Everybody loves Julie de Libran
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As a youngster, Julie de Libran was “extremely shy”, says the Paris-based designer. “Closed.” The only way in which she opened up was through the things she wore. Attentive to every detail, often making her clothes herself, “it was a way to communicate”, she says now, sitting in her own-name store on the Rue de Luynes in the 7th arrondissement. “It created my language. Because then people would come towards me and say: ‘Oh, interesting. What is that?’”
Decades later, de Libran’s language is well-formed. The designer is one of the most respected names in the industry thanks to an inarguable CV: design director for women’s at Prada, creative director for women’s ready-to-wear and head of design studio at Louis Vuitton, artistic director at Sonia Rykiel, before she launched her own independent label in 2019. A host of admirers, including close friend Sofia Coppola, Elizabeth Debicki and Tilda Swinton, all turn to her for a dynamic take on Parisian chic, energised by de Libran’s formative years in California, then Italy. The important thing for her has always been “the emotion that a garment creates”, she says, nestled on the furry sofa of her small shop floor, immaculate in light blue jeans, shirt and a herringbone jacket. “And the memory of it: when you wear something, and then you remember that you wore it when you met somebody, when you had a great dinner or a gathering with friends… It’s like a photograph or a song. I love how fashion can create that.”
“We knew she was going to do something in fashion,” says her sister Fanélie Phillips, CEO of the company – and one of her muses. The pair initially grew up in the south of France before their parents’ work took them to San Diego in 1980, when Fanélie was 11 and Julie was eight. “It was just written on the wall. She would go shopping for her prom dress and could never find anything she wanted, so she would go and have her own made…”
Aged 18, de Libran went to the prestigious Marangoni Fashion Institute in Milan, staying in the city to work for Prada. Between there and Louis Vuitton, she built up her expertise and her address book. “I had the best schools for 30 years, being in extraordinary houses, with incredible ateliers,” she admits. It has helped as she has navigated the business of being a small, independent label that produces one-of-a-kind couture and limited-edition pieces; DTC accounts for 85 per cent of sales, the flagship store complemented by ecommerce, pop-ups and trunk shows. The business – self-financed, with a team of a dozen members and consultants – is compact on every level: de Libran’s atelier is downstairs from the shop floor, accessed by a small wooden staircase, where the designer’s desk, moodboard and fitting room all jostle for her attention.
“Having your own business, you’re on every single detail,” she says. “It’s definitely a challenge every day, because you have to make it happen… but it’s wonderful, because I wanted something that resembles me – where I feel closer to my clients, to the materials, to the atelier, who I can speak to every day. I can tell my clients how things were made, and I can style them and tell them how to wear it. I love it because I can lock myself in, and sketch and drape and sew all night.” She can also take a more sustainable approach to design. “I’ve chosen to be more responsible, to be attentive and to have less waste, because in our industry the waste is huge.”
Central to this is her relationship with her muses. She “definitely” designs with certain people in mind. “I’ve always been that way,” she says. “And what’s always helped me with my creativity is I love the versatility of the different women.” For HTSI, de Libran has convened a broad range of friends and clients, from the novelist Amanda Sthers, for whom she first designed 20 years ago, to the pharmacist Zina Thaifa, who became an avid admirer after contacting de Libran via Instagram in 2019. “The thing that the women who surround me have in common is their passion,” says de Libran. “They’re creative in some kind of way. They’re very active, they’re making their own decisions.” The Julie de Libran woman is “international, working, knows what she wants”, adds Phillips. “She’s independent in her choices. She doesn’t need to aspire to a logo – she appreciates beautiful things that are well made.”
Zina Thaifa digs out the first message she ever sent to Julie de Libran – an Instagram DM dating from late August 2019. “‘Dear Julie, where can we find your dresses? They’re magnificent,’” the senior director in the health sciences industry reads aloud. “I didn’t know her at all,” says the Franco-Moroccan. “I mean, some people wouldn’t even have answered. But she did immediately. And she invited me to come and try some pieces in her flat. So I went and tried on the clothes, and I fell in love – with her, first of all, because she’s very human, very generous – extremely so... And her dresses have pockets – which is rare!”
