Sophie Theallet on Azzedine Alaïa, Michelle Obama, and First Resort Collection

sophie theallet
Photo courtesy of Sophie Theallet
Designer profile: Sophie Theallet

Sophie Theallet came on the scene with a bang when the then-under-the-radar designer's dress popped up on Michelle Obama—whose wardrobe then was even more scrutinized than it is today. Just a few months later, Theallet won the 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, cementing her status as one to watch.

The French designer tends to stays out of the spotlight (much like her former boss, Azzedine Alaïa) and only recently moved her studio to Manhattan from her Brooklyn home, but with the First Lady—and other glamorous fans like Jessica Alba, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Karolina Kurkova—continually coming back for more, she's made a place for herself in the American fashion landscape.

FashionEtc talked to Theallet about her first resort collection, her iconic mentors, and her earnest wish: to make women look beautiful.

How’s your summer been going?

Very, very good! Working on the new collection.

And you recently showed your first resort collection.

It was very, very well received so far. I was inspired by a woman, so I tried to make really chic dresses.

How important was that collection for you and for your company?

I added a resort collection because I think it’s important. As a company, we’re growing. We always need new dresses and there is a demand for resort collections, so for sure I’ll do what the buyers expect.

How’s Spring ’12 coming along? Can you tell us anything about it?

Nope! I never talk about the collection before it’s done because there are so many processes during the collections that you have to go with the flow. The way that I work, I work with my feelings.

I am in the process of it. I work on the models: She comes and works with me, and I drape fabric on her and go from there—I [start] from scratch. Go with the feeling.

You worked for Azzedine Alaïa for a long time. What was that like?

It was a fantastic experience—I learned everything. I was lucky enough to stay there for 15 years, so it was a close relationship and it still is!

valentine couture 2011 review

Photos: Getty Images

Jessica Alba, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Karolina Kurkova hit the red carpet in Sophie Theallet-designed dresses

He’s been very vocal lately about the problems with the timing of the fashion industry and the need for designers to put out more and more collections—what are your thoughts on that?

He’s Azzedine Alaïa and I am Sophie Theallet—we are two different designers, so I don’t think I need to comment on that!

You worked for Jean Paul Gaultier as well—what was that like?

I love Jean Paul Gaultier, too. He asked me to trust my instincts as a fashion designer, to trust them and follow them, and he taught me to play with colors and everything. I was lucky enough to work with two greats, I have so much respect for Mr. Alaïa and Mr. Gaultier. I was really lucky to learn from them.

How do you feel when designers sort of come out of nowhere and launch a line? Obviously you worked for other lines for a long time before you started your own—do you think one path is easier than the other, or more valuable than the other?

That was my choice. I chose for myself to learn from these two designers. When I was 18 years old, [I said] I want to learn, I want to learn the craft. That was my choice. Fashion changes a lot today, and if some designer gets famous after school, it’s good for them. I won’t complain about that. Everybody has a different experience, and in life, my choice was to learn. I didn’t want to be famous just like that. I wanted to learn the craft. I still want to continue to learn!

I want to find new things. I just try to make beautiful clothes. It’s not trends that I’m looking for—I want the woman to feel good and I want people to look at her [and think], wow, she looks sexy—but never vulgar. I want the woman to embrace the dress in a way that it becomes part of herself.

Photos: Getty Images

Three luxe looks from Sophie Theallet's Fall 2011 runway.

What’s inspiring you right now?

I am inspired by life, by movies, by painters, by books, theater, plays, actresses! But if you ask me today, “what’s going to be your next collection,” I’m not going to tell you!

I’m inspired by life today. I’m not living in a little bubble. I go to museums, read books … you need to be aware of what’s going on outside!

Are there any books or movies that are a perpetual inspiration for you?

The last book I read was the one by Patti Smith. I love La Piscine with Romy Schneider and Alain Delon—especially if I’m working on a summer collection! [It’s about] the heat, the sexiness, and the dangerous life, and I think the way the people are dressed is so chic.

How would you describe your own personal style?

As a person who works in fashion, when I create clothes I don’t want to think about myself. I have a uniform: Black jeans and a top and that’s it, that’s enough for me. I put all my energy in my work.

Is there a specific woman you design for?

Today, I dress a lot of women. I’ve dressed Vera Farmiga, Sarah Jessica Parker—more and more I have people who like what I’m doing. They are lawyers, doctors, the woman who doesn’t work. Maybe I’m going to dress you!

Anyone you’d love to dress?

I’m not looking to dress [any] one celebrity. I don’t have that fantasy. I think about the woman, not one woman. [I think about] what it is to be a woman today and how you want to look as a woman. You have a lot of things, as a woman, to do today! It’s not like before. We’ve changed.

How has the First Lady affected your business?

I love the First Lady! I’m very happy to dress the First Lady. It’s a beautiful moment [whenever she wears my designs], and I am really touched. I like the way that she wears it. I’m so happy to dress Michelle Obama—she’s a real woman.

What do you think of her style?

She’s fantastic. She wears what she wants to wear. She’s not stuck with one designer, and she chooses the clothes as a woman, with love. She enjoys dressing herself in a way that she’s free. I love the fact that she wears a little cardigan with a cotton dress—really new for a First Lady, wearing a cotton dress and looking so chic in it. I’m doing a lot of cotton dresses, so it’s convenient for me, but I’ve loved cotton dresses forever! They’re polished and chic, crisp and fresh.

How do you see your line growing?

As a company, we grow every day. The way that we are growing, though, is that the moves we take are really smooth. When we’re growing we make a very strong choice to not jump into anything. We think about the image of our company, our identity and who we are.

Are there any new categories you’d love to add?

Every category! But there is a moment to make it happen in the way that you want it to happen. For now, I don’t want to do a line of handbags—it doesn’t make sense now—but I’m doing belts. I did a collaboration for shoes [with Nine West]. You have to think. There is a time for everything, especially in luxury. You want to give the best of what you can. I’ve taken my time since the beginning! When I began my company, I didn’t have a lot of resources and because of my savoir faire I made it happen.

Are there any luxury companies that you particularly admire?

I think the answer is the ones that I’ve worked with. When you think of Alaïa, what do you think? Luxury. You feel it. You feel the savoir faire in the label.

What’s the most important think he taught you?

To respect the clothes. There’s a lot of clothes today on the market. It’s oversaturated and you need to be different if you want to exist as a small company today. You need to offer something that people don’t offer.

So what is it that you offer, if you had to sum it up?

I think that the dresses that I’m doing come from my heart. The dresses that I create come from who I am and what I believe in.