ANNE FONTAINE HAS ALWAYS RELIED ON TALENT, CONTINUITY AND EXPERTISE. OLD-FASHIONED WORDS, PERHAPS, BUT THEY COME ALIVE IN EVERY FIBRE OF EVERY PIECE CREATED BY THIS INTERNATIONAL FRENCH FASHION BRAND.
The story of the eponymous label is intimately linked to that of its founder, Brazilian-born Anne Fontaine, whose transformative experiences and adventures propelled her to the forefront of the prêt-à-porter world. No one could have predicted that this young woman, who trained as a biologist, would end up in fashion, but chance encounters, innate aptitudes and fate conspired to lead her down that path. “I always say that the Anne Fontaine enterprise is really a love story,” says the designer and businesswoman.
Fontaine was just 22 when she traded the Amazon forest for Paris—a different kind of jungle. There she met the man she would marry, Ari Zlotkin, who was working in his family’s clothing business. It was love at first sight. It was also 1993, and the French fashion industry was traversing some dark times. Outsourcing meant qualified tradespeople were disappearing, and the Zlotkin family business was in trouble. Anne sought a solution. “I believed French expertise had to be maintained,” she says. “This little manufacturing unit represented something so important to me. My mother-in-law had a huge box in her attic, filled with shirts, just the white ones. That gave me the idea to build around the white shirt, which is a basic of every wardrobe, for men as well as for women.” A simple idea, but a bold one, at a time when bright colours and prints were all the rage. After she sold her first collection, she knew it was time to open a boutique of her own. “We were just getting started, and nobody wanted to help, except for one woman in a bank who believed in us. We opened our doors on Rue des Saints-Pères. It was a tiny little shop, just 24 square meters, and all we sold were white shirts.” Word in the industry was that the business couldn’t survive. “They said we’d barely last three years… and here we are, 25 years later.” Today, the name Anne Fontaine remains inextricably linked to white, despite the fact that the brand has diversified into shirts of every colour, not to mention accessories, jewellery and cruise wear. Anne Fontaine is now perfectly equipped to dress women from head to toe, from handbags to shoes.
So where did that talent for fashion stem? What inspired that desire to build a lasting business? “I have always had two great passions: fashion is one and nature is the other. At the age of 10, I made my first dress, to wear to my cousin’s wedding. My mother had bought one for me, but it was so ugly! So, I took it all apart, added some flowers, and ended up with the perfect little princess dress. At the time, I thought that fashion was completely useless,” she says. Concerned with preserving the planet, Anne studied biology, lived with isolated tribes in the Amazon rainforest, and dedicated herself to science. A chance encounter led her to fashion, but nature would always be a source of inspiration and a serious concern. In fact, the woman who designs cufflinks with insects on them and draws only on recycled paper also runs a foundation where art and fashion play a role in raising awareness for environmental issues. “Within the company, education is our goal. We ask our teams to recycle all plastic and I’m constantly trying to minimize packaging. I also created Forest Day. Once a year, 50% of sales in all our stores go to reforestation projects. We have also developed a pilot project with a school in New York to help it go green.” Anne Fontaine would like the entire fashion industry to be more concerned about sustainable development. “I have a few lines made of organic cotton and recycled fabric, but that’s just a part of my production. Suppliers have to offer us more choices; they need to evolve. The industry has a long way to go before we can talk about sustainable fashion. It’s a process, and it takes time to implement.”
For Anne Fontaine, the concept of continuity is not limited to sustainable development. She also maintains family-like, organic ties with her employees, and her management style reflects her attitude. “We are mostly women in this company. When someone has a child, there are congratulations, gifts and support … we have parties at the end of the year … these are great pleasures for me. I think of my business like my family. Our workshops are in Honfleur, we live in the country, and the people who have left Paris find themselves without the advantages of the big city. So I provide English classes for the children, for example. Our company is international, with 65 stores around the world, and I know every manager. My management style is completely different from what you’d normally find in a large corporation. I couldn’t exist without my suppliers and all the people I work with. Every relationship has to be winwin, otherwise things become sterile and shut down. We must continue to grow together.”
When asked what she thinks luxury is today, Anne Fontaine provides a non-monetary response that is closer to a philosophy of life. “Luxury is the expertise of craftspeople, roots, tradition, the story a product can tell.” Inspired and inspiring words from a woman who has turned her business into a family affair.