fall fashion

Life in the Sunshine

Designer Simon Porte Jacquemus knows how to go big, how to go very small, and most of all how to have fun.

Photo: Paul Rousteau for New York Magazine
Photo: Paul Rousteau for New York Magazine
Photo: Paul Rousteau for New York Magazine

Earlier this summer, Simon Porte Jacquemus brought his tenth-anniversary fashion show to the middle of a lavender field in Provence. He cheekily titled the collection “Le Coup de Soleil,” or “The Sunburn,” and sent out bottles of branded sunscreen in the invitation. A 1,600-foot-long bright-fuchsia runway was cut through rows of flowers, streaking across the groomed hillside like a neon highlighter. If you search #provence on Instagram, you will find 3.4 million photos of basically the same field, but without the hyperreal pink, which was inspired by both an iPad painting by David Hockney and the work of artists Christo and Jeanne Claude. The effect was FOMO-gasmic on social media — an enchanted image of France by an adorable young French designer who embodies the beguiling ideal of a carefree and well-tanned garçon.

Summer is at the heart of Jacquemus, the designer and his brand. As a child, he was nicknamed Mr. Sun, and this anniversary show was timed to what is still called “cruise” season. And it was you’d-better-not-be-wearing-much hot: On the day of the show, it was over 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky. Models were falling. Cell service was scarce. Same for bottled water, briefly. Celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski, editors like Emmanuelle Alt of French Vogue, and the designer’s entire extended family were all given more sunscreen and parasols upon arrival. Actually, wait a minute … Where is la grand-mère de Jacquemus? Someone forgot to pick her up. The show started about an hour late, just as the sun began to fade.

“It was really like Fyre Festival,” Jacquemus told me afterward with a laugh. “But only for, like, ten minutes.” His skin was the color of a baguette, and his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a bountiful patch of chest hair. “Everyone was like, ‘Ahhh!’ But me, I was like —” He theatrically inhaled and exhaled.
“I went for a walk in the lavender.” Later that night, pizza and bottomless rosé were served, and he danced under the stars with his boyfriend, Marco Maestri, who looks rather a lot like him and is the brother of the French rugby player Yoann Maestri, half-naked star of the recent Jacquemus menswear campaign.

Better to not think too much about how this glorious heat wave was also evidence of climate change. “Sun in your face, sun in your face, sun in your face,” the designer told me, clapping his hands like a windup toy for emphasis. “I’ve been like this since the beginning. I’m not doing, like, an end-of-the-world show.”

Jacquemus, 29, was raised in the village of Mallemort — population around 6,000 — not far from here. He likes to say that his barefoot country upbringing instilled in him a sense of “naïveté.” He uses that word a lot. Even his Instagram bio — he has 1.4 million followers and was a Tumblr native before that — reads like it was written by a 10-year-old: “My name is Simon Porte Jacquemus, I love blue and white, stripes, sun, fruit, life, poetry, Marseille, and the ’80s.”

Critics sometimes roll their eyes: He’s been called both “pretentious” and a “bumpkin,” strong on pithy branding but short on craft. The Financial Times recently mulled whether Jacquemus should be better thought of as a designer or an influencer and decided maybe he’s … both, and that’s very right-now of him. Certainly, he’s a person who makes fashion for influencers, including Kylie Jenner and Hailey Bieber, formerly Hailey Baldwin. (A recent campaign was done in collaboration with the Instagram-famous artist of louche, yet somehow innocent, self-­display Chloe Wise.) However much it is part of his authentic self, or just the discipline of a young man raised on the mantra of having a “personal brand,” his social-media optimism is what sets him and his clothing apart. He doesn’t take things too seriously, or seem to suffer for his art. Even in person, he’ll tell you how he’s “realizing his dreams.” How he’s “very in love.” And how his “only goal,” in work and in life, is “being ’app-ee.”

His parents were farmers — his mother specializing in carrots, his father spinach. But Jacquemus was clearly too charming, too ambitious, and too cute for the non-hashtag version of life on the farm. (He was cast in a Carambar’s-candy campaign as a kid, and Karl Lagerfeld once called him “rather pretty” on the subject of his work.) Instead, Jacquemus dreamed of glamour, obsessing over French cinema and studying copies of Italian Vogue. At the age of 8, he wrote a letter to Jean Paul Gaultier asking to be his stylist, arguing that it would make for good press. On weekends, Jacquemus sold vegetables on the side of the road. He learned to spot tourists from Paris, who were his frequent customers. It’s a lesson he’s held onto.

Soon he made his way to the city to attend the École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, at 18, in 2008. He quickly learned that the Parisian woman didn’t seem to enjoy herself much. “I was like, Okay, not at all,” Jacquemus remembers, scrunching his nose. “Not. At. All. They don’t have the smile. I have no interest in people who don’t have a smile.” Maybe his mission has been to change that.

