Alexander McQueeen, American Express Company, American Vogue, Ameriprise Financial, Anna Wintor, Barbella 1968 French-Italian Film, Chanel, De la Renta, Dior, Ecole de la Cambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Fath, France, French Haute Couture, Funny Face Audrey Hepburn, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Gieves & Hawkes Savile Row London, Givenchy, Haute Couture, High Society Grace Kelly, Jane Fonda, Janet Cardiff Museum of Modern Art, John Yeats A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever, Karl Lagerfeld, Little Jeanne of France by Madeline Brandeis, Mahogany Diana Ross, Maison Primeau, Nipon, Paris, Parsons School of Design, Richard Beckel, Schiaparelli, Spem in Alium Thomas Tallis, The Women, Valentino The Last Emperor, Victor & Rolf, Vionnet, Vogue September Issue, Yves Saint-Laurent
Richard Beckel, founder and designer for the new fashion label Primeau, has designed custom women’s fashion for over 20 years. It was the launch of Primeau in 2012 that was his formal entry into the luxury fashion market. Primeau takes its name and fashion philosophy from Richard’s mother, Violette Lorraine Primeau, who had a small but fashionable wardrobe with pieces from designers such as Dior, Schiaparelli, Nipon, Chanel, and De La Renta. It was Violette’s zest for high style and quality garments that looked great season after season that drives Richard’s focus for Primeau.
Richard obtained a degree in art history and clothing design in the United States, then travelled to Paris and was introduced to couture techniques at the world-class design institute Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, founded in 1928. Upon his return to America, Richard entered corporate life and worked for twenty years in a leading financial services company. Several years ago, he set the stage for the launch of Primeau by taking a sabbatical from his company to obtain a degree from New York’s prestigious Parson’s School of Design and intern at Gieves & Hawkes, the bespoke gentleman’s tailor located in Savile Row in London. While at Parsons, Richard was recognized for his work and won the first Minneapolis Macy’s Distinction in Design competition. With the launch of Primeau in 2012, Richard left corporate America to pursue his passion: couture of artful style and timeless design. (Richard Beckel Maison Primeau / Facebook.)
AWP: What was your first exposure to fashion? How did your interest in fashion unfold?
RB: I had an extremely fashionable mother and five older sisters. As you can imagine, I was exposed to fashion starting at a young age. I was fastidious in my own dress and loved it when my one of my sisters would ask me for fashion advice. Over time, friends started asking for fashion advice and having me design for them. I idolized Chanel, Vionnet, Fath, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Karl Lagerfeld; and I thought, wouldn’t it be a wonderful life to create beautiful designs that would last decades like these masters?
AWP: In 2012, you “got into fashion” and launched the first collection under the Primeau label…entirely for women. What inspired you to a life and career in this industry? What influenced this vision?
RB: For twenty years I worked for the Fortune 500 company, Ameriprise, which was previously an American Express company. My people skills and work ethic brought me success, and I enjoyed the security of a steady paycheck. I lived my passion for fashion in my spare time doing custom work as time allowed. Those who saw my design work couldn’t believe I was not pursuing fashion. Their encouragement gave me the confidence that my design vision, when combined with my business and people skills, could enable me to build my own business.
AWP: Why was 2012 the right time to launch Primeau? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place for women in the style of today?
RB: Many of the fashions available today are targeted to women under 35, lower cost, and lower quality garments that will only be good for a season or two. Yet today’s demographics for women of high net worth who are from age thirty to retirement and beyond are huge and expanding at a fast rate. I constantly encounter women who desire high-quality fashion that will last beyond one season in style and quality. This matches the Primeau design aesthetic and philosophy. I predict the demographics for the next several decades will create a large market of women who are interested in something that’s better than what is available from most mid-market stores.
AWP: Do you feel that you bring a point of view to a fashion industry that had, for the most part, been a French territory in fashion?
RB: I do. My mother had a European sense and aesthetic to the way she dressed. She purchased just a few high-style and high-quality pieces every season instead of filling her closet with a lot of mediocre fashion. Over time she built a wonderful wardrobe. My experience in the financial world made me realize how a wardrobe can be looked upon as an investment. I think everyone has a few favorite garments they tend to take first from the closet time-and-time again. I would guarantee that those pieces probably cost more, have great design, are higher quality in fabric and construction, are a better fit, and therefore are a much better value than the other pieces in the closet which are quickly overlooked after a time or two.
