Ten Speaks: Roland Mouret
Roland Mouret has the best name for Roland Mouret to say. Brits have difficulty wrapping their lips around the sinuous Gallic curves of that final syllable, ending with a smoochy-woochy kiss, but Monsieur Mouret has no trouble, plus he can roll that commencement “R” right across the channel, ma cherie.
That’s playing to the ’Allo ’Allo campness with which Brits tend to regard those with a Gallic accent as thick and runny as camembert. But I’m not here to talk about Roland Mouret’s Frenchness. I’m meeting him in London to talk about a dress he showed in New York that made it big via Hollywood. You see, Roland Mouret isn’t about a single country. He’s about a whole Galaxy.
Yeah, the Galaxy. After the It bag and the It shoe, we finally got the It dress. That’s what Mouret’s became, in the winter of 2005, before said dress (for the summer of 2006) even hit sales rails. It was worn by everyone, everywhere. If you couldn’t afford it, you could fake it – I bring that up with Mouret and he bristles, the Galaxy having been knocked off more time than there are stars in the sky. The wearers Mouret did like, however, were the women who bought it retail, and the celebrities who endorse its sculpted curves, such as Cameron Diaz, Scarlett Johansson, Demi Moore and Rachel Weisz.
I normally hate litanies of celebrity names like that, but here the list is so hefty it bears note, especially considering this was all within a six-month period, and all around a single style of dress. That just doesn’t happen. Victoria Beckham was so taken with it, she employed Mouret’s pattern cutter to help set up her nascent line. Mouret wasn’t all that fussed: he left his namesake business shortly after the debut of the Galaxy, launching a competing label, backed by Simon Fuller. It was dubbed with the ungainly moniker “RM by the designer Roland Mouret” to jump through the necessary legal loopholes. “In some stores, the name was longer than the rail,” cackles Mouret. Thanks to a buy-back five years ago, you – and he – can now call his dresses Roland Mouret for short.
I meet Mouret at his atelier on Mayfair’s Carlos Place. Which sort of feels French, again. It’s in the mould of the houses of Dior or Chanel, with a boutique downstairs and atelier above. Very old school. I’m hoping to God that Mouret will talk about the Galaxy dress, because plenty of fashion designers (and novelists and musicians and all kinds of other famous people) don’t want to talk about the stuff the world associates with their name. They want to show their other side, to espouse their interest in Tudor architecture, or ecofriendly fish farming, or anything bar the day job. Which is all well and good, but doesn’t make for great journalism – as, usually, Trout Fanciers Weekly wouldn’t want me to interview a fashion designer.
Mouret, however, is affable, and willing to talk. He’s also 53, looks about 42 and smoulders unselfconsciously, like a mid-century matinee idol about to tumble into a clinch with his leading lady. He’s not putting on a show, though – I’ve seen him do that in the queue for passport control at the Eurostar, too. This time, he may just be twitching. Mouret is tired. He’s just finished pulling together his 2016 resort collection and showcasing it to a clutch of press, espousing the difficulties of skewing pleats on a bias to wrap around the body.
Technical stuff appeals to Mouret. “I’m a rough person,” he growls. “I’m the son of a butcher, a grandson of farmers and vineyard men, and now I’m a fashion designer. That’s the way I am.” Mouret grew up in Lourdes, steeped in religion. The nuns at his school taught him to draw, while his boucher father pulled Mouret in the opposite, more roughshod direction. “I became interested in fashion because my dad wanted me to be a butcher and I realised from wearing the apron that clothes can trap you or free you,” says Mouret. “As much as I hated it, I thought that apron was the most fantastic thing. As a kid, I was wearing something that none of the other kids were wearing. That the apron added drama.” There are stories of a mini-Mouret plunging his pre-teen hands elbow deep into buckets of blood to create “the most fabulous gloves”, which will make the squeamish squirm. However, the notion of cut, and of folding and wrapping aprons of fabric around the body, would prove fundamental in Mouret’s later career.
