Last year the French designer Christophe Lemaire announced that he would step down as the creative director of Hermès women’s wear to pursue his own line, Lemaire. “My own label is growing in an important way and I now really want and need to dedicate myself to it fully,” he said in a statement at the time. Since then, he has focused on growing that brand, filled with beautifully made, fuss-free clothes for men and women. So far, it appears to be working: the company’s revenue for 2015 is on track to reach a projected 7 million euros (more than twice as much as 2013) and last week it was announced that Lemaire would receive a minority-stake investment from Bipfrance, an investment company focused on growing smaller to medium-sized businesses. In March, he announced that he would collaborate with Uniqlo on a line of signature knits and separates that will launch with the mega-retailer in Europe and the U.S. later this week — a collaboration which, he tells T, will now be extended for another season.
On the occasion of his women’s wear show in Paris tomorrow, Lemaire and his partner in both life and business, Sarah-Linh Tran, tell T about how clothes can be both practical and sensual, the importance of dressing for every day — and their decision to extend their partnership with Uniqlo.
Your last collection for Hermès was presented at this time last year. Since then, you’ve focused solely on your own line and, as such, the team has grown and retail has expanded — both in stores and online. Externally, it appears to be a big moment for you. How does it feel from the inside?
Lemaire: Yes, from the inside we feel that it is evolving, we are restructuring the company and sales are constantly growing, the press reviews are good. It is a great dynamic, so we do feel it; it is really encouraging and stimulating. But at the end of the day, we do feel very much the same, with all our anxieties. We have fought for many years and have occasionally gone through desperate moments; we have had highs and lows. But in the past three years much has been consolidated and there has been some recognition, which is exciting.
It felt like all of these pieces — leaving Hermès, the Uniqlo collaboration, the investment — fell into place for you over quite a short period of time. Why did now feel like the time to make all of these changes?
Lemaire: It is all about the timing; it is a momentum thing. The fashion world is full of amazing talents and visionaries that didn’t make it because it is a world where you need experience. Sometimes you have a very talented young designer who fails because you need that maturity.
Tran: Of course we had all these ideas beforehand, but we couldn’t do all the things we had in mind … now we have the structure to realize those things.
Lemaire: And with the new investor, as well, we feel stronger financially. There is also probably the fact that what we have always been fighting for, and what we believe in, is in the air now. Our vision fits into something that people want. It’s difficult to explain why.
Your clothes are really about everyday wear. Why did you set out to do that? Why did you establish a brand philosophy that avoided occasion dressing?
Lemaire: We are interested in the quality of life and we think about clothes as being part of everyday quality of life. As much as what you decide to eat, read or do in your free time, the way you decide to dress is a cultural choice. We are not thinking about fashion from a spectacular point of view; it is more about proposing good clothes. Naturally, if you can step away from the system of changing a collection every six months, you realize that you do not want to change your wardrobe every season, you just want to build your wardrobe. If you notice someone really elegant, you will notice that there is a kind of uniformity, a kind of stability. I think stylish people know themselves, they know how to dress, they know what suits them, their body — and what makes them feel confident. That’s not changing every six months — that’s just absurd.
Your collection for Uniqlo arrives in stores this week. You’ve just announced that you will work with them again for another season. How did that come about?
Lemaire: It came along naturally, because we both felt that it would be exciting to go on, for at least one season. It will be a whole new season — summer — as well. It was also a way to improve what we couldn’t do for the first season. It’s always the same: we are never satisfied. [Laughs.]
Tran: The development time for the first collection was very short.
Lemaire: Yes, we were happy with the result, but it was very short, so it’s great to have another chance.
Do you feel that it is possible to set your own pace within the fashion industry, or is it impossible to resist outside pressures?
Lemaire: That is a very good question, because it is difficult to resist outside pressures, particularly from the media. To exist, you cannot be outside of the system, so you have to somehow play the game. We constantly think about how we are in the system, which rules we are ready to follow and which ones we are ready to resist. It is always about finding a balance. But the good thing is that we feel that following our own path — we haven’t made any compromises about what we feel — works!
Tran: I think people know why they come to us. They know they won’t find something spectacular or the new thing of the moment, so we are not under pressure to create something new constantly, or something that is in fashion at the moment, because people don’t expect that from us.
In the past you’ve talked about remaining independent, as you’ve had a complicated history with investors. Why did this new arrangement feel right this time?
Lemaire: We still remain independent. The reason why we made this agreement with Bpifrance is because it’s a minority investment, they won’t interfere in the strategy, they look over the numbers but they don’t have any input on the whole operation or structure or collection. They are just here to help us grow — and that is their goal. They are dedicated to supporting young, independent companies. They are not in a rush or expecting short-time returns, so it is kind of perfect for us.
There’s a mood in fashion at the moment that promotes comfortable, practical style for women, though it’s still sensual and sophisticated. This seems to have been led largely by female designers like Phoebe Philo, and yet Lemaire has always followed this aesthetic. Is that something you are conscious of? Have you always been naturally sensitive to this or has it developed because of Sarah-Linh’s involvement?
Lemaire: I always had this vision of what a woman’s wardrobe should be, but without a woman’s point of view. And Sarah-Linh brought this, along with her talent and her sensitivity. But from the very beginning I was very interested in the practical aspect of women’s wear. I was inspired by my own mother and my grandmother, who in different ways were very much down-to-earth, very practical, but at the same time had a certain elegance and sensuality. Sarah-Linh and I have always agreed as well that we like emancipated women, who do not aspire to be conventional. We like progressive women, women who are themselves, with strong personalities and who are independent thinkers.
Tran: Today I think women really want to dress for themselves. I think that is what has changed. They don’t want to be an object of anybody else’s desire. Girls no longer care about walking in heels or being conventionally beautiful. I find it very refreshing.
Lemaire: It’s all about seduction. We think it is very important. We are French, we are rooted in this culture — so it is not about refusing seduction but agreeing with what rules you want to follow.