Inès, the Marquise of the Boutique.
I go to see Inès de La Fressange in 1991, in the new flat that she and her husband Luigi d’Urso (who tragically died of a heart attack in 2006) have bought and renovated on the top floor of a very Parisian building. Madame Verdurin, who was made famous by Marcel Proust in “In Search of Lost Time,” was supposed to have had her salon here. The flat is large and very bright. From the windows, one can see the Eiffel Tower and the gardens of the Élysée Palace, where the President of the French Republic carries out his business. The style is very Gustav III of Sweden, with simple eighteenth-century furnishings without any gilding and very light wood floors.
“Before, I lived in a very French flat with heavy furniture and large paintings, in Palais Royal. After I married Luigi, we chose this house, which isn’t too old but neither is it a loft. It has a lot of light; empty spaces; simple, antique furnishings; and very few objects, which we buy from small antiques dealers or at flea markets. I grew up in the countryside, and when I’m not working I like to walk aimlessly, to visit art exhibitions. What I like the most is taking car trips with my husband, driving across France or Italy. We went to Padua, Mantua, and Bologna in the winter. Some of my best moments are had being in a nice warm car, listening to music, stopping in a city, eating in a good restaurant, and finding a hotel.”
Inès is very tall, has short hair, and large dark eyes. She is smoking a Royal while sitting on a small sofa in her library, which is painted a very unique blue-grey. The fireplace is lit, and the atmosphere is cosy. We begin talking about her new business, a recently opened boutique in 14 Avenue Montaigne called Inès de la Fressange.
“I chose Avenue Montaigne because it is evocative of a Parisian elegance that is a bit obsolete, from the nineteen-fifties. I really enjoy my new business because I handle all aspects of it. I go from the design to the end result, following each step. There is nothing more fun than making something out of nothing. I have created it all, from the boutique letterhead to the spirit of those who work there to the things I sell. I would like that the boutiques that I open up in other parts of the world have their own unique spirit. In March, for example, I’m opening one in Milan in Via Montenapoleone and then others in other cities, but I’m not in a hurry.”
What is the spirit of the boutique?
Making ready-to-wear but without a revolution. Thinking more about the product sold in the boutique as opposed to the fashion shows or the advertising. I wanted basic pieces. Simple white blouses in cotton, linen and silk, a straight skirt, a blue blazer, and then bags, jewels and objects for the home, such as sheets, towels, glasses, chairs, lamps, frames and photograph holders. The furnishings in my boutique can be ordered!
What makes the boutique in Avenue Montaigne characteristic?
I’ve tasked my friend Alexis de la Falaise with helping me create a boutique that is very colourful, happy, and comfortable. The dressing rooms are large. There’s a yellow one, a blue one and a pink one. There are mirrors, a sofa and a telephone. The American journalists have found the telephone to be quite the luxury. When my customers try on clothes, I want them to feel comfortable. They can bring their husbands, their boyfriends, or a girlfriend. I carefully chose a manager for the boutique, a seamstress who will do alterations, and the shop assistants. In France we tend to be a bit snobbish and presumptuous. I wanted kind, simple, and charming shop assistants that made customers feel at ease. Then I chose a young artist to create shop windows that seem like theatre sets. Today only Hermès does special shop windows. At one time, even famous artists like Bérard and Cocteau did shop windows. The shop windows need to catch the eye.
Are the clothes and objects you sell very expensive?
No. Nothing should be expensive. There are earrings that cost thirty euros and pantsuits with large buttons that seem like diamonds for eight-hundred euros. You can find notebooks for four euros. My products – even the sunglasses – are designed by me. There are no licenses. I have prototypes made that are then manufactured by manufacturers or artisans. Clothes are made in France, and shoes and pullovers are made in Italy. I am going to Venice to have the glasses and vases made.
Was the boutique a commercial success right away?
Yes. I must say that we didn’t expect that kind of traffic. An average of more than one thousand people per day! Some products were sold out three days after we’d opened. We reordered right away, but even those are already sold out! The most popular items have been the white blouses in cotton and poplin, the flat shoes (suede moccasins that sell for about one-hundred and twenty euros), and tweed jackets (three-hundred and fifty euros). Men’s ties and dogs’ collars have also sold well. Oscar de la Renta came and bought coloured linen sheets.
Now you’ve become a businesswoman. How did you learn? How do you like this new role?
