Anne Fontaine, the Little White Shirt from Paris to New York

Speaking from her studio on the edge of the Garment District in Manhattan, Anne Fontaine, the French-Brazilian designer renowned for her white shirts for women, discusses the history of the label that bears her own name and now boasts 60 boutiques across the world.
© Anne Fontaine

Anne Fontaine is dressed in black with a metallic blue bomber jacket embroidered with flowers and sequins, and speaks warmly in French with just a hint of a Brazilian accent. In the bright space where she designs her pieces, enormous black and white fabric boxes are overflowing with samples of tulle, lace, linen, jacquard, and tweed. A Stockman mannequin can be seen facing sketches for the summer of 2020. “We started from nothing,” the fashion designer says. “At the start, there was just Ari’s family.”

Ari Zlotkin, her husband, heads up La Chemiserie Parisienne, the parent company of Anne Fontaine based in France. The Zlotkin family has worked in the textile industry since the 1950s, and produced men’s shirts for leading couture players, before turning to the retail sector. The company began to struggle as its clients fled to factories in Eastern Europe and China. With a dwindling order book, its future looked bleak. But after marrying Ari in the early 1990s, Anne Fontaine came up with an idea that would change the fate of the family business forever. After discovering a trunk filled with men’s shirts in her mother-in-law’s attic, the young admirer of Yves Saint Laurent, who started making her own dresses at the age of ten, announced that “We should be making white shirts for women! These pieces will become just as important as those in men’s wardrobes.” With that, the Anne Fontaine brand was born. And the Zlotkin family business, now located in Normandy, was saved from bankruptcy.

This new addition to the women’s wardrobe was revamped, recut, and reinvented, offering enough variety to contrast with its immutable color. Featured in silk organza, crepe, and poplin, with French cuffs, long, puffy sleeves, short sleeves and bare shoulders, a free-flowing or sensible look, with collars including ascot and cup-shaped styles, or with jabots, ruffles, lace, and embroidery, through Anne Fontaine the white shirt assumed a totally new identity. “People used to say, ‘They will be gone in two years…’ And that was 26 years ago!”

© Anne Fontaine

After a first boutique opened in Paris on Rue des Saints-Pères, the brand began to attract a clientele of Japanese and then mostly American women. Anne Fontaine inaugurated a first U.S. store in Boston in 1996, followed by one in New York City. Twenty years later, there were some 20 spaces in North America, including the flagship store on Madison Avenue alongside Prada, Balenciaga, and Carolina Herrera. And since 2011, a foundation of the same name in New York has been working to save the forests and endangered animal and plant species in the Atlantic Forest region of the Amazon. Inspired by her experience in the area, where she spent six months at the end of her adolescence, the young woman who once dreamed of becoming a biologist has launched a “Forest Day.”

Aside from the awareness campaigns designed to educate American and Brazilian students about environmental issues, the Anne Fontaine Foundation has also launched other initiatives involving local communities, such as eco-friendly bags and scarves made by Amazonian tribes. Furthermore, the foundation claims to have planted 45,000 trees in the region since it was created. The brand also uses a number of organic materials in some of its products, and the designer demands decent working conditions for her suppliers. But she remains frustrated by the lack of green options in the textile industry, a sector in need of “real change.”

“American women just love products made in France,” says Anne Fontaine. According to her, the pieces reflect a certain idea of chic carried by the sobriety and elegance of a white shirt and founded on a strong sense of tradition. “A collar was a sign of social standing for a long time” from the Renaissance ruff to the white collar sported during the Enlightenment era. “Hollywood stars appropriated this item of clothing during the battle of the sexes to be on the same footing as men. There was Greta Garbo with her cigarette and her jabot collars, followed by a more glamorous Marilyn Monroe, then Audrey Hepburn and her faux good-girl style with her Claudine collars.”

The brand has gradually diversified its offering by accessorizing its shirts, which now feature cufflinks, belts, sautoir necklaces, and bejeweled collars. It has developed its collections to include a new range of colors and pieces, including pants, jackets, bags, and footwear, as well as two new lines: Précieuse and Casual. However, the designer is well aware that “When you ask someone what Anne Fontaine is, they reply ‘The white shirt!’ We try to explain that we do more than just that, but it is also what got us where we are today.”

Article published in the April 2019 issue of France-AmériqueS’abonner au magazine.