hen Maria Luisa Poumaillou died in April, an era passed with her — one of meticulously curated fashion stock and the courage to take a chance on young, unknown designers.
“The evolution of the retail sector over the past 20 years has been colossal,” Poumaillou herself judged in a WWD interview five years ago.
She acknowledged that the scene had changed radically since the advent of the Internet and the mushrooming of fashion brands’ own flagships financed by their big-group owners, which were taking business away from indies like her that were indispensable to fashion when she first started out.
“I think she created first of all a legacy of passion for what’s beautiful and what’s right for the customer. And it’s very interesting, because she was selling amazing brands but was never buying the label, she was buying the look,” observed Paolo de Cesare, chief executive officer of Printemps.
Poumaillou was appointed fashion editor at the French department store in 2009, shortly before shuttering her fabled multibrand boutiques on Rue Cambon, Rue Rouget de L’Isle and Rue Mont Thabor and moving her stock and vision to an in-store shop on the French department store’s second floor.
De Cesare continued: “It could be Dries Van Noten or it could be Gucci, she was working exactly in the same way. She was never a ‘slave’ of the label, she was an ambassador of the look and of the customer. And I think we lost [that]. Particularly when you become such a large department store, you lose this sense of the product and the customer and you think only ‘brand,’” he noted.
The defunct Maria Luisa boutiques championed designers including John Galliano, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen and Helmut Lang at a time when no one had heard their names. More recently, J.W. Anderson, Anthony Vaccarello and Simone Rocha have made the cut.
“The first time I met her at the Meurice to show her my clothes, she looked at a few things, sat down and said, ‘Oh thank God, I can buy it,’” recalled Rick Owens. “After that, I don’t remember meetings being all that methodical with her — just bursts of energy and a few pronouncements and we were done. She reacted completely with her gut and I have always admired that in someone. The cultivation of beauty is one of life’s greatest pursuits. Maria Luisa did it with ferocity.” Just how ferocious and how far ahead of her time was evident in her long-standing business relation- ships — which eventually turned into friendships — with some of fashion’s most directional designers.
“Maria was one of my first clients back in 1988,” said Ann Demeulemeester. “When I first visited her shop, it looked like a strange ‘mix-and-match’ to me, but soon I understood that this was more like a best-of, carefully composed by Maria herself. Maria’s personal and professional advice was invaluable for many women. This was receiving ‘real luxury’ in Maria’s ‘treasure box.‘ I will never forget the twinkle in her eyes when she discovered a garment she loved. She understood the power of a well-cut garment more than anyone else. She was excited to discover ‘soul’ and would judge severely on quality and style. She understood the personality of every individual client so well that they trusted her choice and advice almost blindly.”
Demeulemeester said there would be so-called “Maria order exams” with “no compromises” made, but that once a designer passed the exam, she would share her enthusiasm with everyone in the fashion world. “This made her the perfect ambassador, but it was something you had to [earn].”
Poumaillou’s career in fashion was by no means premeditated.
“It happened by accident,” explained her husband and business partner, Daniel Poumaillou. “Her parents came as political refugees from Venezuela and settled in France in the Fifties. Maria studied interpreting at Sciences Po and returned to Venezuela in the Seventies. But two years later, she came back — she was bored,” he recalled.
When a friend wanted to launch her own brand with the Poumaillous’ help but eventually changed her mind, the couple held on to the empty retail space in Paris’ first arrondissement. “Maria loved new designers and so we asked ourselves: why not bring them to the center of Paris,” said Poumaillou.
“You have to imagine, at that time in 1988, there was nothing here. Only hotels. And the fashion retail landscape — you either had the bourgeoisie with their haute couture or a handful of independent retailers. And when you went to, say, a Yohji Yamamoto store in the Eighties, they would look you up and down and snub you. It was like a private club. But Maria had the idea of making fashion accessible to people. In the store, there was a large divan and she would throw everything on it. People could come and touch and try,” he said.
Shopping at Maria’s, according to Pierre Hardy, was an experience. “It’s like she was the queen, and she was receiving in her own salon. You couldn’t just swing by for five minutes. No, you had to stay two, three hours. Because it was not just about buying. It was a permanent discussion about what you would wear with what. Not silly at all. And everybody was going there. It was arguably the best shop in Paris.”
Hardy said the intelligence of the discourse was hard to match. “It was a culture. Maria Luisa was the biggest commentator in the world, and she didn’t hold back. She went through many different layers in her life that produced this clever sharpness, taste and sense of luxury that is hard to reach. We will have to wait for that [to surface again in someone else],” he suggested.
Manish Arora said spending time with Poumaillou was “an eye-opener.” “She took me to all the shows — Dior, Givenchy, Margiela — and talked me through it. Even the store that I have in Paris — she found it. If it wasn’t for her, I would have never made it in Paris. I told her, you are my French mother. She said: ‘Come on, darling, I’m your sister, not your mother.’”
The future of Maria Luisa without Maria Luisa is uncertain.
“We need to decide how we are going to perpetuate this business model, because clearly she was such a central element that we can’t assume it will continue on its own, but we learned a lot of things. She trained a lot of people,” said de Cesare.
Next to the Maria Luisa flagship on the second level, which according to market sources logs the best turnover on the floor, Printemps also operates Maria Luisa Soir for eveningwear and Maria Luisa Mariage for wedding dresses.
“If I could open more, I would. The Mariage is doing very well, so we relocated it in a new area, [a] very premium area…on the sixth floor, so we are definitely investing to maintain these spaces,” de Cesare assured.
Daniel Poumaillou said Robin Schulié, Maria Luisa’s right-hand man for 13 years, would take over her duties. “He is a fantastic scout and has already been placing 90 percent of all orders,” he noted.
As for Maria Luisa’s namesake line, which is distributed mainly in Asia in the multibrand boutiques bearing her name in Beijing, Shanghai and Qatar, and the e-store on thecorner.com operated by Yoox, Poumaillou said: “I can tell you everybody wants to keep going. Qatar even wants to create a new space for shoes and accessories with us, because it’s going so well.”
Schulié added one thing he can vouch for is the “liberty of thought” Maria Luisa had instilled in him from the start in a business whose rules are dictated by big groups and their lavish marketing spending, which no one can outrun.
“We don’t sell candles, fancy kitchenware, or what they call ‘lifestyle.’ We sell clothes and some accessories,” Schulié noted, lamenting how most designers today make “huge quantities of clothes they don’t like for people they don’t know but who think they need them.”
“For us, it’s the opposite. We know we can’t please everybody. You have to discriminate and edit sharply for more personality,” he argued.
Hardy said among the things he appreciated most about Poumaillou was that “she was one of those women — like Catherine Deneuve — who didn’t care what you thought of them. Her taste was not at all formatted. She could match a classic tailored jacket from McQueen with a couture piece. She was very free-spirited. A truly elegant woman.”
Arora noted: “If Paris was a woman, she would be called Maria Luisa. She left such a big impact forever.”
“Some people you meet because you have to meet them,” added Demeulemeester. “I don’t believe in coincidence and I’m very grateful to Maria, who will stay forever in my heart as ‘la grande dame.’”