Increasingly, the ratio of female to male designers in ready-to-wear seems to be balancing, especially if you consider the recent appointments of Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski to Hermès and Julie de Libran to Sonia Rykiel (both maisons’ previous creative directors were men). But the rarefied sphere of haute couture largely remains a boys’ club. You could rightly argue that Valentino is half helmed by a woman (Maria Grazia Chiuri shares design responsibilities with Pierpaolo Piccioli). And there’s Adeline André, who was granted permanent status by France’s Chambre Syndicale in 2005, but does not show on the formal schedule. Besides them, Bouchra Jarrar is the only other woman who has been awarded the official haute-couture appellation. When the subject comes up during a visit to her showroom, Jarrar, 44, shrugs off the distinction. “I am just a woman living in our time,” she says, by way of understatement.
Jarrar, who is petite in frame and restrained in character, is widely esteemed inside the fashion industry and little known outside it. Born in Cannes and of Moroccan heritage, Jarrar designed jewellery for Jean Paul Gaultier upon graduation from France’s École Duperré and arrived at Balenciaga slightly before Nicolas Ghesquière became creative director. Her curiosity for haute couture took her to Christian Lacroix, where she oversaw his sumptuous collections until insolvency forced him to close his brand in 2009.
Her namesake label, which launched in 2010, remains independent today. Indeed, the success of Jarrar’s twice-yearly ready-to-wear collections allows her the financial leeway to thoroughly develop her couture. “One is industrial, the other is made entirely by hand,” she says. “For me, haute couture represents something strong and beautiful because it shows that craftsmanship still exists today.”
But where couture conjures an impression of red carpet gowns or a royal trousseau, Jarrar’s take is sleek, chic and wearable—albeit at price points more common to entry-level cars. When she shows her spring collection, weeks after we meet, it consists primarily of perfect poplin shirts, slim “lacquered” pants and silvery tweed motorcycle jackets tricked out with gold zippers instead of the expected couture beading. The common misperception is that her clothes don’t “look” like couture. Yet for the 0.01 percent who can shop at this level, stealth wealth has replaced conspicuous consumption. As far as bang for buck, a flawless custom-made jacket overrides the fairy-tale frock. “It’s easy to do things from the past, and it’s not my objective to copy what’s been done. It’s more like re-feeling things today,” she explains. “I love the idea of being inspired by the street and bringing that back to couture.”