PARIS — Mossi Traoré, who cites Madame Grès as his main influence, traces his interest in fashion back to his high school days in the eastern suburbs of the French capital — when friends taught him to shoplift in Paris department stores. They were older, and more fashion savvy, in his description, sporting labels such as Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani, while he only knew of brands like Ralph Lauren, Lacoste and Levi’s.
“One day, they took me along with them, and made me take a pair of jeans — it was a pair of Levi’s,” he recalled.
Flash forward a bit more than a dozen years, and Traoré has sold his pieces in a Printemps store, set about transmitting French haute couture skills by creating a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood and his label won Andam’s Pierre Bergé prize this year. The label, which produces garments in the suburb where Traoré grew up in, plays with volumes, using draping techniques, pleating and asymmetry to build architectural pieces, like bomber jackets in white organza, for example.
“I didn’t have a background of drawing fashion since I was 10,” he laughed. After the department store episode, his awareness of fashion grew and he developed a fondness for distressed jeans.
“Brands like Diesel were gaining in popularity at the time — in my neighborhood, people poked fun of me, ‘What’s this look?’ — but I could tell that they liked it even if they didn’t dare to dress like that themselves,” he said.
“I liked being different, it’s also a way to assert your personality,” he noted.
“After that, I evolved to being someone who wanted to imagine looks,” he said. Traoré was still in high school when he realized he wanted to work in fashion — ‘I want to be a stylist,’ he told himself, which served as motivation to graduate so he could get into fashion school.
A stint at Zara gave him retail experience in ready-to-wear, but he was soon itching for more.
“I loved Armani’s story, I thought ‘I have to work in this company,’” he said.
He made the move, and working in retail at Armani, he learned about the luxury market, of its noble materials and how it was segmented.
“It was a bit complicated at Zara because the priority was making money for the store rather than Mossi, his internships and dreams of traveling to Spain,” added the designer, whose interest in traveling was sparked by a high school trip to Sicily. He later developed an obsession with India, traveling frequently to the country and learning traditional sari-making techniques.
Traoré was also impatient with fashion school — the price of tuition — and finished two out of the three years required for a diploma, instead embarking on an internship in the costume department of the Paris Opera and launching into a number of projects that would mark his career, while illustrating his knack for prying open the elite fashion realm to provide access to a wider public.
“Fashion can be celebrated with a big moment of sharing,” he said, summing up his philosophy.
Inspired by a book written by fashion journalist Janie Samet, Traoré picked up the phone and gave her a call. He showed her his sketches, which led to further introductions, and eventually, a spot on the official fashion show calendar. At 24, after calling dozens of churches around the city, he gained permission to stage his first fashion show in one in Montmartre.
“But I got it all wrong. The collection wasn’t good. Furthermore, it was an haute couture collection while this was the ready-to-wear calendar; there was no notion of strategy,” he said. And the critiques weren’t very encouraging.
Not one to be knocked down — “by stuffy people,” he said — Traoré set about planning another fashion show, which would be in Père Lachaise. Avenue Montaigne was next — after much negotiating, and not taking a series of “no’s” from local authorities, as well as borrowing electricity from the local construction site of a big name fashion label.
From art exhibits to his fashion training school as well as catwalk shows in unusual locations, Traoré has built his label around a broader mission.
“I have an enormous project — we have a mission, it’s to make fashion accessible to the most amount of people, and what I mean by accessibility is it’s through training, creating jobs for young people who don’t have the network or connections to get into Dior, or Chanel or Gaultier,” he said.
He set up a school called Atelier d’Alix, in homage to Madame Grès, in 2015. It is a nonprofit association that has the support of local authorities and seeks to land its students jobs. Around 12 students join each year, for three years of training, in skills like embroidery and finishing, with some hailing from places as far-flung as French Guyana and Tibet.
Promoting the transmission of French couture skills is not simple, noted Traoré.
“The new generations, they want everything right away, they’re not patient,” he said, noting he tells the students that he would have been happy to volunteer to work on a fashion show, to observe things.
“But they want everything right away. Reality television is a disaster, and these days some people consider social networks as a short cut to notoriety, glory and celebrity — when you speak about artisanal skills, it doesn’t make people dream,” he said.
The government and private sector could do more to promote such activities to keep them from disappearing, he judges.
“We’re in the country of haute couture and we depend on China for masks,” he noted, with irony.
In addition to stressing French know-how and materials, the Mossi label seeks out partnerships in the art world, and has drawn on works by sculptural artist Simone Pheulpin and calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy, which have turned up patterns he has applied to his sculptural pieces — minimalist, often offered in black and white, with crisp tailoring and ample use of pleats, for items like a white organza bomber jacket.
“My work today is not just about creating clothing. Of course there are the collections, and the training with the school,” he said, “but there is also a social dimension.”
The spirit behind the Mossi label, which reflects his penchant for asymmetry and draping, is inclusivity, explains the designer. Funds from the Andam prize are being used to reinforce the label’s small team, noted Traoré, who also cites Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Martin Margiela as influences.
Events are also an important dimension to Traoré’s efforts. Last year, he organized an exhibit at the Carrousel du Louvre, which featured a photo of Paris ballet star Marie-Agnès Gillot wearing a garment by Mossi in front of the Taj Mahal. He also organized an exhibit of youth in disadvantaged suburbs called “Les Ames de la Cité,” which translates to “The souls of the projects.”
“The idea is to be a brand that carries hope,” he said.