Elodie Laurent – One to Watch!
I first met with Elodie at Process East, Hoxton, where she had been invited to give a talk to the assembled recent graduates and undergraduates studying fashion at University of East London.
What immediately separated her from other designer’s-in-waiting I had come across was her complete lack of vanity, a raw honesty and integrity about her work and commitment to her profession. If ever there was a role model to draw inspiration from, she personified it, body, heart and soul. It was both inspiring and humbling to hear her story.
A slightly unfair question about what she might have done differently as a student, to maximize the opportunity to learn, got her immediately fired up. “I would have pushed it even more, made more clothes as a student, done more research, focused more on developing and innovating in fabric. Yeah, I would have pushed it more.” In a word, more. A word that so aptly describes both the requirement in today’s highly competitive fashion design world (that she would elaborate on, in many different ways during our chat). And with Elodie an attitude of mind with the instinctive awareness that to give more than you are asked for is an admirable professional quality and one that deserves rewarding.
“When I compare myself to the students at Central St Martin’s – they have heating machines – I would have been using them every single day, probably wore them out. There were no tutors where I was.” Elodie studied at College La Salle in Montreal, having grown up in France. Her remarks were not cynical or jealous, simply reflections on the quality of opportunity afforded some individuals. And sadly, it is not always appreciated by those privileged enough to afford it, and many leaving idle the facilities Central provides. In Elodie’s case, the lack simply made her more resourceful and work harder: fashion life lessons.
Hers was not a direct route into fashion and her achievements arguably more remarkable as a result. A BA in Business Management in France, was followed by a scholarship to study an MA in Marketing in Business in Montreal. At that point, she made the switch just knowing it was the right thing to do, and studied what was the equivalent of a Fashion Designer Diploma on an intensive course for a further two years.
“I have no regrets. I can use my business training and apply it to when I do patterns and can calculate fast. I was studying fashion at a junior level with no real support, so had to figure it out for myself.” Often the most enduring discipline for understanding anything.
The route for many graduates in Montreal is to attend the big annual fashion festival to impress one of the designers for an internship. Not just any designer. In 2009 on graduating, she had her sights set on Helmer, a Montreal based designer, with a reputation for doing creative, non-traditional, couture based designs. He was playing hardball, showing avid disinterest, but she demonstrated her mettle, portfolio in hand by literally pushing her designs into his hand. It worked, with a less-than-enthusiastic, but nevertheless conciliatory, “oh, all right. See you tomorrow at 8am.”
As was to be the case with a number of trial by fire challenges presented to her, the first ‘let’s see how you cope with this’ problem, was all about creative ingenuity. “What could she do with all these tubes I had made in fabric, that I need to do something with for Montreal Fashion Week?” he asked. Then went away, not expecting anything other than a failure to rise to the challenge. Not only did she turn the tubes into a Bolero garment, something Jean-Paul Gaultier would have been proud of, the garment was showcased at MFW. Praise? Not a bit of it. And she learned very quickly not to even look for it. Apparently he had worked in Chanel and was fessing up all the working-for-a-fashion-house-peccadillos he had encountered, for good or bad, illustrations of ‘what it is really like out there.’
Meanwhile, she immersed herself in just about everything that came along to do with helping him manage his brand and business, for the next six months, doing marketing, business card designs, painting walls and floors ready for a boutique opening, even creating cocktails to go with the collections. She was 23 and now involved in helping to create 40 looks for the catwalk for Montreal Fashion Week, as well as the opening of a boutique. The designer was very much ‘an artist’ unwilling to compromise on any of his aesthetic principles. Elodie realized that to get any respect or recognition for her work, she was obliged to move on.
She had returned to Cannes where her family lived and before leaving Montreal had sent her CV, including a pic of the bolero she had made and other samples of her work, to one of the biggest fashion names, considered the pioneer of fashion in Canada/ Quebec, Marie Saint Pierre. (MSP). She received a call the next day, to fly back to Montreal, because they had created a brand new graduate trainee position to assist the assistant to MSP: the bolero had done the trick – could she start next week? Elodie was there for a further six months. Again, she was set another daunting challenge to turn lots of beading work into a design for a competition for the company. And promptly won. Sad to say, the by-association benefits this might have accrued were not directly forthcoming and once again, Elodie had learned not to expect it. It was all good, invaluable experience at the end of the day.
Paris too expensive as an option and with no contacts, Elodie returned to Cannes in Aug 2010, partly to discover who she was as a designer, a kind of necessary sabbatical to give herself time and space to believe she could design and make clothes independently, from her own creativity. She might say she was confronting some of her own demons, working in a tiny room, with patterns on the floor, keeping busy making things and keeping any self-doubts at bay. She entered the biggest contest for fashion designers in France, the Festival De Hyeres, attended by the biggest brand names in fashion. A highly resourceful, needs-must Elodie, set about doing whatever it took to participate, begging models to work for her for free, and asking for spare clothes to recycle into designs (something she feels very strongly about “so much waste can be transformed into garments.”) A parallel desire had emerged to make bags, but she realized the investment required made it a difficult aspiration to sustain, let alone realize, and has for the time being let it be.
There is something of the magpie in Elodie’s behavior, perhaps symptomatic of all designers with a burgeoning portfolio. “I keep accumulating examples of what I have done, and always more picky about the quality of the photos, more caring about the ambience and setting to show off the designs. I knew at the beginning that the more pics on your website, on Facebook, the better. Eventually, models and photographers contacted me. Having seen that my pics and the clothes I was proposing were more crazy, they liked it. One of them was even used as a Wallpaper magazine pic.”
