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Interview: Jean-Claude Jitrois on the past, present and future of leather

Leather has defined Jean-Claude Jitrois’ career. Worn by the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Elton John, Cher, Yoko Ono and Stéphanie de Monaco, to name but a few, his eponymous label has helped to show the world that leather can be sophisticated and versatile. So much so that he was knighted in 2001 by Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order of merit, for his services to the fashion industry and the promotion of French fashion abroad.

At the age of 74, Jitrois is not showing any signs of slowing down. This week, he unveiled a collaborative capsule collection with holiday-wear retailer Alina London, available exclusively at Fashion Joint’s new concept store on Brompton Road, London, with prices ranging between 900 and 1500 pounds. Marjorie van Elven spoke to Jitrois about his love of leather and what the future holds for the material.

How did you become so passionate about leather?

My father was a pilot in the French Air Force. As a little boy I was obsessed with his leather jacket, but I was not allowed to play with it. That remained my Madeleine of Proust: leather recalls my deep childhood memories of love and innocence, which is why I have been playing with my cherished material as a designer ever since.

However, my first carrier was not related to fashion. I used to work as a psychotherapist for children, developing psychodrama techniques and therapy through clothes as transitional object. That’s when I came to realize that leather clothes have a really strong effect on the ones who wear it. Leather makes people feel at the same time protected and bold: they shine, they are freer to express and to be whatever they want.

How would you say leather fashion has changed between the 1980s, when Jitrois had its breakthrough, and now?

Before the 1980s, leather was considered a very manly material, something made for war, for protection. Leather jackets were the symbol of rebellious bad boys in the 1960s. When I started my career, I wanted to convey the positive side of leather. I wanted women to appropriate leather as a tool for liberation and self-affirmation, so I dyed it in bright colors and used it to make evening wear for everyone who wanted to be someone. At the time it was more about emphasizing volume, drama and glamour.

But in the 1990s I made a big discovery that led me to change my approach: stretch leather. It was a dream come true: leather as a second skin. Not only did it look good, catching light and attention, it also felt good physically.

After the 2000s leather became more mass-market and mainstream. There are leather pieces in nearly every collection from every brand. That’s why I’ve decided to push my work towards new directions, mixing it with natural materials such as silk, using carved embroideries, delicate overlays…

Your designs have been worn by some of the world’s biggest celebrities, such as Brigitte Bardot, Princess Stephanie of Monaco and, more recently, Heidi Klum -- to name but a few. How is it like working with them?

I love working with celebrities because they contribute to the design process. I also really enjoy creating bespoke stage outfits: it is fun to come up with unique pieces that complement their art and performance. I particularly liked working with FKA Twigs (when she won the Mobo Awards), Christine and the Queens, Beyoncé and Rita Ora, as not only they are incredible artists but they also convey values of self expression and freedom, which I cherish.

How do you see the growing market for vegan fashion, with consumers looking for alternatives to leather? Is that something you would be interested in working with?

Vegan leather is an incredible marketing stunt. It claims to be ethical and inexpensive, when in fact it is fast fashion’s latest attempt to load the market with more polyurethane and polyester, putting an unnecessary strain on the atmosphere during its production and generating plastic waste than ends up in the ocean. Currently, it is anything but ethical. How can you ban plastic straws and promote plastic faux leather?

As a brand we are extremely cautious with our supply chain, we use only by-products from the food industry, made in France. We’d never allow ourselves to deviate from this code of ethics. But I am also keeping an eye on ethical alternatives that look promising, but aren’t ready for the mass market yet. Modern Meadow, for example, is the most advanced company when it comes to Bio Leather techniques. We will of course be promoting the use of this kind of material. That would be a dream come true.

Helsinki fashion week recently banned leather. Do you think leather could be the next fur?

If everyone drops meat, why not? Ideally we’ll be able to grow meat and leather. I think everyone needs to be conscious about the global ecological impact of all the materials we use, in every aspect, rather than focusing on just one thing. I think everyone is free to make choices for their brands and that’s all good, but I’m more inclined towards finding solutions than towards imposed new evangelist style diktats.

Your label has managed to stay independent throughout all these years. We've been seeing several independent designers selling their labels to big conglomerates, raising the question whether it is possible to survive in the industry without the backing of one of these giants. What do you think?

Well, I think there still are some beautiful independent brands that do wonderfully well! I may be wrong but I think Vivienne Westwood is independent? Paul Smith? I think Stella McCartney has full control of her brand now. But, to be honest, the market is overcrowded with too many brands, and that makes it more difficult for the young generation to develop a label independently. My advice to upcoming designers would be to keep control of their brand but seek help from an investor that understands their project. It’s better to have help nowadays.

Tell us about the decision to work with Alina London. How did the collaboration come about?

It was all about good energy, really. Alina discovered the brand when passing by on Sloane street and immediately loved my designs and brand philosophy. I’m attracted to the light, the shine of leather, and Alina is a solar person, she breathes energy and positivity. That’s what binds us.

What are the future plans for your label?

I have so many! We are merging with our American branch, which is developing very fast. After opening stores in New York and Aspen and working with the best retailers across America, we are planning a new venture for distribution in Asia next year. In Europe we are working on expanding in Germany, a key market for us, with an opening in Munich in the pipeline. We are also opening our studios for more collaborations, with more capsules per year and product expansion to streetwear and accessories. These are very exciting times for us.

Pictures: courtesy of Jitrois/Alina London; Jitrois Facebook

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