On Wednesday, April 15, 2015, Francois Delattre, Ambassador of France to the United Nations, honored fashion designer Catherine Malandrino with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of her exceptional collections which unite the energy of New York and the romance of Paris, as well as for her enduring commitment to improving people’s lives through fashion and charity.
Ambassador Delattre’s remarks followed an introduction by Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, which also highlighted Catherine Malandrino’s extraordinary contributions to French culture.
The ceremony was held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City.
As the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, I wish you a very warm welcome here tonight.
Catherine was telling me just before that for many of you it’s your first time in this building.
So just out of curiosity, I’d like to know who is here for the first time. [many hands are raised in the audience ] Excellent! Me too! But in fact, I’m brand new. I just arrived in New York a week ago and I’m thrilled to receive you here tonight and I look forward to seeing you very often here in this building.
I am very honored to welcome so many luminaries of the fashion industry and visionaries of culture this evening. A special welcome to Marylou Luther, Editor of the International Fashion Syndicate and Creative Director of Fashion Group International, who received a similar honor several years ago; to the CFDA, especially Fern Mallis; to Marie-Monique Steckel, le pilier de la présence française à New-York; and to all of you wonderful guests who join us tonight.
I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to Catherine’s family, the three men of her life: Oscar, Jeremy, and Bernard Aidan.
Monsieur l’Ambassadeur will share with you in a few moments the many reasons why Catherine so much deserves this honor. But I hope you don’t mind if I share three of my own:
First, you are a true creator – a true artist. Yesterday, as I told you, I was in Washington and I came back on the Acela. I was reading the speech French author Patrick Modiano gave when he received the Nobel Prize last December in Stockholm. I was especially moved by a passage where he described the act of literary creation. He shared the moment of doubt; the moment of solitude, the moment when one is tempted to abandon everything. When I was reading I thought about tonight’s ceremony and I wanted to acknowledge the bravery it takes to create. Thank you for that — and to all the creators who are here tonight.
Modiano also talks about how once he finishes a book it is his readers that bring it away from him and complete his creation. I guess it is almost the same for you with your creations. It is the women who wear your outfits who complete your creations.
And yes, Catherine, I tried my best tonight and thank you so much for letting me wear one of your creations.
Second, Catherine, you represent a beautiful coming together of French and American culture. You have combined your unique vision of French chic with the energy of New York.
Third, from what I understand, you’re a dreamer.
Once Catherine said, “every woman in America has a French dream.” [as an aside to Catherine] “Is it true?”
This statement made me wonder: what is exactly a French dream to an American woman? Is it cigarettes, is it cafés, is it The Eiffel Tower?
Well, I like to think that the French dream of any woman is more than that. I like to think that it is the ambition and confidence of Edith Piaf or Catherine Deneuve. I hope that it is the mystery of George Sand or the daring sprit common to Marie Curie, Madame de Lafayette, and Coco Chanel. These women incarnate dreams that we all aspire to. And I know, I do.
I would add that every Frenchwoman has an American dream too. From politicians to writers, thinkers to artists, Americans have a long history of pushing the boundaries.
At the Cultural Services here, we aim to bring French and American dreams together. And we do this through exhibitions, through books, through concerts… Exchanges like these bring more revelatory ideas – and, if we’re lucky, more persons like you, Catherine!
Now it gives me great pleasure to introduce one of France’s most respected Ambassadors. The former French Ambassador in Washington who came back to his first love, New York, and who is now the French Ambassador to the United Nations. He will tell us much more about the dreamer, Catherine Malandrino.
Chère Bénédicte de Montlaur – Bénédicte is one of the very best and brightest in the French diplomacy. We are so lucky to have her in this key position. I wish her the best and I know she will brilliantly succeed. And I want to thank her and her staff for being such a wonderful host this evening.
Dear friends, chers amis,
It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be here with you tonight on this very special occasion as we are gathered here this evening to honour an exceptional woman and an incredibly talented fashion designer whose elegance and humanity have led her to transform the fashion world and make a lasting mark on French culture in the United States. Tonight we celebrate Catherine’s extraordinary success in uniting the energy of New York and the romance of Paris in her collections, we also pay homage to her enduring commitment to improving people’s lives through fashion and charity.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to Catherine’s family and friends who have joined us here this evening to show their support and admiration, with a special word of appreciation to her partner, Bernard Aidan, and her son Oscar.
I would also like to recognize Dale Haddon, Marie-Monique Steckel, – and I should mention by name each and everyone of you.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The award I will be bestowing on Catherine tonight – the Order of Arts and Letters – is one of France’s most prestigious distinctions. Established in 1957 by André Malraux, this honor is conferred on those who have made exceptional contributions to French culture through the arts.
