THE PRINCE OF CASHMERE
Byline: Bridget Foley
If Lucien Pellat-Finet somehow traveled back in time to the late 18th century, he would certainly meet with the favor of Marie Antoinette. And if the two wound up sharing a coach to the guillotine, to her “Let them eat cake,” he might respond with a rousing, “Oui, oui, and let them wear cashmere while they dine!”
Since opening his collection of cashmere sweaters two years ago, Pellat-Finet has carved out quite a niche for himself among the anti-fashion fashion set. Wealthy lovers of discreet luxe are stopping by — or sometimes just ringing up — stores like Barneys, Janet Brown, Louis of Boston and Maria Luisa in Paris to pick up the striped or colorblocked sweaters, sometimes in multiples, even though they start at about $1,200. For fall, he has also added a small group of wovens in Agnona double-face cashmere as well as a single handbag shape, both based on his colorblocking motif.
Still, Pellat-Finet’s business can only be described as tiny: This year, he expects to write orders for just under $1 million. But you won’t find him whining about how tough it is to get a small fashion business off the ground. Instead, he has zero patience for those who look for a helping hand. “Look at this,” he says, reaching for a magazine article which discusses government grants to small design houses, including Jean Colonna, Mariot Chanet and Jerome L’Huillier.
“This is state money. I don’t like that,” he says. “To get money for a show just to please yourself and your ego — no. You don’t need a show. You don’t need a state subsidy; it’s not healthy at all. The future for people in fashion is to work, to be close to your market.”
Pellat-Finet is content to let his business grow “step by step, very slowly.” Not that he could handle a major growth spurt right now anyway. His sweaters are made in the South of France by a handful of women (“the wives of peasants”) who sit at looms, each turning out 1 1/2 sweaters daily. With only 13 knitters on call, the firm can turn out about 1,500 sweaters a year. Pellat-Finet heaps praise on these ladies because they “work like crazy,” but he says increasing their ranks is no easy task.
“The problem is that, in France, people don’t want to work,” he laments. “When the state gives you money for food, for this, for that, you don’t want to work anymore. It makes me crazy.”
Pellat-Finet grew up in the South of France, the son of a well-to-do businessman, who, he says, “never gave me a cent after I left home.” That was in 1969 when he headed for Paris, where he’s been wafting through the fashion scene ever since. Initially, he worked in advertising and briefly as a model making “easy money” before turning to styling.
His first effort was a Thierry Mugler show. “It was the time of all the big shows — Mugler, Montana, Kenzo,” Pellat-Finet says. “I enjoyed doing that so much. Then I met Philippe Guibourge, who was doing Chanel before Lagerfeld. I worked with him on a show. We brought in Ines de la Fressange, and it was the first time punk people were interested in Chanel. At the time, the house didn’t like it very much. Now they do.” In 1986, Pellat-Finet opened a shop to house his own designs, but closed it three years later when he sensed a “turning point in the economy. I intended to take a year off, but it turned into five.”
Now, he’s totally focused on his work, and he doesn’t miss the old days a bit. “I never look back. I think the future will be better than my past,” he says.
It’s certainly looking good right now. “There’s always a market for luxury,” he says, citing a woman who bought six sweaters in a single spree at Barneys. “A half-dozen,” Pellat-Finet says, “Like eggs. Someone wears the sweaters, and she’s addicted.”
Let them wear cashmere.