Praline Le Moult, the creative mind behind her eponymous fashion label, P. Le Moult, loves a good story, especially one with a particular inclination for the exotic, the rare and the colorful. So it’s only natural that when Praline's grandmother told her about the life of her great-grandfather, Eugène Le Moult - the world’s number one butterfly hunter and revered naturalist, entomologist and adventurer - she couldn’t resist. “When I make a collection I’m very inspired by the story I’m trying to tell. I felt drawn to dive into my great-granddad’s. It was unique and intimate.”
Though she didn’t literally take up the role of an adventurer like her great-grandfather, the young designer’s life is full of adventure just the same. With her own studies and projects taking her across the globe to prestigious creative institutions such as Central Saint Martins in London, to study stage design, and l’Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris - of which she is now the head of alumni - to Beijing where she created her first clothing collection; that was inspired by a trip she took to Mali. Praline’s creative energy is underpinned by the desire “to bring the audience in and make them the protagonist.” A technique that she has found successful when applying to fashion, that, long before she created P. Le Moult, helped her and her collaborator Charlotte Guibe win the LVMH Arts Prize.
“I did my first fashion show when I was twelve but then decided that fashion was too shallow” she says of the journey it has been in to fall in love with the fashion industry. But she’s since discerned her own understanding of the industry and that actually, clothes are just another tool that she should use to convey meaning and to tell even more stories.
This week it’s her great-grandfather’s story that she would like to share through the medium of what she calls “retro-activewear”. Gaudy as a butterfly, Praline le Moult, has an incredibly warm and communicative energy. Hold on tight, Praline Le Moult is about to take us on a wild adventure.
Semaine: Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember what you wanted to do when you were a child? Praline: I wanted to be a taxi driver. She laughs. Because their jobs are about movement and meeting people. I actually was an actress when I was seven years old. I played in a film called: “La vie est un long fleuve tranquille.”
Semaine: For our non-French readers, the film you mention ‘Life is a long quiet river’ is an iconic French film from the 90’s which has developed a sort of cult following for young French people.
Praline: Even ten years later people would still call me by the name of the character. I used to hate talking about it, but it's now been so long that I'm finally at peace with it. It was an incredible experience to be on a film set, but also a very lonely one. I remember watching the rushes in this cinema room, and everybody going into crazy fits of laughter, and I wouldn't understand why. I was only laughing because the adults were laughing too. I learned one thing for sure; that I liked storytelling.
Semaine: You studied stage design at Central Saint Martin’s in London. How was your time there?
Praline: My time there was quite experimental. I didn’t want to merely tell a story but I wanted to put the audience at the center of it. It was not so much about the Proscenium Arch (a proscenium is the metaphorical vertical plane of space in a theatre which serves as the frame into which the audience observes from) but a desire to mix it up and reverse it. I wanted to bring the audience in and make them the protagonist.
Semaine: Did you enjoy living in London?
Praline: I was really young: I arrived when I was seventeen, and I left when I was twenty-one. I was quite fragile at the time. I had lost my dad and somehow felt like I had the mind of a thirty-something-year-old man in the body of an eighteen-year-old girl. I didn’t go out much. I didn’t go to clubs. I was really into my school, my classmates and pubs. You know, London, but there was no glamour. I was very confident yet very fragile without knowing it. I really wanted to be recognized.
Semaine: What did you keep from studying set design?
Praline: I didn’t do a lot of costumes at Saint Martin's, the clothes came afterward. It began when I, myself, couldn't dress. There were some difficult times in my life when I didn't feel so confident and as I didn’t feel like dressing up, suddenly I came to understand the power of clothes. Clothes are not so shallow; they are actually important. They express something. I just visited my cousin yesterday. She is a nun. They are all dressed in blue. In French, you say “L’habit ne fait pas le moine”, literally, “the clothes do not make the monk” which would translate as “you can't judge a book by its cover”.
I’m convinced that when you are wearing something you take on a character. When I make a collection I’m very inspired by the story I’m trying to tell. Our brand very much started because of my great-granddad’s story. We did a character study and imagined what he would wear. So, I'm still very much influenced by costume and set design.
