No wonder he felt skeptical. One day a colleague showed up unexpectedly in Christophe Lemaire’s studio at Hermès in Paris clutching a swatch of strange-looking felt that had come all the way from Mongolia. She told him excitedly that it should be possible to make a jacket from a single piece of it—no seams, no darts, just felt.
“We made a pattern for a jacket and sent it to Mongolia, but to be honest, I never expected anything to happen,” said Lemaire, who was researching new fabrics for his first collection as artistic director of women’s wear at Hermès. “But two weeks before the show, this guy flew over with the jacket. The felt had been made using a traditional Mongolian method of rolling cashmere yarn in water, like papier-mâché. Then they sculpted it into a jacket. We made a few corrections. He took it back, and the finished jacket arrived in Paris just in time for the show. It’s amazing! A three-dimensional object. It feels extraordinary to wear. Though I still don’t understand how they did it.”
That jacket was one of the standout pieces in the fall collection, which is now being shipped to Hermès stores. Drawing on the skills of the painstakingly trained artisans in Hermès’s workshops—as well as those Mongolian craftsmen—Lemaire’s clothes (and that word is important, because he sees himself as a designer of clothes, not fashion) are impeccably made and simple in style. You can spot his love of traditional African and Asian clothing in the softly draped caftans, kurtas, and kimonos, as well as references to his favorite late-Seventies collections by Anne Marie Beretta and Issey Miyake. “I like clothes that suggest, rather than show, the body, and bring attention to a woman’s wrists and neck,” said Lemaire. “Straight lines. Big sleeves. Big pockets. Pure. Fluid. Quite geometric.”
Sitting beside a pyramid of Hermès’s signature orange boxes in its Paris press office, Lemaire, a genial 46-year-old Frenchman in a flea-market leather jacket, a khaki cotton shirt and pants, battered Martin Margiela boots, and a 1975 Texas Instruments digital watch, looks more like one of the army of indie designers and DJs hanging out in the Marais than an artistic director at one at the world’s oldest and grandest luxury houses. Though that’s not surprising, because an indie designer (and onetime DJ) is exactly what he has been since launching his own fashion label 20 years ago.
“Christophe is very clever and very cosmopolitan, but down-to-earth and unassuming,” said industrial designer Marc Newson, who has been friends with Lemaire since the mid-Nineties. “He has always been passionate about his work, but I’ve never had a sense that there was anything prima donna–ish about him.”