In a studio overlooking a flower-filled courtyard in the 11th arrondissement, a charming Parisian neighbourhood once known for its artisan workshops, Déborah Neuberg is showing monocle photos of old men. “Look at this guy,” says the 33-year-old founder of menswear brand De Bonne Facture (dbf). She points at her iPhone screen, where an octogenarian on the Métro is wearing a navy shirt buttoned up halfway over a T-shirt, as if it were a chore jacket, and a chain necklace whose silvery shine matches his mop of hair. “I always take photos of grandparents on the street,” says Neuberg. “I love their style; they don’t follow trends and they wear good-quality clothes for years. For them it is about cosy, comfortable clothes they love, not about fashion.”
Dressed in a worn white T-shirt borrowed from her brother, relaxed trousers and simple leather sandals, her bespectacled face framed by a tangle of curls, Neuberg embodies this “old-person style” herself. Indeed, she is something of an old soul: she reads every morning before coming to work (mostly non-fiction books about feminism and history), thinks deeply before answering and speaks concisely. And over the past six years she has grown dbf – which focuses on elegant made-to-last pieces sewn by top French producers – with a combination of headstrong determination and a sort of intellectual business acumen that belies her age.
So what initially seems unlikely – that a young designer running a clothing label in Paris is more interested in the ensembles of pensioners than the latest looks to come off the runway – soon makes sense. “I’m Parisian but I’m not part of Paris’s ‘fashion’ scene,” she says. It is this individual stance (and the peerless quality and old-school style of dbf’s products) that has seen Neuberg claw her way into top shops from Japan to the US. This is how you make it on your own in the French capital, in the belly of the world’s fashion cauldron.
“Starting a fashion brand in Paris is like training for the Navy Seals,” says Neuberg, as we sit on a bench in the courtyard. Her candidness is refreshing. “You know how the Seals make you crawl through mud, then climb over a wall and up a mountain, and the officers watch to see if you make it? That’s what the fashion world is like here.” But then, she adds, “once you’ve made it and have proven yourself, they’re like, ‘OK, now we’ll help’”.
It goes without saying that her journey from bookish high-school student to founder of a profitable label has been a test of mettle. She has always loved fashion but her conservative father (the grandson of Polish-Jewish immigrants) insisted that she attend business school. After studying at Paris’s prestigious institution hec and doing stints at Hermès (in product development) and in China for a lingerie brand, she could wait no longer. Neuberg started work on dbf in 2011, aged just 27, and launched the brand a year later. “I had a moment where I realised that you only have one life and I needed to get on with it.”
Paris’s fashion establishment was unconvinced by her proposition: a brand comprising understated men’s pieces made by French manufacturers. “I went to various young designers’ incubators in Paris but they said, ‘Your designs are old-fashioned and there is nothing innovative about your ideas,’” she says. “I said: ‘It is different, there is nothing like this in the industry at the moment.’ But they wouldn’t listen.”
With little backing from public bodies and no investors, she launched dbf using her own savings and money from her parents (“an early inheritance”). “If I could do it again, I would have more funding from the beginning,” she says over lunch at a nearby bistro. “The amount of money I started with was tiny compared to what it realistically takes to start a brand. I was constantly refused bank loans. I got so mad that I tracked down one bank director and said, ‘Please, please.’ You get so many rejections along the way and sometimes you need to crawl in front of people.” Needless to say, the loan was promptly granted.
Neuberg’s acute awareness of finances would become her most precious asset. One of the criticisms levelled at fashion schools is that they open students’ minds to the boundless possibilities of design but do not prepare them for the commercial rigours of running a brand. Neuberg’s business background, by contrast, equipped her well. “I approached the brand in a very different way from someone who had studied fashion at Central Saint Martins, for instance.”
For one she realised the importance of getting into the right shops from the outset – and was terrier-like in her persistence. Top of the list was Paris concept store Merci because Neuberg knew its wealthy international clientele would be dbf’s bread and butter. “I called Marcel Lassance [the men’s buyer] about 50 times but couldn’t get through. So I made a package – a book about De Bonne Facture, a leather business card and a handwritten note – and went to his office and begged his assistant to deliver it.” One week later Lassance turned up at a gallery where Neuberg was showing her debut collection. “He placed his first order the next season and has been one of my biggest supporters ever since.”
