Art of Style

The designer interview: Isabel Marant

The French designer transformed Paris’s ultra-glamorous fashion scene in the ’90s with her bohemian, comfortable and cool aesthetic – and it’s a formula that’s still appealing to women of all ages. By GILLIAN BRETT

Photography Jonas UngerStyling Hannah Cole

Isabel Marant is precisely six days out from her fall/winter 2020 show when we meet at a photo studio in Paris’s second arrondissement. We are just a stone’s throw from her atelier, where her team is busily putting the final touches to the hotly anticipated collection. That the French designer has generously given her time for a shoot and interview during this crucial stage says a lot about her.

Wearing faded gray jeans tucked into her cult cone-heeled boots, a matching gray knit with an oversized denim jacket shrugged on top (all from her own label, because if you could dress in full-look Isabel Marant every day, why wouldn’t you?), and with her silver hair pulled casually into a top knot, she personifies the Parisian cool that defines her designs. “I always get very inspired by my own way of wearing clothes,” she later explains. On set, she chats jovially with the crew during a swift makeup touch-up, her booming laugh unmistakable in the cacophony of hairdryers, camera clicks and air kisses. Marant brings a unique energy that feels like someone has just turned up the music.

Back in September, the Parisian powerhouse presented her summer collection, inspired by the hip-enticing beats of Brazilian techno. A star-studded model casting with first-name recognition – Irina, Amber, Gigi et al – strode out in tropical-flower-printed jumpsuits, sunshine-colored short shorts and high-waisted peg-leg jeans (a Marant trademark). “I was feeling a lot of color, something very bright, very happy, very alive,” she explains. “It was about a lot of skin, a lot of leg – which I always love.” She says her starting point for every collection involves a certain attitude, a vague silhouette and is heavily influenced by whatever music she has been listening to.

One night it was rockabilly, the day after it was punk or new wave – we loved playing with all the different looks from the musical trends

“For me, life is music,” she exclaims, as she reels off her current obsessions: an eclectic mix, including Nigerian artists Burna Boy and Fela, British singer James Blake, and Kazu Makino, a Japanese musician who formerly fronted alt-rock band Blonde Redhead. In many ways, music was Marant’s first love, and the thing that fortuitously led her to fashion. Picture Paris in the early ’80s: a refined take on sartorial excess cohabits incompatibly with the burgeoning punk movement. A 16-year-old Marant and her then-boyfriend and future fellow designer Christophe Lemaire immerse themselves in the decade’s diverse club scene. “One night it was rockabilly, the day after it was punk or new wave, and another day it was ragamuffin – there were no barriers between all the groups, and we loved playing with all the different looks from the musical trends.” Soon, the pair felt inspired to make clothes together, for themselves and their friends.

“We started to do it for fun, more to create our [own] looks,” she recalls. “Eventually, we were selling a lot of it and we said, ‘Oh, you can make money out of having fun – wow, cool.’ Then we started to discover fashion.” An anti-fashion movement, led by designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons, was bubbling up and it appealed to her rebellious nature. Growing up in the affluent Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Marant shocked her friends and neighbors by insisting on reinventing her parents’ cast-offs, including wearing her father’s old robes as dresses and her slippers to school. “Sometimes they were not open-minded enough for my looks,” she smiles. It would no doubt amuse the precocious young Marant that, nowadays, chic Parisians can’t get enough of both her main line and diffusion label, Isabel Marant Étoile.

My aim in fashion was always to say, ‘OK, what do I wear today?’ and to open my cupboard and know I have the right clothes, and I felt like there weren’t many people designing in this sense

After igniting her passion for design, she went on to study at Parisian fashion school Studio Berçot. It was here where the school’s founder and director Marie Rucki gave her some “super-important” advice that she still lives by today: don’t try to make people wear things you wouldn’t wear yourself. Knowing that she never wanted to work for anyone else, in 1994, Marant launched her eponymous ready-to-wear label, showing for the first time at Paris Fashion Week for spring/summer 1995, using her friends as models. In 1998, she opened her first shop on Rue de Charonne, near the Bastille district in eastern Paris.

Back then, the city was known for its ultra-glamorous aesthetic, led by illustrious French maisons such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, but Marant’s DNA is inherently bohemian, comfortable and cool. “My aim in fashion was always to say, ‘OK, what do I wear today?’ and to open my cupboard and know I have the right clothes, and I felt like there weren’t many people designing in this sense,” she says. “It’s about what you really feel well in, it’s about how you wear things, and I think, as a woman, for me, it makes it quite easy because I can really figure out what we are looking for.” Her boutique became the ultimate fashion insider’s secret, with international editors flocking to shop there in between shows.

