It’s mid-May. Simon Porte Jacquemus beams at us on the quayside in Marseille harbour. He is barefoot, and has just asked an old busker if he can join us on a short boat trip, to play some traditional Provençal songs. This is the way Simon likes it. Unpretentious, easygoing and relaxed. Mediterranean and jovial.
He is the guest of honour for the OpenMyMed event, and is participating with two smaller exhibits at Marseille’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM). Simon says the main thing he wants is for all of us journalists and influencers who have come on the trip to fall in love with Marseille.
He’s also showing his S/S 2017 collection, Les Santons de Provence, and at MUCEM, the models, wearing wide straw hats, and blouses with puffy sleeves and strong shoulders, walk slowly over a long footbridge, the Mediterranean sun setting over the mountains and the sea behind them. The romantic soundtrack from the 1986 film Jean de Florette plays. “This collection had to be shown there,” Simon says to me when I meet him a few weeks later at his three-storey office on the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.
Jacquemus was perhaps the first to emerge among the group of small, independent French brands like Vetements, Y/Project and Koché. Launched in 2009, after Simon’s mother died in a car accident (Jacquemus is her maiden name), the first collection was funded by Simon’s salary in a sales assistant job at the Comme des Garçons store on Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons, tells me in Marseille that he had actually given the job to someone else, but Simon convinced him to hire him, too – and turned out to be a much better salesperson.
Simon was only 19, new in Paris, and self-taught, yet his brand steadily grew on a shoestring budget, propelled forward by his energy and charm, without any backing or industry contacts. While he did find fans, Simon can also recall people calling what he was doing “a joke” and “fancy dress”. In 2015 he won a Special Jury Prize from LVMH and, now, in 2017, it’s safe to say he has proven his detractors wrong. Jacquemus not only gets great reviews but, despite its avant-garde leanings, it also sells well. And the party boy of the early days has metamorphosed into a serious businessman and designer, spending time in Paris or New York, but escaping to the South whenever he can.
A Jacquemus show is always both a collection and a story. For S/S 2016, a giant red ball of yarn, a child and a white horse appeared on the catwalk. In his A/W 2016 collection, a robe looked as if it had blown onto the catwalk and got caught on a model wearing a suit. Simon has said that he sells poetry, rather than clothes (during our interview he also claims that his sketches look like snowmen wearing circles and squares, and that he’s trying to design “furniture for women”).
”I know that everyone can’t buy my pieces, but it’s important that the message is understood by everyone.”
Les Santons de Provence is a reference to a type of hand-painted terracotta figurine, typical of the Provence region of France, and the collection marked a kind of evolution for the brand, the clothes more sophisticated than before, perhaps a bit more grown-up. Jacquemus has always cherished the idea of something naive, something unsullied and pure, but with Les Santons, and also the A/W 2017 collection, named L’Amour d’un Gitan [The Love of a Gypsy], this naivety and purity has taken a back seat to a slightly more sexual and mature woman.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Jacquemus is its unabashed Frenchness. Cheesy 1980s French pop. French cinema references. French clichés. Not since Christian Lacroix’s heyday in the late 1980s has the world seen anything like it. Today, cosmopolitan values are almost synonymous with fashion, and they reflect a kind of globetrotting freedom that is seen as an ideal. Jacquemus is very unlike the streetwear-driven, global urbanity of most other fashion darlings of today. In fact, the contemporary designer you think of the most is Thom Browne, another great storyteller who mines national clichés and transforms them into garments.
During lunch in Marseille I discuss the importance and legacy of geography and history with Maryline Bellieud-Vigouroux of Maison Méditerranéenne des Métiers de la Mode. Marseille is France’s oldest city, founded by the Greeks in 600BC, and Vigouroux says it truly is a city of the Mediterranean, akin to places like Algiers, Tunis and Palermo, rather than Paris. Perhaps this is what Simon is suggesting with Jacquemus: that the idea of France is, or should be, bigger and more nuanced.
When we first met, you told me that Jacquemus is a French brand, rather than a Parisian one. Why is that?
”It was important for me, when I started, that Jacquemus would be something that talks about France and not just about Paris. There’s always this focus on the Parisian designer, the Parisian woman. But I wanted to talk about France and, for me, that’s about something more popular, something simpler, even in the values.”
Not as bourgeois?
”I don’t know about bourgeois. But not elitist. It was important, when I created the brand, that the neighbours or the postman could understand what I wanted to talk about in my collections. I know that everyone can’t buy my pieces, but [it’s important] that the message is understood by everyone. When I talk about the Santons, when I talk about La Grande-Motte, when I talk about the love of a gypsy, I want everyone to understand the story.”
Why is that important?
”I thought it seemed young designers were always on a pedestal. You couldn’t understand their concept, or it was a concept of a concept. I think that kills the bond with the audience.”
