Montreal-based Designer Sophie Theallet Talks Wardrobe Staples and Starting Again
The designer's Room 502 label recently launched a new six-piece collection.
Since leaving the bustling New York fashion scene and her much-celebrated eponymous brand behind several years ago, Sophie Theallet – whose designs have been worn by the likes of Michelle Obama, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kate Winslet and Meghan Markle – has settled into a new life with a new line based in Canada.
“Being in Montreal and doing Room 502, I’ve found freedom again,” she says of her rekindled sense of purpose and ease, one that informs the wardrobe staple-centric label that she launched with partner Steve Francoeur last year.
Room 502, which is named after the number of the apartment the couple shared in Manhattan’s infamous Chelsea Hotel during the ’90s, introduced a new six-piece limited edition collection, titled Series 2, this summer. The range of garments includes a Nehru collared shirtdress named after famed choreographer and dancer Blanca Li, and a poet-style blouse that comes in both a printed and solid black fabric. Imbued with a presence of sensitivity–these aren’t the hype-driven looks that many designers are expected to pump out each season–Room 502’s offerings certainly speak to the time we’re living in, and lend a practical but considered touch to one’s closet.
“It’s about making sure that every time you buy something, you’re going to keep that piece for a long time,” says Theallet of what influences Room 502’s designs. “It’s not a fashion statement, it’s not about being trendy. I believe in fashion that’s more like a uniform. Something that you wear but you don’t think about too much. [But] you know when you wear it, you’re going to feel good and you’re going to feel strong.”
Given the roster of clients that she’s counted over the years at both her previous brand and Room 502, Theallet knows a thing or two about dressing strong women. And her early career working alongside icons like Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa not only instilled the power of dressing within her, but also the importance of craft and conscientiousness.
It was during her time as Alaïa’s “right hand” that she met Maximiliano Modesti, a fashion entrepreneur and founder of the Kalhath Institute in Mumbai. The Institute focuses on educating artisans in traditional craft techniques like wood-blocking and embroidery, and features an incubation centre and offers an artist residency program as well.
“It preserves the savoir faire of Indian craft,” Theallet notes of the Institute’s important endeavour as she elaborates on why Room 502’s pieces are created in collaboration with Kalhath’s craftspeople. “I want to do collections with people that I respect and love,” she says, adding that an emphasis on ethical practices isn’t new to her work. “In my former label, I used beautiful pure fabrics like cotton and silk. I love using fabrics that come from little batches.” Carrying on this mindful way of working, Room 502’s collections feature Fair Trade certified fabrics, production and labour.
Theallet and Francoeur’s conviction when it comes to making clothing with purpose is also evident in Room 502’s philanthropic angle; a portion of sales from the brand go to Epic, a New York-based non-profit that works with disadvantaged youth around the world. “It was an easy choice for us to give to Epic,” says Francoeur. “It gives a chance to [young] people who had a bad start.”
This likely resonates in another way for he and Theallet, as they are also getting a second chance at happiness and fulfillment with their move to Montreal. “Being in the industry in New York with my old brand, I had obligations to produce so many collections,” Theallet says of fashion’s traditionally fast-paced way functioning. “It was too much; you don’t have any time to live anymore. You just work, work, work. And at the end, you don’t have a lot in exchange.”
Now, in addition to working on Room 502, Theallet says she meditates every morning and makes time for daily walks through the mountain. “I listen to music – everything from Tibetan monks chanting to jazz and Jimi Hendrix – I read, I write,” she says of her more positively-structured schedule, which also includes space for artistic pursuits like sculpting and painting. “I’ve never been this productive,” she notes. “[And] I’m doing things I’ve never tried before.”
That element of novelty – that is, the opportunity for designers to forge a unique, personal and healthier path ahead in the fashion world – is increasingly cropping up in the industry at-large, too. Although COVID-19 has thrown aspects of its usual operations into flux, Theallet chooses to think promisingly, rather than pessimistically, about the future of fashion. And she highlights the fact that large conglomerates like Kering affording its brands the opportunity to break from the traditional promotional cycle as a point of positive change.
“What are we going to do with where we are,” she muses about how COVID has further implemented a much-needed bubble burst of fashion’s fixation with celebrity and continual output – one that she says erased a lot of creativity, and created a lot of burnout. “COVID is something that happened now, but what was happening before COVID in fashion – it’s been a long time that the industry was going in a bad direction.”
It’s very possible that fellow creatives will look to Theallet’s current calling for inspiration as they too move forward; and those interested in further pearls of wisdom from her and fellow fashion veteran, Veronica Webb, can tune into an upcoming talk between the two via the Alliance Française, scheduled for November 12. “We’ll be speaking about her time in Paris,” says Theallet, who met the model while she was working with Alaïa in a most heady millieux.
But if there’s one take-away Theallet could offer to the weary world now – one decidedly different from the glamour of Paris couture or New York’s persistent buzz – it’s that she’s fostered resilience and a new perspective by taking a step back, taking stock, and stepping ahead in her own direction. “I’m busy in the way I want to be busy,” she says. Who could ask for anything more?