PARIS — In the context of fashion’s spaghetti junction of hirings and firings, J.M. Weston took the industry by surprise when last June it revealed the appointment of Olivier Saillard as its artistic, image and culture director.
Even Saillard, who worked on 114 exhibitions in his roughly two-decade-long career as a curator and fashion historian, needed time to chew it over before accepting the position, though his background helped ease him into the role.
Part of Bonpoint-owner EPI Group’s stable today, J.M. Weston was founded in 1891 by Edouard Blanchard, who at the turn of the 20th century sent his son Eugène to the town of Weston, Mass., on the outskirts of Boston, to learn shoemaking techniques like Goodyear stitching. When Saillard began researching the brand’s roots and name, he discovered that nobody knows what the initials J.M. stand for. That got his storytelling juices flowing, opening “large possibilities to invent.” He stepped into the shoes of the mystery character.
“It’s like another identity for me. Sometimes a famous writer needs to use another name to be more free….I would love to sign every creation I do as ‘by J.M. Weston,’” Saillard said during a recent interview at the brand’s headquarters here.
“In my mind, J.M. Weston is a man coming from the Thirties, quite Dadaist, still timeless, walking around the world. It’s also sometimes a man who could be a woman. For example, recently I became very interested in different famous women who used to wear men’s suits or trousers, like [Marlene] Dietrich, [Greta] Garbo and Annemarie Schwarzenbach,” said Saillard, whose first advertising campaign for the house features Laetitia Casta wearing the Cambre boot, captured in a collage of scans by artist Katerina Jebb.
“I think J.M. Weston is very linked to people who try to put their feet in another land, in another exercise, in another art. I want to reinsert Weston as the most durable shoes for exploring the world,” he said.
The fact that the label still has its own factory — “the equivalent of an haute couture atelier” — and tannery in Limoges, France, and the idea of doing something with a “human patrimony” also helped seal the deal. The product itself he was already familiar with, having worn Westons for most of his adult life. (Since joining the house, the Hunt model has been Saillard’s footwear of choice.)
“I had probably met the most important fashion designers I had wanted to meet. I started my career at Palais Galliera with an exhibition on Azzedine Alaïa and ended it with a show on Martin Margiela. I did my job,” he said on the subject of his career change. For him, J.M. Weston represented a great opportunity “for starting a new life with a new pair of shoes.”
Added Saillard, who would sometimes get comments from other curators that his exhibitions were too commercial: “Now I’m very happy to say, maybe I could do some very cultural retail.”
Before unveiling his first collection for the house, Saillard said he wanted to “reinsert Weston, to talk about the name, the label, the idea of walking,” via one of the performances he is known for, which focuses on 11 house classics, such as the derby, the 180 Loafer and the Golf.
Opening at the Grand Palais museum on Tuesday at the kick-off of Paris Men’s Week, the performance features French choreographer Mathilde Monnier “alone onstage with a lot of pairs of shoes,” acting out different styles of walking, ranging from in a fashion show to a funeral procession or a military parade. (J.M. Weston is the official supplier of France’s Republican Guard.)
“It’s the first time we’re presenting a performance with nothing new. It’s a statement to explain my philosophy of Weston and how I plan to invent a new Weston way,” Saillard said. “I will combine different pairs of shoes and they will form the notes to create music for the future.
“It’s a metaphor of different possibilities to walk, to dream, to walk and dream at the same time,” the designer added. “In fashion you can invent a lot of things, but if you want to do a very classic, noble pair of shoes with a lot of dignity, you have to learn how it’s constructed. I love the idea of something that could be part of fashion but in an indirect way.”
Saillard has focused on the Forties — his favorite period from the house’s archives and for fashion in general — for his first official line for the brand, which will launch in early 2019.
In the meantime, a capsule designed by Saillard, called Papers, will launch on July 2, timed to the inauguration of the brand’s new Joseph Dirand-designed flagship at 55 Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
The event will also see the unveiling of a complete redesign of the brand’s identity under Saillard, from the logo down to the shoe boxes. The brand will introduce a new leather goods line for fall 2018.
Based on two signature models — the 180 Loafer and the Golf Derby — the capsule features leather uppers and insoles in patterns based on marbled paper from Florence and blotting paper that Saillard came across in the archives. “I’m profoundly still a guardian of memory,” he said, adding, “For me, I have always seen a strong link between shoes and books….You write the floor with your steps, just as you write the paper with text.”
The capsule will be exclusively sold at the Champs-Élysées store, which has been conceived as a temple to J.M. Weston’s service-oriented philosophy, building on the way Eugène Blanchard steered the company in the Twenties following his father’s death.
When his father died he took a number of steps that executives are still respecting. They included lowering the production to increase the quality, and then being completely obsessed by the quality of the leathers and offering a range of widths, explained Thierry Oriez, chairman of J.M. Weston.
“In order to master all this, they opened their own retail store to make sure the service was up to the level of the products,” he continued, adding Blanchard was also behind all of the house’s signature leisure shoes, like the Golf and the Hunt.
J.M. Weston was one of the first brands to arrive on the world-famous avenue in 1932. (Its first store, which still exists, opened on the Boulevard de Courcelles in 1922.)
“It was one of the first shoemakers, to my knowledge, to open a boutique, for one God-given reason: At the time we were the only ones to offer such a complete approach in terms of sizes and widths, so you needed to have people that mastered the art of fitting shoes,” Oriez said. “That’s why the founder of the brand decided to have his own retail business and ever since then, we’ve been part of the landscape of the Champs-Élysées, to such an extent that the Arc de Triomphe is in our logo.”
The company, which does not break out sales, owns 43 stores worldwide and operates 20 shops-in-shop in department stores worldwide. In terms of pure players, it is only sold on Mr Porter.
The brand’s heyday decades were the Thirties, Forties and the late Seventies, with “the Drugstore gang,” he added referring to the band of cool kids that frequented the iconic Publicis Drugstore restaurant on the Champs-Élysées. They’d take their “fathers’ [Weston] shoes and twist them.”
With the new Galeries Lafayette concept store and Apple’s flagship headed to the avenue, Oriez hopes the street is in for a renaissance.
“There is still room for improvement, but you have major landmarks coming up,” he said. “The avenue is gradually [ridding] itself of the airline and car companies to become more of a retail avenue.”
Saillard said he was excited by the idea of having a new house for Weston. “While the Champs-Élysées isn’t necessarily the most fashionable place, it could be in the future,” he said, adding that the avenue for him has something very French and timeless about it. For him, any mention of the Champs-Élysées triggers the images of the avenue captured by the likes of Brassaï and André Kertész.
“A lot of famous photographers have captured walkers on the Champs-Élysées, and for me walkers on the Champs-Élysées and Weston are very close,” added Saillard. “When I think about the Champs-Élysées, I picture all these people, men and women, walking in the street. And I like to picture a shop window full of pairs of shoes waiting to be worn.”