Friday, December 2

Fashion’s new prince: the ‘creative prodigy’ bringing his Midas-touch to the house of Rochas | haute couture shows

CHarles de Vilmorin can’t hide his excitement about an imminent arrival to his Paris apartment: an Italian greyhound named Terreur. “In France, we have this funny thing where each year there is a letter that you have to name your pet by, and this year it’s T,” he explains with a smile. “If he’s cute and calm, then it will be funny; if he’s uncontrollable it works, too.”

It’s said with a low-key confidence that belies the time-consuming introduction of a household pet, let alone the amount of work Vilmorin already has on his plate. At just 24, the young French designer is not only the wunderkind of haute couture with the eponymous brand he launched mid-pandemic in 2020, but in February 2021 he also became the creative director of one of France’s oldest fashion houses, Rochas, for whom he showed his SS23 collection last week.

That means he has to produce no fewer than six collections a year between the two brands. Yet de Vilmorin responds to any suggestion of pressure with a nonchalance and a why-not attitude – sentiments articulately communicated with a matter-of-fact, “Voila!”

“It’s great, I get to learn every day,” he says. “Once one collection is finished I start another one, which is good for my creativity.” Plus, he says, “It’s two entirely different structures and I work in two different cities for each, so it’s easy for me to separate the two. Voila!”

The designer is happily hidden in the bohemian 17th arrondissement of Batignolles, where he runs his brand. He also spends one day a month at the Rochas HQ and studios in Milan. And it is there that we meet, in the hotel he uses when in town, nestled in the rejuvenated studenty Porta Romana district.

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Color blast: skirt by Charles de Vilmorin. Photograph: PR

“Rochas is a century old and has had a lot of creative directors with huge stories and characteristics. I need to understand and respect this in order to continue the story of the brand,” he says. “And there is, of course, a commercial expectation that I have to make it grow.” His own gender-neutral couture brand from him, meanwhile, “is more artistic, experimental and I work with my hands a lot – this character and energy is totally different in my brain.”

Rochas, says de Vilmorin, took a risk on him. After launching his fashion brand the year before having graduated from the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale in 2020, he gained quick traction on social media for his handmade creations and the cool crowd that followed him – things that clearly appealed to the bosses at Rochas. This collaboration follows in the footsteps of several French heritage labels – see Lanvin, Schiaparelli and Courrèges – which eschewed more established designers in favor of the fresh-perspective-meets-Midas-touch that a Gen-Z designer can potentially bring to their brand.

“They were courageous because it’s my first experience,” he says, pulling out his iPad to show me the initial sketches he created for them as a part of the interview process. “Now, I look at it and think, ‘Oh no, it’s impossible!’ It was super naive, but I think that’s why they liked it.”

De Vilmorin’s signature handpainted illustrations and primary palettes tap-dance the line between merry and macabre, plugging into an aesthetic more aligned with the extravagance of Christian Lacroix and the arty rebellion of Franco Moschino in the 1980s and 1990s than many of his contemporaries. The young designer’s initial ambition of him, to be a theater director, speaks to this very drama that he was first attracted to as a child.

A model in a multi-coloured 'joker' dress with puffy shoulders, designed by Charles de Vilmorin
Dramatic flourish: dress by Charles de Vilmorin. Photograph: PR

“I thought it was so fun to work with music and light and silhouettes and clothes and decor – the whole universe around theatre,” he says. But it was encountering John Galliano’s rhapsodic showmanship at Dior Couture that changed his path. “It was 2010 and Galliano’s couture show – full of red and black – magnify!” he enthuses, losing himself in the memory. “I saw this show and I said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ I was 10.”

Not all 10-year-olds would know what a couture show is, let alone be familiar with one of its 20th-century masters, but artistry and fashion run in the family. The eldest of five children, he grew up just outside Paris, where his artist mother, fashion-financier father and great-aunt – the poet Louise de Vilmorin – instilled in the family an “artistic and poetic atmosphere”. It was this that he drew on to build his brand of him.

De Vilmorin has since blazed a trail that saw him nominated for the prestigious LVMH prize last year. A gender-neutral couture house modeled on his friends bucks the status quo in couture circles and shortly after our interview he announced his departure from the official schedule (in which only the Chanels and Diors are usually invited to take part), instead opting to present the brand on his time and turf. It was, he says, a mutual decision that gave him “a new perspective and a bit more freedom.”

He has been hailed a “creative prodigy” by fashion France – which many would struggle to live up to at his age. But de Vilmorin is undaunted. “For sure, in like 10 years’ time, I am like Galliano at the end of one of his shows,” he laughs, referring to his dramatic catwalk bow of his hero. “I’m too shy and too small for the moment. But in 10 years’ time I will have the confidence.”

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