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A Couture Debut, 50 Years in the Making

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There’s a new entrant to the haute calendar this season, one that’s been in business for 50 years — . In recognition of that milestone, the Chambre Syndicale invited the house to show a collection on Sunday morning. Creative director is clearly moved by the accolade. “I’m so touched,” she said, the emotion obvious in her delivery. She chose to call the collection “L’Atelier Sonia Rykiel” to celebrate the studio workers, present and past, responsible for making the clothes.

De Libran also wants to dispel any notions of preciousness. She noted that the brand’s founder built her company on a belief in real, wardrobe-building clothes that speak to the individual woman. That concept remains an essential code, one the L’Atelier collection will further with made-to-measure savoir faire.

Jean-Marc Loubier, chief executive officer of First Heritage Brands, which owns Sonia Rykiel, concurs. “We are historical and we are current,” he said. The anniversary has provided an umbrella for several initiatives intended to show the Rykiel range. It started in January with “Manifesto,” a book-centric installation by artist Jaro Varga and accompanying “fun and easy” capsule collection, and continued with the launch of the Le Pave, “an outstanding little bag that everyone wants to catch.” This show, Loubier said, will highlight the brand’s highest level of elegant nonchalance.

For de Libran, that fusion goes to the core of the house ethos — and her own. “It’s not just something so [precious] that you never wear it,” she said in a conversation with WWD. “I really want it to be worn. That’s when it becomes fashion.”

WWD: When we reported that you would do this collection, it was referred to as a “special collection.” Is it full-on couture or is it something different?

Julie de Libran: I’m calling it L’Atelier because I want to celebrate the atelier that we have at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, that has been in this house for 50 years. It’s celebrating the savoir faire of the house and these amazing people who are here making the clothes.

I’m so touched that Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture has invited us during this very, very special week in Paris, when couture houses are showing their very special shows. I don’t want to be in the competition with those amazing houses; my focus is really on the savoir faire of this house. If it’s knitwear, there’s an artisanal hand that I want to celebrate. So that’s why I wanted to make it L’Atelier Rykiel and not call it haute couture.

WWD: Is it all made-to-order? Will there be a retail aspect?

J.D.L.: It will be made-to-order by appointment and made-to-measure. It is all handmade, because even if there is some use of machines, it’s manually used. There are a lot of finishings and parts that are stitched by hand, and embellishments done by hand. There are some pieces that have taken 150 hours to make. It is couture. But I wanted it to be quite democratic, as Rykiel has always been a brand with a wardrobe that is wearable, that is easy to put on and that, when you’re dressed and you’re out, you feel free. So none of it is tight, none of it is constructed where you can’t breathe. All of it has a nonchalance; there’s an ease to each silhouette.

WWD: Are clients invited to the show?

J.D.L.: Of course. They’re clients that have been wearing Rykiel who love the brand. They are very excited about the opportunity of this made-to-measure, and to have something very special and unique.

WWD: From a process standpoint, even if you have this wonderful atelier for making samples, how do you broaden capacity to produce the clothes for the clients?

J.D.L.: We have a bit of time to deliver. We’ll be going to [the clients] to do fittings. It’s just organizing the team differently. It is a lot of work. And the technical side, in terms of made-to-measure, is for sure a whole other side; it’s not like the ready-to-wear where you send out to production. It’s readapting each shape to a certain person. Everything takes much, much longer. And as I said, there is one dress that takes 150 hours.

Some pieces will be limited. A collection that is so special, we’ll be very careful for the dresses not to be diffused in too many places.

WWD: Describe the dress that takes 150 hours to make.

J.D.L.: How do I explain it? It feels like you’re naked, actually. It’s completely embroidered with tone-on-tone stripes, so it outlines the different parts of the body. It creates a three-dimensional effect in sequins.

WWD: Is there a theme to this collection apart from showing the artisanal nature of it, the work, the skill level and the craftsmanship of the atelier?

J.D.L.: What was important to me was that each silhouette is iconic at Rykiel. To give you an example, the poor-boy sweater-knit rib, there is a dress that’s just all knit. It looks like it’s just a dress made of sweatshirts but technically, it’s knitting one dress from a lot of sweaters. There are intarsias, of knot and lace that are all done by hand. There’s tailoring that’s constructed. I always love working with masculine/feminine, and it is extremely Sonia Rykiel to me.

