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Jitrois: On Fashion’s Fringe

PARIS — Weeks after he opened his first shop in Saint-Tropez 20 years ago, French designer Jean-Claude Jitrois got a unexpected visit from Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Strolling incognito in the seaside Riviera town, she arrived unannounced to...

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PARIS — Weeks after he opened his first shop in Saint-Tropez 20 years ago, French designer Jean-Claude Jitrois got a unexpected visit from Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Strolling incognito in the seaside Riviera town, she arrived unannounced to shop, leaving hours later with several outfits.

Before that moment, Jitrois questioned whether he could make it in fashion. He had abandoned a professorship in psychology at the University of Nice to pursue his passion.

“When Princess Stephanie walked in, everything went ‘click,’” he recalled in an interview. “I knew that if a princess, who had access to the most celebrated couturiers in the world, decided to buy my clothes that I could make it. That there was a niche for me to fill.”

Today, Jitrois enjoys a widening reputation for sexy, rock ’n’ roll–inspired designs in leather worn by the likes of Céline Dion and Elton John. And his business is growing faster than ever.

Orders for fall increased 20 percent, and sales this year are expected to top $12 million. He is carried in 80 shops around the world, including Le Bon Marché, Janet Brown, Harrods and Galeries Lafayette, where his is the top-performing designer collection.

He recently opened a shop in Marbella, Spain. Hot French architect Christophe Pillet will redo his Paris store this summer. Jitrois also operates boutiques on London’s Sloane Street and Red Square in Moscow. He plans to open a location in Cannes, France, within the next year. Meanwhile, the designer was just honored with the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony attended by actress Charlotte Rampling, among others.

But for all his growing accolades, Jitrois said he prefers to lurk on fashion’s fringes. He doesn’t do runway shows, for example, and he dismisses fashion’s too-quickly changing winds.

The designer describes his underground style as “part chic, part louche.”

“I think that clothes need to flatter the person before they flatter the designer. My principal preoccupation is doing clothes that flatter a woman’s body. Women come to me when they want to feel sexy and strong.”

Jitrois, 58, is perhaps best known for the stretch leather he developed in the early Nineties. Working with Dupont, he fused leather onto stretch cotton and then used the fabric to make pants and skirts.

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“The problem with leather trousers has always been that they stretch out,” he said. “But this leather stays taut. It works like a girdle. A woman who usually wears a size 10 wears a 6. The trousers totally mold her body. It gives her a great tush.”

This year, Jitrois introduced ruched leather. For fall his collection includes skin-tight leather trousers, corsets and jackets in fur.

At Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, Jitrois’ in-store shop generates the highest revenue per square meter on the designer floor, according to buyer Sylvie Choux.

“He beats all of our brands, from [John] Galliano to Chloé,” Choux said. “It’s been a big surprise for us. But Jitrois has products that make women look great and he understands that women want to look sexy. When a woman visits his stand, she leaves with something. His clothes are almost irresistible.”

Jitrois acknowledges his good fortune at a difficult time for other independent fashion designers.

“It’s only now that we’re really coming into our own,” he said. “I think you need about 20 years to establish a fashion brand. I think I have at least another 10 years doing this. And then I’m going to sell it all. I’ve already had two careers. I want to have a third.”

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