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Maison Geneviève revisits military surplus

Frequently found in second-hand clothes shops and ever-popular with fashion lovers, military surplus clothing remains a timeless feature of both the male and female wardrobes. François Laurendeau, who graduated from ESMOD in 2018, decided to use such pieces as raw materials for the collections he has created under his Maison Geneviève brand. He spoke to ESMOD Act about his career, his creative process and his vision of sustainable fashion.

Tell us what you’ve been up to since leaving ESMOD, the roles you’ve had and the decision to launch your own brand.

I did my end-of-study internship at Coltesse, a men’s off-the-peg brand based in Paris, where I worked as a designer and pattern-maker, monitoring the production of the SS19 collection and the development of the AW20 one. At the end of my internship, I stayed on as a freelancer and have been supervising all stages of the collection development process for the past 2 years, from initial sketch to flat drawing, from pattern to prototype, from standardisation to production follow-up and even the shoots for the collections.

I started Maison Geneviève before I joined Esmod and was splitting my time between my studies in economics and my apprenticeship with a dressmaker. I was experimenting a lot with shoes and accessories, bulging bags that I sold in Korea, and one-piece garments, with an eye to offering ‘skimpy oversized’ pieces even then. While I was studying at Esmod I didn't have the time to devote to it until the final collection, which gave me the opportunity to hone what I wanted to do, my technique and the sources of inspiration that now define Maison Geneviève.

Now that I work as a freelancer at Coltesse on average 3 days a week, I have more time to devote to my brand, which I’m gradually developing. Last September I presented the summer 2020 collection at Who's Next, in partnership with Atelier Meraki.

I’ve also participated in several events and sales in Paris and Lille, and in January we presented the winter 2021 collection at our own showroom in the Marais district.

My men’s off-the-peg collection at Esmod gave me the opportunity to create a few leather pieces, in partnership with the Turquetil school, where I learned the basics of working with leather. I’ve since invested in a special machine that I use to produce accessories that will account for a good number of the pieces in each of my future collections.

How did you come up with the idea of upcycling military surplus clothing? Why these pieces in particular?

As well as the huge amount of military clothing and supplies lying dormant in stockpiles around the world and the desire to reduce the brand’s ecological impact, what attracts me to these materials is their backgrounds, their stories. Some of the materials I’ve transformed to date were from World War I, but more often from World War II. You do get some irregularities appearing over time, but I like to make a feature of these, along with the ‘deconstructed’ aspect of certain pieces. These materials are also often very resistant and have special technical properties, not to mention the fact that they’re designed to be as ergonomic as possible, so there’s also a lot to be said for their detail, the cut and the functioning of the garment.

I’ve always associated the military feel with a certain precision, the elegance of its straightness, which is perfect for what I seek to achieve.

In terms of production, how do you deal with fulfilling orders with limited stock?

For the time being the brand is still in its infancy and I can always anticipate the demand. I sniff out or order the number of similar pieces of the same garment I need to produce a certain quantity, so for example, I found 5 French Army kit bags from the 60s to make 5 jackets. They’re all based on the same design, but their detail and the history of each individual bag is what makes them unique. There are only 5 pieces available, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, and I move on to something else

For pieces that I don’t upcycle, I order small amounts of fabric that I rework before stitching them, but it’s essentially the same principle. The ‘unique’ or ‘very limited edition’ aspect also justifies the selling price, because it’s expensive to produce just a few pieces.

Who are your customers?

I have both male and female customers, and although my pieces are designed to be worn by men, they look just as good on women. And quite often when I do a shoot, taking analogue shots of the pieces on the streets of Paris, it’s often women that I photograph wearing the clothes.

People will often buy specific pieces that they just fall in love with, like a man who might recognise his kit bag from his days doing military service, for example, but I also sell to younger people - men, women, creative people - mostly in France for now but also sometimes abroad. I think the fact that the pieces have a story appeals to a lot of people, regardless of their age or background.

Would you say that fashion consumption patterns have changed in recent times? If so, are they moving in the right direction?

We have entered an era where we can no longer deny that fashion, and fast fashion in particular, is doing us no favours whatsoever from an ecological, human or economic perspective. Many people are aware of this and have changed their consumption patterns accordingly, choosing to consume less and better. We are seeing a lot of young people turning their backs on the big fast fashion brands in favour of second-hand stores and newer brands when they can.

This is obviously a good thing, but these people still only account for a small part of the global population. Many well-established brands are also turning their attentions to more eco-friendly solutions, especially in terms of materials, and are also claiming to be more transparent about the conditions surrounding their production practices. This is a very good thing, but what we really need is to change the whole supply, demand and overproduction system in general. We continue to mass produce goods and then sell them off at a loss, or throw them away and burn them. There are still a lot of things that need to change before we can start to declare that fashion is really moving in the right direction.

We have entered an era where we can no longer deny that fashion, and fast fashion in particular, is doing us no favours whatsoever from an ecological, human or economic perspective.

How do you foresee the development of your brand with this emphasis on sustainability?

I aim to continue, as far as possible, in the same direction that I have been taking the brand in over the past year, finding beautiful pieces and existing materials in sufficient quantities to allow me to make a certain number of garments, continue to produce limited editions and sell them both wholesale in boutiques and directly via the brand’s online shop and pop-up events in Paris and elsewhere.

Tell us a bit about what makes you tick (your favourite designers, artists, writers, thinkers, etc.)

What Maison Geneviève does is largely inspired by military references. It’s something I’ve discovered I have a passion for, rummaging through archives, old magazines from the 1940s, going from one country to another and examining military costumes. It's never-ending.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from the world of cinema, and I'd like to produce a collection based on The Shining pretty soon.

I try to reproduce a kind of reflection of my time and my current tastes in my collections.

I’ve also been inspired from a very young age by the dark and tormented world of Egon Schiele, with his angular lines, and the paintings of Anselm Kieffer, built like sculptures that have been deconstructed using a spatula.

I produce the sort of fashion that dresses people, but I like to keep this experimental side in terms of my approach to the material and in the cut, as well.

What did you get out of your time at ESMOD that still serves you today?

The third year was the one that taught me the most, the one that pushed me to my limits. I had a great pair of lecturers who allowed me to question myself and to develop each product down to the very last detail, as much in terms of style as in terms of pattern-making.

I sometimes find myself giving up on certain ideas or pieces not only because I find them too simple (which is also a fault), but also in order to meet deadlines, and I sometimes have to make concessions for that, but that’s how things are in this profession. Fashion is always a race, and time is a variable that cannot be compressed.

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