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Bon Street
Isabel Marant in her rue de Saintonge store

Bon Street

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’s rue de Saintonge store

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.”

The contrast between Dior’s and Marant’s shows illustrates two wildly different sides of au courant French fashion. There are the prestige megabrands—Dior, Chanel, Louis Vuitton—complete with imported star designers, and then there are the independents, such as A.P.C., Vanessa Bruno and Marant. Marant isn’t interested in the showstopping theatrics and splashy editorial looks that high fashion favors. She does real clothes with a carefully calibrated hip quotient that’s edgy but accessible. So are the prices, from around $300 for slouchy trousers to about $1,325 for a goat-hair jacket.

A look from spring 2008

“My point of view has always been to do clothes that I wanted to wear and then show them to the press,” says Marant, 40, who grew up in Paris, splitting her time between her German mother and her French father and Caribbean stepmother. “If [the media] like it, fantastic. But I’m not really doing clothes for the newspaper.” Marant got her start as a teenager, designing grunge-inspired basics, like sweaters made out of dishcloths, for herself and friends. It wasn’t until she and Christophe Lemaire, who now designs for Lacoste, sold a few of their collaborative pieces to a Paris shop that Marant decided to pursue fashion professionally. She enrolled in design courses at Studio Berçot in Paris, then made two pit stops. She first assisted Michel Klein and then art director Marc Ascoli before launching her own collection of oversize jewelry in 1989. That led to an accessories collaboration with Eighties icon Claude Montana, followed by knits and the full Isabel Marant collection in 1994.

Since then, it’s been a slow but steady ascent. “I have always increased the turnover and quantity of what I was selling,” she says, knocking on her wooden table. “And I’m really pleased, because it took some time to build up, but I have never fallen.” Her design philosophy is simple: “I ask myself what I want to wear. I love mixture. Putting a very tailored jacket with something that is really fluffy—that has always been my thing.” Thus her customers have come to expect a constant cocktail of loose-cut tailored basics and bohemian knits, the latter inspired by her childhood travels to Africa, India, Asia and the Caribbean. Marant doesn’t move with the trends or draw from movies or use obvious themes. “I think that’s a bit schoolish,” she says. “That’s not really life. Not everybody looks like Michelle Pfeiffer.” Select characters, however, are allowed subtle cameos in her collections. “I love Yves Saint Laurent; I love Serge Gainsbourg,” she says. “I think it’s my French side. There’s always a masculine, androgynous look.” Paul Poiret and the way he “made something new out of foreign inspirations” is another influence.

A pair of boots from fall 2007

In addition to her signature collection and accessories line, Marant offers the lower-priced Etoile label as well as a children’s range. She also plans to introduce a collection of gold jewelry for fall. And while she feels the industry’s relentless pressure to grow, grow, grow, she’s not willing to compromise her principles. “When you have too many stores, everything is so important; if you have a failure somewhere, everything comes crashing down and everybody starts to freak out and calculate too much,” says Marant. “And then you start to lose your soul.” As it is, she has some regrets about going solo so early. “I’m quite sorry for not having taken more time to have experience with big designers,” she explains. “There are things that I will never learn. My dream would be to spend one year at Chanel, one year at Saint Laurent.”

Borissova, for one, applauds Marant’s tempered approach: “With all the oversaturation [of the fashion market], I think that’s one of the reasons she’s stayed cool for so long. It’s a very smart business move.”

Coolness quotient aside, as Marant says, “there are things you can do when you’re small that you cannot do when you’re big.” And she’s not just talking business. Most weekends, for instance, you can find Marant with her husband, French handbag designer Jerome Dreyfuss, and their four-year-old son, Tal, at their ultrarustic log cabin (no electricity, no running water) about 30 miles outside of Paris. There, she says, “I have a very—how do you say?—sane life.”