Sacré Bleu Jean? Denim Legend François Girbaud N’est Pas Pumped About His Company’s Hip-Hop Image

On Monday, July 23, the French designer François Girbaud hosted a party celebrating his new line of denim clothing, called Le Jean, in the Marithé and François Girbaud Showroom, which occupies the 9th floor of a building on 10th Avenue and 36th Street. The crowd, overwhelmingly comprised of fashionably dressed African-Americans in their mid-20’s, seemed blissfully unaware that their host has apparently been less than thrilled about their devotion to the brand.

“Somewhere, the company was running too much in some direction, too much in hip-hop stuff,” Mr. Girbaud, 62, told the Transom (perhaps taking a page from the playbook of a compatriot who last year expressed disdainful befuddlement toward rappers’ loyalty to the Champagne label Cristal). He was wearing a black-collared shirt over baggy black jeans, which were adorned with a single drooping silver chain that smacked against his knee as he strode through the streamlined space. “To be just connected in the hip-hop stuff is other brand; there is people like Russell Simmons or Damon Dash or Puff Daddy or all this kind. I’m not the rap people. Sure, we introduced the baggy jeans, we introduced stonewashed and all this stuff in the 60’s or 70’s, I never target just to be ethnic. It’s stupid.”

Mr. Girbaud’s label, which he started with his wife, Marithé, in 1964, was a true pioneer in the designer jean movement, but—eschewing traditional advertising techniques—has been long eclipsed by brands like Lucky and Diesel. “It’s really boring, non?” he said of the current denim market. “It’s just the same. I walk through projects today, and it’s the same five-pocket jeans. It’s not giving so much possibility to young generation to express themselves.”

When it comes to his own self-expression, Mr. Girbaud seems to think that the exigencies of marketing are cramping his style. “I have to talk like that”—he flashed a gang hand-sign—“and speak like that”—he flashed another gang hand-sign—“and move like that”—he grabbed his crotch—“and it’s ridiculous!” Now he was shouting. “What we bring into the market was always innovative, and I feel now I am trapped and I have to just talk the same way, like I have to have skulls and some kind of snakes. It’s boring, it’s really boring!”

But he seemed confident that his company’s fortunes are on the upswing. “We are back in track,” Mr. Girbaud assured the Transom over the beats of DJ Lindsey, stroking his wispy, graying Fu Manchu beard. “We want to position the brand like whatever in the American market and worldwide … to relate, [be] comfortable, to be practical, all this kind of bullshit.”

Sacré Bleu Jean? Denim Legend François Girbaud N’est Pas Pumped About His Company’s Hip-Hop Image