14 by Jean Echenoz, African wax cloth, Alençon French lace, bijoux, Calais fabrics, Caudry fabrics, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Colette à Paris, David Foenkinos, dresses, Exercises of Style by Raymond Queneu, First World War, French fashion, French fashion design, gala and ball gowns, Haute Couture, Hercule Poirot, Igor Stravinsky The Rite of Spring, Julien Sorel, La Butte Montmartre Paris, Lacoste, Le Sacre du printemps Igor Stravinsky, Lee jeans, Michel Pietrini, Moroccan taffeta, Napoleon Bonaparte, Paris fashion, Picardy France, Réjane and Michel, Red and Black Le Rouge et le Noir Stendahl, Salle du Palace Paris, TV Mini-series Arabesque, wedding gowns, Wrangles jeans, Zelia Sur La Terre Comme Au Ciel Paris
(French) Zélia, French fashion designer, entrepreneur, and businesswoman, was born in Picardy, in northern France where she spent her childhood in the countryside.
Her fondness for romantic clothing is beautifully expressed in her atelier’s name, Zélia Sur La Terre Comme Au Ciel (Zélia on Earth as in Heaven). Her taste for the romantic is expressed in her wedding and engagement dresses and gala and ball gowns. What began simply as a collection of dresses has flourished into a line of accessories for evening and daytime. Zélia opened her atelier in a shop nestled at the bottom of La Butte Montmartre, in Paris, with window displays to showcase her designs. Known for designs far from the traditional or the dictates of haute couture, Zélia creates her fashions from the rarest of fabrics—from Caudry, Calais and Alençon French lace to glistening Moroccan taffeta to African wax print cloth
Her early artistic inspirations were the Exercises of Style (French: Exercices de style), a collection of 99 re-tellings of the same story written by Raymond Queneu, and Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral work, The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps). From these inspirations, the search for the aesthetic became her ultimate goal. Like Coco Chanel when Chanel was a young fashion designer, Zélia, too, imagined herself in Paris.
Zélia’s collections are inspired by her journeys and experiences, and every dress design has it’s own story: romantic, pastoral, seaside, royal, rustic, and Oriental. (Website)
AWP: What was your first exposure to fashion? How did your interest in fashion unfold?
ZÉLIA: I was interested in dressing for my own joy, not in being fashionable. The outfits available to me were nowhere near what I would have liked. My parents didn’t buy anything new and I ended up with hand-me-downs from my older siblings. But since my brothers and sisters were 17 years older than me, I looked behind the times. Everything I wore seemed outdated. This was before vintage became popular. Because of this I quickly began dreaming of creating my own looks. I didn’t have much in the way of reference. My friends bought Lee jeans or Wranglers and wore “kickers.” I customized the retro clothing that I found in my attic. I also began knitting and crocheting. The whole look was very original. I would change a minimum of three times a day. I was crazy for different looks.
AWP: What inspired you to a life and career in this industry? What influenced this vision?
ZÉLIA: I didn’t have a lot of outside influence, as I wasn’t exposed to many artistic or cultural references at home. I tried to create a different life than the one that was laid out for me because it didn’t suit me very well. I worked very hard in school and personally even at a young age. I moved to Paris by myself to maximize my opportunities. When you grow up in the countryside you run the risk of getting stuck there.
AWP: What inspired you to compete among the many fashion brands with your first store in Paris? Why rue d’Orsel in Montmartre, Paris’ 18th arrondissement? Was there something about the women of Montmartre?
ZÉLIA: I don’t pay any attention to brands, even today. I was never a fashion victim but I was never trendy either, even when I was younger.
As a teenager, I identified with rock and pop stars. The idea was originality and fantasy, to be different than everyone else. The exact opposite of brand names that scream “everyone wear me!” I almost never paid attention to fashion magazines. I think I was protecting myself. I maintain professional relationships with a few journalists who appreciate my work and I enjoy reading what they have to say. I have a very emotional relationship with my clients and the media doesn’t always understand them.
I am tactile like an Italian. I talk with my hands. I am very cheerful. This is why Montmartre is perfect for me. It is a big friendly community. It makes me happy. The only difficulty is that when I walk outside, the old men and the babies, the women and men, call my name and greet me. This can be a surprise for those who are more reserved, but it’s “le Butte!”
Returning to the question of brands. The funny thing is, even with me being so far away from the world of fashion, I continue to receive a lot of affection and encouragement from those in the industry. Réjane and Michel, the couple behind Lacoste, wore my designs for their wedding. The current and previous presidents of Chanel and Mr. Michel Pietrini appreciate my work and have given it a place in their world. Christian Lacroix has often written me beautiful letters that are deeply touching.
