PARIS — Simon Porte Jacquemus is no stranger to taking a gamble.
He kick-started his career by staging a happening in front of a Dior show during Paris Fashion Week, complete with models brandishing “Jacquemus on Strike” signs. Vogue Paris editor in chief Emmanuelle Alt stopped to see what the fuss was about, and a year later, his work was featured in the magazine.
Since then, Jacquemus has gained a reputation as one of the most talented young designers on the Paris scene, whose name is regularly put forward in the ongoing game of designer musical chairs at major houses. Yet the 27-year-old self-described “son of farmers” continues to play by his own rules.
When Dior decided this season to move forward its show to the first day of Paris Fashion Week, which also featured Saint Laurent, Jacquemus was faced with the prospect of being sandwiched between two powerhouses.
He decided to go double or nothing and stage his display the night before, on the closing day of Milan Fashion Week, when many fashion editors are traditionally in transit — or simply not in the mood for an evening show.
The gamble paid off, as it usually does for the plucky designer, who launched his label after dropping out of fashion school at the age of 19, prompted by his mother’s untimely death (Jacquemus is her maiden name.)
Since then, he has gained the support of industry figures like Rei Kawakubo and won the Special Jury Prize in the annual awards held by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
His spring 2017 collection marked a new stage for the label, winning critical acclaim and the support of celebrities like Kendall Jenner, who was pictured on a yacht at the Cannes Film Festival in May wearing one of his straw Provençal hats.
Jacquemus came up with an even bigger version — a supersized sun hat — for his sultry spring collection, shown at the Picasso Museum. In an interview, the designer talked about growing up, keeping it real, and the advice he got from Pierre Cardin.
WWD: You took a risk this season by staging your show on the eve of the official start of Paris Fashion Week. What was the thinking behind that?
Simon Porte Jacquemus: I wanted it to be like when I started out, when the first day was for young designers, so I deliberately went first. I took a bit of a risk, because I didn’t know if people were going to change their schedules to come, but it was an exciting risk to take.
I also had a huge amount of support from the start, both from journalists and the federation, which opened the day for me.
It was quite gratifying, as an independent brand, that we were able to move the calendar like that.
It was also strategic, because that way you get more press coverage, no matter what. But you also run the risk that people will come and be disappointed that they changed their flight.
WWD: Why did you decide to hold the show at the Picasso Museum?
S.P.J.: Initially, we wanted to do the show in the courtyard. When I went to check it out as a venue — because I know the museum, I go there all the time, it’s my favorite museum in Paris — I realized the courtyard wasn’t right. On the other hand, I really loved the interior. I found the furniture, the black-and-white tile floor, the staircase all combined to give the impression of a solar house that was really in tune with the collection. Together with Bureau Betak, the museum officials really moved mountains to make it happen. The director of the museum liked my work and wanted me to have the show there, and I think that’s a big reason why it worked out, because it was a lot of work for them, even if they were in the midst of changing exhibitions.
This was the first time a show was being held indoors.
They had to move some artworks and seal off some of the rooms for security reasons. Even the party afterward was new territory for them.
WWD: Yes, I understand they got a little nervous about it.
S.P.J.: Yes, you could tell. It got a little tense at one point, I have to admit, but afterward, they were surprised that we handed back the place in better shape than we found it. That’s really thanks to Bureau Betak, who did a great job.
WWD: In terms of the collection, titled La Bomba, you let loose a new sensuality this season. Do you feel like you are seeing women’s bodies with a fresh eye?
S.P.J.: I think I’m growing up. When I started out, it’s true that I had a tendency to place shapes on a woman’s body — a square, a circle — add straps and turn it into a dress or a skirt.
Today, I try every piece of clothing on a model dozens of times, so I am really getting to grips with the body and working around the female body, which I wasn’t able to do previously for a number of reasons.
WWD: There was some really beautiful draping in the show. Was that a technical challenge?
S.P.J.: Yes, we spent a lot of time on it. On average, we rework every dress 10 times. We make very few clothes each season. We end up showing almost everything we make. The collections are not very big. That’s something I want to keep — it’s strategic. It’s also about selling what you show on the runway. That is rooted in something Pierre Bergé told me, because we had a conversation one day and he told me that had always been the case at Saint Laurent. It’s really important to me.
WWD: Not to show conceptual clothes?
S.P.J.: Yes, and increasingly — thanks to accessories, thanks to a lot of things — the Jacquemus silhouette has become more and more concrete, in a way. They are real clothes: it’s a shirt, a dress, a real wardrobe.
