Alexandre Mattiussi's Ami Designs Clothes for Regular Guys
A white dress shirt should be one of the simplest purchases in life. At least that’s what French fashion designer Alexandre Mattiussi believed a few years ago, when he was attending a friend’s wedding and needed a new one. “I thought it’d be cool to go to Dior or Saint Laurent, but I didn’t find one I liked. And I didn’t want to spend €300 [$418],” he says while sitting at a cafe terrace in the Marais district of Paris. “Eventually I got my shirt at Zara,” the Spanish fast-fashion chain. “I would have loved to have bought a better shirt.”
So he made one for himself. Just around the corner from the cafe is the first boutique for Mattiussi’s three-year-old fashion brand, Ami, a golden, wide-windowed storefront where guys can now buy that white shirt for less than $200. Depending on the time of year and the season, the shop will be stocked with classic navy blazers, dusty-hued chinos, and jeans that are cut almost like Dad’s. A few jauntier items might include a seasonal pattern or reveal their provenance with the logo AMI—the way the designer signed his name as a child, and also the French word for friend—but most likely not. Here, anonymity reigns supreme.
Ami’s clothes are not for neodandies, and they’re not very good for “peacocking,” the Internet term menswear enthusiasts have coined for showing off. Many of the outfits Mattiussi designs would be too simple to draw the discerning eye of a street-style photographer, and the silhouettes are only slightly more novel. And although some fashion critics and bloggers might use the word “wearable” as an insult, wearable sells. In the past year, Ami’s sales have risen a dramatic 87 percent. The brand is carried in 167 stores worldwide, including every major U.S. department store except Bloomingdale’s. To satisfy demand, Mattiussi is doubling production; he plans to make 100,000 garments in 2014, some of which will land in his second Paris store on the Left Bank, opening this year, or get dispatched for his nascent European e-commerce business.
In February, when Mattiussi visited Tokyo for the first time, shopping fanatics came to a swanky store called Edifice to meet their favorite designer. Dozens were wearing identical red beanies, the 33-year-old designer’s trademark, though they lacked his scruff, mini-paunch, and intentional unibrow. While there, Mattiussi hosted events at four of Tokyo’s hippest stores. “There’s not any other designer who does four events in Japan,” one of the managers said, flattering him. At these appointments, “there was a kind of hysteria,” Mattiussi adds. One boutique made cookies with his Italianate face, the Eiffel Tower, and that ubiquitous red beanie done in icing. At another, every employee wore the exact same printed Ami sweatshirt.
His clothes sell best in Tokyo, but the brand is thriving in most shopping capitals, so it’s been tough for Mattiussi to figure out where to open next. “We think about New York. We think about London. We have opportunities in Korea and Japan,” he says on the way back to the sprawling two-floor studio he moved to in December with his 16-person staff. “It’s too soon [for more stores], but why not?”
Ami is also enough of a commercial success that the international website Mr Porter has asked Mattiussi to create exclusive items. “It’s all about the slenderness of a sleeve, the shortness of a jacket, the slimness of a pant,” explains Sam Lobban, a Mr Porter senior buyer who leads the account. “Classic menswear is very roomy, and this is a more contemporary view. It’s not so skinny as to be considered fashionable.” But it’s still enough for Mattiussi to have won Europe’s most prestigious fashion prize in 2013, the Andam, and its purse of €250,000. After that, Swedish luxury brand Bally hired him to consult on its men’s and women’s lines.
“I love to design clothes, because I know I’m going to wear them,” Mattiussi says while downing an espresso. “That’s weird, because I’m ‘total look,’ ” he adds, referencing the English term some Parisians derisively use for dressing entirely in one label. This might typically be considered unchic, too slavish to the cult of a particular fashion house. But even inveterate aesthetes wouldn’t be able to discern that his bright hat, navy blazer, just-so indigo jeans, gray T-shirt, navy socks, and plain white sneakers all come from the same company. There’s also his boxer shorts, made from leftover shirting fabric; they’re sold at the store but only to those who know to ask. Like underwear itself, the stockpile is hidden.
