In 1985, Jean Claude Jitrois photographed twenty-year-old Brooke Shields wearing embroidered leather in bright magenta, canary yellow and green. Capturing the maximalist aesthetic of the decade, one jacket was decorated by a cockerel (the symbol of France) while another piece featured a sleeve adorned with fruit. Jitrois was the first designer to inject colour into leather, and went on to develop the revolutionary stretch leather in 1995, inspired by his grandmother’s stretch-cotton table cloth. At the time, the Jitrois collections were made in the Chateau de Lierville in the Loire valley and celebrities and journalists would helicopter in from Paris for the weekend to party with Claude et co. Here AnOther speak to Jitrois about Helmut Newton, Bridgitte Bardot and the history of the brand.
There are so many icons throughout history associated with leather. Do you have a favourite icon?
The poet Paul Valery said, “Skin is the deepest thing there is.” Since time began, man has dressed in skin, in leather – its history is infinite. However I was the first designer to elevate the material out of the realm of soldiers, aviators and blacksmiths. In the 1970s, leather was still viewed as the uniform of rebels, of rockers, of ‘bad’ boys. The idea of a woman wearing a leather dress was madness, but I gave it colour and dared to propose leather for every day, and every night. Princess Stephanie of Monaco was one of my first clients, and I made her a blue leather evening dress for the Bal de la Rose (society ball) at the Sporting club of Monte Carlo. No one, I mean no one even imagined it could be leather – the idea was so audacious! Now, most of the luxury houses produce leather pieces for women, but back then it was revolutionary.
How did the 1998 calendar collaboration with Helmut Newton come about?
I had had such a great desire to work with Helmut Newton. One of the most important things I feel when it comes to working with great photographers, is that you must do something new. Helmut – who had shot an infinite number of photographs – had never worked with only leather, and while we were talking about what kind of shoot we should do, he decided he didn’t want models, he wanted statues. So I said, ok, I will see about the statues and who we can get to make them for us. I went to Opéra Bastille in Paris, and the set designers made the statues for us out of polystyrene, enormous things which we took with us in trucks to the suburb of Montrouge, which back then was a bit of a wild wasteland. It was extraordinary, shooting all day and all night. And for every shot, he wanted a photo of himself in it, a self-portrait. For him that was how he signed his work.
How did you end up making a bathrobe for Brigitte Bardot?
Brigitte and I were great friends, and our boutiques in St. Tropez were opposite each other. I at the time was selling some of my first leather creations, and she was selling her own merchandise, including the busts of ‘Marianne’ that were inspired by her likeness made by the sculptor Alain Aslan in 1970, and exhibited in every town hall in France. I often made trips to Paris, so once she asked me to pick up some more stock of the busts from Aslan’s studio as they were selling like hotcakes in St. Tropez! I got stopped by a policeman who was suspicious of me getting on the plane carrying a bundle of blankets under each arm – he thought I was smuggling babies! Brigitte has always opposed the use of leather, but she really wanted one of my pieces. So we came upon the idea of creating a little suit for her from towelling terry cloth, embroidered with her symbol of a daisy, which she always used as a signature.
What are you looking forward to in 2014?
I always say: la frustration est le moteur du désir de creation [frustration drives the desire to create]. It is always a challenge to limit oneself to work with a single material, but I am driven by innovation, and at Jitrois we are constantly working to traverse new boundaries with leather and other skins. For 2014, I am endeavouring to create leather pieces so light, so weightless that a woman will forget she is wearing them.
Text by Mhairi Graham