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.
“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.