A Jacquemus micro-bag. Photo: Moda Operandi/Courtesy of Jacquemus

Three days before the Jacquemus anniversary show in Provence, a gaggle of casually dressed employees could be found laughing and smoking cigarettes outside his new studio on Rue de Monceau in Paris. He moved to the new location from Canal Saint-Martin a few weeks earlier in June — coincidentally on his late mother’s birthday, which he only realized the morning of.

The door to the Jacquemus operation is a classic French blue but more teal than others on the block. I entered to find a lemon tree thriving inside the large white atrium. The secretary also had one on his desk and fondled it like a stress ball. Jacquemus was upstairs in the middle of a model fitting and excused himself to hit play on a pop-lullaby soundtrack via his iPhone. Sunlight poured in through large windows, bouncing off his gold jewelry as he gestured with his large, thick fingers. Did I mention he has blue eyes?

“I didn’t choose this location; I had a crush on the location,” he tells me with a grin. “I visited, and I saw all the little balconies and the garden, and I was like: This is not Paris.” When I ask him if the grand staircase and high ceilings give his operation gravitas, he scoffs. “No! Lightness!”

Over the past few years, Jacquemus has doubled his staff from 30 to 60.
Almost everyone, he says, has remained since the beginning, including his ex-roommate, Fabien Joubert, who now serves as the brand’s commercial director. Sales have doubled every year since 2017 as well and are supposedly on track to hit $20 million by the end of 2019.

Things are going so well that rumors of Jacquemus being acquired by a larger conglomerate, like Puig or LVMH, circulate every so often, along with theories of a secret backer. But when I ask about them, he maintains he’s still independent and is “not looking” for any investors, or for that matter looking to helm a bigger label (there was also a rumor he was being considered for Celine). It’s possible no one is knocking on his door, or he’s been passed up for other, more experienced names. But Jacquemus seems focused on keeping it in the family. “If you want to do everything sincerely, how can you leave your own building?” he asks. “It’s not about more, more, more. My generation is going to take care of themselves.” When things get stressful, he does karaoke: “Any song by Céline Dion,” he tells me.

Which isn’t to say he doesn’t let his brand slip sometimes: He admits that “there’s always something melancholic about my work.” But he wouldn’t go into it.

Because Jacquemus refuses outside help, the company is still a relatively scrappy operation — one that used to fulfill orders to its 300-something global retailers “quite late within the delivery window, which commercially is not ideal,” a forgiving Moda Operandi buyer told me. Runway producer Alexandre de Betak explained that they kept the budget for his anniversary show “exceptionally small.” His team spent the weekend before clearing the wheat and lavender fields themselves, and there was “absolutely no plan B” to account for bad weather.

“If the creativity of the way we show is good enough, then it’s fine that we’re far away, at the wrong time, with a very small audience, because it will go viral,” de Betak added. “I think that’s what happened with the show in Provence.”

“There’s an expression in France, saying that you put the donkey before … Uh, no, you put the donkey after … Do you know this?” Jacquemus asks.

The cart before the horse?

Something like that. “I always think that way,” he continues. “For me, it was the ten-year anniversary, so it was important to say loudly: I have a big house, and it’s Jacquemus. It’s not anything else, and I own it. I’m here.”

The spring 2020 ready-to-wear-collection show in a lavender field in the south of France. Photo: Arnold Jerocki/Getty Images

One month into his first semester at fashion school, Jacquemus’s mother, Valérie, died in a car accident. He dropped out shortly thereafter and started his own line. Jacquemus was her maiden name. “I didn’t want to waste time,” he said later of the choice. “I wasn’t learning anything there anyway.”

Jacquemus paid a curtain-maker €100 to sew his first piece, staging a fake “protest” outside Dior on Avenue Montaigne during Paris Fashion Week for his debut show. He always had an instinct for a media stunt. “French people love striking,” he told the press. “Strike uniforms are so sexy!”

By 2012, he’d worked his way onto the official Paris Fashion Week calendar, one of the youngest designers ever to do so. His breakout show took place in a swimming pool. Critics were charmed by the “innocent,” “playful,” almost panderingly French aesthetic of his early collections. Phrases like J’AIME LA VIE were printed over pictures of sailboats. “I remember him telling me: ‘I’m a daytime designer,’ ” recalled Clara Cornet, who is now a creative director at Galeries Lafayette (where he recently opened his own lemon-themed café, Citron). “There are nighttime designers, and I am daytime.”

To fund his collections, which were minimal simply because that’s what the budget allowed, Jacquemus got a job working as a sales assistant at the Comme des Garçons store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Adrian Joffe, Rei Kawakubo’s partner in business and life, became a supporter, stocking the brand at Dover Street Market after only a few seasons. “He charmed me,” Joffe said in an email. “I was so impressed with his vision and his conviction.”

Working at Comme allowed Jacquemus to support himself. He also calls the experience his “real school.” To start, he learned who Kawakubo was.
(Thanks, Google.) He also internalized what he calls the “Rei Kawakubo spirit,” which is “following something forever, like a line.” In other words, sticking to your guns, even if those guns spew rainbows. He also discovered that affordable products, like Comme des Garçons: Play T-shirts and wallets, can fund more “arty” endeavors. One of Jacquemus’s first hits, for example, was a simple red, white, and blue T-shirt from the fall 2014 collection. He also tried his hand at more intellectual projects, dressing women up like paper dolls, as Kawakubo did in 2012, but the results were less avant-garde and more arts-and-crafts.