Her business training also meant factories were willing to work with her from day one. Excellent manufacturing is a cornerstone of her label; de bonne facture is an old-school – and thus wryly amusing – phrase meaning “well made”. Yet French factories are notoriously tricky in their dealings with young brands because these newcomers are unknown entities and can only afford to place tiny orders. “The fact that I understood pricing, marketing and distribution meant they were more willing to trust me.”
She scoured the internet for the finest ateliers and turned up on their doorsteps. “It was tough to find good ones,” she says, noting that in the past two decades, as China became the world’s factory, most of France’s workshops closed. Neuberg shines a spotlight on the factories she does work with: each dbf item bears a yellow tag with the name of its maker, whether an outerwear specialist in Indre or a knitwear guru in Finistère. “For me the important thing is ‘Made by’ not ‘Made in’. You get good and bad factories in France, in Italy, in China. I want to highlight the quality of our specific factories, I don’t want to just say, ‘Made in France’.”
The clothes that these workshops create for Neuberg are eminently wearable and brilliantly French. “The brand is a small wardrobe of essentials, similar to the clothes my father wore,” she says back at her concrete-floored studio. “He was always in a corduroy suit or an aviator jacket – like this one,” she adds, stroking a khaki parka adorned with giant buffalo-horn buttons from her autumn/winter 2017 collection. Nearby a pair of trousers in sumptuous olive corduroy hangs beside a tan suede bomber with a buttery texture. The walls are coated with images of nonchalant models in dbf straw boaters and Breton-striped sweaters. “In this industry there are designers who create conceptual ‘fashion’ but then I always wonder what they wear themselves. I want to make the sorts of clothes you would actually find in people’s wardrobes.”
Today dbf can be found in the wardrobes of men from Seoul to LA. It is far more popular overseas than in France, where Merci remains its key stockist. Neuberg attributes this lack of home traction to her hefty price tags. “Here there’s not so much of a market for expensive, good-quality casual clothes. People would rather spend less on something that is made in Portugal or eastern Europe.”
In Japan, South Korea or the US, however, customers will pay for immaculate craftsmanship and luxurious fabrics. Neuberg counts Tokyo’s Ships and San Francisco’s Unionmade among her biggest retailers, and is careful to nurture these long-distance relationships. She travels often to her biggest markets; each trip marks an opportunity for improvement. “I went to Japan recently and it was so humid. I realised I didn’t have anything in my summer collection for this so I added some lightweight short-sleeved pieces,” she says. “It’s important to visit the places where your clothes are being sold; if you’re not visiting them, where else are you going to go?”
With that we say our goodbyes and Neuberg is off. She waves and disappears down the Métro steps – heading home but also, no doubt, keeping an eye on some dapper granddads to inspire her next collection.
Kai D Utility, New York kaidutility.com
Maidens Shop, Tokyo
Mohawk General Store, LA
Slow Steady Club, Seoul
Unionmade, San Francisco
Déborah Neuberg’s Paris:
A low-key neighborhood café a minute away from dbf’s studio.
1 Rue Oberkampf
Aux Deux Amis
A bistro up the road from the studio. The menu features fresh ingredients from Île-de-France.
45 Rue Oberkampf
Aux Gourmandises d’Arago
This family-owned boulangerie has “probably the best viennoiseries (pastries) I’ve ever had in my life”.
5 Boulevard Arago
A bustling Basque standing-only bar that serves pintxos and natural wines.
3 Carrefour de l’Odéon
Lassance is the menswear buyer for Merci but also has his own boutique, a “really cool old-fashioned men’s store with a contemporary twist”.
17 Rue du Vieux Colombier
A second-hand womenswear shop filled with one-off designer pieces. “The owner, Charles, always tells you when something doesn’t fit. He’s honest.”
76 Rue des Tournelles