Francois Girbaud: Test Of Time

    The tale is as old as time: never burn your bridges. During a celebration for his new line of denim this summer, the once popular Francois Girbaud lit the match that sparked controversy with some of his biggest supporters – the Hip-Hop community. In comments made to the New York Observer, the fashion mogul all but […]



The tale is as old as time: never burn your bridges. During a celebration for his new line of denim this summer, the once popular Francois Girbaud lit the match that sparked controversy with some of his biggest supporters – the Hip-Hop community. In comments made to the New York Observer, the fashion mogul all but snarled at the idea of his particular brand of clothing being so heavily associated with the Hip-Hop culture.


It’s no secret that Hip-Hop has been the catalyst behind many of the drastic changes in pop culture – music, fashion, film, etc. Being accepted in that culture is no small feat, especially for a French designer who isn’t exactly fluent in English. However, Girbaud has amassed a following within the urban community that has earned him recognition from some of Hip-Hop’s most notable rappers. Just ask Lil’ Wayne. 


Staying relevant can be difficult, even for the most versatile designer, and Girbaud is no different. In our conversation with the fashion mogul he shared his strategy with us for staying ahead of the game, explained why pretending to be Hip-Hop is stupid, and laid out what separates his style from Diddy, Russell Simmons and Damon Dash. You started your clothing line back in the ‘60s. What would you say has been the perpetual catalyst for your success as a designer?


Francois Girbaud:  I have always been interested with people and how they live and what they are doing in daily life. The way people live and use their clothing has always inspired me to design something that is both functional and fashionable. Fashion for fashion’s sake is somehow…boring. I have always been more interested in what goes on in the street than the runway. As people change how they live, the needs for clothing changes. Jeans are worn for many uses today, not just work. I try to reflect that in my design. Our clothes are made to be worn, not just to be modeled. You quickly became very popular within the urban community with the baggy jeans and colorful framework in much of your apparel. Why do you think the trend of appealing to minorities has taken off so much is fashion, over the last decade?


Girbaud: First, I have never designed with a class or culture of people in mind. We have been, ever since Marithe and I started, a brand that crosses boundaries – boundaries of tradition, of geography, of culture and ethnicity. Our clothes have become popular with different consumer groups because they are comfortable, they have a style to them and they function. The Brand X Jean, the Shuttle Jean, the no side seam jean all present the consumer with an alternative to the traditional five-pocket style that everyone does.


I believe that the break with tradition is what attracts consumers who want something unique, something different. That is why I think that we appeal to people of any culture or ethnicity that is looking for something different, something that allows them to dress as an individual, more unique. In a recent interview with The Transom [printed in the New York Observer], you said: “To be just connected in the Hip-Hop stuff is other brand; there is people like Russell Simmons or Damon Dash or Puff Daddy or all this kind. I’m not the rap people. Sure, we introduced the baggy jeans, we introduced stonewashed and all this stuff in the ‘60s or ‘70s. I never target just to be ethnic. It’s stupid.” What brought about this statement?


Girbaud: I was trying in my poor English to explain to someone what was the difference between the “Le Jean” line and our current product lines. What I was trying to say was that, while we have a very healthy and successful business within the urban community, our roots and heritage are not founded in the Hip-Hop segment like the people that I mentioned. We live and work in that segment as designers, but our roots are not in music or entertainment like some of our competitors.


We cannot be “real and authentic” if we pretend to be from that segment. Our attraction to the Hip-Hop consumer does not come from being Hip-Hop. Our attraction comes from designing clothes that may fit into that style category and may be purchased by the Hip-Hop consumer. 


What I said was “stupid” was the idea of Girbaud trying to pretend that we have Hip-Hop roots. We don’t. What we do have is a long history of designing clothing that fit different lifestyles, of which Hip-Hop is one. We have never been forced into one segment only, and I believe that our philosophy of design allows us to play in many segments. That is what we are trying to do with “Le Jean.” It is designed to be a product for people who want to wear something different, something fresh. It is about new ideas for products people wear a lot of like jeans, polos, t-shirts, etc. What do you feel separates your style from Phat Farm, Sean John or Rocawear clothing?


Girbaud: First, our heritage is not grounded in music and entertainment. Our heritage is in design. We all serve some of the same consumers who mix and match our clothing together. We share the same consumer, but our approach to them is over a different road. The competitors you mentioned are very solid, well-run, well-designed businesses. They use their heritage in music and entertainment to create a lifestyle that appeals to many people of many ethnic backgrounds.


