The haute couture shows start on Monday, and in addition to the schedule’s usual suspects—Lagerfeld, Gaultier, Galliano, et al.—newcomer Maxime Simoëns is throwing his (presumably) hand-beaded hat into the ring. At 26, Simoëns is the first designer to join the official Couture calendar without ever having staged a runway show—unless you count his prize-winning 2009 debut at the annual Festival International de Mode et de Photographie in Hyères, France. Kris Van Assche was on the festival’s fashion jury that year, as were Jefferson Hack and Zoe Cassavetes. Obviously the kid keeps good company. Further proof? He’s currently operating out of Christian Lacroix’s old atelier.
On the eve of his Couture debut, Style.com talked to Simoëns about abandoning his first love for fashion, landing the Gossip girls, and his plans for re-shaping couture.
Your first interest was film. Why did you abandon it for fashion?
Starting from the age of five or six I was totally taken by James Dean, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe. Then I got to film school and found it too technical and scientific—all physics, math, chemistry. I wanted to express myself more concretely; I was thinking less about science and more about the narration of a heroine. Then came Madonna’s “Drowned” World Tour and I took one look at the costumes and silhouettes—and of course the corsets—by Jean Paul Gaultier, and I knew. I went home and started to draw. It totally threw my parents off because after ten years of talking about film I turned around and told them it was going to be fashion.
What happened once you arrived in Paris?
I attended the Chambre Syndicale, and I figured that since Gaultier was my inspiration my first internship should be there. It’s very complicated to get an internship there, so I knocked on all the doors I could, and then I hand-embroidered a letter on a corset that I made out of python and painted. It took my whole summer vacation—the corset, the packaging, everything. Mr. Gaultier never saw it, but his assistants did. It made the rounds in-house and that’s how I got my internship in the accessories department.
You also interned at Christian Dior and Balenciaga. What were the takeaways there?
I was an assistant stylist in the embroidery atelier at Dior. So much happens at the last minute that it was a lesson in working on a tight deadline. As an assistant stylist at Balenciaga I worked on inspirations and embroidery, especially prints. Once, two weeks before the show, we changed everything. It was sort of a liturgical theme, and then it was flowers. Working with Nicolas [Ghesquière] is great because he pushes everything to the limit.
How did the annual fashion and photography festival at Hyères become your launching pad?
Hyères is usually about a concept, but some journalists told me that my mini-collection of seven pieces had commercial potential. We presented at Hyères and found ourselves with orders for 600 pieces, which was enormous. I couldn’t work out of my apartment anymore; we had to really set up a house. Then, unexpectedly, the numbers doubled with the second collection. At the same time, Gossip Girl stylist Eric Daman was scouting for the Paris shoot and he liked the collection. It gave us great exposure, and we [Gossip Girl stars Blake Lively and Leighton Meester] hit it off.
Is that how the couture connection came about?
Didier Grumbach [president of the Fédération Française de la Couture] had encouraged me to participate in Couture week, but I wasn’t sure at first because couture seemed to me a bit old-fashioned. In the end I decided to do it because it wasn’t about aligning with an old image, it was about a new vision of couture. The timing is perfect because ready-to-wear arrives in stores a week later.
What is your take on couture?
For me it’s not about made-to-measure. It’s more about normalized sizing with French creativity and quality. There’s a whole French generation emerging that’s interested in preserving that tradition. Since we took over Lacroix’s old atelier, we have artisanal know-how to back us up and the capacity to deliver quickly. Those two factors make [creating couture] feasible. The idea with our atelier is to support the young coalition and help consolidate the new generation of French couture.
Who are this season’s heroines?
There’s a Sofia Coppola inspiration for both parts of the collection. The first, which I call “Cherry Blossom Girl,” is dedicated to sacrificial heroines like the teenage ones in Virgin Suicides, but with glamour, geometry, and elegance. The second part is called “This, Madame, Is Paris,” which is inspired by Marie Antoinette. For my first Couture show I wanted a theme that was very French, so I chose the absolute icon.
How do you render an icon of excess in neo-minimalist times?
Instead of panniers and frills I worked a lot on fabric, in mille-feuilles and prints. One print is black marble; another is lace transformed into jacquard that is slightly industrial; and another is a pixelated version of a painting the Queen commissioned for the Petit Trianon. Then you get to a heavier jacquard that I created from droplets of blood Photoshopped and reworked in color, thread by thread. But even if her end was somber, we focused on the lighter, iconic side of things—handmade flowers in leather, white gowns embroidered with stones. And there’s a chain theme to invoke the idea of being chained to one’s destiny.
Has Sofia Coppola seen the collection?
No, but she’s invited!
Photo: Courtesy of Maxime Simoëns