When the French jeans company made its way to the US, back in the 1980s, the exotic brand made everyone wonder how to pronounce Marithé François Girbaud?
Their consistent efforts to bring out fresh designs and their desire to make fashion accessible using a bottom-up approach gave their products the tag of utilitarian chic. In other words, fashion which was functional.
It was in the 2000s when Giraud Jeans were most popular. This French brand was turning a lot of heads and the general public wanted to know who made Girbaud Jeans? And if Marithe François Girbaud was a designer?
This brand was single-handedly responsible for the revival of the denim industry in the United States. Their approach to designing and manufacturing the fabric was unconventional and bold.
They were the first ones to implement stone washing and acid washing at scale. This gave the denim a worn-out yet comfortable look and feel.
Like any famous brand, it has a loyal cult. And the Girbaud Jeans are still purchased by the fans in underground markets after a pair goes through a facelift (most likely making it a slim fit).
It is intriguing, if all was well then what happened to the brand? And if Marithe François Girbaud is still in business?
Girbaud Jeans Background and History
The brand gets its name from the two founders namely, François Girbaud and Marithé Bachellerie. The business partners were once lovers but they were only married to their work and not to each other.
When people say ‘Girbauds’ they are either referring to both the designers or the brand itself. Both of them started their career in 1964 as stylists at a Parisian garment shop.
Very early on they proved they had a knack for blending traditional styles with unconventional designs in a seamless manner.
Thereby, their talent helped them in landing gigs as stylists/designers in the film industry of France. This is when they collaborated and made connections with French artists and creatives.
Most notably Jacques Rozenker, a lesser-known French film director, who made a significant contribution to the French New Wave Cinema movement. This filmmaker helped the designer duo in establishing their first company in 1972.
In the year 1983, the duo achieved a major milestone. They designed the costumes for the lead pair of the Hollywood movie ‘Flashdance’. It was the third biggest blockbuster of that year.
The costumes worn by the ‘Flashdance’ stars, Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri put them on the map. And the subsequent endorsement by Beals helped the brand to expand its operations in the US.
Rise of Girbaud Jeans
The denim brand was successfully climbing the ladder of the fashion and clothing industry. The duo positioned themselves as visionaries with their concept-driven designs.
They were revered for bringing high-fashion sensibilities to casualwear. As it seldom happens (even today) that a streetwear brand with a mass appeal is spoken highly of in the elite fashion circles.
The founder-designer pair was able to achieve such a high stature because they were street smart and conceptually witty in equal amounts.
They garnered a lot of attention in the fashion industry as their work had a cosmopolitan appeal. They bridged the gap between the eastern and western worlds time and again.
In their Amerasian collection (1984), they made drawstring jackets which were huge and boxy, inspired by China. And the cylindrical pants were inspired by Middle Eastern attire. With these styles, they redefined the American and European notion of the ‘fit’.
Kaboul/Champs Elysées collection was another example where they infused different styles from various parts of the world in their designs. This collection was so appealing to the masses that it was worn across the globe – be it in Europe or the Middle East, with equal ease.
Cargo pants existed way before Girbauds made them, but the pockets specifically designed to meet the needs of an urban-dweller were popularised by this brand.
They made the pockets more baggy and deep for cell phones & personal digital assistants not only in their cargo pants but in their range of t-shirts as well.
But their most loved product is Shuttle Jeans. This piece of work remains the most popular article the clothing company ever produced.
The jeans carried multiple velcro straps. It was to be cinched around the knees and ankles to give it a puffed-up, balloon-like look.
This design was inspired by astronauts’ uniform, the spacesuit. It was launched in 1998, just two years shy of the turn of the century. It became not only huge but a raging hit.
This trend continued well into the 2000s and the shuttle jeans went on to become a staple across the country. And subsequently, the company enjoyed its best days in the United States.
The denim designers indulged themselves in every aspect of producing a clothing article. Though it’s common for designers to experiment with different fabrics, the Girbauds were not merely experimenting, they were innovating fabrics and allied products.