WWD: The house has said the collection will highlight Rykiel’s “history of savoir faire and strong women.” Are you referencing any strong women specifically or just the aura of strong women?

J.D.L.: My casting will be strong women. I want to feel like the girl is really comfortable and strong in what she is wearing, so it won’t feel like a costume.

WWD: Are you casting only models?

J.D.L.: Well, maybe more than models. We are still in the process. But my idea is for there to be models or girls who are creating things. So they’re strong women in their ways.

WWD: It’s such an issue today — the role of women, depictions of women, how we project ourselves, how men perceive us. How can fashion, especially fashion designed by a woman, inform the greater conversation?

J.D.L.: For me it’s important that a woman needs to feel free. I mean that she needs to be doing what she feels is right, what is right for her and that she needs to express herself and to be passionate, to be happy. I mean that’s life. For sure, clothes help to express that. This collection has a strength to it that shows this freedom and this personality and this toughness.

WWD: When you say toughness, what do you mean? Is there a visually tough element to the collection?

J.D.L.: Yes. I think it’s about shoulders. When you’re wearing a certain shoulder, it gives you [a look of] strength, like a uniform. Maybe it’s that way of standing. It can also be pants. I also wanted to play with knit to create a [faux] fur, because I didn’t want to use fur in this collection. The way that this fur is knitted, it has a certain volume. You need space to enter in a room. There’s a certain strength.

WWD: You were born in France, but lived in California from the age of eight through high school — essential formative years. Is your view of couture shaped from an American perspective, that wonder that we have about it, the curiosity, or from that French perspective, of it being deeply ingrained in the culture?

J.D.L.: I would say a bit of both. The dream of couture is there for sure. I think it makes you dream, first of all, if you’re French or American or from anywhere in the world. It’s just so magical, almost a dream that’s untouchable. Still, for Rykiel I didn’t want this collection to feel untouchable. I hope women will feel that it is something that they can really put on and wear, and it’s not just a dream. I guess it’s making a dream come true. Maybe that’s also my American side, where everything is possible. I love that side of America, where you just work hard and everything’s possible. But for sure, there’s a savoir faire that is French that comes with a certain history, and something from my roots attracted me. Also, I went to school in Paris, I did the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, where I did the whole patternmaking and the draping on mannequins. That is definitely from here, that savoir faire in France that I feel is nowhere else in the world, for sure.

WWD: What brought your family to California?

J.D.L.: My father’s grandmother was Irish-American. My father lost his parents when he 14, and the last time he saw his father was his [on a trip] to America. And so he always had this American dream, until he decided to just leave everything in France in 1980 and move to America and live that American dream.

WWD: Why California?

J.D.L.: We had been in the South of France. We moved to New York but it was too cold. And so we went to San Francisco and that was still too cold. We went down all the way, and ended up in San Diego because it was the weather that you have in the South of France, the sun and the vegetation, everything was similar. So that’s the story. It’s that simple.

WWD: Given your experience, what are your thoughts on the immigration crisis?

J.D.L.: Oh my gosh! Of course, of course, you think of that, and you think how terrible and how sad for of all these people. I still have family in America, my brother and my mother. My father is in between France and America. Of course, you think of that.

WWD: We talk about fashion as being global. But we’re certainly seeing differences right now. Beyond your approach to couture, how is your work informed by being French and by your American experience?

J.D.L.: The American side would be more practical and utilitarian, creating a jacket that you can wear in different ways. The French perspective is probably the more feminine side of things that I like, like lace or feathers or the embellishments, the colors, playing with colors and the savoir faire of the whole manual side in atelier, maybe the silhouettes, too. The feminine side of things.

I am using denim in this collection — which comes from Nimes in France. I mean, that’s what I was told, that the original comes from workwear from Nimes. It’s important for this woman and for our guests who will be here to see a collection that you actually want to wear, and it’s not just something so [precious] that you never wear it. I really want it to be worn. That’s when it becomes fashion — when a woman wears the dress that you have designed.

WWD: We seem to be in an era of creative directors emerging from the back room. You were kind of on the front end of that, along with Sarah Burton. Then, Alessandro Michele, and now, Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta. A wave of the future?

J.D.L.: I don’t know. I think for sure working hard gets you somewhere. So maybe I got this opportunity because I had the experiences, working hard in different situations. I also was taught by the best, by some amazing designers. I hope there will be more designers that get this opportunity.

