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The Creative Class | Maria Luisa Poumaillou, Buyer

Maria Luisa Poumaillou has gone from owning one of the most influential fashion boutiques in Paris to transforming venerable department store Printemps into a serious fashion destination, along the way enabling the careers of some of the greatest names in fashion. Now, on her way to conquer the Chinese market with a slew of new stores and her own fashion brand, the legendary buyer sat down with BoF to share her story.
Maria Luisa | Source: Courtesy photo
  • Suleman Anaya

PARIS, France — "I have only been interested all my life by whatever is different and attracts my eye, by talent that is out of the ordinary and by what is long lasting. I don't have a good eye for the trend of the moment. That is not my cup of tea," Maria Luisa Poumaillou, the influential buyer and inimitable doyenne of Paris fashion, tells BoF.

Maria Luisa, as she is universally known, first made her name 25 years ago, when she launched one the most important fashion boutiques in the world (eponymously named Maria Luisa) on the Rue Cambon in Paris. This was later followed by several offshoots around Paris. But with her original stores now shuttered and relegated to fashion history, Maria Luisa is as busy as ever — and perhaps happier than ever — four years into revitalising the venerable Paris department store Printemps and in the midst of establishing a slew of new stores and her very own fashion brand in China.

How did it all happen? Through a series of shocks, one could say.

There are few things on this earth that Maria Luisa loves more than to be shocked. She uses the word ‘shock’ repeatedly when talking about her professional trajectory, always to denote a rare instance when she got, all at once, a glimpse of fashion’s future, a validation of her chosen profession, and a slap in the face in the form of the new. In fact, her quest for those elusive moments has been the engine behind a remarkable career.

The first time Maria Luisa experienced this kind of revelatory jolt was at a school in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. It was here that Martin Margiela showed his second collection under his own label, with children running around and the clothes wrapped in bin bags. Despite the distractions, everyone in attendance was aghast, as the young designer’s narrow-shouldered looks, tight knits and elaborately constructed yet unfinished-looking garments were excitingly unfamiliar, a radical break with everything that was going on in French fashion, at the time still submerged in the boxy, polished silhouettes of the decade that was ending. Yet, nobody among the guests was as shocked as Maria Luisa.

“It was so far from anything I had ever [seen] but it seemed so right. These weren’t just clothes anymore, this was about ideas, concepts. It had nothing to do with the classical idea of fashion that I had been accustomed to wear and understood so well, and also had nothing to do with fashion as we know it today, which is for the most part a game of marketing with little soul.”

Such was the effect of the Belgian upstart on the young store-owner, in fact, she says she would not even be in fashion if it wasn’t for Margiela. “I would have given up on this business a long time ago if it wasn’t for Margiela, but every one of his shows gave me an intellectual shock, which gave me the faith I needed to know what I was doing wasn’t stupid, that it meant something.”

While Margiela challenged her intellect, perhaps no one gave her such a rush of intense, conflicting feelings as the late Alexander McQueen. "He made me scream with horror because I didn't know if I hated him or loved him. Probably both at the same time. McQueen was a true artist." Today, she says, it's harder to be shocked, yet she is quick to point out who among today's leading guard of young designers elicits the elusive gut response she lives for: Christopher Kane.

Maria Luisa remembers when she first saw Kane's work, a picture from the designer's MA Graduate collection. She attended his next show, where she had to stand despite of her stature in the business. She didn't mind, and the moment the show was over she told her head buyer and right hand Robin Schulié: "Run backstage and lets get him, this one definitely we have to get!"

It is perhaps thanks to designers like Margiela, McQueen and Kane that Maria Luisa has never given up, having parlayed her style and retail savvy into a role as the fashion editor of the storied Parisian department store Printemps, where she is responsible for its new image as a serious fashion destination. But today, Maria Luisa’s sphere of influence extends even further: from the Internet, where she has a shop-in-shop on the website The Corner, to China, where, in partnership with the Hong Kong-based Mazly Fashion Group, she is set to open up to 40 stores with the Maria Luisa name over the next few years.

Alongside high-end stores in major cities like Shanghai, Maria Luisa boutiques with a more accessibly-priced mix of brands are planned for China's second- and third-tier cities. What's more, also in partnership with Mazly, Marisa Luisa is developing her own clothing brand.

"As we were thinking how to carry on doing what we like, but adapted to today's needs and realities, we realised we had become a brand and that it was time to put a product behind the name. But we would have never done it without the right partner." The new Maria Luisa fashion line is launching with a capsule collection, followed by Spring/Summer 2014, which is set to arrive in stores by mid-December."[Mazly Fashion Group] are manufacturing for quite a few European brands that we can't mention, but we know are quite good, so we know the quality of the garment is high."