AWP: There is a natural and spontaneous elegance to your design that gives the woman wearing your fashions the feeling of luxury. Your approach is easily adapted to every possible mix of occasions: couture and demi-couture daywear, cocktail and evening wear. What is it about graceful, stylish, and timeless design that is specifically appealing to women at this time?
RB: I think there is a heightened awareness of the negative impact that “fast fashion” has on the environment. Many more women are recognizing that you are what you wear: whether it is for work, cocktails, or an evening event. Wearing a stylish, well-made, nicely fit dress instantly gives a woman poise, energy, personal style, and psychological confidence compared to how they might feel wearing a cheaply made and poorly fit alternative. If we all realized that we have only seven seconds to make an impression, I think everyone would put more time into how they look before going out.
AWP: What do you think it is about Primeau that makes women respond to your designs in such a powerful way?
RB: I think there’s a longing for the feel of luxurious fabrics, impeccable design, and quality. A lot of fashion on the racks today is generic, made for the masses, and not exceptionally flattering off the rack and on the body. At my debut show, people seemed to recognize that my design focus is more timeless and artful in style than most brands. The famous quote by John Keats, A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever, applies to fashion as much as any design category
AWP: What do you think is a woman’s greatest asset?
RB: I would say a woman’s confidence is her greatest asset. What is the second? Her authenticity. A woman with both, plus a warm smile, will exude a natural sense of style and grace that will be noticed and loved by others.
AWP: How do you define style? How do you express your own style?
RP: Primeau’s tagline is “artful style, timeless design.” It is very important to me that my fashions reflect not only my style, but also the style and personality of the woman wearing it. I tend toward classic lines that are still current and relevant to today’s woman. I express my own style through my personal dress and grooming, and I still like to wear ties and suits even though I’ve left corporate America. When I was younger, I raided my father’s closet and seized every skinny tie, crisp small-collared white shirt, and wool suit I could. I’ve always loved looking back on fashion but making it current.
AWP: What is it about women and fashion?
RB: It’s about beauty, about feeling joyful and confident. It’s about having a sense of style that comes from within and reflected in one’s daily fashion choices.
AWP: You studied in Paris and New York. Describe your own “Paris” and “New York.”
RB: Paris is my favorite city in the world. There is a magic that only Paris exudes. Part of the magic is in the feminine mystique of the French woman. Her sense of style and grace is unparalleled. Paris is also the center of fashion history and the great couture houses. I simply could not have gained the respect for couture skills that I have anywhere other than in Paris.
New York has a fashion energy and diversity that is wonderful. Parson’s was perfect for me in regard to advancing my design skills and learning the industry. The couture skills I learned in Paris and the design work I did at Parsons complement each other and have served me well.
AWP: What modern trend do you love most?
RB: Not having to follow heamlines is a wonderful development. Different body types require different proportions. Years ago if an above-the-knee hemline was the trend, everyone followed it regardless of whether or not it was flattering for their particular body. Today, designers seem less pressured to incorporate published trend elements.
AWP: Several of our contributors would love to work in the fashion industry. Many of our followers are preparing for a career in fashion. What would you say to them?
RB: Fashion schools are crowded with talented people, but few of those students have a love for the total process, from design to patterning to construction and production. On a runway, I can instantly tell if a designer has pattern and construction skills by the fit and movement of the garments, and it is the small details that make the difference. Two designers could have the same design, but I believe the one who knows fabrics and construction will have a far better looking garment. I encourage designers to spend as much time on the craftsmanship as they spend on the design. It makes for better fashion.
ART OF LIVING
AWP: Name the single book or movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.
RB: When I was living in New York I experienced the most amazing work of art by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff at the Museum of Modern Art. It was entitled Forty-Part Motet. Unlike most art you find in museums, it was a sound sculpture installation of Spem in alium by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. Forty separately recorded choir voices were played back through forty black speakers on stands positioned around a white, light-filled exhibition gallery. When standing in the middle of the room it was equal to being in the cathedral where it was recorded, yet as one walked around the room, you could move close to each speaker and listen to someone’s individual, sometimes raw voice. I have a feeling the average time people spend looking at most works of art is less than a minute. However, every person who walked into the room was instantly quieted, mesmerized, and probably stayed for fifteen or more minutes. I’ve been in museums around the world, yet this was the first “art” that literally took my breath away.
