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Ariane Lespire, a Belgian in New York Fashion - 22 December 2014

Belgian fashion is booming. Proof of this rage: the "black-yellow-red" concepts stores that are shooting up in various places. Having been in the fashion accessory business for the past 20 years, Ariane Lespire is part of this movement. But very much on her own terms. Independent and with an infectious joie de vivre.

Stepping inside the home/workshop of Liége-born and bred Ariane Lespire you immediately get a sense of why her first professional career as an architect was certainly no mistake. In spite of the presence of three children, the style of her home is stripped down, with crisp sleek lines, yet her shop-workshop is all the more colourful as it gathers Arian's entire world in a single space: from ceremonial headdress (with which she started her business), across jewellery, scarves, mittens, small mohair ponchos, all the way up to the boiled wool beanies that have gone on to become her hallmark. The one thing all of these items have in common: a quest for beautiful materials (quality wool and felt) and a flamboyant quirkiness that adds a touch of femininity to each design (vibrant colours, frills, embroidered sequins, gold thread,...)

First salons, early buzz
In 1998, Ariane decided to try and combine her main job with making a go of her hat designs, initially giving herself one year. In 2000, she started using boiled wool (little known at the time) and set out in search of an Italian manufacturer who would be able to supply her with quality wool. Her goal: to break away from the concept of ceremonial hats to focus on building collections and serial production. In 2002, she took part in her first salon in Brussels. Initially, feeling her way around to get a better sense of market expectations and to find out how these textile trade fairs work. That same year, she presented a summer collection at the Première Classe Salon in Paris, where she managed to land herself 10 orders. Not exactly a flying start. Six months later, her collection - a mix of boiled wool and stitching proved to be a smash hit. That winter, Ariane Lespire saw a tenfold increase in the number of incoming orders.

MOMA: four powerful little letters
Faced with this mini-success, the brand needed to get organised. Ariane Lespire entrusted her production to Creasol, a social firm with whom she has continued to work to this very day. She also called on Mulieris, a confectioning workshop based in Brussels. These two organisations enabled her to meet her production needs and to supply her Belgian, French and Italian customers. Working by her side is her husband Denis (who is more adept at number crunching). All the more so as the one driving force for Lespire is pure design: the creation of hats in a bolder style, far removed from the standards required for serial production and raising the profile of her brand at an international level. A profile that hit the mark: in 2009, at one of the Paris salons, Ariane Lespire was solicited by the buyers of the museum shop of the Museum of Modern in New York. Six years down the line, this business relation with the MOMA is still going strong, and has Lespire working to a set seasonal budget (15% of her annual turnover) and based around a selection of iconic items rounded out with a few exclusives.

Development, adaptation, stabilisation
Over the course of just under two decades, the Ariane Lespire brand has had to contend with making choices, and adjusting to the economic realities of the sector. In 2004, Paris department store La Samaritaine placed an order for a large quantity of pieces. Definitely a positive development for the label, but also one that involved taking risks. Competition being what it was, Galeries Lafayette, who had been interested in the product, decided not to retail the brand's designs. A few years later, La Samaritaine closed its doors. Since then, Lespire has never managed to crack open the doors of the department store at avenue Haussmann. But there is no use crying over spilt milk and the label managed to stay the course. In 2014, Ariane Lespire is exporting her designs to the UK, France, Ireland, Italy, New-York and Tokyo. With the financial support of the AWEX, and following in the footsteps of the boutiques that retail her output, this year the brand set up its own web shop. Today, Ariane Lespire continues to be very hands-on with each of the 8,000 workshop-fashioned pieces going through her hands prior to shipment. Quality control is a must. She works with an assistant and a work placement student who help her out in the boutique and in fashioning certain unique pieces.

As far as next spring, Ariane Lespire will be part of the Belgian Concept Store, set to run for 5 months in rue de Namur in Brussels. At the invitation of Atrium Brussels, this project brings together twenty-odd Belgian fashion and design brands. The idea being to promote "made in Belgium" occupying a vacant shop in a street that could do with the footfall.

Written by Marie Honnay



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