A couture show in the ampitheater of the Opera Bastille, with a performance by mezzo-soprano opera singer Béatrice Uria-Monzon: Stéphane Rolland’s display today is bound to stir the emotions – not least for the couturier, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his house.
But don’t expect the show to center on his greatest hits. “No way. That for me would give the feeling that it’s the end of my career, and it’s just a decade. It’s just the turning of a page, a new chapter,” said Rolland in an interview at his Paris headquarters, surrounded by petites mains putting the finishing touches on the collection’s gowns.
As one of the few remaining independents on the couture scene, it’s been a decade of highs and lows for Rolland, who took the leap to create his couture house in 2007 after a decade working as the artistic director of Jean-Louis Scherrer.
WWD sat down with the designer to talk past, present and future.
WWD: Your mother worked at the Paris photo agency Picto, and you have credited growing up surrounded by black-and-white photography with being a major influence on your aesthetic….
Stéphane Rolland: You can see it in my dresses…. I absorbed all the black-and-white images of all of the fantastic photographers they were working with, the lights and shadows. It’s funny, I like things to be very clean, graphic and architectural, it’s as if it gives me a sense of security, a strong base. But I also need to escape from it sometimes, which is why on my dresses you see a line which is extremely determined and strong…. My hand becomes free and I create a movement.
WWD: Were you attached to the work of any photographer in particular?
S.R.: Jeanloup Sieff, and I like reportage photography. I would much rather have a Magnum photographer shoot my dresses because they would have a pure vision of fashion and capture something that we don’t see.
WWD: When you created your ready-to-wear label at age 24, after working at Balenciaga for four years, you also specialized in uniforms. Why was that?
S.R.: When I was at Balenciaga, they introduced me to markets I didn’t know anything about, and this was one of them. Don’t forget, Balenciaga, Dior, Courrèges have all designed uniforms for Air France.
WWD: What were some of your own experiences?
S.R.: I designed the uniforms for Gulf Air, for example, and I did all of the uniforms for the team of the Sultan of Brunei. I have so many incredible memories of meeting him in person, and organizing a special show for him in his palace, crazy things. It was a very interesting experience that also allowed me to learn about the realities of the business. When you create a uniform, you have to find the cut that works for all sizes, all ages, all tastes and mentalities, and it has to represent the brand. It has to be the right price, quality and color, with not too many details; you have to go straight to the point, and it has to be easy to dry clean. So once you can do that, you can do anything. Everything else seems easy.
WWD: You launched your couture house in 2007 after a decade at the creative helm of Jean-Louis Scherrer. What was the couture scene like then?
S.R.: My time at Scherrer was when all these “Sleeping Beauty” houses had been reawakened. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano arrived, and suddenly fashion became more exciting. [During the early years of my business] there was the Madoff crisis, the death of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano’s [firing from Dior]. The ambiance of the couture week started to change, things became much more marketing driven. But I had the feeling that it was my moment to show exactly who I am. I had turned 40 and there was this feeling of having nothing to prove. I just had to be myself – take it or leave it. It was now or never.
My goal was open a company with the best ateliers ever, so I recruited some of the team from the atelier of Scherrer and from Christian Lacroix when he stopped doing couture. I had two sets of the best hands in Paris joining me, which was essential as my haute couture is extremely difficult to make. When you make a pure clean gown in white crepe, any mistakes are visible immediately. You can’t cheat.
WWD: Let’s talk about your business is doing, and how it has evolved….
S.R.: To be honest, it’s been up and down, because the problem with haute couture is that it’s really risky. If a king or princess of certain countries in the Arab world passes away, for example, three or six months of mourning follows, with no weddings.
In around 2012 I opened a ready-to-wear boutique in the Middle East [with a franchise partner], which was open for two seasons. It was an interesting experience, but it got me into financial trouble. I had to open my eyes about many things. A designer today has to be a manager. Today, I’m back on track, and what I want is to concentrate on luxury. I’ve launched a fur line using haute couture techniques, and I’m meeting with some key players to discuss launching other products – fragrances, for example.
WWD: And the Arab world is your main market.
S.R.: It’s everyone’s main market. With Russians it’s more [volatile] because, for many reasons, you never see the same faces coming, partly because of the economic situation in Russia, the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan — all those countries are connected to each other.
WWD: What’s been your most lavish commission to date?
