The Calais Museum Of Lace and Fashion in France recently presented its first ever retrospective exhibition dedicated to the fashion house of Lecoanet Hemant, founded by Didier Lecoanet and Hemant Sagar. The museum has famously hosted the legendary archives of several stalwarts of haute couture, from Cristóbal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy to more modern voices like Olivier Theyskens and Iris van Herpen.
The Orientalists Of Haute Couture: Lecoanet Hemant unveils more than 40 years of creations that blend the art of French couture with the spirit of the East.
In an interview with Lounge, Lecoanet and Sagar talk about their journey, learnings along the way and ongoing efforts to make the brand more sustainable. Edited excerpts:
How's the experience of showcasing the Lecoanet Hemant retrospective at the Calais Museum?
It has been heartwarming to meet old friends and patrons of the brand. From the first creations produced by Lecoanet Hemant in its initial incarnation as a Paris-based haute couture house to the shift to ready-to-wear, more than 80 silhouettes underline the savoir faire synonymous with Lecoanet Hemant. This exhibition comes with a sense of acknowledgement.
How challenging was it to pick over 80 designs from your vast archives?
The exhibition sheds light on the house’s oeuvre through eight bifurcations, marking distinct themes. From “India pop” that speaks of the imagined world of a richly coloured India, bordering on the kitsch, to the “perfume of the Orient”, where embroideries with metallic glint adorn elegant dresses, evoking a sensorial experience akin to the heady musk of frangipani and myrrh. Each piece tells a unique story.
Let’s talk about your iconic sari dress. What inspired you to transpose the sari silhouette into a constructed dress?
The white linen dress from the White Coats collection embodies our philosophy of gesturing at the brand’s eastern roots. It was crucial for us to draw inspiration from the culture but never appropriate. Taking cue from a sari, the dress envelops the body in a diagonal spiral flowing into a full skirt that features a mid-thigh slit. What looks simplistic to the viewer is actually an elaborate construction that supports the flowing skirt and the moulded top into one silhouette. In its essence it is kind of an anti-sari, taking away the volume of the silhouette while maintaining the movement.
Your construction techniques have often been exacting like the bias-cut seamless pineapple fibre jacket from spring-summer 1994. When you see couture today with a focus on the logo tees and brand lettered accessories, do you think the fashion landscape has changed?
Immensely. The asymmetric jacket in pineapple fibre was a part of the spring couture collection, Algae. Inspired by nature, the shape of the garment echoes the design of the leaf veins through the bias assembly of panels of fabric attached with piping seams. With no visible seaming, the design is replicated in the back, thus enveloping the entire body in a dynamic and elegant construction. While a lot of heritage couture houses continue this tradition of intricate dressmaking and innovation, the current landscape offers space for different vocabularies. Change is inevitable and welcomed in fact, but the standards of haute couture should be held in the highest regards.
Forty years is a huge milestone. How has the brand changed in 40 years?
Didier and I met in Paris, as students at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de Couture Parisienne. The journey of Lecoanet Hemant began in 1981 with the first store in Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. The inaugural collection, in partnership with Cartier Haute Joaillerie, earned us the prestigious membership of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the governing body of high fashion. The label was an organic reflection of our design philosophy. It was the coming together of our heritage, lived experiences and a common vision for authenticity. The house won the Golden Thimble known as Le de d’or (the Oscar equivalent of Haute Couture), the Swarovski Creation Prize 2005, and the Designer of the Year Award, Miami 2007. Select creations are now in the permanent collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Deutsches Museum, Berlin, and the Musée des Arts de la Mode, Paris, and now find a home at the prestigious La Cité de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais. That spirit of creation guides us and we continue to make ready-to-wear creations with Genes and Ayurganic.
What was it like making a transition from couture to ready-to-wear?
The move was a result of the Lecoanet Hemant brand foraying into ready-to-wear. As the fashion landscape changed, it marked a new dawn in the brand’s trajectory. Lecoanet Hemant moved the business metaphorically, from couture to ready-to-wear, and also physically, from Paris to New Delhi. This saw the conception of Genes and Ayurganic. Genes is a story of modern expression pillared by the codes of couture craftsmanship. Ayurganic, on the other hand, gestures at a way of living, with clothing and accessories firmly rooted in the principles of Ayurveda.
To have an understanding of the spirit of the times is important. Awareness is essential, but for us it is the unwavering importance to dressmaking that ensures customer loyalty.
How do you reconcile French chic with the flavour of the East?
Travel has always been instrumental in developing our varied inspirations. The unusual amalgamation of east and west is expressed through modulations of signature drape reminiscent of the sari. It seemed like the obvious step to combine cultures, to forge a vision that thrives on diversity.
What are the key insignias of an LH look?
An effortlessly chic essence, a sort of French art de vivre sums up the Lecoanet Hemant aesthetic.
Your plans for going sustainable?
The core philosophy at Genes and Ayurganic finds its seeds in Lecoanet Hemant’s relentless pursuit of innovation and craftsmanship, while respecting people and resources. Sustainability is an ever-evolving process. It is about awareness and the conscious decision to transform for a better tomorrow, always backed by policy and practice. Lecoanet Hemant strives to align every segment of the process with that ideology. The initiatives are designed keeping in mind that they will have effects beyond us, for a kinder future. Collaborations like "The Joy Project" with SilaiWali and the Genes upcycled collection, titled "Love in Black and White", are steps towards environmental and social sustainability. One of the central goals is to ensure that by the next three years, Lecoanet Hemant becomes fully equipped to measure and minimize its carbon footprint through the supply chain.
How do you encourage a more mindful approach to shopping among your consumers?
By making consciously creating clothes that last. At Genes, we look at design from a lens that is not guided by what is in this season. Fabrics and treatment matter to us. Construction matters to us. Everything is deeply rooted in an heritage that prioritizes utmost quality and respect for the people involved. Vivienne Westwood summed it all in very simple words: “Buy less, choose well. Make it last.”
Do you think sustainability has become a marketing gimmick for some brands?
Green washing is a very real problem because it takes away accountability and reduces everything to empty words plastered on an Instagram feed. The responsibility of conscious production, with cognizance of a better tomorrow, is the need of the hour. And all of it has to be backed by transparency.
How imperative are influencers in the evolving fashion ecosystem?
Well, influence has always been key in shaping consumer perceptions. The thriving online fashion landscape has also given rise to smaller, more niche circles and communities. Something like that makes it easier for brands to identify the right individuals to associate with. It is not always about the number of followers but also about an effortless creative alignment.
Artistic collaborations have been a key fashion phenomenon, the recent one being Gucci x Harry Styles. What’s your take? Would you collaborate if you see a good potential collaborator?
The future of fashion lies in collaborations. Creative associations help in expanding one’s approach to design, enriching it with a different perspective. However, the most important breakthrough one can achieve through collaborations is the opportunity to build a more inclusive environment and pass on the mic. When Genes joined hands with Silai Wali, a social enterprise that upcycles waste fabrics to create handcrafted products by refugees, it introduced us to progressive possibilities. And that is a step forward.