Isabel Marant Knows You Want to Look French

Fashion

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Don’t talk to me about Emily in Paris,” Isabel Marant will warn you. No, she hasn’t seen the Netflix hit. “And I won’t. But this is a phantasm that doesn’t exist in Paris,” she says, blowing out cigarette smoke. “The French girl is much cooler than that.”

Marant would know. She’s built a one-woman empire on bringing the archetype—not the sanitized small-screen version, but the real thing—to the runway and making women all over the world want to buy into the dream. A French girl wouldn’t have a blowout, says the designer, showing me how she intentionally musses her ponytail. “They can spend a lot of time looking like they didn’t spend any time on it.” This process extends to her designs. “When something is too perfect, I need to disorganize it, otherwise it’s too polished. When I show a sexy dress, I will cover it with a men’s jacket to make it cooler and not say, ‘Look at me, I’m sexy.’ I don’t like this,” she purrs. “I want to be sexy, but with a bit more discretion, not just be sexy to be sexy.”

a man and woman smiling

The designer (left) backstage at her spring 2012 show.

Courtesy of the designer

If you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, Marant has put hers in—tousling, rearranging, making everything look just so in that way that appears artfully undone. “I feel like a high-level athlete,” she tells me of her career. “You train and train and train.” And Marant has an Olympian amount of learning-by-doing under her studded belt. Next year will mark the 30-year anniversary of her first show (though she started designing earlier than that, in 1989). Marant isn’t one for marking anniversaries (“I’m not going to celebrate anything,” she jokes when I ask her plans for the big 3-0). But she’s evolved to become “less crazy, more focused.” She completed her spring 2024 collection in July—no last-minute scrambling.

I want to be sexy, but with a bit more discretion, not just be sexy to be sexy.”

Marant was drawn to fashion because she felt like an ugly duckling. Growing up, her younger brother “was super pretty, when I was not pretty at all. Now,” she adds with a grin, “I’m much prettier than my brother. I have my revenge.” But during that time, clothes became “a way to express myself, to say, ‘I’m here, I exist. I’ve got ideas. I’m strong.’”

a person wearing sunglasses

A look from resort 2024.

Pierre-Ange Carlotti & Jonathan Llense/Launchmetrics Spotlight

We’re not talking about runway fashion, which she “totally rejected,” because she saw it as the domain of her mother and stepmother. Instead, she looked to musicians, idolizing Patti Smith’s tomboyishness and the sharp style of New Wave bands. At 15, she and her 17-year-old boyfriend, future designer Christophe Lemaire, would design clothes and sell them to stores on consignment. Marant was supposed to study economics, but the experience made her realize, “You can earn your living having fun!”

When she started out in fashion, minimalism reigned. But Marant was drawn to all things decorative: Craft, which is currently enjoying a boom, has always been her focus. “Even if we call fashion an industry, you always have a person behind the sewing machine, and it’s still, in a way, handmade,” she says. She was also early to the athleisure moment, with elevated sweats and the wedge sneaker she introduced in 2011, predating the “fashion sneaker” boom. (She brought back a version of it a decade later.) Still, Marant’s work never feels overly trend-happy. She compares it to a recipe, in which timeworn ingredients get thrown into the proverbial stew.

a black suit with a white flower on the lapel

Isabel Marant resort 2024.

Pierre-Ange Carlotti & Jonathan Llense/Launchmetrics Spotlight

Even the recent rebranding of her logo, by graphic designer Peter Miles, was “not such a huge statement. The brief was, ‘Keep it simple and evident, and not aging over time,’” Marant says. She has also been focusing on stores, recently expanding to locations in New York City and Tokyo. She likes being able to create a world that doesn’t exist in multibrand shops, so people can access “the soul of each collection.” Her window display designer is a friend who understands her allergy to “mannequins in the windows, stupidly done.” The investment is paying off: Last year, her sales exceeded a reported $320 million.

Though Marant briefly experimented with a four-day work week, which allowed her to pursue a passion for ceramics, she’s doing anything but slowing down. When I ask what she envisions doing over the next 30 years, she jokes, “Oh my God. Retiring.” Somehow, I suspect she’ll still be on top.

This story appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of ELLE.

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Headshot of Véronique Hyland

ELLE Fashion Features Director

Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler. 

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