Folding and wrapping the body, like a parcel of freshly cut meat, is how Mouret made his big break in fashion. He had worked as a model (briefly) and stylist (longer) in Paris, before moving to London and founding Freedom, an art space-cum-cafe in Soho perfectly timed to coincide with the resurgence of the capital as a cultural pioneer in the mid-1990s. That led Mouret to his first design gig: People Corporation, funded by Franco Penne of the Italian manufacturers Gibo, and oddly born out of the success of said cafe. I guess Penne figured that people had to have something to wear to Freedom. Or perhaps, more presciently, if people couldn’t go to Freedom, they may want to wear it. The line was big in Japan, until the recession of 1997 decimated the economy. Freedom then folded, like a proverbial apron.
In the aftermath, Mouret picked himself up and made a dress. He didn’t really know how to sew, so he twisted his early numbers from pieces of fabric and hatpins, fitting each to each individual body. More folds. The phrase thrown about was “demi-couture”, which was about the hands-on stuff, rather than the sewing skills Paris houses are so painstakingly proud of. “The technique has to come from somewhere,” recalls Mouret. “I worked really late, and at that point I started questioning my background, thinking, ‘What can I use for a technique?’ So I got a technique from my apron. I was not afraid to take a piece of fabric and to drape it, because of the lack of education… everything was so raw, so painful, and so romantic at the same time, because you didn’t know how to sew a button or put a zip. I couldn’t do a jacket or a trouser. I just thought, ‘I’m going to make a dress.’”
Results were mixed. “I didn’t know how to do a lining, so that women were able to wear wool to the skin. I didn’t want to put safety pins in because it was fresh British wool, so I just put a hatpin in – it would pop out,” Mouret laughs. You get the feeling he’s quite into women suddenly popping out of his dresses and winding up naked: even now, when he has advanced far on from hatpins, one swift swipe of those signature gold zips and you would be standing in naught but your kecks.
For all the sophistication of Mouret’s Galaxy, all tucks and darts, scooped-out and souped-up sexuality, it wasn’t a million miles away from those hatpin and cloth creations. You can see the link. “When I did the Galaxy, with the zip and the lining sewn properly, the rest of it was no more, no less than the rough version of it,” says Mouret. “I remember the first time I did the Galaxy, which was everything based on the masculine instinct I could have, and analysing the female form. The bra was the first thing. I felt like I was a straight guy looking at it, thinking, ‘Is it sexy enough?’”
You don’t need to worry, Mr Mouret. It certainly was.
Mouret, of course, isn’t straight. He’s married to the sculptor James Webster, very happily. But – and this is important – he’s well aware that he’s making his dresses for straight women, whose husbands are, usually, straight men. The Galaxy was the physical embodiment of that ethos, and of all Mouret had learned up to that point. It was folded neatly at the bust, to create perky shoulders, slightly wider to balance the hips. A square-cut decolletage revealed just enough. Most versions were cut in sober, mannish fabrics, as if to counteract the rampant femininity of the shape. And that shape was, most importantly, achieved by internal structure: a power-mesh base, like an old-fashioned waspie, held everything in place, as well as nipping the waist some more.
It was also the antithesis to what had come before. Which is why it clicked. “In popular culture during the ’90s, they had to create a market – TV and footballers and the decadence and nudity of it was very cheap,” remarks Mouret. He’s never been much into that look, but his Galaxy – for all its unabashed sexiness – wasn’t cheap, either literally or metaphorically.
It has also refused to retire quietly. The Galaxy is still a success: Mouret relaunched it to celebrate buying back his brand name in 2011, and variations on the style still populate his (and, it must be said, many other designers’) collections.
Why? Because it’s a confidence booster. It sucks in, lifts up, smooths and firms, like a sartorial Thighmaster, or a high-fashion snake oil for cellulite removal. Only, Mouret is no quack: you can try it in multiple colours and return it if it’s not quite right for you. The Galaxy gave women a comforting armour to wrap themselves in. It sorted out their clothes, and their curves, giving them one less thing to worry about.
Mouret is still proud of the achievement, understandably for the butcher’s son from le Midi. “Every section of this dress, I thought, ‘It isn’t the kind of thing a farmer would make,’” smiles Mouret. “It was something no one one had done. It’s brilliant having something that no one had done.”
Text by Alexander Fury, the fashion editor of The Independent and i
Photograph by Kim Jakobsen To
Taken from Issue 55 of 10 Magazine, What’s New Pussycat, on newsstands now…