AWP: When did you launch your first collection? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place for women in the style of today?
ZÉLIA: My first real collection debuted in 1984 in the legendary Salle du Palace in Paris. That was the night I met Christian Lacroix who was in the room. I was very young and overwhelmed by the fact that his whole staff applauded me. He told me that I was very talented and that I would go very far.
I opened my first store in Montmartre, the one that I had until 1988. I wanted to create a boutique and a studio. I started out with a little flatiron and a sewing machine. At the time the editors hated the area and the concept I was going for. Today it’s trendy. And thankfully I am still here! All the better for me.
However, in the beginning it was very difficult, fighting to hold on against the opinions of others, against the copycats, and all the rest. But now I am content with all of that. It must be the knowledge that comes after living for almost 50 years. I just turned 49 and have been sewing hours each day for 40 of those years. It is like a way of life. There are those who meditate or workout, me, I sew. I produce my dresses.
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 of men?
ZÉLIA: I think I bring a genuine point of view, a methodology different from the rest that is still questioned by certain people. I don’t sketch, I don’t pin things together, I dance while I sew. I talk a lot. In the market for wedding gowns, a lot of the new ideas that have come out in the last 25 years have come directly from my shop.
My clients like my advice, my unique creations, my speed, and my smile. They like working with me. It’s the same at my neighbor Michou’s cabaret, people from all over the world come to see. The trick is not to become caught in your universe, your locale, yourself. I also want to have a private life, for the man that I love, and for my children and me. I am now figuring out how to enjoy myself by designing while doing other things as well, especially traveling and exploring culture. Finally!
AWP: The evolution of your brand is the diversity of what you offer: tops, handbags, belts, and jewelry. What do you think it is about your designs that make women connect with them in such a powerful way?
ZÉLIA: I dare to combine rock and romance, “rockmantique” (a term that isn’t mine). It is a very fun and feminine world. I dress many different people: tall, short, round, young, and not so young. I love beautiful people, beautiful souls. Other than that they have to trust me.
I also like creating smaller pieces on the side. I have sort of put that off but my family, my daughter and the man that I love, encourages me to continue, so I am going to tackle it. Last year I did a jewelry collection complete with bags. But frankly I dream more of mini collections: shirts for men, skirts, fun clothes for everyday, capes. Clothes that are much more accessible, obviously, than wedding gowns.
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?
ZÉLIA: My clients are often thankful for how comfortable my dresses are, for my advice, and for the quality of the finishing. One could say that I am very concerned with the finishing. Sadly this means that I am lacking in other areas such as administrative matters or cooking, but I am trying to get better.
Sometimes things take time to fall into place. If you have strict goals, anything can happen. I like the feeling my dresses create, the amazement that people of all ages feel in my clothes. This comes from the enchanting aspect of my dresses or from their sparkle or the colors that I often use.
AWP: What do you think it is about your design that makes women connect with them in such a powerful way?
ZÉLIA: The beauty, the grace, the chicness that my outfits provide. Women feel good in my clothes; they experience a different kind of value.
AWP: What do you think is a woman’s greatest asset? What is the second?
ZÉLIA: Courage because even today it is a hard world for women. Also, loyality and perserverance.
AWP: What is the most valuable thing a womans has to work with?
ZÉLIA: Her practicality and ability to analyze. Women are often doing multiple things at once, especially at home. Doing the laundry, taking care of the children. She anticipates, devotes herself, and gives herself to her family. She is pulled in multiple directions by an entourage that doesn’t always see her efforts because they have become the norm. I also admire the patience of some, the ability to be strong and fragile at the same time.
AWP: How do you define style? How do you express your own style?
ZÉLIA: I think of style as eccentric, fanciful, delightful.
AWP: Why do women love fashion so strongly?
ZÉLIA: Because it marks their personality and because what we wear tells a story, it shows who we have chosen to be.
There are people who only dress to cover themselves from nudity and the cold, those who don’t give much importance to their appearance. There are others who choose to express themselves through their clothing.
AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”
ZÉLIA: I don’t know the city very well. I have skimmed Paris for 30 years. I usually stay on the right bank. But I love the monuments, the streets. I dream often of spending 10 days in Paris like a tourist in the arms of my love. We are always racing around. I have worked a lot, traveled a little, and that doesn’t leave much time for anything else. But I love Parisian outings every once in a while, for example going to preview shows. But I can’t say much more than that.
AWP: What modern trend do you love most?
ZÉLIA: I love the mixture of modern and past.
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?
