A Brussels-based fashion writer, Philippe Pourhashemi was born in Tehran in 1976 and grew up in Paris, before heading off to Scotland to study Foreign Languages, before he worked as a consultant for several fashion companies in Paris, Berlin and Barcelona. Continue reading Philippe Pourhashemi→
Celebrated French designer Christophe Lemaire speaks to Philippe Pourhashemi about Japanese culture, China, Hong Kong, and Love.
Even though he may come across as quintessentially French, Christophe Lemaire’s aesthetics and inspiration have never been Eurocentric. In his creative approach and sartorial research as a designer, he has been looking for timelessness, value and simplicity. He does not seem to court fashion, but fashion has been catching up with him lately. Refusing ostentation and style gimmicks, he has crafted his own distinctive voice within the industry, working around the concept of the ultimate wardrobe, perfecting his own classics over time. His pieces are discreet, essential and slightly androgynous. They refer to years of history and cultural heritage, without ever being literal or obvious. Don’t expect radical changes in his work from one season to the next. Lemaire has a vision and he sticks to his guns. Inspired by uniforms and traditional shapes, he has always been interested in exoticism and difference. In fact, Asia has been one his passions since he discovered Japan in 1995, describing the trip as a « revelation ». Lemaire’s minimal and functional chic stands for purity and quality. For his own collections, he favors simple lines and avoids any fuss. Defending core values throughout his career -such as elegance, refinement and education- he was a logical choice for Hermès, who recently appointed him as their womenswear designer. Lemaire has natural charisma and rarely disappoints during a discussion. He’s critical, honest and does not take himself too seriously. In this exclusive interview, he talks about his last holiday in China, his design references and the love of his life.
Where does your fascination with Japanese culture come from?
I guess I’ve always been sensitive to Japanese art and culture, but going there for the first time in the mid-90s felt like a complete shock. Charlotte Perriand, who was a French architect and designer, has always been a key source of inspiration for me. She traveled to Japan in 1940 and advised craftsmen on how to design products for Europe. She realized people were trying to become too Western in their approach and told them it was a mistake. I’ve always admired her work and dedication. She was a pioneer and true visionary.
Were there specific things that moved you during that first trip?
Yes, of course. I found people’s levels of politeness and attention to others quite touching. It’s hard to put it into words, but there’s something I fell in love with. Chinese history and traditions have always interested me, too.
Have you been to China already?
Yes, I have, on several occasions. Last summer, Sarah-Linh and I decided to do this amazing trip, taking the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Mongolia. We stayed in Mongolia for 2 weeks, before heading to Beijing and Suzhou, which is a beautiful town. We have several friends who live in China and try to visit them whenever we can.
China has changed so much over the past 20 years. What do you think of its evolution as a nation?
I find it fascinating. Let’s not forget that China suffered for a whole century and it’s only fair that things are looking up now. We are witnessing the awakening of an ancient civilization with a new-found sense of prosperity and purpose. What struck me and Sarah-Linh the most during our trip was the country’s modernity and its rise to sophistication. The speed with which China reached that stage is amazing. In terms of culture and taste, I also think the country will keep on changing. There’s this stereotype in the Western world that there are only Chinese nouveaux riches now and that the local culture is reduced to materialism. However, it’d be foolish to think you could erase thousands years of history within a decade. I think people’s attitude toward consumption is already evolving. For instance, long tea ceremonies have become quite popular in China and wasting one’s time is seen as a new form of snobbery.
Does that mean the Chinese aspire to a better quality of life?
They definitely do. They aspire to owning objects that are refined and have intrinsic value. It’s interesting for Hermès, because a new clientele has surfaced recently. Customers are much younger and affluent. They understand what the house stands for and we don’t have to explain it to them. In fact, my first collections for Hermès have been doing really well in Hong Kong.
And how do you feel about Hong Kong as a place?
I read recently that Hong Kong has a major concentration of some of the world’s highest IQs, which -in fact- does not surprise me at all. Whenever I’m there, I always notice how alert and quick people are. Everyone seems to think and react fast, from taxi drivers to airport staff. The Chinese seem highly flexible, which distinguishes them from other nations in Asia.
What about your own brand? What kind of presence does it have in China?
We sell at Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, but the visibility of the brand is still quite confidential. That’s fine with me, as the positioning for my label is much more niche. People who buy my clothes tend to be demanding and discerning customers. They are not interested in status symbols. As far as China is concerned, it’s only a matter of time before there is demand for clothes like the ones I design. I don’t think it will take more than 5 years, to be honest.
That sounds quite similar to the way the Russian market evolved.
Yes, it does. One thing we did during our stay in Suzhou was to go to local department stores to see what products were sold there. I always find that really interesting, as it gives you an insight into a broader mode of consumption. We were actually amazed by the quality of products we saw, from household appliances to kitchen utensils. One thing I love doing when I’m in a foreign country is hit the supermarkets and see what’s on display. It helps you understand a lot of things about people’s standards, mentality and behavior.
I recently went to Malaysia for Fashion Week and was amazed by how happy people looked at the shows. They were enjoying themselves and having a good time. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone smile during a Paris show since 1989.
(He laughs) You’re right. People are not tired or jaded there. I guess European countries are old and there’s a sense of fatigue taking over. I think Europeans committed enough crimes throughout their history. We’ve had two atrocious wars and colonized so many nations. You could say that Europe is depressed at the moment.
It seems that there’s a festive vibe in Asia we have more or less lost in Europe.
I agree with you. The thing about China is that it fully embraces change. There’s no fear. The Chinese can easily adapt to new circumstances and that is one of their main strengths. People in Europe don’t really have this sort of mindset.
I wasn’t aware that Sarah-Linh -your partner in real life- was also part of your team. How do you manage to combine private and professional spheres?
I guess it has never been an issue for us. Sarah-Linh is my partner, my muse and my lover. We live together and work together. Everything happened organically and we never really had to sit down and analyze things. It felt quite natural from the start and there’s also a deep understanding between us. We both love the same things and have many passions in common. We share similar values and tastes.
Do you think that working with your partner can be dangerous?
That’s what a lot of people say, but there are no set rules in the end. It’s true that you have to be careful sometimes, but we are both passionate about what we do and like sharing it with others. That’s working for us and it’s great.
It’s quite rare to be able to achieve this kind of balance. Not many people actually get to that stage.
One thing you definitely need is a good sense of humor. I don’t know if others find us that funny, but I guess we can laugh at the same things.
What are the newest projects you’ve been focusing on?
Besides my own brand and collections for Hermès, I’m also working on a menswear capsule collection -along with British designer Kim Jones- for Korean label Bean Pole. It will be distributed across Korea and China, with a few points of sale in the UK and the US. The line will launch in February.
Sounds like you’ve got quite a lot on your plate already.
(He laughs) Well, let’s say I don’t really have time to get bored.