How a Frenchman Upgraded American Style
Pierre Mahéo heads the Parisian cult menswear label Officine Générale, where he designs clothes that he would want to wear himself, and that you can afford.
When Pierre Mahéo speaks, it’s with a particular eloquence that’s singular to French natives who learned precise English through that country’s rigid education system. He expresses himself with more clarity than most Americans and converses with words that many of us forget to incorporate in our daily speech.
His exacting use of verbs and adjectives is imitated in his designs for Officine Générale, the Parisian menswear label he founded in 2012, which takes its cues from the grand traditions of American sportswear but hits the racks filtered and elevated by Mahéo’s cerebral definition of the genre.
This praise must by now be familiar to the 41-year-old. It certainly comes as no surprise to Officine fanatics, hardcore junkies from the start, or the fashion press, which instantly minted Mahéo a runway darling. One might say I’m late to the table—uh, breathless brand profiles saturated the blogosphere two years ago!—but I feel like I’m riding the Officine train at just the right time: Today, no one could argue Monsieur Mahéo is just a flavor of the month, a critically praised designer who lasted about as long as Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent (or, for non sartorial insiders, Ryan Lochte’s sponsorships).
Let’s be honest, the fashion landscape of the past couple years hasn’t boded well for predictions, thanks to a shit-storm of designer Drama (the “d’ is purposefully capitalized for maximum Drag Race meme potential) that’s made for more low-brow excitement than Lochte’s imminent appearance on Dancing With The Stars. Actually, this summer’s trashy TV—full disclosure, I watched both Bachelor in Paradise and the Countess vs. Bethenny Frankel blowout—makes for a pat parallel to today’s style climate, with creative directors at the industry’s biggest houses playing revolving doors to a degree that puts the politics of a rose ceremony to shame.
Alexander Wang left Balenciaga in October after less than three years! Frida Giannini at Gucci? Out! Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz? Gone! Donna Karan and Donna Karan? Splitsville! And, of course, the aforementioned Hedi Slimane, who unceremoniously exited Saint Laurent in April, followed by the company shadily erasing all of his Instagram posts. As I said, Drama! Creative director tenures at luxury brands were supposed to last decades, not years. The chief finger-pointing target for diminished life span is technology, traditionalists’ favorite bogeyman. But they have a point: Shortened consumer attention spans and their constant need for the new places undue stress on designers struggling to deliver profits to impatient conglomerates. Some experts are even radically asking if designers really matter anymore. More to the point, do customers even care about who’s in charge of making their clothes?
In Pierre Mahéo’s case, the answer is a resounding yes, which is what makes the success of his label so topical now, four years on. Indeed, he’s pretty much the poster child for fashion folk who insist apparel is all about the personality behind it. This is a guy, after all, who started a label to dress himself and, to quote his brand biography, “design the clothes he always dreamt of wearing.”
The company literature continues with this unapologetic statement: “Officine Génerale collections look like their creator, Pierre Mahéo.” It’s a fact he takes pains to reiterate during our interview.
“I didn’t want to design for other people anymore. I had to design for me,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was a need, an addiction I had to satiate. The starting point was to make product I believed in, product I wanted to wear, and quality fabrics I wanted to use.”
This clear sense of self quickly drew top retailers to snap up the brand. “The person behind every brand is important,” according to Eddie Chai, co-founder of Odin, the influential chain-let of menswear boutiques. “From the beginning, Pierre was truly passionate about his collection.”
Tom Kalendarian, the men’s executive vice president at Barney’s, concurs: “Pierre infuses his own great personal style in everything he touches, rendering Officine Générale as chic as he is in an aspirational way.”
Chic. I love that word. As a writer, it’s the description I tend to use to characterize everything cool. But honestly, if anyone deserves the epithet, it has to be Mahéo (and not just because he’s Parisian, lives in an awesomely eclectic 15th century apartment, is the affectionate owner of a French bulldog named Elle, idolizes François Truffaut and Giovanni Agnelli, or sports silver-fox worthy stubble). He’s effortless, too, which is part and parcel with chic. As in authentic. And timeless. Fashion-ese clichés, maybe, but reserve judgment until after falling into an OG internet hole—I’m confident that clicking through 30 minutes worth of runway slideshows featuring Pierre’s creations will have you forgiving my overused phrases. His stuff is what those phrases were really meant to describe.
And what stuff: If Club Monaco and APC were in a throuple with Giorgio Armani, this would be their extremely good-looking love child. The running theme is next-level tailoring applied to minimalist pieces influenced by workwear and military style, like a slim-cut wool-flannel blazer offered in a dark olive hue or the quintessential Breton stripe tee, made fresh thanks to a sharp navy and gray color-way. He traces that specific aesthetic to his childhood in Brittany, where he grew up with two juxtaposed sartorial figures: His grandfather was a tailor with a yen for three-piece suits, while his oysterman father sported faded chinos.
That mix—combined with the upscale sensibility of the company’s home-base, the bougie Parisian ’hood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés—is very much a part of the DNA of Officine Génerale. It’s seen in the label’s 17-piece range of perennial classics, like the best-selling oxford shirt, as well as the complimenting seasonal offerings of wardrobe staples, such as a bomber jacket made from “Storm System,” his high-tech water-repellant invention.
There’s no flash here, and there are no unnecessary frills, no click-bait nods to trends, though an almost imperceptible sleekness (a slimmer silhouette here, a slanted pocket there) pervades everything he touches. Details and quality (everything’s made in Europe), from plackets to stitches, are paramount.
