Photo: Via WSJ
If you believe the recent spate of "Frenchwomen Know Best" books, here's a short list of things French women don't do: get fat, age ungracefully, raise ill-behaved children, or ever leave the house in less than a state of multiple-scarved, soignée perfection. All that is, of course, complete bunk.
Having dated a Frenchman for five years, I've spent some time in France, and to my great relief, I spotted many midsections softened by croissants and Camembert. From Paris to the Pyrenees, French children still kick and scream when their parents tell them "non" — and those tantrums are no more charming for their guttural Rs and nasal vowels. And, I am pleased to report that not all French women are masters of artful, demi-dishevelled dress (the cheekbones and pouty lips thing, though, is completely, maddeningly true).
Like comfortable heels and long-wearing lipstick, the effortlessly chic French femme is an attractive myth the fashion world's been serving up since Coco Chanel first pulled on pants. And, while we firmly believe that you'll see just as much genius layering and enviable bedhead in São Paulo or Saint Petersburg as in Paris, there is one woman who, for us, embodies every shopworn cliché of insouciantly stylish Gallic womanhood: Isabel Marant.
The native Parisian designer behind the perfect suede ankle boots, drop-waist minidresses, and yes, those sneaker wedges manages to make slouchy clothes that don't make you look like a slouch. In her latest lookbook, Marant shows off the game-changing garconne silhouette that made her a legend. The low-waisted, tailored trousers and artfully oversized dinner jackets. The blousey, printed tops and ruffled miniskirts. The oversized car coat worn with a leather mini and men's shirt. These boy-meets-girl collisions may feel inevitable now, but Marant was one of the first designers to codify that cool-girl nonchalance. To some degree, it's Marant's language we're all speaking when we pair our sexiest heels with baggy, destroyed denim.
In this fascinating WSJ profile, the normally press-shy Marant details her offbeat, blended-family upbringing. She grew up close to her photographer father and fashion-model mother, as well as her father's ex-wife. Later, when her father remarried a Caribbean emigrée, Marant visited her stopmom's family frequently in Martinique, where she learned to speak Creole and that "you don't need a lot to be happy." Even after her father's death, Marant remains close with all three women. Marant spends most weekends in a bare-bones cabin outside Paris with no running water or electricity — just her and, as she calls them, "all my moms."
Marant's female-centric family life may have shaped her sensitivity to women's sartorial desires, as well as her less-is-more aesthetic. Like Miuccia Prada's infatuation with the sociopolitical implications of ugliness, or Phoebe Philo's ongoing quest to intellectualize the female body, plenty of designers eschew simple prettiness in favor of a cool-headed questioning of gender norms. The particular genius of Marant is that she investigates these themes without sacrificing sensuality. In her clothes, every woman becomes unselfconsciously beautiful — carelessly sexy in a way that feels like it's for the wearer's eyes alone.
That signature blend of attitude and elegance clearly comes straight from the designer herself. Marant showed her first collection in a Parisian squat nearly 20 years ago, and now, she presides over a relatively modest 13 boutiques worldwide (compare that to the hundreds of Chanel or Louis Vuitton boutiques that pop up in every airport and upscale shopping mall where there's money to be spent). Marant's personal style is totally unpretentious. Asked about her daily uniform of sweatshirts and menswear-inspired trousers, Marant told the WSJ, "I'm not this goddess of fashion — I'm low profile. I look like a delivery guy."
And yet, Marant is a totem of aging gracefully. Most often spotted makeup-free, her more-salt-than-pepper hair in a messy bun, Marant is a stark contrast to American over-40 icons like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, who maintain their enviable faces and figures via depressingly spartan diets and yoga bends. Interviews with Marant reveal no barely potable green juices, no workouts with celebrity
sadists trainers. She struggles with her smoking habit, the most die-hard of all Gallic vices. Although not able to quit yet, Marant limits herself to four store-bought cigarettes per day — cut open and re-rolled by hand to further slow her consumption. It's a deeply quirky, human routine that anyone who's ever battled the nicotine beast can relate to — and a world apart from the white-knuckle perfection of the aggressively healthy Hollywood set.
Come November 14, Marant will become the latest designer to bring her wares to the global masses via a collaboration with H&M — and the first glimpse, modeled by Marant herself, looks very, very good. The fact that, once the collection drops, we're sure to see a million drop-waist dresses and triangle-heeled, fringed boots coming and going has done nothing to dim our enthusiasm. For many Marant fans who don't live in the land of $700 sneakers — this writer included — the H&M collection will be our first chance to own a piece by our goddess of low-key cool. Unlike designers who "celebrate" women by placing them in binding, body-defying clothes, and ever-higher heels, the true genius of Isabel Marant is that she steadfastly refuses to make women suffer for style. That's an idea every woman deserves to buy into.