On your Instagram account you wrote that you love France and that you’d never abandon the country. What is France to you?
”During politically troubled times there are many people who say they’ll quit the country if a certain political person wins. I find that absurd. In these moments you have to stay in France and stay French. So it was a reaction to say that I’m here and I’ll always be here. That I love my country. I see much poetry in France right now, in the people, in the way they are.”
Like, for example?
”It’s a way of viewing things, perhaps. Or it’s the way in which I’d like to view things. I think half of it is true, half of it is false. It’s a way of viewing things with optimism, [finding] a certain beauty in everything. In the bakery on the corner. To try to find beauty everywhere.”
What about the world outside France, doesn’t it interest you?
”The world interests me. I’m not trying to say that France is the most beautiful, it’s just that I breathe France because my upbringing was like that. I have plenty of influences. My favourite continent is surely Africa. When I was a little boy I said to my mum that I was African. I went to Senegal, it was one of the most beautiful voyages of my life because I felt at home – and I have no African heritage at all. So I don’t try to be 100 per cent French, but it’s true that what drives me, at least when it comes to Jacquemus, is something French. But there are plenty of Frances in France. I’m very South of France – those are my roots, and I really want people to think about the South of France when they think about Jacquemus.”
Do you see it as a sort of patriotism?
”A positive one, yes.”
Because patriotism can be a bit suspect these days.
”Yes, it’s viewed negatively. I remember when I started to put tricolore flags on my shirts, when I did the show in the swimming pool, I was asked crazy questions. People said it belongs to the Front National. But since when does the flag belong to the Front National? It belongs to France. I don’t know if I’m patriotic or not. I love my country, and that’s something beautiful, I think.”
You only listened to French songs growing up. Which are your favourite ones?
”I have many. I was brought up with Serge Gainsbourg. My dad’s a massive fan. My mum was more into Marie Laforêt. And everything 1980s, popular things, from the camping sites to Barbara [Monique Serf]. Many things, but always very franco-français, where the lyrics are important. I find all French words beautiful. That’s why I fell in love with France, too, I think, thanks to the lyrics.”
You also love French films, and I get the feeling every time I look at your Instagram that you’re talking about another one, like White Mane [Crin-Blanc, a short 1953 movie about a wild horse and a little boy by Albert Lamorisse], the other day.
”Yes, that’s true. There are films that I’m obsessed with. My first collection was called L’Hiver Froid [The Cold Winter], and all the [main] collections that followed have had [a title beginning with] “l”, “le” or “la” – because I had a cinematographic thrill when I saw Contempt by [Jean-Luc] Godard, and the credits said “la femme”, “l’homme”, “l’Italie”.”
Yes, in the voiceover in the cinema trailer.
”I think that’s genius. And I was inspired by that. That doesn’t mean my brand is very Godard, it’s not that. It’s more the French essence. In each collection, you can find a connection with one or two films. Even videos, people I’ve met. Take Les Santons de Provence: there are many films of my childhood attached to the collection. And the same with L’Amour d’un Gitan. That’s a very French concept for me. It could be a song by Dalida. To fall in love with a gitan, that’s a French fantasy. Like a cliché.”
That word, gitan [gypsy]…
”It’s not negative in France. For me, it’s beautiful. I grew up alongside gypsies, and they would say, “I’m a gitan.” They laid claim to it, they were proud. It wasn’t, it’s not negative.”
And with that collection, L’Amour d’un Gitan, what were you aiming to do?
”Actually, when I started working on the collection I wanted to do something that was the opposite of the South of France, to make something very Parisian. Parisian couture, with its 1950s, even 1940s influences. Very French, very Paris, I really wanted the Eiffel Tower to be in this show. I wanted the Parisian lady to fall in love with Arles, with the whole culture around Arles, with a gypsy. It was something very chic: a Parisian lady coming to Arles to see a bullfight in the 1950s. I imagined her a little bit like a Picasso woman, very clichéd, in a way. She is very beautiful, very Parisian, and she tries on some gypsy accessories, she tries to be someone she’s not. I like this mix of two cultures.
I wanted to talk a bit about my childhood, how I viewed the world when I was a little boy. My access to fashion was a bit limited, but on Sundays we’d talk about my great-uncle, who was a bullfighter, who was the only famous person in the family. He knew Picasso, Lucien Clergue – the great photographer was his best friend – and Christian Lacroix. When I was ten years old, I said I wanted to do fashion, and people said that one day I’d meet Christian Lacroix. It was a bit of a dream for me, I viewed fashion through Christian Lacroix: from Arles but also very Parisian, the Picasso influences. This collection was the dream that I had created, and understood much later.”
How do you come up with the titles to your collections?
