In today's fashion and retail landscape, it's rare to come across something like Mayle that — without any real business plan or marketing efforts or financial backing — becomes one of the coolest, most sought-after fashion brands around, almost immediately. The appeal of Jane Mayle's feminine, subtly vintage-inspired designs, and the store on New York's Elizabeth Street out of which they were sold from 1999 to 2008, is tough to put into words. But it inspired an obsession among low-key celebrities, like Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal, fashion girls, and the first editors of this very website, who wrote about the brand frequently and enthusiastically (which was how I knew it was cool).
Much of the brand's success seems to owe to the fact that Mayle, a London-born former model, never considered herself a fashion designer in the traditional sense and, admittedly, barely knew what she was doing when she opened the store with her then-boyfriend in 1997. As it grew and evolved, Mayle never lost an ounce of that authentic feel through to the day she shuttered it in 2008.
Eight years later and thanks to a couple of longtime devotees, Mayle is back with a more grown-up aesthetic — and name; it's now Maison Mayle — a business partner, and Barneys as an exclusive launch partner. We caught up with the designer about how she honed her aesthetic, built a brand on little more than intuition and attracted a cult following, why she needed to "take a breather" from it, and the process of starting over in a very different fashion landscape.
How did you get into fashion initially? Were you always passionate about clothes?
Some part of my love of clothing has to do with a homesickness or nostalgia for a certain aesthetic that I didn't have anymore [after moving from London to Florida]. I'm sort of just realizing that now. I always find uniforms very attractive and that was something that I was sort of forced into in my English school. But then by the time I moved to Florida it was this whole sort of free for all, everyone was in their Hawaiian print shirts and kind of crazy get-ups.
But really I got into the fashion business because I had modeled, so I had sort of an accessibility and an exposure on that side of things, but not from the creator's side. That really started when I went out with my boyfriend Chris Jarvis, and he would say to me, 'I think you could really make clothes, people always ask you where you get the things that you're wearing' and inevitably it would be something that I had found at a vintage store, chopped it up... it was just in those tweakings that I showed some kind of aptitude for design. Based on relationships that I had started in Paris, I had met this girl named Marianne Oudejan when I was living in Paris and modeling. When I came back from New York, she then moved over here and eventually started the brand Tocca.
I had been her assistant for a year out of school. I think seeing how she had no training other than as a stylist… she just had a very, very clear vision about the lifestyle around a brand and that informed every move she made. I had a good role model in her, of like, you don't necessarily have to have this background of training and pure essences of discipline; you just have to have a voice and an eye and that can get you quite a long way.
I started my own brand in the spring of 1998. The original store and the brand that we started was called Phare, but it didn't turn into Mayle until a year and a little bit later in 1999.
What inspired the initial collection? Were you dressing yourself?
We were dressing ourselves as a couple — Chris was designing for the man of the couple and I was designing for the woman of the couple.
What we felt was missing were the staples that could be easily traveled with, layered, and they could convert very easily in different context. They were very, very simple things that I made when I first started: there was one dress, one skirt, a trouser, a cardigan and a camisole.
It quickly became such a cult, beloved brand for a certain girl. Why do you think it resonated?
There had to be a vision behind this because there was nothing else to sustain it. I mean, there was no outside financing; every decision I've made has just been a function of my personal taste and my intuition, and it steered me wrong in multiple ways.
It was also such a different time in the industry, and the marketplace wasn't nearly as crowded. I think it resonated as a true lifestyle brand. That came from people being introduced to it with me and Chris being a couple.
And the fact that the brand started out of that little shopfront, and that people could see us coming and going and talk to us... it just made for a very rich root. It was also part of the process being one of the stores on that particular street, in that particular neighborhood, at that time and there was a real energy about it. That was the one block we wanted a shop on and we just happened to find a space. The business was lived out in some way through everybody, all the successes and the failures — everybody got to see everything. So I think they appreciate that kind of honesty, or something.
How did the word spread?
I had interned at Harper's Bazaar for six Fridays... they had a segment that they always did at Harper's called “In Her Closet” and so Gloria [Wong] did the very first article that came out about the brand, using my store kind of as my glorified closet. We were still three or four days from opening, and I just started getting phone calls and started shipping stuff out without people even coming to try it on. I think that that sort of snowballed into all the other articles — the Vogue article, the New York Times.
It became all part of this mythology of the business, that we would have to close it after three weeks of being open because we didn't have any stock. I think all of those things that would be seen as huge mistakes in today's marketplace ended up actually feeding the story behind the brand. But I think from there on out, people come to me with very personal stories about the brand, I feel like they're discovering it for themselves more than people telling them about it. They come across it one way or another, and then they feel some sort of ownership towards the brand, it's like their secret — which I can appreciate, because it's actually how I feel about the things that I wear. I never wanted what everyone else was wearing, or everybody else to be wearing what I'm wearing.
How did the wholesale accounts come?
