To gaze upon Olympia Le-Tan—designer of It-girl book-clutch fame—in person is an eye feast of the Mad Men variety. The strict ’50s curves; the pin-up bangs and brushed brunette waves; the twin-set with waist-cinching Alaïa circle skirt. And the quintessential London-phone-booth crimson lip. “I have a bit of an obsession for red lipsticks,” she tells me at the Paris launch of her collaboration with French makeup brand Lancôme.
It was Lancôme that approached the 35-year-old London-born, Parisian-bred daughter of famed illustrator Pierre Le-Tan to design one of her signature hand-embroidered minaudières—replicas of famous tomes—worn by stylish-yet-bookish red carpet groupies Tilda Swinton, Michelle Williams and Natalie Portman. This special edition commemorates the one-year anniversary of the beauty brand’s wildly successful Rouge in Love lipstick collection.
The felt, flying lips–adorned case is a mise-en-abyme design of a book within a book. Inside are six lip shades chosen by the designer, including her favourite—a bright true red called Rouge Valentine. Landing at select Holt Renfrew stores this month, the ultra-limited-edition clutch also includes six nail lacquers from Lancôme’s new Vernis collection, which the rest of us must wait until May to buy.
Only three of 100 makeup-filled purses, painstakingly handmade, will come to Canada. At $1,800, it might be the single most expensive gift set this country’s beauty counters have ever seen. It’s just a shade more expensive than Le-Tan’s classic creations, with the bonus of a beauty wardrobe so of-the-moment, one could easily imagine her Russian editor admirers (fashion’s current barometer) wearing them. Take queen bee Ulyana Sergeenko, editor of Glamour Russia, who was recently snapped carrying an—how appropriate?—Anna Karenina, with powdered pink lips and digits to match.
Le-Tan’s siren-red lips match her nail tips today, too, in typical ’50s fashion. Even her aspirations seem shockingly at home in the Beaver Cleaver era. She claims the only reason she went to university was because she liked the fairy-tale Victorian building. “My parents said I had to do something, so I did that,” she explains. Studying Italian was a way of passing time, until a true love would come to sweep her away.
“My friends had all these career plans and I had no idea. I just wanted to have kids and get married and do nothing.” Suspecting it’s all part of the costuming, I ask what changed her course. “Well, I didn’t find him,” she admits. “But I would have been a good housewife; I like cooking, tidying, sewing.”
The irony of course is that Le-Tan is a modern-woman success story. Beginning with a few bags made for friends—using stitching techniques passed down by her grandmother and an appreciation for literature instilled by her dad—she’s earned a brainy following who seek out her creations, as if to declare, in the most charming way possible, Beneath the style, there is substance here.
More than meets the eye is Le-Tan’s métier. Despite the buttoned-up girl before me—who loves bubble baths (Santa Maria Novella, especially) and turning in early with a Roald Dahl book—there’s proof of a wild streak lurking in Google’s never-dying image bank: enviable photos of Le-Tan letting loose among fashion’s super elite at Purple magazine’s Sinners & Saints Halloween party, where she’s breasts out in a cut-out bondage bra mimicking her favourite icon, Bettie Page.
But gone are her days of DJing at Le Baron until the wee hours, she tells me, since her burgeoning business won’t allow it. A full-fledged, vintage-inspired fashion collection, sold at Colette in Paris, is in its sophomore season, and she’s busy moving into larger digs. Having gained the attention of a multi-billion-dollar beauty brand, the biz seems to have a mind of its own. But whether it’s due to chance, as she would have us believe, remains an original Le-Tan mystery. For now.
Book-a-Like: Anatomy of an Olympia Le-Tan Lancôme original
• The sides are mirrored for covert lipstick application.
• Each minaudière takes 18 hours to make.
• Le-Tan embroiders the first model, then a small group of seamstresses, some graduates from Lesage school in Paris, produces the rest.
• The designer still uses two stitches taught by her grandmother: the chain stitch with regular loops, and the more twisty stem stitch.
• The signature red and white woven labels inside match the ones her mother once stitched onto her childhood clothing. (Le-Tan orders the labels from the same London boutique.)