”It’s easy. The title is there from the beginning, almost. I always have a film, I always have a story. It’s making the costumes for the film that’s difficult! But from the beginning [I have a clear idea of] the music, the woman, the scenography and the kind of showroom we want. It’s more making the clothes… What am I going to do with this woman? Because I see her with no trousers. I don’t see a trouser on her at all.”
You’ve said you’d like to make movies someday, but you already make a movie for each collection.
”Yes, that’s right, but a movie by a lazy director who only makes costumes, and a few images, outtakes. But I started to write a movie two weeks ago. I was on my bike in the South of France, and it came to me. And it’s starting to excite me. It’s a thing that will take time, maybe I’ll never make it. It’s a dream. We’ll see. I talk more and more about it.”
You’ve mentioned that if you were to make a movie it would be in the style of Philippe Garrel’s The Inner Scar [La Cicatrice Intérieure, 1972].
”In terms of the aesthetic? Yes, it has a strong point of view.”
I know you also like One Deadly Summer [L’Eté Meurtrier, 1983].
”That, that’s my favourite movie. That never changes. Crin Blanc, that’s inspiring, but One Deadly Summer is my favourite.”
When I watched One Deadly Summer and The Inner Scar back to back, it was almost like a key to Jacquemus. Because, in the brand, there’s something very human and alive, like in One Deadly Summer, but there’s also something abstract, like in The Inner Scar…
”Abstract and quite cold and conceptual. But I really like both. One Deadly Summer, that’s a movie that everyone loves in France. It speaks to everyone, it’s a beautiful movie about the South. The Inner Scar is very avant-garde. I don’t want just one of these things.”
When you had your latest show, Isabelle Adjani, who stars in One Deadly Summer, came. I know you admire her a lot, what was it like to meet her?
”But that was the second time I met her. The first time was more of a shock, because she was more surprised than I was.”
”She was more emotional than me, she said [with a whispering voice]: “Oh, it’s crazy. I have a photo of you on my phone. I really like your collections.” And I said: “Really? You, Isabelle Adjani, have an image of me on your phone?!” She said yes. Because I did an homage to her, a jumper with embroidery [saying] “Le pull Marine” [Pull Marine is the name of Isabelle Adjani’s 1983 studio album and song, written by Serge Gainsbourg]. She was very emotional. And when I saw her again, it was bizarre – I don’t know how to describe it, it’s complicated. But yes, I’m a fan. And I am glad we can have a friendship. We’ve met several times since then.”
Is Isabelle Adjani seen as a style icon in France?
”No, I think she’s seen as one of the great French artists. She’s an icon, but not a style icon.”
Are there other women who inspire you?
”Well, my mum, obviously, I talk about it all the time. Jacquemus happened because of her, so it’s true that she will be in each collection, that I’ll talk about her in each collection. [Jacquemus] is her name, but that doesn’t mean that she would wear all the collections, that they resemble her. It’s more of a spirit, a French woman with a certain character and poetry. For me, it’s my mum more than anything [that inspires me], and I find it hard when a magazine asks me to pose with other people, because I’d like to pose with my mum.”
What was she like?
”Very free. She reminded me a bit of Valeria Golino, the Italian actress. Those women who are a bit Mediterranean, very beautiful, quite sensual and, at the same time, a femme-enfant [child-woman]. I never did my homework after school, and I remember always dancing and singing on the sofa with my mum. I don’t know how to write well, I’m not good at spelling. [Laughs] I never had a curfew, I was always outside making sheds with friends. It was a childhood without limitations.”
And this was in Provence, in Mallemort?
”Yes, though actually Mallemort is a small town with about 6,000 people, and I lived in a hamlet where there wasn’t even a bakery, where bread was delivered by a van. There were 100 inhabitants and about 15 kids.”
I know you take issue with the fact that people are surprised you have such an evolved aesthetic despite coming from the countryside.
”I had a very artistic childhood. I was a dancer when I was young, I went five times a week. Then I was a singer. I’ve never had a moment when I wasn’t expressing myself – even if it was making enormous bouquets of flowers or redecorating my mum’s house. And my family was very artistic. My mum was always making furniture, repainting the house, decorating, creating a wall of found wood with African paintings. Today this is very in but, 20 years ago, when she was doing it, people said it was bizarre. Everyone was going to Ikea, but she didn’t go to Ikea, we made our own furniture. My dad was singing in a band, dressed as a woman. He still sings in the band, but he doesn’t dress as a woman, he doesn’t fit in [the clothes] any more! Freedom and art… for me, that’s not a place, it’s a spirit. I don’t care that my grandparents were farmers, and my parents, too. It’s really a spirit, and it helps me be as self-assured as I am, because I have always been free and always told anything is possible.”
When people say negative things about you and your work, do you think there’s a feeling of parvenu there?
