Christian Lacroix: Life after fashion
In 1987, Christian Lacroix launched his epynomous fashion house to ecstatic reviews: "Vive Lacroix! There's been nothing like it in 25 years," sang The Sunday Times, while Vogue labelled him "Paris' most talked about designer".
However, almost three decades later, the designer filed for bankruptcy, and though the brand received several bidders offering to invest in the fashion house, none were confirmed.
SKIP Dinner sat down with the designer, now 80, to find out if he believes in life after fashion.
What is your first memory of fashion?
Perhaps my mother’s fittings at the dressmakers back in the early 50’s when women still wore all these petticoats and traditional fashions.
Or the fashion photos I saw in her magazines with sophisticated creatures, so far from my everyday life. I was a happy but slightly melancholy child, alone in a wonderfully romantic city with a loving family. My grandparents were witty and spirited but I always wanted to escape, to reach a wonderland through the mirror as they do in books, movies and theatre.
I always dreamt of one day making sets and costumes for cinema or opera. I was not thinking about fashion except as a history of costumes, which has always been my true passion. It’s like a sickness because I am constantly purchasing paintings and photos from the past that tell how people lived and dressed back then.
Why do you think your designs so successfully managed to capture the zeitgeist of the 80's and 90's?
When I stopped my History of Art studies at the Louvre Museum school and Sorbonne university, I tried to become a stage designer. I didn’t succeed and my friends advised that I go into fashion. They introduced me to Mr Picart who later became my associate at the couture house.
I didn't feel it was happening to me but to kind of a twin, I was spectator of my life, acting as a couturier and providing all the extravaganzas and styles I thought the period deserved. I guess I was trying to bring back the golden era of Couture – the 30’s - 60’s.
When you are young you understand the zeitgeist deep of your period. The 80's were loud, with new money. They were a daring super production, an endless masked ball - exactly the same spirit and inspiration I had in my stage dreams.
How do you find working on costumes for opera and theatre differs from making fashion collections?
My childhood dreams came true! How could I be happier? I'm lucky enough to be working with famous opera houses all around the world and they all have workrooms as silly as Couture houses’.
We use the same fabrics, with even more of a magic touch. We can take our designs as far as we like as long as they epitomise the characters and the director is happy.
In Couture, when a client ordered a dress, I designed for them like they were Traviata, Sleeping Beauty, Butterfly or Tosca, because these women had a special way of life, not the average kind of living. They had both taste and money, and were paying for gowns to be worn in a private world without photographs.
Today, money is more in the hands of those without such culture and taste, and new icons are paid for wearing outfits they borrow for red carpets and social media.
So, I much prefer to dress special tempers, unusual talents, genius singers, wonderful dancers or brilliant actors than all these fake values which are all looking the same with the same surgery.
How did working with high-profile clients differ to working with women that weren’t in the spotlight?
I worked with each celebrity in a different way. I knew Madonna through my friend Mario Testino, who brought her to a post-show party I gave. She ordered through her choreographer and assistants according to the stage performance. When she ordered for herself, she never had a fitting because she was model size.
For Catherine Zeta-Jones, I attended all her fittings at the Carlisle Hotel in New York. I would construct the dress with her and if it was a premiere her mother was usually with her. I remember Catherine once burst into tears after I put a veil on her. It was very moving.
I met Lady Diana Princess of Wales in 1989 when supporting her Save the Children charity with a special couture show in the Serpentine gallery. We had great chemistry and she always needed dresses from the boutique for official dinners and private lunches. When we fitted her for couture, the team came to her house in Kensington and she was always so sweet and thoughtful, gifting the seamstresses signed photos framed in silver.
How has the notion of luxury changed since the 80s?
‘Rare’ was the big word back then. The 80’s were still partly connected with former decades and some Cafe high society women were still around, ordering in Paris, New York and Los Angeles.
Women like Mellon, Kempner, Wyatt and Rothschild had such a refined taste for home decorating and wardrobe. They had no surgery and wrinkles were seen as elegant. They knew how to behave but were also daring and spirited with witty attitudes. Money was normal, not a competition, and their art collections rivalled that of most famous museums.
They were close to artists, painters, writers and queens alike and entertained them without press coverage. Everybody knew how to have fun in private back then. Now it's just a fight between moguls, where quantity rules over quality. Everyone’s obsessed with sport and rap which is fine I guess.
What can the fashion industry do to support its designers more when they are being pushed too hard to create too many collections a year?
Nothing but changing all the fashion rhythms, which is happening. More and more houses show both men and women, couture when they have some.
Teams are larger and it’s becoming less and less about having a one and only God designer in houses. The Internet and e-commerce has obviously radically changed many codes and traditions.
Do you see your influence in the collections of young designers today?
Of course, through their passion for the decade in which they were born! I met Jacquemus’ Simon Porte when he was sixteen in the South of France. He cited me in his press kit as an inspiration.
I know Alessandro Michele too, who collects jewels from the 80’s. But above all, Alexander Fury did a feature in Another last year about my influence on the season collections which was great.
What advice would you give to young designers?
To keep going towards their core without listening to critics - only their true self. You must always trust your intuitions and follow your passions, not copying that which is already pleasing, but innovating something people don’t yet know they will love.
What's next for Christian Lacroix?
I just finished working with the Opera Comique on a theatre piece from Copi which is coming to Paris in November. I'm now doing almost two hundred costumes for Brecht’s Galielo life at the Comedie Française in June.
I’m also working on a hotel, another opera – Marriage of Figaro directed by James Grey, ceramics and lithographs…
Finally, do you have any regrets?
Perhaps having been too slow and lazy as a teenager, not radical and tough enough. It was difficult to leave Provence Camargue and the south beaches because of the sensual way of life there.
The parties we used to have back in the 60s were tremendously crazy and free, kind of a sunny lost paradise. Moving to gloomy Paris and struggling for life was difficult but each of us has our special speed and momentum.
And no regrets at all with my career in couture and fashion.
"I designed for clients like they were Traviata, Sleeping Beauty, Butterfly or Tosca"
"I didn't feel it was happening to me but to a kind of twin, I was a spectator of my life acting as a couturier"
"I always wanted to escape, to reach a wonderland through the mirror as they do in books, movies and theatre"
"Lady Diana was always so sweet and thoughtful, gifting the seamstresses signed photos framed in silver"
"They were close to artists, painters, writers and queens alike and entertained them without press coverage."
"You must always trust your intuitions and follow your passions"
"I have no regrets at all with my career in couture and fashion"