IF YOU OBSERVE THE FASHION INDUSTRY AS IT IS TODAY, YOU COULD CONCLUDE THAT IT’S MORE DIVIDED BY NATIONS THAN VISIONS. THERE IS SOMETHING QUINTESSENTIALLY DISTINGUISHED ABOUT BRITAIN, AN OVERT SENSE OF GLAMOUR IN ITALY AND A SLIGHTLY PATRIOTIC STYLE FOUND THROUGHOUT AMERICA. APART FROM ALL THAT, THERE’S PARIS WHERE YOU CAN FEEL THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATIONS MORE THAN NATIONS, AND A BIG PART OF THAT HAS TO DO WITH THE MAN WHO OPENED HIS HEART AND DOOR TO THE TALENT : MR. DIDIER GRUMBACH.
It is complex to understand his role in a single definition. He is chairman of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode and was also president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a position he left in July 2014. But he is so much more than just an impressive title. Guided by his instincts rather than the trends, he has a long-term view of Fashion. He’s discreet but functional, polite and elegant, hugely knowledgeable and, above all, what I call Ageless. I met with him one morning for Mykromag at his place on Avenue Montaigne in Paris to learn more about his work and life.
Didier Grumbach wearing unisex couture coat + intreviewed + photographed by Rad Hourani in his apartment in Paris.
RAD HOURANI : I once thanked you for everything and your response was : « What did I do ? » I believe you opened the door for many designers who made their place in today’s fashion industry, including myself. Why is it important for you to support designers?
DIDIER GRUMBACH : Generally speaking, I think it’s very important to let current designers be aware of new generations as we are properly the only industry that needs new brands. The difference between the Art and Fashion industry is that the challenge is necessary and must be supported. It is obvious to me and I’m happy that you participated in the movement because after all, you came to participate in the couture calendar. Our members support you and I wish you all the success you deserve!
RH : Thank you! It seems to me you kept the industry evolving with Paris as the fashion capital of the world. Where does this passion come from?
DG : Well, I started out in the business when ready-to-wear was just in its infancy, couture used to be the only industry. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Valentino were all part of that shift towards ready-to-wear and it became very important for me to bring new blood to Paris. Especially when I was invited to join the Couture Federation. It started with Issey Miyake, then in 1977 Dries Van Noten and it has continued until this day.
RH : Is it true you owned a factory?
DG : I started off working in a factory owned by my grandfather. I was managing a small company which made coats and introduced accessible fashion to the masses.
RH : So you had a family involved in the fashion industry before you started?
DG : Yes, in 1902 my grandfather started producing coats, it wasn’t industrial by any means. I opened my own factory in the mid 60’s and in 1968 I bought another one which would later become, and still is, the factory for Yves Saint Laurent.
RH : Was there any big challenge?
DG : Well, the majority of my family either studied law or is involved in politics. So they weren’t exactly pleased when I became partner of my uncle’s factory at just twenty-two. By that time, profits were down and my family found it increasingly difficult. I began forging my own creative path, so that was pretty tough. My uncle eventually sold his share of the business to me. It put him in a fragile position, but at the same time, we couldn’t stop the read-to-wear movement.
RH : What did you do to save the company?
DG : I went to America because it was common at the time, since ready-to-wear was an American expertise and France was focusing on Haute Couture. The orders I took in America in the beginning were great. And then Saint Laurent exploded on the scene, we went from one boutique to 150 in a short period of time. Later on, there were a lot of other difficulties, but it’s part of the past, so it doesn’t seem so bad.
RH : You also worked with Madame Grès? She is one of my favorite designers of all time.
DG : I did. I worked with Madame Grès from about 1957 to 1962. Then again I worked with a lot of designers at that time : Carven, Madeleine de Rauch, Nina Ricci, Lanvin, Maggy Rouff, Jacques Heim, Jean Dessès. Some of these name probably won’t even ring a bell. Anyways, this group of nine started doing ready-to-wear and even did shows together. It so happened that I produced some of them. The designers were incredibly famous at that time, yet most of them have been forgotten by now.
RH : Has working with these designers made you realize something about how the industry moves?
DG : It gave me this natural feeling that talent was temporary and even if the designer is a genius, fashion moves… It moves from Paul Poiret to Chanel, from Thierry Mugler to Helmut Lang, but it never keeps still. Of course even the greatest designers had to admit that after 10 to 12 years of top creativity, fashion moves somewhere else. It is actually the drama of our business. Talent is not eternal…
RH : Do you consider fashion to be a form of art?
DG : I think fashion is an industry, but of course the designers are artists. But still, they have to compromise, which they never have to do in art. Because fashion moves, compromise is necessary after a while, but not at the beginning. At the beginning you must not compromise!
RH : Is there something in particular you fondly look back on?
DG : The time when I went from producing Saint Laurent and moved back to Paris. I think that’s when I really felt the importance of the work I did at the institution. I wasn’t even supposed to teach, it all happened by accident. Thinking back to that first year, sitting there with twenty-two students in the classroom, some of whom I still see to this day, that was the beginning of something quite fantastic.
RH : What does Fashion mean to you?
DG : For me, because I lived throughout Fashion, it’s a reflection of an economy and politics.
RH : What experience have you had that makes you describe it as an economy?
DG : You know when I started in the 60s, my first trip to New York City was at the time where nobody was going to America. America was as strange as China or even more. I was told that you needed a hat in New York, so I bought a hat, as it was a must trend. My first part through fashion exportation was America, as it was an obvious destination economy wise. An American buyer wasn’t something that existed at that time. And then later on, in the early 80’s, I went to Japan as well, because it was the important place to be. Especially when Montana, Castelbajac, Mugler, Miyaki and Gaulthier lived through the Japanese licensing. It was not America anymore. Of course today it’s China, and then it will be India, and it keeps moving on and on…
RH : So fashion is a movement?
DG : This movement and this exploration system brings in the community a new country which makes fashion move, because every time you have a new territory, fashion moves to it. It’s a question of harmony. There is no French fashion, there would never be Indian fashion, it doesn’t exist... it cannot exist. The thing is that we have over 25 nationalities on the calendar. It’s something that always existed in France, as the first French couturiers were English. It became essential and extremely serious in globalization as today, designers like you or Rick Owens, are considered French designers... the way Kenzo, of course, is a French designer today. We think it’s quite natural to have many nationalities as members of the Federation.
RH : We are becoming French?
DG : Yes, Parisians…not French!
RH : Your book "The History of International Fashion" just got released in English. What is it about?
DG : It’s really about what I lived through the past twenty-five years It includes interviews with people that have since passed, so I’m glad they’re still part of the book.
RH : What would you like to be remembered for?
DG : I simply cannot answer this question. It never even crosses my mind, I don’t know if I will be remembered. I want to have projects, therefore I tend to look ahead. Only the future is clear ; the past gets muddy and I’m likely to loose my memory. I know where I’m going but I don’t know where I am.
RH : I like what you said about losing your memory. I see the brain as a computer that needs to be emptied when it’s too full to process new information.
DG : It’s partly that and also because I’ve been in the business since I was twenty-one. It’s important for me to empty my mind at one point for renewal. At a certain point, I meet new people and I can’t place the faces anymore. Nobody works this long.
RH : What’s life for you?
DG : It’s action!