Thierry Vainqueur: the Swiss Army knife of fashion
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
The energetic, passionate, inexhaustible Thierry Vainqueur enthusiastically answers our as he describes the light that shines within him in his role as designer and artistic director for various fashion brands - a talent he has been nurturing for the past decade with Kaporal jeans.
Thierry Vainqueur, Artistic Director at Kaporal
This experienced designer boasts a jam-packed CV that would really make your head spin! Born in Guadeloupe but raised in the Parisian region, Thierry Vainqueur is the baby of his family but was nevertheless advising his mother, a professor of literature and a painter, in her outfit choices from a very young age. His father, a chartered accountant, was far removed from the world of fashion and from Paris, often working in Côte d’Ivoire. Thierry grew up dancing, literally, from the age of 6, and was fascinated by all forms of movement, including classical dance, afro-jazz, hip hop and African tribal dance. He dreamt of joining the Paris Opera, but destiny would have other plans in store. At the same time, he used to sketch dresses, mainly fairytale-like creations, and crinolines, of course.
After completing a traditional school education, he attended a fashion show by young designer Sophie Sitbon, who graduated from ESMOD in 1985 and now flipped an irreversible switch in him. Emerging starry-eyed from this unique experience, his life would never be the same again.
“Throughout my school years I was ‘pushed around’ by the other boys”, he admits. “Being black and gay is no walk in the park! So I sought refuge with the girls, often the prettiest ones, who always protected me; they were like my Amazon bodyguards. When I joined ESMOD I realised this was exactly what I wanted to do. All of a sudden, I’d found Eldorado!”.
Thierry Vainqueur brings a certain ‘energy’ to the collection at Kaporal
Between 1984 and 1987, Thierry took courses in fashion design and model-making at the Boulevard Montmartre school, specialising in ladies’ style during his third year.
Planet ESMOD: What was the atmosphere at ESMOD like at the time?
Thierry Vainqueur: Oh boy! We used to really party... almost every night! So we’d arrive at school the next day bleary-eyed, but we were all so passionate that we really threw ourselves into our studies, and both the teachers and the classes gave us such an energy boost. The school taught me to present myself as well, not just my book. We learned to assert ourselves, to understand what we liked and what we didn’t, and during my time there I learned what the world of textiles and fashion was all about. For me, it was a truly magical three years,
and I made some lifelong friends there who have remained my friends, brothers and sisters ever since. These were connections unlike any I’d ever experienced before because they’re still my closest friends now.
P. E.: When you left the school, you even received an award at the Hyères show, didn’t you?
T. V.: Yes, I took part in the 3rd Hyères young designers show in 1988. Back then it wasn’t yet the world-famous institution it is today, but that’s where I won the press award. I was so happy. I was given some money and support in putting together a collection and I had to make some TV appearances. I was really very young, but so was this festival, and Jean-Pierre Blanc himself, for that matter!
P. E.: How did you then end up at Castelbajac?
T. V.: The school’s director at the time, Annette Goldstein, sent some students’ projects to certain designers. My graduation project was called ‘Les Patriotiques Cocottes’ (‘Patriotic Chicks’) and consisted entirely of colour block designs in an almost Mondrian style featuring dresses with messages. So Jean-Charles was interested in these creations, which were in keeping with his own work, and I became an intern with him. I basically picked up pins for a year and a half, but he also had me design some looks, and I was very proud to go on to work for Ko & Co, a brand that he was creating in conjunction with K-Way. That made me realise that my work was worth something.
Kaporal Summer 2022 collection
P. E.: You eventually chose a different path than luxury designer fashion, though. Why was that?
T. V.: I was very proud to have been chosen and to see my designs being used by Castelbajac, but I’ve since realised that this widespread practice of being an assistant in the creative fashion sector at the time was a little too feudal. I had a slightly different relationship with Hedi Slimane a few years later, when he was at New Man, and then at Yves Saint Laurent. He asked me to work on the men’s jeanswear and sportswear licenses in Japan, and I had a similar experience at Sonia Rykiel around the same time, with her Inscription and Jeans lines. It all looks great on a CV, but it wasn’t really for me. I felt more at home with more mainstream fashion, your jeans manufacturers and your store brands.
P. E.: Despite working in a somewhat different field now, do you still use the ESMOD method in your work?
T. V.: Yes, always, when it comes to putting together colour schemes and creating mood boards, for example. It’s become second-nature to me now. It’s actually a very solid foundation to have because it grows with you, over the course of your professional career.
P. E.: When did you decide to become an independent designer and not a brand employee?
T. V.: My first major experience as an employee in the sportswear sector was for Jacques Jaunet / Newman, where I stayed for seven years and learnt what
industrial fashion was. I used to go back and forth a lot between Paris and Cholet, where the factories were. It gave me an understanding of the denim business and how a large company worked and I felt at home there right away. After that, I headed up the creative department at Naf Naf, where I was also employed, for four years, before my sister, who is a chartered accountant, suggested that I become self-employed. I’ve been working freelance for over 20 years now, and reputation is crucial in this game. Word of mouth meant that I was able to amass a whole host of different and highly complementary experiences.
