Camille Grapin’s mother could find a dozen reasons not to wear the dress her twelve-year-old daughter had made for her. “It was a strapless dress – this kind of gown – and I had even embroidered things on it,” the Montpellier-born designer recalls, just outside the MA Fashion studios of Central Saint Martins. Her french accent is thick (as is her hair, a dark chestnut curtain that sits at her collarbone). “It was awful, you know, this baby pink sheet. Awful. But I was so sure it was good, and my sister and I spent hours doing fittings in the garden. When I offered it to my mother and she would never wear it, I couldn’t understand.”
Stories like this are one of many for Camille; fashion and family have always gone hand in hand. “I wanted to do fashion because of my twin sister, Pauline,” she explains. “When we first started going out, I’d make us these terrible dresses to wear, just to make fun of the posh places we were going to.” A pause. “ It turns out those dresses weren’t so ugly.” From the South of France she went to Paris for a BA in Womenswear at ESMOD, “which wasn’t great, actually. No one ever pushed you. But I had no idea where to study, and so just picked the school I had heard of,” she says. “Later on, I knew I wanted to come to Central Saint Martins.”
The course has been somewhat of a mixed bag for Camille. She admits choosing the school for its infamous critical teaching style, but has struggled with the comments from tutors over the two-year process. “I was not used to the kind of people who will tell you something is shit straight away,” she says. “But, that’s the way it works.” This is told half amused – the 23 year-old is clearly aware of what she signed up for in taking up her place. “I took it [the criticism] way too personally, but I do feel like I’ve come out of the course a lot more confident. I learned that the process was about listening, but still focusing on what I want to do.”
The result is a collection of burgundy chiffon gowns, clean and clinging in silhouette, with long lines and, most interestingly, sleeves that trail down the arm into gloves. “I found the gloves quite sensual,” Camille explains. “The fact that you couldn’t take them off. It’s a bit dramatic – you’re stuck in your dress.” Conversely, Camille’s dresses are also remarkably easy to remove; the gowns will fall from the wearer at the unhooking of a clasp. The key points? Sensuality, sophistication and empowerment. “I was inspired by the film, L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, which is set in a 20th Century Parisian brothel,” she says. “I became very interested in these strange, kind of sexual places, but I realised there was nowhere similar for women to go. My collection became all about that place – and undoing that button is always the woman’s decision. She can take her dress off like that,” she snaps her fingers, “but it’s her choice. It’s liberating.”
Transparency also plays a key role in the collection, with sheer panels exposing the body in varying degrees on each dress. “The dress is evolving throughout the collection,” explains Camille. “The girl is more covered in the beginning than she is at the end. But the fabric is the link that runs through it.” Fabric is of huge importance to Camille, who relies heavily on fittings and draping over sketching her designs. “When you don’t touch anything you can’t visualise where to put in details. It’s nice to be surprised by the fabric and how you can drape it – it’s the most interesting part.” Though toiling in cheaper fabrics, an expensive chiffon was chosen for the final line-up; quality and finish are pivotal.
As a designer, Camille is clear on her identity: french. “The way I think, the way I design…I like things clean, and I like finishings. I feel very french in that way,” she says. It was these qualities that took her to the haute couture atelier of Anne Valerie Hash for six months after finishing her BA, followed by six months under Alber Elbaz at Lanvin. “I loved working with Anne Valerie,” she says, smiling enthusiastically. “She is an amazing woman, with amazing leadership skills. We were a small team that worked closely together – I would even ask to work weekends.” Comparably, Lanvin was a culture shock. “There was a tailoring team, a draping team, and everyone would be working on different projects that they would then show to Alber. It was very exciting, but very different.” It was also the Lanvin customer who has shaped who Camille designs for in her own work. “She’s a diva. She doesn’t care about anything. She’s sensual, but isn’t aware of it. It’s subconscious, refined and sophisticated. That’s the kind of woman I want wearing my clothes.”
Camille’s next steps will jump off from her strengths: draping, colour choice, finishing and fabric sourcing. The draw of Paris is strong, naturally, but New York also appeals. “I have no idea who I would work for,” she says. “I feel like being a french person in New York, I have a lot of potential to bring. Maybe a house would want someone who could take the design deeper, or bring something new to it. So I’m thinking about that.”
Those in the market for a fresh perspective, look no further.
Words by Hannah Rogers
All images courtesy of Camille Grapin