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The durable stereotype of the sneering fashion designer has no traction with Alexandre Mattiussi. Mattiussi, 33 years old, is a bearded Frenchman of Italian extraction, with a face like you’d find on a Roman coin. He has a cap of thick, short curls, though it is most often concealed under his trademark woolen beanie, worn pointing straight up, in the manner of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs.
This story first appeared in the March 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Mattiussi’s most salient feature, though, may be a smile. His entire persona seems founded upon a general and all-purpose good cheer that is not necessarily in evidence in many of the corridors of la mode in the French capital. His 3-year-old label, Ami, takes its name from the initials of his name (Alexandre Mattiussi), but just as much from its stated audience: his friends. Fashion may have become far more inclusive in the years since the Internet democratized it, but the world is still chilly to anyone perceived as an arriviste. Ami, by contrast, is by friends, for friends. And as its footprint grows at retailers all over the world—in Paris, London, Seoul, Tokyo, New York—the message is clear: It would like to be your friend, too.
This past January, Mattiussi staged his first show during Paris men’s fashion week. For previous seasons, he held presentations meant to suggest impromptu gatherings of friends: an evening at a bar on Place des Victoires, a summer afternoon barbecuing in the yard of a friend’s place.
Mattiussi has always claimed that his inspirations are not far-flung or high-minded, but, rather, the streets where he lives and the friends he sees on them. “I say all the time, I don’t read so much books, I don’t look at so many movies,” he says. “I just feel very inspired by the guys around us.” His lab is his neighborhood, Pigalle, a formerly rough part of Paris that’s quickly emerging as a hipster enclave. (The skaters who congregate in Pigalle and skate down the hill by Mattiussi’s house inspired some of the more streetwear-inflected bits of the Fall collection, like the wider, low-slung pants.)
For his show, he re-created a Paris street, dotted with streetlamps, dusted with artificial snow. Snow is a relative rarity during the French winter, but a few inches had fallen the previous season, so there was precedent to cite. In any case, Mattiussi doesn’t insist on strict reality. The collection, he stresses, should be real; the presentation, atmospheric. “For me, it’s really important to create this atmosphere, because I’m always going to show a jacket and a trouser,” he says. “This is what I enjoy the most, to create this atmosphere.”
The show had the feel of reality, but better. The lighting was soft, as if Instagram-filtered, and the models were handsome but not, on the whole, the usual group of ectomorphic teenagers who seem to fill the cast of every show in succession. They spanned a spectrum of ages, races, and relative tattooed-ness, from bare to plastered. (The lineup also included a lone woman, the Parisian music producer Caroline de Maigret. Her inclusion restarted whispers about an Ami womenswear line, but Mattiussi insists it’s not yet in the offing, though a name, Ami(e), has been trademarked. In the show, she wore a man’s suit.) They ambled through the scenery to Paul and Fritz Kalkbrenner’s gently bopping “Sky and Sand.” It was, all in all, a charming production.
The fact that it was a production is no doubt especially satisfying to Mattiussi. He has always had a pronounced interest in spectacle. As a child growing up in Gisors, in Normandy, he took up ballet after seeing a television documentary on Swan Lake. He studied intensively for ten years, from 4 to 14 (“Very Billy Elliot,” he says). “What I enjoyed the most was not just about dancing. It was about the makeup, the dress, the costume, the lights, the music, the set, the design,” he says. “When the curtains open, it’s a show. I love the idea of the show.”
He was less enthused about the professional realities of ballet. When he went to Paris to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet School, he blanched at the cutthroat competitiveness of the other boys. He threw the audition and went home to Gisors, casting about for something new to pique his interest. It came, once again, from TV. On the French fashion programs, presenters such as Marie-Christiane Marek and Viviane Blassel were offering a glimpse into the closed fashion-week shows of maximalist designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. The shows might as well have been staged at the Opera. “What I loved the most was not so much about the fashion,” he says. “It was more about the spectacle.”
Men’s fashion, even more than women’s, has to navigate the divide between the spectacle of the show and the realities of the wardrobe. Mattiussi appreciated the spectacle for spectacle’s sake but gravitated toward clothes that were more classic. After fashion school at Paris’ École Duperré, Mattiussi worked on the menswear at Dior (for the more commercial secondary line, 30 Avenue Montaigne), and then at Givenchy. After he’d been at Givenchy a year, Riccardo Tisci, the house’s womenswear designer, was given creative control of menswear, too. His first collection, for Spring 2009, announced a new direction for Givenchy: a more fashion-forward, boundary-pushing approach that didn’t shy away from the idea of hot-pink lace or leather Bermuda shorts worn over leggings.
“When Riccardo went in, I really loved the way he was telling the stories,” Mattiussi says. “The fashion he was doing was not my fashion.” He worked with Tisci for a season but grew dissatisfied with the disconnection he felt from what he was designing, both in aesthetic and in price. “I was designing beautiful cashmere sweaters, like 2,000 euros, but because of the price or the high creativity, I felt it was not affordable for myself. It was strange,” he says. “When I started my own thing, I felt I want to connect with my own clothes as a menswear designer, because I am a man, and I want to wear my clothes. You have to understand your limits. Creatively, I’m not sure I could do a kind of craziness.”
