The Effortless Ease of Christophe Lemaire
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date October 05, 2017
Born in Besançon, a small city in eastern France near the Swiss border, Christophe Lemaire had what he considered a fairly boring, bourgeois upbringing. After graduating from school and needing a job to pay rent, he happened upon a position as an assistant stylist for French label Thierry Mugler. Although the first step in his career would lead him towards the highest echelons of fashion world—even still, in his first job—he wasn't all that interested in the industry to begin with.
I only started to realize I was interested in fashion when I started working as a fashion assistant, Lemaire told SOMA magazine in 2010.
I was always interested in style, but not necessarily fashion. I had more of an interest in interior design, objects and fashion as everyday life. Considering Lemaire’s pared-down aesthetic, that statement seems to still ring true.
Despite his initial indifference, Lemaire continued to learn the ropes of the industry with an internship at Mugler and, later at Yves Saint Laurent in the early ‘80s. He then moved to Christian Lacroix, beginning as an assistant, but moving up the ranks to become the manager of the brand's ready-to-wear. Thinking about the natural ease that would come to define Lemaire’s designs, it makes sense that he’s nostalgic about this different, less manic, period in fashion.
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“I started working for Christian in '86, when he was designing for Jean Patou. I arrived just before he launched his couture house with Bernard Arnault. One morning, I was at rue Saint-Florentin chez Patou, and Christian and Jean-Jacques Picart weren't there, but they called to say they were launching the house. There was a lot of buzz,” Lemaire explained to Interview. “I remember accompanying the clothes and dealing with customs at JFK. I was 21 and in charge of a team of American dressers backstage for the New York show. There was something insouciant and easy-going about fashion in the late 1980s, before the pressure of big business and media took hold.”
But even with years of experience and involved roles at successful French brands, Lemaire felt a disconnect. The
fashion world, as he saw it, was becoming too conceptual, too grandiose and too divorced from reality. What appealed to him was real, everyday, functional style—the kinds of clothes that he saw good-looking Parisians wearing for their daily routines, rather than what models wore in highly-produced runway shows. He decided to bridge that gap himself by starting his own eponymous label, beginning with a line of womenswear in 1991. Despite his young age and only a modest level of experience, Lemaire saw a small degree of success—particularly in Japan (he worked on a collaboration with Wrangler Japan during this period).
“I had a love affair with Japan. I still have it,” Lemaire confessed to Interview in 2013. “Japan was a cultural shock for me when I visited for the first time, in '95. I was invited by my distributor. My collection was successful right away there—unlike in France, where I was not considered conceptual enough at the time. But I had a French side that caught on right away in Japan. I remember we did a show in one of those hyperchic, '60s Blow-Up-style striptease clubs that you can only find in Tokyo. The girls were topless, but they were all very beautiful and it was not vulgar. I remember asking myself,
What is going on in this country? It felt like being in London in '67, only it was Japan. There was something about Japanese culture that got me right away—the sensitivity, subtlety, refinement, sophistication, attention to detail, and the attention they devote to being in the moment.”
The momentum was enough to keep the wheels turning for several years, eventually helping him launch a companion menswear collection in 1995. But the stress became overwhelming as the creatively-minded designer was faced with the practical realities of operating a company. Production deadlines, financing and simply managing his namesake label distracted him from the joys of creation.
“I found myself stuck with very practical things: production, finance, business, dealing with a team. I was managing and designing. I became alienated by doing both. After a while it became really stressful,” Lemaire confessed to SOMA magazine. “I couldn’t concentrate on design and creative work because I was too bogged down in business-related things. By the end, it was no longer a pleasure. I learned a lot, but in some ways, it was a failure in the end, because I decided to stop the collection after starting work with Lacoste.”