Semaine: You then went to the Beaux Arts and won the LVMH Arts Prize, with a video called "Sinoidoscope". Can you tell us about it?
Praline: After I left Saint Martin's, I did a project with Maroussia Rebecq who had studied at Les Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. We upcycled clothes in partnership with Le Secours Populaire (a French non-profit organization dedicated to fighting poverty). Maroussia had this energy that I had lost, and our project reconciled me with fashion. Being in contact with refugees or homeless people who couldn’t look in the mirror and recognize themselves I felt we could talk about our appearance, we could make clothes together and feel better. And then appearance became less of a shallow thing for me.
So I started to make clothes, and I entered Les Beaux Arts wanting to learn how to draw the body. I joined this fantastic school with my sewing machine and the intention to draw naked people. It is with Charlotte Guibe that I made “Sinoidoscope”. She was a painter and I was making clothes, we decided to create paintings that you can wear. A picture that you can enter. It goes back to this same idea of being a protagonist. You are the painting, and you wear it like an armour.
After we won, we opened a joined bank account, bought a video camera and moved to China. We lived in Beijing in a place called 798, an incredible art district. We were foreigners in China, and we wanted to enhance that. We thought about what we could bring there that nobody had ever seen.
Is that when you had the idea of the African bomber jackets? The idea of the African bombers originated in London. After a trip I took to Mali, I saw ladies in London wearing the same type of prints but in clothing not adapted to London weather. So, I thought I would make a winter version. As I was in China in 2006, I realized it was the perfect timing to execute this idea. I did some samples with a Japanese pattern maker, Yuko Moura, with padding inspired by the Mongolian technique used in Manchuria.
Semaine: You are now head of Alumni of the Beaux-Arts. What does this role mean for you?
Praline: This project has incredible potential but it’s the very beginning, and we still have to build everything. We were given space inside of the Beaux-Arts where I want us to organize workshops and conferences. It’s called "Le Cercle Chromatique." But it’s not yet defined. It will take time but imagine what it could be in ten years, having space for artists to meet, to create, do things they cannot do alone: to contact a museum or a foundation. It will make us stronger. I want it to become almost like an institution for artists, a talent pool. I have less talent now than when I left school, but I have more experience. People who leave the school have incredible will and energy, but they were living in the bubble of the school. When you get older you feel the weight of everyday life, but you have had experience, and we can help them face reality.
Semaine: What was it that inspired you to start looking into the story of your great-grandfather?
Praline: It actually has a lot to do with my husband. I met Harri after my diploma, after China, and it completely changed the course of my life. No matter how creative and crazy and good life was, before I met him, there was a massive lack of structure and balance... He brought that in. I found not only my lover but also a great business partner. I didn’t trust many people, or more precisely, I didn’t trust people enough to be a team. Whenever I felt I didn’t have control, I would leave. With Harri I felt we could share everything, we could share life, we could become husband and wife, and we could become a real team. I met him in Vienna. I was there for four days with a friend, and he invited me to stay so I stayed.
Harri is an inquisitive guy, he asks many questions, and he would listen. He would make me retrace the reasons why I am doing things. He was obsessed with where I come from and why I do things. I was working with him for a few years, producing clothes in India for his shop and it was all very much about India and the Indian identity. At one point it felt like we needed to do our own project. So Harri told me that we really should do something about the story of my grandfather Eugène. Most people are better than us in business, they are faster, they are smarter, they are sharper but one thing they cannot take from us is your story. Nobody can claim that their great-grandfather was this kind, one of a kind butterfly hunter. So we wanted to use him as our "motto", and build around that.
Semaine: How did you do the research?