From the beginning, Ami was designed as a line that Mattiussi and his friends could both wear and afford. It has always stayed well within the bounds of unfussy chic, never straying into the outer realms of outré. “What he is interested in is a real person,” says his friend Joseph Altuzarra, the New York–based womenswear designer whom he met while the two were working at Givenchy. “He doesn’t necessarily have this sort of ethereal or unapproachable muse. A lot of times, you’ll really love a show—I’m sure women feel this way about looking at women’s shows—and you actually go into the store and say, ‘Eh, I sort of loved it on the runway, but I don’t know that I could actually wear this.’ Or, ‘It is superexpensive.’ Once you have to apply it to you and what you wear, it’s always very different.”
It’s a thorny truth that even many designers are rarely seen in their own collections. Tisci, Mattiussi says, “doesn’t wear his clothes, except T-shirts, and maybe, sometimes, a sweatshirt.” Many designers seem disinclined to all high fashion, preferring to dress plainly, even as they design lavishly. “I sort of have this philosophy about how I dress,” Altuzarra says. “I don’t like to look like I put too much effort into what I wear, because I feel like I should put more effort into thinking about what other people are wearing. I think Ami is such a fantastic wardrobe for that feeling.”
Of course, there are potential pitfalls to playing it safe, as Ami does. Some detect copycatting in Ami’s basic designs. In particular, the French label A.P.C. seems to feel impinged upon. “They are not very welcoming,” Mattiussi admits, euphemistically. A few seasons ago, A.P.C. co-designer Louis Wong posted a message on his private Facebook page, parodying A.P.C.’s name (“Atelier de Production et de Création”) into a sobriquet for Ami: “Atelier Maître en Imitation.” (A.P.C., which said the incident is in the past, declined to comment further than to clarify that Wong, despite his position, does not speak for the brand.)
Mattiussi is unperturbed. “We don’t pretend to invent fashion, or to reinvent something,” he says. “I just don’t care about trying to make a mark in fashion history. It’s not about doing this. I just say from the beginning, I’m just trying to do a wardrobe for men I like, and for myself, to be something that looks realistic. Maybe it’s not fashion enough, not fashionable enough.”
It was fashion enough to win Mattiussi the 2013 ANDAM, the 250,000-euro award for an up-and-coming French designer given by the Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode, and hosted by the Ministry of Culture. But fashion, with its strong connotations of novelty, has never been Ami’s point. “I have known him for a long time,” Altuzarra says of Mattiussi. “He was dressing the way he designs Ami before Ami existed.”
“He had the whole package,” says Nicole Phelps of Style.com, who was on the jury panel that selected Mattiussi.
Two days later, we are in Mattiussi’s new, much expanded showroom on the Rue des Arquebusiers in Paris’ fourth arrondissement, around the corner from his year-old store. Upstairs, his office is still stacked with moving boxes waiting to be unpacked. The move has coincided with the coming of the season, and there’s been no time.
The showroom is abuzz with activity, and Mattiussi says he’s had more than two hundred requests for appointments—up from around a hundred last season. Press has been warm from the beginning, and so has retail support. Ami currently has 167 stockists worldwide, including Barneys, Selfridges, 10 Corso Como, and Beams.
The collection this season is boiled down to essentials even more than before. Previously, Ami had been experimenting with wilder options—an allover print of birds had briefly become a street-style favorite—but a new gig consulting for the high-end Swiss label Bally forced Mattiussi to focus his energies on making only what was absolutely needed. A recurring motif of polka dots—printed, woven into jacquards, or burned out on velvet—was the most graphic aspect of the new collection. Otherwise, it skewed toward the most hardy of standards: a trenchcoat in mackintosh fabrics, slim suiting and unstructured blazers, a new skinny jean, and thick-gauge sweaters with matching scarves. The furthest foray into runway fashion was a blazing red suit. It may seem like a tall order for many men, but Mattiussi explained that he and his stylist, Darcy Backlar, consult with their models to get a real-guy perspective. “I said, ‘Can you deal with it?’ ” he asked model Adonis Bosso. “He said, ‘I’m taking care of it. Don’t worry.’ So I felt very, very happy about this.”
Part of the commercial appeal of the collection is due to its easy style, and another part to its price point. Ami is what the industry calls “contemporary”: shirts and sweaters retail for around $200, tailored jackets for around $800. The lower price is accomplished by producing garments outside of Italy and France, where many of Ami’s designer competitors produce their wares. “I always say there is not so many ways to a shirt,” Mattiussi shrugs. “A shirt is one, two, three seams and the collar and the buttons.” He experimented with Portugal, Tunisia, Italy, France, and Romania before settling on Romania, which has delivered a balance between price and quality that he’s comfortable with.
“It feels important to keep the price point, because this is part of the success of the brand,” Mattiussi says. “I wouldn’t be here today if I did a very high-end, luxurious brand.” (He is quick to point out that the fabrics he uses are, in many cases, the same as those of his competitors; it is the production, and often the margins charged, that differentiates his label.)
Whatever hackles may be raised, all indicators, from the bustling showroom to the new offices to the well-attended show, are of success. Wholesale sales were up 87 percent from last season, and a second Ami store, on Paris’ Left Bank, is set to open in the spring. He’s been approached by corporations and labels looking to sign him and his company, but, with the exception of Bally, which he will consult on for two seasons, he hasn’t taken the bait yet.
“I have an ambition for Ami,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a small French brand. Because I’m generous, I want to share this dream with as many people as possible.”
Walking around the showroom, he enthuses about the collection with a laugh, ticking off everything he likes: a jacket, a pochette, a sneaker emblazoned with his logo—a new development. Does it signal a new willingness to claim his title?
“The word is cool,” Mattiussi says. “Ami is not a bad word.”