Valerie Steele is the director of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the country’s top fashion schools. She has a Ph.D. from Yale where she specialized in fashion history, and has been called “one of fashion’s brainiest women” by The Washington Post. In addition to organizing museum exhibitions, Steele also has her name on more than 20 fashion-related books, including Paris Fashion: A Cultural History.
Anne Fontaine is a Brazilian-French fashion designer known for her groundbreaking take on the white shirt, and founded her eponymous fashion company 23 years ago. Today she owns around 70 stores all over the world – 25 of which are in the United States – and has been living in Manhattan for the past two years.
France-Amérique: How would you define French and American couture today?
Valerie Steele: The world is more complicated than that. There are designers from everywhere working out of Paris, and they all create different styles. In terms of attitude, designers in Paris may be more willing to see fashion as an avant-garde art form whereas in America there’s more of a tendency to think of fashion as minimalist sportswear. There’s a certain emphasis on creativity and originality.
Anne Fontaine: Couture is in our roots in France. Paris is where high fashion began and it is still the first place that comes to mind when you think of fashion. There is an instinctive French elegance that women pick up. They don’t think that much about what they’re going to wear, while it is more planned in the U.S. Let me use an analogy: When American friends invite me to dinner, they plan a menu, look up recipes and buy specific groceries. But when I have friends to my home, I just think, “Okay, what do I have in the fridge?”
Valerie, you’ve done a lot of research into the roots of today’s fashion. Historically, what have been some of the differences between the two countries?
Valerie Steele: Sportswear has been the famous American contribution to the fashion world. Right after the war, Paris was back on top with the rise of Christian Dior and the New Look. Then, Americans began to emerge with sportswear. In the past, ready-to-wear was better in America than it was in France. Even though the designs were based on Parisian fashion, sizing and production methods were way in advance of anything being done in Europe. The French had so many dressmakers that nobody bought mass-market stuff. But beginning in the 1960s, the French began thinking, “Let’s not let our clothes be copied by the Americans; let’s start our own line of ready-to-wear high fashion associated with French designers” and prêt-à-porter was born.
If we take a look at cities, where would you place New York and Paris today?
Valerie Steele: I would say that Paris is still the most prestigious place to make and show fashion. It is followed by New York right now, but that keeps changing from year to year, as Milan and London are also great fashion cities.
Anne Fontaine: There are many fashion capitals today but the roots of fashion are in Paris. New York is wonderful for sportswear.
Are there any cultural differences in attitudes toward fashion?
Valerie Steele: There are slightly different attitudes among women in Paris and New York. There’s still a sense among fashionistas that fashion in Paris might be more artistic than what we have in America. There are American designers that do highly artistic fashion, but the fact that America has placed more emphasis on the mass market means that a lot of what you see at New York Fashion Week is more generic than some of the experimental fashion in Paris.
Anne Fontaine: My Americans friends love to copy the French style and the French spirit, but there are some key differences. Americans love to buy pieces every week whereas French people look for timeless pieces. It’s the French way: You look for quality rather than impulse buying. Asking for advice is also very American. People love to ask for tips because they don’t feel confident experimenting by themselves. A woman in France has her own style. If you give her advice about what she’s wearing, she’ll just look at you like you’re crazy.
What does la Parisienne mean to you?
Anne Fontaine: It’s a woman who has a natural elegance. She doesn’t depend on fashion. In France, you never show off or try to draw attention.
Valerie Steele: This is a very popular and enduring myth that was always part of the image of Paris fashion – the Parisian woman who was more feminine and more stylish than women everywhere else.
Anne, who are some fashion icons and contemporary designers that have inspired your designs?
Anne Fontaine: I love Yves Saint-Laurent. He’s all about masculine-feminine clothes, which really inspired me when I started to design my first white shirts. As for contemporary designers, I love Comme des Garçons and the idea that its founder Rei Kawakubo makes fashion, not to sell, but for art.
What about “elegance”? Does it have the same meaning in France and in America?
Valerie Steele: Saying “American” elegance is problematic; it’s more New York style, which is very polished and varies according to different subgroups. If you think of New York, Upper East Side dressing is not the same as fashion in Chelsea or in Brooklyn.
Anne Fontaine: American elegance is more sophisticated than French elegance. For example, the French don’t like heavy makeup or clothes that emphasize curves or skin. American women, on the other hand, embrace themselves – they aren’t afraid of their bodies.
Do you have a favorite French or American clothing design?
Valerie Steele: I dress like a ninja: black pants, a black top, and sneakers because I’m running around all day. I’m addicted to the French brands Céline and Lemaire; I’ve got many pairs of Céline slip-on leather sneakers and Lemaire pants. However, if I had to pull one piece out of my closet, it would be a pair of Celine black wool pants.
Anne Fontaine: My favorite French piece of clothing is the white shirt, obviously! As for American pieces, I love leggings. Living in New York definitely influenced that.
What do you think is the worst fashion faux pas?
Valerie Steele: If you are older but dressing like a teenager, or if you’re a fashion victim who throws on whatever the latest thing is from head to toe, not realizing it doesn’t fit in with your personality or lifestyle.
Anne Fontaine: This is the French spirit: When you are yourself, you look beautiful in what you wear. Living in New York, I love the kinds of people who just wear crazy fashion because they’re like that inside as well, which makes them so beautiful.