If there's one thing that's great about fashion today, it’s that an envelope-pushing newcomer like Grace Wales Bonner and a well-seasoned traditionalist like Paul Helbers can captivate the menswear crowd at the same time.
Helbers, who directed the men's collections at Maison Martin Margiela before heading up Louis Vuitton's men's division under Marc Jacobs from 2006 to 2011, presented his second menswear collection — dubbed Helbers —in Paris over the weekend. The first debuted in January to much acclaim for its modern, ultra-luxurious mix of traditional suiting pieces and athleticwear-inspired staples (like track pants) made suitably formal for the office, and earning fans from buyers at Barneys, Mr. Porter and Matches Fashion. His second range built on those concepts, but rendered in lighter fabrics and looser cuts for spring 2017.
Athleisure is all the rage these days, but as Helbers explains it, he's always been working this way. "With my own label in the '90s, it was based on the construction of sportswear but in tailoring fabrics; but I didn't have the level of experience I had from Vuitton and Margiela then," he says. "I've since [learned] how you can use those materials without compromising the elegance or the aesthetic." Today, the timing is right. "I just think maybe now, there's more room in fashion to explore this direction than there was before."
Since leaving his post at Vuitton in 2011, Helbers has consulted with several brands, including Milan-based women's athleisure brand Callens and Chinese cashmere maker Erdos, while laying the foundations for his new label. "I've been focused on finding the right sources, the right partners. Where my clothes are made and who makes them and how they are manufactured is really important," he says. After seeing the clothes in person — the incredible quality of the fabrics, the precision and lightness of their construction — it's obvious it was time well spent.
We sat down with Helbers in New York to discuss his background, approach to design and plans for his new label (which, yes, include a women's line down the road).
Can you talk a bit about your career, your time at Margiela and what have you been doing since you left Vuitton in 2011?
When I graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, I went to work back in Amsterdam for a sort of chain called Mac & Maggie. It's kind of what H&M is today, very fashionable collections for a young audience at a democratic price level. With some people working there, I started my own collection, Inch, which was about precision and about combining tailoring with sportswear — the name indicated that in a single inch there was something going on. It was very Dutch. I'm from Holland, and if you fly over Holland you can see how it's very designed, there's not one square centimeter that has not been cultivated, and in a way that's what my clothes are. Over the years I've learned to not make it look too precise, because it needs a ruggedness, it needs to go beyond that.
Eventually we closed it down, and I swapped to menswear, taking on a creative director job in Holland where I learned the whole technical [side]. That knowledge is why I guess Margiela decided to call me and ask me to become studio director. After Margiela I joined Vuitton and after Vuitton, I prepared the launch of this label.
I've been focused on finding the right sources, the right partners. Where my clothes are made and who makes them and how they are manufactured is really important. All of my factories are in Italy for the moment, mostly near Venice. I like spending time with people inside those factories, really explaining. The way we draw is very articulate. We spend a lot of time in sketching out the ideas and details, and that's kind of what guarantees for us the way the collection goes.
I've taken my time to study this, and meanwhile I've been consulting for other brands, and Callens was one of them, and Erdos, a cashmere brand in China. In January I launched this line.
How did your experience at Margiela inform the way you design now?
For me it was a great school. I think what I enjoyed at Margiela is to be confronted with a designer who in the end makes clothes, as well as fashion. I also [liked] the [process of] thinking before you draw, instead of just producing and editing. You go through a process of what is the concept, what fabric do you choose to do it in, and in the end, do I want to wear it, what do I need to do to make it so it becomes desirable for me?
You were most recently consulting at the women's athleisure brand Callens. Did that get you thinking more about incorporating elements of athleisure into your own line?
I've always been working this way. At the end of the day, everybody can only do one thing very well — I'm a one-trick pony. With my own label in the '90s it was based on the construction of sportswear but in tailoring fabrics, but I didn't have the level of experience I had from Vuitton and Margiela then. I've since [learned] how you can use those materials without compromising the elegance or the aesthetic. It's the way you like to dress, and I just think maybe now, there's more room in fashion to explore this direction than there was before. I feel there is renewed desire for more pure things, things that are well-done and well-fitted, well-cut. When you're young, you experiment, and it's nice to try things out, and as you grow older, you know yourself, and then you have a certain way of defining your uniform and what you like to wear week in and week out. Having a uniform comes with desire to have a certain level of quality, a certain level of finishing and a sort of easiness that allows you to work. And people travel more now, their lives are much more dynamic, so the functionality of the collection is really underlining that way of living.
Do you design with yourself in mind?
I have other people in mind, but you can't really ignore yourself — it's not a button you can switch off. I do think it's important that a collection reflects diversity in the world. But you can't dress everybody, you have to make a decision and always stay within a certain frame, with certain colors, materials and lengths.
How would you describe the target customer?
I guess people who care about clothes, and want a sort of effortlessness. I don't really have an age in mind, it's more personality than fashion, a collection in which you can express yourself, without losing your own identity, without becoming a fashion victim.
What do you mean when you say you don't want it to be fashion?
You want it so that when someone walks into the room, you say that's a beautiful man rather than that's a beautiful suit. I feel fashion in a certain sense if very recognizable, and that's why my clothes are more discrete. I think where fashion is sometimes shouting, I am whispering.