• Stephanie Drax

The real life of a chic Parisienne - Marie Welté

Ten years ago I wrote a piece for The Telegraph called “Finding Your Inner Frenchwoman.” I squirm at the banality of it: I took a trip to France for specialist lessons in allure - the “secrets” to Gallic chic apparently boiling down to matching underwear, a rigorous routine of self-care passed down from one’s mother and a load of attitude.

Recently, I wrote for Storytellhers about Maison Labiche, a Parisian fashion brand that’s casual, cool and unashamedly feminine (though they make clothes for men and kids, too). Founded in 2010, their first collection was bought by Colette. Their distinctive T-shirts for women - with words like “bubble gum”, “cherie” and “the boss” hand-embroidered on the heart – made me wonder how, in a post-feminist world, the French still pull off being clever, elegant, subtle and sexy all at once. So I loaded up on some myths, stereotypes and clichés and called Marie Welté, the co-founder of Maison Labiche, to talk about her brand and that captivating French insouciance that we Anglophones love to glorify.

Marie Welté, with her Maison Labiche co-founder Jean Baptiste Richard

The image of the effortlessly chic Parisienne endures. What’s the reality?

For some women it’s their job to be that Parisian. Women like Ines de la Fressange and Caroline de Maigret have huge Instagram followings and have written books about their style and life. They are genuine, but being that Parisian is also trendy right now and a stereotype. Most Frenchwomen find their own path to style and make it work – and it probably works so well because it’s natural. People who work in fashion and beauty in particular see Frenchwomen in a certain way, but as a born and bred Parisian I don’t see it, realise it or ever think about it – I’m just dealing with everyday issues!

Numerous self-help books (like Mireille Guilliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat) have picked through French women’s relationship to food, exercise and self-care for clues to French womanhood. Can you tell me about your lifestyle?

I have two small daughters – aged 3 and 6 – and I get home to be with them in the evenings, so most days I make time to have a proper lunch at one of the many restaurants near where I work. This is a good time to meet with friends and have proper conversations. I was raised to eat good food – never fast food – so it doesn’t seem strange to me and I don’t over think it. I bike, swim and do pilates, but often I will choose to walk from one appointment to another. It gives me time alone to enjoy myself; I live in a beautiful city and it’s always a pleasure to walk around it. Regarding self-care, my mother definitely had a routine and she looks great, but hers began in the 1980s and has not changed. Mine began in the 1990s and has become greener and greener. I don’t use cosmetics now, just botanical and vegetal oils.

It’s said that French women have no hang-ups about being women; they are at ease with their femaleness and approve of observers, both male and female. From where do you draw your confidence in being a woman?

I have an older brother and my parents didn’t raise us any differently – we were both encouraged to grow into ourselves. In my 20s I was made to feel like a sexual object by men; it did bother me at the time, but as I grew older so did my confidence. In my career I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who don’t make a difference between men and women, so I have always felt at ease with my femininity.

Who is the Maison Labiche woman that you design for?

I design products that suit a wide range of women. Everyone can wear them - a child, a mother, and a grandmother. All women can appropriate the clothes to themselves. I never wanted to design fashion that is one trend, but something that is timeless. I want you to cherish your clothes and wear them for as long as possible. Maybe you use the T-shirt for a year, put it away, and then rediscover it a year later and wear it in a different way.

What makes Maison Labiche stand apart?

We were the first to embroider on the heart – actually going through the T-shirt with a needle. It means that the word doesn’t ever fade (like it might if it was printed) and a phrase or a word that makes sense to you on a T-shirt is a piece that you can cherish. You can even choose the words with our customisation atelier – my favourite was a famous French photographer who asked us to embroider his phone number on the heart! Other than the embroidery, the quality of the knit, the sustainability and the manufacturing (in Portugal) are all very important to us at Maison Labiche. We have two retail shops in Paris – in the Marais and Rue de Charonne – and both are unique and match the neighbourhood they are in. The one in La Marais is in shades of blue and feels like a haberdashery, the kind of specialist shop where you go to the counter and ask someone for what you need. The other – in the more industrial Rue de Charonne that is known for a long history of upholsterers – is more ‘peachy’ in colour but still with the counter idea.

How do you run your business and family life simultaneously?

I don’t know if I’ve figured out the solution. I rely on a lot of help in my both business and family life, and without all the people to help me it wouldn’t be possible. I keep telling myself that the business is young and the kids are little and the older they get the easier it will become - so I just keep going! I just try to be present when I’m with my children.

Where do you hope to see your business in the future?

I want a business that lasts a long time. I want to see the brand growing up and getting old after I’m gone. We are working a lot on the customisation process and developing new fonts for the writing, new techniques and working with leather accessories in the future. My biggest wish is to create the foundations for something that will last a long time and become known as a French “basic” - it’s a big ambition.

Where does the name Maison Labiche come from?

Maison is the term that suggests savoir-faire – many people working together, growing every day, and learning new stuff. Labiche is the nickname of my mum. We thought it was cute so we kept it!