As Lemaire himself describes, after accepting a position as the artistic director of Lacoste in 2000, he ceased operations for his own label. The decision makes sense, given the enormous task of reinvigorating a brand that had fallen into a tired stereotype of the '80s prep set—while still embodying the elegance and accessibility that was embodied by his fellow countryman and brand namesake, René Lacoste. In the ten years Lemaire spent at the brand, he evolved Lacoste's stodgy aesthetic into a new kind of chic sportswear. “I wanted to bring some style back to the brand, back to what it was in my mind: Sports chic. The clothes needed to be coherent with the new lifestyle,” Lemaire recalled to SOMA. There were still trim, colorful polo shirts, certainly, but Lemaire also created upscale lines within the label and staged shows in New York to present a wider range of the brand's offerings. He helped engineer the “Club” and “L!VE” lines (the latter of which collaborated with Supreme during the Spring/Summer 2017 season), and used the new segements to help target a younger, more streetwise consumer—extending the brand’s relevance beyond the realm of crocodile polo shirts and “tennis whites.” As Vogue noted in its review of the Lacoste Spring/Summer 2006 collection in 2005, “While preppy wardrobes the world over have at least one Lacoste item in their inventory, and pros like Andy Roddick (seated in the front row) wear the label well on the court, it has never been considered runway material. Not until Lemaire came on board.”
In 2007, perhaps as a more forward-thinking creative outlet, Lemaire re-opened his namesake label. His designs for Lemaire were both more understated and more fashion-forward compared to his day job—Lemaire's dark and earth-toned basics had unique proportions and convention-defying details and silhouettes, but were never so conceptual that it might feel out of place for real-life wear outside of the runway shows and fashion in-crowd. It was a strong contrast to the ultra-bright sportswear of Lacoste.
Some say it’s a bit austere, puritan, but I don’t mind, he told SOMA.
I like the idea of dignity. When I look at traditional style, it’s something very timeless and never difficult—I’m inspired by that.
After roughly ten years at Lacoste, Lemaire's career began to speed forward. He became a successful dark horse candidate to replace Jean Paul Gaultier as the creative director of Hermès, an appointment that the fashion world looked upon with skepticism. Even Lemaire himself had his doubts. Speaking to Interview, the designer recalled, “The first feeling I had when (Hermès artistic director and great-great-great grandson of Hermès founder Thierry Hermès) Pierre-Alexis Dumas contacted me was a sense of inevitability, but I was also a bit surprised that he thought of me. It seemed quite smart of them to have identified me. But there were a lot of sleepless nights. I didn't feel like becoming part of another system, but we had the same values and understood each other, so right from the start there was a lot of enthusiasm and confidence. It felt like joining a family, and that's quite seductive.”
Lemaire had his own label, yes, but it was a small operation, and Lacoste and Hermès had little in common aside from both being French. But the worry proved to be unfounded, as Lemaire, now joining the ranks of the luxury fashion elite, quickly showed how his vision for the modern fashion world lined up neatly with Hermès history of trend-resistant elegance. Lemaire spent the next four years leading the house's designs with luxurious natural fabrics and rich but understated colors for garments that were interesting, but wearable, practical elegance, dialed up to a maximum standard of quality. By the time Lemaire showcased Hermès' Fall/Winter 2013 show March of the same year, he had truly hit his stride.
At last, pure French chic, wrote Tim Blanks in his Vogue review of the collection, quoting French Vanity Fair editor Virginie Mouzat. “More than just a fashion show, we wanted it to be a Hermès moment,” the designer explained, speaking on the Fall/Winter 2013 show. “Hermès isn't about fantasy, but at the same time, it's about an idealized femininity. I think the epitome of elegance is when you see a man or a woman on a street corner, on the bus, or on vacation, and you ask yourself,
Who is that? We wanted something classic, timeless, and chic, but also erotic and strange.”
With modern praise (and comparisons to Martin Margiela) firmly in hand, perhaps this crescendo was a signal that the man had accomplished all he needed to at the storied maison; in 2014 Lemaire announced he would be stepping down from his role at Hermès, showing his final collection for the label during the Spring/Summer 2015 season. Soon after, he led a rebranding of his namesake brand by tweaking the name (from Christophe Lemaire to simply Lemaire), launching an ecommerce site and moving fully into the luxury space with ultra high-end fabrics and prices to match—influenced, perhaps, by his time at Hermès. “My own label is growing in an important way and I now really want and need to dedicate myself to it fully,” Lemaire said in a statement at the time.
