for more than 40 years, France’s premier leather designer has pushed the physical and sartorial qualities of the oldest material worn by humankind
by Laura D.C. Kolnoski
Had he followed his original plan, Jean Claude Jitrois might still be a child psychologist, and Sharon Stone, Elton John, Lady Gaga, John Travolta, Princesses Caroline, and Stéphanie of Monaco, along with a host of other trend-setting fashionistas, might never have donned the awe-inspiring garments that make international headlines. Instead, Jitrois’s altered career path earned him a place in fashion history as the man who created stretch leather and, in the process, forever changed the way men and women express themselves sartorially.
In his youth, Jitrois, who was born in the south of France, was captivated by his French Air Force father’s leather aviator bomber jacket, often examining and even surreptitiously donning the garment. After choosing a career in psychology, he found himself working with ill and disabled children in a Paris hospital. To entertain and comfort his young charges, he began crafting dress-up costumes—including approximations of soldiers and firemen—for them to play in.
“I noticed how costumes, particularly leather, gave the kids a second identity and freedom of expression,” the designer recently told D’Scene, the international fashion magazine. “It’s that foundation that built Jitrois. Gradually, the process of designing and creating costumes, and particularly the way clothing and fashion are part of one’s personality and character, made me consider a career in the industry.” He became interested in experimenting with leather to create clothing in the late 1970s. At the time, body coverings using that material were typically raw, dark, and masculine, favored primarily by rockers and tough guys. Just as the 1980s began defining a new era in fashion, Jitrois, a lifelong lover of classical art and music, began to bring color and femininity to his leather designs for women.
The designer’s milestones began in 1976, when, after leaving the medical profession, he opened his first boutique, in Nice, France. His father’s beloved bomber jacket became the inspiration for his first piece, which he made for Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, following a chance meeting. The princess and her sister, Caroline, became early and regular customers. For Stéphanie, Jitrois created a blue leather evening dress, which she wore to the Bal de la Rose society ball in Monte Carlo. The design electrified the fashion world, serving notice to both the media and public that leather could be colored and employed in fascinating new ways.
Jitrois quickly opened two more boutiques, one of them in St. Tropez. Before long, he was a fixture among influencers on the Côte d’Azur, where he continued to design for Monaco’s royal family.
In 1980, he created a custom-made bathrobe for his friend and fellow St. Tropez boutique owner, actress Brigitte Bardot.
He launched his first full leather line a year later, one that included menswear. Soon he was able to open a Parisian boutique alongside the world’s most renowned fashion houses. The brand was elevated further during the 1980s when Jitrois raised the bar via creations for the iconic American television shows Dallas and Dynasty.
The designer’s next game-changer was the 1995 launch of his stretch leather collection, developed in conjunction with the pharmaceutical company Dupont de Nemours. The exotic, body-hugging pieces were soon enhancing both women’s and men’s forms. The couturier’s company then expanded to become a preeminent high-end luxury goods house specializing in leather and fur, praised for its design flair and expertise in fabrication. Some of the world’s most fabulous women—including Celine Dion, Elizabeth Hurley, Kate Moss, Brooke Shields, and Beyoncé— would wear its creations.
Through the decades, the maker’s advertising campaigns have reflected the uniqueness of the brand. Among the famous international photographers who have helped craft house style are the late Helmut Newton and photographer/ music video director Jean Baptiste Mondino, who has worked with David Bowie, Sting, and Madonna. Jitrois has cited Pierre Cardin as one of his own fashion idols, for creatively “subverting” fashion norms and crossing boundaries.
Combining state-of-the-art technology with seductive details and an artistic eye, Jitrois includes leather, suede, python, and other natural materials in its arsenal. Vibrant color and embroidery made its pieces enticing, and lining leather with a fine layer of stretch cotton allows it to better contour the body.
“Working with leather has made my lifelong passion for it stronger,” Jitrois told D’Scene. “Its versatility keeps me interested. We’re now using it in everything from dresses and jackets to leather-look denim jeans.” Introduced in 2009, stretch leather wear was further advanced by the designer, who made it machine-washable and able to be ironed.
In 2012, Jitrois received the rank of Officier de la Legion d’Honneur (Officer of the Legion of Honour, the highest distinction that can be conferred on a French citizen), for services to the fashion industry and promotion of the nation abroad.
The house creates as many as four collections a year. In addition to classic black, its fall 2017 collection for women features pieces in Empire Green, Persian Blue, Red Kiss, Garnet, Silk Grey, and also presented a limited-edition gold lambskin jacket. Zippers, slits, cut-outs, embroidery, buckles, and studs add to the allure. Menswear lines offer leather blazers, safari jackets, shirts, pants, coats, and variations on motorcycle jackets.
The namesake company remains independent, too—still owned and managed by its founding fathers: Jean Claude Jitrois, creative director; Gilbert Maria, general director; and Yann Patry, marketing director. Its international retail network includes direct-run mono-brand stores in London and Paris and two licensed mono-brand stores in New York and Aspen. Products are available in 40 countries, including at more than 20 luxury boutiques in America, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, as well as in New Jersey at the CoCo Parì boutiques in Red Bank and Deal.
The designer is taking a break from previewing his collection during Paris Fashion Week this season to focus on invitation-only press and market appointments at his atelier, he told us. Known for being unpredictable, he said he “will definitely have something new on the fashion forefront in stores next year. I love to surprise my audience.” For now, Jitrois said, he “will focus heavily on the creation and delivery of my Spring/Summer 2018 collection.”
Jean Claude Jitrois