Session Jam with Ungaro 

July 10, 2020

One summer morning, at Studio Ferber, a historical and mythical recording studio in Northern Paris, just a stone’s throw from the futuristic Philharmonie, four friends came together under the tutelage of Philippe Paubert, the creative director of the menswear collections of Ungaro, for a shoot that soon morphed into a jam session.

Why bring us to Studio Ferber? 

Because it’s genuine and artistic. There are a few benevolent ghosts around here. If this place could be listed to make sure it doesn’t disappear, it would be great. People always talk about heritage but it’s not just museums, it’s also places like this studio. 

Monsieur Ungaro always based his man on the Left Bank. His Paris was those lively places, cafés and restaurants, art galleries and jazz clubs. Our man has always been rather free, with an artistic feel to him. Even when references came from other sources, he was always rooted in this cultural and artistic Paris. 

I was thinking about that scene in Georges Lautner’s 1968 movie “Pasha”, where Serge Gainsbourg –an icon of the brand had he been alive – was rehearsing “Requiem pour un con” (Requiem for a jerk). It’s one of the iconic scenes of French cinema. It talks about music, which fits the brand, but also about attitude, that nonchalant and rebellious side.

That title is ironically well suited to the times, where we are rejecting behaviors that are considered things only a jerk would do: systemic failures that no one wants to talk about, and in the creative and retail fields, an obsession with throwaway designs, unrestrained novelty… 

Novelty is what makes the world go around in any case but it needs to be curbed, its pace restrained. Going slower is possible. Are four, six collections a year still what the customer wants? Today is the right time to ask the right questions and to come up with good answers. 

It makes sense on the long run. Working on a brand is not about hopping from theme to theme, discarding the old for the new; it’s a red thread that you follow over time. A house has a DNA, codes, a vocabulary, that needs to be learned, mastered, recomposed, that will evolve. It’s a bit like nails: you hammer each one a little differently; each season has a different angle.

When I start [the work on a season], I don’t say “I want to do this.” I think that it’s better to be a multi-function receptor rather than imposing a vision on others. We live in a world where there is a surfeit of information coming from all sides. It can be cultural, it can be political, and all that will come into play. It is other people that will want, you have to inspire the end customer to desire [what you’ve created for the season]. I think that designing is a matter of seduction. 

Right now, there’s an awakening and a leaning towards ecology. Many people, in a wide range of fields are working on more respectful practices. In production, for recycling, in how resources are consumed… Respecting the environment and being in a more holistic approach, that too is a long-term goal. To produce less, better, and slower.

Is that why our go-to backstage question, “what is your inspiration?” bothers you?

It’s not that it bothers me, it just isn’t the key question for me. It’s stereotypical because it doesn’t represent the entirety of a creative process. The inspiration, like the moodboard, is a spark that starts the car but you have to detach from it. Sure, the result will take us into a universe, a moment, but what’s important is that a collection becomes a cohesive whole, with clothes that have a function. For me, creating a collection isn’t a purely artistic gesture, it’s an applied art.

So the question of my inspirations [for a given season] tends to get to me. (Laughs.) 

And today, it’s clear that appropriating an inspiration is showing disrespect to its source, right?

That, too. You end up only taking bits and pieces. A motif, a scent and that’s it. People are always more attached to inspirations and “oh, I went to this museum, I saw that painting…” When I hear, let’s say, “I was inspired by Picasso…” Poor guy! His name’s even been used on cars.

The designer is a conductor who has a symphonic orchestra at their disposal. Only rarely do we talk about the most important things, like the work done upstream by the whole textile industry. There are people that you never hear about, who have worked a long time in advance and create the threads, buttons, that do textile development on new materials, new textures. The research and work done by fabric manufacturers is primordial.

Monsieur Ungaro very much admired and referenced artisanal textile traditions from around the world. Why was that? 

I think that what he appreciated and what we all appreciate is the research, the richness. In handcrafts, there’s the manual side of course, but also the spontaneity, this part left to chance that comes into play and makes each element unique. A natural and primordial feel in the noblest sense.

He was the son of a tailor; he trained as one and worked alongside his father so he was rooted in reality, not in some elevated fantasy of luxury or of couture. He was very respectful of the excellence in cut and movement. Everyday, he worked on the women’s wear collections by draping and adjusting directly on a “fit model” who came into the studio. He would wear this “shirt jacket” that he had sketched and designed himself, a garment that didn’t have shoulder pads or a lining, to keep his movements free. He was so focused on perfecting cuts to keep a perfect range of motion that we constantly tweaked armholes, for example. The results of this research can still be seen today in this season’s white linen shirt jacket, directly inspired by Monsieur Ungaro’s iconic jacket, or in a suit jacket cut from an ultra-fluid fabric that was initially developed for the swimwear industry. 

Over the decade I spent by his side, we always worked on the same thing with him. At our first meeting, he said “my man is liquid”. Ok, what does that even mean? Not only did it mean that he used lightweight, fluid materials, but he also loved distressing effects. “Tessuto vissuto” in Italian. He wanted a garment to feel lived in, to feel it weathering time with you. He even wanted suits that could be machine-washed but the industry wasn’t ready. Nowadays, you can get these washed effects, or even garment-dyed cashmeres. And it was also important for clothes to be comfortable without compromising on cut or function. You wear the clothes, not the other way around, so you can’t be a victim of our outfit.

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