On Aiming for the Ideal while Rooting for Reality

IN A BUSINESS WHERE designers often become figureheads for large corporations, to be rolled out when a perfume or handbag needs promoting, Christophe Lemaire is an unusually outspoken exception to the rule. Another exception to the unwritten fashion rules is the time that he gives to everything he does. Even interviews. Over several days, many hours and plenty of coffee Christophe talked candidly and convincingly about anxiety in the fashion industry, the ever-accelerating pace of the fashion schedule and the hypocrisy of big fashion corporations. Christophe himself, after a decade at Lacoste and four years at Hermès, is today focusing on his own company, which he runs with Sarah-Linh Tran, his girlfriend and overall sounding board in work and life. Together they are navigating the perhaps riskiest moment for a growing fashion brand – the one when all eyes are on you and those who purport themselves to be ‘in the know’ speak of you as the best thing since sliced bread. With fastidiousness and tenacity, while never forgetting the importance of sound design ideology and solid company ethics, they are moving forward, one step at a time.

Anja: Many people complain about the detrimental effects that the speeded up pace of contemporary fashion has on creativity. Is that something you’ve noticed too?

Christophe: Yes, the speed of the business now is crazy. I don’t agree with it. You need time to create and to think, but today designers have to make a new collection every three months. You don’t have a choice. Or I don’t in any case. Pre-collections have become hugely important – if you want to increase sales, you need to offer products as early in the season as possible.

Anja: How do you think that the tempo affects those who work in the industry?

Christophe: There is so much anxiety in this business. People are anxious all the time. Every few months, you have to prove that you’re still at the top of your game. The competition and the time pressure can be overwhelming at times. It’s very hard to achieve something you’re completely satisfied with in the limited time we have now. And at the same time, this is an industry full of sensitive, creative people who are always doubting what they do. I think this is one of the reasons why fashion people sometimes behave in ridiculous ways. We overreact and behave badly. I catch myself doing the same at times.

Anja: What do you think has prompted the industry to accelerate in this way?

Christophe: It’s something that’s been happening for the past ten, fifteen years. Some powerful company must have realised that the earlier they could deliver to stores, the more they would sell. If you deliver your collection in March, as we used to, you have two months to sell it before the sales start – if you deliver in January you have twice as long. Customers have become used to buying summer clothes in January now, so the smaller companies have had to follow suit to keep up. At Hermès I would be choosing fabrics for the winter collection in June/July. In September I would prepare the fashion show for spring/summer and at the same time present research, design ideas and sketches for the winter collection, which would be shown to buyers in early December. In May we would be delivering the winter collection to stores. You’d be surprised if you knew how many clients want to buy fur in May. The wealthy want to show that they’re first with everything.

Anja: Has this affected the way you work at Lemaire too?

Christophe: Yes of course. Our development manager tells us that if we want to reach the next level in our own growth, we’ll have to start showing the womenswear autumn/winter collection in January instead of March. The buyers all come to Paris in January with their budgets now. If you wait to show the collection until after the fashion show in March, it’s too late – the big budgets have been spent. Buyers prioritise brands that they know will deliver early. So of course this shift has deep consequences for our way of working, for how our team is organised, let alone for my peace of mind. But it’s just the way the industry works now; we all have to adapt to survive.

Anja: Do you think that this means that a permanent change for the fashion seasons is under way?

Christophe: Yes, I think eventually what will happen is that the fashion show schedules will shift. They’ll have to happen earlier to accommodate the change in buying. Right now, we’re stuck in between the old and the new rhythm. Fashion is a global business now, and there are so many brands and markets that operate on different seasons. As a designer you have to make sure that you show some wool in the summer season and lighter fabrics in the winter. It’s a bit chaotic now because we have to accommodate two different timings simultaneously.

Anja: On a slightly different note, you’ve received rave reviews these last few seasons, and both critics and buyers seem very susceptible to your vision of discreet sophistication and everyday elegance. Is this something you’ve picked up on also?

Christophe: I’m very aware that this is our moment. Fashion now is about minimalism, a subtle silhouette and everyday garments. What we do fits the trend. But I also know that the only thing you can count on in fashion is that it changes. So I see this as the moment for us to strengthen our team, our communication and our business. We need to become well established enough as a company so that when the tide changes we’ll be strong enough to carry on.

Anja The dichotomy between creativity and business is one that’s very keenly felt in the fashion industry. How do you balance your need for creative expression as a designer with the knowledge that you’re also a business leader who has to always be aware of the bottom line?

Christophe: If you want to endure as a designer today you have to be business savvy. But I’m also aware that when fashion becomes all about business, about profits, it loses the ability to really affect change. It’s a bit sad but the designers that become famous are the ones who play ball and know not to challenge the system too much. When it comes to my own work, I’m an idealist really. I’m interested in history, I’m interested in politics; what drives me is how to create better conditions of life.

Anja: When you say ‘better,’ what do you mean?

Christophe: I’m interested in how clothes are worn in everyday life by regular people. Clothing is so very intimate; it’s about how we want to be seen. Fashion is a projection of an ideal, but to me it’s also tied up with ideology. It should be about liberating a woman or a man from the constraints of untenable ideals. Otherwise being a designer is just about playing with dolls.

Anja: What exactly is important to you in terms of design ideology?

