Ex-Kiki de Montparnesse and Victoria's Secret Designer Jennifer Zuccarini on Why She Started Her Own Line

Jennifer Zuccarini’s resume was already ridiculously impressive before launching her own line last year. The ambitious designer cofounded the uber-seductive Kiki de Montparnasse before becoming design director at Victoria’s Secret—talk about lingerie street cred. But developing a line all her own was always the goal, and in 2012 she did just that with the launch of Fleur du Mal. More than just another lingerie line, Zuccarini’s vision was to create an experience that celebrates both getting dressed and undressing, and everything that surrounds it. We talked to her about how it all came about.
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Jennifer Zuccarini’s resume was already ridiculously impressive before launching her own line last year. The ambitious designer cofounded the uber-seductive Kiki de Montparnasse before becoming design director at Victoria’s Secret—talk about lingerie street cred. But developing a line all her own was always the goal, and in 2012 she did just that with the launch of Fleur du Mal. More than just another lingerie line, Zuccarini’s vision was to create an experience that celebrates both getting dressed and undressing, and everything that surrounds it. We talked to her about how it all came about.
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Jennifer Zuccarini’s resume was already ridiculously impressive before launching her own line last year. The ambitious designer cofounded the uber-seductive Kiki de Montparnasse before becoming design director at Victoria’s Secret—talk about lingerie street cred. But developing a line all her own was always the goal, and in 2012 she did just that with the launch of Fleur du Mal. More than just another lingerie line, Zuccarini’s vision was to create an experience that celebrates both getting dressed and undressing, and everything that surrounds it.

Her unique e-commerce site creates a totally shoppable experience—you can literally hover over the wallpaper or rug and click to buy. As far as her designs go, it’s an exciting mix of all-occasion lingerie and sensual-yet-wearable pieces like buttery leather skirts, chiffon blouses and silky jumpsuits. There’s also no shortage of interesting collaborations and projects, like her current Graphic Panty featuring original images printed on the back of chiffon panties ($45)—sort of her take on the graphic tee. The whole experience is perfectly curated, reflecting Zuccarini’s taste.

Speaking of taste, we met in her former apartment turned Fleur du Mal HQ in Soho. She may not live here anymore, but it totally feels like home--like a Parisian home even--with plush furniture, art and chic coffee table books strewn about. It’s so comfy I practically wanted to open one of the bottles of wine on her kitchen counter. (I didn't, don't worry.) Instead I settled in to find out how the savvy designer went from a little girl sketching dresses in Canada to an bonafied lingerie maven...

Fashionista: What was your early relationship with fashion? Jennifer Zuccarini: Growing up in Toronto I was definitely into fashion. I decided to become a designer when I was eight! I was literally sketching when I was that young. I remember drawing a strapless dress with elbow gloves. I never did lessons or anything, but I begged my mom for a sewing machine, and my mom got me lessons. When I was nine, my first project was making a green corduroy smock dress. It took so long to make, and it was so frustrating! I wore it to my best friend’s birthday party, and nobody believed that I had made it myself. I wish I still had it.

How did you end up working in fashion as a career? I started in retail when I was a teenager. I think I always loved fashion so much and everyone expected me to go into it, so instead I decided to open up a bar and was making lots more money than in boutiques. I was loving that, but then I decided I wanted to be an art dealer, so I started studying art history. While all this was happening, my boyfriend at the time was like, “You clearly want to do fashion, so why aren’t you?” And I realized that I wanted to create more than I wanted to curate things. And then I got into FIT, so I was off to New York.

Pieces for sale at Fleur du Mal

Pieces for sale at Fleur du Mal

Did you always love lingerie? I always loved it. I always loved the idea of really expensive lingerie, which isn’t what my brand is now, but at a young age I always wanted someone to buy me obscenely expensive lingerie. I loved the idea of it. I remember going to Agent Provocateur when it first opened, and I just loved it.

How did you start working in it? I worked for Nanette Lepore for a while, and my boyfriend at the time and I wanted to start a brand. Through Andrew Rosen, we started working on a collection with Lenny Kravitz--this was back when all that celebrity stuff was happening in fashion. It didn’t end up working out, so we decided to start our own brand.

How did Kiki de Montparnasse evolve? We met another partner through Andrew Rosen, who had an idea that was more around the toy part of it and we put it all together. At first I was skeptical, because I didn’t want to be the sex toy person! Everyone said don’t do it. But we knew how great it could be. There was nowhere to go to buy something to enhance your intimate life in a classy way. It all happened so quickly in 2005, and we launched it in this apartment. We had like six employees, and opened the store and it was a whirlwind.

What was the biggest challenge in the beginning? Designing lingerie is just so challenging. To design bras is so technical and complicated. We were making everything in New York, and those factories barely exist here, and people hate to do it because it is expensive and takes a long time. It was so hard. I sourced everything from production to pattern makers.

How did you transition to Victoria’s Secret? So, building Kiki was an all-consuming, amazing experience. I wanted to leave to start another brand though; I guess I always put a time on things. I was a bit burnt out from doing a start up. Victoria’s Secret kept reaching out, but I was skeptical because I wasn’t so commercial and into the product. But then I realized it was the best thing I could do--because people want to see that you can work on a large scale. I liked the challenge of it. I ended up loving it, and the people there.

And then how did Fleur du Mal come about? I knew I was working at Victoria’s Secret as a stepping-stone to my next brand. I wanted to have control and ownership of a company, there was always a limit of how far I could go with Kiki because I had partners. My whole life I knew I wanted to have my own brand. I worked on a business plan and raised just under a million dollars on my own, and I got immersed in another part of the business: operations, finances. It was a major change from just being creative.

Fleur du Mal

Fleur du Mal

You launched the website first… I always knew I wanted to build it as an online brand. I wanted to build an entire experience around the brand. It’s not about just the product but the music, the lifestyle. At our launch event it was a journey through the senses, with so many things happening. I love doing new, fun things, while also selling product.

What is the backbone of the brand? I think it’s chic and provocative with a little bit of an edge. I don’t think of it as a lingerie brand, but a world. There is a culture around it. We launched social media before launching anything.

Where do you draw inspiration when designing? It’s a bit of everything and it changes each season. I love Paris nightlife in the '70s. For spring we were inspired by the ‘70s film Death Race 2000; it’s a crazy cult film with Sylvester Stallone where people are racing cars and killing each other. The girls wear helmets with flowers all over so that's where we got zipper details and necklines. Every season really is totally different. It might be athletic-wear one season, but then it’s an artist or print studio.

It seems your inspirations are very fluid. I love to change things and always keep it within the core of the brand. There are always carryover styles that will run for longer, and then seasonal pieces. I am doing five collections a year at this point, you kind of have to these days.

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Are you planning on opening a retail location? We are working on a pop-up this year to test the concept, and hopefully we will do it in different cities. But I am definitely interested in opening a retail space. I love that it is online first though.

Is it hard to balance running your business with your personal life? Yes! I am getting married in May, so I’m also planning a wedding. I think if you want to start your own business you have to be willing to give up something. Often that is part of your social life, but you have to make that choice. You sacrifice for what you want in the future. You can’t kill yourself though. You need energy and to take care of yourself, so you must enjoy what you’re doing, so that it still feels fun. I don’t want to work for someone else again, so the thought of the alternative drives me!