Talking to Isabel Marant About Designing for Grown-up Women, ‘Super-Vulgar’ Wedge Sneakers, and Why She’s Glad Galliano Is Back

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Photo: Karim Sadli

Isabel Marant doesn’t love being noticed, which she is all the time. To clarify: She likes it when she’s crossing the street and a stranger says “gorgeous coat” or something like that, but she doesn’t like it when people know who she is, so it’s a relief that she seems oblivious to the lady with the blow-dry and the chemically peeled skin who keeps peering, awkwardly, over her shoulder in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel.

“I am quite discreet,” Marant says. “I am not very happy when people scream oooooooooo in the street. And they do it a lot.”

Marant, who is 47, has had tremendous fashion influence in New York over the past couple of years: Those stacked sneakers, those ankle boots, the ascendance of the marled gray sweatshirt, all trace their roots to her designs. But trips to New York are rare. This one was for an upcoming ad campaign that she’d spent the previous day shooting in a top-secret location with a top-secret photographer (later revealed to be Inez & Vinoodh). Then it is back to Paris, to her husband, the handbag designer Jérôme Dreyfuss, and their 11-year-old son, Tal. The family typically spends the weekend at their postage-stamp-size cottage (no electricity) in a forest 35 miles from Paris, eating local things, kayaking on the river, smoking, and playing with an ancient set of tarot cards, and reminding themselves that if all the success and all of the sweaters and handbags and shoes were to disappear down that river, everything would be completely fine. Better than fine, even. So being in New York on a Saturday morning is a kick: “I am very interested in human beings,” Marant says.

Marant’s shop on Broome Street — opened in 2010, it’s one of only two in the U.S., the other being in Los Angeles — is small and sparse, but the big, crowded, and brightly lit chains that line lower Broadway are stuffed with watered-down versions of her look, and, quite often, direct knockoffs. “Sometimes I get really pissed off against certain labels that I feel just live on my back,” she says, “but that’s life, and I want to have a more philosophical approach to clothes than spending time on who has copied what.”

And what philosophy is that? “Well, I am anti-consumerist,” she says, and she laughs a big smoker’s laugh. “It’s very difficult,” she says of the obvious contradiction. “I have to be at peace with myself and what I am doing. I think it’s about feeling good, bringing some self-confidence and attitude, some pleasure. Sometimes when I feel bluesy and I feel like a piece of shit, I go and I shop and I buy something, and it makes me feel happy and it makes me feel better than going to a psychoanalyst. I think there’s a kind of psychoanalytic approach: It’s making good to yourself in a simple way and it’s also about the way you present yourself to people so it brings security and self-confidence. Whenever I start a collection it’s about saying, I don’t really need anything; what will make me feel like buying something new when I don’t really need it?

Marant has been up since 4 a.m. — a combination of jet lag and habit — and is several cappuccinos in. The patrons of the Mercer trickle off the elevator bank: lots of high-tech workout­wear on the men and jeans, boots, and cashmere sweaters on the women. Marant, in white corduroy jeans, navy-blue T-shirt, gray sweatshirt, and tweed jacket, is the Ur-version of all this, the blueprint for the way a certain set of women get themselves up for moments exactly like this, brunch in the lobby of a chic hotel. She says she became a designer because she was the plain child (hard to believe) of a model mother with a long-lashed, beautiful brother. Clothes were a way of standing out.

Ironic, then, that what makes her so popular is her tendency to make clothes that blend seamlessly into wardrobes and lives, that feel from the first moment like old familiars. Everything about the way Marant looks, and what she sells, is easy: She doesn’t wear makeup and there are friendly wrinkles at the sides of her eyes. She doesn’t color her hair, or appear to be hugely bothered by styling it; almost always it’s stuck into a haphazard bun. It’s hard to imagine another designer who has resonated so much with her target customers. Love of Isabel Marant is profound in ever-widening circles, and her instinct for hits is unstoppable: There was the wedge platform sneaker, for example. “I think they have become quite far from my image,” she says, owing to their broad success and a million copycats. “They have become something super-vulgar, so I’m not feeling like I want to be the wedge-sneaker designer. It’s something I achieved and was very pleased about. In a few years, perhaps, it will calm down, and I can say I was the origin of that, and that will be nice. I mean, when I achieved them, I knew I had done something — I know most of the time when I have made a big hit, when something will be copied. There are the Dicker boots. And I was the first one to use linen jersey to do T-shirts, and I knew that was going to be something that was going to last for ages.”

If none of these feels like the reinvention of the fashion wheel, Marant would agree. She sees her role as a creator of things women not only admire but reach for again and again and again. “I feel more like a woman who talks about the mood of my time. I am a bit more like Chanel or Sonia Rykiel — not the super-creative women but women who really belong to their time and make things happen.

“Most of the designers I admire are men,” she continues, though she is quick to explain that she does not emulate them. “I think men are much more ahead of the game because they aren’t thinking about constraints. There are two basic ways of designing. As a woman, I have the more basic and intuitive approach. The men live more in a fantasy and are more able to advance fashion. Sometimes it’s quite easy to do crazy, fantastic things, but then I just say, I would never wear it.” For Marant, there is little purpose in complicated and uncomfortable clothing.

She lists both John Galliano and Martin Margiela as her design heroes, and even though she’s not a believer in the revival of old houses (“Stupid!”), she is pleased that Galliano is back. “Fashion killed him,” she says. “You have to be very strong to survive. I have a family — I think that helps a lot. You can be so lonely. You get very huge with celebrity, but it’s nothing after that. There’s a lot of fakeness, and it can leave you alone very easily. In the ’80s, fashion was a lot about sex and drugs and rock and roll, and I think now to be a designer you have to be the most healthy person — I wake up early and have a half-hour swim every morning to manage the stress. If you don’t go to bed early, with all those collections we have to provide all the time … really, it’s a race. I feel like a high-­performance athlete more than a designer.” Marant finishes her coffee and prepares to step out into the autumn light. Her coat is boxy, and wrapped around her like a blanket. She is almost certain to be stopped.

*This article appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.