Parisian designer Olympia Le-Tan makes felted, hand-hewn clutches—minaudières, in French—that are beloved in the fashion world. And her crafting skills will soon be grabbing the attention of the film world, thanks to a short film collaboration with Spike Jonze.
Le-Tan, who is half French and half-English, melds a French appreciation of crafting with an English admiration of fanciful graphics and Anglophone literature. There’s a lightheartedness and naivety to her work, a direct rapport with materials and creativity, fabric and textures, whimsy and color. She’s inspired by mid-20th century style, children’s books and even fruits and vegetables, which adorn her hair accessories like a felted wink to Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. We met in her Paris studio, located in the Japanese quarter of the 2nd arrondissement, and talked about being a grown-up kid—all while harboring housewife fantasies.
Sarah Moroz: Fashion and literature so rarely come together; how did you decide to connect the two with your bags?
Olympia Le-Tan: I grew up in a house where there were lots of nice books, because my dad [illustrator Pierre Le-Tan] collects old books. I always saw them growing up and liked the covers, particularly. I guess it’s the graphics that attracted me more. Also, I just think a book is such a good shape for a bag! (Laughs) I just thought I’d try and make one…and then I made several.
Sarah: What is your relationship to graphic beauty and textual importance? How much does the content of the book affect your decision to make a clutch?
Olympia: For the first collection, I chose all my favorite books and I researched the first-edition covers and tried to pick the nicest ones. So, first, it was the titles. Afterwards, when I did my second collection, I based it more around themes. So I would research, ‘What book talks about the end of the world?’ or something like that, and try to find all books that related to a certain theme. Those ones I would choose according to the cover or the title, not necessarily the content. I always promise myself that I’m going to read them all before the presentation, but sometimes I don’t manage to.
Sarah: Are there contemporary publishers who you think are doing interesting graphic design work?
Olympia: In France, there aren’t that many nice covers today. There are some interesting ones in England, but I just prefer the old ones.
Sarah: Your collection is called “Housewife’s Choice.” What is it in reference to?
Click “Read More” for additional images and text.
Olympia: Well, before I decided to start making handbags, when I was a child, I always wanted to be housewife. I just thought it was the best job ever: not going to work and playing with the kids, cooking and looking after the house. It was my dream, and that sort of never happened. So I turned my proper job into… Well, basically, I sew—that’s what housewives do—and I like to cook. And I really like the aesthetic of the ’50s housewife. I’m very much into Mad Men. So I guess it’s all that combined. And the title of the collection is a song, a reggae song that I really like from the ’50s called “Housewife’s Choice” [by Derrick and Patsy].
Sarah: How did your movie with Spike Jonze come about?
Olympia: I met Spike Jonze about two years ago through friends. I showed him my work and he really liked it. He said, “How can I get some; can I buy it?” And I said, “I’ll trade it—I’ll make you some stuff if you make me a film”. And he said OK. So that’s how it happened. It’s all in stop-motion animation. It’s all made out of felt, it was all made here [in the studio]. It’s a love story between the female character from Dracula and the skeleton from Macbeth—dead Macbeth. They meet in the bookshop where they live, and they have all sorts of adventures together.
Sarah: Did you have the idea before going to Spike?
Olympia: I had wanted to do an animation in felt, but I didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t have a story. I had no idea what he was going to suggest when I said “Let’s do a film together,” but he said, “Let’s do an animation in felt where the people from the covers of the books you made come to life.” So then we looked at all the titles that I had, and we based the story on what was happening in those covers.
Sarah: And it’s going to Cannes!
Olympia: Yes, it’s been selected at Semaine de la Critique, so it’s going to be screening during the film festival, which is quite exciting.
Sarah: Are you going to submit the film to other festivals as well?
Olympia: It’s also selected by Locarno [a Swiss film festival], which is this summer.
Sarah: The material that you work with, felt, is wonderfully childlike. Do you still feel like a kid?
Olympia: I suppose I do, yeah. I act a bit like a kid, and I definitely like kids’ stuff. And I really like felt because I really like all those felt toys from the ’40s. I think it has that very “housewife” kind of vibe. And I just like the matte texture and retro style of it. I like making complicated things out of simple and basic stuff.
Sarah: What’s a typical day like in your studio?
Olympia: When we’re preparing the collection, I do my research. I go to Shakespeare & Company or various bookshops that I like and I look for old books. One book can be the starting point for the theme. Then there’s all sorts of websites where you can find old books too. So we print them out and show them [to my team]. And we work out colors and things like that for the collection. Sometimes we modify the colors of the cover a little bit. From there… We make the embroideries here [at the studio], and we send them off to a little workshop where they slip them onto a metal shape to create the bag.
Sarah: You’ve done customized denim jackets and also canvas bags, in addition to clutches. How do you decide what form you want to take on?
Olympia: Before I made the books, I used to make little tote bags with embroideries on them. A really limited amount… I mean they were just at Colette and Browns; I didn’t have a company. I was just selling by myself. And then I got a business partner and we launched this brand, so it had to be more consistent. I generally wear totes during the day—I make totes so that I can have a bag! The totes… I give the theme to my three favorite artists, who are friends: my dad [Pierre Le-Tan], André [Saraiva] and M/M. And then they do a little design especially for me, according to my theme, that I put on the totes. There are these round little bags too. With these, the idea was more like “luggage labels” and things like that when I did the “End of the World” collection. And then they became a biscuit tin for the “Housewife’s Choice” collection. There’s the milk box bag; there’s the globe too.
Sarah: How do you think working in Paris influences your creations?
Olympia: It’s very Parisian for all the manufacturing, because everything comes from here. The handwork is a very French thing. My grandmother taught me how to sew and do embroidery and she’s very French, so I suppose that comes from the French side.
Sarah: Your family is a big presence in your company and even on your blog—how do they factor into your work?
Olympia: Well I’ve got two brothers and one sister. My dad does quite a lot of work with me; he designed my logo and he always does drawings for my invitations and stuff like that. My sister… actually, she quit on Monday. (laughs). She wants to do her own thing now, she’s tired of doing boring stuff for this company… She wants to write. She’s going to do the inside of the book—and I’ll do the outside!
Sarah: What about the influence of your friends in fashion and publishing? Jennifer Eymère of Jalouse and Olivier Zahm of Purple are recurring figures on your blog. Given that they work with printed matter, which is faltering in the face of…
Sarah: Well, yes, exactly. What’s your discussion with people who also are invested in a printed product?
Olympia: Olivier and Jen are both really good friends of mine. They’re not at all into the iPad generation. It’s really weird for them. Olivier is working on all sorts of website stuff, but he is pretty much old-school. [Both] are being forced towards that, I think. But it’s not stopping them from doing what they’ve always done.
Sarah: The notion of handmade is essential to your work. Do you ever think about a larger scale production?
Olympia: I wouldn’t mind doing something on a larger scale [but] I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing. So if I was to do something on a larger scale it would be en plus.
Sarah: What secrets can you reveal about your upcoming projects?
Olympia: Well, there’s the film… The film was a really huge and long project, so for the moment I’m just going to do the collection. I’m thinking of doing a couple clothes for the next collection, but nothing very complicated—just like… tops, or something like that.
Sarah: Is film something you’d like to do again?
Olympia: I’d love to do it again. It was a bit of a nightmare, but I’d be willing to do it again. It was crazy. It was stop-motion, so every movement is a new embroidery.