French fashion designer Roland Mouret casts his eye over the three different dresses laid out before him, takes a quick glance at me, then declares, “The velvet!” before leaving the room.
And just like that, my fitting is over. Does he need me to try it? “Non,” he shrugs, “and if doesn’t fit, it’s the fault of the dress.” Reassuring to know after our two-hour lunch at La Serre, which ended in both of us jostling over the Pain Perdu pudding.
In my mind, a Roland Mouret creation carries with it a history of Hollywood glamour, strength and sophistication that I always imagined was out of my reach. But with just one velvet dress – one I would never have picked out for myself, I hasten to add – Monsieur Mouret proves me wrong, creating enviable curves, and an elegance I’ve only ever seen in other women before, but never myself.
“With 20 years of experience, I knew the colour would suit you. There’s a boudoir attitude to the velvet dress, yet at the same time there is a strength. I had lunch with you and I learnt everything. I knew that.”
Credit: Alison Tay
Yet even I didn’t know that. In seconds, Roland Mouret had blown my version of who I am – or more accurately, who I thought I was – apart. “But that’s my job?” he replies, although I argue, it’s technically my job to know the body I inhabit and the personal style I’ve purported to build a career out of, better than Roland Mouret. “Did you think I would fail?” Actually, no. I thought I would fail.
That somehow, I couldn’t live up to the legacy of the dress. “You know what? If you knew how many times I had to deconstruct the mind of a woman when she tries on clothes, it’s amazing. And that’s what pushed me to become a designer,” he admits. “Women have such a tendency to have low self-esteem when it comes to clothes. ‘What? Are you are going to tell me a piece of fabric is too good for you? After what you’ve done in your life? Are you joking?’ You have to let that go. Try it. If it doesn’t fit, let’s try something else.”
Catching a glimpse of my swishy, velvet-draped silhouette, having swapped flats for heels and at Roland’s request, naturellement, a nude lipstick for red, I still wondered whether I’m expressing myself or expressing Roland Mouret? “I completely recognise you,” he laughs. “You are the same person I had lunch with in my dress.”
He continues. “How do you choose clothes for yourself? For which character? The working woman? Which woman do you dress?” He has a point. “We all have many characters inside ourselves, but in every woman there is an actress and that’s the woman I’m dressing. That’s the one I like to play with. That’s the one I think is universal. I understand there’s a complexity to women that we don’t have as guys. I understand that contradiction.”
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Another contradiction he’s mastered is the merging of strong and sexy – often in one dress – making his designs the default for women in the corridors of power, not just garnering starring turns in TV shows such as Suits and House of Cards, but also real life walk-on roles among the Obama administration and the Houses of Parliament. “There is that strength of a woman who knows what she brings to society – as a woman, and as a human being – that’s really important. And it’s that fine balance you have to define.”
And while I may have believed Roland Mouret’s particular brand of glamour was impossible to achieve without a roller set and a half-moon manicure, the reality is far more relaxed. He counters, “Why my dress has a zip on the back rather than tiny buttons like a Galliano is because that’s a new form of glamour. You put it on like you would a pair of jeans. There is no preciousness about it. I don’t think femininity is precious. It’s strength. And when a woman zips herself into a dress and puts on a pair of heels, like you did, it’s my idea of how a woman dresses. It’s ‘Boom! I’m out, and I am going to face the concept of glamour in the same way as I face seeing my friends, or going to the gym.’ It’s the same thing. There is nothing pretentious about that.”
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If Roland’s approach to dressing me today – the attention to detail, the negotiation, the coaxing and the confidence-building – plus the fact that his designs now size up to a UK 20, reveals anything at all, it’s this: it’s satisfying real women, not his own ego, that lies at the heart of the success of his empire. “As a designer I have a responsibility to defend my clothes,” he responds proudly. “If a woman tells me, ‘Oh, I don’t like that,’ I need to know why, because it’s a discussion. ‘Why don’t you like that volume on your body?’ And when I hear, ‘I love that dress!’ I need to know why. I have to stand by my clothes and listen.”
And what the Roland Mouret woman wants isn’t to follow the fash pack. “The designer who tries to impose fashion will only attain a certain level of success. They can make it as far as the catwalk because they are young and trendy, or because they are supported by a big-brand house that projects a vision with so much force that it reaches editorial,” he explains. “There are so many houses where you say, ‘Great concept!’ but the collection never ends up in the woman’s wardrobe. Or if it does, it will be one or two pieces at most.”
Rather than a fling with a fly-by-night fashion trend, Roland wants a long-term relationship with our wardrobes. “Yeah and I love that,” he agrees. “I think long-term is the best thing you can have – with your life, with yourself, with your partner, with your friends, with your work.
The transformation of society is so extreme, but I am still a fighter for long-term because I think you learn so much about yourself. It’s so much more difficult, but so much more rewarding.” When it comes to his identity as a designer, the secret to his longevity is simple. “I am not trying to be someone else. My journey is so complex, so precise.”
And what one Roland Mouret dress, not only did I have a deeper understanding of that, but a deeper understanding of myself.