Kaporal Jeans advertising campaign
P. E.: What exactly does your job entail?
T. V.: I’ve been an artistic director for lots of companies and sportswear brands. My job is to set the tone for the collection, support the teams, share a brand’s image with the management team and the marketing sector, but we also have to think about how it will be projected and renewed over time, the trajectory it will take. So I support the style teams and share ideas and potential pathways of evolution with them. This involves not only the brand’s offices and factories but also its product placement, right through to distribution. In fact, I basically come up with ideas and then the Style and Purchasing platform management team tells me whether or not these concepts are feasible. It’s up to me to make my ideas credible and therefore feasible.
P. E.: It must be hard enough to come up with new ideas, but to adapt them to the company and markets in question is difficult, isn’t it?
T. V.: Personally, I’ve learned about profitability per square metre throughout my career, particularly at Etam, but also at Morgan, Jennifer, Naf Naf, etc., where the proposals simply had to be profitable, there was no other option. Personally, I found this challenge really exciting because I like to sell, I like to generate business with products that I think are good. I get a real sense of enjoyment out of that. It’s rarely what you initially sign up for when you choose to study design, but these days, you have to be like a Swiss Army knife if you want to succeed. If you’re not in tune with the market, or if your proposals are too out of sync with the company’s expectations, you’ll rarely stay with a brand for very long. You have to be able to question yourself constantly; for me, that’s a real driving force in this business.
P. E.: This is a business that relies heavily on freelancers these days.
T. V.: Yes, it is, and when I bring in junior profiles to work on certain assignments I realise that they often have their sights set on a freelance career. It was much less common when I was starting out - we dreamed of working for a designer. For me, it was Mugler, and I eventually ended up at Castelbajac, but it was an accolade. I get the impression that the ultimate dream for the young generations of today is no longer to serve a designer, even a brilliant one; they move on quickly and need to establish their own story, independently.
Thierry Vainqueur with his local team in China
P. E.: On a personal level, did you not miss not creating your own brand?
T. V.: Many people have suggested it to me, but my career as a freelancer serving multiple clients has worked out well for me. There are some very good periods and others less so, of course, but even if I’ve thought of creating my own brand sometimes, I've never found the right partners, and it’s just as well. But my career isn’t over yet, so who knows what the future holds?
P. E.: Was sportswear precisely what you wanted to do?
T. V.: Yes, it was always my thing. Sportswear, casualwear, well-being clothing, etc. It’s what I’m all about, but I’ve always wanted to do something progressive and different with it, to the point that I wouldn't know how to make a wedding dress or a couture piece these days. That just doesn't interest me. Having designed crinolines all my childhood, I had a real thing for denim, treatments, washes, used and faded effects, etc.
P. E.: It’s also what influences the whole creative fashion industry today, though, isn't it?
T. V.: Of course. This has been the underlying trend for a number of years now. Everyone has their own image of what a sportswear or casual look should be, so it’s a huge field that can be developed for mass markets, mid-range brands or indeed the luxury sphere. It allows us to work on timeless silhouettes that often incorporate multiple looks or themes. It’s a whole locker room full of freedom.
P. E.: Do you travel a lot?
T. V.: Yes, to launch collections at manufacturing sites in China, India and North Africa, for example. It’s certainly a job that’s easier when you don’t have too many family ties or young children, but it’s mostly a matter of organisation and team rotation.
Denim is king at Kaporal!
P. E.: Do you only work for Kaporal these days or do you still work for other clients too?
T. V.: At one time, I was working for Jennifer in addition to Kaporal Femme, and I was also a consultant for factories that were manufacturing for Inditex (Zara, etc.) and Arcadia (TopShop, etc.). Obviously, it was a bit too much work, travel, stress for me to also maintain a structured family life at the same time, so I now only do three days a week at Kaporal in Marseille, and that’s been the case for ten years now. I’ve stopped my factory consulting, but I did recently sign with a new brand in Milan, Glamove. It’s a vegan cosmetics line that I’m working with to develop a casual well-being textiles collection. They need to characterise this collection to be sold not only in their stores but also online as of next September.
P. E.: What advice would you give nowadays to current ESMOD students?
T. V.: If that’s what they like to do, I would tell them to throw themselves into the profession and be prepared to put all of their time and energy into it. There were probably fewer of us when I did my training at ESMOD, but we gave it 400%. We learned about fashion, sure, but we also partied 'fashion', we ate and drank 'fashion', we lived 'fashion'. We were completely immersed in this world. Probably a little too much so, but it was what we wanted to do. We wanted to go even further. We weren’t disillusioned. It’s still a sector in which you have to give the best of yourself at all times and hang in there, but it's a great job. I’m still here at 50, and I’m just as passionate about what I do as I was the first day!
Thierry Vainqueur is as passionate as ever about sharing his energy with others.