An Interview With Olympia Le-Tan
After several collections during which she gained a major cult following, Paris-based accessories designer Olympia Le-Tan now has achieved international success. Chiefly known for her literature-inspired minaudières, the British-born entrepreneur—who launched her career at Chanel and Balmain with Gilles Dufour—sat down with The Webster’s Laure Hériard Dubreuil during Paris Fashion Week in March to discuss everything from her new Bettie Page-influenced ready-to-wear collection to her recent film collaboration with auteur Spike Jonze.
LAURE HERIARD DUBREUIL: Olympia, we’ve known each other since we were, like, 14, and you were already embroidering bags for your friends and everybody was going crazy for them. So you started pretty early?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN: Pretty early. Maybe not 14, but 18 or 19.
LHD: And already you had so much demand that you had to stop because you couldn’t produce as many as were ordered.
OLT: [Laughs] Well, I wasn’t really into deadlines. I used to deliver when it was sale time.
LHD: So then you started again in 2009 more like a real business. And you relaunched with a collection of clutches and minaudières that are reproductions of vintage books. What was the concept behind it?
OLT: Well, I grew up in a house where there were lots of books. My dad [illustrator Pierre Le-Tan] has a big collection of old ones with nice covers. I started collecting them when I was a teenager. The covers inspired me. And I learned how to do embroidery from my grandmother. I just thought they were a good base to develop.
LHD: Where do you find your books? Do you have a favorite store?
OLT: My favorite in Paris is Shakespeare and Company. In New York it’s the Strand.
LHD: And London?
OLT: Well, there’s a street in London where there are loads. I don’t really have one particular favorite. I also buy a lot online. There’s a website called abebooks.com where all the little book shops are, so you can just type in the name of an author or a book and write, ‘First edition 1933.’ Then everything comes up and you can find it in Mexico or somewhere like that.
LHD: So this collection is bigger, and you started last Spring to add some clothing, some of those little Liberty dresses that I loved. Tell me more about this.
OLT: Last summer, there were just five dresses. It was a medical theme, so they were a bit like nurse dresses but in Liberty-print fabrics. This season, my team expanded, so it’s a proper ready-to-wear collection. There are seven looks, one for each day of the week. We presented them on Saturday night at the Musée Nissim de Camondo on seven fake Bettie Pages. They were real burlesque dancers who did a little performance and then stripped off.
LHD: And there were maids picking up the clothes, with their uniforms on. They all looked like versions of Olympia, with the short bangs.
OLT: It’s ‘Bettie Page Goes to the Library,’ so they all have proper, serious dresses, but very tight and sexy.
LHD: My favorite piece is the leather skirt. The little, slutty skirt with the gold zipper. That is perfect!
OLT: You can unzip it completely down the back.
LHD: What is the theme for your bags?
OLT: Each time it’s something different, and for the title, I always try to reference a song or something—because I also like music—so this time the name of the collection is Power, Corruption & Lies, like the New Order album. So the theme is money and corruption and things like that. That’s why they were getting undressed. They were going to seduce the man of the house.
“This season, it’s a proper ready-to-wear collection. We presented them on seven fake bettie pages. they were real burlesque dancers.”
LHD: And I love the little caviar clutches, which are amazing. I see also you started doing what you call the Posh lady bag. Is this to develop something new and get away from the minaudière?
OLT: Well, I mean, I also needed a day bag. You can’t fit everything in a minaudière during the day. And I don’t like carrying other brands. [Laughs]
LHD: Do you ever get requests? Do people come to you saying, ‘My favorite book is such-and-such’?
OLT: Yeah, that happens all the time. We’ve had to take the phone number off the website because we get really random calls from people saying, ‘Oh, can you make this or that for me?’ Or they ask to speak to me directly and I never know what to say. So, yeah, we get asked things like that. If it’s a nice one, I’ll do it.
LHD: Well, John Malkovich was at The Webster and he bought one and then he came again and bought a second one. He didn’t have any special requests. He loved the ones that we had. But how long does it take to make a unique piece?
OLT: It depends what’s happening at that moment. If it’s a quiet time, it can take just a week. If it’s busy, it could take six months.
LHD: It seems like there’s a new golden era of creativity in Paris, and your circle—André [Saraiva, artist and Le Baron proprietor], Olivier [Zahm, founder of Purple magazine] and all the rest—are at the center of it. You even had a moment DJing at Le Baron. Do you influence each other?
OLT: Well, André always participates in the collection. He does a little drawing and I try to turn it into a scarf or, this time, a clutch, the money clutch. And Olivier just did a big feature on my work in Purple. So yeah, we’re all very supportive of each other.
LHD: And you also just did a little movie?
OLT: Yes, with Spike Jonze! I met him a couple of years ago through friends. He saw an embroidery of The Catcher in the Rye and said, ‘Can you make one for me?’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, can you make a film for me?’ and I was joking! But he said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ So then we wrote the story together with another friend of ours, Simon [Cahn], and it took about two years because we were all doing other things. We didn’t choose the simplest idea because we had to hand-cut pieces of felt to make a stop-motion film. Now I’d like to do another one.
LHD: Your book clutches are all limited-edition, correct?
OLT: Yes, 16 pieces each, numbered on the back.
LHD: In your view, what’s the special allure of a limited edition?
OLT: Well, that way not everyone has the same bag, and you can track down who has what number.
LHD: When you first think about which books to replicate, is it a mix of the cover design and the title? And have you read all of the books you’ve re-created?
OLT: It’s mostly the titles. In my first collection, I had read all the books. Then it started to become a bit out of control, so now I’ve read most of the books but not all of them—especially not all the cookbooks and medical manuals!
LHD: And it’s all done by hand?
OLT: Yes, completely, in France.
LHD: What about your ready-to-wear?
OLT: That is made in France, as well.
LHD: For this collection, what materials are you most using?
OLT: There’s leather, and then the tartan fabrics. It’s sort of a mix of English and French. The Liberty fabrics, the college stripes.
LHD: Which I love! Like the inside of all your clutches. What is your strongest market? France, the U.K., the U.S.?
OLT: I have no idea. At first it was France, but this season it seems to be Russia, for some weird reason.
LHD: [Laughs] Well, with this collection….
OLT: With the heavy dresses!
LHD: Yes, yes, definitely. But you know, one day you may want do some fur clutches. I think that’s missing. For Miami, they’d be just perfect. We have to do a Webster collaboration.
OLT: We should! With a pink flamingo or something!
LHD: Yes, exactly. We have to find all the books that are very Miami….
OLT: Art deco. That could be cool, actually.
LHD: That could be my revenge for next season, because this collection is so wintery you just have to bring me a little summer.
Olympia Le-Tan’s collections available at The Webster Miami.