In Aug 2012, Elodie designed a dress having seen a video inspired by Gareth Pugh, and made her own version of a ‘slashed jersey’ dress. In October she sent her portfolio to Gareth, en route to Paris with her clothes to do four shoots for her own portfolio. The very next day she got a call from Gareth’s team, inviting her for a three-month internship, leading to Paris fashion week. How could she say no. “The manager was very tough, working seven days a week. The first day she put me on a sewing machine and I never left the sewing machine for the next three months. We needed 20 petticoats, I made 15 in two days and 5 more the day before the show, working 10am-10pm. I said to myself, whatever they ask for, I will try and do it faster – if 3 hours, I will try for 2, if they want 10 of something, I will do 15.” This was her self-governed work ethic and a shining example to any graduate wanting to know what it takes to get ahead, get noticed and most importantly, get good. “All the time I did this, I got faster and better. And I kept pushing myself.”
She got a call from Gareth, thinking perhaps he might offer her a full-time role, from the internship. It turned out he was offering her the role of studio manager, from acting studio manager. “I was shaking, literally. I had 15 people and one month to make four ‘full circle’ dresses.” These individual dresses were and are masterpieces to create, involving hundreds of hours. Even when they shrunk the original concept to half circle, it is a full-time job for 6 people. Elodie revealed her stoic and no-nonsense wisdom, learned through experience: “One rule for us youngsters is never to say no to anything. And only to use it when it matters. Are you tired? No. Are you hungry? No. Can you make this? Yes.” Hearing her say it, coming from the school of hard knocks, you instantly realize, she knows what she is talking about. She may have been nervous and a tad daunted by the scale of the responsibility, but she went away and made a plan in her bedroom of how to carry out the work. “It was hard working with my peers, one minute working alongside them as an intern, next organizing their work.”
One week later Gareth and the general manager came back to see what had been achieved, “show us what you have done?” (with it has to be said, probably not a huge expectation of what she could do). Matter of factly, Elodie responded, “There is the dress, here’s the skirt.” “Ah, I see…so you still have the coat to do?” “No, that’s done too, out the back.” Apparently, they looked at each other, laughed and said, “So I think you have passed your trial, you can stay.” Whether it was an actual trial or not, one thing is for sure, Gareth was relieved he could get the work done to the standard he wanted and realized she could be trusted to do it. “I gained more and more trust, and was always willing to do anything that was asked. He let me hire a team on my own. And freed up to do his own thing, he let me look after the studio. A huge honor. He even brought me to New York for an event.”
I asked how this experience with one of the leading creative designers had helped her? “Certain jobs are starting to be offered to me and I am considering my options.” Learning how to be circumspect with just the hint of mystique – desirous and shrewd at this juncture I thought. Many designers at this stage would be anxious to let loose and demonstrate what they could do, inspired by the peers they had learned from. Her response is commendably if uncharacteristically cautious and free from I deserve it permissions. And suggests a canny, business-minded approach. “I don’t want to be a brand, I do not have the financial backing.” This does not mean never. “I will do it. The day I will do it, will be when I can respond to the request and do it professionally. I don’t believe in having a brand at our age. It’s just a joke to start my brand – I don’t even have factory contacts. I’m still finding my own vision and need to think smart.” In anyone else’s mouth, these words could be misconstrued as someone lacking confidence or direction. It would be a mistake to underestimate Elodie this way. There’s too much going on in her planning horizons, she’s far more far-sighted for this to be case. Especially when one takes into consideration the vast numbers of would-be designers who over-reached themselves, did not understand the business they were getting into, and could not run their own brand. And do not exist today.
What needs to transpire for Elodie to move to the next level? “I want creative director experience of how to make a collection. I always compare fashion to running a Michelin starred kitchen. I have been the 2nd chef, I need to be the chef.” Trust a French person to come up with this illustration. But it’s a good one, smelling of haute, with quality and integrity as its minimal ingredients. “I think I will have to go through another stage, a couple more years. I don’t want to be a pop-up brand, I want to have a vision.” What is the vision that she can articulate now I asked, clearly aware (as she agreed) it could all change overnight if the right thing came along. “I want people to recognize the signature as Elodie. I’m not driven by having a corner in Top Shop. I want to have a studio. To open the doors in the morning and have my own team. Yes, it will take a while longer,” she says smiling. “It will primarily be womenswear, and be couture from my French side, something I would want to wear myself.”
Listening to her reveal her dreams, doesn’t sound conditioned by the psychology of if I hear myself say it enough times, I may believe it, rather, someone who is resolutely focused and far from speculation. “I don’t want to make a brand, just to have a brand. I don’t want to put dye in the sea, I want to be someone who is conscious of the environment.” So, what is the proof of concept for her? Very simple. “My focus now is putting a collection together, 20 pieces, possibly 30 leading up to October, or 3 capsules. I will try to push technologies, do some crazy stuff, wearable but embellished.” In the meantime, she will consider working anywhere to pay the bills and has sent her CV to the fashion houses in Paris, London, Emirates and Netherlands. Well, I kind of think she has earned the right to do so, with a credible track record earned the hard way.
It was fun to finish our chat for the time being at least (before she really is discovered, in her own right) with a few anecdotes. And how she truly appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with Lady Gaga, who is a big fan and client of Gareth, (along with Beyoncé and Kate Moss) and had commissioned him to do a costume for her. The woman behind the legend apparently is “super smart, super-focused, and a strategic thinker and amazing person to be with, if she takes you into her confidence.” Perhaps ‘more’ will be replaced by super in Elodie’s lexicon in the future. And superlatives will be necessary I feel for describing this inspiring, charming individuals rise to the top of the fashion world, for all the right reasons. Two will suffice right now: talent and dedication.
Interview by Paul Markevicius
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