Monday, 27 May 2024

Claude Montana

The illustrious designer overcomes the ups and downs of a hysterical life in fashion

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The legendary superstar designer of the eighties is a notoriously shy man whose life has had more than its fair share of drama. These days, Monsieur Claude Montana still designs for his diffusion line Montana Blu, a job he contractually holds for about another year. But the architect of razor-sharp shoulders and dramatic proportions, colour-blender of Klein blue, mustards, greys and metallics, and perennial champion of the fringed leather jacket has been busy with much more than simply business as usual.

From Fantastic Man n° 5 — 2007
Photography by ALEX KLESTA

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Sitting across a table in the showroom of the fashion house that bears his name in a large, park-fronted, 17th arrondissement building with an entrance hall and stairway surely designed for a dramatic wow factor, Claude Montana is not in a festive mood. Fighting back the effects of antibiotics from a cold he says just won’t quit, he seems somewhat removed from the flamboyant figure who navigated his way, hips thrust out, through a soaring galleon of sharp-shouldered amazons, to take his bow at the end of the runway to soaring Wagnerian chords. Today, however, Montana seems almost kitten-like, tactile and tamed: someone you might distractedly share a bowl of popcorn with while you’re both splayed out in front of the TV.

Odd, since this, after all, is Claude Montana, whose wide-shouldered, wasp-waisted silhouette emerged in Paris in the late ’70s and went on to influence and define fashion around the world throughout the ’80s, before falling at the fence of grunge and deconstructionism in the nineties. The designer whose regimented, cheerlessly choreographed and powerful runway shows were a vision of an alarming future in an era when smiling, swishing models or uptight, polite couture presentations were the order of the day. The designer who, early on, saw the importance of menswear as an essential part of his, and his industry’s, creative expression and growth, and who launched his own full-fledged men’s line, Montana Hommes, in 1981, a mere two years after the creation of his hugely influential house. His idea of menswear: fringed leather motor jackets, mustard-coloured broad-shouldered suits, peach and mint, asymmetrical zips, studs. Perfumes selling in the millions. Legions of licences. Montana’s tale of triumph could be a typical rags-to-riches story, were it not laced with severe doses of tragedy and suffering.

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Mr. Montana in full colour, at the headquarters of... Montana S.A., 24 Place du General Catroux, 75017 Paris, France

Born in Paris into a bourgeois family in 1949, Montana was the last child by eight years of a German mother and a Spanish father who held a high-ranking position in the army.

An unexpected arrival, young Claude’s presence severely impinged upon his mother’s plans and patience. “She wasn’t terribly happy to have, eight years later, a body that, you know… She was very conscious about how she looked,” he explains, before admitting, “so I didn’t feel that comfortable.” It wasn’t the most jovial welcome one could wish for. Add to that Claude’s refusal, as a teenager, and in spite of good grades, to follow his father’s advice and study for a respectable profession, and Montana’s future – and schism from his respectable family – was assured.

20-year-old Claude found himself living in London, where he was squatting in a girlfriend’s photographer boss’ studio by night and fleeing in the morning, and baking papier mâché Mexican jewellery to sell for basic funds, which led to an in at British Vogue where that same colourful jewellery was seized upon for a two-page spread and an entry onto the London retail scene. When work-permit pressures forced Montana back to France, the retailers and editors of his native city were far less enthusiastic. This, after all, was Paris in the early ’70s – not half as groovy as London.

In order to survive, Montana took a job at the Paris Opera, where he’d worked pre-London, and found, in spite of little monetary gratification, a creative milieu willing to help him out. One of those people he met, and the one to give him a much-needed push, was costume designer Samuel De Castro, who forced his young charge to get a sketchbook and do some drawings. Well, one thing led to another, the drawings were seen at a dinner, and Montana was hired as an assistant at leather manufacturer MacDouglas, where he received a first-class practical education, got control of a third of the whole collection when his boss moved on, and worked freelance for other non-leather fashion labels simultaneously. And – voilà! – a world-class designer was born.

His beginnings working in leather, when combined with his rampant imagination and technical skill, created his signature, sexy skins, the likes of which had never been seen before. Montana’s designs perfectly corresponded to a mind that drew on sadomasochism and fascism as fertile fields ready to be pillaged for fashion. Would things have turned out very differently, one wonders, if he hadn’t found his feet with leather? Montana: “Well, it turned out that way, so I don’t bother to think about what might have happened if it didn’t turn out. It just happened that way and that’s all.”

