x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Every stitch and detail has a purpose'

It's been a long road up the ladder but the designer Sophie Theallet has reached the top by learning from the masters and seeing Michelle Obama in one of her designs.

Sophie Theallet worked with Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia before starting her own label.
Sophie Theallet worked with Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia before starting her own label.

The designer Sophie Theallet on learning from the masters and dressing Michelle Obama. I grew up in a small town in the South of France. It was a very quiet town. We spent our summers in Biarritz and winters at a ski resort called La Mongie. I am the youngest and the only girl, with five older brothers, so naturally I learnt to defend myself. But at the same time, I was very nurturing and feminine. My father was a well-respected doctor but he was not bounded by any conventions. He was a modern thinker, a unique individual who did not care about anyone's judgments and a free man. So, for me, he was a great inspiration. He always encouraged me to be myself. My mother, on the other hand, was a very grounded woman. She was our family's rock.

After high school, I moved to Paris to attend Studio Berçot. However, I did not finish the programme because I won the International Young Designer Award and right away I was commissioned to design my own collection for Printemps. The biggest lesson I learnt in school was to work very hard. A lot of other students were going out and just shopping to look cool but I always wanted to be the best. I wanted to stay in Paris and work with the best.

After winning the award, I started working at Jean Paul Gaultier. I loved the idea that Gaultier was a new breed of designer, more like what was coming out of London (I was a big fan of Vivienne Westwood). I also worked with Martin Margiela. We were all like fashion rebels. I learnt from Gaultier to be fearless, to not be scared of your ideas and to have a unique voice. With him, I learnt my individual colour palette and to create stories.

I also spent more than 10 years as Azzedine Alaïa's right-hand woman, which was one of the best experiences I've ever had. At the Alaïa house, you touch everything - you work on knitwear, shoes, bags, press, celebrities... Working with Alaïa is a living commitment almost like becoming a monk or joining a nunnery. I was totally immersed in the world of couture. I learnt the tradition, the respect and the craft of dressmaking, and that every stitch and detail has a purpose. My eyes were forever changed; a fitting of Alaïa is an experience of pure genius.

I always thought that I needed to learn with a master and it never crossed my mind to do my own line before owning my craft. I finally started my own line for the spring/summer 2007 season. It happened naturally. I decided I wanted to live in the United States with my husband, and with my particular qualifications I could not be an assistant any more. The design process is very painful for me because my mind and thoughts need to be entirely focused on it. During this period, I go out for walks to clear my head. I come from a design background where you do not copy or take an idea from someone else. So I have to create everything from scratch each season.

I sit at my desk for hours and wait for the first drawing to show up. Sometimes it takes forever, but there's usually a marvellous moment when, after I've thrown many sketches in the rubbish bin, everything gets very clear. In that instant I know exactly what I want. Then my ideas just pour out. I'm aware of trends because it's something you feel. For my own collections, the ideas come from the heart. I often say that I design clothes for an intelligent woman, one who knows herself and her worth: she demands respect and loves to be desired in a subtle and refined way.

I also believe in the way clothes are done, in the way workers get paid, and I respect the amount of work that's involved. I am very proud that all my clothes are made in the United States. My partner works closely with factories, and people are proud to make beautiful clothes and to be respected for their craft. Recently, I was so thrilled that Michelle Obama wore my dress to the unveiling of the statue of Sojourner Truth because freedom and equality is dear to my heart. From the business side of things, I was happy that people finally recognised I am a French-born American designer with an American label. But on a personal level, it was a great honour. I really love the Obamas and the hope they inspire all around the globe.