Roland Mouret, the French fashion designer whose iconic dress, the Galaxy, became more famous than the man himself, is waiting for me at Harvey Nichols in Mall of the Emirates. He is as French as they come – in that fearsomely ’andsome way, all brooding brow and perfectly parted hair, magnified by the thick and enunciated vowels that pepper his speech. He looks decidedly out of place sitting among the razzle-dazzle of this mega mall, the surroundings somehow a little brash for such a classic-looking chap. There is an awkward kissing moment when, in a panic, I go in for a third. “Are we going for three?” he laughs. “Where I am from, you give one you take one,” he adds with a wink.
Mouret does smooth prolifically. He is the type to make you sit up straight and cross your legs at a certain angle, a last-ditch attempt at demure. For those who have no interest in fashion, or who have been wearing a fairly large pair of blinkers since 2005, Mouret is the creator of what is arguably the most important dress of the last decade, the designer who re-emphasised the female form and our approach to artful drapery.
The son of a Lourdes butcher, Mouret describes his childhood as idyllic. “I only realised later in life how much I was linked to my father. I learnt a lot from him. We worked side-by-side when I was younger. In fact, the butcher’s apron was the first fabric I learnt to deal with. I used to play with the square of fabric to get it to fit the body. Still, to this day, the only curve that I accept is the curve of the female body.”
At 18, Mouret left the cocoon of Lourdes for Paris. His plan to go to art school was a brief flirtation. “I did three months before leaving. It was a French school – so snobby. They told me there are just two types of students here: the one who leads and the one who leaves. The one in the middle was of no interest. I knew then that I had to get out. To do fashion, you need to go out into the world, and you have to have a life and you have to be curious. To be honest, it turned out to be the best decision I have ever taken; to this day I find it really difficult to be controlled by other people.”
A few years later, Jean Paul Gaultier approached Mouret in a nightclub and asked him to model in one of his menswear shows. Gaultier was street-casting and looking for someone with a physical presence, someone who would provoke a reaction and make the observer uncomfortable.
“It was really funny. I was wearing a baggy pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of braces, and my zip was wide open on a pair of big underpants. For him it was like, this is great! He was a magpie of street culture. He asked me right there did I want to do his show and I said sure, why not?”
After the show, Mouret asked Gaultier for a job but was turned down. “It was the only time in my life I ever asked to work for anyone and I was refused. I hated that. But you know, it wasn’t until recently, when one of my best friends who had worked for Gaultier for 10 years was struggling to start his own label, that I realised it was for the best. It didn’t work for him, because all of his best ideas were Jean Paul Gaultier’s ideas.”
Again, Mouret was looking for a change, so he packed his bags and relocated to London, did a bit of styling and opened Freedom, a cafe, bar and exhibition space in the West End. It wasn’t until the age of 36 that he began work on his own collection.
“I knew if I didn’t start to be a fashion designer then, in four years’ time I was going to be really bitter about it, bad mouthing those that did it simply because, well, I didn’t. I had the urge to make all the time, but I needed to know what it would all be about. I went back to basics and went through the whole process of draping, setting myself the target of two months to present 15 pieces.”
It wasn’t to be a particularly easy time for the designer. “I didn’t really know how to do an outfit at all. I am lucky as I can just start to fold. It is a gift, but I didn’t know how to make a jacket or do sleeves or trousers; I didn’t even know how to put in a zip. I was using hatpins and safety pins to secure things and heavy wools that were itchy on the skin, but I suppose they were there as a concept.”
Mouret’s first collection launched at London Fashion Week in February 1998, and despite the lack of pattern cutting, the faultless drapery, made from raw silk, wools and organza, was critically acclaimed, and made the cover of the Italian magazine, Collezioni.
If he is terribly bored of talking about the phenomenal success of the Galaxy, which was unveiled in his fall/winter 2005 collection, Mouret is too polite to say. “I was interested to what extent can a woman accept to be controlled by an outfit. It was an extreme vision to re-emphasise the female form and set off curves at the time, but nobody really knew the effect it would have.”
This time around Mouret’s collection had all the trimmings – the zips, the lining, the cut and the right fabrics – not to mention a pattern, which meant it could be reproduced. “I didn’t know about patterns. I had just draped before, so it was quite amazing starting to really learn about clothes.”
