The creative director of Nina Ricci talks about his feminine vision for the genteel fashion house.
Peter Copping: recapturing the spirit of Nina Ricci
It seems an eminently appropriate setting for an interview with the creative director of the genteel fashion house of Nina Ricci. On the corner of the Avenue Montaigne and the rue François 1er, just across the road from the pale grey façade of Dior, this is the heart of Paris's "triangle d'or", where the very well-off do a spot of shopping, before stopping at L'Avenue for a prohibitively expensive salad and an Evian.
In through a side door on François 1er and up in the lift, through a fabric and book-strewn office, the designer's airy room is filled with delicately coloured flowers, giant bouquets and tastefully extravagant arrangements sent by admirers after his latest triumphant show. Sitting quietly among the blooms is Peter Copping, the softly spoken, rather unassuming designer who arrived nearly two years ago after the house parted ways with the much-loved Olivier Theyskens.
Copping has lived in Paris for nearly two decades but, he insists, he is "one hundred per cent English still".
Certainly, his gentle manner and quiet, precise voice, which for all his Englishness bears the inflections of a long-term French speaker, appear a long way from the gesticulating passion of the Parisians or the straight-talking brashness associated with the New Yorkers with whom he has previously worked.
And following Theyskens, who was fêted by fashion editors around the world for his melancholy but resolutely uncommercial Gothic vision, couldn't have been easy for a man who clearly prefers to remain behind the scenes. "Obviously, I understand that at Nina Ricci they want someone as the figurehead of the house who becomes known and is in the public domain. So I guess I'll get used to it," he says. He certainly tends to look a little bashful when he comes out for his bow at the end of each show - he's no Galliano, posing for the crowd. "It kind of goes with the job, but if I could do a Margiela I would," he says, referring to the famously elusive designer who used to attend his own shows incognito.
Still, at Louis Vuitton, where he designed under the creative director Marc Jacobs, he had what he calls a "pretty good apprenticeship" for this job. Jacobs is a man who appears to love and court the attention he receives, but he won't deny his friends and colleagues their moment in the spotlight, says Copping. "Marc was always very generous and good at Louis Vuitton in that he was very open about it being team work so he would delegate a lot of his roles, because in part he was sharing his time always between New York and Paris, so he had to make sure things were happening. He'd even allow me to communicate on the Cruise collections and the pre-fall collections, so I had to meet the press and that allowed me to form some contacts with the press already."
Luckily for Copping, Nina Ricci remains a very "discreet" house, both in aesthetic and in ethos, its pieces exclusive, rare and labour-intensive and its shows small and intimate - and very hot tickets at fashion week. "It's not a showy house," he says. "That's why the first show was in the salon here, and that really appealed to a lot of people. We were obliged to go to a much larger venue last season to accommodate more press and buyers, but I wanted to find a sense of intimacy in some ways, so we reduced the size of it by curtaining it off."
The bigger shows have reflected a recession-busting uptake in sales since Copping's arrival - an increase of roughly 45 per cent for the pre-fall collection, for example. His take on the Nina Ricci identity has celebrities falling over themselves to wear the autumn/winter collection on the red carpet. So what's changed from the Theyskens days?
"It was just to really go back to the essence of the house, and for me that comes through as very feminine, very French, pretty, so I just tried to capture all of that. And then it's important for me to try to develop certain codes that will eventually become recognisable - the colour palette, the rose, ribbons: I'll always do those."
It is a collection of exquisite delicacy, and the spring/summer 2011 collection continues in a similar, though simpler, vein.
"I felt that what's quite good about it is that there are no iconic pieces that she left, not like if you think of all the pieces at Saint Laurent that everyone knows. So I think her legacy was much more about a spirit, and it's important that I recapture that."
The flowers, floral prints, softly rippling silks and appliquéd roses of the autumn collection, which is currently available, have been inspired by Copping's research into the Belle Époque, a style by which any inhabitant of Paris is surrounded, with the sinuous lines of the Metro stations and the beautifully carved corners of splendid buildings of the era.
"I found a book on the designer Lucile that had just come out, and her career spanned a very long period but it was mainly the things she did during the Belle Époque that I was drawn to. I liked the use of flowers, the corsages on the clothing, and that took me to looking at corsetry. I think women quite like to wear them again because it defines their figure, but it was important to me that they were comfortable so most of them in the back had stretch panels of lace, so you've got the fit but not the discomfort. And because I didn't want it to look too saccharine and over the top, I took some inspiration from the rawness of the choreographer Pina Bausch. We spent a lot of time making all the clothes carefully and then pressing them really badly to give them a crushed quality."
You can see why this would appeal to modern women, so many of whom are subject to that feminine dichotomy of wanting to look glamorous and beautiful while demanding to be taken seriously in a world until recently run by men. The new minimalism of the past two seasons - Celine, Chloé and so on - certainly caters to the serious woman, but it's not an aesthetic that Copping has designs on.
"For the first collection we presented a collection that people were saying was perfect timing for Nina Ricci because it was a very romantic season, so what do you do when things take a different direction? I think you have to stay loyal to whatever your brand is. I think it's still very much about feminitiy, but it's maybe less romantic, and I think a lot of people such as Prada were really looking at the body of a woman and how she dresses. It's still a feminine silhouette where the waist was defined and the bust was considered. And in my work, I always like to define the waist in coats, dresses, everything. I think women who have waists like to show them off." This emphasis on the womanly figure is perhaps the only remnant of Copping's early days in Paris, when, as a student in London, he would visit the French capital to attend the fashion week. "This was in the 1980s and it was the height of the Japanese designers. Then you had Gaultier, Montana - the Belgian designers hadn't really come on the scene at that point but then they arrived and brought something different as well. It's always been a very exciting place for me. I've always been attracted by that kind of luxury market and that French woman."
The almost bionic woman of Montana and early Gaultier couldn't be further from the fragrant creature that Copping dresses, but there is one unifying feature, and it's the most important of all: the clientele. He sums up the character he is selling: "It's about a strong woman who's very feminine." And isn't that what we all aspire to be?