They played with fabrics that made denim not lose its color even after it was washed multiple times. This project was called ‘Blue Eternal’. Under this scheme, they also tried their hand at creating a detergent that could revive old denim.
In order to have flexibility while designing, they pioneered infusing synthetic fibres with natural fibres which allowed them to be more creative and express themselves better.
Is Marithe François Girbaud Still in Business?
The brand’s sales dip is accredited to the global financial crisis and the growing concerns for environment-friendly clothes, but there’s more to the story.
Girbauds had always suffered from the issue of growing too fast too soon. On the surface level, it might look like a good problem to have but it proved to be a manufacturing and logistics nightmare for its manufacturers.
The brand had two distinct licensees in its tenure in the United States. The first was V.F. Corporation and the second was I.C. Isaacs (now Passport Brands).
In 1992, V.F. corporation enjoyed the best year since it got the licensing for Girbauds, they made $250 million in that year. Hence, they wanted to expand quickly which led to overexposure and it resulted in a heavy loss.
After V.F. Corp. failed to save the brand’s manufacturing, the licensing (for men’s apparel) was transferred to I.C. Issacs in 1997. And the next year they acquired the license for women’s apparel as well.
It was in 1998, that Isaacs and Girbauds released the Shuttle Jeans in tandem, which was a huge hit. This success soon turned to be a double-edged sword for this partnership.
The Isaacs were going through financial problems throughout the 1990s and 2000s. This led them to drop a lot of clients but Girbauds were their saving grace.
Naturally, they wanted to stick to proven products and enhance their profits. But they started stifling the creative freedom of the Girbauds during this time.
Francois Girbaud felt restricted because they had to appeal to a broader audience and make the label’s product more relatable, comfortable, and practical.
Though their designs were always focused on utility, they were far from sticking to the mainstream idea of fashion. And this pent-up anger was waiting to explode like a time bomb.
In the year 2000, at the launch of their fall collection, he came out with frustration and he vehemently showed his disdain towards his inability to innovate and express through their work.
He went on to say, “I have to talk like that”—he flashed a gang hand-sign—“and speak like that”—he flashed another gang hand-sign—“and move like that”—he grabbed his crotch—“and it’s ridiculous!”.
His remarks clearly rubbed people in the wrong way. Especially people of African-American descent and Hispanic communities.
But he later on clarified that he was merely showing his frustration as the company was being squared off as just another hip-hop brand. And he never meant to distance himself from his fans (including the aforementioned communities).
But the harm was done, and the apology and clarification could not salvage their brand image. And it only added to the list of problems Girbaud Jeans was facing.
Another reason for the company’s downfall was the growing awareness of the unethical ways in which denim was manufactured and how it impacted the environment.
Furthermore, the typical production of a single denim product would cost 8 gallons of water. That is equivalent to 3 days worth of water used by an average American household.
On top of that, the acid washing technique (popularized by Girbauds) involves working with materials that contain carcinogens. And prolonged exposure to the chemicals is a sure-shot way of getting cancer.
The final nail in the coffin appeared in the form of the 2008 financial crisis. Since the Isaacs were also facing financial issues they had a tough time paying their employees. Most of their workforce left and some even filed lawsuits.
After many failed attempts to keep the ship afloat, Girbauds finally declared bankruptcy in 2012.
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What Happened to Girbaud Jeans?
In 2015, Marithé Bachellerie and François Girbaud created a new company and named it Mad Lane. They started from scratch and they don’t have brick-and-mortar shops anymore.
Instead, they have travelling stores (aka itinerant concept stores). Like art exhibitions, they set up shop in one place for a given amount of time, where they showcase their own products and works of other designers and artists as well.
This has been working well for the duo so far and they are taking things one day at a time. Their core focus is to design fewer products to easily manage their SKU (Stock keeping unit).
Girbauds can also be found in global fashion forums (but mostly sticking to European circles) using their influence to promote sustainable and eco-friendly practices in the clothing industry.
As they feel immensely responsible for introducing ill practices back in the 1970s to 1980s.