He tells me that he had to use waist restrainers for the models as they were too thin for the designs and needed an extra inch – a new concept for young girls who had previously had to closely monitor their weight for the runway. “They were terrified,” he laughs, “but they looked fabulous. It was a real moment of Bettie Page. Of course we didn’t realise what we were making in that moment; we were too close to it.”
What Mouret had done was design a dress that was draped so artfully that it did miraculous things to the body, no matter the size. It nipped waists, flattered the upper arm, and gave prominence to that illusive S-curve. There was something in the cut that seemed to heighten the sexuality of the wearer.
“I had wanted to design a dress that a woman could wear with a bra, which you never think about with a model. That dress gave me a challenge because something so restrictive became liberating for me as a designer, and for women. I knew then I wanted to go in that direction.”
And the celebrities soon followed. “Demi Moore was the first to take the Galaxy. Scarlett Johansson came next and after that it just went boom boom boom.”
As did the copies – within weeks, the whole of the high street was touting its own versions of the Galaxy. How did it feel to be copied so intrusively, I wonder.
“It depends on my mood. I made my passion my business and I have to survive it. At the same time I can’t stop people. I understand there is a need for a differing level of product in the market but the moment it becomes an homage we should be able to invoice with the price of the copyright.”
Unbeknown to the fashion world, Mouret was about to do something that would elevate the dress even further: resign from his own label. He had fallen out with his investor, Sharai Meyers, in an almighty bust-up that would leave him without a label or the right to design under his own name (he had signed away his rights to management in 2000).
What happened that was so bad that he would walk away from everything he had built? “The words we said, perhaps they were not the right ones, but I just knew they couldn’t take me where I wanted to go. I just told them I don’t recognise you anymore, you don’t have it, you don’t have enough for me.”
He was right, for one year later he was back, creating under the label “RM by Roland Mouret”, and picked up right where he had left off.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Mouret found a new backer in Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls and the Pop Idol phenomenon. It was a strange choice, considering that many of the major fashion houses were wooing Mouret. The somewhat-curious partnership had the potential to go blunderingly wrong. But, despite initial speculation of impending disaster, it did not. Quite the contrary, in fact. Mouret’s recent collections have had myriad successes, not to mention a smattering of red-carpet showstoppers. And on September 9, 2010, Mouret acquired the rights to use his own name again.
He tells me that he has just hired a head of design this year. Up until then everything went through his own hands. I ask him if that is why his pieces are so expensive. “I don’t perceive them as expensive,” he says, in between laughs. “The price reflects a company that works things properly. I produce in England, France, Portugal and Italy, and the fabrics are European. It would be easy to go cheap and get everything produced in China, but you need consistency with quality. I employ 55 people in my headquarters in Mayfair [that includes womenswear, menswear, design workshops, studios, a showroom and the designer’s private atelier]. It’s a business – I have to pay people. I think that the prices of my outfits reflect that.”
These days, Mouret lives a quiet(ish) life in Suffolk. He spends three days a week in London, one in Paris and three at his cottage. I ask him if he is happy, as things seem to be going pretty well. “It’s the simple things that are not based in London that make me happy; the cottage, the dog, friends, that kind of thing. I am content because I still have the opportunity to search for more.”
But there is a fundamental fear of ageing that may be the source of some angst. “You know, at some point all of this will stop. I think about it all the time. Youth allows us to be creative. I don’t want to age. Inside I am still that person I was. Youth is about pleasure. Without pleasure, you are not existing.”
Perhaps the best thing about the Galaxy was that it ended up overshadowing the designer, allowing Mouret to hover on the periphery of fame – although he has a somewhat contradictory view of his journey so far. “In a way I wish I could be more sociable. If I knew before that I was meant to be building a life all this time, I may have been better at it. I was too busy enjoying it.”
Mouret is what some may call a professional provocateur (he has unabashedly declared that his dresses are made for undressing). Regardless, this is clearly a man who loves women and has a knack for combining the avant-garde with the traditional. And each of his meticulously crafted piece reminds us that the true essence of classic design is still very much alive.