Montana, together with maybe Thierry Mugler, had the vision to see that sex, power and fetishism could blend together perfectly in a fashionable mix. If there was one look that would define the late ’70s and the first half of the ’80s, it was Montana’s. His creations influenced how the world dressed, when he was at the provocative pinnacle of his career. In Alicia Drake’s recent book The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, which deals primarily with the life of Paris fashion from the sixties through the ’80s, using Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent and their respective entourages as the uniting factor, Montana gets a number of mentions, some more glowing than others.

I ask Montana if he’s read the book, or at least heard of it. He replies in the negative (which may not be all that surprising, as Karl Lagerfeld, for invasion-of-privacy reasons, had the book withdrawn from sales in France and from any subsequent translations into French). “Lots of people tell me there are a lot of books that mention me these days,” he suggests.

Drake spoke to Pat Cleveland, one of the biggest models of the era, who remembered fittings for Montana as “total torture”, and said, “He was chiselling away at you like you were a block of wood. He wouldn’t let you go until he squeezed out every bit that was you and replaced you with himself. You could not be anything but Claude.”

Montana seems quite surprised by the intensity of Cleveland’s admission. “It’s strange that said it was difficult. She said it was difficult?” he asks with a disbelieving sense of amused surprise and a faint flicker of hurt. It makes sense that a designer demands an involvement bordering on the obsessive. “You know, I was married to a famous model,” he says, in a rare moment referring to his deceased wife Wallis Franken. “And it’s true that she did tell me… You know, some designers just told you to put on that number, boom-tack, and that was it. For me a fitting was at least 45 minutes, for each girl, and sometimes in a season we had 45 girls. You can imagine the work it was. I wanted things to be almost perfect.”

Almost perfect?

“Yes. I don’t think you ever reach perfection. If you reach perfection you’d better leave that job and move on. But you should try to approach perfection as much as you can.” Is he still a perfectionist? “Trying to be,” he replies, adding, “Although, as I said, things have changed. It’s more difficult now.” For the first time I notice the classical music issuing forth from the stereo. “That’s the music for my shows,” Montana says, quite offhandedly, at the sound of a Wagnerian chorus, for he always tended to use the same music for his shows – deep, dark, classical, with crashing chords. Serious cerebral music that set the tone for work that was invested with a deep cerebral and technical rigor, the creative output of an exacting genius who was both part of but also outside his time.

Former Rochas designer Peter O’Brien recalls his college days at St. Martin’s in London in the late ’70s when he and his classmates would take trips to Paris and sneak their way into shows. With its arresting music, robotic models, flashing lights and lasers, and futuristic clothes, Montana’s was the show that everyone wanted to see the most. “It might not entirely have been to everyone’s taste – and it was very of its time – but no one who went to one of those shows ever forgot it. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” says O’Brien.

Although lots of publications laud the genuine elegance and jauntiness, the razor-sharp tailoring and strong silhouettes, and the perfectionism and exigence that defined Montana’s collection, the Wikipedia blurb on Montana’s career mentions his output as being “more focused on cut than detail”, a criticism he takes particular exception to. “No, there were lots of details. You don’t see that on the videos but there were lots of details,” Montana stresses. “There was the cut, I mean, there were the shoulders and waist, the colours were important. The colours were very important. These days I don’t think men going out in pale apricot is… that was another thing. People could buy a jacket like this (he picks up my lighter which is a sunset orange sort of colour) and pair it with black pants.”

Indeed, Montana was never shy when it came to introducing colour into the lexicon of men’s fashion. He set runways brimming with buff examples of masculinity strutting in broad-shouldered, softly-draped tailoring in dusky peach and zinging lime green, introducing a whole spectrum of colour to the gray-toned field of menswear, paving the way for the pastels of Miami Vice and for real men who have probably never since dared to wear these shades with such unabashed aplomb.

As for current names in men’s fashion, Montana is drawn to the work of Dior Homme’s Hedi Slimane, “I have a lot of respect for his design,” he says. “He does a really simple thing, with a belt in a striking colour, and a sleeveless hood in paillettes, and the mix makes something that maybe I could wear. Because it’s something. And very modern. But there are very few people who understand that.”

