how ludovic de saint sernin became paris’s hottest new label
It’s not easy to stand out as an emerging designer in Paris. But since leaving Balmain in 2016, Ludovic de Saint Sernin has created a storm with his eponymous label.
Photography Lasse Dearman
If there was a single piece from last season’s menswear shows that captured the fashion industry’s imagination, it was Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s fresh-out-the-shower towel-look. Inspired by the concept of ‘wet’n’wild’, Ludovic sent models, male and female, down the runway on the roof of the Centre Pompidou in various states of undress -- some wearing wet, see-through silk organza, others in open shirts and shorts -- climaxing with one who sported nothing but a small towel around his waist. “I wanted to have a guy walk down the runway in a towel, but I didn't want it to be as simple as that, like another brand might do,” Ludovic says down the phone from his studio in Paris. “So, we decided to turn it into a beautiful knitwear piece, beautifully crafted. It actually feels like a sweater, it's very, very soft merino wool.”
No sooner had the piece left the runway and hit Instagram, many of the label’s devotees begun posting images of themselves in nothing but a towel. “Last season it was the million-dollar briefs that kind of broke the internet,” Ludovic says, of a pair of tiny Swarovski-lined silver pants from his autumn/winter 19 collection. "The same exact boy that was wearing the briefs was wearing the towel look. So I guess he kind of became our meme queen because it has become such a thing.” Though that’s not to say the collection could be reduced to one viral moment. With Rick Owens and Olivier Rousteing sitting front row, alongside many of the industry’s most revered critics, Ludovic’s first show on the official Paris Fashion Week Men’s calendar had far more substance than its meme-able moments.
Born in Belgium and raised in the Ivory Coast until the age of eight, before moving to Paris’s 16th arrondissement, 28-year-old Ludovic speaks of a simple, straightforward upbringing full of support and encouragement, despite his family’s more traditional career paths. “When I was growing up I was always sketching, drawing... But in my family it was really not a thing. Most of my relatives study law or politics.” Ludovic though, studied womenswear at the prestigious Duperré Paris, and interned at Dior in the jewellery department and at Saint Laurent in the women’s shoe department, working on Stefano Pilati’s final collection. “I also interned with an amazing casting director, who was with Margiela for like 15 years, and Yohji Yamamoto, an old school kind of casting director,” he says. “That's where I learnt how important casting is to a brand.”
After graduating, Ludovic joined Balmain as an intern, in the early days of Olivier Rouesting’s tenure as creative director. “I was assisting the woman who was in charge of all the embellishments and textiles, all those amazing couture pieces that were going down the runway. Then, when she was on maternity leave, they called me to replace her for a little less than a year. So it was really very intense experience.” This was before the brand had broken the mainstream and become a celeb favourite. “Back in the day, some people didn't know what Balmain was. It was before the H&M collaboration, it was still a little French house with really young designers. Everyone was under 30 which was really fun, we would party really hard and work really hard.” After three years, in the autumn of 2016, Ludovic left the house. “I was fascinated with all the craft and the couture aspect of the house, and also by Olivier's story, because he was so young,” he says. “But it's true that the brand took a direction that was not necessarily my aesthetic, so at some point I just felt I should leave and just try to do my own thing.”
Inspired by Patti Smith’s Just Kids and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, mixed with a miscellany of low and high-brow references, Ludovic presented his debut collection the following summer. “It had references to Japanese culture and ceramics, mixed with those Christina Aguilera, Stripped cover artwork pants.” Consisting of just 10 looks, all made by the designer himself, the clothes took notes from the glamour of Balmain but proposed something much less binary or classic. “It was very much a coming-of-age story and a coming out story. I wanted some strong identifiable pieces since the beginning. There was a balance of elegance and sexuality.”
The brand’s reputation has grown at remarkable speed. Every collection more refined than the last, without ever losing the edge that distinguished in the first place. His designs have been worn by Steve Lacy, Solange and Petra Collins, and last year the label was nominated for the LVMH Prize and won the ANDAM Prize. Critics have praised him for bringing raw to the traditional Paris schedule. “What I always say is that my brand will present a return to beauty, through the lens of sexuality..." he says. "I love the idea of presenting something that people can have their own interpretation of.”
Despite showing on the menswear schedule and ostensibly being labelled a ‘men’s’ brand, with his most recent collection Ludovic honed in further on creating more womenswear. “For the ready-to-wear we sell as much to women as we do to men. Since the very beginning, the collection has been introduced as a brand that should be worn by both men and women. Obviously for underwear, it's mainly men. But for ready-to-wear, especially this season, we've really pushed the womenswear and created specific womenswear pieces, a lot of dresses. I'm really working towards developing more women's.”
Though he splits his time between Paris and London -- and LA is his biggest market -- Ludovic has no plans to leave the Paris menswear schedule soon. “I like being on the men's schedule, I think it's a sexy fashion week.”
Photography Lasse Dearman