We ended up doing wholesale very quickly. Once it became Mayle, Roopal Patel from Bergdorf's had come in and she was like 'We've got to sell this at Bergdorf's.' It went into Bergdorf's I think the fall of 1999. And then fairly quickly we were in Bergdorf's and Barneys, and then we were only at Barneys. By the time I shuttered the business in 2008, we had about 60 accounts worldwide. But half the business was still out of the store. Even if something was on sale at Barneys, they'd come to the store and pay full price for it. It was like a sort of touchstone; people wanted to see how the girls in the stores were wearing the items, and I think it added a lot of value to the experience.
In 2008, the store closed. What led to that decision?
I decided as the [end of the] lease was coming up — I'd never had any outside investment and I knew I didn't want to renew my lease, and if I wanted to move the store somewhere else I'd need to take on some sort of outside investment.
I think for so long I was playing catch-up to the success and snowballing that had happened with the brand, and I had always felt like I was sort of running behind the bus. By the end of the business's tenure on Elizabeth Street, we had finally caught up and we were shipping things on time, we had really nice relationships with our suppliers and our wholesale accounts and I just thought: this is a really good moment to take a breather. Other people might not agree; it would be the moment they would say you've got to keep going, you've accomplished all of this and now everything's in place to continue growing it. For me I was like, if I stop right now, then I can re-evaluate, and I'm not burning any bridges... and if I'm feeling in any way that I need to step back from this then I'd rather do it and do it now in a really clean way so that if I want to come back then I can.
The breather ended up being a lot longer than I thought it was going to be, but it just wasn't making sense to me. I couldn't justify taking on an outside investor just to get myself sort of a shiny new shop in another neighborhood that I didn't care about. I knew I didn't want to stay on that street because the neighborhood had changed so much, and it was going to mean finding the next environment that made me feel that way.
What were you doing in between?
I ended up getting really sick, my body decided to take the 11 years worth of stress and create some kind of mysterious auto-immune disease, so that took a couple of years of getting over. And it's literally always that thing of the moment where you can rest everything comes out.
I finally had time to travel, to be spending time absorbing and learning without there being a specific goal in mind. I would have opportunities offered, and I would take up people on some shorter term projects. The longest term thing was about six seasons that I designed a small collection of accessories for Club Monaco.
And then what led to your decision to relaunch the brand?
I really was itching to put all of me into something again. So I was starting to put together a plan for what it would look like to relaunch and tentatively making first steps. I had also been approached by people asking me what I wanted to do next and if I wanted [financial] backing, so that kind of started the stroke of fire.
Through my friend Samira Nasr, who is fashion director of Elle, she was at a dinner with Olivia Kim, and Olivia Kim was saying that she needs to find Jane Mayle, because she knew me from when I used to have a shop-in-shop at Opening Ceremony. Olivia called me up and said 'You need to come back, it's got to start happening." So she then introduced me to her friend and a longtime Mayle devotee, who I had never met but Olivia thought I must know her — her name is Rebecca Blair. Rebecca is now my partner.
She's just someone who's always loved the Mayle brand and I feel very lucky to have her vision, her commitment, and her enthusiasm for it. She really sees where it could go, but also what has been missing without the brand being in the marketplace for the past few years. It was at her urging that we spoke to Barneys. They really are our launch partner in all of this.
Did you end up accepting financial backing from one of the people who approached you before?
It was all too premature. This has been a clean slate. We are in the process now of getting into the next round of financing to come from outside. So it's a very exciting time for the brand. It could be a very different and more sophisticated setup than it was before.
You've launched with jewelry and handbags. What else do you want to do?
We definitely have to do shoes again. There are so many ways in which I think the brand could lend itself to a beautiful environment, I definitely want to have a store again… I really want to work on our website and doing that differently from what I see out there already. I do miss talking to the customer directly in the way that I've always been accustomed to.
What else did you take away from your first experience to this relaunch?
I had a baptism by fire into the fashion industry and I feel like if you can come out of it relatively unscathed, you then have a lot of confidence in yourself and in your voice. I know what the DNA of my brand is so strongly that I can go against entrenched business wisdom and come up with things that are great choices for my brand now, just because it's been tested and proven true. It's a wonderful thing as a woman, period, to have that kind of confidence in myself and my capabilities.
It's obviously a very different landscape and the market is much more saturated with brands, as you mentioned. Has that been a concern?
It makes one grateful to be out there and being heard and the fact that someone like Barneys has gotten so wholeheartedly behind the brand… it shows me that there's been a void in the marketplace on one level or another.
It's a good time for a brand like mine and hopefully long may that last, like the fashion pendulum has just swung in this particular direction. I definitely did feel like with what was happening at Gucci, things have become so much more feminine, so much more colorful, print-driven, the cult of personality. It's been a much more welcoming environment to re-enter than it would have been even five years ago. I don't know if there are legs for the brand beyond that, but I feel like there is. I feel like the particular equation that is offered by the brand is something that if you're a person who likes that now, you're probably a person who's going to like it in the next five years or the next 10 years. The DNA of the brand has remained the same and it's retained a lot of its core customers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.