As Zadig & Voltaire celebrates its 20th anniversary, the label’s head of design, Cecilia Bönström, tells Luxury London about the brand’s first show at New York Fashion Week, androgynous style and working with Bella Hadid
It’s 7:20am in Sweden and the snow is falling thick and fast, covering the streets with a blanket of white ice. At the bus stop, among the commuters huddled in down feather ski jackets and chunky snow boots, a teenage Cecilia Bönström shivers in cut-off jeans, tartan tights and cowboy boots.
This was the now-designer’s uniform of choice at school, defiant in her style despite the arctic temperatures outside. “I have loved fashion ever since I was a student,” she tells me, recalling her somewhat inappropriate outfits over the phone from Paris. “My parents didn’t teach me fashion; I just had it in me.”
Nowadays, the designer prefers a cashmere jumper and leather jacket over Butch Cassidy-esque boots and, as the head of design for Zadig & Voltaire, she has plenty at her beck and call. The Parisian brand is known for its laid-back attitude to luxury, providing timeless wardrobe staples with a punk twist. Bönström embodies its core customer, emulating the nonchalant vibe that it has promoted ever since it launched in 1997 – but her foray into the business was not as conventional as one might think. Starting her career as a model, Bönström spent her wages on Prada and Gucci, until one day she stumbled upon a Zadig & Voltaire store and had something of an epiphany.
" It was a surprise to discover such laid-back luxury – it was fashion without being fashionable, and I loved that"
“I was in shock; it was like falling in love,” she gushes. “I loved the simplicity of the stores and the products. It was a surprise to discover such laid-back luxury – it was fashion without being fashionable, and I loved that. I said to myself: ‘These are the people I want to work for’ – so I called them up and that’s how it all began.”
It’s been 14 years since the designer joined the company and 20 since the brand was founded by Thierry Gillier – now Bönström’s partner in business and personal life – and, as to be expected, the team is pulling out all the stops to mark the momentous occasion. First and foremost, the label showed its A/W17 collection for the first time at New York Fashion Week on 13 February.
When I speak with Bönström a few weeks beforehand, the team is working flat out for the big event and it seems she barely has time to catch her breath. She tells me that the show will incorporate the brand’s signature style – military-inspired pieces, chunky knits and a lot of leather – and while it will be a largely female-orientated presentation, there will also be nod to the burgeoning trend for gender-neutral attire.
“We really wanted to include five or six male silhouettes, because the Zadig & Voltaire woman has always been about a mix of masculine and feminine,” she explains. “I love choosing details from the male closet and, now we’re heading forward into the next 20 years, Thierry wants that link to be much more visible, so it was very important for me to have men in the show. Some pieces will be worn once on a woman and then once on a man, to show that in the future we want to have a shared wardrobe.”
"What I liked about Bella [Hadid] is her youth and beauty, but also her positive mind and focus"
Before the A/W17 collection is unveiled, there’s the small matter of launching the S/S17 line, which this season features a campaign fronted by a couple of familiar faces. “Zadig & Voltaire likes to create unexpected twists. For our 20th anniversary, we needed someone really strong and what I liked about Bella [Hadid] is her youth and beauty, but also her positive mind and focus. “We like to try to capture a girl who has a certain image as stripped-down, and show her in a sleeker, more nonchalant way," she continues. "We took Bella, who is known for being very sophisticated, and made her into a Zadig & Voltaire girl.” The model stars alongside her brother Anwar, French DJ Clara 3000 and Dutch model Vera Van Erp, who each sport the label’s latest line in photographs shot in Zadig & Voltaire’s Parisian headquarters.
The collection is another collaborative effort, featuring the intricate detailed illustrations of tattoo artist Virginia Elwood, reinterpreted as prints on dresses and delicate beading woven onto cashmere jumpers. Alongside the main line, a capsule collection of five signature Zadig & Voltaire pieces redesigned by students studying at French art school Penninghen will launch in June, representing a new generation for the brand. A military jacket, a cashmere jumper, a handbag, a leather jacket and a classic white T-shirt will be jazzed up with prints created by students who won a competition hosted by the fashion house. There will be treats to be found outside of the stores, too – this year the brand’s international flagship boutiques will display a different window design each season, created by students at The New School, Parsons Paris to mark the 20th anniversary.
It’s been a hectic two decades for Zadig & Voltaire, during which the brand has rocketed from a boutique label with just one store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, to a global name – the company now has outlets in 24 countries, four of which are within the Royal Borough alone – and Bönström has been around to witness the speedy trajectory for three quarters of its lifetime. “When it started, Zadig & Voltaire was really a pioneer of easy, affordable luxury. At the beginning, Thierry worked by product; he wanted to make the perfect white T-shirt and the perfect cashmere sweater. “After I joined, I pushed for more of a silhouette," she goes on. "There’s nothing cooler than wearing a worn T-shirt or loose cashmere sweater and then a strong blazer or coat over your shoulders. I like that juxtaposition.”
Now Zadig & Voltaire is a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry and unsurprisingly, Bönström has ambitious plans to grow the brand over the next 20 years – she hints at a potential denim line – with the aim of turning the label into a full-fledged lifestyle brand in the futur akin to Ralph Lauren. For now, the team is focused on marking Zadig & Voltaire’s milestone birthday with as much style as it can muster.
With the A/W17 show done and dusted, I assume that celebrations will be in full swing – but, as it turns out, I couldn’t be further from the truth. “We had a party planned in an apartment in New York's Chelsea district, but I had to cancel it because the next day we are shooting the winter campaign with Bella,” Bönström laughs. “I can’t go out partying with the photographer and the model and then shoot the campaign; I want very smiley models the next day. So instead we shall be celebrating by being asleep in bed.” No doubt it will be a well-deserved rest.