On Her Sleeve

Tenth anniversaries are hard to come by in the finicky world of fashion, but, to Catherine Malandrino, a wardrobe is more than a random collection of clothing; it’s a full-fledged emotional affair.

By Mariel Rittenhouse

Designer Catherine Malandrino has been lauded as a visionary, lambasted as an eccentric, and admired for her agility while toeing the line between art and fashion. She’s pruned the plumage of peacocks like Charlize Theron, Demi Moore, Nicole Richie, Beyoncé, and her BFF Mary J. Blige. But don’t expect all the attention to ruffle the feathers of her organza blouson-nobody is a bigger fan of a Catherine Malandrino confection than Catherine Malandrino. After all, what you buy is what she wears.

As a 10-year-old girl growing up, the Grenoble-born Malandrino was bitten by the fashion bug. She says, “I started very early to think about clothes. I would go digging in my mother’s closet and I remember being seven or eight and inspecting a coat, the construction of the sleeves, the inside of a dress, the delicacy of an embroidery. I was absolutely passionate and I spent my days and weekends studying art, fashion, and how to create clothes.”

Perhaps it’s the hypnotic effect of Malandrino’s coquettishly lyrical French accent, but this passion is palpable, contagious even. She purrs, “I knew I wanted to drape fabric, cut it, and shear it; I never wanted to be anything else but a designer. It was never a big question for me; it was instinctive and emotional,” which is exactly the way she designs.

After graduating from international fashion school ESMOD, Malandrino was scooped up by Dorothée Bis in Paris. She later transitioned to the ateliers of Parisian stalwarts like Louis Féraud and Emanuel Ungaro before relaunching the iconic French label Et Vous in the early 1990s as well as Diane von Furstenberg’s collection in New York in 1998.

While a lesser designer may have found her own vision diluted under the tutelage of dominant industry forces like Féraud, Ungaro, and von Furstenberg, Malandrino polished her point of view. What she took with her from these various apprentissages was the professional acumen required to establish her own label.

She notes, “I think it’s very important that, as part of a couture atelier, you see how to drape and shear and the attention to buyers and the cut-that makes all the difference. It was less about their style than understanding their way of working. I had the chance to meet each of them personally and share some moments. For me, this is a great souvenir.”

From the flock to the forefront, Malandrino-along with her husband and business partner Bernard Aidan-launched her first collection, named Collage, in New York in 1998. Ten years later, her empire has grown from a party of two to a “family” of more than 100, and the brand now encompasses the original Catherine Malandrino collection, as well as the designer Malandrino collection, which includes a line of accessories.

Malandrino says that despite the growing berth of the business, “We try and operate in a way that things stay very personal. I feel all this emotion translate into the clothes and I want to make sure that however big we become, we stay very concerned with all the details. Each member of this family has to be really caring and sensible and emotional because I think it really makes a difference in the end when you see a finished dress.”

The emotive quality of Malandrino’s garments is precisely what has won her such a loyal gaggle of fans-that and an uncanny knack for hugging and highlighting a woman’s assets. A Malandrino frock is immediately recognizable-it’s suggestive without being overtly sexual; it’s detailed without (for the most part) being overwhelming; it’s whimsical yet wearable. And her spring/summer 2008 (SS08) Malandrino collection is classically Catherine.

Inspired by La Colombe d’Or hotel in St. Paul de Vence- “A very small village with a lot of soul on the top of a hill in Provence” -the aptly named La Colombe SS08 Malandrino collection is dappled with handcrafted flourishes like grapes and jasmine flowers amid textured beds of brightly colored silk taffeta, tulle, organza, satin, jersey, and cotton voile. One needn’t be well versed in Malandrino to envision her muses for this collection-it’s a love letter to artists (like Picasso, Modigliani, and Léger) whose work graces the halls of the “crooked” old hotel, but also to the heavenly curves of the women she swathes.

Malandrino coos, “I absolutely believe that clothes translate a message and express themselves. The woman I am dressing has a creative mind, and she knows that she can suggest through clothes, she knows that she can speak and whisper through clothes. At the same time she is sensual, and this is why she is receptive to the choice of the fabric, the touch of it, and the different textures. She’s a confident woman and she’s happy to be a woman she loves when the cut emphasizes her waist, her legs, but always in a subtle way.” This “woman” she speaks of is essentially herself.

While Malandrino’s intent is “not to cover everybody,” she’s dressed a kaleidoscope of luminaries, from Young Hollywood and Old Hollywood to pop princesses and R&B divas. One of the brightest stars in the Malandrino constellation is Mary J. Blige, a fan and close friend. Like most friendships, theirs sprouted from mutual admiration: Malandrino loved Blige’s single at the time, “Family Affair,” and Blige wore one of Malandrino’s dresses during an album tour.

Nine years ago, Malandrino says she saw “a photograph of [Blige] in one of my dresses and I sent her a note to tell her how I found her very soft and sensual wearing it; I dared to invite her to my birthday a few weeks later. Suddenly the night of my birthday she called me to tell me she was coming.” Since this impromptu rendezvous, the two have been constant cohorts: Blige is a fixture at Malandrino’s collections, and Malandrino says, “I am a really big supporter of her and I love her.”

While it doesn’t hurt to have a bevy of boldfaces in your corner, Malandrino is more interested in expressing emotion than hawking her wares. And even though she’s been approached by big chain behemoths à la Target and H&M, she’s dismissed each proposal out of hand, saying, “I don’t think it’s the right way to develop individuality. I would rather go my own way, because I want to stay very true to my customer, to the way I give her the best, the detail, the uniqueness of it.”

Part and parcel of this desire to connect emotionally with the women she dresses is the launch of a new concept: Maison Malandrino. This spring, she’ll be opening the doors of a new lifestyle boutique in Los Angeles on La Cienega at Melrose Place-although Malandrino hesitates to use the term “boutique.”

She explains, “I was looking to have a real maison, like a home, not a boutique or store. I like the idea that [my customer] is coming to my home as a guest, that she will feel comfortable to lounge and drink and enjoy the clothes, as well as all the curiosities that will be surrounding her. It will be a very intimate and special moment. I will expose my intimate choices in terms of clothes, in terms of image, in terms of message. It’s a very personal connection.”

The 6,000-square-foot space, with a 1,000-square-foot terrace, was designed by French architect Christophe Pillet, and is rigged with the de rigueur Malandrino collection, accessories (bags, belts, and shoes), and Catherine Malandrino contemporary line, as well as a café, floral atelier, and a library. And in honor of the opening, she’s showcasing a new line of “fantasy” jewelry.

The LA Maison Malandrino also boasts a little something pour monsieurs: made-to-measure tuxedos. However, Malandrino approached menswear from the perspective of a woman, naturally. “I love the idea that men need tuxedo jackets, smoking jackets, that are in accordance with the woman… I love this type of super chic elegance.”

While overextension can be distracting and downright detrimental to a brand, Malandrino says she has her compass firmly positioned. “I always have a vision of redefining the life of a woman. It’s above the wardrobe: Today it’s the accessories but tomorrow it’s the home and the lifestyle surrounding [the Malandrino woman]. Maybe it’s a hotel or a home collection.”

In that honey-thick, buttery drawl, Malandrino adds, “My intent is to make sure I give this woman a great moment, a wonderful souvenir of compliments-that she feels confident and beautiful. This is the most important and this is where I have my own reward.” Fortunately, her reward and our reward are one in the same.