Olympia le-Tan and the world's coolest book club
Designer Olympia le-Tan's literary luggage is an A-list favourite – she tells Harriet Walker about her new collaboration with Lancôme
It isn't often that the A-list champions anything as edifying or wholesome as classic literature. But designer Olympia le-Tan, 36, has changed all that – thanks to her idiosyncratic framed clutch bags, there's now only one red-carpet accessory to be seen with, and that's a book. They're officially no longer just for nerds.
“I've always been obsessed with books,” she tells me. “I grew up in a house where the walls were all books. My father has a very big collection of old books and I was always attracted by the nice graphic covers. I think that's what inspired me.”
Le-Tan's latest project – alongside developing her accessories label into a line of ready-to-wear clothing that takes inspiration from the chosen themes of the books and their covers – has been to collaborate with Lancôme, producing a limited edition of her classic and characteristic book-bag to celebrate the first anniversary of the make-up brand's Rouge in Love range of lipsticks and nail varnishes.
“It's a fake book,” she smiles, “and the title is 'Rouge in Love'. I designed the cover of it myself, an imaginary story.”
The minaudière (how the French refer to a cosmetics case) contains six shades of lipstick in varying pink, reds and corals, as well as six shades of nail polish, while the box itself can be used as an evening bag too (which is lucky, since it costs £995). Le-Tan's preppy-princess stylings sit rather well with the line, given that the face of it is the well-read actress Emma Watson, herself famous for having brought to life one of children's literature's most famous characters in Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter franchise. (Incidentally Watson herself has one of Le-Tan's Rouge in Love bags, meaning there are only 99 numbered editions left.)
“I've been wearing red lipstick since I was about 15,” says Le-Tan of the varying hues of incarnadine within – her favourites are Rouge Valentine for lips and Rose Plumetis for nails. “I love red lipstick – I just think it makes the mouth pop out. It's a beauty classic.
“I researched some lipstick ad campaigns from the Thirties and Forties, very elegantly decorated with hands and lips and kisses,” she continues. “And then I put a book on the book, with lips coming out of the pages and hands holding the book, so I could show off all the different colours of nail varnish. It's all very pink and surreal!”
There is something of the great Schiaparelli in Le-Tan's fusion of style and surrealism with bright colours and modish metaphor. It's that same sense of wit that has meant her bags have become such status symbols among the cognoscenti – they're a nudge and a wink, a knowing joke, and a profession of cult cool.
“They appeal to lots of different types of people,” she says. “People who like books, people who like fashion, people who like handmade things – it's more an object than a fashion piece. We do commissions – people can come with their favourite book that they want to have made. Some of them get declined because they're not good-looking enough – the book, I mean, not the person!” She laughs. “Although I won't do Paolo Coelho, you can totally quote that,” she insists.
Born in Paris to an English mother and a French illustrator father, Le-Tan studied Italian literature at university in London, before dropping out and attending art school in Paris. Her first internship, at the age of 19, was within the hallowed Chanel design studio under the designer Gilles Dufour, assistant to Karl Lagerfeld. It was a plunge into the deep end that eventually became full-time employment.
“It was a long time ago, but you learn a lot. I've always liked drawing and making things,” she remembers. “Chanel was a really good school – everything's very well organised, but you're not allowed to make any mistakes. When Gilles left to go to Balmain, I went with him – and then we all got fired.”
The problem was a series of T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “bitch” and “whore” presented as part of Balmain's autumn 2000 collection, comparatively tame given today's standards, but enough to have Dufour and his team – including Le-Tan – ejected from their posts.
“My boyfriend at the time had done that T-shirt for us, so I felt a bit guilty. I worked with Gilles on his own label, and then I sort of needed a break. I took a few years off, just making my own little bags at home, and I was DJing a bit too.”
It was during this time on the circuit as one of the Parisian beau monde that Le-Tan made her first book clutch; she is now in her fifth season of producing them. The boxy skeletons are made from brass, wrapped in cotton canvas, which is embroidered and painted with the cover designs, and lined internally with Liberty print – something that betrays her English roots, says Le-Tan.
“I find them quite impractical,” she laughs, “but I still use them. You can get a lipstick, keys, a phone, cigarettes in the larger one. What more do you need? In the mini one, it's a bit of a squeeze. The smaller one was originally made for an actress for the red carpet, and nobody puts anything in their bags then anyway – it's all for show.” That actress was Marion Cotillard, but Le-Tan's book clutches have quite the celebrity fanbase. As you might expect, it's a certain sort of actress that chooses to walk the red carpet or pose for the paparazzi with a book in their hands. Michelle Williams took The Catcher in the Rye to the Oscars with her; Natalie Portman has been spotted with Lolita, and French star Clémence Poésy opted for La Belle et la Bête. Intellectual heavyweight Tilda Swinton chose the children's book Ant and Bee by Angela Banner.
“It has to be a good book and it has to have a good cover,” Le-Tan says of her design process. “The first collection was all my favourites – 1984, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter... And since then, I've been working on themes – black music, corruption, disease… I've read probably 80 per cent of the books I do, although I read so much less now, because I'm so busy!”
Despite her jet-set lifestyle, Le-Tan refuses to buy a Kindle – she cackles at this question anyway because, as she points out, an e-reader wouldn't fit into one of her diminutive clutch bags. “I just think a book is such a nice object to have – and to have on your bookshelves.”
The Rouge in Love minaudière, launched cunningly in time for Valentine's Day and the attendant profusion of all things pink, will ensure Olympia le-Tan's name spreads even further than her current, somewhat rarefied, book club – her designs are stocked on the website Net-A-Porter and are, at any given time, likely to be for the most part sold out. Given that each clutch sells for around £950, that's quite an achievement.
“I wasn't really aiming at intellectuals but I'm glad it happened. I guess I'd rather have Tilda holding one than Kim Kardashian… I personally think books are cool, so if it helps make other people think books are cool, then… Cool!”
The Olympia le-Tan for Lancôme Rouge in Love minaudière is available now, exclusively at Harvey Nichols, harveynichols.co.uk