Five years after breaking out with his eponymous label, Simon Porte Jacquemus is still inspired by his family, still listening to his friends – and still doing things his own way.
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Vogue Arabia
“Exactly two hours and 40 minutes,” Simon Porte Jacquemus replies, without blinking an eye, when you ask him how long it takes from the moment the fast train pulls out of Avignon, near his tiny hometown of Mallemort in southeastern France, until it reaches Gare de Lyon in Paris. How can a mere clock, though, measure the distance in sorrow and joy, triumph and talent, that unites Jacquemus’s two families?
For the 28-year-old fashion designer, it’s not just a rail line but a lifeline – one that connects his biological relatives, still ensconced in the village where he grew up, and the gang he refers to as his Paris family, with whom we are sharing lunch in a bistro a few blocks from Jacquemus’s studio, just across the Canal Saint-Martin. Everyone is laughing and teasing one another. Jacquemus’s closest friends are here, the people who have supported and encouraged him since the earliest days of his Paris life, including the model and influencer Jeanne Damas.
Jacquemus met Damas, and nearly everyone else here, through social media, which has at times functioned as a kind of second family for him. But if he currently occupies a flat in the Bastille, he still resides a good deal of the time in Mallemort – at least in his imagination. Since his first breakout collection, shown in an empty swimming pool in 2013 with his friends as models, Jacquemus has been wrestling with memory, pouring his deeply personal story straight onto his runway, unmediated by self-consciousness.
In the five years since, the designer has become the toast of the City of Light, considered by many the brightest star among the newest members of the French fashion firmament. (His business, which he began by himself, now employs 30 people.) And he did it all by defying convention – by listening to his friends and his heart, not thinking about courting corporate backing. Instead of breaking into the business the old way – getting a degree, interning for a major designer, and taking baby steps toward building his own label – Jacquemus burst onto the scene using a clever (and popular, with more than 520,000 followers) Instagram account depicting a dream life of cheerful allure and shameless self-portraiture, along with a series of frisky runway shows, to spread his message.
The sunshine of southern France may flow from his heart and suffuse his twisted and deconstructed shirtdresses, his off-kilter linen coats, and his nipped-in waists, but there is also a touch of melancholia in his work. When he was 18, his beloved mother, Valérie, was killed in a car accident, and for his SS18 show she was, as ever, on his mind.
“I just want to tell something about happiness,” he says. “This collection began slowly, from memories from my childhood – of seeing my mother after the beach, really happy.” (Held on a Monday night, at the start of Paris Fashion Week, the show was considered a breakthrough, with the audience including French actor Fanny Ardant, Italian businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, and even the 95-year-old Pierre Cardin, all of them clearly interested in what the new guy had to say.) In a sense, though, Jacquemus’s entire fashion career serves as a tribute to his mother’s style and spirit. A flea-market fanatic, the designer was wandering around the Marché Saint-Pierre near Montmartre nearly a decade ago, thinking about her, when he caught sight of a seamstress in a curtain shop. “I asked her how much would it cost to make a skirt,” he says. “She told me 150. I asked her, please could she make it for 100. The next day I came back with the fabric and the drawing of the skirt. This was how I started my first collection – it was very spontaneous and fun.”
It was not the first skirt in his history. According to his maternal grandmother, Liline, whom he is incredibly close to – she comes up to Paris for all of his shows – “He was a special child, always happy and smiling, dancing or dressing himself up, always with an obsession for costume. He wanted to do a thousand things and never left his mother alone. He once made a skirt out of a curtain for her. She wore it to pick him up at school, and she was so proud.”
Unlike so many small-town strivers, Jacquemus never longed to be someone else, or from someplace else. “All around me while I was growing up, everyone was trying to be American, wearing caps and listening to hip-hop,” he says. “I wanted to be like Serge Gainsbourg.” And indeed, his creations are almost stereotypically French, from the loose, deeply cuffed trousers to the voluminous sleeves to the hourglass silhouettes. Not since Christian Lacroix, who grew up nearby, has such a purely Gallic sensibility come barreling down a catwalk.
Jacquemus learned the ropes working at the Comme des Garçons store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, creating his own collections in his off-hours. Adrian Joffe, the founder and president of Dover Street Market and husband of Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, says that he was sold on Jacquemus from the first. “I recognized immediately a freshness and an originality, but most important a strong vision. I have never met anyone so determined, so grounded, and so clear in his head about what he wants to do and what he wants to achieve.”
Jacquemus was a child actor and a model; when he was eight, he wrote to Jean Paul Gaultier – another Frenchman whose saucy irreverence is a major influence – offering his services as a stylist. “You know what was my argument in the letter? ‘At my age, I will be the youngest stylist – so maybe you will have a lot of publicity around that,’” he recalls, laughing. Jacquemus still does all the visual merchandising, art direction, and ad campaigns for the brand himself, and he says these tasks are among his greatest pleasures. “At the beginning, when I had no money to make clothes that were really precise, the storytelling was stronger than the clothing,” he says. “Everything was telling a story of this French girl – not the Parisian girl but the French girl.”
And while he may be young, he is the furthest thing from a sullen artiste scribbling and draping with no concern for his audience. Virtually everything on his catwalk is on the racks at his showroom. “With every collection, I’m finding the right balance between conceptual and spatial and something that’s wearable,” Jacquemus says. “It’s really important to me to be true to my market.” His market – his fans – are young people like himself: people who grew up with the internet and don’t remember any other way of communicating.
The writer Loïc Prigent was struck from the beginning by the designer’s sweetness and honesty and by how comfortable Jacquemus was with his country roots. “He was proud of his grandmother’s donkey!” Prigent says. “When he appeared, he was not just thinking outside of the box – there was absolutely no box. He had no fashion education, no fashion skills learned in a school, no fashion-system knowledge. His energy is so overwhelming, so real and genuine – and his clothes are sexy in a way no avant garde label is; it’s never trashy, never too much.”
Jacquemus is now telling this tale directly to his audience not only through social media but with witty presentations. He once provided hospital smocks for the audience to wear – so that they would not be distracted by one another’s outfits but would, rather, keep their gaze fixed on the catwalk. For SS18, arguably his breakthrough presentation, he made straw hats so vast they looked like boaters on steroids. “They sold out four times!” he says, beaming. “The factory wasn’t able to do more, because they ran out of straw.”
There is a unique mix of confidence and wonderment that comes with this kind of early success – when you can feel at once destined for greatness and frankly stunned that you are getting anywhere at all. “I knew it would happen – I knew it was my life,” Jacquemus says, reflecting quietly on the trajectory of his last few years. “But at the same time, I still have so many things to tell, so many obsessions and stories! It’s the beginning for me.”
Styling: Camilla Nickerson
Hair: Damien Boissinot
Makeup: Susie Sobol
Production: Xavier Wakefield at Jake Productions
Models: Manuela Sanchez, Shanelle Nyasiase, Aya Jones