fashion

Upcycled Label Umlaut Flips The Script On What We Think Of As French Fashion

11/05/23

Author: Divya Venkataraman

DOCUMENTED BY: EMMA PANCHOT, UMLAUT

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Don’t call Umlaut a ‘French Girl’ brand.

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Kaya Dress

Umlaut

Documented By: Emma Panchot, Umlaut

Don’t call Umlaut a ‘French Girl’ brand.

It might be French, yes, but its edgy, sculptural pieces and graphic colours give it a hearty distance from the traditional red-lip-white-shirt conception of the national style ethos. “It would be weird if all the girls in Paris were wearing the same printed dress with little flowers in their little straw baskets,” laughs Eloïse Bombeau, one of Umlaut’s co-founders, ahead of the brand’s official launch on RIISE (its exclusive Australian stockist). “We wanted something a bit more real.”

Reality met Bombeau’s dreams in a wonderful way: in 2020, along with her childhood friends Zelie Israel and Emma Panchot, Bombeau decided to take the leap into fashion design. Together, the trio, who went to fashion school together, founded the sustainability-minded label Umlaut. “We were very fond of fashion from the beginning,” says Israel, whose mother, a fashion designer, was part of sowing the seeds of their lifelong love, which began when they were children. “But we also wanted to do something with meaning.”

Umlaut found its namesake in the German accent that, when placed above a vowel, has the power to lengthen or shorten or distort it. Similarly, Bombeau and Israel—Panchot has since left the company to pursue her photography career—explain, as they talk to me from Paris and Biarritz, respectively, wanted to reflect the diacritic’s “ ability to change something. Like we want to change the fashion industry.”

Over its two-year journey, Umlaut has become known for its directional, visually striking pieces—as well as its commitment to a sustainable ethos. Its '90s-inspired dresses and bustiers are unlike many others in the saturated social media fashion space: they’re bold, even sometimes severe, but still distinctly feminine. They don’t pander to trends; they have a point of view.

If you’ve been near a stylish French woman’s Instagram in recent months, you may have caught sight of an Umlaut original: a bustier with lambskin panelling paired with a complementary hued bodice, perhaps, or a colour-blocking bra, designed to either be worn alone or styled over a garment, inspired by the Amaya dress, the brand’s most popular piece so far. The Amaya’s mid-length design, which features a leather panelled bustier flowing out into a slit hem, tied with contrasting leather straps, was inspired by the Villa Mangan, an art deco building in Biarritz where Israel’s family lives, and where the girls would go on holiday as children. There’s an elegance to it, juxtaposed by a distinctly modern edge, courtesy of the leather spliced with crepe.

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Deva Top

Umlaut

Documented By: Emma Panchot, Umlaut

But Umlaut’s aesthetic is only one point of difference: each of the brand’s garments is made in ultra-small, exclusive runs, and created using found and upcycled fabrics.

While the founders were considering manufacturing in India—Bombeau’s family has long had a connection to the country—they ultimately decided to keep production local. Currently, all Umlaut’s manufacturing is done in a studio just outside of Paris. “For a lot of reasons, it’s more sustainable and responsible. We’re not a brand making thousands of prototypes… and choosing one,” says Bombeau.

It’s intimately made by a group of people we know, and this way, we can be there to check on it.

Eloïse Bombeau

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Kaya Dress

Umlaut

Documented By: Emma Panchot, Umlaut

The fabrics that Bombeau and Israel work with are at the beating heart of the process. Sometimes, they can even come before a design. “We spend a lot of time searching for fabrics, even if there’s no upcoming collection,” Bombeau explains. Sometimes, an idea can come from “an encounter with the fabric. I’ll see something and I’ll get a little crush on it.”

I can’t help but laugh at the idea of developing a crush on a roll of fabric. Bombeau joins me. Then doubles down: “Yeah! When we see a colour or texture that we love, and we’re doing some sketches in parallel, the sketches will be modified to incorporate this new fabric we have a crush on.”

After that, we build around it.

Eloïse Bombeau

It’s a process that allows for a different form of creativity to flower. The constraints of fabric sourcing and finding mean Bombeau and Israel have to expand their imaginations to make do with what they have—or, in the alternative, to find their imaginations expanded by the alighting of a completely novel idea in the form of a roll of the perfect fabric. “We’re always working in tandem, between the fabric and the sketches,” says Bombeau.

Their office in Paris is everything: both studio and photo room and showroom. Now, prospective clients can come in and try on their pieces by appointment.

But they don’t just source fabrics from industrial manufacturers. “We have sourcing days,” Bombeau says, her eyes lighting up. “It’s so fun. We’re just on the hunt for the perfect fabric, the perfect colour.” They scavenge everywhere, from flea markets to luxury warehouses and beyond.

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French fashion is synonymous with those luxury houses, with prestige and haute couture—and with that, naturally comes the tyranny of tradition. The country is, of course, the birthplace of maisons like Chanel and Dior, and spits out major creative directors with fervour. French fashion juggernaut LVMH owns a large proportion of the world’s most prestigious designers, from Fendi to Givenchy and Loewe. Paris is the home of many of the world’s largest brands’ flagships, and the Champs Elysées, still one of the most coveted retail addresses in the world. These are institutions invested in the norms of fashion-making. Meanwhile, just down the road, Umlaut is pushing against them, insisting that a brand built on scavenged fabrics on a tiny production scale can also meet the definition of ‘luxury’. Have Bombeau and Israel encountered people who are sceptical about their vision of what should be considered ‘premium’, given what the narrative of French fashion has been for so long?

Thankfully, it hasn’t been as hard a sell as they once feared.

I think 15 years ago, it would have been very complicated. But now it’s a better time. So that’s a positive thing in our industry.

Eloïse Bombeau

They put it down to the fact that a rash of other brands are joining the sustainability wave alongside them—as well as the other growing businesses that help to make their dreams a reality, including new clothing waste startups, which source offcuts from luxury brands and manufacturers, selling them on to small business buyers like Umlaut.

Bombeau and Israel also put their success, or even the tenability of the brand, down to their ability to find manufacturers that would create in small quantities, instead of insisting that they would, like traditional houses, work with large orders of tonnes of models. The more I talk to the women of Umlaut, the clearer it becomes: work like this is interconnected, and relies, above almost anything else, on a web of mutual support.

One thing is certain: they’re ready to spread their vision of French style as far as it can go—and currently, their most popular customer base outside of Europe happens to be Australians, for which RIISE is their exclusive stockist. “When we got our first order from Australia, we were so excited,” explains Bombeau. “It’s just so far away! But now, we’re looking to go as far as we can. This is just the start for us.”

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Documented By: Emma Panchot, Umlaut

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