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Stephane Kélian: the timeless appeal of plaited leather

Wednesday, Mar 2, 2011, 8:59 AM / France

Successful footwear designers tend to have one feature singling them out from the rest. It could be the shape of a heel, a trim on a shoe or a fixation with details. For Christian Louboutin, it is that infamous red sole women never tire of. In Stephane Kélian's case, plaited leather is the key. More than a simple trademark, it defines the identity of the French footwear house, whose main values are handicraft, comfort and sensuality. Stephane Kélian also has a unique style and tradition – as well as a tumultuous history – making it an exception in that segment.

Launched in 1978, the womenswear line comes at a pivotal moment for French fashion, namely the birth of designer culture as we know it now. Iconic names, such as Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons are getting increasingly noticed in Paris, bringing an aggressive and avant-garde silhouette to the catwalks. It's an inspirational time for magazines and photographers, too, rejecting old notions of bourgeois chic and conventional clothing. The street and high-fashion are no longer enemies and a new energy starts reviving the industry. Thanks to the conceptual Japanese wave and punk-influenced London collections, French fashion abandons its staid image for something racier, embracing a radical and creative stance. The early 1980s are an incredibly rich period for Kélian, getting countless attention from insiders with his standout designs. His sculptural shapes, innovative feel and high-quality skins quickly establish him as footwear master du jour.

Within a few seasons, Kélian is the only name designers are willing to work with, lauding his innovative flair and understanding of their clothes. In the early 1980s the company has two studios employing 40 people, as well as 50 artisans whose only job is to plait leather. A symbol for luxury, affluence and style, the Kélian plaited leather shoe is a must for fashion-conscious men and women. Kélian's genius is, in fact, to take a traditional technique and elevate it to a high-fashion level. Besides producing the footwear lines of Maud Frizon, he starts collaborating with influential designers, such as Issey Miyake, Claude Montana and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Such partnerships establish him as a key name in footwear and increase his influence within that sector. The glory days continue until the mid-1990s, with notable retail expansion and a lucrative business abroad.

As minimalism kicks in and grunge sets the tone, Kélian's aesthetics are no longer in synch with the zeitgeist. In 1995, more than 150 employees lose their jobs and production gets partially outsourced. In September 2002, the Kélian company and its subsidiaries declare insolvency, causing a well-documented national fury. On the 8th of November 2002, more than a thousand people demonstrate in the Romans region – where not only Kélian, but also Charles Jourdan and Robert Clergerie, are manufactured. Several candidates offer to take over the company, but it's Francesco Smalto who's designated as the final taker. Despite its long-term experience in the menswear luxury field and several business ventures, the new ownership does not succeed in reviving the brand. Stephane Kélian files a petition in bankruptcy on the 11th of August 2005.

Thankfully, other protagonists identify the potential of this dormant beauty and the Groupe Royer buys the brand in 2007, setting-up a creative studio in Romans for its luxury lines. The French group – created by Louis Royer in 1945 – owns several prominent footwear names, such as Charles Jourdan and Patrick Cox. Production for Kélian is relocated to Italy and Spain, slowly rebuilding its image and international distribution. A nameless studio currently deals with the artistic direction and results have been promising, referring to the brand's history while keeping current trends in mind. For Spring Summer 2011, plaited leather is used with caution, more as a stylish touch than a main feature. Sandals are high but comfortable, evoking the rétro elegance of the 1940s. A blush-coloured, studded suede mule with an invisible platform has a sensual appeal. A cross between an open sandal and a classic court shoes keeps Kélian's taste for dangerous footwear alive, keeping intact the architectural DNA of the house.

This season will be busy for Kélian, with three key events in the company's calendar. The new Autumn Winter 11-12 collection will be sold at Première Classe Tuileries in Paris, from the 4th until the 7th of March. The brand will also be present in Milan at the MICAM from the 6th until the 9th of March. Between the 16th and the 18th of March, Stephane Kélian will showcase its full collection at GDS in Düsseldorf.

Philippe Pourhasemi | TribaSpace

Product Groups: Sales, Shoes, Footwear, Promotion, Other
Markets: Other, Women's, Men's, Children's

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