Floriane De Saint Pierre talks to Naomi Bikis

Floriane de Saint Pierre is fashion’s great matchmaker, a businesswoman who has spent the last 20 years discreetly finding the right people for the right brand. Within industry circles, she is regarded as one of the most influential people in the business. She masterminded the hires of Christopher Bailey at Burberry and Olivia Felipe Baptista at Lacoste, and gave Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz his first creative director role. While working for Dior, de Saint Pierre saw a need for someone who could source talent; she launched her company, Floriane de Saint Pierre & Associés, at just 26.

Naomi Bikis When you were six you used to go with your mother to Yves Saint Laurent at the beginning of every season because she wouldn’t buy anywhere else. Can you tell me what you remember of that time?
FdSP It has been very influential. My mother was very beautiful, but not a classic beauty. She was an intellectual. That’s why I think she related so much to Yves Saint Laurent. There was a store at the Avenue Victor Hugo and I remember sitting and watching her in the dressing-room with my older sister. At the time it was not only the peasant dresses of the ’70s, it was also very normal khakis and stripes – all these beautiful collections for everyday life.

NB Is that what drew you into the fashion industry?
FdSP Yes, absolutely. Fortunately, I realised very young that I had absolutely no talent to be creative, absolutely no talent. I have a sister who’s an architect, a brother who can draw in a beautiful way; I was the little one. I over-developed my eyes and just looked and never had enough. Through my mother, who’s a contemporary art collector, I have looked at fashion in a different way from the start – not just from an aesthetic point of view but from a sociological point of view. I do not like contemporary art because it’s pretty, I look to art to bring something new to the table, and for fashion it’s the same. I’m interested in designers who bring something new.

NB You’ve said before that successful designers need to have a very clear vision and their own aesthetic. What does that entail?
FdSP I think we are in a very interesting time that gives designers the opportunity to express a holistic approach. We see that the designers who have been extremely successful – Miuccia Prada, Renzo Rosso, Jil Sander – the common denominator between all these visionaries is that they’ve never attended a design school. It came from their understanding of how people would like to wear a thing. I am fascinated by the approach Gabrielle Chanel had at the time: a perfume bottle should look like this and my boutique will be beige and crème and black. A very precise aesthetic approach. With digital today, it gives designers a lot of power. Brands who have invested in their retail environment are now investing in their digital environment.

NB Do you think it’s more difficult for a creative director now that they have to understand the power of image, digital marketing, social media?
FdSP No, because they are young and they grew up with this. They don’t have to understand – it’s natural. I’m very excited. We see a generation who are not just fashion designers. If you look at people from Kitsuné, they are producing music, graphics, many things. And designers today have the chance to become their own media. When information is available everywhere, they end up as curators of that information and they address an audience with their aesthetic.

NB So they gain an enormous amount of power.
FdSP Yes – and the audience can also choose what kind of tribe to belong to.

NB Does that make your job easier then, to match the right person with the right brand based on which tribe they are talking to?
FdSP Absolutely. It has become very clear. On the other hand, there are very few people who are right for a certain tribe. That’s why we worked on strategising the succession of Nicolas Ghesquière. It was very interesting because Nicolas Ghesquière built the revival of Balenciaga. He did it not because he tried to copy what Christopher did – he didn’t have access to their archives at the time. He did what was right for his generation, the slim look, the bomber jacket. All the girls and the boys picked his bags right away. Then when you become famous, it’s easy to be alone in the ivory tower and you lose this understanding of a younger audience. That’s why the choice of Alexander Wang was absolutely natural, because he could think about who is going to understand an urban feel.

NB What did you think when Nicolas was publicly critical of Kering? Did you have any sympathy with his position?
FdSP I think he has contributed a lot, of course, but he has also benefited from a lot of support. When there is a divorce, never shout at each other. Always keep the good memories and go to the next step. He’s an amazing talent and he will have other opportunities.

NB I’m interested in your thoughts on the growth of emerging markets and whether you see a pool of talent there?
FdSP Until the 20th century all the fundamentals were quite easy to understand. You had western luxury brands and non-western designers, especially Japanese ones, but it was quite set. In the 21st century everything has become interconnected. We see groups from fast-growing countries making a lot of acquisitions of western designers, from Mulberry in London to Sonia Rykiel to Lanvin to Valentino – but we also see western groups acquiring brands from the fast-growing countries. I think it has never been about where it comes from. We had Karl coming from Germany to rescue Chanel, John Galliano to rescue Dior and now we have Raf. It’s not about nationality, it’s about who understands what’s going on in the world.

NB You mentioned that America may be the next place to need your services, those big brands that will need a successor soon...
FdSP We have worked there for many years, actually. We started working for Calvin Klein back in the mid ’90s, and we brought talented people such as Alber Elbaz over here. We decided to open in Asia first, in 2009, because the economic downturn was very severe in the US at the time, but now they are doing extremely well. I feel a strong dynamic in the US that strengthens their brands creatively, because they want to become international. This is why we are going to have a presence there from September on.

NB I’m curious to know where you find your talent if Miuccia Prada, Ralph Lauren and many others (even Coco Chanel!) aren’t trained, didn’t go to a school and yet are very successful.
FdSP I have a team looking for talent and they do all the graduations. Of course in London, where you have amazing schools, in China, everywhere. We are covering many awards, we are curating through magazines, through people we meet and say: “This person’s work is interesting,” whatever their background is.

NB Who has been your proudest placement?
FdSP I am very proud of the ones I’ve understood and captured, secured for a brand, such as Felipe Oliveira Baptista at Lacoste: he’s doing an amazing job. Of course, to be honest, we’ve had failures. It’s very difficult for some designers to face celebrity and pressure and stay true to themselves. They have the pressure of shows four times, six times per year – and a jury who a minute after the show are tweeting whether it’s better or worse. Because of the power of the digital media, I see a big trend to overprotect, to protect themselves. Look at Phoebe Philo, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander, all these designers who say: “OK, now I do my work and I’m no longer obliged to be visible in the media.”

NB I guess John Galliano is a great example of someone facing that pressure?
FdSP I worked for LVMH 10 years ago and I worked for John Galliano, and when I worked for Christian Dior he was there. John is an amazing talent. You know, I think unfortunately he has more pressure than anyone else in the industry. His pressure is just unbearable.

NB In broader terms, what does the future of your business hold?
FdSP I see my business really strategising in every category of designer brands. Whether it is jewellery, more mass-market brands, luxury, a foreign industry… at the end of the day it’s about the same audience, the same consumer who drinks Coca Cola, buys Céline or Balenciaga or whatever and has some kind of Apple thing in her pocket. That’s why we founded EyesOnTalent, to give back a little bit of power to the designers and to the brand. I’m a strong believer that with digital we will not be around – not me, nor other firms – to run around the world to find talent. Brands should have access to the best, wherever it is, and they should have access to cross-disciplinary talent. Someone to design a watch can come from décor, and someone to design décor can come from textiles. Or a makeup artist to design colours. It will be more beautiful, probably. §

  • Floriane de Saint Pierre Talks to Naomi Bikis