“These challenging times will show us the best way forward”

July 11, 2020

Pierre Mahéo has never been the type to back down from a challenge. For the past eight years, he has been striving to develop his own brand, Officine Générale. While he was subjected to lockdown like everyone else, he personally modeled and presented styles from the current season on his social media accounts. Meanwhile, he also launched his ready-to-wear spring-summer 2021 collection for men, which, he confesses, resembles him more than it ever did before. This is all the more reason to further immerse ourselves into this unusual fashion season with him.

This men’s collection is the first one to be presented without a physical presentation or runway show since the launch of Officine Générale in 2012. What difference does it make?

The absence of a runway show doesn’t change the collection’s overall spirit, because I’ve never created specific designs for a fashion show only. There are fewer design references than usual, because the circumstances prompted me to be more specific in my choices. We photographed the look-book last week and made 42 looks without forcing ourselves when we usually are working with 48 to 50 silhouettes. In fact, with Benoît Bethume, who styled this collection with me, we concluded that we would have ended up with the same line-up if we had kept the conventional presentation format. The most significant difference, actually, is that there are a few new additions this season. As a matter of fact, the constraints imposed by the lockdown have had quite a positive impact on our work. Of course, we did not revolutionize our way fo working, but let’s say that we worked towards a more significant design evolution than we did in the past. After 8 years, I felt like discontinuing some designs and empowering others.

How did the lockdown influence your latest men’s collection?

We heard a lot about “working from home” and “down dressing” during this unusual period. Our shops were closed, but we stayed in touch with our customers via our e-commerce site. We performed well on specific product categories. The message conveyed through these purchases was a clear one: it reflected a general desire for casualness that confirmed my own personal tastes. However, I do like tailoring, but rarely from head to toe. I often wear pants or jackets that belong to a dress suit apart from each other and match them with other pieces of the same color palette. In this collection, I have extended this idea of casual pairing to jackets with a softer construction, with some versions even closer to bomber shapes. Other silhouettes ooze relaxation by including men’s shorts. It’s much more casual. And it’s pretty cool when you get there.

Do you find this collection to be even more like you than it usually is?

It’s a very autobiographical wardrobe, indeed. As the fashion industry is not a core sector needed by our society for survival, it was out of the question to let my staff take the slightest risk during the lockdown. So I ended up being the only one to go to the office. And I found myself more or less back where it all began when I started Officine Générale all alone in my kitchen. I was in the studio by myself and thinking aloud, wondering what I’d like to wear. Under normal circumstances, when the sales team is around, we always tend to build a collection based on our previous experiences, taking into account what sold well last season. This season, however, I looked at these figures and quickly forgot about them. I was stuck with my own mood boards, Pantone ranges, color palettes, and fabric samples, and decided to just listen to myself above anything else. And the weather in Paris was exceptional at that time: the sky was clear, there was an incredible brightness— it was the perfect atmosphere to create a summer collection.

You have such a positive attitude!

I have to! Everyone was shocked by the pandemic, including myself. But I wasn’t obviously the only one concerned: it took its toll on many brands and put us in an awkward position. I was worried, I had some trouble sleeping at night, but I didn’t experience it like a tragedy. I even found tremendous strength in the solitude of confinement, in being alone in the office, which left me no other choice than moving forward. I received at least one or even two lousy news a day, and, just like a boxer who has been sucker-punched to the ground, I had to get up right away. Moreover, these circumstances reminded me of my beginnings: they were reminiscences of a time when I was doing everything by myself from A to Z — and that’s not even that long ago.

You’ve mentioned that all the brands were affected by the lockdown. Admittedly, but most of them had no concern for quality like Officine Générale did a long time before the pandemic struck!

