The Secret To French-Girl Style? It's What You Don't Wear

Walking into Anne Willi's cozy, light-filled shop in Brooklyn is as close as you can get to a trip to Paris without a pass through airport security. The half-French, half-Swiss designer's beautifully understated clothes have gathered a devoted cult following since her label's debut in 1998. And, now, the brand has finally hit the States, opening a sister boutique to her two Parisian shops in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill last week — making her devoted American fans very happy and saving them countless air miles, too.
So, to celebrate her U.S. store opening, we spoke with Willi last week. Witty, self-assured, and charmingly apologetic about her near-perfect English, Willi embodies the French approach to fashion and life. Read on to view more of Willi's elegant collection, to see how she decodes that effortless Parisian look, and to get the scoop on why she's done chasing trends. Plus, find out what's the one thing a French girl would never wear. The secret to soignée style lies straight ahead...
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Anne Willi Boutique, 47 Bergen Street (between Boerum Place and Smith Street), Brooklyn; (646) 675-1539.
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
We’re so excited about your store in Brooklyn!
“Thank you! We opened at 47 Bergen Street in Brooklyn on April 4, and we’re so pleased with how it came out. I did it like my two shops in Paris. They should feel like somebody’s home, not too much like a shop."

There are so many French-owned shops in that part of Brooklyn now — it’s like "Little Paris."
“I noticed that — bakeries and French bookshops. From the beginning, I had a lot of French customers in the States, but now American women are discovering us, too. I’m excited to have a whole new audience. And, that my New York clients don’t have to go all the way to my shops in Paris anymore.”
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Photo by Anna Marchlewska, courtesy of Anne Willi.
What pieces are you most excited about from your summer '14 collection?
“This collection has a lot of beige, blue, and green that are especially good on dresses — women are so beautiful in dresses. We also have a linen-silk summer coat that’s very elegant. I love working with graphics — this collection features a lot of stripes. And, fabric is so important. Everything is made in Europe, and I design the fabrics with our supplier. I work really hard so that all the fabrics go together, like it’s a small story.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
Your clothes have a timeless quality to them.
“This is very important to me. Every one of my collections follows from the one before. I’m not a designer who does clothes you put on once and then don’t want to wear anymore. I don't make one-season clothes.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
Who would you say is your typical client?
“Well, I really don’t make clothes and say, ‘It's for this kind of woman.’ I make things that I like very much and believe in, and after, everybody’s welcome to them. [Laughs.] If I create for everybody, it will have a little bit of everything, and it will be a big mess.”

That strikes me as a very French approach to fashion.
“I used to work as a designer at a trend office. Now, I try not to follow the trends, and my clients like it more. Of course, I’m living in Paris, so you still see and feel the trends — it’s in the air. But, in fashion these days, everybody does the same look, the big designer brands and the cheap ones, too. Everybody’s going the same way. So, I go my own way. So, if tomorrow Lurex shorts are in fashion, I will not do it because I don’t like it.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
That makes them more versatile, too.
“Yes. I try to make women feel beautiful and make clothes that feel good on the body. I like to say that ‘everyone wears the clothes in her own way.’ On one, it could be classic; on the other one, crazy. I don’t like to make clothes that you say, ‘Oh, this is this one, this is this one.’ You don’t recognize them as much. You can if you know the brand, but it doesn’t dominate the woman who’s wearing them.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
Some clothes, no matter how special, are just so hard to wear because they don't blend.
“Yes, exactly. That’s why I have very faithful clients, because they have my clothes from 10 years ago, and they can be worn with something from this summer. And, I have some clients who only wear my clothes. All my collections mix very well together because they’re following one after the other one. I create a new story with each collection, but I don’t aim for a revolution every six months.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
We're such fans of French-girl style — what do you think the secret is?
“There are a lot of different French styles, but I think French women never do too much. You see a woman, her hair is a little bit up, and you think that she didn’t do anything. But, she did. In Paris, all the work is to look like you don’t do.”

The things a French woman can do with a messy bun is amazing.
“And, a French woman would not wear all one label — you mix things. You can have jeans from Uniqlo and a very fancy designer top and the shoes you found in a flea market for nothing. Mismatch is the thing. She’s more classic and understated and never too sexy. There’s always something comfortable. And, finally, I think that the French woman knows her body, what works for her, what to accentuate. If it’s not nice on her, she won’t put it on.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
What pieces would you recommend to a woman who wanted to channel French style?
“Women are so beautiful in dresses, and they’re so easy to wear. I try to do clothes that you can put on at six in the morning, work in them; then in the evening, you put your hair up, put on high heels, and you continue your night. I have one dress called 'Gina' made of a beautiful Italian linen. It’s not too form-fitting, but you still can see the form of the body. A French girl would wear this with a flat shoe — sexy but understated. This is very Parisian.”

If she wants to feel sophisticated but still comfortable?
“The kimono-style wrap tops look so great with just a jean and a Birkenstock. This is very chic.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Anne Willi.
You mentioned that you will be offering e-shopping soon, but for now, you feel your clothes are best seen in person. Why is that?
“There can be something missing when you shop online. My clothes look nice, but when you feel it and when you wear it and notice the details and how it’s cut, it’s completely different. My clothes are well finished, with a lot of small details that you see when you wear it, but it’s not blatant. It’s not shouting something. It’s just inside.”

They’re made to be felt and worn.
“Exactly.”

Visit Anne Willi's Brooklyn shop at 47 Bergen Street (between Boerum Place and Smith Street), Brooklyn; (646) 675-1539.
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