For a certain tribe of fashion-loving females, meeting Isabel Marant would be akin to meeting a rock star. The French designer has built her business on unfussy clothing that she tests on the ladies who work in her studio — each one with a unique body type and point of view. The authenticity of her design philosophy, coupled with her appreciation for being able to dress different kinds of women, has garnered her a dedicated customer base over the past two decades, and has established her as one of the leading tastemakers in the industry today. (If you need proof, just look at how many knock-offs of her wedge sneakers are on the market.)
We sat down with Marant while she was in New York this week to celebrate the launch of her spring collection at Barneys. Wearing an oversized marled sweater (of her own design, of course), moccasins and a messy topknot, the cheery designer freely discussed a number of the industry’s hot-button topics — from Kanye West to “athleisure” to Instagram — and her responses were just as refreshing as her signature approach to fashion. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
Your spring collection has a tribal motif, which is fitting for Coachella. Do you pay attention to pop cultural trends like “festival fashion” when you’re designing?
A good collection for Coachella, indeed! I cannot really say so, but music is very important to me. I always design with loud music and I love the energy of music. It’s something that was always in me; I need the tempo to keep the energy of the collection. I feel like I’m inspired the same way as certain musicians: when you sample different tastes and put them together to create something special. I’ve never been to Coachella, but I’d love to go.
Speaking of pop culture, the fashion industry seems to be hyper-focused on celebrity right now — like Kanye West taking over fashion week and the whole “Zoolander” stunt at Valentino. What’s your take on this phenomenon, and do you think it will have a positive or negative effect on the business?
Honestly, I’m not into the whole celebrity thing. Of course I’m always super happy to see my clothes on beautiful [famous] girls — I cannot say that I don’t want that. But as I said, my interest in fashion is to dress women. For example, in my office we are 80 percent women and none of us look or dress the same. I’m more attracted by this. When I’m asked if I have a muse, I don’t have one — if I did, it would be Serge Gainsbourg, who is a man — and I don’t want to fall into this path because I think it’s too restrictive. It’s not very realistic. I think what’s most important is the clothing and the creation, it’s not the people who wear it. I don’t feel the need to have the stamp of a celebrity to be successful.
You’ve said before that you’re “over” the wedge sneaker trend, but sneakers in general are still extremely trendy. Are you tired of seeing them? And do you think there’s a backlash coming soon?
No, sneakers will be like a white t-shirt or jeans — something that you’ll never live without. Concerning my wedge sneakers, I still wear them and love them. But I’ve been copied so much — and in a very vulgar way — that I’m like, “Ugh!” Such bad copies. I feel so sorry because they’re so comfortable and I feel so good in them, but I am not very fond of the image they came into. But that’s life! When I started to do the wedge sneakers, it was because women should always have a high-heeled pair of shoes, and in a way it’s torture sometimes. I’m not sure we have to suffer for fashion, either. I love to play the game because it’s true — they give you a certain posture and a certain strength, but in the end, you’re so happy to feel comfortable in your shoes.
The white sneakers and flat sandals you have out now have drawn comparisons to the classic Adidas Stan Smiths and Birkenstocks. Were you directly inspired by those styles? Do you own pairs of either of them?
It’s iconic classics that we’ve all worn. Actually, the wedge sneakers came from something I was doing as a kid: I was wearing the Stan Smiths when I was 11 or 12 and I used to put a piece of cork inside because I wanted to look taller. The Birkenstocks — I have a German mother who wore them. It’s one of the most comfortable shoes as well, but it’s not sexy or pretty. I wanted to play with it and make it into something new and more playful. I’m very attached on classics, things that are lasting. It’s because they’re well-designed — they are right. There is a certain precision. To reinvent those, sometimes it’s not so easy. Fashion goes more and more into resurrecting very iconic things. It’s like a car: You can go back into an old style because it was really well designed and you’re never fed up with it. Sometimes it’s more fashionable than other times, but it is a product that was well-achieved. It’s something that I’m very sensitive about. It’s about having an interpretation of those things to go with the theme of the collection, or to make them more luxurious or playful.
Lots of designers tend to be branching out into sporty, “athleisure” pieces, and the activewear market is booming right now. Is this something you’re interested in getting into at all?
I think it’s the same as with sneakers — it’s a question of comfort, how you can move and live with your clothes. For me, it was always very important to use fabrics and materials that you don’t have to iron, that you don’t have to dry clean or have a nanny that makes it proper for you. I think it’s more about a way of life. Now people are more concerned with their bodies — I practice yoga a lot, and when I put on my yoga outfit I always feel so good, I could go out into the street in it. Just put a nice coat over it. Fashion is very inspired by this world. I always thought when you dress up in the morning, you’re attracted by things that make you feel good and comfortable. It’s the key to feeling self-confident. I would love to [do an activewear line] but I am already very busy with the three lines I have to design. I’m swimming a lot and I’m quite sporty, and sometimes I think about what type of bathing suit or tights I’d love to wear.
Some of the shapes in your recent collection — the high-waisted jeans, for example — looked great on the models, but might not work for most body types. Do you have a target customer in mind when you create these sort of things?
It’s true, for the last collection I made a statement with those very, very high-waist trousers. But I spent a lot of time trying it — I am very attracted to this kind of silhouette but I know it’s very hard to wear. Mostly for the bum. I worked on it until it was right. Even I can wear it, and I’m not a high-waist trouser girl at all. It’s better with a pair of heels, flats will make it a bit more difficult or you’ll have to shorten them to wear them properly. But, besides this, I always have another proposition. We have a translation of those trousers being a bit lower for other customers. With a show, you always have to make a statement and send one message. Otherwise, it’s confusing. Fashion shows are more dedicated to a strong idea. There’s a pre-collection there to be more classic and in tune with a certain reality, shows are more to bring new ideas.
What are your current plans for expanding your brand and opening new boutiques? Do you think you’ll branch out into e-commerce?
I don’t want to spread the label too much because I want to keep it intimate, but it’s important to have the right windows in key cities. We are now working on having our own shops in the cities that we feel we have a customer and to make the label very understandable. Concerning the e-commerce, we work a lot with Net-a-Porter and other companies that are strong with this sort of thing. So, it would be amazingly dumb to try and compete with that. I think it’s another job also, another culture that I’m not so familiar with, not being a web-born person. I think it’s very interesting, at the beginning I didn’t really believe in it, but it’s so efficient now. For me you had to feel the garment — what I’m doing is very organic and fabrics are very important — so it didn’t make sense to me buying things on the Internet.
Do you have an interest in increasing your social media presence?
Not at all. I’m totally zero. It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy that I don’t have. It’s not that I am for or against it, it’s just that I’m not into it.
Would you cast a model in your show or campaign just because she has a giant Instagram or Twitter following?
No, that’s not the way I will decide things, for sure.
This interview has been edited and condensed.