Friday, January 30, 2009

Interview with Maria Luisa Poumaillou

Her unique outlook and intuitive buying style has made Maria Luisa Poumaillou one of the most iconic and influential women in Paris. Owner and buyer of the directional Maria Luisa boutique, she has been feeding the Parisian’s discerning appetite for style for over two decades. Here, talks to the woman behind the boutique about her passion for new talent and freedom of expression.

2009 sees the 21st year of the Maria Luisa boutique in the fashionable Saint Honoré district, how did you make your start in the industry?

Maria Luisa: I’d say almost by accident. My husband and I were associated to this friend who had designed a collection and we were supposed to open a store with her, on rue Cambon where our first boutique was located. We clashed so both friendship and shop project sank. We ended up with an empty store which we had already invested money in. I decided to call all the designers I liked and had seen from magazines and asked them to carry their collection. Naively, when they asked me which other designers I carried, I mentioned the names of the other designers I just had called – and it worked! I think I already had a strong taste, but I didn’t know much how things worked at the time!

What were the first labels to be stocked and how have these names evolved since your first buy with them?

Maria Luisa: There are not many comments to make about the designers that I carried right from the opening of the store: Martine Sitbon – which I have always carried until today under the Rue du Mail label; John Galliano - what is there to say?; Helmut Lang - I was the first one to buy him here, before the 90’s – so influential. I could also mention Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons. A lot of the brands I used to carry have disappeared since then, but still, we used to have such a huge success with Jean Colonna and Patrick Kelly. Also Rifat Ozbek and some other designers have become huge under their own names or in houses.

You’re renowned for a unique and intuitive buying style and when the first Maria Luisa boutique opened, Saint Honoré was considered a very traditional, couture-focused area. What was the reaction to your radical buying style?

Maria Luisa: We have had a very strong press support right from the beginning. Of course, commercially speaking, it wasn’t an easy task, but there was a freshness at the opening of the store that people really liked. The fashionistas, editors, models etc made it a success pretty early on. I think people were just plain excited to see something new with new designers around. Remember what the ‘houses’ like Dior etc looked like at the time - they were boring. Afterwards, so many of these designers ended up taking the lead in the houses, Galliano, McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Margiela at Hermès etc. It was an exciting time because people wanted a new direction, a new way of conceiving fashion, different from the traditional ‘bourgeois’ luxury from that time - a new silhouette, like Margiela’s or Helmut’s.

The boutique presents a real diversity in its collection. With names as disparate as Ann Demuelemeester and Charles Anastase, how do you begin to curate such a collection?

Maria Luisa: What we like in fashion is the freedom to be whoever you like. There are so many different styles, identities. I don’t like being stuck in a style rut – even though I have my own favourite designers of course. What our designers have in common is their talent, their creativity, but also the ability of surprising us. They also have to be efficient at their work - it is not only about ‘art’ - they also have to deal with the reality of everyday life. I guess what we are doing is the total opposite of big group’s logics - we want to transmit our enthusiasm, the things we are excited about, basically we want to relay these designers to the consumer. We are not pushing in only one direction like today’s marketing, but we want to feel free. Not that we are running after new things just for the sake of it, everything should be justified somehow. It sounds complex and messy but it makes sense in the end, it works in the store – it’s our secret recipe I guess.

In 1998, you introduced Manolo Blahnik to Maria Luisa, with just a handful of stockists outside of the Manolo Blahnik stores, having the collection exclusively in France must be a great asset to the boutique?

Maria Luisa: Yes, I guess it is an asset for the store, but it is also a partnership, a kind of mutual recognition. It is the best product, in terms of quality and style, such an exquisite taste, we are so happy to work with him. You know, it is like a Rolls Royce, you can’t find much better!

After several incarnations through the years, the Maria Luisa boutique now consists of a menswear boutique and the newly opened womenswear boutique on Rouget de L’Isle. What was the concept behind the store design and what kind of atmosphere did you want to achieve?

Maria Luisa: We have never been a ‘concept store’ so there was no other concept behind the store than to give our intuitive buying a frame for a unique shopping experience. We have never had impressive or obnoxious boutiques, we like the idea of our store open to new ideas as a gallery, but in a more lively way!

As part of your commitment to new talent, you’re a partner of the International Talent Support (ITS), a project which offers a platform for young creatives. Can you tell us about the project and the role of the Maria Luisa Award within it?

Maria Luisa: The dedicated team of ITS contacted us very early at the start of their organisation and we liked their project and also the way they see fashion, it’s pretty similar to ours actually. We are part of the jury who decides who wins the awards, but we also have our own ‘Maria Luisa’ award. It is more of an opportunity than an award in itself - it depends on the designer and what they want to do - most of them have only just graduated and we like to support their vision as much as we can. Some of them need contacts for a job in a house or an internship with one of our designers, some of them use our shop as a showroom during Fashion Week when they launch their own collection, like Peter Pilotto or Justin Smith (JSmith Esquire), some of them just want to do displays to include in their portfolios etc. I think basically we are there to help them in their first steps in the professional word of fashion. But we don’t only do that for people who get this award, we asked Heikki Salonen, who got the Diesel Award to produce a small collection for us. We also check a lot of schools around the world and of course support Hyères Festival.

You decided to join the project and were one of the original boutique partners for the launch in 2008, how important do you feel the role of e-commerce is for emerging and established fashion labels and boutiques?

Maria Luisa: E-commerce has to be integrated now for all sorts of businesses today. Not doing it would be like still riding a horse when there are already cars. Even though you can still ride a horse and own a car.

What new labels can we expect to see from the boutique for Spring/Summer 09?

Maria Luisa: The US duo Ohne Titel - one of the best collection of the season - with Helmut Lang infused looks and innovative knitwear; the Finnish Heikki Salonen with a collection discovered at ITS; Olivier Borde with a menswear collection first shown in Hyères Festival - very refined and childhood inspired; the jewellery of Arielle de Pinto - thinly knitted webs of silver and gold chains.

Ohne Titel

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