When French designer Sophie Theallet flew to New York 10 years ago, she’d planned to stay just a month. “I was thinking it was time to move,” she said recently, curled up on a couch in her apartment-slash-“atelier” in a leafy corner of Brooklyn. But then: “I fell in love with, uh”—she lowered her voice to a whisper—“mis-tair.” She giggled and motioned toward her husband and business partner, Steven Francoeur, who was hunched over a desk in the next room.
Ms. Theallet’s longtime seamstress was at a sewing machine nearby. The place was filled with books, black-and-white photographs, African and South American travel trinkets, a fish tank and rolls of brightly colored fabric protruding from bins. Rising Phoenix-like from the clutter was a headless mannequin in an exquisite brown silk floor-length dress with a rich orange bow cascading off one shoulder, from Ms. Theallet’s two-year-old namesake line.
This cozy house of Theallet staged its first runway show in September 2008 at the Metropolitan Pavilion, using only black models (partially in homage to Yves Saint Laurent, the first designer to cast a black model). Admiring reviews noted the designer’s association with Azzedine Alaia, the influential Parisian couturier for whom she toiled for 10 years. “You see that I’m not young, right?” said Ms. Theallet, who would not give a more specific age than early 40s. But New York has been a rebirth of sorts. “Here, I don’t have the heaviness of the past,” she said.
Before Brooklyn, she and Mr. Francoeur—who now have a 2-year-old son, Leon—lived in the Chelsea Hotel for four years. “It was craaaaaaazy at that time!” Ms. Theallet said.
“We used to travel a lot,” said Mr. Francoeur, suddenly appearing at the doorway in Buddy Holly glasses, designer jeans and a crisp cardigan. He said his wife had trouble fitting into the mold of corporate America.
“I don’t want to make mass production,” Ms. Theallet said. So she freelanced, briefly designing a line with makeup artist Francois Nars before turning her attention to her own creations. Detailed and intricate, they are produced in very limited quantity, selling at Barneys and Jeffrey for $1,800 to $3,000.
“I never want to lose this,” the designer said. “The freedom.” Dark-haired, pale and curvaceous, she was wearing a black gauzy dress of her own design over black jeans and pink leather Adidas high-tops. Growing up in the South of France, she traveled often to London to visit cousins and discovered Siouxie and the Banshees, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. They inspired her interest in fashion. (Though not, she was quick to note, her current collection, which critics called “happy,” “charming,” “modest” and “feminine.”)
“She has the punk spirit,” Mr. Francoeur said.
“But it’s not about me,” Ms. Theallet said quickly. “It’s about somebody else. Somebody more like … It’s not me.”
She has yet to fully conceptualize her fall 2009 collection. “I’m totally stressed out. I’m not even here,” she said, craving a cigarette.
“Maybe it can happen tonight, maybe can happen in three days, I have no idea,” Ms. Theallet said. “It’s, like, killing me. Make me feeling sad and blah, blah, blah. And after, I’m so happy!”
“When she’s got it, she’s got it,” said Mr. Francoeur, smiling gently.
“After, I think maybe I’m crazy,” she said.
Ms. Theallet’s years working for Mr. Alaia, and for Jean-Paul Gaultier before him, may have made her a bit of a technical perfectionist, obsessed with workmanlike details. But they also freed her from fashion’s eternal preoccupation with the new.
“Times have changed,” she said. “Everything is already done from the past, so we can say, ‘This is modern and new,’ but it’s not true.
“I don’t know what’s fashion now,” Ms. Theallet said with a heavy sigh. “I just try to make beautiful clothes done in a beautiful way.”
PHOTOGRAPH: John Huba
Hair by Mitch Barry; makeup by Jordy Poon for Rita Hazan Salon