French lingerie icon Chantal Thomass talks to Lingerie Insight about her long and difficult journey towards fashion fame.
Creative, controversial and utterly chic, Chantal Thomass sits poised, the Queen of French lingerie couture.
The severe, trademark fringe sweeps her brow. Jessie J eat your heart out, it screams. I am the original, the brainchild of a woman who re-defined lingerie in the modern world, who believed in feminine expression despite the feminist movement rejecting her voice.
Chantal Thomass was brought up as a member of the bourgeois. The daughter of a dressmaker and engineer, she lived and breathed fashion from an early age. Her first efforts, which entailed customising the uniform of her religious school, soon culminated in her launching her own ready-to-wear brand, Ter et Bantine, in the late 1960s.
Fame soon followed, as the offbeat, bohemian label quickly attracted the likes of Brigitte Bardot to its fan base and gained the attention of the fashionable Dorothee Bis boutique.
The first lingerie piece that Thomass ever made was a silk triangle bra with little hearts on the nipples.
“It was in 1969, I think,” says Thomass “It had nothing to do with a real bra. It was only decoration. And, nothing to do with today’s bras, except fantasy.”
It wasn’t until 1975 that Thomass introduced the first lingerie into her fashion show, creating a ‘minor revolution’ in a decade heavily influenced by the women’s movement, which believed that lingerie should be made from the most basic of materials and that its style should be purely functional.
“At the beginning, there were only some pieces of lingerie in my Ready-to-Wear catwalks,” explains Thomass. “And, women instantly wanted to buy them as they were very different from the ‘traditional’ lingerie they used to find at that time. I did not know what the fit meant and I did not care about it. That’s why I was so creative. Too much technique often slows down creativity.”
The Chantal Thomass label was launched that same year. Success seemed to be coming easily for Thomass. Everything she touched appeared to be turning to gold. But this good fortune was not to last.
“It was easier in the 70’s to set up a company,” Thomass reveals. “The fear came later when the business grew too fast and when I was compelled to find partners.”
In 1985, in a bid to expand her business, Thomass signed a distribution and licensing agreement with the Japanese World Group, giving the company a majority share of her label.
In 1995, she was fired by the group and her career as a fashion designer looked to have come to an untimely end.
For three years, Thomass then earned a living by working as a consultant to companies such as Victoria’s Secret and Wolford, during which period she remained embroiled in a lawsuit with the Japanese World Group over the rights to her name. Those years were the worst of her life.
“The worst moment, for sure,” she says, “was my bad experience with my Japanese partners when I could not use my brand name during three long years.
“After one year of the Japanese management, the turnover felt significantly; all the shops shut down and the business stopped.”
After negotiations, in 1998, Thomass was able to re-purchase the rights to her name and re-launch the label with backing from the Sara Lee Group.
And, in 1999, she launched her first collection under the new partnership with a stunt that caused a massive buzz around the world.
As part of a preview event at Galeries Lafayette, Thomass had the idea of creating a complete apartment – including a kitchen, living room, bathroom and dressing room – in the shop windows of the department store.
“There were fake models,” she reminisces, “and three times a day, for 20 minutes, the live models went about their business as in real life. One was polishing her nails in the bathroom, another one was reading a book on a sofa in the living room, a third one was writing a letter in her bedroom… This caused a real scandal in France, especially with the ultra-feminist ‘chiennes de garde.’”
In 2001, Thomass held her first US trunk show in Saks Fifth Avenue and, since then, her label has gone from strength to strength. Last year, the majority stake in the business was sold to the Chantelle Group and the new partnership appears to be suiting both parties. Thomass remains the Artistic Director for the Chantal Thomass brand and still owns 34 percent of the total shares in the business.
“I chose to work with the Chantelle Group as I thought it would be interesting to work with a French group which has a very good reputation, quality products and distribution,” says Thomass. “We’ve been with the Chantelle Group for almost one year now; many things have already changed: the number of pattern makers has doubled, giving us the possibility to offer bigger and more elaborate collections. We benefit from the good relationships of the Group with its suppliers and, little by little, we are working with more and more countries.”
Over the coming years,Thomass is looking to continue this expansion and become a truly global brand. In the next 12 months, the brand is set to launch concessions in a number of Taiwan department stores and in a series of Swiss ‘Globus’ department stores.
The multi-talented ‘artiste’ has also been working for two or three years in home decoration, including designing beds for TRECA, two suites for HOTEL PRADEY and all the interior decoration of a new hotel that will open in July.
“I really love deco,” she reveals. “[In five years time], I hope the brand will be significantly established all over the world with some flagship stores abroad and with other products under licences. I want Chantal Thomass to become an international brand. For the moment, Chantal Thomass is well-known in France and in some other countries. But, there is much work to do – in Asia, for instance.”
The UK is another area in which there could be some opportunity for expansion. Chantal Thomass is currently stocked by just seven stores within the country, including department store Fenwicks.
Thomass hopes that her AW12 collection, a ‘larger and richer’ range that has been fully developed with the Chantelle Group, could help to open some new doors. This will be followed up with the launch of her Riviera inspired SS13 line, which has been inspired by the ‘elegance of the ladies of the Côte d’Azur in the 20’s’ and the ‘extravagance of those of Palm Springs and Miami in the 50’s’.The designer is optimistic for both lines’ success and predicts that there will be a strong appetite from the Brits for her products.
“My feeling is that British women are more daring,” she says. “Look at Agent Provocateur. For years, before creating their own production, they used to sell Chantal Thomass lingerie; and I can tell you that they sold it very well.”
It hasn’t been easy and it has taken many years, but Thomass finally seems to have arrived and she can now look back with some level of objectivity over her journey. After all, a lot has happened since her first foray into fashion during her early school days.
“In a 40 year career, there are always ups and downs,” she concludes. “There are always some years when you are less inspired… My greatest triumphs were the presentation of the living models in the shop windows of ‘Galeries Lafayette,’ the launch of fancy hosiery in the 80’s and, most of all, to have brought lingerie back into fashion.”