That's a Mouret
Interview by Pippa Brooks
Portrait by Etienne Gascoine-Leopold
Could a dress become more famous than its designer? Roland Mouret certainly thinks so. His Galaxy dress caused fashion hysteria; quite a feat in today's blasé, seen-it-all culture. It's a dress that is about empowerment as opposed to Power Dressing, an important distinction. That the dress celebrates the female shape, in fact gives a woman shape even if she's a straight up and down size 8, is something to be celebrated. Mouret's arrival at that career-defining garment and beyond to the House of Mouret, has been wilfully un-typical in fashion terms. I joined him on the top floor of his beauteous Mayfair fashion house to talk about the Galaxy, living the dream and his exciting new move into shoe design.
"You look like a secretary from a 70's porn movie!" - Mouret cries as he takes in my outfit. He is a wonderful flirt and I'm thrilled with the comparison - I hadn't been channelling Boogie Nights intentionally but I'll take that one, thank you!
Porn, or indeed the porn shops and striptease bars of London's Soho, are actually a good place to start our story. In the 90s, Soho was still a neon-lit world of clip joints and drinking dens amongst the Italian cafés, delicatessens and film production companies. There were a few independent fashion boutiques like mine on Brewer Street and one of our neighbours was the fabulous Freedom bar. It was a bar, yes, but Mouret, one of the creative directors, used the white walls as a constantly changing canvas, making photocopied art, collaged from his own photographs, blown up to enormous scale, and surreal collages after Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté of fantasy creatures with mismatched multi-animal body parts. The basement was an ever changing studio space; whether Mouret was directing pop videos or photo shoots down there or presenting cutting edge cabaret from Leigh Bowery's Minty to New York legend Joey Arias, it was always a hub of creative energy.
"Freedom was against the grain. With the photocopies it was all about the dots! I fucked up all the photocopiers in London! They were the printers architects used, the machine was used for printing lines, not lots of BLACK! The machine would be going dah dah dah,brrrrrr... we broke so many! Every month we had to find a new shop with a machine where they didn't know us!"
Mouret was also part of People Corporation at that time, a design collective making street wear. Their boyish poster girl Chloe Sevigny closed their show and there were a lot of dresses amongst the shiny, lycra separates. I can remember wearing a green lycra fish-scale print People Corporation dress with black fetish boots from The Little Shoe Box on Holloway Road. The shape was body-con but also the fabric seemed to be cut on the bias, with elastic strips that looked like your bra-strap had come down. I killed that dress; wore it out.
Mouret was drawn to London, having spent time in Paris after moving there from his home town, Lourdes, in his teens. While our British designers Galliano, McQueen and McCartney were rushing off to show in Paris, there was something about the London scene which excited Mouret. "I think you have to live somewhere to define yourself, to see if you can grow without roots. Those designers were leaving because they couldn't find what they wanted here." If the perceived wisdom is that you can't 'make it' as a success, fashion-wise in London, Mouret set about disproving the theory. "Hussein Chalayan and Sophia Kokosalaki and I were foreigners who came to London and added something different to the culture."
Mouret presented his first solo show at the Ragged School in Bermondsey in 1998. A heady, incense-imbued, bohemian presentation where supermodels drifted languidly through the space in gowns which Mouret had draped onto their bodies. It was a very sexy show which stimulated the senses, and was another step along the learning curve leading to the perfection of the Galaxy. "For the last season of People Corporation, just after Gianni Versace died, I wanted to do a collection about young people. Bright colours and dangerous. I did a sarong skirt by folding the fabric and it gave me such pleasure, the fact that it was three dimensional. So the first thing I did after stopping People Corporation was to start to drape on the dummy." It's important to note that at this time he couldn't even sew a zip on and all his dresses were held together by safety pins! Also, timing. Mouret was making his solo debut at the mature age of 36. "If you decide at 36 to do what you have to do, you don't lose time. Because otherwise you'll get to 40 and if you didn't do it you'll be a bitter bastard that just says bad things about other people because you never did what you were supposed to do."
What he lacked in technical ability Mouret more than made up for in creative desire. And desire itself is a big part of why Mouret was driven to make clothes: "I like clothes that look like part of you or a piece of fabric that you had sex on or was deformed by the shape of your body. The starting point of my career was always the way, after sex, through the eyes of the person who loves you, the way you define yourself by draping fabric around you. There's so much sensuality in that moment and I try to create that moment when I create a dress."
