PARIS — Martine Sitbon is mulling a comeback — under her own name. But first the designer — a stalwart of the Paris fashion scene who rose to prominence in the Nineties before losing the rights to the commercial use of her name to her South Korean shareholder in 2004 — has been doing a little recentering.
Sitbon has spent the past year sorting through her personal archives — from clothes to towers of press books and box-loads of Polaroids — stocked in a storage unit in Paris’ 16th arrondissement in preparation for a monograph celebrating her personal universe and inspirations.
A book signing for the 300-page book, entitled “Martine Sitbon: Alternative Vision,” with creative direction by longtime collaborator and life partner Marc Ascoli, will be held tonight at Paris concept store The Broken Arm. The image-centric tome opens with a collage of “childhood memories” designed by M/M Paris’ Michaël Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak for Sitbon in 1994, mixing childish doodles with photos from her childhood living in Casablanca, Morocco, where she was born.
“I’ve been asked to do a book several times but the timing was never right, firstly because I wanted perspective and secondly, the time to do it,” said Sitbon in an interview at her Paris home. The atmospheric apartment, housed in a pre-Haussmannien building in the city’s first arrondissement, is filled with design objects and quirky knickknacks with groups of vintage rabbits, owls and deer — a Sitbon signature — lining the shelves and grand marble mantelpieces.
Seated at a desk in her office, leafing through a copy of her book hot off the press, Sitbon, clad in a black dress accessorized with her signature black Miu Miu specs offset with a flash of red lipstick (Giorgio Armani’s Lip Maestro), said her idea was to do a book that “gets into the designer’s head.” Which takes time, she adds. “We’re talking about a few decades of fashion, with different chapters. It was also about doing some work on myself, to see what is important; but what I can see, from the first collection to the last, is that I always had the same vision.”
The project, she said, made her feel well surrounded, with various members of Sitbon’s entourage contributing to the work. They include Frédéric Sanchez, who penned a surrealist essay peppered with nods to tracks he created for the shows. A text by Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera fashion museum, focuses on Sitbon’s contribution to the fashion canon.
“Sitbon’s obsessions led her to focus on characteristic clothing, materials, and colors. In an unconventional encyclopedia of fashion, the designer would hold the title of “couturier of riding coats and dresses. Those were the two great tomes that she endeavored to illustrate for over 20 years,” he writes, zooming in on her 10 most representative collections. “Two periods characterize the designer’s journey. The first, from 1985 to 1994, explores the multiple possibilities of men’s dandy suits, which Sitbon adapted for the feminine wardrobe. The second period, from 1994 to 2014, saw the birth of a subtle colorist, tasteful and defiant in her search for new materials and on which she remains a much-appreciated authority.”
The image-centric work weaves between poetic shots by photographers who contributed to the brand’s story, like Javier Vallhonrat and Nick Knight — hand-picked by Ascoli, as the brand’s image director — and various elements of Sitbon’s world such as invitations, blown-up fabric details, illustrations, including by early collaborator Julie Verhoeven, and arty mood boards followed by designs that emerged out of the inspirations.
“In the early- to mid-Eighties the level of importance placed on imagery was not like today. There weren’t all the star photographers and we started the Martine Sitbon collection in an apartment like this one, with all these people coming and going,” said Ascoli, seated at Sitbon’s side.
Archive creations, like Sitbon’s jewel-tone devoré velvet dresses, are presented as still lives, laid flat and back-lit to look like they’re floating in air. Elsewhere, one of the book’s doubles pits a shot of British sculptor Edward Lipski’s work “Bambi” (2003) opposite a doe-eyed Kate Moss in a fluffy black sweater from the designer’s fall 1993-94 collection. (Moss also features on the book’s cover, photographed by Mario Sorrenti.)
“I wanted a very clear editorial point of view presenting the way I work, what inspires me. It’s also meant to be an inspirational tool for the younger generation,” Sitbon said. “It’s been an interesting process, emotional in a nice way, with this feeling of: how wonderful it was to get to live those years because it doesn’t exist anymore. It was a strong, creative, human experience.”
Once referred to as “the only living French designer” by Karl Lagerfeld, Sitbon started out working for brands based between New York and Asia in the early Eighties, then as a freelance designer for fashion houses in Milan, before launching her namesake label in 1986. Known for her rock ’n’ romantic style, she was credited with reigniting the house of Chloé, as the brand’s designer from 1987 to 1992.
Fast forwarding to 2006, Sitbon was tapped by Hong Kong investor Jimmy Chan to head up Rue du Mail, as founding designer, named after the address of its Paris headquarters. But amid a challenging climate for independent labels, with the 2008 financial crisis dealing a destabilizing blow to the fledgling label, the brand was put on hold in 2013.
For her next step, Sitbon has regained control of her name, albeit in the form of a license under the brand’s new owner, Superior Holdings, who acquired it from Ssamzie Co. around three years ago. Superior Holdings distributes a bag line in Asia under the Black Martine Sitbon banner, which Sitbon has no involvement in, and has given her the rights to produce clothing and shoes under her name, she said.
With the carousel nature of fashion today, and the whole designer burn-out phenomenon, Sitbon, whose story comes with its own patches, has no desire to jump back into the rat race. Instead, she wants to come back with a personal approach focused more on real clothes than runway creations designed to court computer screens.
“Today’s scene, there are two ways to do it: either with a big fashion group that has lots of money and do fashion shows and the whole shebang, or a more intimate approach. I don’t have to explain my style, I just need to focus on retailing and the structure of the collections.”
Working on the book, she added, has reawakened her imagination and stirred the desire to return to her essence. “There’s a sense of fulfillment,” said Sitbon, “but also this feeling of excitement for what’s to come.”