Despite his connection to Joffe, and his growing circle of French “It” girls like DJ Clara 3000 and Jeanne Damas, Jacquemus still felt like an outsider. “I don’t have a lot of friends in fashion,” he says. “From the beginning, I was by myself and doing it a bit by my own rules.”

In 2015, Jacquemus won the LVMH “Special Jury Prize” for emerging talent — a stamp of approval from fashion’s ultimate insiders as well as the source of a €150,000 check and a yearlong mentorship. Because he had no formal training, his adviser, Sophie Brocart, suggested that he invest in staff members with “technical expertise” and take on the role of CEO, or face of the brand, himself. Most designers his age aren’t up for that. Even if he didn’t graduate at the top of his class from Central Saint Martins, Jacquemus did have “the right personality, vision, and charisma” to succeed, in Brocart’s opinion.

Simon (left) dancing at the show’s after-party. Emily Ratajkowski wearing the giant straw hat. Photo: Emanuele D’Angelo; Saskia Lawaks.
Simon (left) dancing at the show’s after-party. Emily Ratajkowski wearing the giant straw hat. Photo: Emanuele D’Angelo; Saskia Lawaks.

With seasoned tailors now on his team, the Jacquemus silhouette came into focus. His deconstructed suiting, for example, now looked like it was falling apart on purpose. Following a strong spring 2016 show, The Business of Fashion dubbed Jacquemus the “hottest young designer in Paris.” He was no longer “just cute or French, or a sensation,” as Jacquemus himself put it. Better yet, he was making money.

Gradually, Jacquemus evolved his aesthetic. The arty Comme des Garçons influences began being edited out. For spring 2017, he returned to the sunny, Spanish-­influenced style of his youth — lace blouses, straw hats, matador shoulders, and corseted waists — inspired by the flirty theatricality of Christian Lacroix’s ’80s haute couture. The following collection imagined what it would look like if a Parisian girl fell in love with what he’d referred to as a southern “gypsy.”

After he found a photograph of his mother wearing a headscarf, ceramic earrings, and a wrap skirt, the Jacquemus woman we know today, or “La Bomba,” suddenly came to life. For starters, you could actually see her. Instead of oversize blazers, she wore droopy button-up shirts that exposed her breasts and itty-bitty, skintight knits over her long, tan legs. Spring 2018 marked a return to his roots, but instead of Charlotte Gainsbourg, his muse was his own DNA. “She was sexy,” Jacquemus told Vogue of his mother, recalling the “village beauty” who was always smiling. Pretty soon, he became known as the guy who calls his mom “sexy” — but is there anything more French than that?

Skimpy summer collections like “La Bomba” have doubled in revenue each year, but the success of that particular season also had to do with its introduction of playfully scaled accessories. To balance out gigantic straw hats the size of a Hula-Hoop, Jacquemus designed miniature leather bags, shrinking a style from the previous season down to a crossbody that measured just two and a half inches tall and four wide. “People were like, ‘Simon, it’s never going to sell; you can just put some cards and keys in it,’ ” the designer recalls. “I was like, ‘Mmm, I’m sure it’s going to sell. It’s too cute and too viral not to.’ ”

He was right. Le Chiquito was snatched up by Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kim Kardashian at $520 a pop, and handbags now account for more than 30 percent of revenues. (Its pleasures are hard to explain, or maybe justify, but — full disclosure — I own one, and love it. Not only does it free me from the tyranny of stuff, but holding its cute little handle gives you the same pleasure zap as looking at a lavender field through a tiny phone screen.)

Le Petit Chiquito’s even-tinier spawn, Le Micro Chiquito, which debuted in February at the size of a binder clip for $258, is selling out as well, despite the fact that you can’t put anything in it. “If you don’t consider it a bag, consider it jewelry, you know?,” the designer said this summer, tossing it over his shoulder with one finger. Memes abound.

Last year, Jacquemus teased his followers with rumors of a #newjob, but the big reveal turned out to be menswear. His first collection, shown at a beach in Marseille, was a hunky answer to La Bomba. Titled Le Gadjo, which, he explained, is local slang describing a type of tourist: “He’s a bad-taste guy, but he’s cute.” Similarly, his show in the lavender field had a second level you might not notice, referencing the tourists he used to sell vegetables to when he was young, with clever cosplay of farmer chic. Models in loud floral prints sported fake tan lines and corn-on-the-cob key chains in the style of people who clumsily overcompensate for being visitors by dressing a “bit too much where they are,” as he puts it. Expect to see this look in your feed. So many people are posing naked on beaches underneath one of his La Bomba giant straw hats that the manufacturer ran out of straw.

This is his insight, his particular genius. He knows we’re all posing, hoping for a hashtag selfie in the sun.

*This article appears in the August 19, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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