Since leaving Hermès and refocusing on his own brand (which he works on in tandem with business and life partner Sarah-Linh Tran) Lemaire has seen consistent success with a positive critical reception and strong sales figures. They doubled their revenue figured between 2013 and 2015, to roughly 7 million euros, and soon after accepted a minority-stake investment to help fuel the label's ambitions.
Lemaire's overall aesthetic vision for his designs, however, didn’t remain in the Hermès atelier. Rather than chasing trends that force a customer to constantly refresh their closet, or producing clothes that stun on the runway but are unrealistic for your average Parisian's daily life, Lemaire—to this day—pursues a beautiful balance between functionality and fashion.
“I don’t like buying something that I’ll throw out in three months because it’s of poor quality or off trend. I don’t think you have to change your wardrobe every six months. You build your wardrobe. Elegance is what I’m after, and it’s the quality of the fabric, the cut, the details, the color. That’s my job. At the end of the day, it’s not the clothes that make style; it’s the person himself.” Lemaire noted to SOMA “I like the essential dimension of fashion. That’s what I think I’m best at. Helping each and every person find his own uniform.”
While his designs were always rarefied from runway contemporaries for their precision, it was clear that lessons learned post-Hermès injected him with a confidence (starting with the Spring/Summer 2015 show), that took his label to new heights.
Given his focus on subtlety and timelessness, Lemaire is unsurprisingly not a great fan of the standard fashion cycle and the consumerism it spurs. He makes clothes to help someone build their wardrobe, he says, with a quality of construction and trend-resistant designs that aim to ensure a Lemaire piece will be as wearable on the day it's purchased as it will be years later.
If you notice someone really elegant, he told T Magazine,
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.
Given Lemaire’s focus on timeless, luxe garments (as well a personal affinity for Japan and its culture), it seems natural that a store like Uniqlo—whose modern take on minimal, affordable, everyday clothing have made it a fan-favorite well beyond its native Japan—would reach out to work with the designer. Initially launching a collaboration collection under the banner of “Uniqlo and Lemaire” in Fall 2015, the partnership was so successful that Uniqlo offered the designer not just another season, but a staff position. Lemaire would assume the role as artistic director of a new Uniqlo research and development center in Paris and his own permanent line called Uniqlo U, akin to the retailer's previous +J line from its previous partnership with Jil Sander. Speaking on the differences between his first two “Uniqlo and Lemaire” collaborations and the Uniqlo U line, the designer told Vogue “As a collaboration, Uniqlo and Lemaire was more an expression of our brand within the Uniqlo concept,” the designer said. “The Uniqlo U line is built from a very Uniqlo point of view, it is rooted in the very DNA of Uniqlo, elevated basics, an ideal version of Uniqlo. From the very beginning, we had this slogan from Charles and Ray Eames in mind: ‘The best for the most for the least.’”
Our ambition is to fill the gap between what’s fashion and what’s ‘normal,’ he told Business of Fashion.
I know the word ‘normcore’ is overused, but there’s something about normality I find very interesting—how do you make it super normal but refined and cool and desirable? The collections thus far have lived up to that ethos with an overall aesthetic that's very approachable, but with a touch of Lemaire's now-well defined eye for subtle luxury. An oversized, drop-shoulder take on a Chesterfield coat in deep earth tones, fits this description for example. A piece like that sits comfortably next to a cream-colored lambswool cardigan that buttons up almost to the neckline, or cotton twill pants with extra-wide legs that taper to a cropped ankle.
Christophe Lemaire will never be the loudest voice in fashion, and his label will likely never produce the kind of magically unique, convention-defying, attention-grabbing grail that designers and buyers are constantly chasing. That's their appeal. Lemaire clothes, should you be able to afford them, will elevate your appearance gently, with a sense of restraint that's wearable but still manages to be subtly interesting. They nimbly walk the tightrope between fashion and style, never overshadowing the wearer. They capture a spirit of French fashion that outsiders try (and usually fail) to grasp at—refined, restrained, and uniquely Parisian. As the man himself points out, “It's about being useful, practical, and of the highest quality more than making a big visual statement. We're living in an image-oriented pop culture, but I've never been very at ease with that.”