ZÉLIA: Good luck! Have persistence. And welcome.
AWP: Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French, a reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does Napoléon’s statement hold true with your experiences? How is Napoléon’s statement understood by women of today?
ZÉLIA: For me the quote holds true. Paris is a beginning, an experience. It would be ideal to have a home in the calm of the countryside and to be in the city when you wanted to revisit cultural Paris. It’s a wonderful city. When I arrived here at 18 years old from the countryside, I found it exciting and scary at the same time. Just like life, like discovering sexuality, like discovering love.
AWP: Name the single book or movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.
ZÉLIA: I am from the countryside of Picardy, which is locatd in the northern part of France. My family did not read or socialize. We had no telephone. We had no turntable, just a radio that crackled and hissed, and a television, which was my way of seeing the world. So, I am a fan of TV shows and always work with my TV on. I love Hercule Poirot and the TV Mini-Series, Arabesque.
In middle school, I had to go to school by bus. There, I met a music teacher who introduced me to everything. When she put on the disc of Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral work, The Rite of Spring, I started to cry at its beauty. Later, my French teacher took us to see Excercises in Style, Exercices de style, written by Raymond Queneau, a collection of 99 versions of the same story, each told in a different style. This piece changed my life.
I began to devour books. I identified with the hero, Julien Sorel, who is the romantic protagonist in the novel Red and Black, Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. The story of a provincial young man who attempts to rise socially beyond his modest upbrining.
AWP: What is the latest book you read? Would you recommend it?
ZÉLIA: The last book I read was 14 by Jean Echenoz, who writes about the First World War. It was given to my at Christmas by my dauther. I loved it. This is about the war of 1914. It is close to my heart because my grandfather was a “poilu” (French soldier), and I’ve been working on a commemoration through dresses and photos for the anniversary in two years.
AWP: If you were at a dinner party, what question would you be asked?
I am a little anxious when it comes to dinner parties. People can’t help but ask me questions because my work and my world seems dreamlike to others. I feel like I am hoarding the conversation because sometimes we tend to talk about certain careers more than others. Then people get annoyed because I am taking over the conversation. I don’t always know how to politely respond to their questions, especially when people are impolite. They ask me why I don’t create more clothes for men or why I don’t go to Cannes, without knowing that I have already done those things. It becomes draining.
It would be like if a doctor was at the party and I asked him why he isn’t also a pediatrician and a neurologist after he explained to me that he is a gynecologist. This is very typically French I think, asking questions like this.
AWP: Tell us something we don’t know about Paris or about France—its style, food, or culture.
ZÉLIA: I come from Picardy and would like to tell you about a wonderful dish, Ficelle picarde: a ham pancake rolled up and filled with mushrooms then smothered in bécamel sauce and baked in the oven until the top is crisp and golden. Its very local. Very delicious.
AWP: Your passion for life is extraordinary. What’s next?
ZÉLIA: My next passion is television. I was recenlty offered to be the author of my own monthly television show. I love it. It will be a lot of work, but it makes sense in the continuity of my world and my dresses. I’ve been interviewed a lot and it doesn’t scare me. I love the idea of chosing my guests and getting to interact with more people, like artists and artisans.
Special Thanks: We are grateful to the following people for their help in making this interview possible: Elyse Rozina, Editor in Chief of Translations at A Woman’s Paris, student of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities; and Allison Haberstroh, Editor in Chief at A Woman’s Paris, student of French at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Fashion and Paris… exhibitions of the future of fashion? Frenchwoman Bénédicte Mahé writes about 2013 witnessing a trend in Paris: mixing culture and fashion, and the three major fashion exhibitions in Paris showing an evident turn toward the past, from ancient garments to the diffusion of fashion. (French)
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)
Beauty Confessions from a Globe-trotting Parisienne. Parisienne Bénédicte Mahé shares a French woman’s approach to beauty and makeup; and how the relationship Americans have with beauty is very different from that of the French. Including her list of Beauty Resources in Paris and a vocabulary of French to English translations. (French)
French Lingerie: Mysterious and flirty, by Barbara Redmond who shares her experience searching for the perfect lingerie in Paris boutiques and her “fitting” with the shop keeper, Madame, in a curtained room stripped to bare at Sabbia Rosa. Including a French to English vocabulary lesson for buying lingerie and a directory of Barbara’s favorite lingerie shops in Paris. (French)
Finding boubous, taibas, and myself in Sénégal, by Ashley Steele, an African American and student of French, who wanted to explore a non-Western culture and its perspective where she found a deep meaning once she stepped foot on African soil. (French)
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.
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 Zélia. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.