Ami's Show in Paris Celebrates Fast Friends
c.2014 New York Times News Service
The basement of the Palais de Tokyo was staged like a snowbound park at twilight. Lampposts glowed faintly throughout the sea of white. This winter wonderland during the rainy men’s fashion shows in Paris last month was courtesy of Alexandre Mattiussi, the designer of the nascent label Ami.
As usual, men’s week had its left-field stalwarts: Rick Owens’s doo-ragged nuns in brown leather onesies, Saint Laurent’s jaunty rockabilly androgynes, Thom Browne’s zombie dandies invading Funkytown and Givenchy’s neon basketballers wearing nets on their faces. How, you might ask, did Ami stand out?
It wasn’t because artificial snow fell from the ceiling after the last model took to the runway and leaned against a lamppost. (Yes, there was a subtle sexual overtone to all of this.) Mattiussi, 33, shone by presenting a collection that was the antithesis of capital “F” fashion. There were no cockamamie showpieces or garments suitable only for a teenage wraith. What remained was an elemental vérité take on fresh French prep: leather puffers, chunky knit sweaters and camel overcoats. The collection was so wearable it seemed as if a store buyer had cherry-picked garments that would sell.
“I mean, I just want a nice sweater,” Mattiussi said. “I don’t want to put zippers all over it.”
The Ami show, the only one I attended in Paris that inspired cheers, had the aura of hitting at the perfect moment.
“Tonight I witnessed somebody reaching a whole other level,” said Jim Nelson, the editor of GQ, who was wearing an Ami coat he had bought the day before. “It’s like you’ve seen somebody who has arrived. He designs for how men want to look.”
Instead of an exclusive after-party, Mattiussi had beer and pizza with his parents and some friends at the Pigalle apartment he shares with his boyfriend.
The next day, Mattiussi was zipping through the Louvre’s courtyard on his matte black Vespa. (It is his third in six months; the others were stolen.) He drove as fast as possible to a red light before slamming on the brakes. Arriving at Café de Flore, he took a seat outside.
His phone kept vibrating, his friends congratulating him on being on the home page of Style.com. The casting of his show was not just multiethnic; it spanned different builds, from skinny to muscular, and ages. It could have been a cross section of his friends, who are the foundation of his label and the source of its name.
“You can feel rejected if you aren’t like these boys,” he said of the casting at men’s shows. “I can’t recognize myself. All the boys are 18, blond and from Poland, and I don’t connect with them. I reflect my friends.”
Mattiussi was wearing drop-crotch pinstripe pants, white sneakers, a navy overcoat, a denim jacket with the collar flipped up and a snow hat. Every item was Ami, including the blue socks that cannily matched his sweater. (It was unclear if he had on Ami underwear.) He has a round bearded face and dark brown eyes that are accentuated by strong eyebrows. Well, eyebrow, singular.
“It’s my signature,” he said. “One of my friends told me, ‘You should take it off,’ and I said, ‘You won’t recognize me.’ It’s my thing.”
Mattiussi is as adamant about the universality of his work. “I don’t pretend to revolutionize fashion,” he said. “My goal is to get my clothes into reality.”
In July, he won the ANDAM award, France’s most esteemed fashion prize, which comes with 250,000 euros. The cash influx allowed Ami to stage its first runway show and move to a showroom/atelier in the Marais.
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“Ami is about the man of today,” said Nathalie Dufour, Andam’s director. “The line has artistic creativity, but there is something else. The jury was also swayed by the proposition of Alexandre being a success story and developing internationally.” Mattiussi echoed the jury’s sentiments.
“I said, ‘If you give me this prize, we are going to send a message to the young generation,’” he said. “It’s awarding someone who wants to make a company, not just be creative.”
Ami’s sales increase has been staggering. There was an 84 percent climb in sales in 2013 from the year before. The label is sold in 160 stores worldwide and 20 in the United States, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. The stand-alone Ami store in the Marais recently celebrated its first anniversary and will be joined by a Left Bank shop, tentatively scheduled for summer.
An Ami capsule collection for Mr Porter will go on sale in May. Mattiussi has also designed the fall men’s and women’s collections for Bally and is contracted for another season.
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Mattiussi’s original goal was to be a classic dancer. Growing up in a Normandy village, he took up ballet at 4. “It was a bit of a ‘Billy Elliot’ story,” he said, “the only boy in the neighborhood doing dance. My parents supported me without pressure. They always said, ‘Whatever makes you happy is fine with us.’” At 14, he stopped dancing after a tryout at Opéra de Palais Garnier, and learned that he had a fierce dislike of competition.
He moved to Paris to study fashion design, and at 24 he was hired at Dior. It was during Hedi Slimane’s reign at Dior Homme. “I never met or worked with him directly,” Mattiussi said. Instead, he was stationed at 30 Avenue Montaigne, the more staid Dior line for its customers who are uninterested in a superskinny silhouette.
In 2002, he started the first version of Ami, a T-shirt line that ended in 2004 when he joined the Givenchy men’s design team, led by the English tailor Ozwald Boateng. Mattiussi remained there for five years, and after Boateng departed, he unofficially took over. “I carried the collection in the studio, hidden,” he said.
He worked on one collection under Riccardo Tisci. “I told him, ‘I am going to leave,’” Mattiussi said. “‘Not because I don’t like what you’re doing, but I’m not connected with the fashion.’” For a year after that he worked at Marc Jacobs.
“I did a 2,000-euro sweater,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, I can never afford the sweater I made.’ I couldn’t afford the clothes I was designing.”
It was a eureka moment that led to the reintroduction of Ami in 2010. To keep the prices down, the line is made in Portugal and Romania. Shirts cost $180 to $260, pants $220 to $360. Parkas and coats go for $695 to $1,250.
In its debut season, the line was sold exclusively at Barneys in the United States. “They are handsome clothes that work in many countries,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president of the store. “It’s an easy-to-understand concept.” The next year, Caisse des Dépôts, an investment agency dedicated to French economic development, became a major backer. In 2013, Nicolas Santi-Weil, a founder of the Kooples, invested in Ami and joined the 15-member staff as general manager.
No matter how well the business fares, nothing beats the elation of the street. “I see someone wearing my clothes every day,” Mattiussi said. “Not every designer can say that. Someone told me, ‘You are a ‘normal’ designer.’ I feel that’s a compliment.”