Another important milestone for Mouret was meeting real women - women with a womanly shape - who wanted him to dress them. "For years I would create dresses for a size 8 model who was going to walk for 2 seconds on the catwalk in that dress." The muse here came in the show-stopping forms of Dita Von Teese and Scarlett Johansson, the meeting of whom Mouret describes as 'like an explosion'. "Both of them, I realised the clothes just didn't fit! They had boobs! That's when I had to revisit my work completely and I realised this wasn't just about the boyish body of the fashion business. These were women, they are amazing and they came into my life and I was so excited. I went back to the first dress of the first collection. It wasn't lined, it must've been itchy as hell. No zip because I didn't know how to do it, the ass hanging out, sewn by hand…"
And of course with boobs come bras! "Yes! Suddenly I realised a woman wears a bra! So why not create a dress around that fact and make a neckline based on that. There is a chain of things that bring you back to like when you were 9 and you saw things and it started to click. Now at my age I realise wherethe influences come from, like Mrs Robinson in The Graduate in her bra and skirt, these kinds of women on the silver screen working the dress and the bra together, it's really sexual…even the drag queens from Freedom came into it! Men don't have a waist so they have to put a belt. So I cinched in the waist of the dress by one inch. When we put the waist restrainers on the models and they stood there in their knickers and restrainers and nothing else they looked so sexy, with the Louboutin shoes…that was the beginning of a ride to sensuality. The girls all took the waist restrainers home to wear for their boyfriends! Then I put the power mesh so you couldn't see any bumps. Then you look back at the shapes of the 60s and redefine it and then a sexy dress but in a masculine fabric. And I came eventually to the Galaxy dress. And the journey to that dress started the day I was born in a way…"
So often in fashion we make comparisons with designers or we can see 'inspirations' all too clearly repeating themselves in their work. Mouret has combined the tradition of the fashion house with an output of clothing that is thoroughly modern and also doesn't look like anyone else's work but his own. How does the designer resist the temptation to copy or emulate? "My masters are Yohji, Alaia, Demeulemeester. I really had to avoid approaching them style-wise. Every time I did something that looked like them I threw away the dress. At 36 you have that honesty with yourself, you know when you copy or when it's yourself. It's about the strength and the weakness, it's so personal. Even yesterday I started a skirt, I drew it and I realised I have to throw it away because it wasn't me – I don't want to unbalance myself or lose control of who I am." Mouret has also recently reflected that his fashion identity started long before he started draping fabric. "My dad passed away and when we buried him it was in the church of my childhood and I had forgotten that on the walls there were all these 70s flat sculptures and the drapes are 3D but really flat and I started to look around and recognise that in my dresses. I put so much of my identity in my clothing that it can't be anyone else, it has to be me. I could never be Yohji or Miuccia Prada, I love what she does but it has to be about her own sexuality or her research into fantasy or sadomasochism or whatever. It's hers, not me. The sad thing is when you see a designer and there is nothing. There is nothing about them in it. When it's a rip off or they copy other people. That's the line I draw between people I respect and people I don't."
It does feel, looking at your position now, as if you're living the dream, does it feel that way to you?
"I think you go into fashion because you have dreams. One of my dreams was to have a fashion house. I love the idea of a big Georgian or Victorian house where you could create. Finding this place made me kick in my heart. Even all the stairs, the carpet. The 'Upstairs Downstairs' attitude, I found it so exciting." And there isn't a show-case window display, which also makes it unique. "I love the fact we don't have a window. It works in its own way. Some people even thought it was a motel! You can relax, have a cup of tea or champagne with your girlfriends, you stay for two or three hours. It's really private. I think it's a good balance, it's not about the tourist staring at the window display. There isn't like a queue of Chinese people to buy the last bag!" The fashion house makes you think of the great Paris houses of Dior and Saint Laurent. "There is a picture I love of Saint Laurent before his first show. It's 12 'o' clock or something, I think, and you can see him through one window working at the table and on the other side is his assistant: she's sewing something. That picture makes you want to have a house! Or the picture of Givenchy walking through the streets of Paris with Audrey Hepburn, that made me want to meet someone in my life. Then I met Scarlett Johansson. It was amazing, like, BANG! We were both like 'Who are you?!' I wanted to protect her and it was weird, she wanted to protect me too. If you try to manipulate this situation to happen it won't. Yes, I live the dream but at the same time you become an anal bastard and a control freak! I am such a control freak! Everything has to be in place! I hate if people drop coffee on the staircase…or if they come in wearing an espadrille or something, at least wear a nice pair of pumps! When the dream becomes reality, it's quite a hard situation to keep the dream alive."
