During a routine pitch meeting at this magazine several months ago, the conversation among a predominantly female klatch of editors digressed from the topic of potential fashion features to fashion crushes—same sex, no less, as in a woman who wants another woman’s style. Some preferred blonds, like Kate Moss and Chloë Sevigny. Others admired brunettes, like Jane Birkin. Yet another editor was into the group thing. “I want to look like those French girls,” she said. “The ones who wear Isabel Marant.” At the mention of Marant, the seemingly vague aesthetic reference became crystal clear to this particular audience. Those French girls wear loose little dresses or slouchy pants with boyish jackets accessorized with a scarf, unwashed hair and next to no makeup, making for a style that fashion people equate with Parisian cool. It’s a look the designer has been supplying for close to 15 years.
“Every French girl wears Isabel Marant,” says one Paris-based fashion reporter. Indeed, with three boutiques of her own in Paris, nine in Asia and dozens of wholesale accounts throughout Europe, Marant has a cult presence overseas. Yet she remains improbably under the radar in the U.S., where just a dozen specialty stores carry her line. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have a following. Kirsten Dunst is reportedly a fan, and Rachel Bilson, while in Paris for the Chanel show in October, was spotted with an armload of clothes at a Marant boutique. Marant’s was also one of the 10 or so shows Kanye West deigned to attend during Paris’s spring 2008 collections in his fashion-research effort (his own line is in the works). Meanwhile, Nevena Borissova, owner of the Curve boutiques in New York and Los Angeles, Marant’s biggest American account, says the designer’s clothes attract a certain leggy clientele. “There isn’t a model chick in New York who doesn’t come in for [Marant’s clothes],” she says. “For me, they are the radar, because the models don’t care about trends. They buy whoever they think is cool.”
Marant prefers to keep a low profile. “I don’t want to overflow other countries with my clothes,” she says, the picture of effortless chic à la Français in a gray cashmere sweater, gray jeans and gray pumps. A Diet Coke and unfiltered cigarette, its smoke swirling up to the skylights in her Passage Saint Sébastien studio, complete the look.
Marant’s attitude is as cool and nonchalant as her aesthetic. Forty-eight hours before her spring 2008 show, just about everything is ready to go. Her collection of cashmere knits, tailored pieces and variations on embroidered djellabas hangs in her studio. The music has been selected; what’s left is the casting, which is a bit tricky given the designer’s slot on the Paris show schedule, directly after Dior. There, John Galliano has booked 60 models—“the best girls,” says Marant—who will leave his show painted and coiffed to showgirl proportions, a look that’s at odds with Marant’s minimalist ethos. Still, she isn’t worried about the time crunch that stripping the models of their Dior war paint will inevitably entail. “We’re both in the Tuileries, so I’m going to do a big car-wash corridor between his tent and my tent,” she says with a smile. “The girls just go through the car wash and come out on my stage. You won’t recognize them.”