But he wouldn’t wear anything like that, would he? After all, Montana seems to be wearing pretty much the same uniform of bomber jacket with tight (leather) pants and cowboy boots since time immemorial, and he seems quite surprised when I point this out, gesturing toward his puffy jacket as illustration of his top-heavy silhouette of choice. “It looks puffy because it’s cold outside. In the summer I wear light jackets,” he says. But current house menswear designer Ford-Hamilton Hejna, whose attention is aroused by Montana’s sartorial stand, disagrees with this summer-wear scenario, saying it’s bombers year-round. “In the summertime you haven’t seen me in…” Montana starts before Hejna cuts him off. “I’ve seen you in bomber jackets in summer!” he says with a smirk. Montana replies with a fake mumble of displeasure. Okay, surrender. “That’s been it for 25 years,” he says of his uniform. “That’s what happens, I guess,” after which he draws some similarities to Karl Lagerfeld’s diets and peculiar personal style. “It’s a wonder, no?”

Speaking of diets and losing weight, healthy eating is the way for Montana. Generally an early riser, he forgoes coffee at breakfast in favour of yogurt, kiwis and the like, and is an avid swimmer, although he’s a little out of practice as of late. “I’m not on a specific diet, but I’m very careful about what I eat. For seven years I was totally, how do you say, macrobiotique. And it wasn’t easy to do. I decided it was over but I still don’t like meat, stuff like that. My diet is very…” Simple and healthy? “Trying to be simple and healthy!”

He does, however, smoke the odd Marlboro. He smokes one during our interview, and its effect is that of a sudden perk-up in a conversation that tends to wander off into silences and half-finished sentences. We drink a glass of water.

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In 1993 Claude Montana married Wallis Franken, a 43-year-old, American-born model who had been his friend, model, muse and collaborator for two decades and who, for a time, had had a singing career. It was a marriage that surprised the fashion world, as Montana is not, to use antiquated parlance, entirely the marrying kind. Three years later, Wallis was dead, having fallen from the window of their third-floor, rue de Bellechasse apartment. Even now, over ten years later – a lifetime in fashion – Franken’s death is probably the second thing people mention when the subject of Claude Montana comes up. It generally follows the “What’s he up to now?” question, or the “I saw him having dinner at Davé the other week” observation.

Now a part of the dark mythology of Paris fashion, it’s not something Montana talks about, and the subject isn’t broached, although, weirdly, at some point I’m convinced Montana is talking about Wallis. It’s after I think it’s time for the silly-question-of-the-day to liven up our sometimes stilted conversation, so I say, “So, do you have any pets?”

Montana is initially unsure what I mean, but then comprehends. “I used to. A beautiful one. Unfortunately she died. And I don’t feel like…” he stops, his voice solemn, wavering slightly, before adding, “As I said, for the moment I’m living on my own, and I can’t take care of an animal.” Was it a dog? I ask, warily. “A shar-pei called China. She was actually fabulous. And I tried to…because those dogs, you know, usually they live like 7, 8, 9 years, and she went until 15 so I think I took quite good care of her. And she was quite affectionate,” he explains. “Lots of things happened at a certain moment in my life. I went through terrible times, people died around me, during a very, very short time, and that affected me a lot,” he says quietly.

And what about now? Is he in love now? He laughs at the notion. “Not really, no,” he replies, adding in a lower voice, “I don’t think so.” Suddenly he perks up and in a gruff, sarcastic tone with stereotypical pursed French lips says, “At least I think I should know if I were!”

Having departed the Left Bank for the Right, Montana finds himself living “very near where I was born. Yeah, it’s very strange. I was born at Place du Palais-Royal, 200 meters from where I live now.”

In more high-living times he numbered a large château among his properties which, according to a feature in the Sunday Times Magazine on French designers’ homes, if memory serves correctly, he used to reach via taxi, a fact that to me, then a 13-year-old in rural Ireland dreaming of Paris, seemed impossibly chic and fabulous. “I got rid of it. It was too much!” he says, chuckling to himself. “Yes, it was a beautiful place actually, but it was really a pain. The place was huge, huge, huge. Enormous; really too much.”

