Pierre Mahéo is something of a Parisian menswear rebel. Self assured, slim and silver-haired, he cuts a chic figure in his tonal navy ensemble of double-breasted jacket, sweater, and tapered trousers. When we talk, he’s sitting together at his kitchen table, the centrepiece of just one of several elegant rooms in his apartment south of the Seine. His suavity is unsurprising. After all, Mahéo is the Creative Director of Officine Générale. He founded this cult-favourite contemporary brand in 2012, with the deliberate intention of going against the grain.
“I used to work at a brand that has stores in France, plus a big license distribution in the USA,” he tells us, taking a sip of coffee. “I worked there for 10 years, and everything was made in China, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, in factories that paid poorly and didn’t respect their workers. I wasn’t proud of the product I was designing. So, I quit in June 2012, and took some time to figure out where to go next.” For a designer who from the start of his career had dreamt of creating high-quality clothes at an approachable price point, determining this next step was easier said than done.
“The next few months were tough,” Mahéo continues, “in September, my wife asked me ‘what are you going to do? You’re not happy with the jobs out there, so why don’t you start something?’ I gave her a lot of excuses and she said, ‘okay, you have no balls, that’s fine.’ So, I started to design my first collection for Officine Générale at the table where we’re sitting now.”
Skip forward eight years and Officine Générale is an independent fashion powerhouse, with six shops, prestigious retail partners (the brand is one of Mr Porter’s consistent best-sellers) and a global online store. Mahéo puts this success down to a few different things, but at the root of it all is his determination not to compromise.
“When I founded the brand, the idea was very simple. In previous roles, if I wanted to use Japanese selvedge denim I’d be asked: ‘Come on, why do you need to use that? Why would you want to use Fox Brother’s flannel? Why would you use Thomas Mason cloth, or Storm System from Loro Piana? Make it cheaper.’ Now, I can use the best.”
— Pierre Mahéo
Mahéo and his team use the best materials while delivering product that offers great value – striking what to many consumers is the perfect balance between quality and cost. “Most of our production is in Portugal”, he explains. “There are some great workshops there, if we were making our collections in Italy our prices would be higher. When I settled on making in Portugal, I spent the first couple of years spelling out exactly what we needed from our partners; why a lapel had to be padded in a certain way, or how to treat a particular fabric.” This exacting approach to his work has strengthened Mahéo’s brand from day one. Today, Officine Générale’s reputation for quality is rock-solid.
“Most brands take on investors after their first few years, who just say ‘we need more mark-up, we need more margin’”, he says, pausing for a sip of water. “The quality of the product is the first thing that gets hit. It happens to so many brands, but we haven’t done this.”
Instead, Mahéo has stuck to his guns, grown slowly, and ensured that Officine Générale operates with a conscience. “I’m not saying I’m ‘eco’”, he says earnestly, “but we are trying to be better. We have busy stores, an e-shop, we produce thousands of pieces every year – that’s the reality of what we do. But, we have set ourselves the target to be as clean as possible by 2021; we’re looking at recyclable and biodegradable packaging and hangers, for example. You have to push these things – if the culture in your company is good, it makes for better product.”
Like many menswear-heads, this passion for product extends to vintage clothes too. Once we’ve taken our photographs and the ‘working’ part of our meeting has concluded, Mahéo disappears into his bedroom and returns carrying the 1940s parka that is one of his most precious possessions. “It’s from Le Vif Showroom, Gauthier Borsarello’s vintage archive. I saw it on Gauthier’s rack and just loved it,” he says, pointing out the stains, tears and darns in the coat that give it such character. “If you think about a pocket design, or a hood, or a collar, the best way to do it has already been perfected – there’s nothing really new. There are so many details in garments like this; the zip is still working and it’s 80 years old. The snap buttons still work perfectly. It’s totally crazy.”
Eyes a-twinkle, Mahéo dips back into his closet for a second time and shows us more extraordinary one-off finds; a faded patchwork denim jacket, and even the bulletproof blue moleskin worker’s trousers that his grandfather, an oysterman from Brittany, used to wear to work. They are so battered and patched they almost look like two different trouser legs spliced into one pair. They’re an extraordinary thing to see, and clearly very precious to their current owner.
Does this personal treasure trove of vintage gems influence Mahéo’s design work today? “Absolutely,” he says, without skipping a beat. “I would be lying if I said it didn’t.”