From Paris, With Vinyl: Courrèges, Space Age Pioneer, Flies Again

Arnaud Vaillant, left, and Sébastien Meyer, the artistic directors of Courrèges.

Lapin à la moutarde (rabbit in mustard sauce) is a grandmotherly French classic that has not yet had a wide revival among those New York restaurants that have made a fetish of pork belly and foie gras.

But there it appeared on the menu of Lucien, a sturdy little bistro near the corner of First Avenue and First Street, and shortly after, it was placed in front of Arnaud Vaillant, a Frenchman in jeans and a hoodie. Mr. Vaillant, 26, and his boyfriend and partner, Sébastien Meyer, 27, the artistic directors of Courrèges, the landmark French label, were in town for to celebrate the return of the line to Bergdorf Goodman.

“I have to give them credit, they moved it forward,” said Linda Fargo, the senior vice president of Bergdorf’s, at a party earlier that evening at their pop-up on the store’s fifth floor, where their vinyl jackets and minidresses stood alongside giant signs reading, “TOP,” “SKIRT” and “JACKET.”

Mr. Vaillant (who handles logistics, including sourcing suppliers and production) and Mr. Meyer (who concentrates on design) are almost comically young and cartoonishly adorable, but they have inherited one of the great labels of French ready-to-wear. Courrèges, in its 1960s and ’70s heyday, was a pioneer of space age chic, as well as of ready-to-wear itself.

André Courrèges, its founder, helped usher in a new youthfulness in acid colors, unexpected materials (plastic was a favorite) and kicky shapes (he was an evangelist of the miniskirt).

But his company waned in influence as the years went on, and Mr. Courrèges stepped back from design in the mid-’90s as his health declined. He died in January, at 92; the French president, François Hollande, expressed his condolences.

“In France, it brings nostalgia,” said Lolita Jacobs, 27, the in-house consultant and muse to Mr. Meyer and Mr. Vaillant. “It’s almost like a national treasure.” In the United States, however, its history is lesser known. “For the younger generation,” she said, “there is a huge gap. It’s almost like a start-up, a new brand.”

In a way, it is. In 2011, Mr. Courrèges and his wife and collaborator, Coqueline, sold the company to Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting, advertising executives whom she contacted after reading an editorial they wrote defending the future of brands in a logo-weary world. (Courrèges had changed hands several times before the family regained control in 1994.)

To introduce it to a new generation, Mr. Bungert and Mr. Torloting brought in Mr. Meyer and Mr. Vaillant, who had early acclaim with their own collection, Coperni Femme. Coperni won Andam’s First Collections prize and was a finalist for the LVMH Prize. They withdrew from the competition when the Courrèges appointment was announced, and put Coperni on hiatus.

“He started something that ought to continue,” Mr. Meyer said of Mr. Courrèges. “Why create a new brand when we can continue this story?”

Still, there was the challenge of taking on the legacy of one of France’s most distinguished designers.

“It’s a big challenge to relaunch a brand like this, because of the huge patrimony,” Mr. Vaillant said. The solution was to strip it back to essentials, and for their first show in September, they began with bare categories: the skirt, the jacket, the dress, the top and the pants, most worn simply, over a bare white bodysuit.

“We don’t want to do art,” Mr. Vaillant said. “We want to do garments that women can wear.”

Real women did. By the next season, their shiny jackets were cropping up on stylish attendees, young women whose mothers and grandmothers may have worn Courrèges, but whose own view into the label came from their contemporaries.

“Arnaud and Sébastien are about youth,” said Mr. Bungert, now the Courrèges co-president. “Youth, architecture, insolence, innovation — what do they mean today? It’s like in the digital world. When you’re not native, it’s not the same.”

The debt to the style of old Courrèges is evident in shapes and fabrics, but the designers said their primary commitment is to innovation, just as Mr. Courrèges’s was.

They have gamely chanced risky ideas: showing no clothes at all (only the one-word categories) in their ad campaign; making key runway pieces available immediately; introducing a coat with an inset battery that generates heat at the touch of a button and can be recharged with an iPhone cable. Future shows, they promise, will move even further from the expected.

Theirs is a revolution in deliberate stages, but its start has been promising. Early reviews have been largely favorable; sales nearly doubled between its first and second seasons. Elizabeth von der Goltz of Bergdorf Goodman reported that the pop-up has had “an amazing response from our customers — our sell-through proves it.”

Courrèges, the avatar of the future, is catching up to a new present. Coqueline Courrèges, having given her blessing, is no longer directly involved, though the designers have heard that she keeps an eye on the proceedings at the iconic Paris shop and offices her husband established.

“Sometimes she comes by Rue François 1er,” Mr. Vaillant said. “She stays in her car.”

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