It’s shaping up to be a big year for Christophe Lemaire.
This story first appeared in the May 6, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Freshly released from his contract with Hermès, where he was creative director of women’s wear for four years, the Paris-based designer disclosed in January he was renaming his own brand, showing his first pre-fall collection and launching an e-commerce site.
It was clear change was afoot several seasons ago, when Lemaire started taking his runway bow with his partner, Sarah-Linh Tran. The couple has now officially transitioned to design duo — the decision to rename the label “Lemaire” a reflection of their new collective approach.
It turns out the reboot was just a prelude to bigger news: the launch of a men’s and women’s collection for Japanese retailer Uniqlo, which will hit stores this fall and bring the duo’s vision of understated elegance to the masses.
At their Paris headquarters, a light-filled loft near Place de la République belonging to Eighties designer Popy Moreni — traces of her graphic interior design flourishes reverentially preserved — Lemaire and Tran, who have been a couple for eight years, offered an image of seamless partnership, often finishing each other’s sentences.
It mirrors their fluid design process.
“We rely a lot on instinct,” mused Lemaire. “Part of the process is to allow yourself to be challenged or surprised. You have to be flexible. It’s a bit of a Taoist approach.”
Fitting sessions are key, with female members of the team acting as a kind of permanent focus group. “We have a fairly collegiate way of making clothes here, which is that we all try them on,” said Tran. “There are a lot of women here, each of whom has her own way of interpreting Lemaire.”
The recent fall collection, presented in a vast hall at the National Library of France, was one of the duo’s strongest to date. A wrap coat in herringbone wool, dresses with plunging V-shaped necklines and draped stoles worn with midiskirts exuded the same understated chic as Céline — albeit without the achingly cool accessories. (Lemaire’s handbag offerings did include an uncharacteristically saucy leather style molded in the shape of female breasts.)
The Uniqlo collaboration should introduce their subtly sensual aesthetic to a whole new audience and help lift Lemaire out of niche-brand status.
Sales have doubled in the past year, according to Bastien Daguzan, who joined Lemaire as managing director in October 2013, with global revenues now in the 6 million to 8 million euros range, or $6.5 million to $8.7 million at current exchange rates. The label is carried in 130 points of sale worldwide, including online retailers Matchesfashion.com and Net-a-porter.com. Barneys New York, Liberty London and Galeries Lafayette in Paris all picked up the fall collection, and Seoul department store Galleria plans a pop-up shop.
Fueling the growth is the duo’s commitment to refined minimalism — spiked with more than a dash of individuality.
“We like men and women who have a personal uniform, which is what really interests us. It’s about elegance and style,” said Lemaire, whose office wall features a collage of style icons such as Georgia O’Keeffe, David Bowie, Diane Keaton, Lauren Hutton and David Byrne.
Each collection is also a piece of a larger puzzle. “There’s always a lot of editing,” he added. “Having a pared-down lineup is important not for financial reasons, but because it reflects a philosophy: How can you propose a sort of ideal wardrobe?”
A word the designers use often is “organic.” It might have something to do with the fact that neither had formal training in fashion. Lemaire took a course in literature before enrolling at the Atelier de Sèvres, which preps students for art college. But his father disapproved and he cut short his studies.
“I started working at 19. I really learned hands-on. That is my one regret, not having studied pattern-cutting,” recalled Lemaire, who early in his career moonlighted as a DJ.
An internship at Thierry Mugler led to a position at Michel Klein, followed by a four-year stint in the Eighties working alongside Christian Lacroix, first at Jean Patou and then at Lacroix’s fledgling label. “Working with Christian Lacroix convinced me once and for all to become a designer, because he was generous and I really responded to his passion for the history of art and costume, as well as his jubilatory approach to designing collections,” Lemaire recalled.
If Lacroix and Lemaire seem as different as a ballgown and a monk’s robe, it’s because, well, they are. It didn’t take long for Lemaire to figure that out. “I’ve always been interested in a more pragmatic approach to fashion, in the clothes, really,” he explained. “I already had that obsession with functionality, practicality and simplicity.”
Tran was even less predestined to a fashion career. After taking an English course at New York University, she majored in liberal arts at the New School’s Eugene Lang College before studying publishing in Paris. Her interest in book illustrations led to her doing informal research for Lemaire.
“We were exchanging images, and little by little, I realized that I liked the narrative aspect of fashion,” she said. “I first gave my input on the general artistic direction and image of the collections, and gradually on the clothes, and finally, I started taking an interest in how the clothes were made. Today, I realize that this is what interests me most — the technical aspect of clothes.”
When Lemaire and Tran are not working, they enjoy cooking or simply hanging out with their two cats. “Paris is a city where it’s still OK to waste time,” Lemaire noted wryly. He regrets not heading to the countryside often enough, saying it provides a welcome respite from the information treadmill.
“I think we are saturated with images, but not just in fashion. Our entire society is overflowing with images and information that leave too little room for imagination,” he said. “I think a lot of the fashion out there today is pointless — things either look alike or lack coherence. But as long as you are surrounded by like-minded people, as is the case at Lemaire today, and you believe in what you’re doing, the work is very satisfying. We are very fortunate and happy to do this job, especially now that we are getting recognition. It’s reassuring.”