AWP: Are there films that have inspired you?
RB: Naturally, I enjoy films with great fashion. In the past few years there have been wonderful documentaries such as Valentino: The Last Emperor and The September Issue, which is about Anna Wintour, the English editor-in-chief of American Vogue. It’s always fun to see classic fashion lover films like Funny Face, staring Audrey Hepburn, or High Society, staring Grace Kelly. The Women, a 1939 American comedy-drama, which is black-and-white, features a fabulous 10-minute color fashion show with artful designs from American costume designer Adrian. I enjoy watching films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with outlandish show-tune fashions—films that capture the joie de vivre and show what great fashion can bring to one’s life. Barbarella, the 1968 French-Italian science fiction film, a campy flick starring Jane Fonda, has some groovy ‘60s fashion style. Mahogany, the 1975 film staring Diana Ross, a story about a poor African-American woman who rises to become a popular fashion designer in Rome, has some incredible fashion scenes with a very powerful storyline.
AWP: What is the latest book you read?
RB: An unexpected treasure was a book given to me by my friend Simone upon the launch of my business: Little Jeanne of France, by Madeline Brandeis, an original copy from 1929. The author was a movie producer who wove together this tale using photographic illustrations she took in small French villages and in Paris. It is about a beautiful, hardworking orphan who modeled little girls’ dresses for customers in her guardian’s Parisian dress shop. It features fashion and is set in Paris. There is a mystery element to the story, and it has a wonderful life-learning moral at its end. I imagine I probably have one of very few copies of it.
AWP: If you were at a dinner party, what question would you be asked?
RB: Everyone asks me who my favorite designer is. It’s difficult to answer because there are so many great designers who have brought a unique aspect of style and design to the fashion world. Dior and Chanel both have had an impact on fashion in a permanent way, even though their design focus was different. Balenciaga and Fath are masters who I think deserve more recognition. Schiaparelli added art and avante-garde to the equation. In recent history, I think Alexander McQueen was a genius with a very strong, defined design focus. Victor & Rolf have elegant designs with a modern, artful vision that pushes the envelope.
AWP: Your passion for life is extraordinary. What’s next?
RB: Thank you! I think my passion is partly due to the fact that I lost my mother to cancer when I was young. The death of someone so close at a young age gives you a different perspective. We all have limited time so we better enjoy the time we have. That’s what helped me finally make the decision to pursue my fashion dream with Primeau. What’s next is taking the brand national. I’m developing a limited-run boutique line available in late 2013, and I am confident the Primeau look and quality will be a good match for several national luxury retailers.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: Anne Fontaine’s white shirts and the color of happiness. Anne Fontaine, a Franco-Brazilian fashion designer, entrepreneur, businesswoman and philanthropist, known as the “queen of the white shirt,” brought new faces and unforeseen levels of diversity to the fashion industry. Thanks to her, the white shirt is now definitely a staple on women’s wardrobes as a key piece. Anne shares her rise in the industry and 2011 launch of The Anne Fontaine Foundation, which is committed to the reforestation of the Brazilian rain forest. (French)
l’Américaine, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the myth of the unsophisticated and pathetically naïve American where book after book and article after article there is the lament of the hopeless quest of the American woman to resemble her French counterpart.
French women do get wrinkles, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super French myth of the coquettish French nymph—her “je ne sais quoi”—in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses over her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and she then continues to define how we are all measured by it.
Ballet Flats in Paris: And God made Repetto, by Barbara Redmond who shares what she got from a pair of flats purchased in a ballet store in Paris; a feline, natural style from the toes up, a simple pair of shoes that transformed her whole look. Including the vimeos “Pas de Deux Coda,” by Opening Ceremony and “Repetto,” by Repetto, Paris.
Scarves à la Françoise: The lingua Franca for stylish women, by Barbara Redmond who shares her experience trying on scarves and tying them at the home of her French friend in Lyon. Arriving at the famous silk manufacture in Lyon, André Claude Canova, Barbara and her friend gently tapped on the window even though the shop was closed. The shop girl let them and they all enjoyed hours of playfully draping, twisting and knotting scarves and shawls. An experience spurred by the ubiquitous nature of women and scarves: our common language. (French)
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2013 Richard Beckel. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.