Dear iDEALS, it is 20 solid years since the maiden day when the first Maria Luisa boutique opened it’s doors in Paris. The owner, Maria Luisa Poumaillou is probably one of the few retailers in the world of fashion, who knows the meaning of «the real thing» when it comes to the unknown work of a young designer or a «must have» item coming from the hands of an established createur. Herself is a very elegant woman with polite manners and a warm honest smile.
FilepMotwary: Does Paris equal fashion?
MariaLuisa:Yes , at least its best expression as it is still the number 1 place in the world to show , where the best brands and professional teams are gathered together. Paris is a perfect mix of creation and quality.
FilepMotwary: What is the difference between the Parisian Fashion Week , Fashion in general compared to New York , Milan and London.
MariaLuisa:As said before Pasis is top level ; the best shows , the best brands , the best designers etc…with a real artistic , aesthetic and stylish concern. New York deals mainly with a local market , Milan is business : a huge , efficient industrial market London is a breath of fresh air , where new comers and wild creativity are welcomed , still a bit “ craft industry but interesting for spotting new talents “.
FilepMotwary: You are a fashion retailer, buyer and owner of the most successful boutique in Paris, known worldwide. How do you see fashion now. How different it is compared to the 90’s or even the late 80’s when your first store was launched?
MariaLuisa: Totally different ; when we started in the late 80’s we had an ageing couture and its traditional luxury ready to wear versus new creative designers such as the Japanese and the Belgians . Today fashion has become a business with the arrival of finance partners who turned it into a global luxury market with enormous means able to advertise heavily , opening new stores, controlling thus their distribution, their image etc. Simultaneously, mass market has also changed and learned how to be stylish and highly fashionable ( Zara, Toshop, H&M…). Also : the development of new websites has change the traditional way of shopping. As an independent retailer, we have to be more and more directional, to take more risk, to spot new designers before they get too confirmed, because by then they will belong or work in a big group.
FilepMotwary: How do you think the concept of a “fashion boutique” has evolved in the 21st century?
MariaLuisa: The challenge with this ‘new’ competition is that you have to have new ideas all the time, spot new talents, make efforts on communication, strengthen your own identity… Today’s customer is curious and doesn’t only stay stuck to one brand or one store, you always have to find a way to attract him/her. Meanwhile, you always have to stick to the quality of traditional service to the customer.
FilepMotwary: What makes a boutique different than another apart from the clothes and what is your opinion about “showcase” boutiques and “window” boutiques that appear from time to time. Or even limited time stores like Rei Kawakubo’s Guerilla?
MariaLuisa: The boutiques look like their owners. Mono-brands will look like the designer of the house. Same for multi-brands: the selection will reflect their owner’s taste, it is a statement from their personality – obviously I am talking here only about a handful of stores around the world. Limited stores like the Guerilla stores are a clever new way of sales, they wouldn’t work for everyone but they work within the CDG world. It is all about individuality, finding new ways of selling, but that suits you only. And it’s a clever way of spreading the name (like C.D.G does with H&M). It is all about testing, daring to find new ways, in a cohesive manner, depending on your DNA. The recipes don’t work for everyone; each store has to find its own.
FilepMotwary: Your husband, Daniel Poumaillou, started the Maria Luisa concept by naming it after you. Yet, it is you responsible for discovering the talent out there, right? How hard is your business?
MariaLuisa: Yes, I do the scouting, but it is more of a teamwork. Basically we all agree on our buying team choices. The business is hard, but I love my job, it is a pleasure to do it.
FilepMotwary: What are you looking in a young designer’s work?
MariaLuisa: There are no specific criteria. I guess it has to be new, individual, with a very strong and personal identity. But it also has to be well crafted; the designer has to master his technique. Fashion is not art (well, it sometimes is, but very rarely) it is an ‘art appliqué’. It is difficult to explain what I am looking for, because I am not looking for anything, really! It is about this ‘je ne sais quoi ‘that makes the difference, when you have the feeling that yes, something is happening, like we all felt when the Belgians or the Japanese started, you knew it just happened.
FilepMotwary: There is a blossom of “Fashion Weeks” around the world right now and I am aware that you visit many different cities each season. How do you judge the fashion weeks outside Paris London, N.Y and Milan? Is there really strong talent out there?
MariaLuisa: Not really, I mean not yet. It takes time. You cannot have geniuses springing everywhere… And also even if you had a Nicolas Ghesquière somewhere in a remote fashion week, he wouldn’t surround himself with people with the same taste or mood like you can here. Fashion is not a lonely experience, it is a work shared with other people. That is why I guess these fashion weeks are pretty good as they put lots of different people in contact, it is good that everyone can have access to visuals or information through internet (and also through mass market stores like H&M that spread a not so bad taste everywhere, maybe a bit too common) but is better when you have a real exchange. People could complain about westernisation of the rest of the world and globalization that might level down everything, but it is somehow difficult to avoid but I also think some really good things will end up coming from this. It is definitely weird to go to India and see designers going all Chloë-like when they used to do caftans the season before: I can’t tell them that it is totally wrong and that they should keep their identity, but we all make mistakes and they will learn that they don’t have to transform themselves to seduce the Occident, but the wealth comes from their difference (even though there will be a adaptation)
FilepMotwary: How was your experience at the Hellenic Fashion week in Athens, two years ago?
MariaLuisa: It was a lovely experience, a very nice city with a very civilized organization. The fashion there was very Mediterranean, really into its local market: holidays, yachting, eveningwear…
FilepMotwary: From all the designers you represented so far, for who you feel most proud of and why?
MariaLuisa: Two names spring to mind: Martin Margiela and Nicolas Ghesquière. But I’d go for Nicolas Ghesquière, as he was a friend before he started at Balenciaga and had the deserved success that he has now. I believed in his friendship before any of his shows, and even though I knew he’d be talented enough to make it, I didn’t expect his collections to be so mind-blowing, season after season. I am really proud of him.
FilepMotwary: How large is your team at Maria Luisa?
MariaLuisa: The whole team in Paris is 10-15, 2 buyers for Paris, plus the team for our store in Hong Kong and the one that we are opening soon in Qatar.
FilepMotwary: What scares you in the Fashion Industry and also about the coming future? MariaLuisa: The times are very scary indeed. It is a very hard time for a young designer/brand, as there are fewer supports and fewer backers, and they ask for faster results, but we know it does take time. Specially now, when backers rather spend money on brands that are already sort of famous like Rochas or Vionnet etc, even though they don’t mean anything to anyone any-more ; they should back younger talents and help building new houses instead of trying to revive dead houses. Regarding stores, it is pretty difficult too: there is same much offer now, on every step of the ladder, at any price, but also everywhere! There are mono brands and multi-brands all over the world now, even in the least know countries – but I am not sure the number of customers grow that fast. We all have to be creative and yet we also have to be as efficient as possible. I think we need to preserve our individuality by our radicalism.
FilepMotwary: What’s next for Maria Luisa the person and boutique?
MariaLuisa: I am very happy as my husband and I finally got a flat in Sicily in Syracuse… For the company : many exciting projects too : we are finally opening a new boutique in Doha, Qatar in January ; we also expanding in China, as we are planning the opening in Beijing and Shanghai in 2010. We also have a few exciting projects for Paris, but this is still a secret yet, I will let you know this January!
*The interview is part of the FASHION ISTEROGRAFO issue No 5, edited/curated by Filep Motwary
Note: Maria Luisa portrait by Cedric Rivrain courtesy of "A" magazine curated by RICARDO TISCI. A great THANK YOU to Robin Schulié at MARIA LUISA and everyone at TOTEM. Paris