Praline: Eugène was a sort of taboo in my family. I tried to interview my grandfather, but it was really hard. He had a really big ego, and that’s why my family didn’t really relate to him. He was obsessed with his butterflies. He paid more attention to them than to his children but my father was utterly proud. Harri was outstanding at doing research, he found a book written by a Japanese scholar who wrote about Eugène. It wasn’t translated, so we got one of our friends to translate it for us. It was almost like a manga version of his life. It was really detailed, with insights on how they went to Central America, to the French Guiana. Paris Match, the famous French magazine, also did a beautiful article on him (Paris Match, №°314, 02/04/1955). And then there was his autobiography called “Mes chasses aux Papillons.”
Semaine: You call your pyjamas adventure-wear for the home.
Praline: They are really comfortable and practical. I inherited some of his clothing that we found in our family home in Picardie, but we mostly make clothes that could have belonged to him. It’s a bit like costume design, we imagine a scene and borrow from people around him to build the collection. For example, we did a collection inspired by his time on the Transatlantic. He would go from Bretagne to Guiana and spend months on the boat which, of course, must have influenced him and his style. I’m trying to mix all those elements: Eugène, daywear, nightwear, our imagination… I also really like the fact that women can wear them.
Semaine: You also did a collection inspired by the boy scouts? Is there still a link to your great-grandfather here?
Praline: When he was an old man, and he had his white beard, and everything was behind him, he became a figure for the boy scouts. They saw him as a sort of Indiana Jones. They would come and knock on his cabinet, in Paris rue Daumesnil, where he had a whole building filled with his butterflies. The boy scouts would come and work for him, earning little pocket money. When he was too old to hunt the butterflies, he would have a vast network of people working for him and hunting for him all around the world and in really remote places, in tribes in Africa, Indonesia and in South America. He would receive the butterflies by post, and the scouts would come and help unfold the letters.
Semaine: Can you tell us about the flags scarves?
Praline: The flags are a pro-European project. I am not into politics at all, but I felt after Brexit, then the election of Trump, and then near Le Pen elections in France I had to do something. I am a total European. Not only am super European in my identity, but I feel that I live from Europe.
Semaine: What does that mean?
Praline: I am married to an Austrian, I gave birth in Spain, I am French but of Belgian and English origin. I cannot imagine each country isolated. I think we can’t pretend we can actually be on our own. There is a lot that needs to be done for it to work but we are weaker without each other. We need to elevate each other. We cannot forget about the war, and we have to stay strong.
I thought I could maybe do something with “style” because it is what I do. Style and clothes and identity through clothes. And the first thing I thought about was “what is the European silhouette? Is there such thing as a European Silhouette?” Why is it sexy to be European? What is our identity as a union? In parallel, one of my clients in Rome, Daria, who has a beautiful shop in Rome, Chez Dede, posted something on the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (The Treaty of Rome brought about the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), signed on 25 March 1957). She posted an image of women, holding hands, wearing skirts which were flags. They were too cool, so I tried to make them. I tried, and I failed. She laughs. They were ugly... really ugly. So, in the end, I simplified the project and said: Let’s make flags which you can wear as you want. The only rule is that you are not allowed to wear your own. It’s about sharing flag, borrowing from each other. I am really interested in the power withheld by a flag.
Semaine: You are French but live in Vienna and made reference to the places you love: Africa, China or India. What inspires you the most?
Praline: It’s a bouncing experience. The inspiration comes from the movement, from coming from one to the other. It forms in contrast. When you bounce those feelings against one another they suddenly make sense: You can make them meet, and it becomes interesting. It is not so much one, but many inspirations. On a personal level, I am expecting for the second time, and I know I am going to have two years of being extremely local and not being able to move, but I’m happy to. I have been travelling slightly too much, not so much to see or to live or to draw and video, but to sell myself. Now I need to sit down and draw.”
“People think that hunting butterflies is a symbol of cute nonchalance,” said Eugène in an interview to Paris March in April 1955. “In fact, it's a sport and even one of the hardest. In France this would mean constant walking, climbing, sprinting or long-distance running. In the tropics, it's the same thing, plus the threat of wild animals.” His granddaughter did not just inherit his story she gave it life by making it her own. Images, sounds, smells: this week let Praline transport you into Eugène’s intensely poetic and highly exciting world.
Enter at your own risk.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.