Sophie Théallet knows a thing or two about fairy tales—of the contemporary variety. The free-spirited fashionista who once sewed dresses for her dolls has spent the last decade quietly defining her métier and tirelessly designing her namesake line of simple, exuberant dresses. Recently, though, it seems that a magic wand has touched this passionate 46-year-old French woman.
During the past year or so, her label has been worn by couture-conscious celebrities including actress Sarah Jessica Parker and First Lady Michelle Obama. Her fashions have been deemed “flattering and feminine” by the Wall Street Journal and said to “give pleasure rather than seek attention” by The New York Times. Her creative flair and impeccable precision were singled out for a prestigious design award. And her creations so endeared her to the editors of Vogue that the venerable glossy flaunted her work half a dozen times; editor-in-chief Anna Wintour described her as “a very rare creature in fashion these days.”
Rare indeed. Both Théallet’s personality and her collection are imbued with a sense of grace and ease. There’s not a lot of la-di-da, just lovely little hand-finished flourishes here and there in the form of perfect pin-tucking, crinkled chiffon and delicate little ruffles—the type of exquisite craftsmanship that prompted Wintour to laud her for the “reminder that a strong technical foundation is priceless.”
Théallet recently traded the tiny workspace afforded by her Brooklyn atelier for more spacious digs in Manhattan’s trendy Fashion District. But before packing up her sewing machines, bolts of fabric and dress forms draped with next season’s designs, she talked with France Magazine about fashion, punk music … and fairy tales.
When were you first drawn to fashion? Rumor has it that when you were eight, you were already creating dresses for your dolls.
I had five older brothers, so as a little girl, I was kind of a tomboy. Yet I still played with dolls. I liked to read fairy tales. And I always drew princess dresses. I grew up in the South of France, and when I was a teenager, I visited my cousins in London. That was a revelation. It was the peak of the punk movement, and I loved music. At the same time, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren really inspired me with their strong fashions. I thought they went together quite well.
Music and fashion? How so?
I need music in my life. I love silence too, but if you think about it, there is music even in silence. Music is a sort of personal expression. And Westwood and McLaren created fashions that similarly made a statement. At the time, I was 14 years old, so I didn't exactly get the full sense of it. Yet after my experience in London, I decided to attend Studio Berçot, the fashion design school in Paris, which I loved.
Was studying fashion different than what you’d expected?
In the beginning, yes, it was different. The school didn't play punk music, and it was hard work! [Théallet laughs.] But at the same time, I enjoyed it, and when you do any job that you enjoy, you do your best.
After graduating from Studio Berçot, many young designers try to launch their own labels. Yet you chose to work for Jean Paul Gaultier. Why?
I wanted to learn from the greatest. It was the 1980s, and Gaultier was huge. It was a fantastic experience, I was totally immersed in the Paris fashion scene. It reminded me a little of my time in London. Gaultier created a lot of things for people in the music world, so I met Boy George and all these other celebrities. But it’s not just that it was way cool to see rock stars. It’s that what we were designing was so chic.
And after that, you spent a decade as the right hand of Azzedine Alaïa, who has what seems to be an opposite approach to fashion.
Not opposite. Complementary. For me, it was the perfect choice. Gaultier is a free spirit and was doing what he thought was right at the right moment. He was playing. With Alaïa, it was more about the world of couture, but there was a lot of creativity there too. The creativity was in the rigor of his couture, the way that he cut the clothes.
Did you take away any lasting lessons from these designers?
This is what fashion is about: You play, you work, you learn, you maintain a proper balance, and you keep in mind the fantasy of fashion. Both of these designers embraced those qualities. It was crazy, going out every night and going to work every morning. But I’m happy I did it because my life has changed. I’m much more responsible now. But you need to have the craziness. You need to know that you have to work, but at the same time, you need to have fun with what you do. That is the creative process.
Does your French background and training continue to influence your work?
Living in New York for more than 10 years has completely changed my way of looking at things. That said, I grew up in France and learned in the best ateliers in France.
My training is the backbone of my work, yet my creativity is borderless.
Where do you find inspiration for that creativity?
I look at life outside of work. I read a book. Or look at art. Or see an article or a TV show about traveling. Even when I share a bottle of wine with friends, I find inspiration.
I’m always inspired by native cultures, especially by Pueblo Indians. Their work is really beautiful. I try to reinterpret this beauty through the eyes of couture fashion, yet some crafts cannot be realistically reinterpreted. Sometimes it can look a little too hippy-ish. But I take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and eventually I get a dress. That’s what fashion is, it’s capturing the essence of life.
Do you have a muse?
My muse is women. All women in one. No one body is perfect. For me, it’s more about thinking of a woman’s body in terms of wanting her to look the best she can. Not in a way that’s overtly sexy and reveals everything. I love to play with the subtleties. I prefer that the mind be involved, that women be attractive in a way that makes you have to find something, like a message. Something more subtle.
In the past you’ve described your look as “bohemian luxe seen through the eyes of a sophisticated couturier.” Could you give us a single word that defines your fashions?
Freedom, I think. Freedom that looks chic. We want to have easy clothes, we want to be able to breathe and move and look really chic all at the same time. And we can.
How would you describe your personal style?
I have a lot of respect for flea markets and secondhand stores, for clothes that aren’t expensive but look good. If you have a good look and are confident, you can be really beautiful without a designer label on your back. Or you can mix designer fashions with flea market finds. I don’t think most women realize that. Fashion isn’t just philosophy, it has its own sort of energy.
Are there any design flourishes that you’re partial to?
I love the little ruffle. And I love to play with color. I love seeing a simple dress but then— boom!—there is a color that makes it really different and right and fashionable.
Speaking of flourishes, there’s a lovely little melody on your Web site, although it’s not exactly punk. Where did it come from?
It’s an arrangement by Henri Scars Struck. He’s the composer who does the music for all of my shows. I like to show that you really can transport someone through clothes and music. He and I discuss the connection between music and my fashion, and he creates a different composition for each collection. I love his work. He makes music that takes you somewhere else, that opens your heart.
When you are working, do you ever find yourself thinking like that girl who designed princess dresses and believed she could magically transform things?
I treat cotton as though it was the richest fabric. I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s not chic. It’s a noble fabric. You wash it, and you’re ready to go. There’s nothing better. That’s something that is very important to me, that my clothes are very wearable.
Last fall, you were honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund, which singled you out among countless emerging designers. It’s been said that it takes a decade to become an overnight sensation. Would you agree?
Yes, I would. It doesn’t just happen. I don’t even know if you feel it when it happens. And what does success really mean? I think you have to continue to work and to look at yourself and to be proud every day and not just wait for success. I want that sense of bien-être, the way you feel about yourself when you are complete. I want to always feel that I can breathe, not like I’m always waiting for that moment when I won’t be under a tremendous amount of pressure. For me, it’s not about success, but about well-being.
Is it very different to be an entrepreneur in New York compared with Paris?
I think that in Paris, being an entrepreneur is more of a weight, more of a worry. The energy here in America is such that if you work, you can make it. It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, that’s part of the game, so you deal with it.
What made you decide to leave Paris?
[Théallet points at Steve Francoeur, her husband and business partner.] That guy. I’m someone who moves with my feelings. So I go where my heart tells me to go. When he went to New York City, I went to New York City. And I fell in love—with the city.
And they lived happily ever after? The prince, the princess and her design studio?
[Théallet smiles.] Yes. So far I have no regrets. It’s a happy little life.