I’ve had good teachers, including Mr. Racamier, the president of the Orcofi Group (in addition to being the owner of the Lanvin Group and former president of Louis Vuitton), who is the majority shareholder in my business. We often have sales and financial meetings, which I follow with great attention because I’m a shareholder also, and I want to know every detail.
So you are working a lot! What impact does that have on your personal life?
I start at 8:30 a.m. and finish exhausted at 10 p.m. This morning, for example, I’m choosing fabrics, then I have a meeting, then an interview with Japanese journalists, then I’m going to spend the afternoon with button manufacturers… When I return in the evening, I can’t be perfect at home. It’s impossible.
How does your husband handle this?
He is indulgent, understanding. At times, he gets a bit irritated, and that brings me back to reality. He just took me on holiday to Italy for a week when I was supposed to be working. I left thinking I would go to appease him, but it was wonderful for me, and I really needed to relax. My husband is intelligent. He has a lot of common sense, and he isn’t too obliging. Celebrity, money, and success can be dangerous. It is good to have someone who knows how to put you in your place.
Do you think marriage has changed your life?
Today I am no longer alone. It is important to have someone by your side that admires you and has confidence in you. Freedom isn’t interesting, and it doesn’t mean anything. I couldn’t work well without having balance in my love life. Luigi is the most important thing to me. My work is a game I take seriously.
Do you work with your husband?
No. I don’t think it’s right to work with your husband. He works for the Compagnia Italiana Turismo (CIT), working with travel and tourism, and he’s very interested in art…Of course, he gives me good advice about my work.
Are you a rich woman?
No. I am a woman who works, who has been spoiled by life, but I need to be careful, and I will never act like a “star.”
Have you had a lot of luck?
I think we can all have luck, but you need to know how to take advantage of it in the moment.
Is there a key to your success?
Yes. Working with great humility, without presumption. Nothing is easy whatever your job is! Then you need to know how to run the risk of not pleasing everyone. For example, when I signed my contract with Chanel, many people said, “What? Why would you sign with only one when you can go all over, to America and Japan?” But I found it more interesting to work with Karl Lagerfeld. Many people warned me not to do it, saying I’d soon be forgotten. I have always preferred to stay faithful to a few friends in Paris who are perhaps less well-known as opposed to accepting big contracts offered to me in Germany or Japan. And I’ve never regretted it. One of these friends was Christian Lacroix who then became very famous!
Have you always been close to your family?
Yes. I was very attached to my grandmother, who was an extraordinary woman that squandered her fortune by always living in an extravagantly luxurious way. I am very close to my parents, my brothers, and my husband’s daughters.
Who are your friends?
An unemployed girl, my make-up artist, my hair stylist, a guy with a public-relations agency, a writer, a typewriter repairman, a guy that manages a television network…I need balance. I don’t want self-importance and solitude, and so I stay close to my family and my friends. When I started with my new business, the models, hair stylists, manufacturers, and journalists all helped me by being warm.
Are you an ambitious woman?
I’ve already been rich and famous, and now I’m working backwards. I’m working on what I like, which is clothes.
What are your desires?
A cordless phone and a baby, but it’s not easy to make one!
Now that you have a Neapolitan husband, do you feel closer to Italy?
Yes. His family has a house in Conca dei Marini (Amalfi) where we try to go as much as possible. Then I have a father-in-law in Rome that raises turtles…
What do you do for fun?
I ride horses, I ski, but what I like the most is walking aimlessly around the city. I go to bookstores with my husband or visit museums.
What about your house? Music? Reading?
I like my house. I mainly read on holiday, and I tend to prefer the book I’m currently reading. The last book I read was by Seneca. Music accompanies me everywhere, at home or at work. I go from Elton John to Chopin to Don Giovanni to Edith Piaf. I always bring a Roberto Murolo cassette with me when I travel. My father-in-law was amused by my passion for old Neapolitan songs.
A lanky Inès walks me to the door with a big smile and kind parting words. As I walk out on to the street, I think about how success is no coincidence. This thirty-four-year-old woman is interesting, beautiful, elegant, and from a good family. She was raised by a governess in spacious homes and luxury hotels with gorgeous brothers, eccentric parents, and a billionaire grandmother. Inès hasn’t changed a thing about herself and she is not at all snobbish. She’s naturally elegant and has known how to win great popularity and adoration. During the bicentennial of the French Revolution, she was chosen by mayors all over France to represent “Marianne” – the symbol of the revolution in a country with a socialist government and a marquise who seems timid and fragile but who is actually determined and aware of all of the steps along her path to success.
16 December, 1991