WWD: You worked for Gianfranco Ferré, Gianni Versace, Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs at Vuitton — quite a résumé. How do you adapt and evolve your own aesthetic?

J.D.L.: The first years you learn a lot. I remember going to Prada from Versace. I mean, it was such a contrast. But at the same time, they hired me to bring femininity, to bring a feminine side to the collection.

WWD: That was spelled out for you?

J.D.L.: That’s what I was told mostly. And then Miuccia said to me once, “you’re my designer that is the most commercial.” But she said this in a very positive way. Because I was always thinking of fashion in a practical way. I was designing clothes that you wanted to wear and not just clothes just to say, “oh, I’ve done something creative.” That was a huge compliment actually from her.

WWD: A huge compliment.

J.D.L.: And then with Marc at Louis Vuitton. I was designing the collections with him for the show, of course. But I was really responsible for the pre-collections. What I brought to Vuitton were collections that were wearable and like a real wardrobe. That’s what felt right at Rykiel, too, when I was asked to come here. She always designed wardrobes. It was about coming to the shop and getting dressed. You found all practical things that you could just mix and match and do layerings.

WWD: There are so many talented designers working in studios. From the inside perspective, how are the stars identified?

J.D.L.: I would say first of all you have to really be tough. I mean, this fashion world is hard. It’s extremely competitive and it’s really, really tough. Experience is important, the know-how of how things are made and just the quality of things, and fighting also to make it perfect. You can design something, but to work on it until it’s good takes a lot of time and a lot of discipline. It’s trying to find solutions. And believing in what you’re doing.

WWD: As a designer working for other designers over a long time, do you risk losing your own aesthetic?

J.D.L.: When you’re working for a creative person, your strength is to adapt and to understand what they want before they even ask for it. So it’s adapting and also opening them to new things. Because if you’re there, it’s for you to bring something [specific], something that’s that’s more feminine or more technical or something that’s new. Your job is to have propositions and to be creative. And of course, you have to bring in your personal taste, which is very delicate. But little by little, it becomes natural. Because if you’re doing it, you have to believe in it.

WWD: Creative fulfillment in context.

J.D.L.: For sure, because you’re doing it with your heart, you’re putting in all your energy and all your passion, your creativity. It has to be passionate, you can’t do it if you don’t feel it. You give everything you’ve got to find solutions and for it to work and to please that person you’re working with as well. Surprise them as well.

WWD: Delivering a happy surprise — that must be gratifying. What makes a good boss?

J.D.L.: I don’t know what an ideal boss is. I can say that Yves Carcelle [then chairman and ceo of Louis Vuitton] was an extraordinary boss. But he wasn’t a designer; he wasn’t my boss in that term.

WWD: Extraordinary in what way?

J.D.L.: On the business side, and also in being so very human and knowing everyone’s first name when he walked into a room. I mean, that was incredible. And very respectful. But otherwise, I had amazing bosses, Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada. It’s difficult [to work in a major studio], but it helped me to be who I am today. I thank them every day for it.

WWD: Is this a good time for fashion?

J.D.L.: Things are changing, and creating amazing opportunities. Change is always good. But it’s difficult because so many people are questioning what is luxury, the price of things, everything. Also, I think the e-commerce is extraordinary, but at the same time it has changed fashion. For me fashion is about creativity, it’s not just about making stuff.

WWD: It sometimes feels that marketing trumps creativity.

J.D.L.: I don’t want to give that as an excuse because it’s too easy, but for sure, the process is different. I’ve always worked with marketing. But when marketing asks you to do the same thing that you did the season before, and the season before you were the one fighting to do it.…They want us to do what’s selling — or what’s selling in other brands, and I just don’t think that’s interesting. You go to another brand to get that.

WWD: No, that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to do this brand.

J.D.L.: And make the brand evolve. Because I don’t want to just be doing a striped sweater. Sonia Rykiel did so many different things, opened so many different doors. With this L’Atelier collection, I want to show that this brand is about many different things and it’s not just a striped jumper, which I love, but it’s not just a striped jumper.

WWD: Is that the overriding message of this special collection — capsule insight into what Sonia Rykiel is?

J.D.L.: Yes — this anniversary, 50 years. I want to remind that it is a house of a real wardrobe and that there are many angles to this brand. It’s a story for the future. My job at this house is and to make it desirable for women, for them to want to wear Sonia Rykiel now.

WWD: Sounds like a walk-off. Thank you, Julie.

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