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With Fforme, Designer Paul Helbers Proves the Power of Simplicity

— The New York–based label Fforme is generating buzz for its sharp-meets-soft approach to womenswear, as seen on (from left) model Danielle Littleford, photographer Martien Mulder, creative director Kate Berry, curator Justine Ludwig, and models Pure and Sabina Karlsson. All wear Fforme clothing and sandals; their own jewelry. Pure wears Patricia von Musulin earrings.

In March 2020, Paul Helbers packed his things and moved from Paris to his country home, in Brittany, to ride out the pandemic. “I thought, This is going to be the first time since I was 16 that I’m not working,” says the 55-year-old Dutch designer. “But that didn’t happen.”

A week into his sojourn, he got a call from Laura Vazquez, a former executive at Jil Sander, and Nina Khosla, a product designer with a background in tech. Despite the precarious state of things, they were determined to start a womenswear brand, called Fforme (the “f”s stand for “fundamental” and “foundational”), and wanted Helbers to be its creative director. “Paul is the master of finding beauty and strength through simplicity,” says Joey Laurenti, Fforme’s CEO. “He designs clothes that are imbued with ease—pieces that compose the ideal wardrobe.”

Although Helbers’s previous experience was mostly with menswear—he grew the men’s divisions at Maison Martin Margiela, Louis Vuitton, and The Row—Vazquez and Khosla were impressed by his rigorous skills and his ability to build a team and construct a physical garment from scratch, an increasingly rare combination in an era driven by image and marketing. “When they approached me, I could sense what they wanted and that I could bring my way of working to this project, meaning sculpting, draping, and really making clothes, as opposed to designing backward from a reference photo,” says Helbers. “We could start from the beginning, and that doesn’t happen every day.”

Luckily, he had brought along his sewing machine to Brittany, and Fforme’s first collection of 20-something pieces, made with only five fabrics, started coming to life. When it finally debuted, during New York Fashion Week in September 2022, the offering impressed the audience with its alchemy of precise construction, elegant fluidity, and architectural lines. A simple-seeming white T-shirt dress, for example, was draped so sharply that it appeared to be carved out of marble. With pieces priced from $500 to $7,500, the line offered quiet luxury with a backbone—something we didn’t yet know we needed. The fashion critic Cathy Horyn called it “one of the best collections of New York.”

Originally from Rotterdam, Helbers got his creative start at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, in Amsterdam, where he dabbled in ceramics, sculpture, and graphic design. He was always interested in fashion but wanted to “approach it in a 3D way,” he says, partly inspired by the school’s Rietveld-designed building and its modernist balance of shape, texture, and material. Sketching was not his thing, so he was initially discouraged from exploring fashion; but instead of giving up, he developed a materials-based way of working. After completing a sustainable graduate collection at the Royal College of Art, in London, he became a merchandiser for the mass-market chain Mac & Maggie, traveling the world and visiting factories in India, Turkey, and Portugal. At 25, he started his own brand, called Inch—a nod to his eye for detail and belief that “every inch matters.” The clothing was clean and unfussy, melding tailoring with sportswear, and similar in spirit to what he’s doing today. But without financial backers, he was forced to move on.

In 1999, at the age of 30, Helbers moved to Paris as the studio director of Maison Martin Margiela. After about five years, he was invited to be the men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton (Marc Jacobs was heading up womenswear at the time), and also stayed there five years. “I introduced Kanye West and Virgil Abloh to Vuitton,” he says. “I was the first one to bring them in, because they were all dressing in Margiela. When they heard I had moved to Vuitton, they wanted to meet me. They also wanted to be my interns, and I said, ‘No way,’ ” he recalls, laughing. “I didn’t work like them. They sampled and I didn’t.”

For his first Fforme collection, Helbers started with the sleeves because, he says, we use our hands and arms to express ourselves so often. He played with their width, length, and slope off the shoulders. What materials could he use to give them a unique structure and shape? And how could he disguise those touches—or the “hidden quality,” as he describes it—to avoid distraction? “Real ideas—nobody has a lot of them,” he says. “If you have a few, it’s about how you handle them and put them into practice that makes them strong.”

Most of the garments have a generous fit, but they always acknowledge the body in some way. “We create clothes that women feel very at ease in and that embrace your frame, whatever that frame is,” he says. “I love to use very simple fabrics and try to make them feel couture, and use couture fabrics and try to make them look casual.”

The spring 2024 collection includes soft sleeves with sharp angles and wide, curved ones that flatter the arms. Even a sleeveless dress cups the shoulders just so with pleats that elegantly swoop down the back. They’re the kind of clothes that you could talk about for an hour, unpacking every little detail, or that you could simply put on and go “wow.” Whatever you do, just don’t describe them with words like “tailoring” or “basic.” Instead, Helbers prefers “craftsmanship,” “resolve,” and, of course, “form.”

“When you see a woman wearing these clothes, I think you see her first,” he says. “That’s what I want—that you’re not a sandwich board for a brand. I like the simplicity of letting women express themselves through their personalities.”

Hair by Junya Nakashima for Oribe; Makeup by Christine Cherbonnier for REYN at The Wall Group. Models: Sabina Karlsson at Jag Models, Danielle Littleford at AMR, Pure at Wilhelmina; Muses: Kate Berry, Justine Ludwig, Martien Mulder; Casting by DM Casting; Casting Assistant: Alfredo Bisciotti; Photo Assistant: Jimmy Kim; Digital Technician: Jordan Zuppa; fashion Assistant: Tori López; Hair Assistant: Sinaïa Campora; Makeup Assistant: Anna Kurihara; Tailor: Lindsay Wright.

Source: W Magazine

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