There's something very exciting about this being the HQ or centre of creativity and communication. It's very familial. And a very different feel to the 'flagship', static shops that many designers have… "There is all the time this attitude that as soon as you open a shop it starts to die. If there's no customers it's depressing. I wanted to have ashop where, by the people working around me, life was in the place. It's not a shop it's a house. You have to feed the house and the house feeds you."
Do you feel part of a scene? "I don't like to have a blueprint of a situation. The moment you have a blueprint then you're competing with someone. I'm not someone with a big group like LVMH or Gucci behind me. I had to create my own thing. I never went to fashion school, was never trendy at school. Never had the support of the press. I became successful because women bought my dresses, and everything in my journey is related to my customer. That's what I like about Saint Laurent or Alaia or Yohji, they're really close to their customer. You learn that if you're the new best thing then there will become a time when you're not any more and then you have to make way for someone younger, I think that's quite disturbing and that's why I try to avoid that situation."
Women all over the world will have gasped (with pleasure!) at the news that Mouret recently took over as creative director of Robert Clergerie. "I love it. The making of a shoe is a tough job. I thought clothes were complicated but shoes are more so! I want to become a master of the shoes like I did with the draping but I need to take the time to really get the craft. I have no problem saying that I'm learning. In the 80s Robert Clergerie was the brand you wore with contemporary clothing and I want to bring that back."
It will be interesting to see Mouret work his magic on the feet, and how does he come at footwear from a clothing designer's point of view? "There's a big problem where I think there's a lot of shoe designers who are frustrated that they're not making clothing so the shoes become like - wah! - like you're wearing the boxes or something!"
As well as designing the main shoe collection, Clergerie also produce Mouret's show shoes. A select six styles, all with a subtle 'R' shape incorporated into the design. We're showing a selection on the following pages and they're beautiful - extremely sexy, also tough but - actually(!) - comfortable. A perfect complement to his clothing.
It is a fearless spirit and a very inspiring inability to say 'no' to a challenge that have brought Mouret to this point in his career. "I don't know how to say no! If I can't do something I employ people around me to help me do it. I think I'm a good driver. I take people somewhere with me. I will keep on and on trying until I get something right. Not everything is possible. I know how to make a decision, good or bad. I knew I wanted to define something and it took me years to do it. I've never been employed in my life, I have always really been a freelance person. All the other jobs I did in order to become a fashion designer. I was lucky to be independent, to be a video director and then fashion designer. I think you become a master when you can become a good slave. I think I'm a good slave!"
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE:
Do you think in French or English?
English. With less words you can express something.
What is the ultimate fashion crime?
When people leave the price sticker on the bottom of their shoe! Every time I see it I think I can understand the serial killer! I can understand the moment of madness that would make someone snap!
How many times a day do you look in the mirror?
All the time! (Laughs and points to one wall of his office which is a huge mirror and his desk faces it!)
Dinner or a club?
Dinner. Definitely! And not at 10 o'clock, at 7.30!
Do you have any pets?
A Jack Russell, Dave. Dave the dog.
Do you work out?
Should we suffer for fashion?
Have you ever fallen in love at first sight?
Hairy or smooth?
Should we 'dress our age'?
Cocktail or beer?
When/where are/were you happiest?
At home in the country.
Most important lesson your parents taught you?
The realisation that I am them.
Do you have a reference that you constantly return to?
My Dad. Since he passed away, everything...how I cut, how I drape. When you lose the person you realise the gift.
What would you NEVER wear?
Do you believe in God?
Do you drive?
No, my husband does.
What would be your perfect holiday?
Do you vote?
What's your favourite TV show?
I'm a big fan of Game Of Thrones. I love it.
Is copying theft, or the sincerest form of flattery?
Do you fear the apocalypse?
Yes. Oh, yes.