With some designers, it feels like you’ve always known them. Isabel Marant is one of those: she embodies the aesthetic of her eponymous brand so fully that every stereotype you thought to be true about her turns out to be just so. From her throaty voice to her just-got-out-of-bed hair and cigarette smoking – she rolled and chain-smoked three during our interview – she’s the epitome of the chic Parisienne who never tries too hard. For Marant – and her legions of fans, for that matter – looking too polished would be anathema.
Working out of a loft-like space in the centre of Paris, barely decorated with what looks like Native American art and bathed in the natural light afforded by generous skylights, Marant has honed an androgynous look that she perfected on herself before offering it to her adoring followers around the world. Cropped trousers, collegiate sweatshirts and cowboy boots are just some of her signatures that have come to define that insouciant attitude of girls who don’t take themselves – and fashion – too seriously, or at least want to leave that impression.
The super laid-back Marant, who’s based in Paris with her husband, handbag designer Jérôme Dreyfuss, and their young son, has recently launched a timepiece inspired by one her father owned. We met her in her studio on the day of the launch of the watch before a party hosted in a Left Bank mansion by luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter, one of her long-time retail partners.
Unlike other designers, you make pieces that are meant to be worn and not just shown on the runway.
My aim in fashion was always to say, “OK, what am I wearing today?” and it’s pragmatic and I always worked having that in my head. When I did my fashion studies I had a very strong female teacher. She was always telling us, “You’re happy with your little drawing? So you’re going to make it for next week, then you will wear it for the whole week and then you will see if you want to make someone else wear it.” And I think it was very good common sense and it’s true that being a woman I don’t have any fantasy around women. So I just try to figure out what they really need and what will make the difference that you’re going to buy this rather than that, when we have so many garments and we don’t need all that. I think it’s very important nowadays to find the right thing that gives you some attitude, some energy and can give you a kind of look, because you always want something new, but what’s new? It’s not about creating new for new’s sake; it’s finding what you’re looking for.
So how would you define your aesthetic in a nutshell?
I think my work is a lot of contrasts because I’m very open-minded and I can love a lot of things and I work a lot on having an idea and then the radical contrary; that’s how I can do a collection with lace and leather – lace is very feminine and leather is more tough. I think what’s interesting is the opposition of things. I always work on something very feminine but next to something very androgynous, so it’s always a balance – how to be elegant but not too much, to be casual but not too much; it’s how to find the right path between all those ideas.
Would you say that you as a woman are your own muse?
I can’t say that exactly because if I was just doing the things I like to wear, then my collection would be very boring: a sweatshirt and leather trousers and a cool coat, but I have so many women surrounding me, working with me; I’m not totally egocentric. I mean, I love women, I love all kinds of women, I always try to think, “I want something like this,” but then I’ll do another version for another kind of woman, because you can’t stick a mini skirt on all the girls. If you don’t have nice legs I will not recommend you to wear mini skirts, so then I’ll do other lengths of skirts around the same idea of what I wanted to do. I try to be very honest, not compromising and then be open-minded enough to dress different kinds of women.
Your aesthetic is also very Parisian. What do you make of everyone’s obsession with French girls?
I think there’s something for sure. Everybody’s asking me nonstop to explain French style, the character, the representation of the cool chic French chick, but I think it’s quite true actually. French girls are always pretending not to pay attention to themselves but they do. However, it’s not showing and I think that’s what makes the Parisian and I’m a bit like that.
You’re also quite low key and shun the spotlight.
I never did this job to be famous. I just wanted to make clothes and I always had a very crafty approach to my work. I always think that real celebrities are the people who find the remedy against Aids and the guy who goes on the moon … I mean come on, we’re only doing clothes, I’m far from being a genius but a woman of our day who tries to understand what women want. My work takes a lot of time and I have family and friends that I adore and I just want to have a normal life like anybody. If I wanted to be a celebrity then I would have chosen to be a singer or an actress.
Is this why you like to retreat to your country house with no electricity?
Yes, it’s a place where I can go back down to earth and say, “OK, I’m doing just clothes, I’m not saving lives … calm down.” Even if I’m next to having a heart attack every day at work because I’m late and I’m stressed about the next collection, it’s very reassuring that there I don’t have electricity, I don’t have water, you can just think that after all, you’re very happy with almost nothing and that happiness comes from all you have around you.
You’re also very hands-on and decided to keep your company independent.
I have a family company. When we started we were all coming from different fields, we’re all self-made people. We were all quite young and all the people who started with me are still there and we accomplished really nice work and I think we know perfectly how to run the company so we don’t need anybody to tell us you have to do this or that. When you get investors it’s because most of the time you cannot run your company yourself, which is not my case. I don’t need investors, I don’t need anybody to tell me how to do things.
What’s your relationship with technology?
I love technology but I’m very bad with it. I don’t have any technological approach to things; it’s more about feelings and I’m very organic. I think that you don’t need so much in life but just the right things, few things but the right ones. And my first watch comes from what I inherited from my father; it has a real meaning for me and I was always afraid to wear it and lose it; that’s how I came to think that I should work on it and redo it.
What about online shopping and Net-a-Porter? How do you think it has changed the industry?
I don’t think it has changed fashion, not in our way of designing. When it started, I didn’t believe in it because I thought that a garment, you need to touch it, to try it and I felt, “How can you buy something from the Internet?” But actually it’s a bit stupid of me because you receive it, you try it on with your shoes at home and if doesn’t fit you send it back so I think it’s great and there’s a lot of women who don’t live next to a shop where you can find a pair of trousers that you saw on the Internet and only Net-a-Porter has it.
Technology has also made things very fast and your pieces are often copied like it happened with your cult wedge sneakers.
Yes, I feel disgusted. They’ve been copied in a very vulgar way but I was very pleased to make them, because it took me a lot of time for them not to look too weird. I feel that now they don’t belong to me anymore so I just moved on.