WWD: At the same time, you have always taken a narrative approach to your collections, which is interesting to contrast with this wardrobe-building approach.
S.P.J.: I take a loose approach to it. This season, I must have done between 30 and 40 dresses and just two pairs of pants, so there’s still a lot of freedom. People were saying, “Simon, last summer we sold out of the wide pants.” I said yes, but La Bomba only wears pedal-pushers, and I want to do one or two. So there are collection plans, there are market realities, but at the same time there is always a sense of freedom and a desire to just follow my instincts. That’s my recipe for sincerity and also, I think, for success.
WWD: Each collection has its own title. How are these collections born?
S.P.J.: It often stems from an obsession or a memory. In this instance, it was a fairly basic memory, because it’s the kind of memory anybody can have: it’s going for a walk in the summer with your mother, or seeing women by the seaside, and there is a sense of freedom. It’s the kind of beauty that is specific to summer when you feel good, when you can take risks, when you feel like wearing that big straw hat you found at the market, and you pile on two or three necklaces, because it’s a moment of lightness.
The idea is really to work around this woman and this precise story to turn it into something concrete. We ask ourselves questions like, “What kind of music does she like?” We don’t design clothes and then try to tell a story around them. We start with the story and then we try to find the clothes to tell it. I can never do it the other way around — it doesn’t work.
WWD: You’ve talked a lot about your Southern roots in your work, but this year was special because you staged a show in Marseille, in addition to two exhibitions and a book under the banner “Marseille, je t’aime.” Why is it so important for you to show people this side of France?
S.P.J.: Because I would feel like I was lying to myself if there wasn’t a bit of the South in everything I do. It’s odd, but I really feel the need to stake out that claim. I’ve always found that fashion in Paris is too Parisian or not French, so if I can talk about something other than Paris, I think that’s a good thing.
WWD: Are there any designers in particular that inspire you?
S.P.J.: There are many designers that speak to me: Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier, for example. I like their Frenchness. In the case of Gaultier, even though he did La Parisienne, I always thought it was more French in general, which is something that has always fascinated me.
WWD: Pierre Cardin, another one of your design heroes, attended your show this season.
S.P.J.: I ate with him two weeks before the show. He told me, “I never attend any shows except for Dior, but perhaps, for you, I will make an effort.”’ He came, and he told me, “You have personality — pay attention to technique.” It’s so sweet, but I understand what he was saying, because there are still things that are new. We are still a young brand — we are eight years old.
There are 40 of us in this building and we are all very young, so we are learning a lot. But I was really happy that Cardin came and told me I had personality. It pleased me and it touched me.
WWD: How is the brand performing?
S.P.J.: Revenues are doubling every year, but I don’t disclose our sales.
WWD: At this stage, are you looking to add points of sale or to grow your business with existing partners?
S.P.J.: In fact, we have never lost a point of sale since Jacquemus was launched. We have roughly 200 points of sale worldwide and I don’t think there are that many more that we dream of adding. The next stage is more internal. For example, we recently opened our first shops-in-shop at Galeries Lafayette, between Céline and Saint Laurent.
So we are looking more at developing our own boutiques and partnerships with department stores, because we have found good partners.
WWD: Do you have a chief executive officer?
S.P.J.: It’s me, but I sometimes use consultants, especially when dealing with banks. When you’re an independent label, you need to manage your cash flow. But I set out my strategy from the beginning, which was to always fund my next collection by selling the one before. It’s the strategy of a healthy business that needs to sell, and that uses its revenues to grow.
I still own 100 percent of the company. I’m proud of that.
WWD: Now that you are looking to grow your retail activities, are you tempted to bring in a ceo so that you can focus on the creative side, or do you prefer to control everything?
S.P.J.: Focusing on the creative side is a mistake because there is no creativity without business, so that’s something I’m hugely interested in. I am obsessed with numbers and knowing what sold the day before in the main store. That’s something deep-rooted. I would head to the market on Saturdays and Sundays with my grandparents and spend the summer selling fruits and vegetables. My parents were business owners, so for me it’s a big mistake to be in a bubble.
WWD: Did the LVMH Prize help in terms of getting expert advice?
S.P.J.: There is a very good relationship with LVMH in general, and the mentoring really helped. That was really the best thing about it, because the prize money was quickly spent, but the yearlong mentoring really allowed us to grow from children into adults on every level.
WWD: What is your goal for the brand in five years?