Visionary, artist, pioneer, génie de la mode (fashion genius), dreamer – so many words have been used to describe Catherine that I cannot possibly list them all here. But, of all these designations, I choose dreamer, in the most positive and creative sense of the word, simply because it best encapsulates her façon de vivre, her way of living.
As a little girl growing up in Grenoble, Catherine was already dreaming. She looked at the women around her and imagined endless sartorial creations that would bring out their best. She didn’t see reality as it appeared, but as a fantasy, a “glamorous dream,” as she puts it. As a teenager, the first outfits she started designing were ski suits. With these early ébauches, she was already exploring how to highlight the force and femininity of the wearer. She then began to attract attention with her own creations made out of pieces of material she found herself, setting the stage for the world – renowned fashion designer she would become later on.
After graduating from the Ecole supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode, she worked in the studios of Louis Feraud and Ungaro before being named director of the brand “Et Vous” in 1990. Very quickly, she worked to give this brand a new, contemporary image, and eventually opened a boutique at 46, rue du Four in the Saint-Germain neighborhood of Paris. And yet, Catherine’s simple, elegant designs with a preppy flair were only a hint of what was to come next.
1997 was a seminal year both for Catherine and for New York fashion. That year, Catherine came to New York because of two successive coups de foudre: first, for her partner Bernard and then for the city itself, whose energy she instantly absorbed. Working at Diane Von Furstenberg during the day, she labored at night over her first independent collection, called “Collages.” When it was introduced in 1998, Collages was very quickly picked up by the fashion experts, leading to a snowball effect for her popularity. To say that success came early to Catherine would be an understatement: after a Vogue Profile, contracts to do the windows for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and extensive media coverage, she opened her very first boutique downtown in the fall of 1998, only months after her début.
Catherine’s meteoric rise can be explained by several factors, chief among which is her passion for mixing things up. The Americans in the room will understand what I mean when I remind you of the American Flag collection, her magnum opus. I understand that women as diverse as Meryl Streep, Halle Berry, Sharon Stone and Madonna have all worn “the dress.” And later on high profile celebrities Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, Demi Moore, Heidi Klum – to name just a few – have been featured on magazine covers wearing her designs. And you have a much larger following of couture fashionistas such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Beyoncé… Bravo, Catherine, for being able to appeal to such a wide range of personalities, and for your expertise when it comes to matters of identity and culture.
I could go on and on about how fruitful Catherine’s love affair with America has been, taking such forms as the gospel-inspired “Hallelujah” collection, or her “Down to Earth” line, inspired by Amish clothing. As I said it’s impossible to list all the celebrities that wear her creations, not least of whom is Catherine herself, who, according to certain outlets, is “the most photographed French woman in New York, after the Statue of Liberty.”
Catherine channels her passion and determination into both creating clothes and changing lives. In May 2013, I had the pleasure of attending one of Catherine’s fundraisers for STOP, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking. I was deeply moved to see how many of her friends and associates attended the event, which was held in her Meatpacking District boutique. This fundraiser also provided a platform for our friend Célhia de Lavarène, the founder and head of STOP and one of the foremost experts on the trafficking of people, to develop her mission on a world stage. And I am so glad that Célhia can be here with us this evening.
When elegance meets charity, Catherine, it is truly a magical combination. Beyond STOP, you have also involved yourself in other humanitarian ventures, notably promoting gender equality around the globe. Last year, you teamed up with the aperitif maker Lillet to create a tote bag, which you are selling to raise money for the organization Women Thrive Worldwide. The bag is – very appropriately – a feminine and fashionable way to promote a noble cause.
Her singular vision of design and ability to transmit French elegance wherever she goes are the traits I admire most in Catherine. And added to these is her tireless energy for realizing her dreams. Like her style, Catherine’s drive to initiate new projects is boundless.
You are a wonderful Ambassador of French fashion and culture to the US and you are a bridge across the Atlantic between our two countries, and between Paris and New York in particular. You are at the same time the quintessential Parisian and a perfect New Yorker. You personify French style. That’s what Pascale Richard’s book on you, published by Assouline, so well conveys. And I am glad that Pascale and the Assoulines are with us tonight.
Catherine, the award I am about to present you with has special meaning for me, simply because I can’t think of anyone else who possesses your specific blend of talent, originality and kindness – indeed kindness is truly part of you DNA.
Through your innovative designs – from dreamy to ethnic chic – you have inspired Americans to take interest in a wide range of French creativity – including fashion and beyond. As it has been said, your designs perfectly unite the essential facets of your personality: in your creations, the energy of Manhattan and the romance of Paris seamlessly converge. Chère Catherine, in recognition of your immense talent and generosity and your commitment to French-American friendship, I will now bestow on you the much deserved award of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters.
Catherine Malandrino, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.