Mahéo’s obsessed with material. Though the clothes may look straightforward, the fabrics are absurdly sophisticated, all meticulously sourced from Italy, Japan, and England, plus washed to assure comfort and durability. It’s a winning combination of refinement and approachability, what he calls “accessible luxury,” that’s driven Officine’s continued staying power, remarkably finding and filling a void between the super high-end (Armani) and the not-quite fast fashion (Club Monaco), but with a bit more edge and craftsmanship than, say, a rag & bone.
“I felt that ‘value’ was missing in the men’s market,” Mahéo says, whose résumé pre-Officine required a little digging. We know he started working with Parisian tailor Michael Barnes in 1998 (who basically invented the notion of affordable bespoke suiting), followed by stints at several major fashion groups in France and Italy. Exact details from his public relations team were not forthcoming, and Mahéo’s response was a solid mic drop on any further inquiries: “I never look back or talk about the past, I always look ahead.” On venturing out on his own, he’s understandably much chattier. “I wanted to bring the best quality with the sharpest price and use fabrics that ‘luxury’ brands don’t even use anymore. Also I did not want to talk to one person—a 25-year-old guy, hipster with a beard, was not the target. I wanted to talk to a larger crowd, French, Italian, American, Mexican … just guys interested in quality.”
To that effect, the wares are truly trans-generational (fans include both Idris Elba and One Direction’s Liam Payne), as are the prices. “I don’t think a jacket should cost a month’s salary,” Mahéo explains, while pointing out that the premium quality also means that the jacket in question will cost more than a fancy dinner. T-shirts will set you back around $150, the signature oxford goes for about $300, and blazers for less than $800.
Nick Carvell, the associate style editor at British GQ, attended Officine’s debut presentation and remembers being impressed by the price-point. “I knew Pierre’s brand would have a following because he sells his menswear at reasonable prices. For younger guys, they’re a treat you might need to save for, but they’re not so expensive that they’re totally unattainable.” Carvell, who admits he went to Officine’s first show because of all the “buzz,” also was pleasantly surprised at how “genuine it was,” which he says was down to Pierre: “Talking to him you can see he’s passionate about his label and wants to create clothes that men want to wear … Honestly, he makes clothes that you’re instantly going to look better in.”
Carvell’s testimony is a refrain you hear often in the buying departments of the more than 70 upscale retailers who already carry Officine Générale, and one that helps explain why the brand is thriving (since 2012, the company has doubled sales every year). To wit, Sam Lobban, MR PORTER’s buying manager: “Pierre understands what guys want from clothes. We loved his high emphasis on detailing, construction, and fabrications… His brand ethos is pretty in line with how we see the core of MR PORTER,” adding that OG’s “specific use of updated classic shapes” and “easy, pared-down aesthetic” immediately attracted the e-tailer’s customers, an attraction that “has only grown from there.”
Barney’s Kalenderian has a similar narrative, saying Officine Générale has become “one of the top performing brands with consistent sales growth each season” (Mahéo does an exclusive capsule collection for Barney’s twice a year). He credits the extraordinary performance to Mahéo's skill in creating a category that had yet to exist (aka that void filling talent): “We offered it two years ago at a time when we were looking for a brand to fill a void in the mix; for simple modern clothes for men young in spirit with the need to express their personal style. Pierre Mahéo clearly has a vision that resonates with dapper guys wanting a more sophisticated approach to dressing that still feels youthful and today.”
Armed with these glowing reviews, I asked Mahéo why he thinks his four-year-old baby is so damn popular, besides the obvious quality and unintimidating price point. “I think in a menswear world, what I offer truly anchors in reality. A range of guys can wear all the pieces we produce. I really like the way our customers respond to our product—there’s something emotional about it.”
To understand what’s next for the brand, and the full extent of Mahéo’s ambition, look to the name itself, Officine Générale. Officine in French is the old terminology for pharmacy, “where formulas are produced,” according to the ever eloquent Pierre. “That was my mood … I wanted to develop what I wanted to wear.” Now the second part: “Générale came from planning a look head-to-toe and I wanted to create a brand not just focused on ready-to-wear, but one that’s representative of a lifestyle.”
For Mahéo, that means a future New York outpost to complement his two existing stores in Paris, potentially collaborating with a large chain (“this is, I think, a very interesting experience”), as well as a foray into the womenswear market—he wryly admits that his wife is wearing some samples at the moment to test them out, “just like I do with the men’s samples.”
That’s not to say his stress level is far removed from those creative directors—hi, Hedi—who can’t seem to stay in one place. “There are many challenges,” Mahéo admits. “I started alone, truly alone for the first 16 months. I was doing everything: design, production, commercial, finance, and accounting. But it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You have to create targets and stay very focused to reach them.”
Perhaps it’s that attitude that explains why he’s a model of stability compared to some of his flightier industry colleagues. True, he doesn’t have an owner to report to. But, unlike designers with similar star power, he’s also made it clear he never wants one, either. Harvey James, a 22-year-old British model who walked in Mahéo’s show last June, sums up Officine Générale’s continued domination even more succinctly: “Pierre is an inspiring man because his brand is the product of doing everything right in fashion.” Thankfully, James is quick to use the word of the day to describe Mahéo, saving me from cliché-ing yet again. “He’s the most lovely chap, and he gives hope that even the biggest plain Jane might be able to look like a super chic Parisian.”