Sophie Theallet on the Challenges Facing Independent Designers and the Unexpected Inspiration Behind Her Woolmark Prize-Winning Design

New York-based French designer Sophie Theallet took home the International Woolmark Prize for the U.S. earlier this week for her design using Woolmark's fine Australian Merino wool, beating out fierce competitors like Bibhu Mohapatra, Slinky Vagabond, Kaufman Franco, M. Patmos, Naeem Khan, Number:Lab, Prabal Gurung, Ruffian and VPL Designs. The prestigious prize--which Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent won in the 1950s--is back after a long hiatus. As the recipient of the U.S. regional prize, Theallet takes home $100,000 and goes on to compete in the international final for another $100,000. It sounds like a lot of money but it's much needed help for an independent luxury designer like Theallet. We chatted with the designer about her win, what it will mean for her business, and the unexpected inspiration behind her prize-winning design.
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Leah Chernikoff
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New York-based French designer Sophie Theallet took home the International Woolmark Prize for the U.S. earlier this week for her design using Woolmark's fine Australian Merino wool, beating out fierce competitors like Bibhu Mohapatra, Slinky Vagabond, Kaufman Franco, M. Patmos, Naeem Khan, Number:Lab, Prabal Gurung, Ruffian and VPL Designs. The prestigious prize--which Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent won in the 1950s--is back after a long hiatus. As the recipient of the U.S. regional prize, Theallet takes home $100,000 and goes on to compete in the international final for another $100,000. It sounds like a lot of money but it's much needed help for an independent luxury designer like Theallet. We chatted with the designer about her win, what it will mean for her business, and the unexpected inspiration behind her prize-winning design.
Sophie Theallet with her prize winning design (Photo: WWD)

Sophie Theallet with her prize winning design (Photo: WWD)

New York-based French designer Sophie Theallet took home the International Woolmark Prize for the U.S. earlier this week for her design using Woolmark's fine Australian Merino wool, beating out fierce competitors like Bibhu Mohapatra, Slinky Vagabond, Kaufman Franco, M. Patmos, Naeem Khan, Number:Lab, Prabal Gurung, Ruffian and VPL Designs. The prestigious prize--which Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent won in the 1950s--is back after a long hiatus. As the recipient of the U.S. regional prize, Theallet takes home $100,000 and goes on to compete in the international final for another $100,000. It sounds like a lot of money but it's much needed help for an independent luxury designer like Theallet.

We chatted with the designer about her win, what it will mean for her business, and the unexpected inspiration behind her prize-winning design.

Fashionista: First, congrats! What does it mean to you and your business to have won the Woolmark prize? Sophie Theallet: Thank you very much, I am thrilled! This means the world to me and my team, I am so honored and humbled to have won a prize that Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld once won. As for business, everyone who believes in and supports the ST brand (retailers, press, clients, etc.,) is so happy and thrilled with the honor of this award and the momentum behind us.

What challenges do you face as a designer and how will the recognition and money from Woolmark help? The challenge for an independent luxury designer brand like ours is that there is no room for error--we have to compete in the market place with the big brands and groups that have so much funding, resources, retail power and advertising presence. The recognition and support is tremendous for us. The money will go towards the FW13 collection, where we will be able to further develop our knitwear and main collection. We will use the new technologies available for working with Merino, and with fabric development in general--basically, the finances allow us to have more freedom and resources; to develop swatches, explore more stitches and techniques, and to work closely with new factories to create and inspire.

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Tell me about your wool design for the contest--what was the inspiration? What techniques did you use? The inspiration for the contest design was built like a fictional memoir. I was inspired by pictures of my mother's youth after the war with her friends at a ski resort--they were skiing in shorts and bras! I was shocked by the freedom and modernity they had; young socialites living a grand, care-free life. I imagined and transposed them living today--attending an extraordinary event at an observatory, on the top of the highest mountain in the Pyrénées, where a bright comet would pass through the sky. A magical evening and a peek at eternity.

I wanted a dress that would be fit for the occasion; a dress made of a fabric with body to it. Instead of having her wear a cardigan over the dress, I loved the idea of a "trompe l'oeil"--having the knit incorporated like a patchwork into the dress. The back is open and I used the selvage of the fabric for trims and the hem, with touches of silk for color and a shine affect. The skirt is cut on the bias. I was aiming for a chic and nonchalant gown.

You clearly succeeded! What was the process of the contest like? Were you nervous? Yes, it is always stressful to show your work in front of a jury and to be in a contest with other great designers. That said, the contest was so very well organized, everyone was pleasant and helpful. I was very happy to hang out with my fellow designers and friends. The judges were very considerate, engaging and helpful.

Woolmark emphasizes the eco-friendliness of wool--how important is being green in design for you? I believe that being green is the only future conceivable for all of us. I have always been attracted to natural fabrics; cotton, silk, and wool are the backbone of our collections. We produce 90 % of our garments in New York City. I am so very pleased to be associated with Woolmark and for everything they represent. I look forward to continuing to develop Merino and to utilize its unlimited possibilities in our collections.

Click through for more awesome pics of Sophie's mom skiing without a care (or shirt).