For now, his life is lived primarily in Paris, and he has a house in Italy by the sea that he visits sometimes. “I travel less than I used to. For a while my life was…you know, the shows in Paris… I was doing two women’s shows, cruise, two menswear, and two couture collections a year when I was at Lanvin (a short-lived but creatively spectacular gig in the early nineties when he designed haute-couture collections for the historic French house). That’s like seven shows a year, in eleven months; that’s quite a lot. Plus all the shows around the world, ’cause I think I am being quite humble, but I think I was one of the most honoured designers,” he says, adding in a low voice, “I think the most, actually. The most at that time.” He’s referring to a clutch of fashion’s most prized awards, from Golden Thimbles through to a host of best-designer and best-collection gongs, because even for a designer riding high on a wave of press hysteria, recognition by your intelligent peers is always something to be treasured.

At the moment his name is starting to crop up as young designers such as Nicolas Ghesquière and Proenza Schouler explain the inspiration behind their collections: Montana, Mugler, Alaïa, Hervé Léger, all masters of construction and, each in his own way, of seduction. So what’s it like being referenced by other designers? “Feels like I’ve been doing so much during the past 25 years that I don’t even remember what I’ve been doing, and it’s very hard for me to copy myself again. I let them do it.” Is it flattering or annoying? “Neither. I don’t care.” You really don’t care? “No, I don’t care,” he responds in the world-weary manner of one who’s seen and done it all. “It may be flattering if you like. But sometimes you see such awful copies of what you’ve done that it’s not flattering at all!” he laughs.

Montana has been collecting art “since the beginning when I started to earn money… I don’t have a huge collection, but I have…” A good one? “Well, it depends on your taste. I like the thirties. It’s difficult to say if I have a favourite artist. There are lots of artists, and lots of artists you cannot afford to buy… Of course I met lots, lots of people. I regret not having worked with them, either for photographs, or buying paintings, or asking them to do something special for me,” he says wistfully. “It was a time when things were much lighter than now.”

His use of the word ‘lighter’ when speaking about the creative world is a curious one. “It was much lighter, because you were able to do whatever you wanted to do. Nobody would come back, looking over your shoulder, saying this is right, this is wrong. As long as they trusted you they would let you do what you wanted to do.” Is this change fashion-specific? “I don’t think it’s just fashion, I think it’s the whole world,” he answers.

Even though over the years his skills grew ever more precise and his cuts more wondrous, throughout the nineties his position on fashion’s front line began to weaken, due both to personal issues and the fact that his clear vision didn’t translate well in an era of grunge and deconstruction. Instead of holding out ’til the bitter end, as a number of his contemporaries did, he ended up selling his house at the end of 1997 but remains in charge of the Montana Blu women’s sportswear line for a contractually stipulated ten years – so he’s almost there.

Designing inside a framework of owners and manufacturers that’s no longer his own has proved a steep learning curve for Montana. I query if he’s conscious of what’s going on in fashion when he’s designing. “I design what I want, but it’s different. These days people want to find out what others are doing and stuff, which is something that I never did when I was designing on my own. I think that people are very afraid these days. They want to be sure. But for me it’s… One has to follow his own intuition about fashion,” he notes admirably.

What would Montana like to see these days when the models come down the runways in Paris, New York and Milan? “Something clean, something rather simple, beautifully cut, making the woman look her best.”

As befits someone who’s lived through enough to arrive at a point where the obvious isn’t hidden behind a smokescreen masquerading as style any more, his response to a query about the direction fashion is taking at the moment is unsurprising. “For me it’s a bit… too Baroque, somehow,” he says after a long pause. “It’s like out of this world. In a way I don’t see any women in these kinds of clothes, not during the day and not at night. For men it’s very easy to be elegant. I mean you put a black suit with a white shirt without a tie – and if you are… if you look fine, you look fine. And if you look great, you look even more great! But for a woman, they try to do all these paillettes and embroidery. I don’t think they have understood that the poor little black dress is still the best thing to work around.”

For a man who created seven very different collections per year to go to designing two diffusion collections must leave rather a sense of creative inertia, a gap ready to be filled. “We’ll see,” Montana replies evasively. “I have a contract until 2008, and we’ll see what’s going to happen. Otherwise, yes, I have projects, and I don’t want to talk about them, because projects are projects.” I start to gently prod and it gets his back up. Nothing will come of it.

“You can’t tell me anything, can you?” I ask, surprised at the impasse. “No, I don’t want to,” he says sharply, clarifying, lest his refusal might not be clear enough. But in the interest of diplomacy and sweet friendliness, Montana softens when he says, “Being superstitious is very hard, no?”


Grooming by Go Miyuki. Photo assistance by Brett.