Those secret drawers are probably the only elitest aspect of the brand. Mattiussi insists Ami is for normal guys, the ones who may read men’s fashion magazines (for the articles, they swear), then cringe at luxury advertisements with rangy male models in head-to-toe floral silk suits. “This is, for them, awful—it’s just a question of culture,” he says, having recently watched two strangers doing just that in an airport in Portugal. “I like the idea of pleasing people who want to dress up, not in a very sophisticated way, and not in something that doesn’t exist at the end of the day.”
Mattiussi presents his collection along with the more outré brands at Paris Fashion Week, but the ideas he’s explored have been comically quotidian. For one season, offering up roomy plaid coats and baggier wool trousers, Mattiussi used a subway scene to imply that morning moment when party kids are coming home still drunk and employees are commuting. The next, favoring boldly striped suits and tropical-print shirts that are in stores now, suggested business and leisure travelers commingling at a fantasy airport. Lobban from Mr Porter asked the designer to create a range of far-flung vacation clothes, released last May, and Mattiussi delivered outfits inspired by his Parisian pals lounging on the Seine. “I’m not Tom Ford. I’m not Dolce & Gabbana. I’m not living on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, and I’m not going to be with Kate Moss this summer,” Mattiussi notes, adding that he’d like to someday, sure, but only if she’s fun.
For his first runway show in January, the setting was little more than a snowy city night, full of fake fluff and streetlamps. Models were cast who fit the clothes without alterations (except for hems on pants and sleeves), a rarity even in the world of clothing that’s supposed to be ready-to-wear. As popular French music producer Caroline de Maigret sauntered down the runway in a men’s blazer and trousers that looked better on her than some of the guys, the moment fueled rumors that Mattiussi might soon launch a line for women, for which he’s already trademarked the name Ami(e). He’s been experimenting with making dresses through his work at Bally, yet he remains interested in basics. “At the end of the day, I’m doing a navy jacket,” he says. “I’m also trying to reflect our lives and realities in a charming and cinematographic way.” This approachable version of aspirational living resonated well with critics and buyers, and more than 250 retailers booked sales appointments to buy the fall 2014 collection.
Most of these buyers appreciate that Ami is priced lower than many Parisian competitors, with shirts about $200, pants averaging $300, and no jacket more than $1,250. To maintain these prices, Mattiussi typically buys the same Italian and Japanese fabrics as elite brands, then manufactures most of his line in Portugal or Romania instead of France, where the cachet may be higher, but taxes would double prices straightaway. “The French fashion industry has been slow to pick up on this trend and dynamic of what’s called the contemporary market,” says Imran Amed, founder of a website called the Business of Fashion. He singles out U.S.-based brands such as Rag & Bone, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and 3.1 Phillip Lim that have managed to maintain competitive pricing—below a designer brand but above a mainstream one—while also keeping quality and style strong enough to be carried by luxury retailers such as Barneys New York, which bought the first Ami collection and has stocked it since. “I could say it’s €1,000 or €2,000 and people would believe it, so when I can deliver a jacket for less than €500, it’s because we decided to,” Mattiussi says. Since he launched the line, per-item price tags have increased by about 5 percent. “Even if the price is good for this end of the market, it’s still expensive for a lot of people.”
Mattiussi knows that feeling well. He first moved to Paris from Normandy to study fashion. At 24 he got a job working on Dior Homme’s nonrunway line aimed at rich French businessmen. After that, he was hired at Givenchy, the French haute couture house, and watched as designer Riccardo Tisci was given control of menswear and gained acclaim for dressing Kanye West and other brash men in leather kilts and metallic leggings. (“I wished maybe in a way to be a crazy designer, but I’m not.”) Mattiussi marveled as co-workers would stay late making award-show gowns for Rihanna and Beyoncé, then go home to their tiny apartments, “eating pastas for dinner.” When he landed a job crafting plainer cashmere sweaters for the Marc Jacobs men’s collection, they still cost €2,000. “I felt it was completely insane I couldn’t afford anything I was designing.”
Now when he needs something to wear, he just goes into his own store—he pays for his own Ami wardrobe, to put himself on the same level as his employees. As he explains this, he suddenly interrupts himself.
“Ami shoes! That’s cool, no?”
He’s pointing at the man strolling across the street.
“I just want to see my shoes on a guy with a dog.”