Beyond the Galaxy
c.2014 New York Times News Service
On Nov. 11, as the Whitney Museum was preparing for its final wingding on Madison Avenue in New York, the first Roland Mouret boutique in America opened for business directly across the street. It was what they call a “soft” opening — so soft, it was difficult to hear. There was no party with flutes of Champagne sloshing perilously near the clothes, sparse media coverage and, during a visit a few days later, only one customer.
“I come to New York every week from Texas,” the customer said to the saleswomen forming a little companionable knot round the cash register. “I said, ‘When is Roland Mouret going to open?'”
A decade ago, Mouret was the fashion industry’s newest darling: a Frenchman who lived in London but showed in New York, with a back story out of a Zola novel.
His mother had been a maid at a hotel in Lourdes, his father a butcher’s apprentice, and watching the latter fold his apron to cover bloodstains had inspired Roland Mouret’s signature origami-like technique.
He had only three months of formal training, but with the Galaxy, a boatnecked, pencil-skirted dress from the spring 2006 collection that managed to be both retro and futuristic, Mouret hit the big time. There was a gauzy spread in Vogue and a celebrity stampede.
“I strapped myself into that thing and it was glorious,” said Laura Brown, the executive editor of special projects at Harper’s Bazaar who was then at W, praising Mouret’s innovative use of a “power mesh” lining that contoured the figure like Spanx. “Women would just walk around and stalk around in those dresses.”
Of the Galaxy’s explosion, Mouret, now 53, said: “I’m really proud of it — it shaped my career. But it’s a tainted love.”
As Diane von Furstenberg can attest (“it will probably be on my tombstone: ‘Here Lies the Woman Who Designed the Wrap Dress,'” she wrote in her first memoir, “A Signature Life”), a runaway success, a mixed blessing in any creative field, poses specific challenges when it emanates from a runway. It will be endlessly knocked off by down-market competitors. It will be an inventory puzzle: when to do a cheaper version oneself; when to offer a variation, as Mouret did with his slightly more modest Moon dress; when to retire the pattern, when to revive. Then there is the nagging existential question of Will It Define Me?, as a long-running sitcom might an actor.
“Or a singer with a No. 1,” said Mouret, who is tall and dark with a brow that seems brooding even though he is usually jovial.
He was hunched over a table in his white, light-filled atelier above his other store, on Carlos Place in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. It was Sept. 15, 10 days before he would show his spring/summer 2015 line in Paris. “You read about Coco Chanel or Givenchy or Saint Laurent and you want to enter the bible of fashion,” he went on. “That dress was my two lines in the bible.”
The question now is whether he can extend those lines into chapter and verse. Brown, at least, is a staunch believer. “What Roland has is an aesthetic,” she said. “If I want to feel like a strong, sexy bird, I will put on some Roley.”
But fashion is less a bird than a voracious beast, demanding far more collections per year — “prefall,” anyone? — than Mouret (who employs roughly 80 people and commutes from a house in Suffolk that he shares with his husband, James Webster, a sculptor) would prefer to produce.
Behind the designer were racks of the clothes he’d be trotting out at the Palais des Beaux-Arts: variations on his typical themes of asymmetry and bold color-blocking, with long golden zippers that promise to lay the wearer suddenly bare like an open suitcase, plus some less characteristic fringe and floral appliqué. Before him was a cobalt-blue leather pocketbook, optimistically named the Classico, which is retailing for $1,060.
In 2011, soon after regaining the rights to his name, which he lost for five years after differences with former financial backers, Mouret was appointed the creative director of Robert Clergerie, the French shoe brand known for its big clomping soles. In 2012, he began to make sunglasses, several tiers of which were on display at the Madison Avenue store, and a year later, bags. With this model, though, Mouret was proclaiming his definitive entry into the crowded and arguably saturated field of the status purse.
“It’s a starting point,” he said, managing expectations. “It’s going to take minimum three years, if not five years, to establish in the mind of the customer.”
The purse was small and boxy, like an elegant takeout container. There was no way it was going to possibly hold the typical detritus of a New York woman, the gym sneakers and sheaf of papers and hairbrush and half-gnawed energy bar.
“It’s too early for me to make a practical bag, but I need to make a bag that when you start to use it, it makes you stand out — ‘Oh! Oh!'” he said, miming an appreciative passerby. “Not ‘What is this bag,’ but ‘What is she doing?’ I think in a funny way it comes from the silver screen, the concept of lighting the cigarette of a woman — to capture the attention, bring the light on the woman.” He paused. “Unfortunately, cigarettes are bad for your health.”
The screen may no longer be silver, but its various stars have generally beamed down on Mouret, now business partners with Simon Fuller, the creator of “American Idol” (the designer, who said he has “no muses,” has dismissed rumors that he ghosted the collections of Victoria Beckham, another of Fuller’s associates).
“Roland is spicy and sweet, he’s young and old, he’s sharp angles and hourglass curves all in one,” said actress Scarlett Johansson in an email sent like naval cipher through several publicists. She praised in particular the apricot-colored gown she chose for the 2005 Golden Globes: “one of my favorite dresses I’ve ever worn.”
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Micaela Erlanger, a stylist who trained with Annabel Tollman and is plotting her rotation for the forthcoming red-carpet season, is another loyal devotee. “They’re all excited when we see Roland on the racks,” she said of her clients, who include Lupita Nyong’o (bright blue, V-necked Mouret for the New York premiere of “12 Years a Slave” last year), Hilary Swank (brown-and-black striped Mouret for Conan O’Brien’s show last week) and Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey” (Mouret peach crop top with graphic fluttering skirt for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts tea in late summer).
“It’s funny, because his clothes don’t always look amazing on the hanger,” Erlanger said, “but there’s something about the way they drape, the structure, the color. And that power mesh! It holds you in place, and your body looks sick.”
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Endorsement from actresses and their entourages, however, is not enough to pay the bills. And so it came to pass that last August Mouret introduced a line of clothes made with a special stretchy fabric, called the “Sloan” for Banana Republic, the safari-wear specialists turned midprice chain that has been lately attempting a brand makeover (he had previously done a smaller collection for its parent company, the Gap).
The course of a European designer known for his body-hugging cuts and the empire of American vanity sizing did not run entirely smooth.
“We had some intellectual traumas,” said Mouret, who called his round of promotional appearances “the Banana rumba.”
But Melloney Birkett, the vice president for women’s design at Banana Republic, deemed the experiment a success, with just a few items, mostly in petite sizes, remaindered as of last week. “Roland isn’t a sketcher,” she said on the phone. “We used our fit model, and he draped and pulled and pushed and sliced and diced and molded the shapes and the styles. In his hands, that fabric had a new lease on life.”
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With his new lease on Madison, meanwhile, Mouret said he hopes to bring back an old-time standard of personal attention not possible at the mall. He reminisced amusedly about his previous adventures in American customer service: the Bergdorf Goodman shopper who demanded long sleeves for a bar mitzvah; the Neiman Marcus habitué who wanted him to provide a dress that could accommodate her imminent breast augmentation.
These are the women Mouret said he is striving to please, not an insider crowd in search of constant novelty. “I could see in 10 years to have robots at the front row of every show,” he said. “Their faces a camera, for you to stay at home. I think that’s what it’s going to be. Your avatar.” The young whippersnappers, he said, are too focused on digital prints, kowtowing to the small pictures of social media. “I am more about cut and fabric, more about the concept of tantalizing.”
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And if the avant-garde is no longer tantalized? Mouret gave a very Gallic shrug.
“Clothes fit me completely,” he said. “The fashion world doesn’t fit me all the time.”