S.P.J.: My answer to that is always very philosophical. I want people to enjoy being here, I want to enjoy it myself and to be in harmony with what I do every day. Beyond that, I don’t know. For me, setting a goal doesn’t mean anything. I want us to develop ideas to the best of our ability, and for each season to provide a clearer image of the Jacquemus woman. That is really my dream: being able to meet all my artistic requirements. It’s a luxury, but I have the feeling each season that we are getting there. Each season, we take it to the next level.
WWD: Your spring collection, “Les Santons de Provence,” was widely described as a breakthrough and worn by a host of celebrities.
S.P.J.: U.S. Vogue did a half-page just on the straw hats. They were in all the magazines. We got a lot of covers, including two for Vogue. A lot of stars wore the collection, starting with Rihanna. The way I see it, people said, “OK, he actually does know how to design for women.”
There was a before and an after the Santons collection and we know it will always represent a milestone. I don’t know how to explain it.
WWD: It can’t be easy to follow up that kind of collection.
S.P.J.: The following season was difficult. The winter collection was very sober, very black — it was really complicated.
We were all obsessed with the Santons collection.
After that show, I had this very weird feeling that people were no longer looking at me the same way. It’s hard to describe that period right after, and Marseille was also very weird — weird in a good way. It was amazing.
WWD: Critics also reacted positively to your latest collection.
S.P.J.: I could feel it even before the show because I know myself. It’s the 18th collection I have designed, and we spent the whole summer here singing, dancing and laughing — there was an energy. I wanted it to be a happy energy because my last two collections were quite melancholic.
There were moments of stress, because we were not at all ready with the collection — even less so than usual — and we went to Milan to do the casting and I knew. I wasn’t even stressed. I knew it was special, and before the show began, all the girls were crying. I told them a bit of my story, and all the models started weeping, and for that reason alone, I felt like I didn’t need to show the clothes. It’s a little hard to explain.
They felt that for once, they were part of the story, and it was amazing. And two or three hours later, I was already getting tons of requests from celebrities.
It wasn’t just celebrities, but all sorts of women — all these messages. It was more than usual. I felt it was touching even more people, and it’s the first time that people were telling me: “There wasn’t a single piece that [I] didn’t want to wear.” I had never been told that.
WWD: How important is it for celebrities to wear your clothes?
S.P.J.: I appreciate it, because when they go with an independent label, you know it’s their choice. They often have huge contracts with other brands, so picking Jacquemus, this little French guy, is really a choice, even if their stylist is behind it. Even being worn by people who get a lot of flak, like the Kardashians, is not nothing. As Jacquemus, an independent designer, the son of farmers, to have my Provençal hat on the Kardashian family yacht means something. And you can read it two ways: you can say there is a list of people that are uncool, and others that are cool, but I don’t see it like that. I just think, “Wow, that’s pretty great.”
WWD: Does it have an impact on sales?
S.P.J.: Yes, sometimes it has a direct impact on sales. The straw hat, for instance, was sold out four times. We had waiting lists for it. Everyone wanted to get married in this hat.
I remember when we made it, everyone was like, “It’s cool, but it’s never going to sell.” We ordered around 10 for the main store, and then Zara did a smaller version and they were really everywhere. There were brands created just around this hat.
WWD: Talking of career thresholds, your name often comes up when there is a vacancy at a major fashion house. Is that something you’re interested in, and are you frustrated it hasn’t happened yet?
S.P.J.: Me, frustrated? Do I look like it? [Laughs] I’m going to tell you what I told Anna Wintour. I told her I already have a big house, the one named after my mother, and it’s called Jacquemus. I have a huge amount of work to do because right now, I decide everything, and that is a great luxury, actually. It’s a real luxury to get on my bike and come to a place that is 100 percent mine. For the time being, that is what I enjoy the most.
WWD: So you are not interested in taking on a second label?
S.P.J.: I’m not doing this as a CV to obtain something in return. I really do things sincerely and I couldn’t do them if it wasn’t sincere. If there is a story to be written, it will be a sincere one or not at all.
Lately, journalists seem to think that in our profession, getting a big house is a seal of approval, but it isn’t. A designer landing a large house is big news, and then all you’re waiting for is how long before they get the boot. I’ve always found it surprising. It’s not a seal of approval, in fact. There are loads of other things. I would prefer people to talk about my book, which is a seal of approval to me, because I did a book with 20 artists and I think it had a very strong identity. I’d like people to talk about my campaigns, which are surprising every season, or my clothes, which quite simply sell.