We do the same thing, but instead of using music or entertainment, we use fashion and the way we construct and design our products as the vehicle to create our lifestyle. Clearly there are some consumers who are into both the entertainment lifestyle and the fashion lifestyle. The primary difference is where we each started from. In some instances, we serve the same consumer but from different perspectives. Do you feel like somehow being associated with the Hip-Hop culture has stifled their ability to become a force within the fashion industry? I ask because many of the African-American designers named in the aforementioned statement have successfully mobilized themselves across genres, from urban wear to upscale runway fashions.


Girbaud: No, I do not think that the Hip-Hop association stifles a brand. We, like the companies that you mentioned, are proud to serve this consumer segment. They are a savvy, well-informed discriminating consumer who knows what works and what does not work for their lifestyle.  Today, the population of this country is more fragmented than it has ever been before. There are many segments, many viable consumer groups to be served. It is becoming the norm for brands to carefully “crossover” to appeal to several segments.


Whether you go from Hip-Hop to fashion or fashion to Hip-Hop does not really matter. What matters is how you do it, how you stay true to what you are while attracting a broader group of people to your brand. It is a fine line between broad appeal and not standing for anything at all. It is a line that all designers try to walk.  So are you offended when rappers refer to Girbaud clothing as a symbol of status in their rap lyrics, as so many have done?


Girbaud: If entertainers want to use our brand as part of their artistic expression, then they are free to do so. It obviously is a strong influence in the urban community and because of that it helps a brand to get that exposure. Again, we are proud to have a strong following in the urban community. Their knowledge of fashion has had a major influence on other consumer segments and that helps to expand the brand. What is your approach to shaking the image that your clothing is strictly urban?


Girbaud: The reason that this perception exists is because we did a poor job of getting more of our fresh global product in front of the US consumer. If all you see is clothing that is urban in nature that will become your image. The best way to broaden your image is to show the people the variety of products that we have within our brand. This is going back to our roots as a fashion jeanswear company that serves many consumer segments.


We strongly believe that when the new “Le Jean” line gets exposed to the US marketplace, the image will broaden back to where it should be which is a line that identifies and crosses over many segments and lifestyles – from urban to suburban, from young to older, from students to professionals. Since I have been in the US, it has always been this way, up until we let the product slip below what we are capable of putting into the market. You recently launched the “Le Jean” [July 23, 2007]. What are some distinctive, refreshing differences that consumers can expect from this, and forthcoming jeans from the line?


Girbaud: It is a global product that has a wide appeal to many segments of consumers. Clearly the urban consumer is a perfect fit for this product. It is exactly what they are looking for today. New style, new design, new attitude. The graphics are all original and relate back to the unique construction of the jeans. The jeans all have a new attitude in terms of shape and fit. There are some relaxed and loose fits but each has unique construction details about them. The “cut out” hoodie is a new fresh take on hoodies and all of our t-shirts are made in a new construction that really shows a new shape rather than the old box shape of the past.  Since the urban community is your lead consumer in the U.S. market, how do you think this change will affect future sales?


Girbaud: We think that is a great platform to launch a new fashion direction. The urban community was the first to pick up on baggy jeans, stone wash, new ways to use graphics, etc. It is a savvy consumer who is looking for more sophisticated looks. Le Jean provides that to them and they will influence others. It is a great starting point. Over the years, there have been several trends and styles that have come and gone.  You were once famous for introducing stone washed jeans.  In your opinion, what drives fashion in today’s society? Why have brands like Louie Vuitton and Gucci managed to stay in the limelight, across genres, while other brands struggle to maintain relevance?


Girbaud: Different things drive different people at different times. Sometimes it is status and prestige. Sometimes it is a new design direction and other times it is a social movement. For a brand to stay long term in the spotlight, it has to continue to have great relevant product. Without that it is all fluff and will not last long. And then you have to market your product. It is a crowded field today, and you have to stand out and communicate your position and your product. It is hard work to get there and harder work to stay there. I do not think that there is any one formula but hard work over a long period is part of the recipe. Do you think advertisement is a big deal these days?


Girbaud: It is a part, but it cannot be the only thing that you do if you want to last. Consumers see through pure hype quickly, and then it is over for you. There has to be some substance behind the ads.  I’ve always wondered – how does an international fashion house choose the kind of person they want to represent their clothing line?  For instance, what is the process of picking a spokesmodel for a particular line?


Girbaud: Hard for me to say since we don’t use a spokesperson. The brand and the product are the spokesperson for Girbaud. If you could pick any celebrity to be a Marithe-Francois Girbaud spokes model, who would it be?


Girbaud: I have no idea. We really do not think that way so I cannot really answer. Cross culture would be a part of it and a sensibility for dressing would be a part but right now no one comes to mind.