The first dress Thaifa bought was “all black, very simple – something for work. It was all in the detail, the texture, the shape.” Four years later, she owns 25 pieces. “There’s pieces for day, for night, universal ones – she manages to accompany the life of a woman,” says Thaifa. “She can lend herself to any occasion, because she gets what the women who shop with her are looking for.” She even asked the designer to create a new wedding dress as she celebrated 10 years of marriage. “What’s funny is, I still wear it a lot. If I have to go out, I think, ‘No problem: I’ll just wear one of Julie’s.’ Even when I go to the office, if I have to do a presentation or to meet someone, I’ll wear a piece by her because it’s elegant – it’s in the image of who I’d like to be.”
Sonia Sieff has collaborated with Julie de Libran several times: the photographer and filmmaker first made a short film with her when she was at Sonia Rykiel. “She’s very loyal in her friendships,” says Sieff, “and because the world of fashion isn’t often like that, it’s something to value.” Sieff – who is currently making a documentary about her father, fellow photographer Jeanloup Sieff – has since worn de Libran’s designs to various major events in her life, whether to her own exhibition opening in Arles, or for New Year’s Eve – “just because I wanted to be pretty in the street”.
Sieff admires de Libran’s aesthetic because “it’s thought through, and it’s very feminine. You’re always dressed, even with something quite simple.” She loves the green sequin dress she wore for HTSI’s shoot: “It’s sexy.” In fact, she says, “I always have an effect when I wear Julie de Libran… Men love it. There’s kind of an old-school chic. It’s allure, basically.”
When Julie de Libran finally decided to create her own business, she had only one choice for CEO. “She said: ‘I need you,’” says her sister, older by three years. For Phillips, who until then had worked in cultural events (her husband, Simon Phillips, with whom she has often worked, is a co-founder of Masterpiece Art Fair, and an exhibitor and supporter of the new Treasure House Art Fair), it was daunting as she had never worked directly in fashion. But it was decided long before. “We always, as children, had said that one day we might do something together.”
The two have always been “very close”, if very different; Phillips was more extroverted and entrepreneurial, Julie more artistic and shy. “Working together is great,” says Phillips. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll always protect each other and want the best for each other. We still have to make time for sister time, so it’s not always about work – so that it doesn’t, within two minutes, go back to the business...” Like de Libran, she speaks fluent English with a tiny American lilt. The sisters’ years in Los Angeles had a real effect on both. “I think there’s a twist in the way we work,” says Phillips. “I like the American can-do attitude. There’s always a solution. There’s always a way.”
Amanda Sthers first met Julie de Libran 20 years ago when the designer was working at Prada; she, alongside Miuccia Prada, created Sthers’ wedding dress when she was marrying French pop star Patrick Bruel. “I thought she had incredible taste, a great eye,” says the writer and filmmaker, who has produced films with Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel and Carole Bouquet, and is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. “She has something apart – something very intelligent. And I really like her take on fashion: it’s very artisanal, very ecologically minded. It’s in her DNA and it’s not a stance. It’s very sincere.”
Sthers has since moved to Los Angeles, where she can appreciate de Libran’s qualities even more. “Whenever I put Julie’s clothes on, I feel like I’m wearing something very Parisian. Everyone always asks me where it’s from: people always clock that it’s not American, for instance.” Asked to define de Libran’s aesthetic, she says “it’s very refined, sophisticated, current – and yet at the same time, it has a kind of ‘false sobriety’”. What she means is that a very Parisian seriousness is always offset by an original, subversive element. If she’s producing a film, and she has to think of a “very elegant, super-cool Parisian from the 6th arrondissement”, the reference is automatic. “When I say ‘Julie’ to the costume designers, I know what kind of person it is.”