Christophe: To me there is something political in everything. It baffles me that in fashion we seem to think that our work is disconnected from politics, or that it’s pretentious to talk about fashion as something ideological. The work we do at Lemaire is, in its own humble way, very political. We have a very specific point of view about dressing. We communicate so much about ourselves, or about how we want to be seen, by what we wear. So of course it’s political.

Anja: Do you think that fashion has become more or less political since you started?

Christophe: It seems to me that fashion is much more reactionary today than when I started out in the early 1990s. If you read fashion magazines, they seem to be conditioning women to become less independent, more stupid. Follow the crowd; don’t think for yourself. It’s fascinating really. So many women seem to think that they have to run to the sales as soon as they start, and that their worth is measured in the latest shoe or handbag.

Anja: You talked earlier about how the pace of the industry affects designers, but is there anything that can be done to circumvent it?

Christophe: I don’t know if you can circumvent it but you can find a way of dealing with it. When I started I wasn’t confident enough to be at odds with the fashion world. I felt I had to reinvent myself with every collection, which was very stressful. It was only when I understood that the problem wasn’t actually the pace itself, but that I’d bought into the idea of having to renew myself every six months, that I reconciled with the fashion system. I realised that I could actually rework the same garments season after season – that was a very liberating moment actually.

Anja: You seem to have found an interesting way over the years of balancing your own brand with, at times, being a designer for hire at major fashion houses. What are the advantages or disadvantages of working like this?

Christophe: Well, the luxury of having your own brand means that you decide who to listen to. I know firsthand how hard it can be to work for a big corporation: the hypocrisy, the fierceness of big business – everything that is contrary to my own values. Knowing that through my work I can actually provide an alternative to what I don’t like about the fashion system has always motivated me to keep going.

Anja: As a journalist I’ve noticed how the corporate influence has changed the relationship between a designer and the media. The involvement and influence of the PR or agent is hugely important now. Having a PR in the room with you when you do interviews is becoming very common, and often a journalist has to kowtow so much to a fashion brand leading up to the interview moment that when you finally get access to a designer, you’ve become neutered before you even start. Considering your experience working both for major fashion businesses and for yourself, what’s your take on this?

Christophe: At Hermès, they would always place a PR in the room with me when I was being interviewed. If I said something even slightly divisive, they would break in and say, ‘Oh Christophe, maybe you shouldn’t say that – it’s a little bit controversial.’ I realise that an interview is a promotional exercise most of the time now. But I wish it wouldn’t have to be at the expense of the actual opinions or ideology of a designer.

Anja: What do you mean?

Christophe: I’m incredibly frustrated by how enormously powerful fashion conglomerates have become. I’ve seen how it affects the level of honesty and freedom in what critics write. For instance, everybody knows that you can’t say a word against LVMH today. I remember one of the last shows Marc Jacobs did for Louis Vuitton, for autumn/winter 2012, where he showed women dressed all in black with huge hats, in early twentieth-century style. They could barely move. There were men on the catwalk carrying the models’ suitcases, like servants, as if they were on their way to board the Orient Express. But what does this say about the woman of today? Fashion has to say something about life today, about what a modern woman’s life is like. When I saw that Louis Vuitton show, what I saw was a big circus and a lot of money being spent. There was nothing progressive about what a woman should be today. And still, the reviews were all predictably good.

Anja: What’s your opinion on how women are represented in contemporary fashion?

Christophe: Fashion today propagates the wrong idea of femininity or what being sexy is about. Women are told that being sexy is about showing off your body. But what about looking smart?

Anja: You’ve talked in the past about the importance of having a partner in fashion, as you now have Sarah-Linh, and also of working as a team. Why is it important to emphasise fashion as a team effort?

Christophe: How you work together says a lot about the ethics you have as a company. I used to play hockey for a long time; I play soccer. I like team sports. A team has to have very strong ethics. When you succeed, you share the glory, and when you fail, it’s the responsibility of the whole team to correct the flaws. In work, I try to apply the same logic. I want everyone I work with to feel that we’re building something together that’s bigger than any one of us, and that depends on us all. It’s about creating team energy. That doesn’t mean we have to be nice all the time, but it’s about having the right expectations and playing to everybody’s strengths. In a capitalist culture, an enterprise is a little society. I see it like that. Of course, I’m the leader; this is my project. But I could never do it alone.

Anja: The politics of design has been a recurring theme during our conversation, and I’m getting the sense that you’re constantly oscillating between needing to fit in for survival, and wanting to rebel against the system.

Christophe: I try to be radical in my own quiet way. I want to go to the source of what I think is the problem in fashion today and look for long-lasting and profound solutions. That doesn’t mean destroying and replacing everything – that never works. It would be pretentious and conceited to think that I could change the system. The system is what it is. If you want to survive, you have to deal with it. I have employees that depend on me. I’m not an artist. I’m a manager; I can’t take risks that jeopardise the livelihood of those who depend on me. But having said that, I believe in reform. I believe in real democracy. I very much admire the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. As he said, one must ‘aller à l’idéal et comprendre le réel.’ Aim for the ideal, but be aware of reality. Small, subtle changes can become very important over time.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Fashion and Slowness.

Louise Riley is a London-based textile artist and illustrator.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.