It's been a long road to her current position, however, paved with as much insecurity as with an unwavering faith in her greatest assets: an inborn affinity for style and a rare ability to spot exceptional talent.

Born in Venezuela, Maria Luisa grew up attending Saint Laurent couture shows — her mother was a client — and she got married to her first husband in a dress custom-made by Pierre Balmain, a friend of the family.

Maria Luisa opened her first store in 1988, financed by her husband Daniel Poumaillou. Today, it is hard to imagine the significance of the original boutique, which was famously messy and resembled nothing so much as the over-flowing wardrobe of a woman with incredibly good taste and the means to feed her fashion addiction. The owner pioneered the high-low mix that is the norm today and was often at hand, helping her customers select among the pieces she had curated from both established designers and young unknown talents. "We could sell to the same woman a fake leather skirt by Jean Colonna and a John Galliano dress," she says. And for a time in the 1990s, Maria Luisa was one of the few places where one could find the designs of Jean Paul Gaultier and Helmut Lang. Unsurprisingly, the original Rue Cambon boutique became a destination for fashion pilgrims from around the world.

But equally significant is the role the store, and its founder, played in furthering the careers of the young designers it sold. From her boutique, Maria Luisa presided over a cataclysmic moment in the early 1990s when fashion's old guard was replaced by a crop of new, prodigiously talented names. "You could feel that there was something different [that had nothing to do with the old, classic guard] of Paris fashion." Indeed, Maria Luisa either discovered or was instrumental in jump-starting the careers of Nicolas Ghesquière, Rick Owens and Riccardo Tisci, among others.

The store thrived from the mid- to late 1990s. But Maria Luisa always ran it instinctively, without much of a business plan, and as the rise of the large luxury groups began to reshape the dynamics of the retail landscape, Maria Luisa realised it would soon become very difficult to survive as an independent retailer. “I started being very scared by 2000, and we started to look for a way out.”

Luckily, a new employer soon came calling. Historically, French department stores have never been places for high fashion, offering a more mainstream selection to their middle-class clientele. But the iconic Printemps had come under new management, which wanted to make the department store a serious fashion destination, not least for Paris’ many luxury tourists. To achieve that, however, they needed someone with an expert eye and strong personality to stamp her identity on the store’s fashion department. Maria Luisa was perfect. While Printemps could leverage the prestige of their new fashion ambassador, in return, she could continue to do the work she was so passionate about, but without financial risk and with the greater impact the broad platform and visibility of a department store afforded her.

"Everyone thought I was mad, but I knew it was a fantastic opportunity. They asked us to do exactly what we knew how to do." The reward for Maria Luisa's leap of faith came quickly, with an emotional moment that she says topped every other in her career. "One of the most emotional moments I've had in my career is when we changed everything, closed down and went to Printemps. When we opened the [Maria Luisa] shop-in-shop [on the second floor of Printemps Haussmann] we had a party and Nicolas Ghesquière, Rick Owens, the Proenza Schouler designers, Kane, Roland Mouret — they all showed up. I knew it was their way of saying thank you. I had Goosebumps. It is the only day in my life that I've had Goosebumps."

Specifically, her role at the department store entails a number of functions. First and foremost, she continues to run and stock a boutique, the Maria Luisa shop-in-shop on the second floor of Printemps Haussmann. But, additionally, in her role as fashion editor for the store at large, Maria Luisa works closely in a consulting capacity with Printemps’ marketing and press department and advises the store’s fashion department on buying and merchandising decisions. “I am the face and voice of Printemps for fashion.” She works on everything from the newsletter to the look of the website, as well as events and trunk shows.

Printemps takes up about 50 percent of her time. The rest she devotes to running her own company and to building her own brand, increasingly on international shores. The pace of her work schedule is relentless. In fact, between now and the end of the year, Maria Luisa and her team will have barely a moment to rest. The buying season is a very intense short period (6 weeks) during which it is normal to have 10 appointments a day, and during which Maria Luisa and her team buy for her shop at Printemps (as well as other Printemps stores in France); for her online store at The Corner; for her franchise ventures in Doha and Abu Dhabi; and now, for the multi-brand Maria Luisa boutiques set to open across China. “And once you finish the buying another job starts,” she says, “which is communicating about your buy at many different levels, building up press materials and images, and doing interviews.”

This week, Maria Luisa and her team are in Shanghai (where three Maria Luisa stores will open between now and December) and Maria Luisa seems happier than ever. “I am finding once again a real pleasure in what I do.” And it shows.

“You’re only good at what you really love. So, be true to yourself,” she advises. “Be daring and keep a very open mind. Also, go into every fashion show with an empty mind, don’t have any pre-conceptions.”

You might just come out shocked.

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