On the heels of their Spring 2018 NY show, recent flagship store opening in SOHO and Fall campaign with Bella Hadid; The Impression’s Kenneth Richard sat to chat with Thierry Gillier, Founder of Zadig & Voltaire, about how he got into the business, early Helmut Lang, growing one of the largest independent houses in the world, how a crush brought him stateside, and that iconic marketing
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Thierry, good to catch-up stateside for once. A lot of people don’t know that you actually attended university here.
Yes, upstate at Bard college north of the city. Bard is huge. At the time you would take the Amtrak train and go straight up to Annandale-on-Hudson.
It’s a stunning campus.
It changed my life. It was such an adventurous place.
How did you find Bard?
I went with an American. A New Yorker and… you know… girlfriend.
At that age it’s always the girl.
Yes, it’s always the girl. I followed her even though at the time I didn’t speak a word of English. It was really about 35 years ago and there were no cell phones.
So what happened after Bard?
I came back to Paris and then worked in the fashion business for the rest of my life. I was more into art at first, like painting. Fashion was in between. But back then, being a painter or an artist was very difficult to live with.
Was your family in fashion?
I was born in Troyes, next to Paris, and Troyes was the capital for knitting. My grandfather invented the knitting industry. At the time, he was the biggest knitting pioneer in the world because America had not yet gotten into that industry. So all the knitting they were producing in Troyes was sought after. At one point he was doing jumpsuits for people in the gold mines.
They were doing the socks, the underwear, you know, all the outfits popular in America. Then buyers would come in by boat. The buyers were from Bloomingdales, Filenes, and such, coming into the ports of France. They were buying millions of pieces at a time. Then one day he met Lacoste and they made a shirt. Ever since then there was this interlocking connection.
Even my mother was a stylist, and I did fittings with her. She would be there and I would critique. You need to get critiqued if you want to do a good job, you need another point of view.
As only a son could do…
While studying art at Bard, I started to change. It changed the way I viewed art. From the moment I arrived from France, we would always go to museums to understand American art. Seeing artists like Jackson Pollock, it was, how do I put it?
Exactly. It soon became that I invented my own brand. I was influenced by American retail, thus I desired to become a retailer. I was designing for a brand at first, but I felt it wasn’t enough. I wanted to have my own world, doing what I want and selling what I want. So I bought a few stores and I didn’t do wholesale whatsoever.
So you started as a retailer?
Yeah, I started again as a retailer. At the time I was also selling, buying, and working for others as well as myself. I was a producer… I worked for Saint Laurent and a few other people, then I finally decided to do my own thing.
When you started off as a retailer, did you carry other brands or only your own stuff?
To start the business as a retailer, my designs were not enough. So at the time I went to see Helmut Lang. His work was just unbelievable and he invented this new fashion world we are living in today.
In fact, there were two designers who changed the fashion world: Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. Those guys were really into the art of changing how people wore things. When I saw their work I was like “whoa!” and today they live with those accomplishments.
The brand Helmut Lang has of course evolved, yet we continue to see the Helmut Lang look throughout fashion today. We are all wearing those clothes. The jeans, shirts, etc. are all influenced by Helmut. You know the jeans industry is living because of him, as is the suit industry.
And now here he is art-ing it up in Montauk.
I went to Montauk to see him and I had to buy a few pictures. I wanted to hire him, but Helmut said, “You should have hired me then.” [laughs]
This is our story, and a bit of fashion’s overall story too. This is the history that changed the landscape. These designers came in and changed the world and how we wore things. So I started with Helmut, selling his brand and it was such a success. I am still inspired by these guys who wrote what we’re wearing today. So you know if I was a painter, I would have copied those guys. There is always someone who did an amazing job before you, and you need a source of influence.
Like how most of us are inspired by Fabien Baron, Pascal Dangin, and Giovanni Bianco.
Fabien is a good friend of mine. We talk often. I never worked with him because he’s too big for me. I had lunch with him recently, and we were talking about what’s going on in the world today. He took his phone and said this is it, this is where everything is happening today.
My thoughts were that we’ve got to adjust to technology, because this is a new world. We have to talk about the past, but this is just what’s going on today. We can never know too much, there’s not enough information for that. We have to talk about it, and think about it; we have to really brainstorm what to do.
You’ve always been a storyteller and a great communicator, which technology only enhances. Let’s talk a bit about those first ad campaigns. How did those come about? There was a touch of Helmut now that I think about it.
Yes, as I worked with Helmut Lang and Margiela for a while. My influence comes from those guys. Then I decided to do something else, because it was more important to me. I began to reverse the way of wearing clothes for women. It was upside down, but it was my way of seeing things. I wanted it to be set in the real world, so we did a shoot about real people.
Who shot those first campaigns for you?
When we shot those first campaigns, I had friends do it. You know when you’re in that business you start from nothing. That was my case because my pockets were empty, and when my grandfather died there was nothing left. So it was a problem. Yet I was happy that he left me nothing, in a sense, so I could build something on my own and try to make a story.
And here we are today on set with you about to shoot Bella Hadid. Talk about leveraging the reach of a network via technology.
We’ve tried to always be with the new world while still observing what already was. It’s written – what’s going to be popular in the future and what will still be relevant, like Helmut Lang and Margiela. The rest is just a mystery, so this new way of communicating with technology, helps to communicate an idea. We like to be one step ahead.
What do you like most about what you do?
When you have this job you have to think that you are unsatisfied all the time. You have to visualize that there can be problems all the time. If one day you are satisfied and the job is going well you can stop everything. You have to stress to get the job done, and do it well. You have to be quick. You don’t have any time, and you have to count the cost as well. You may not have the money but you have to create it.
You are not bureaucratic, I imagine.
No, I came from art. I should have maybe been an artist but I became an artistic manager. I am not someone who was originally a technical manager. However, now I’m a technical manager, because the world of fashion is made up of technical managers. So artistic management one day, and then I had to wake up and change it. At nine years old you’re one way, and then at twelve you’re different. You develop and begin to change. We change all the time. You know it’s time to change when you are unsatisfied. We have to think all the time, we are born thinkers, and sometimes we would love to stop thinking.
I started the brand to just enjoy the idea of work, but we have family and friends here too. Work is difficult but it makes us feel alive. If it was too easy, Zadig & Voltaire would become a brand with no DNA. You have to feel the DNA with your team of people. You have to decide which way to do so, and talk with them about how to move forward.
Thank you for taking the time to chat, and I look forward to your future.
Me too. Thanks as always.
Runway Images | ImaxTree