”You mean that I arrived from nowhere? I’ll always be a parvenu. It’s not embarrassing, it’s true I’m from nowhere, and I have opened my mouth a lot, I’ve been pushy. People didn’t leave me a choice. I didn’t have anything except my energy to make things move forward. The things that struck me were the looks I would get – I have memories that have marked me for life. I was 19, and I was going to fashion parties, and the looks from successful people in their fifties, who had everything… They looked at me as if I would steal something from them. It really hurt me, and I told myself I would try never to look on youth like that. I only wanted to create fashion and express myself. Maybe I made lots of errors, maybe I accosted too many people, maybe I was too pushy, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it.”
You speak a lot about naivety. Why is that important?
”To me, naivety is a beautiful thing because it means trying to see the world as children do, with a view that is without filters and codes. Sincere. It’s not always possible, but I always try to make it so Jacquemus talks about naivety in some way. There’s less of it than before, because I’ve grown up, and I am much less naive than before. She’s more tortured now, the Jacquemus woman.”
Do you see yourself as a naive person?
”Me? Naive? [Laughs] Half-half. I wouldn’t say I’m naive. But naive doesn’t mean stupid. It’s not the same thing. It’s really to look [at the world] with a child’s eyes. To me, to be naive is to try to see beauty everywhere.”
Is there a connection between naivety and the femme-enfant?
”Yes! The femme-enfant, she’s naive.”
Can you explain what the femme-enfant is like?
”She’s really a French fantasy. She’s in films, in the music. She’s a kind of woman who remains a child at the same time. It’s a bit disconcerting, because she has something sexual, at the same time as being childish.”
A bit Lolita.
”Yes, like that. That’s very French, I think. But my woman has become more woman than child. The child, that was more before, and with Les Santons there is something more womanly. Even if I try to keep the link with childhood, something naive, it’s more subtle now, I think. The naive is, for example, her hats in the past couple of seasons. Or the heels, these little details. It’s less in the forefront, this child, this naivety. I’ve digested it more.”
”Maybe I made lots of errors, maybe I accosted too many people, maybe I was to pushy, but I didn’t have a choice.”
If I look at this idea of femme-enfant from a Swedish point of view, I don’t find it very feminist. Do you see yourself as a feminist?
”Yes, but how is it not loving women? Why is a femme-enfant against women? I mean, it’s a woman among others.”
I think that, at least in Sweden, it’s a bit strange to see women as children.
”OK, I understand what you mean. But I don’t make a general statement about women. I’m not saying that all women are femmes-enfants. I think you have to separate yourself from the subject. It’s more beauty I’m after and, for me, it reminds me of my mother, too. It’s very personal. OK, I sell my brand in many countries, but more than anything, it’s my story. I’m trying to talk about my mother, and this femme-enfant, she exists for me. There’s beauty in it, there’s lots of poetry. And I think that is how you have to see it, as something very poetic and beautiful.”
It’s about finding beauty in the world?
”Yes, and buying a Jacquemus coat today doesn’t mean you want to be a femme-enfant, either.”
I think it’s important, this side of it, because it’s similar to what you said about naivety and stupidity not being the same thing. What you seem to look for is naivety in a positive sense, as something opposite to cynicism.
And the femme-enfant, she’s not at all cynical, either.
”No, no. She’s always pretty open and quite… like a child, sort of. She doesn’t judge, she’s quite open. Since the beginning I’ve seen Jacquemus as something very open towards others, and with a sunny disposition. No one has ever made comments like this to me – not even in Sweden.”
Well, something I understood about Jacquemus when I saw the women in the audience during your fashion show in Marseille, is that it is actually very sensual and sexual.
[Laughs] ”Ah, oui? Sexual. It’s not sexy, but sexual.”
There were all these “normal” women, tanned and with very short clothes.
”Very short… very, very short. I have a problem with length [laughs], it’s true, I’ve had this image from the beginning of a girl who puts on her father’s shirt. It’s basic, no? Everyone has this. It’s a 14-year-old girl, it’s very short, but it’s not sexy in a negative sense. It’s quite naive, really. I still see it like that, but the problem is that now the clothes cling to the body – it’s no longer naive. It’s really what I’m working on at the moment, this sexuality in Jacquemus.”
Are you seeing this femme-enfant growing up?
”Growing up a lot. As I said, she’s more a woman now than a child. But I think I want to grow old with my Jacquemus woman. And I think that’s quite sane. It’s logical, because I design everything, from accessories to the prêt-à-porter. It’s normal that it grows up with me. It’s a life, my life. I know that all the collections, whether I want them to or not, in the end will be my biography. Sometimes it’s not legible, but this black collection, it’s a gypsy’s world and I’ve lived it. The next one, I’m surely living it right now.”