PARIS — Jeanne Damas is no stranger to labels — “It” girl, influencer and entrepreneur are just a few — but there’s one she’d gladly get rid of: poster child for French Girl Style.
As she celebrates the fifth anniversary of her clothing label Rouje with a new book, Damas has her sights set well beyond her country’s borders, with plans to open new stores, including her first permanent U.S. location, and to rebrand and expand her beauty offering.
And while she embodies the image of the Parisienne, with her red pout and vintage-inspired style, that image is starting to feel a little reductive as Damas, who gave birth to her first child late last year, prepares to turn 30 in March.
“The French Girl Style thing is annoying, and this is where my position is a little delicate, because the press has always labeled me that way, so I’m seen to some extent as the representative of that,” she told WWD.
A savvy social media presence with 1.5 million followers on Instagram, she’s clearly aware of the recent online backlash against the myth of French Girl Style from critics who say it does not reflect the diversity of the country’s population.
When she was approached to write her first book, Damas refused to pen yet another guide to Parisian chic. Instead, her 2017 book “In Paris,” coauthored by Lauren Bastide, featured a varied cast of women living in the French capital.
“I often travel to gather inspiration, because I don’t necessarily find it in Paris, so I think the image of the Parisienne is a bit of a cliché, and it’s good to challenge it. At Rouje, we don’t see ourselves as a French or Parisian brand. We see ourselves as an international brand that dresses all the cool girls,” she added.
Damas spoke at the label’s headquarters in the Sentier district of Paris, the garment manufacturing hub that has given birth to French contemporary brands including powerhouses Sandro and Maje. She’s expanding into a third floor of the building, after tripling the size of her team to 60 employees in the last two years.
“It’s not bad to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the label by finally getting my own office,” said Damas, who’s been sitting at an open plan desk since she launched the online, direct-to-consumer brand. Working from home is clearly not for her. “I need to see people every day, to talk to each department and do that brainstorming, that permanent ping-pong.”
The building on Rue Bachaumont is also home to Rouje’s only store, and until recently housed a restaurant called Chez Jeanne, which opened in 2019 but was forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I really want to reopen it, because I think it gave the place a soul,” said Damas, who grew up above her parents’ brasserie Le Square Trousseau. Though they have since sold it, she returned there for an anniversary dinner on Tuesday with friends including designers Guillaume Henry and Simon Porte Jacquemus, who grooved to French band Mauvais Oeil’s live cover of “La Vie en Rose.”
Jacquemus said he’s known Damas since they were both teen bloggers. “The first time I came to Paris, I was 14 or 15 and I stayed at her place,” he said, pointing his finger toward the upstairs apartment.
“We were both doing what we do today, creating images and describing a lifestyle. We connected and spent a long time talking online, and one day I came to Paris and she showed me around, and we never lost touch,” he said, recalling that he later cast Damas in his early campaign images. “We have a beautiful bond, and I think we always will.”
Both have parlayed their eye for great images into brands that project a distinctly French sensuality. Damas expanded into beauty in 2018 with the launch of a line of lipsticks, and has since added other color cosmetics.
“I want it to become a brand division alongside ready-to-wear — not just a lipstick to go with a dress,” she said, adding the line’s new name will be revealed in the spring. “I’d like to have another store just for beauty, to offer a different experience, because the two can coexist, but they can also speak to two different customers.”
Damas thinks there is space for a more natural style of makeup. “I’d like to do a new type of beauty that doesn’t necessarily exist in France, a new approach that’s less about hiding, like the U.S. trend for contouring, and more about being yourself,” she explained. “It’s beauty to play with: fun and easy.”
In addition, Rouje is beefing up its handbag assortment around three pillars: the sac J, Bobo and Baguette, which retail for between 260 euros and 345 euros. The brand has also expanded its outerwear range, reflecting its growing emphasis on physical retail.
“Since it was only available online to begin with, people thought we were more of a summer brand, because we were known for our Gabin dress. But I’ve always loved winter collections,” Damas said.
While declining to disclose figures, she said Rouje’s tiny retail footprint was a boon during lockdown, and the brand saw a sharp jump in online sales. With retail reopening, Rouje unveiled a corner at Paris department store Le Bon Marché in September and a pop-up at Fred Segal in Los Angeles the following month.
“With the success we’re seeing in stores right now, and life gradually returning, we’ve decided to open several stores this year, including one in the United States,” said Damas, who flew to New York City last week to scout locations. “We’re also looking at one or two in Europe, but that’s still to be defined.”
The book “La Vie en Rouje,” to be published by Editions de la Martinière on Nov. 25, celebrates the brand and the women who represent it with a scrapbook-style selection of images mixing its archives with more personal documents, including childhood pictures of Damas — though don’t expect a confessional.
“I think that if I showed my family every day like on a reality TV show, I would have 20 million followers, but that’s not my thing. But I do think that people love to see someone evolve, and that’s part of the story,” said Damas.
“It’s a really beautiful book, and it’s quite moving because we realized when we saw it that we’ve created a Rouje look,” she continued. “That’s the key to success for a brand, I think. A brand that does too many different styles and that wants to dress everyone, that has no clear identity, can very quickly get lost.”
While the side-buttoned Gabin dress is a perennial favorite, oversized blazers, high-waisted jeans and shrunken cardigans are all part of the Rouje allure. Damas works with creative director Nathalie Dumeix, a family friend whom she’s known since she was a teenager.
“We’re proud and we realize how far we’ve come. In the beginning, it was very much a family-style set-up. There were very few of us and over the years, especially in the last 18 months, since the start of COVID-19, everything has accelerated,” Damas said.
The main challenge when she launched was converting followers into potential customers. Among the lessons she’s learned is to be more open about how the company operates.
“In the beginning, I never talked about CSR, and that was a mistake. We used eco-certified fabrics from the start. Initially, it was 50 percent, and now we’re close to 80 percent,” she said, noting that Rouje’s website now features a page on sourcing. “People need to know, and you just have to learn how to be fair and transparent.”
Produced in small drops to minimize overstock, around 90 percent of Rouje’s products are made in Europe, while jeans are manufactured in Tunisia and woven bags are produced by a women’s workshop in Madagascar.
Damas also supports La Maison des Femmes, an organization that provides shelter for victims of domestic violence, with initiatives including a capsule collection launched last year.
This conscious approach partly explains her frustration at being reduced to an archetype. She recalls one particular magazine article last year. “The headline was ‘Profession: Parisienne.’ With hindsight, it struck me that ‘Profession: Parisienne’ is really like saying ‘Profession: nothing,’” she said.
“Would they have done the same with a man, with a designer? I’m not sure. It’s back to that whole thing of being a ‘pretty girl from the internet.’ Some people can’t see past that,” she added. “So there’s that, plus my imposter syndrome, or my lack of confidence, which I hope to be able to overcome someday.”
Moving into her new office at the end of the year should help her feel more legitimate as an entrepreneur, despite her lack of a formal business education. “Five years in, I’m finally starting to feel like the boss of my own company,” she said.