Edited by Amanda Gabriele on
Colette Malouf is a lifetime New Yorker. Born, raised and currently creating in SoHo, she has been surrounded by the energy of emerging artists, both in her neighborhood and family, her entire life. There was never a shortage of elegance or grace in Colette’s home, and we are lucky to have that sophistication translated into her gorgeous hair accessories and costume jewelry. I met Colette in her beloved neighborhood for lunch, and she painted beautiful narratives of shopping with her father, Sundays at her grandmother’s and what she would wear to a cabaret in 1920.
You grew up in creative New York neighborhood SoHo in the company of artists and in the midst of your family’s loungewear business, Perfect Negligee. What influences from your background, both culturally and business-wise, do you interpret for your own line?
My grandfather left Lebanon in 1920 and started Perfect Negligee based on the caftan. My great-grandfather was cultivating mulberry trees for silk worms, so there has also been a history of textiles and silk in my family.
I grew up with Canal Street in my backyard and spent time rummaging through the odds and ends I found there. I was seeing the emerging scene in the East Village and SoHo, and loved it because I’m a creative person. There is always a refined angle to my designs because you can’t take elegant out of my DNA. I grew up in velvet robes with lace collars. Sunday at my grandmother’s was layers of china, crystal and silver. My family was extremely formal and my father very dapper. He never wore jeans. I remember going shopping with him and I would be like “look daddy this is so cute” and he would say “no honey look at the poor stitching.” I couldn’t buy anything that was bad quality.
So you spent a lot of time in your grandmother’s attic and exploring the treasures of Canal Street. Do you have any favorite pieces that continue to inspire you?
Oh yes, I have a lot of those things. I saved all the leather suitcases and lots of jeweled shoes. I have this bronze statue of a 1920s girl arched back holding a dish. I saved perfume bottles from the 20s that belonged to my grandmother. I discovered these Elizabethan-looking velvet sleeves adorned with white mink and tubes of black velvet. I was saving everything as soon as I got my paws in the drawers, and those objects continually inspire me.
I found this really cool chain on Canal Street once. It’s an intricately designed, cast leaf texture on figure-eight shaped link. I found out it’s a chandelier chain because I recently saw it on the Bowery in a store going out of business. I loved all the little trinkets I would find on Canal.
Your father always made you pay attention to the quality of a garment, and your customer is looking for this same type of elegance. What do you do to make sure your product stays consistent with these expectations?
It all starts from the beginning. When I decide to work with a material and a factory, I have to be able to trust the quality. If I think the material is too fragile, I decide not to work with it, even if I love it. We ship internationally and a material must withstand production, handling and wear. There are things I can’t do because I know the quality will disappoint my customer.
Do you ever find you are inspired to create around a fabric rather than starting with the design itself first?
I look at many aspects when I approach design. I look at all materials to see what I like and then figure out what to do with them. I look at the attributes and obstacles to working with them. What are the confinements and what are the opportunities? Then I look at all of the manufacturing possibilities. Some pieces require handwork, and others are made with machinery. I take everything into consideration before settling on a final design.
What can the Colette Malouf lady not leave the house without? Who is your customer, and what is she like?
She is highly educated, likes to travel and try new things. She has a very strong sense of integrity. Before buying something, she carefully decides if she identifies with its quality or originality. She’s curious and a culture seeker. She goes to the theater and listens to music – she’s so interested in life. She shops in the most expensive stores, but also goes antiquing and likes to find unusual things to mix with her collection of modern pieces. Something old, something new, always elegant in her motto.
You occasionally lecture students at Parsons about design and the fashion industry. What do you tell young designers in the industry about starting a business? What can you learn from these students?
I tell young designers to think about what it means to have your own company because it’s a huge sacrifice to have all that responsibility early in life. I can’t even count how many times I couldn’t attend Sunday brunch or go on vacation. Owning a business isn’t for some but inevitable for others. I couldn’t work for anybody else because I needed to express this strong vision I have. My life is dedicated to my vision, and I’m sure you’ll hear the same story from many designers.
I look to young people in the industry as a checkpoint. I ask myself if I’m getting too serious or too safe. I try to listen to my assistant because even if I can foresee obstacles with certain designs, it’s good to be open to others’ opinions.
Do things like nature, architecture or other designers inspire you? What really speaks to you?
For a long time, I was really nature and object-inspired. But now I’m much more passionate about being experientially-inspired. I feel a piece can be inspired by one single element, but it doesn’t work that way for the collection as a whole. A recent trip to Turkey heavily inspired me, as do the 1920s. I think about what I would wear sitting in a cabaret in 1920 and bring the customer into a narrative. It’s the storytelling that I really enjoy and find inspiring.
Sometimes its hard to remember why I get into something, but seeing a picture, texture or material can start to spark my inspiration. I have all these impressions of life stored in my memory bank that I build upon and turn into a story.
All photos are from the Colette Malouf Fall 2011 collection lookbook. To view past collections and learn more about the brand, visit her website at colettemalouf.com.