Why fashion designer Chantal Thomas has a 'deep loathing of trends'

·6-min read
Fashion designer Chantal Thomass

A unique and rare auction will be held in April and May, dedicated to the style and work of Chantal Thomass. The Millon auction house will present no fewer than 270 pieces, ready-to-wear and accessories, which collectors will be able to buy online and during a live auction. A few weeks before the event, the famous fashion designer spoke to us about the birth of this project, the unique style that made her famous worldwide, and her vision of today's fashion.

What led to the choice of a retrospective auction instead of a more traditional exhibition?
In 2019, the Joyce Gallery in Paris held an exhibition dedicated to me called "Personal Dressing": I exhibited my objects, my photos, my collaborations and also part of my fashion archives. This exhibition piqued the curiosity of the expert Didier Ludot, whom I knew well and who asked to see all the pieces; pieces preciously archived near Paris in a room with a constant temperature of 15 degrees. The idea of an auction was quickly raised, and the collaboration with the Millon auction house brought it to life. My work has been frequently exhibited in the past. This auction is a different way to introduce new generations to my fashion work, for them to discover the genesis of Chantal Thomass... My universe was not born ex nihilo! There was also a desire to give new life to these clothes that women will be able to acquire and wear.

Your name is often associated with lingerie even though you started your career in fashion. What made you want to design undergarments?
I had a natural penchant for lace and silk, which I worked with in my designs. My travels and curiosity led me to visit workshops and museums to discover different techniques. That's how I learned about the Leavers looms in Calais and the silk manufacturers in Lyon, as well as the lingerie of the interwar period and the 1950s. So I reworked corsets or bustiers in men's fabrics to be worn over turtlenecks and lacy nightgown-style dresses for the day. They say 'the devil is in the details,' and I am all about the details! It occurred to me that these outfits, so considered, so thought out, deserved lingerie worthy of the name. My generation only wore it out of necessity or they burned it in protest! So I revisited lingerie with colors and materials that are comfortable and not usually used for lingerie. The lingerie went with my fashion designs and quickly became an 'accessory' to them. I dared to reveal it at the opening of a masculine-style shirt or skirts slit to the extreme. I allowed women to be playful with their underwear, to have fun with it. That's the moment when lingerie became fashion. And I would like to note that I designed fashion and lingerie collections so that women would feel beautiful, confident, strong and seductive for themselves first of all!

Your style has often been described as irreverent. What does that mean to you?
Whether something is judged irreverent or not comes down to the eye of the beholder. I prefer to think of my style as the meeting of true fantasy and a certain idea of femininity... The whole thing liberally sprinkled with humor. And when you have a sense of humor, seduction is also a game.

If you had to choose just one piece from this sale, which one would you choose?
All of these pieces have a story and represent 'a moment in life'. There is the 'horsewoman bride' in an immaculate XXL down jacket (lot 45): I approached Moncler in the '80s and '90s -- still based in Grenoble [France] at the time -- to work on theatrically-styled down jackets that I had conceived, with the desire to 'hijack' a specialized sportswear garment to imbue it with 'fashion' in order to put oneself on stage in one's real life. This resulted in voluminous, enveloping, 'featherweight' pieces that are comfortable for both day and evening. I also have happy memories linked to an outfit worn by Isabelle Adjani for the César Awards in 1984 (lot 191). I worked with Parisian feather makers from the beginning on coats, jackets, boleros: it's warm, light and easy to roll up in a suitcase. For Isabelle Adjani, I designed an outfit that was light, comfortable, and spectacular in matte white -- like a backdrop for her beauty -- far removed from what was being worn on the red carpet at the time!

What's your view of current fashion?
I have a certain fondness for Chanel and Alexander McQueen. These houses work extraordinarily well with black, and the cuts are impeccable. The careers of the two founders are fascinating. I still remember the incredible "Savage Beauty" exhibition at the V&A dedicated to the late artist Alexander McQueen and I was lucky enough to see the Gabrielle Chanel "Fashion Manifesto" exhibition at the Galliera museum [in Paris] before the lockdown and closure of museums. Anyway, I have a deep loathing of trends and their cohort of diktats: it is one's differences and personality that one must cultivate!

Femininity, self-affirmation, and diversity have been at the heart of your universe for nearly four decades. How do you explain that these subjects are still at the heart of the debate in 2021?
Ideas and desires sometimes move faster than society, and standardization tends to erase the rough edges. My shows were a joyful mix of femininity, sweet extravagances and personality. I asked the models to take ownership of my fashions, to smile, to exist on the catwalk, to be themselves. All these beauties were unique and different: Grace Jones, Sayoko, Inès de la Fressange and later Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Eva Herzigova.

The corset, a garment you are very familiar with, is making a comeback. Is this good or bad news for women?
It's good news because I have always loved, worked with and valued the corset. It is a highly technical piece that was a real object of torture in the distant past. I have always tried to expose and reappropriate the corset -- for instance with 'masculine' fabrics -- and make it as flattering and comfortable as possible. I like sophistication for women but freedom of movement, so from the beginning I worked closely with manufacturers to give 'elasticity' and comfort to the laces and fabrics I used. And in particular thanks to the elastane. Today, many curvy women wear corsets to enhance their shape and accentuate and highlight an 'hourglass' silhouette.

Who are the current designers that you follow closely?
I had a lot of fun discovering the work of the young designer Charles de Vilmorin: it's different, playful, spectacular... An explosion of color in these dull times! It's as if Niki de Saint Phalle, Kansai Yamamoto and my friend Jean-Charles de Castelbajac all came together. There is also a whole generation of accessory designers that move me -- and that I wear: the delicate cuffs of Catherine Osti and the surrealist brooches of Céleste Mogador. They're my lucky charms!

* Madame Chantal Thomass '40 years of fashion' - Auction sale at Drouot Paris, Thursday, May 6, 2021, 2PM Paris time. Exhibition May 4, 5 & 6, 2021 at Drouot Paris - Online sale from April 19 to May 8, 2021 via Millon.com .

This interview was translated from French.

Christelle Pellissier