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 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 you had done for me 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!
Despite being in his early 30s, Rad Hourani has the kind of wisdom and experience many could only dream of. Sensual and cerebral at the same time, the Canadian designer has used his talent and skills to carve an innovative niche for unisex garments, putting differences aside to focus on uncharted common ground. He was, in fact, the first unisex designer to be accepted by the very selective Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, demonstrating his vision had been acknowledged by his peers. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to describe him only as a designer, since Hourani is also an artist, a photographer and a filmmaker. This fall, Montreal’s Arsenal will honor him with a first retrospective, a project he’s been actively working on and curating for the past year. Warm and spontaneous in the flesh, Hourani comes across as a gentle and peaceful soul, but his intelligence is as sharp as his clothes. Throughout his career, he has rejected boxes and categories, trusting his instincts to do what felt right. His beautifully tailored clothes, which look attractive on men and women, are a way to harmonize and unify bodies, envisaging contemporary aesthetics in a forward-thinking way. It’s ironic that so many fashion houses -from Gucci to Prada and beyond- are evoking gender bending this season, something Hourani has pushed and genuinely believed in for years. We caught up with him to discuss emancipation through art, the power of unity and why it’s always good to challenge one’s beliefs.
Your first contemporary art exhibiton is called “Neutrality”. Why did you choose this title ?
Neutrality is the essence of my work, whether it be clothing, art, film or photography. Neutrality for me is something that cannot be defined through gender, age or race. It’s a peaceful and limitless state.
Why do we need categories to function ?
When I first moved to Paris 10 years ago, I was still looking for what I wanted to focus on and started working as an art director. Before launching my own line, I did a lot of soul searching, examining my own roots and cultural makeup. As I had been exposed to so many cultural influences, it generated this confusion in me. I felt the need to avoid categorizations and underline unity, as well as what we all share as human beings. Limitations make no sense to me at all, whether they’re social, religious or sexual.
How did this approach translate into clothing ?
I studied anatomy for a year. Understanding the human body better was fundamental. I approach my craft as a technician, because our bodies are a universal reference.
How do you feel about fashion’s current love affair with androgyny and gender bending clothes ?
You wouldn’t believe how many interview requests I’ve been getting for the past few weeks… Everyone’s trying to do unisex clothes now, but most of these clothes are not truly unisex. It takes quite a lot of research to get to that point.
Maybe that’s the Caitlyn effect ?
(mutual laughter) I never worked against the body and want to amplify it. My clothes fit many different people and lifestyles. I’m not trying to make a man look like a woman or a woman look like a man. I don’t think people realize how long it takes to develop unisex patterns.
Is gender a travesty ?
I think we should be free of gender differentiation. We should also move away from sexual binaries, geographical divisions and nationality groups. I believe we can emancipate ourselves from anything that creates division between people. Education may help us get there. These are my values as a human being and they will be showcased within the retrospective I’m putting together at Arsenal in Montreal.
How did the exhibition come about ?
I photographed my Haute Couture collection there among the artworks of several contemporary artists and we discussed the idea of the exhibition at that time. I’m really excited about it, because it’s the most freeing project I’ve done in years. I want to do more art actually, because it allows me to go further and expand some of the ideas I’ve had for ages. It all happened organically, I guess.
Is this how you approach life ?
I practice yoga and once my teacher told me that it was better not to get something you craved if you were not completely ready for it.
Do you believe in fate ?
I do. I used to be very impatient, but now I approach life day by day and really do what I feel like doing. It’s quite magical how everything I have desired seems to happen eventually -consciously or subconsciously- and I just hope it can continue this way. Your intention is something people will read, whether you’re aware of it or not. When I first met Pierre Trahan -the owner of the Arsenal- he told me he had been wearing my clothes for years and he trusted me with this exhibition, even though nothing had even been discussed. Now that it’s become a reality, I’m surprised to see how much of it was already in me. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my whole life.
Text by Philippe Pourhashemi - Photography by Sabrina Jolicoeur - Styling by Samuel Fournier - MUA by Ashley Diabo - Model Nova at Dulcedo models - VIA VEOIR MAGAZINE