An inspired chat with the creative director of Christian Lacroix
Sacha Walckhoff recently came to the realisation that he has spent longer working with the Christian Lacroix brand than Christian Lacroix himself did. Walckhoff, who is now the creative director of the company, joined in 1992, was appointed studio director in 1996 and took on his current role in 2009, when Lacroix famously walked away from the flailing fashion company. “This is a scoop,” the soft-spoken Walckhoff tells me. “I’ve been with the Lacroix brand longer than Mr Lacroix. I’ve never said this to anybody before because it just occurred to me the other day.”
This is not, as far as I can tell, ego-driven one-upmanship – Walckhoff is quick to heap praise on his former mentor. My question, in fact, was why he himself hadn’t been tempted to leave when the company was put into administration in 2009 and all but 15 employees were laid off.
The brand, which reportedly made a loss of €10 million (Dh39.5m) in 2008 and was in the red for its entire existence, was on the verge of bankruptcy, so its owner, the duty-free retailer Falic Fashion Group, decided to cut the business units making the biggest losses, ie haute couture and prêt-à-porter – an affront that Lacroix was seemingly unable to stomach. But Walckhoff stayed.
“When you invest so many years of your life in a company, it’s because you want it to succeed. Even when Mr Lacroix left, I was sure that we could do something with the brand, with that heritage. When you say Christian Lacroix, until this day, all around the world, you can see stars in people’s eyes. And sometimes they don’t even know why. But it’s because of the couture, of course.”
Those familiar with the British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous will remember Patsy’s reverent cries of “It’s Lacroix, sweetie, Lacroix”. It was the 1990s, and for Jennifer Saunders’s brilliantly depicted, champagne-guzzling, social-climbing, fashion-conscious character, Lacroix was the very epitome of aspirational elegance. The flamboyant French designer made pieces that were bold, exuberant and theatrical to the point of otherworldliness – all wide pouf skirts, opulent corseted and crinoline dresses, unapologetic colour combinations and outlandish silhouettes. They were donned by the likes of Madonna and Princess Diana, the latter causing quite a stir when she turned up to an event in Paris in 1995 in a fitted Lipstick Red Lacroix dress. But for many critics, Lacroix’s creations were entirely disconnected from what women really needed.
“The problem in the old days was that we were making these beautiful, really incredible pieces, but no one was using them. Because they weren’t really practical; there were no opportunities to wear them, except maybe for a grand opening, but it would just be for that one-off occasion. It wasn’t fashion for everyday use,” Walckhoff says.
The company is taking a far more cautious approach these days, slowly clawing its way to profitability while trying to stay true to the Lacroix DNA. The flamboyant haute couture and ready-to-wear womenswear is gone; the focus now is on menswear; accessories, which include leather goods, scarves, jewellery and eyewear; and homeware, including eye-popping fabrics, curtains and cushions created in partnership with the famous British brand Designers Guild, along with tableware, stationery and candles. Christian Lacroix does not produce anything itself, but instead works as a licensee, teaming up with experts across these various fields.
So how would Walckhoff describe the brand then – and now? “It’s still the same words, but with those words you can do many things. For me, it’s joie de vivre, it’s colourful, it’s very generous; it’s a brand that mixes, which is so important. Lacroix is very modern and very ‘now’ because of that. It’s the south of France, the sun, joy and healthy living, but it’s also Paris, which is elegant and chic. It’s all these things mixed together.”
Which makes Walckhoff’s next admission – that he is actually, at heart, a minimalist – all the more unexpected. But in order to express his seemingly contradictory creative leanings, he has been taking on the odd side project, designing collectable objets d’art for a gallery in France, as well as Reverso, a range of sculptural, topsy-turvy accessories that can serve as glasses or vases, depending on how you use them, for the Prague-based glass manufacturer Verreum.
“I wanted to do things that were more reflective of my own personality. I was brought up in Switzerland, so I am quite minimal. Even if people laugh when I say that. I really like beautiful shapes and simple, strong ideas,” Walckhoff explains.
“Lacroix is a huge part of my life, but I cannot express everything that I have in me at Lacroix. It’s a brand with a very strong DNA and it’s difficult to move away from that because it doesn’t make sense for the customer.”
Most recently, Walckhoff designed a family of stools called One to Three, for Verreum. In a major coup for the UAE, the stools made their global debut at O’de Rose boutique during Dubai Design Week. Made from silvered blown glass, the three stools flow seamlessly into one another, even though they differ radically in shape. The smallest, with its sturdy tam-tam-esque proportions, has a distinctly tribal feel; the second is more slender and neoclassical – more European, perhaps; and the third is taller – a place to perch, but not rest.
For Walckhoff, the three stools symbolise three very different eras in human evolution – the tribal, the occidental and the nomadic. “Those three heights reflect three moments in the development of humanity, but also three very different moods. Sometimes you want to be closer to the earth, on something that is more comfortable; sometimes you want to be a bit higher, a bit more elegant, and sometimes you don’t want to linger for too long.”
If he has learnt one lesson from his tumultuous time at Lacroix, it is the importance of function as well as form. “I have started seeing that the same thing is happening in design that happened in fashion a few years ago: sometimes it’s just ideas for the sake of ideas. I think things are successful when people can really use them. It’s not just an idea – it has to be real, people need to be happy to use it.”
In the process, Walckhoff has realised that whether you are designing items of clothing or objects for the home, the process is not so different. “I am the guy who has the idea but doesn’t know how to do anything with his hands,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s the same in fashion, it’s the same in design. What I do is talk, talk, talk, do a bit of designing and then rely on the amazing people around me who have the skills to create the things.”
Back at Christian Lacroix, the focus now is on producing the brand’s first-ever collection of furniture, which Walckhoff hopes will be launched by 2017. And can we ever hope to see womenswear from the storied fashion house again, I wonder? “For the fashion, I must say it is more complicated. We have this past, which is quite heavy. A lot of people remember the fashion, and remember that it didn’t sell.
“It’s also a huge investment. Of course, I would love to go there. Perhaps not myself, personally, because I am not a fresh young designer anymore. But I see people now, from the younger generation of designers, who could definitely do Lacroix. If we had the possibility and the budget, I would love to do what Hermès is doing, having several artistic directors for several different departments, I think it’s very wise. I would really like to go to that kind of model for Lacroix. But this is in my dreams, because for the moment we don’t have the budget. But this is how I believe Lacroix should evolve in the future.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 10.
Updated: December 9, 2015 04:00 AM