Two minutes. That’s how long it took Marie Dewet‘s online shop to sell out after The Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine sang her praises two years ago. Nowadays, there’s an average forty minute time window once a week to score one of her highly acclaimed couture pieces. It’s impossible to discuss the Maison Cléo phenomenon without taking time into account, as it is a story of slow fashion running at lightning speed, of one family’s history and the heritage of different generations combined in one beautiful project.
Maison Cléo offers unique, upcycled and made-to-measure couture through its ephemeral sales once a week. The brand’s signature, puffy-sleeved blouses made it into the wardrobes (and Insta feeds) of style stars of the likes of Medine, Emily Ratajkowski and Bettina Looney. Applying the ancient rules of couture to a modern-day platform was a genius idea so it seems, and with an ever expanding digital fan base worldwide, it looks like the French brand and its message of sustainability are heading straight towards complete world domination. Surprisingly however, no big investors nor high-level marketing strategy behind it all, just a mother-and-daughter duo doing their thing. I sat down in designer Marie’s cozy apartment in the northern French city of Lille, meeting a girl who who loves watching old Zorro episodes on TV, reading historical novels and, of course, wearing scrunchies.
Marie apologizes for the emptiness of the place as we sit down on a mattress, both her cat Allison and my newborn baby lazily stretched out between us, explaining she recently moved and for now has just brought ‘the strict minimum’. That ‘minimum’ reflects her love for everything vintage: a set of beautiful thrifted furniture and a bulging wardrobe containing a treasure of preloved Chanel, Missoni and Dior slingbacks, blouses and scarfs. “I didn’t really mean to start a label,” says the girl who still works a daytime job at online vintage Walhalla Vestiaire Collective. “It all just went so fast. I’m obsessed with fashion and I have worked in the industry and seen its every facet for years. Coming from a long line of seamstresses myself, the aberrant way of producing ànd pricing has always shocked me: super cheap dresses, mass-produced in a Parisian plant, sold for extremely high prices, it’s crazy. Except in thrift shops, I couldn’t find anything that felt fair to wear, so I asked my mother Nathalie to sew me some clothes from materials I had purchased myself. I posted it on Instagram and people immediately took to it, asking for a piece of their own, and before we knew it, we had a dedicated Instagram account and a webshop up and running. It opens every Wednesday at 18:30 local time, 12:30 in New York, and closes down the minute we have sold thirty items. It takes about two to five hours to sew one piece, so my mom can only make as many in one week’s time. Besides, I hate wastage and see no reason to produce more. Normally, clients will receive their purchase after a two-week wait. After Leandra made mention of us and we famously sold out after two minutes, there was no automatic closing down yet and I struggled to take the website offline. We were super stressed, haha, as we saw the number of sold items going up and my mother had the worst week of her life trying to finish everything in time!”
“Our designs are made from fabric leftovers gathered in Parisian couture houses or plants. Depending on what we find, we can produce more of this or that: sometimes it’s plain silk, sometimes there’s a flowery print., sometimes it’s cotton. This means we cannot plan things in advance, we just go with the flow and with whatever we find. The webshop features prototypes but we have no stock whatsoever: upon buying an item, customers mail us their specific measurements and requirements and then my mother gets to work. For a tall girl we’ll make our mini skirts a tad longer for instance, or some client in Dubai wants a more modest cleavage, or someone asks to make the sleeves somewhat shorter, etc. We strive for full transparency and calculate our prices as fairly as possible: there’s no added cost for the sur mesure part, except of course if it requires a significant amount of fabric. We charge about €110 for a cotton blouse, €160 for a silk one and shipping costs are to be handled by the customer. We’re not in it for the win, but we do have to take certain economic realities into account. For instances, as we are growing so fast we will soon have to pay more taxes and therefore raise our prices a bit.”
Social Media and Instagram in particular are often accused of promoting fast fashion, yet they have has also sparked a new type of modern sustainability. So-called #instacouture brands are bringing slow fashion at a high paste: it may be the 2019-way of buying, scrolling Insta Stories and paying digitally, but the service you get is basically the same one offered by a couture house in 1919. And at a reasonable price, even if it can’t compete with high street brands’ price tags. “Is it normal to pay €15 for a dress? No! I’m not afraid to say that, nor to call out certain brands on Instagram. I don’t always make friends here, but there’s a growing amount of customers, even young ones on tight budgets, willing to consume in a more responsible way ànd to pay the correct price for that. They are demanding and want to see the way we work, which fabrics we use and I am more than happy to share that through Insta Stories, interacting with and involving them in our creation process.”
The brand’s name “Maison Cléo” refers to Marie’s mother’s nickname as she was younger, because she always sported raven black short hair, chunky gold jewels and black eyeliner. She would also never go out without her signature scrunchie, which is why they now offer a matching one with every buy. She’s not the only woman in the family offering inspiration. “My ancestors have been seamstresses from mother to daughter. There was my grandmother’s own grandmother Louise, kicking ass in the 1800s. She got remarried three times, which was way ahead of her time, and was an esteemed tailor, heading a workshop of thirteen seamstresses and making clients come up to Lille all the way from Paris. She used one of her husbands’ name, “Bourel Guillaume”, and embroided this with gold thread on her clothes’ labels. Then there is my grandmother Louisette, who will never wear anything from Maison Cleo simply because everything we create is inspired by her own hand-made collection of clothes. She’s always dressed to the nines and rocks the coolest jewels. She loves knitting and crocheting and would also make the clothes of all her children herself, with a little penchant for dressing them like triplets… My mother started sewing in the eighties and had never stopped since. A long tradition of craftsmanship, and then I came along. I don’t sew, I’m just not handy, but I like to think I keep it alive in my own modern way. I’m not one for making big future plans, but I sometimes dream of heading my own atelier, promoting the ‘made in France’ label and the incredible craftsmanship hidden in northern France. There are a lot of seamstresses out there like the women in my family and together they create real treasures.
But again, let’s not make plans. For now.”