Her calmness and charm today are somewhat understandable, then – with 26 years of experience behind her, Marant has her fashion-week routine down to a fine art. “I finished the show collection, like, 10 days ago,” she explains. “There are still one or two pieces that are not ready yet, and I’m already almost halfway through the next Étoile summer collection.” Since adding menswear to the equation in 2017, she designs at least eight collections a year. “I’m working on three collections non-stop, always. I often compare myself, and designers in general, to high-level athletes because you know this fantasy about designers – that it’s all sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll? It’s yoga, organic food and rest. I cannot be sick any day because even one day, if I am not there, it’s a disaster.”

You can really mix my designs from one season to another because it’s the same eyes and the same soul that create them. I do things in a very sincere way
Isabel Marant

She works from 8am to midnight, five days a week. To switch off and stay healthy, she has imposed a strict no-working-at-weekends rule. Instead, she and her husband, handbag designer Jérôme Dreyfuss, and their 17-year-old son Tal head to their rustic countryside cabin in Fontainebleau, 40 miles southeast of central Paris, where they live simply with no electricity or running water. “I do a lot of gardening. I must say, it’s helping my head – it’s very joyful to see a real result of what you have been doing. I walk a lot in the forest. I swim in summertime.” And they welcome friends, for whom Marant cooks. “I am very good at cooking in five minutes for 20 people. I don’t like to spend hours at it; I am very efficient.”

This espousal of insouciance and skilfulness underpins everything chez Marant. While her clothes may look relaxed, their construction is impeccable; quality is paramount to her. “I prefer to buy a really good thing than a lot of small shitty things that you are going to be fed up with in a minute. I was always like that, even when I was young and I started to be interested in fashion,” she says, recalling items she saved up for in her youth and still wears to this day. For Marant fans, building a forever wardrobe is easy. Her unmistakable silhouette – sharp shoulders, nipped-in waist, slouchy pants – and ’80s boho-glam-rock aesthetic has never wavered, becoming more and more recognizable, and more and more refined with every collection. “You can really mix [my designs] from one season to another, because it’s the same eyes and the same soul [that create them]. I do things in a very sincere way.”

In case you were wondering, the FW20 collection she presented a week later is utterly divine. Taking an unexpected turn towards minimalism – inspired by William Forsythe’s ballet, Blake Works I, and a desire for “real” clothes – the neutral palette and elegantly cut capes, cuddly coats and luxe knit dresses have a timeless appeal. Backstage, she told journalists that she wanted to make cozy but sophisticated clothes that women won’t ever want to throw away.

What excites me is to see how wide the panel of people wearing my clothes is – in terms of age, most of all, because it’s from 15 years old to 80

Marant truly cares about how her clothes make women feel. How they fit and flatter feminine contours. Before her portrait with French American model Sophie Koella is taken, she instinctively swoops in to cinch the waist of Koella’s oversized printed utility jacket (from the SS20 collection), sharpening the silhouette but also allowing it to slouch ‘just so’. “Even though I’m someone who dresses on the unisex side, I’ve always felt very comfortable in Isabel,” says Koella. “Her clothes make me feel feminine in a way that feels natural to me and my personality. I’d always choose a baggy jean over a skirt, for example. But, for some reason, I can wear an Isabel Marant skirt and still feel like myself.” For every micro-mini and knee-high boot, there is an oversized knit or loosely tailored pant to temper the more risqué undertones. And they aren’t supermodel-only clothes, either – Marant refutes outmoded age limits (she turns 53 next month). “What excites me is to see how wide the panel of people wearing my clothes is – in terms of age, most of all, because it’s from 15 years old to 80.”

And she truly cares about women. For the second year in a row, she has designed an International Women’s Day T-shirt in collaboration with NET-A-PORTER, the profits of which go directly to charity Women for Women International. She speaks passionately on the topics that matter to women nowadays, too, from the gender pay gap – “in my company that was never a question. I never look at the sex of somebody, I never look at the color. I was raised like that so for me it’s natural” – to the Me Too movement and female objectification. She praises the strong French female role models who inspire her endlessly: feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, politician and women’s rights defender Simone Veil and provocative artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. “I love women, any kind of women. When I’m asked, ‘Who is your muse?’ Women are my muse.” And women love Isabel right back.