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August 2 2014

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Julie de Libran Is Finally Ready to Be the Face of a Brand

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Julie de LibranJulie de Libran is the new woman at Sonia Rykiel. The French house grew to fame in the seventies for its chic striped knits and little crepe dresses, but successive designers have failed to recapture the gamine charm of its legendary founder, who stepped down several years ago. With her recent experience at Louis Vuitton, where she was studio director of women’s ready-to-wear under Marc Jacobs, not to mention her previous stints at Prada and Versace, De Libran is poised to change that. The Paris-based designer hopped on the phone for an update on the state of the label before settling into the new gig this week. On her mind: Rykiel’s playful, feminine legacy, “desirable clothes,” and why she’s finally ready to be the face of a brand.

Sonia Rykiel is legendary, especially in France. Do you have early memories of the brand?
Absolutely, it talks to me so much. I was born in the seventies, and those were [Rykiel's] stronger years. My mother wore it, and when we moved to America when I was 8, it became one of my French references. Later, my mother gave me a lot of pieces; they’re part of my archive now. I love them: the quality, the techniques of the knits. I have an amazing little crepe shorts suit in black, it’s so stunning. They’re treasured pieces.

What do you feel you can bring to the brand that will help revive it?
When I first met with them and they told me it was for Sonia Rykiel, I literally had goose bumps. She was such an important woman of her time. She started in ’68, a time of revolution in France. She was Saint Germain. The kids in the street, politics, cinema—she was in the middle of all that. I think she had so much to say. I really could react to it, because for me, she was as strong as Saint Laurent was at that time. And Kenzo.
I’ve always been influenced by her work; she’s always been very present in my aesthetic. Her customer is a woman who is quite feminine and playful. You feel that her woman is happy, not too complicated. Rykiel always had a hat or a fox fur gilet, or some marabou, or a funky shoe. There was always a twist to her outfits; it was fun. It’s about desirable clothes, with a twist, of course. Nothing she did was flat, ever.

You succeed Geraldo da Conceicao. Does your being a woman make you better qualified to take up the reins?
It’s more a personal thing. When I was asked, I reacted to it right away. For me, personally, it made a lot of sense. I just have so much I want to do with it. I’m interested in working with the whole universe of Sonia Rykiel, not just the ready-to-wear, but creating a whole story around it, a home collection, a children’s collection. I don’t want to say lifestyle, but it’s a universe. I always like a story. Obviously I do want to go into the archives, but I don’t want to make it literal. It’s so open for me.

Sonia RykielWhat are some of the first things you want to do?

I’ve met some of the family, but I haven’t met Sonia (left) yet. I can’t wait to meet her. That’s the first thing I want to do. Something also very important is to see the archive and get to meet all the teams that are there. I love that I’ll be able to walk in through the store in the morning, to have a closer relationship with the clients. It’s actually the neighborhood where I live, I’m a Saint Germain woman today. After always working for very big companies, I feel like Rykiel is more like a little treasure. I can’t wait to start designing, choosing fabrics, materials, threads. I’m already thinking of September because time goes so fast, and then I hope little by little to get involved with everything.

So, the ateliers are above the store on Saint Germain?
Yes! Everything is there. And I love that idea. Sonia Rykiel’s first shop at Rue Grenelle had a little staircase, and her office was upstairs. She could hear the women coming into the shops, and would listen to their comments from upstairs. She learned so much from the people coming in. Today, you really want to get closer to your clients, because fashion moves so fast. I like the idea of something a little bit more intimate, really designing for those specific women. Of course, I won’t be able to have a relationship with all the clients because at some point I hope it’s a huge success around the world. But I’d like to have a bit more proximity. [It's important] to hear from customers: They have different bodies, different needs, different lives. All designers need a bit more of that. Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention.

When you’re answering to management, to public relations, and so forth, I bet it can be easy to lose track of the shopper.
Yeah, you get a list of the things that you need to fill in. You fill in the box of all the categories you have to do. You don’t get [to address] the real part, [the customers]. I think someone like Alaïa has done it, or Alber Elbaz at Lanvin. I’m not comparing myself to them, but I think it’ll be interesting to get closer to the client.

What’s your directive at Rykiel?
They’re really giving me the possibility to do what I’d like to do, which is wonderful. I hope that we’ll create surprise. My most important thing is to make desirable clothes. It’s a big challenge, but I’m excited about it. The idea is to take the brand to the next step. It used to be important in America, and it’s not as present anymore. My idea is to give it the importance it had in the seventies, that power that she had. People would go to the shop and find their whole wardrobe. I want people to be able to go into the shops now and find those amazing striped knits, the great fitted pants, those great crepe dresses. She had so many references. I want to bring my versions of it—there’s so much potential.

Sonia RykielWhen I moved to New York in the nineties, I went to vintage fairs to look for Sonia Rykiel sweaters.

Yeah, I haven’t bought something from Rykiel in a long time. I don’t want to say it was sleepy, I just want to make it desirable again. It’s not a destination right now, and I’d like to make it one. It’s not like you see it in the magazines, so you forget about it. Which is too bad, because from what I hear, as a brand everybody loves it. Everyone has a bit of a memory of it, like Saint Laurent.

I just found out Sonia Rykiel was at every Saint Laurent show. I think that’s great. I don’t want to say they were rivals. I love that she was supporting him and loved his work, because I feel they shared a similar aesthetic at the time, in the silhouette, the volumes.

At Vuitton, even though you were presenting Resort and Pre-Fall, Marc Jacobs was still the public face of the brand. How does it feel to be the face of a brand now?
To tell you the truth, I’m really ready now. I’m at an age when if I don’t do it, I don’t know when I’ll do it. I don’t think I was ready before. I’ve always loved working on a team. But I’ve done the work, and I really enjoy making the decisions and working with a team, and starting from the beginning and working until the end. I really like choosing the fabrics to draping to designing to deciding the strategy, what model I want to use, the photographer for the ad campaign. I really enjoy every step of the way. I feel ready.

I wrote a little message to Marc to tell him I was joining Sonia Rykiel, and I said to him, “It’s thanks to you that I’m ready.” It’s thanks to Miuccia Prada, it’s thanks to Gianni Versace, to Gianfranco Ferré. I wouldn’t be ready if I hadn’t gone through all of that.

What were the most important things you learned from Marc?
Marc is so into details, and it was so much fun putting on a show with him. He took us to so many places that we never would’ve done on our own. It was like, “Wow, you want that? OK, let’s get it done.” It was extraordinary: the elevators, the hotel doors, the carousel. It was over the top. I hadn’t worked with someone like that. At the same time, he was so kind, so open, so generous.

It must be intense to see a brand like Vuitton continue after you’re gone.
Yeah, you get attached to the people, the projects, to the brand. I was so attached to Miuccia and Bertelli, too—I was there for ten and a half years. You dedicate so much of your time and energy. It’s an incredible business, but it’s also a crazy business. You spend so much time [together], it’s almost like a family. You get attached to your team; I really created a team at Vuitton. But change is good. In fashion you do have to change. The change at Vuitton was good for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, and this is my next step.

Photo: Courtesy of Sonia Rykiel; Getty Images; Giannoni, Giovanni/ WWD

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