S.R.: I’ve had so many experiences, but I think one of the craziest was a wedding gown. Strangely, it was not the most interesting of projects for me because spending so much money for the sake of it does not interest me — for just embroideries, it’s ridiculous. But I remember that wedding gown — it was for a princess who was alone in her palace in the desert in Saudi Arabia, and I think she was very sad person. And she ordered a dress for a crazy amount and —but crazy – 400,000 euros [or $455,000 at current exchange rates], which is a lot for one dress.
WWD: It was retail therapy.
S.R.: Yes, but not only. It was more about trying to create something in her empty world. So we did a dress — a long, long, long train, impossible to wear as it was so heavy. And when I delivered the dress she asked for the same, number two. And I said no — not the same dress again. I mean, this is sadness. This is sadness and this — I couldn’t work that way, even for money. So, this is an example, not the best example.
WWD: On the subject of being impossible to wear, I remember attending one of your shows and it looked like the model was having a hard time moving in her gown, it was so heavy….
S.R.: Yes, it was more a sculpture than a dress. It was more to show the knowledge of my atelier, to create something extravagant just for the fun of it. But you know what? I sold it. In a simpler style, but everything I do I sells. For example, the red dress you can see here — it’s so big and huge, and clients don’t want to buy that but they can order a very tight glove dress and we keep just the train in the back and that’s it. You know, we can reinterpret the designs.
But coming back to special moments, I had so many in my life — so many. Because the richness of the haute couture world is really the encounter of amazing people —surprising people, but also there’s real power in this world and the most discreet. Because the real power is the invisible one. So when you meet these people, wherever it is — China, the Arab world — wherever, and you meet them and you enter inside their private world, you observe. First of all, it’s the best way to understand their way of life and also it’s magic moments, really magic.
WWD: Can you share one?
S.R.: I remember I dressed — it was a cool moment — it was quite interesting, I dressed Madame Chirac. And I dressed her to go to — I mean, she was receiving Queen Elizabeth in Paris, so you can imagine the queen arrives, so it has to be wow, the revolution in Paris to organize everything. And Madame Chirac, she has a very conservative look and I decided, ‘OK, if you come to see me, you have to bring something different.’
So I did a dress — I did a lot for her — but the special dress I did for that night was a super sexy one: Red, with one shoulder off, there was a cape in the back — red, red, red. And normally you shouldn’t wear red in front of a queen. That’s her color, like yellow. So you shouldn’t wear a red dress — I didn’t know that. It was the protocol, but I didn’t know. So, and I said: ‘My dress has to be red. You in the red fabric, you look amazing.’ And I think Madame Chirac looked so happy, so feminine, even sexy in a way. But my best gift was to see her eyes shining. And when the queen arrived she turned her face to me and she winked and smiled, and that was a magic moment.
WWD: What about dressing Kim Kardashian?
S.R.: I mean I was surprised that Kim could be interested by my clothes because we are in two very different worlds, and I think it’s a very interesting challenge because she’s super over-sexy, she’s not specially my type, but this is the reason why it’s interesting. And I design clothes to cover her and not to reveal too much — the opposite to what we expect. For me, she’s like an alien. I mean, she’s from another planet, but so sweet, so kind — like a little girl. And when you are face-to-face like we are now together, she’s a total different person. She’s an angel.
WWD: Has your aesthetic evolved?
S.R.: Yes, it has evolved in the sense that it’s more and more minimal, in a way. But it’s also more and more sculptural.
WWD: What’s your process? Do you sketch?
S.R.: Everything is the movement of my hand. First of all, I picture the face and suddenly my hand, without any control, will … create a movement. And then suddenly I say: ‘Oh that movement, that could be amazing in yellow because it looks like fire,’ or ‘this one only in black,’ or ‘no, it’s white marble because it looks like the [La Victoire de Samothrace] angel in the Louvre.’ Everything is related to art, sculptures and paintings by all of the artists who feed my imagination, like Zaha Hadid.… I love artists, real artists.
WWD: Zaha Hadid attended some of your shows. Did you design dresses for her?
S.R.: I tried, but it was not so easy. She was not feeling so comfortable with her body, so it was difficult to create something for her. But I did. It was a challenge.
WWD: Tell us about you new collection.
S.R.: It’s even more architectural. I want to surprise with the shapes and volumes. I think it’s one of the richest collections that I’ve done. It’s quite spectacular, but it is minimalist at the same time. It’s difficult to explain. For me, it’s really the sense of what haute couture is: You can feel the Parisian sense of elegance inside.