Capturing an idiosyncratic mix of Paris chic and edgy, New York cool, the two cities that she lives between, Catherine Malandrino’s ten year old fashion company has grown to an international empire with two ready to wear collections, accessories and an array of boutiques criss-crossing several continents. At her flagship store in New York City’s Meatpacking District Malandrino reflected on her decade of rising moguldom, being the highly visible face of her brand, and her designs on private jet travel.
ET: Congratulations on a decade in business. Does it feel like it’s been that long?
Catherine Malandrino: It went like a flash for me. When I first arrived in New York I was taken by the spirit of the city and I was pregnant and I started my collection right away. At the same time it’s been a long process. I’d wanted to be a designer since I was seven years old. The last ten years in New York have been quite amazing.
ET: You worked at brands like DVF and Ungaro before launching your own collection. What elements did you draw from those experiences when starting out?
Catherine Malandrino: When I started out I was really interested in clothes…fashion. But more than that I was interested in helping women define their own personalities through clothes. From there I needed a strong base. A part of being a designer is super glamorous and there’s a part of it that’s hard work: about detail, the construction of clothes. You have be sure that whatever you’re designing is a great garment at the end and makes a lot of sense in a woman’s wardrobe. I really wanted to have a strong, diversified foundation. My first love was couture and I was very happy to have the experiences to learn in the ateliers of Louis Féraud and Emanuel Ungaro but at the same time I wanted beautiful clothes to have a reality in daily life. The challenge for me to translate the knowledge of these beautiful clothes so that I could help women could look better, be better, be stronger. After, when I went to a company called Et Vous in France I learned another aspect of being a designer: about being conscious of a garment’s comfort and price while still making it a successful garment. Then I came to New York I met with Diane and this was another step because she has a strong, shining personality and I was working with this icon from the 70s, the wrap dress, and trying to convey it in a different time and make it make sense to a new customer. At that point, with all my experiences, I felt I was ready to build my own collection with my own message because I didn’t see anything like it in the landscape of fashion. That’s how it started!
ET: Do you have a particular woman in mind when you’re designing?
Catherine Malandrino: I’m speaking to a woman with a strong identity. She’s a woman who’s a mother, a working woman, a sister, a lover. And she’s a traveler. The woman I’m dressing travels the world. She’s educated. And if she’s not traveling the world yet, she will. It’s what she wants to do. That’s why I understand the need to wear clothes that are chic and comfortable and allow you to express your personality.
ET: How has the look evolved?
Catherine Malandrino: It has become a full wardrobe from day to evening to really special moments of your life. In the Malandrino collection I think of longer dresses with Catherine Malandrino there’s more weekend, working, more casual options. There’s a full world for a woman to pick from.
ET: You have multiple boutiques, two collections, accessories, the works. Do you feel like you’ve “made it”?
Catherine Malandrino: No! It’s a work in progress. I feel I have a lot more to say in the fashion world!
ET: Like what? What’s in store for the next ten years?
Catherine Malandrino: I don’t know yet. I want to be part of the life of the woman I’m dressing. I want to be a friend and close to her and help her not only get dressed but be part of the way she lives, travels, what and where she eats, the hotels she visits. For me it’s about touching her lifestyle and touching the emotions of the woman—speaking directly to her.
ET: You’re the public face of your brand. What’s that experience been like?
Catherine Malandrino: It’s about establishing a connection with my customer. That’s what’s important to me. That’s why sometimes you find me in the boutique—so I can meet with my customers. I believe in relationships. I believe in knowing each other.
ET: Do you get ideas from your customers?
Catherine Malandrino: Always! They share with me the clothes that are most important to them. I re-edit a lot of those clothes. For example, they’ll tell about a piece that think is the perfect dress—because they can wear it in many circumstances and that they think it’s become timeless. Or they’ll tell me that they feel like my clothes give them strength and power when they go on a job interview…or first date. They’ll choose to wear my dress because they feel stronger and feminine without feeling overdone. That really touches me and I always want to bring that to my collection.
ET: You did a book with Assouline chronicling your brand’s first decade. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like to revisit those years?
Catherine Malandrino: It was funny. The first time I met Prosper Assouline we were on a plane. We both were traveling and started to speak in French and I realized who he was, and he knew about me and my experience in New York. We started to talk about fashion and I told him I was going to be celebrating my 10-year anniversary and he told me that there’s nothing better than celebrating with a book! He proposed that I participate in the “Mémoire de la Mode” series. And I felt like it was the perfect step. I wanted to remember the best moments of my first ten years and to thank the team that helped me get there. Of course, I didn’t make it alone. There were a lot of great people surrounding me and believing in me.
ET: What highlights stand out in your mind?
Catherine Malandrino: So many moments. When I was inspired by the movie Easy Rider and that wild, free image of America, I translated that it into my version of the flag and made a dress with it. Of course, after I showed the collection with the dress came September 11 and people wanted to wear the dress because it was a way to speak about freedom and to speak about America. The next season I showed at the Apollo Theater and it was the start of a great relationship with Mary J. Blige and that’s grown since. And opening this boutique was really memorable because it was quite a challenge and just the beginning of the [popularity of the] Meatpacking District. It was an empty corner that no one wanted. This used to be a warehouse. But it was a great choice for us.
ET: Have there been unexpected turns along the way?
Catherine Malandrino: The worldwide dimension of the business was unexpected. We have just opened boutiques in Istanbul and Dubai, and we’re planning for Kuwait and Tokyo.
ET: What challenges or opportunities do you think are on the horizon?
Catherine Malandrino: We get a lot of proposals to develop new collections, from denim to eyeglasses to swimwear to lingerie. We want to be sure we find the right partner, always. Our growth has been strong and organic because we believe in people. I don’t see my name as just a stamp on pieces. I believe we all have to work hard to be sure that the style is the essence of it. What I propose to my customer will always make sense. And we’re on the verge of really expanding but I want to be sure we’re expanding with the right people.
ET: What would you be doing if you weren’t a fashion designer?
Catherine Malandrino: I would be creating. It’s something I can’t live without. I don’t really see anything else.
ET: What are your passions and hobbies beyond fashion?
Catherine Malandrino: Traveling the world! That’s really my passion and I’m happy the world is so wide and big. I love the world. I love to discover the world.
ET: Do you have favorite travel destinations?
Catherine Malandrino: Many. Thailand. I love to go to Amanpuri in Phuket. It’s one of my favorite retreats. I love Bali. I’ve been to Amandari in Ubud several times. It’s like being lost in the jungle, among rice fields. It’s a beautiful moment. I love Exuma in the Bahamas. It’s very wild. There’s nothing but the communion you feel with nature. I love the south of France, like the Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence and Hotel du Cap and Eden Roc. And Megève—Les Fermes de Marie. Recently I visited St. Petersburg and had a wonderful experience at the Grand Hotel Europe. It was wonderful, a very old, beautiful, luxury hotel in the heart of St. Petersburg.
ET: What other projects are you dreaming up?
Catherine Malandrino: One of the projects that’s really exciting to me is to design private jet interiors. It’s not happening yet but I’m really into it. Beyond traveling the world, the next step is to have your own way to travel it. I would love to express my vision of it. There are things I’d like to do to make the experience more sensual so that it’s a time you’ll always remember.