Ever since Officine Générale was founded, there hasn’t been much room for frivolousness. This is a serious moment. During the lockdown, people talked a lot about what the world would be like afterward. Unfortunately, however, I doubt it will be much different: our bad habits might come back in full force. Eight years ago, when I founded Officine Générale, I committed to rigorous quality standards, which were ultimately forerunners of recent structural changes that certain brands implemented in their modus operandi. I was concerned about how we consumed fashion and wanted to build awareness by prompting our customers to buy less but better and focus on clothing that lasts because of the quality of the fabrics and the construction of the garments. Then, secondly, I focused on the so-called “value” of the clothes — in other words, the price-quality ratio. My intention has always been to deliver products at the most reasonable price point: this might seem an obvious choice to make in 2020, but it was far from being so at the time. This way of thinking and designing has elevated me to the level of brands with a significantly superior market positioning. As far as my customers are concerned, whether they are looking for beautiful cashmere, solid twill, or super quality poplin, they know how to find them even better than they used to before, which is why an honest approach to quality is primordial. We are talking about men and women who are most likely tired of spending thousands of euros on clothes that do not meet their expectations. They saw in Officine Générale the potential to be just as well dressed, or even better so, and at a much more reasonable price point. 

Has this desire for quality remained palpable since the reopening of your shops?

I was looking forward to May 12 with great anticipation and, at the same time, with a certain degree of apprehension since the lockdown has altered buying behavior. But on that very morning, I saw people waiting in line at the front entrance of our stores. It was quite moving, and since then, we have had many new French customers. So much so that they make up for the absence of our international clientele — a clientele which accounted for a quarter of our five Parisian shops’ business up until then. Most of these new clients have heard about us thanks to someone close to them. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for a fashion brand.

You have built strong relationships with both your customers and your manufacturers thanks to your a quality-oriented approach to fashion. Has your loyalty to your suppliers facilitated the production of this new collection?

Indeed, I don’t often change weavers or manufacturers. For instance, I have been working with the same shirt factory since the very beginning. We grew up together, respecting each other, and adjusting to each other’s pace. However, I must admit that we’ve rushed them in the last few weeks because we had to photograph the designs ahead of the digital showroom launch, which is online as of this week. Each of them has been doing miracles since May 12! This has something to do with our long-term relationship and the fact that we have maintained our winter orders despite the state of things. And the fact that our partner factories are not located on the other end of the world also facilitated our production process. Eight years ago, I made a choice to produce in Europe only. The current situation encourages me to reinforce my production in Italy and Portugal and, finally, in Great Britain as far as cashmere pieces are concerned.

Fabrics are central to your designs at Officine Générale. This season everything is virtual: how did you manage to convey their distinctive qualities to buyers? 

We have compiled sample booklets and sent them to the buyers so that they can see for themselves. I find it quite frustrating not to be able to share my feelings face to face. Nothing will ever replace a showroom fitting when a potential customer starts by touching a fabric, which makes him want to don the jacket or trousers and make up his mind… We have created a series of photographs to immerse ourselves in the fabrics and understand each and every specific texture. It’s an exceptional season. I hope it will be the first and the last one to be shown virtually. We have developed a variety of washes, polishes, and finishes on the fabrics that our clients will only be able to fully appreciate when they receive their orders. 

There was no possibility of inserting filmed sequences in the digital showroom in which you would have described the fabrics in your own words?

We worked on merchandising our collection, with a variety of silhouette compositions, color palettes and material ranges, and a racking system that looked just like the one in our actual showroom does. I would be pleased to present this collection to anyone willing to welcome me virtually in their office or home. And I am convinced that we will succeed, even if the fashion industry is currently struggling. It is essential to experience fashion in a new and exciting manner. Positive things are bound to come out of this unusual situation. We will develop new ways of working and designing. Maybe this virtual season will entice us to make different and more conscious choices from now on.  

Speaking of the practice of choice-making, do you have any favorite style from this signature style collection that you would pick for yourself?

Oh yes, I do, and not only just one! I am obsessed with pleated pants. Especially during the summer, when the weather is hot, their large pant volumes crafted from lightweight poplins gives you the impression that you’re wearing nothing at all… So I designed several of them for this collection. There’s also a jacket that I wear all the time, which was not part of my collection initially, but that I ended up including, and then a range of sweaters in merino and silk crafted using light 14 gauges… I usually test my designs on myself and some of them even over the upcoming holiday season. I never wore orange before, but suddenly, I felt the urge to wear this intense color. I also used a Tuareg blue in this collection, which is absolutely gorgeous to look at. These colors make me happy. They will also look sublime in my next women’s collection that will be completed in time for the September fashion shows

Interview by Frédéric Martin-Bernard

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