Rouje Designer Jeanne Damas Almost Left Paris For New York

She’s a Brooklynite at heart.

by Kevin LeBlanc

The term “style icon” gets thrown around frequently, but Jeanne Damas has worked to earn the title. The French designer and fashionable lady-about-town started her own label, Rouje, in 2016 to bring her Parisian-chic style to the masses. It’s done incredibly well, with an expansion into beauty products, a store opening in Soho last summer, and more boutiques and collaborations on the way. If that’s not enough, Damas returned to acting this year to play a true style icon Paloma Picasso in the Hulu miniseries Becoming Karl Lagerfeld. The Chanel muse and fashion mood board mainstay was inspiring to channel, Damas says, and the costume design was her key into channeling Picasso.

The two shared more in common than Damas originally anticipated, and I drew a few similarities after our chat as well. They both served as muses for designers (Picasso for Lagerfeld and Damas for herself), and both have a je ne sais quoi about them, that alluring French sensibility that turns everything they touch into gold. Damas designed a “Paloma” collection for Rouje that came out earlier this year, fusing their styles together in the most cohesive way, with ‘40s-inspired wrap dresses in flirty, summery prints. In between meetings and preparation for a Rouje event, I called Damas while she was in the back of a cab to chat about her favorite New York haunts (Lucien, mais oui), embodying Paloma, and what we can expect to see from Rouje later this year.

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What do you usually like to wear when you come to New York?

When I'm here, I like to feel naked because you can do whatever you want in New York. I like to have slip dresses; it's like wearing nothing. When you have a slip dress in silk, it’s a little bit transparent, and always with a flat like ballerinas or mules. Because you have to walk everywhere. Where are you?

I'm in Brooklyn.

Ah, Brooklyn. The best. If I was a New Yorker, I’d probably live in Brooklyn, like Fort Greene or something. I love. In Manhattan, it's intense and it's all about shopping. I think for two days it's cool, but for life, I dunno.

You've been expanding Rouje. What’s next for the brand?

We’re continuing to expand wholesale and retail. We want to have more stores, one or two more in Europe, like Spain, maybe Germany, and maybe in the south of France. We are interested in Asia because it's a big market for us, so maybe [a store in] Korea. We are going to have a lot of collaborations this year with other brands and maybe artists. It's going to be cool, it's going to be really creative.

You started the brand eight years ago and you had your son a few years ago. How do you like to stay calm and how do you manage your schedule?

I have a good team. I am surrounded by super people that know me a lot, and it's teamwork. For my son, I have my boyfriend who is great. He works from home, so when I travel he's the one who is there. It's intense. I don't go out as much at night, I’m more like a grandma. I go to bed at 9, then I wake up at 6 because of the baby. It's a different life, sometimes I have rushed moments, like doing fashion week with parties and travel.

Last year, I was filming the series and it was really intense because it's not my full-time job. My full-time job is my brand, and it's a full-time job to be a designer. It's also a full-time job to be an actress. On the set, I was always on Zoom between takes. When I stress about having too much, I just take it day to day. I try to not think about the week, or the month, and I’m like “OK, one day, one day.” It's like being in New York: I had an event last night, an event this morning, and an event tonight. So I'm like “done, done, done.”

How long were you on set for the show?

Two weeks. The show filming was for four months, but I was there for two weeks because it's a secondary part.

When was the last time you acted before then?

I did an independent film with a French filmmaker Charles Guérin. It was an alternative movie about improvisation in the south of France. I was dating a New Yorker at the time, so I was always in New York when I filmed that. It was the first year of Rouje actually, because I remember that my [business] partners were scared I would move to New York [laughs]. I didn't move.

Five or six years later, I did the guest spot in the Karl Lagerfeld biopic. I was pretty impressed in the beginning, I saw that the creative teams were amazing. For example, the costume designer is really famous in France, she's amazing [Pascaline Chavanne]. The filmmaker Jérôme Salle is amazing too. My partners in the movies, the actors, are really, really great actors in France, and Daniel Brühl in Germany. It was really reassuring and I was really confident after I met the team. After doing the costume research, I got really into the character and into the vibe of the ‘70s fashion. It was not shot in studio, it was in real spaces in Paris, like hôtel particuliers and castles around Paris. It was amazing to film in real situations with 200 extras all dressed up in ‘70s fashion.

Do you own any of Karl Lagerfeld's pieces from when he was at Chanel?

I have a few Chanel bags. I'm more an Yves Saint Laurent fan, but it's a secret. I loved the costume design though. I'm a stylist, I work in fashion, but it was completely different to discover this job, costume designer, because it's not the same. It's more sociology, it's about the psychology of the person. You read the script, and you search for the right dress because you want to see what they are doing at the moment... if she's drunk, if she's dancing, running. It's really interesting.

I discovered that Paloma and me have really similar styles. It was crazy, when I tried all the dresses, they looked like all my dresses at Rouje, like ‘40s dresses, after-war vibe. All the stuff was within me, so it was easier. I was filming and working on my Paloma collection and with my team. I am completely inspired by Paloma’s style, so we decided to do a Paloma collection, and one year later it was out, so it was the best timing.

Did you ever get the chance to meet Karl Lagerfeld when he was alive?

I met him at parties, but we didn't really speak. But he was quite a personality, even when he spoke on the TV or radio in France, it was always really funny because he was intelligent, he was passionate about fashion. Loïc Prigent, the journalist, knew a lot about Karl. He did a lot of travel with him. He's the best person to tell us about him. He tells you about crazy stories, crazy sentences that he said.

Alberto Terenghi/Ipa/

Now that you've taken on this acting role, do you think you'll take on other roles again or does it depend on the opportunity?

It’s funny, because this was the question that I knew journalists were going to ask me. As I said before, actress is really a full-time job. You have to do 100% castings, meet directors, meet everybody. And my job is a lot of jobs too, so I have to choose. But I like the idea that in creative jobs, you can be a “slasher.” I think we are a generation that are not close to one thing, and it's really interesting to explore, to get out of your zone of comfort. So that was cool for me and for my creativity too. I can't be an actress 100%, but if there is a good opportunity, it's really about encounters in cinema: with a filmmaker, with a writer. So it depends. But if I have the space and if it speaks to me, I'm sure I will do it.

What are you doing tonight in New York? What event are you here for?

It's a dinner at Lucien. I’m always doing dinner there with Rouje, because French people are like this, maybe New Yorkers too, but when you have a restaurant you like, you always go there. So I always go to Lucien. It's funny because it's French, so it's not really original, but I like the bistro vibes where you can even smoke inside. I remember the last time I smoked inside, I dunno how I did that in America. It's with friends and family, designers, artists. And tomorrow I go back to Paris at night. I'm off tomorrow, so I'm going to do some vintage shopping and enjoy New York.

Where do you go vintage shopping in New York?

I have a list if you want, but I'm sure you don't need it. I love Desert Vintage, I love also a concept called La Garçonne. I love Ellen on Ludlow Street. She has a lot of Yves Saint Laurent. In Brooklyn, I love Stella Dallas, Kalimera. I also love to go to New York designer boutiques like Khaite, the boutique is amazing. It's like an art gallery. I love to go to Bode and Maryam Nassir Zadeh. They really inspire me because it's really original for French people, it's really creative.