Byline: Sarah Raper

PARIS — Ines de la Fressange, the former Chanel model turned Avenue Montaigne designer, said Thursday that her backers fired her from her eight-year-old fashion house during her maternity leave.
Fressange said she received a letter in June notifying her that she was being fired for faute grave, a French term that implies a serious violation of an employee’s contract. Specifically, the letter accused her of “damaging the company’s brand name” because she had agreed to design a pillbox for a small French pharmaceuticals concern named La Jouvence de l’Abbe Soury for about $13,000, according to Fressange, who was reached by telephone at her apartment in Paris.
“This was a total surprise and I agree now that I should have discussed it with my partners,” she said. “Still it smells like a pretext to me.”
Neither Francois-Louis Vuitton, who owns 83 percent of the house, nor Pierpaolo Carpinelli, president of the company, returned phone calls on Thursday.
The house is scheduled to show a collection on Oct. 2, the opening day of Paris fashion week. Fressange said that she had completed the collection before going on maternity leave and that she understood a freelance stylist had been hired to put the show together.
She said she had turned the matter over to a lawyer and was contesting the decision.
“I was pregnant and my doctor said it was important to avoid stress. I haven’t talked to my associates since,” she said. Fressange’s baby girl, Violette, was born on Aug. 6; her first child, Nine, is five. “There are other layoffs at the house, and it was becoming difficult to explain why I hadn’t returned to work,” Fressange said.
Fressange owns 15 percent of the house and Henry Racamier, the former Louis Vuitton president who set her up in her own house back in October 1991, owns the remaining 2 percent.
Fressange’s ouster is the latest in a series of designer firings here from houses that carry their names. Earlier this year, Max Azria, the new owner of Herve Leger, fired the founding designer. Jean-Louis Scherrer and Chantal Thomass also were let go from their houses, in 1992 and 1995, respectively, once they sold their names. Thomass has since returned to the house under new owners.
The most recent figures available for the Fressange business were for the fiscal year ended Feb. 28, 1998, when the company lost about $5.2 million on sales of $8.6 million, including unspecified royalties. At the end of 1998, Carpinelli projected losses of $1.5 million on sales of $10.7 million for the year through February 1999. A public offering was announced in 1998 but later abandoned.
Fressange claimed she had had only one previous dispute with her backers.
“I was not happy that I was not consulted about the advertising campaign for my perfume, but really that was more a problem with the perfume company,” she said. Her signature scent, produced by the Spanish fragrance firm Myrurgia, is currently launching.
“I don’t think anyone is irreplaceable, but I’ve worked hard on our products and I’ve brought a lot of publicity to the house and I don’t think my backers realize how valuable that is,” she said. “We’re the only house on the Avenue Montaigne without a major advertising budget.”