Patou, Inventor of the Original French-Girl Look, Is Back

The label, once Coco Chanel's fiercest rival, is now under the direction of French fashion's reboot specialist.

A look from Patou's Fall 2020 collection.
Patou / Kira Bunse for all images

A century ago the French designer Jean Patou staged his semiannual fashion shows on Saturday evenings, with a cocktail bar installed in his Paris salon and the promise of a late, louche night.

“You would play tombola and you could win a baby tiger,” says Guillaume Henry, the boyishly handsome designer tasked by LVMH with reviving the house founded by the Jazz Age couturier, who was Coco Chanel’s fiercest rival. For his first presentation, last September, Henry staged his own kind of a party, with waiters from his favorite local brasserie serving guests Ricqlès in La Soufflerie coupes at his atelier, in a neo-Gothic building on the Ile de la Cité. He didn’t need to raffle baby tigers.

“People were supposed to stay five minutes and they stayed one hour,” Henry says.

During Paris Fashion Week, Henry again opened the doors to his atelier to show a Fall 2020 collection that, especially in retrospect, played like a love letter to the joys of perennially French style, with its berets and Breton stripes. Few labels have as much of a right to exalt the so-called French girl-look as Patou.

A look from Patou's Fall 2020 collection. 
A look from Patou’s Fall 2020 collection.
Patou / Kira Bunse for all images

A confidant of Josephine Baker and a para­mour of Louise Brooks, Jean Patou is celebrated today less for his couture than for his revolutionary sportswear; he is credited with having designed some of the first bathing suits and jersey dresses, incorporating easy-to-move-in pleats.

“It was a Gatsby life,” says Henry, trim in white Uniqlo jeans and a Nehru shirt under a Prussian blue sweater that matches his eyes. “What he wanted to do was dress a girl for the weekend, when she was leaving for Biarritz or Deauville.”

Henry is the latest caretaker of a label that was once a training ground for French talent (Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Christian Lacroix all did tours of duty) but that has languished since 1987, apart from a lucrative perfume license. Joy, the fragrance in question, is one of the reasons the world’s largest luxury conglomerate acquired a majority stake in Patou in 2018. In tapping Henry, Sidney Toledano, CEO of LVMH’s fashion group, signaled that he sees potential in ready-to-wear, too.

A look from Patou's Spring 2020 collection.
Kira Bunse

It’s not Henry’s first time behind a reboot, after all. He began his career at Givenchy; in 2009 he was appointed artistic director of Carven and reinvented the legacy house for a younger generation. He later pulled off the same feat at Nina Ricci. Now 41, he is not intimidated by his forebears.

“As a young kid I wanted to be a designer because of Lacroix and Patou,” Henry says. “I’m really inspired by what Lagerfeld did. In my work there’s a little of all of them.”

Soon after arriving at Patou (he dropped “Jean” from the brand name), Henry stopped weaving intricate narratives for each collection the way many of his peers do.

“You don’t want to hear stories anymore. You just want or don’t want,” he says. His collections are wide-­ranging and seasonally nimble, with pea coats for winter and ruffled silk dresses for summer, all reasonably priced. “For me Patou is not a dress, it’s a spirit,” he says. “She’s approachable. She’s chic, but she’s also playful.”

When Henry scoured the public archives in Paris he discovered a trove of photos of Patou’s early collections. “They had boxes full of pictures, because he was Chanel’s worst enemy,” he says. “He would deposit pictures to say, ‘I did it first,’ with all the girls from his team wearing the clothes.”

Henry did the same with his first collection, modeling the cheeky yet sharp pieces on women who work with him.

“‘Who do you dress?’ That’s the question I wanted to ask myself,” he says. “And I’m never better at doing my job than when I know who I’m working for.”

This story appears in the April 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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