Credit Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times------------
PARIS — Christophe Lemaire, the whispery, whiskery designer of Lemaire, is an odd avatar of steel-spined grit. He’s a philosophe of fashion, given to long pauses for thought as he chews over how and why he makes the clothes he makes. He dresses plainly, in Japanese-denim work shirts tucked into Japanese-denim jeans. He doesn’t broadcast bravery.
Yet last fall he stepped away from a marquee job as women’s wear designer of the global powerhouse Hermès to concentrate on his own, much smaller brand, Lemaire, which held its fall show on Wednesday, full of pale-rider tweed capes and high boots, off-the-shoulder tops and flaring skirts.
“There was a little bit of anxiety,” Mr. Lemaire said of the decision in his measured way, as he sat in the back office of his studio on the Rue du Temple in Paris, the day before his fall 2015 women’s show. “Definitely, it was a difficult decision to make, because I loved working there. But it was also a way to challenge us, to say O.K., this is happening with Lemaire. It’s been a few seasons that it’s growing and growing, the sales are growing. We get more and more attention. It’s happening now.”
Outside, models clustered in a hallway and waited their turn to be presented to the show’s stylist, Camille Bidault-Waddington, while employees churned around them. But inside the office, seated by a framed photo of David Bowie at his most aristocratic, Mr. Lemaire betrayed no anxiety, only calm.
“It was a recognition when Hermès came to ask me to design for them,” he said. “It was, of course, a recognition from the system. It’s true that all of a sudden people started to look at the brand a little bit more carefully. The shows started to be more crowded. Some people started to like it. That’s all natural. And personally it gave me confidence and I think by association, to Sarah-Linh too.”
Sarah-Linh is Sarah-Linh Tran, Mr. Lemaire’s companion in life and work, and until recently, the silent and mostly hidden partner behind Lemaire. She is now its co-creative director. They have been together for eight years, Mr. Lemaire said, and Ms. Tran has been working on the label for five. In January, Mr. Lemaire changed the name of the label from Christophe Lemaire to Lemaire to acknowledge her contributions, and those of his small studio. “We wanted it to become a family name,” he said.
Lemaire’s aesthetic reflects the designer’s own unforced elegance. Earlier collections included more references to esoteric regional wardrobes and workwear, but recent ones have loosened up and become, as Mr. Lemaire described his last men’s wear collection, more personal. “We’re all conditioned to create fantasies,” he said. But “we’re interested in the quality of everyday life. That’s where culture really is.”
Even without Hermès, whose new artistic director, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, shows her first collection on Monday, Mr. Lemaire still compels attention. The show on Wednesday drew an appreciative crowd. The day before, he announced — with no undue fanfare, just a mass-emailed press release and very little comment from either company — that he would collaborate with the Japanese retailer Uniqlo on a collection for men and women, to debut in the fall.
Uniqlo is, on the face of it, a full swing of the pendulum away from Hermès, whose luxury is out of reach to all but the most wealthy consumers. By contrast, Uniqlo is the home of affordable basics, a rainbow of under-$100 cashmere sweaters stacked high in its megastores. “Good design is good design,” Mr. Lemaire said. “There is something we like about Uniqlo in the generic dimension.”
Generic is not a selling point for every designer. “We’re not trying hard to be distinctive. I don’t think we are. …” He paused, then said: “Don’t try to be subversive. We believe in things, we agree with things in the fashion system and we don’t agree with some things, we just follow our own path.”
But subversion takes many forms. It can be a nearly monastic dedication to careful, nearly obsessional design. (Mr. Lemaire called the racing speed of contemporary fashion “the disease of our time.”) It can be the smaller, independent path less taken.
Or it can be, lest all this philosophizing sound chilly, more traditionally subversive, like the molded-leather bags, designed with the Chilean sculptor Carlos Penafiel, in the gracefully if protuberantly rounded shape of a woman’s décolletage, nipples included. There is, perhaps, more to the Lemaire woman than has yet met the eye. “Maybe there’s a misunderstanding about who we are,” Mr. Lemaire said. “Maybe we are also responsible for that. The Lemaire is not only an intellectual, wise Puritan — she could be naked under her coat.”
When someone is holding a bag like that all day long, Ms. Tran added, “it’s quite intriguing.”