytes, a group that incorporates several species of plants, including some orchids and cacti. At the SoHo flagship, due to open next month in time for fashion week, a two-sided screen in the center of the store will bloom with them.
"I was surprised at the effect in Paris," he said. "It made it a destination store. People would walk in to look at it. Maybe they’re not buying the clothes, but they’re looking."
Girbaud also thinks the wall of plants should communicate a message to shoppers — that they should think more about the environment. That’s something the fashion industry would do well to think more about, too, he said.Girbaud said he had seen acid-washed jeans — a finishing technique he developed in the Eighties — returning to the streets and couldn’t avoid a twinge of guilt.
"My God, it’s dangerous working with the permanganate, the acid. I know," he said. "I remember when my technician got leukemia, the year we worked with that, because he was breathing the fumes all day.…We said, ‘My God, what are we doing here?’"
Girbaud got out of the limo and walked into the store, which on this December day was still at an early stage of construction. The designer said when he first scouted the location, the store was selling Asian-themed gift items. That was a selling point to him.
"It was kind of good karma, this place," he said.
The 3,180-square-foot unit features a single selling floor. The store will feature the full Marithé & François Girbaud sportswear line, including Spqrcity dressier looks and Actliv active looks, as well as footwear, which Girbaud complained is little seen in the U.S. It may stock a small selection of goods made by U.S. licensee I.C. Isaacs & Co.
"We want to show the different product," he said. "Not just jeans and T-shirts."
The company also hopes the store will sell a substantial volume of goods — officials are expecting $2.5 million in sales the first year. Total wholesale sales of Girbaud products worldwide, including sales by licensees, came to $220 million in 2002.
There are 45 franchised Girbaud stores around the world, with locations in France, Japan, the Philippines, Spain, Turkey, Brussels and Colombia, and two in the U.S., in Chicago and Los Angeles. But the designer said he is ready to start building his own retail chain and has opened five company stores in Paris. The SoHo location will be Girbaud’s first company-owned store in the U.S.
Olivier Bachellerie, Marithé’s 42-year-old son, is running the retail expansion.
"We don’t want to open 100 stores," said Girbaud.
But more are on the way, he added. The company is looking for locations in London and elsewhere around the world."Now, it’s time for us to take seriously the retail," he said. "We want to show who we are."
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