Interview by Filep Motwary
Everything about Christophe Lemaire is Parisian. He designed for Lacoste for 10 years, in addition to running his signature line, before taking over Hermès and replacing Jean Paul Gaultier. Lemaire, a man who loves distant civilizations and foreign cultures, believes clothes should be more than just good quality: they should be practical and smart with an aura of anonymity. Dapper Dan sat down with the French designer to talk about his style and career, as well as his views on current fashions and his fascination with comprehensive menswear.
Motwary: Your menswear designs have lines that feel like an encounter between the 1940s and the 1980s. There is a vague austerity, yet it all seems so modern.
Lemaire: You know I just focused on what I believe in and yes there is this sense of the 1940s, especially the tropical aspect of the era, something really rudimentary in the cutting also I was inspired by the aspect of the Vietnamese uniform of the Vietcong. The clothes are functional and light. I always have these references, from craftsmen pictures, to military mixed with other references from the 1980’s; the New Wave, David Byrne, Echo and the Bunnymen, Japan and all these music bands that I am a big fan of. I find that there is something definite and cool about this look and it is a mix of all that. And those influences still make sense today.
Motwary: Denim plays an important role in your men’s summer collection. Why denim?
Lemaire: I love denim. Our denim is woven in Japan and has beautiful selvage. Good quality denim is a great fabric that lasts forever. It ages beautifully, when it is initially quite heavy and strong. This is an aspect that I like in men’s clothes, the strength. There is also something noble about denim.
I think Yohji Yamamoto said something very interesting when he was asked about his obsession with black, and he said it was his tribute to craftsmen and their dignity. There is something dignified about the craftsman’s uniform. I would also refer to the work of August Sander, whose work has inspired me so much. You can see he paid so much attention to clothes: the cut, the fabric, the dignity of the people he photographed, and the relationship they had with their garments. Of course, there is denim everywhere, so you might ask why I use it. I realized, for example, that I couldn’t find the right denim pants. I like high-rise denim—I definitely do not want to wear skinny pants. So, it came naturally to me to work with this fabric and dig deeper.
Motwary: What are the essential elements of modern menswear?
Lemaire: Quality is the key. We should look for true quality. I like a certain simplicity and strength in the fabric and its functionality. You always need to think about functionality when you design, like when you would design furniture. Especially for men’s clothes, we should be after something that will last. When you get down to a pair of pants, a shirt or a great coat, I am looking for a certain balance. I am looking for the moment when you see something and you say, “of course”, because it simply makes sense.
Motwary: Could you describe the connection between your own brand and Hermès?
Lemaire: Well, I feel extremely lucky to be working for Hermès in the sense that there is a deep understanding within the family and the Hermès team, which is linked to my own beliefs. We share the same values, such as not compromising on quality. At Hermès for instance, we don’t use the word “luxury” because luxury is a word that has been overused and misused. Instead, we say that we like making useful objects of the best quality, which I think is humble and very honest. Every piece is treated like an object that has to stand by itself. I feel extremely lucky to be there because I work with the best tools, with a genuine culture, and with a brand that has a beautiful DNA, history and vision.
Motwary: How do you separate Hermès from your own brand?
Lemaire: It’s a different frame. I would say that my brand is a little bit more workwear and urban-oriented. It’s difficult for me to put this into words. Hermès has a legacy and a history of its own—it has more the 160 years of history!
Motwary: You know that you have a fan club, right?
Lemaire: Yes. I realise that and it makes me happy. It’s rewarding and encouraging because we are completely independent as a company. We are a small team by choice at Christophe Lemaire; it’s difficult to exist and it is tricky competing, having in mind the power that most fashion houses have, compared to us. So it is very rewarding to see people taking an interest in something different. We are what we are: you either like it or you don’t like it, but at least we present something honest and singular. This is what the industry needs right now, singularity.
Motwary: But when it comes to journalists giving their true opinion, there is this fear of being banned from the shows…
Lemaire: Exactly! This is not fiction, this is the reality. Someone should speak about that, though of course there are journalists who do have the power to speak about this phenomenon. There is some kind of acceptance since we take things as they are. The fashion system should be free. It should be more fun in the real sense of the word. You go for a drink with someone and hear their opinion about something specific and then you read what he/she has written, which is the complete opposite.
I have realized through the years that fashion creates a lot of anxiety for people; everybody wants to be part of it. People are terrified of losing their place. It creates a kind of insecurity: this fear of losing some an “in” status.
Motwary: In your work there is a recurring obsession with faraway civilizations. Does this have to do with personal history or interest?
Lemaire: It’s about the dignity of style, elegance; a certain way of posture. I was lucky enough to travel and look around as a child, and I realized that style and beauty are everywhere. I could see this elegance in the African markets, Asian traditional clothes: this grace. Traditional clothes, no matter what origins they have, always stimulate interest and keep me fascinated.
Motwary: What do you find intriguing about fashion?
Lemaire: To be honest I am more interested in politics, literature and culture, rather than fashion. I do look of course on what is happening because I am interested in my work and creating clothes or to see the work of other designers that I love. If it was not for professional reasons, I would be very happy to live somewhere far from everything. Real life is not there.
Motwary: How has fashion changed in the last 20 years, from your perspective?
Lemaire: Things move so fast today. The number of people serving the media is enormous, there is a lot of pressure, we have more collections to make within six months, designers kill themselves or get fired, though everything continues like an endless party. We need to slow down, keep a sense of distance. But this is global, I think. It’s hard to be a designer today. Maybe I am lucky because I am not so young. For a young designer today, you need to be extremely resilient, strong, and surrounded by a good support group of friends and family. But, as I said earlier, there is also a place for independent approaches and with the Internet people have a direct influence on the standing of a brand. I think this is a very positive evolution.
Motwary: Are the politics of fashion more important than fashion itself today?
Lemaire: I think so. There is a lot artificiality to attract attention. It is all about image and surface. Sometimes, fashion looks like a war. It is so furious. I wish fashion had a bit more humor sometimes. When you see most fashion shows, they are not about dressing up a man or a woman. Some fashions pretend to be very sharp, edgy and arty. But at the end of the day, things can be so conventional, while lacking reality and common sense. I am interested in making clothes that are smart and as qualitative and contemporary as possible.
Christophe Lemaire , born in 1965 in Besancon , is a ready-to-wear designer, both for men and women. After various experiments in enormous French fashion houses, he founded the brand that bears his name in the 1990’s. The following decade , after passing several years in Lacoste , he became the artistic director for the women’s collection for Hermès for ten years. He is now devoting himself exclusively to his new brand, Lemaire.