When Catherine Malandrino says her brand is a labor of love, she’s not just talking about the clothes. As recounted in the book Catherine Malandrino, out this month from Assouline, the designer’s launch of her eponymous label was both inspired and precipitated by a trip to Manhattan in 1997, over the course of which she fell hard for one Bernard Aidan. “This is when I felt I could create my label,” elaborates the French-born designer. “The encounter with Bernard made it possible. I met my partner in life, and in business.” Indeed, within a year of that first tête-à-tête, Malandrino and Aidan had bid adieu to Paris and set up shop in the Soho loft where the first Catherine Malandrino collection was shown. The designer has been sharing the love ever since, channeling her passions for cultural matter as varied as Easy Rider, Def Poetry Jam, and the Amish into a signature Malandrino style that is at once romantic and bodacious. As she celebrates her brand’s tenth year of business, Malandrino talks to Style.com about the boringness of mountain towns, the brilliance of Mary J. Blige, and why she avoids the word “fashion.”
As different as your collections are, season to season, there’s always an identifiable something about the clothes. I’ve always attributed that to the fact that you must design with a particular woman in mind. Do you?
Not one woman, no. I think, you know, I began to be a designer because I grew up in Grenoble, in the mountains, and there was nothing very inspirational there in terms of fashion. So I created this fantasy—a woman to die for. Sensual, elegant, chic. And when I started my label, I felt like this woman wasn’t existing in fashion so much, especially not a chic woman who could show some leg. If you think back to 1998, everything then was very minimal and hard. I wanted to bring color, bring lightness. But also to use these kinds of clothes to express strength. Strength through romance, strength through sensuality. So I don’t design for any one particular woman, no, but I think every season about how to design for every woman with this kind of sensibility.
Over the years, you’ve taken a lot of inspiration from American black culture—notably, for example, there was the Hallelujah show at the Apollo in 2001.
There is something special for me about the black culture here. I find something very beautiful and unique in it. For me, one of the highlights of my career as a designer was this show at the Apollo Theater. I was living up in Harlem at the time, and so much of the collection had come from that experience, you know, on Sunday watching the ladies go to church in their fancy hats, these kinds of observations. I felt I could not do the show anywhere but in that neighborhood, but everyone was saying to me, no, no, no, no one will come to a show in Harlem, you’re still a new designer, you must go to the tents. Instead, we got a great crowd, and I had the cover of WWD the next day. So, there you go. It was the right thing to do, and it showed.
You do put on a good show. There was the Urban Queen show at Roseland—Mary J. Blige sang!
That collection was an homage to her. For me, Mary singing—that is the emotion of a woman. I was with her as she prepared her album The Breakthrough at the same time that I was working on the collection, and it was such an inspirational experience, to see the music get made. And she’s still a great inspiration to me—I love her music and her style, and as a friend, her energy gives me so much.
She’s co-hosting the opening of your store in L.A., too. How did you two become friends?
It’s a funny story—I saw that she was wearing my dress in a magazine, and I thought she looked beautiful, so I wrote her a note and told her so. That evening, it happened to be my birthday and I was having a little thing, and in the note, I invited her to come. We were sitting down to dinner at my party when the phone rang—she was on her way, was it too late? We’ve had a good friendship ever since.
I understand you’ve got some new initiatives afoot at the L.A. store. Do tell.
I’m calling it my “Maison“—because, for me, the main thing is that this place begins to express more fully the Catherine Malandrino lifestyle. Everything in the space is created with that idea—the scent, the decor, the music. We are opening a café in the boutique, as well; this is very new for me. I’m also going to be stocking some reissued pieces from my archives, things women sometimes have asked me to do again. I like this. For me, you know, I don’t make clothes just to cover the body, and I don’t make costumes—I make clothes that allow women to express themselves. Express their femininity, express their strength. If I’ve made some pieces that really do that, and feel timeless and sexy and great, then I’m glad to make them available again.
What is the Catherine Malandrino lifestyle? Can you elaborate?
Maybe the best way to explain is simply to say that I don’t really like the word fashion. Timeless style, way of living—I prefer any of these. I don’t think women want fashion, not really. They want to be themselves, in a beautiful way. And this doesn’t only apply to clothes. I think my woman wants to make a beautiful life for herself, a life that’s full of pleasure. And a life full of possibility. That’s the wonderful thing about clothes—the right ones can make you feel free.