An Alter Universe

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

An Alter Universe

Article first published in Forbes Monaco July/August 2021 issue. 

Pauline Ducruet is leading a new movement of fashionethica designers calling on the $ 2.5 trillion Global Fashion Industry to clean up its act. The monegasque's  ethical and sustainable label is revolutionizing the genderinclusive runway. 

 

“Being competitive is in our DNA,” says Pauline Ducruet of her famous princely family. “We are also perfectionists in everything— not just sports.”

From age 11 to 17, the elder daughter of Princess Stephanie combined her passion for acrobatics and water as a competitive springboard diver with Olympic dreams. She trained two hours every morning before school up on the Rock started at 8 a.m., returning to the pool after classes from 3 to 7 p.m.

“It took a huge amount of discipline,” a bright and breezy Ducruet tells me from the fifth floor Riva Lounge at the Monaco Yacht Club. “You do 10,000 jumps to have the perfect one and even then, you only have one chance to get it right at the actual competition. I had to deal with my nerves but managing all that weight on my shoulders is something I apply to my life today.”

Monaco-born and raised, Ducruet admits she used to “always beat myself up” but now, with the help of meditation, has a sense of calm and is “reassured about what I am doing.” Still, certain events rattle her nerves. Ducruet launched her gender-neu-tral, eco-friendly label Alter Designs in 2019 and in March the following year, her collection hit the runway at the Palais de Tokyo during Paris Fashion Week. Even her mom was not allowed backstage. “I completely blacked out and was on autopilot to deal with the stress. Walking out on stage at the end of the show was a real achievement for me and to see my family there. I am already hard enough on myself and they are nothing but super supportive.”

“Being competitive is in our DNA,” says Pauline Ducruet of her famous princely family. “We are also perfectionists in everything— not just sports.”

 

When your grandmother is fashion icon Grace Kelly and Uncle Prince Albert rules one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, a sense of entitlement could be argued. Yet Ducruet, remarkably, has her feet firmly planted on the ground, coming across as a wiser soul than her 27 years. “We have a close family and I grew up a real tomboy, constantly trying to be better than my brother, and playing sports outside.” Creative from a young age, Ducruet says her down-to-earth nature and values come “mostly from my parents. They educated us to be stable and to be okay with who we are. My mom would get us to do manual activities like painting and drawing. I actually had matching outfits with my brother and mom—day-time clothes and assorted Christmas pajamas. I guess that was her American side.”

For two years from the age of six, Ducruet, who is 16th in the line of succession to the throne in Monaco, lived with her mom, brother Louis (now 28), and half-sister Camille (23), in a circus in Switzerland. “We lived in a mobile home with other caravans and it was super low key. Nature has been a big part of our family, and we had so many dogs growing up, and elephants, that I thought about being a vet when I was younger.” (She also shares half-siblings Michael, 29, and Linoué, 5, with dad Daniel Ducruet.)

And although Grace Kelly continues to be regarded as one of the most stylish women of the 20th century, Ducruet cites “my mom was more of a fashion icon than my grandmother because I witnessed it. She had a huge impact on my sense of style, especially seeing the contrast of her getting all glammed up for galas to the other side of seeing her in jeans and runners. It wasn’t until I was older that I saw the influence my grandmother had on fashion and cinema.”

Like mother, like daughter. At the 1986 launch in Los Angeles of Princess Stephanie’s swimwear line, Pool Position (which she cofounded with Alix de la Comble whom she met while apprenticing at Dior), she told the LA Times, “I’ve always been interested in clothes, from as early as I can remember. I used to love playing paper dolls with my mother—she would cut them out and I would dress the dolls.” (Pamela Brand who attended the event told the daily: “She doesn’t look like a princess—in fact, she looks pretty normal.”)

Ducruet comments, “I loved dress up and fashion as a kid and always said I wanted to have my own brand one day. When it came to playing with my dolls, it was all about the clothes and never anything to do with their story. Maybe subconsciously my mom having her own label made me want to do the same. She instilled a strong work ethic in all of us and pushed us to do something meaningful with our lives.”

At 17, Ducruet decided to forsake her Olympic dreams in diving for fashion. After spending most of her life being educated in Monaco (she skipped a grade in middle school making her the youngest in her class until she graduated from Lycée Prince Albert I), she left for Paris where she was a stylist apprentice at the Instituto Marangoni for three years. She then crossed the Atlantic for a six-month fashion assistant internship at Vogue in New York. “It was very challenging but formative—a French Monegasque girl on the subway of New York City running errands—with a commitment to hard work that was completely different than the French work ethic.”

The 5’7” brunette moved on to Louis Vuitton with an internship in the press office. “It was intense and extremely demanding but I was eager to work and earn my place in the industry. I learned to manage the press and to cope with this type of stress.”

She shares that while in Paris a few eyebrows were raised over her princely roots, in New York “people don’t care who you are. It is a humbling city. You get there and it kicks your ass. But anything is possible in New York and it taught me to be fearless about what I want to do and go for it. It is a struggle but when you learn to make it there, going anywhere else is a piece of cake.” She decided to stay on and enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Over the next two and a half years, she recounts how “every teacher and every class added to my knowledge.”

Ducruet entered the private art and design college in Greenwich Village with a background as a stylist. The classes in pattern making, sewing, drawing and draping provided heaps of manual work that gave her the basics of fashion technique. Creativity abounded and the different views she encountered from faculty and others in her program helped shape her own tastes and beliefs. The course on Art and Design History and Theory “was cool to see how fashion evolved at certain moments and this is where I first measured my grandmother’s influence on cinema and fashion, especially at Dior.”

New York also elevated Ducruet’s stance on genderfluidity. “I saw firsthand how the underground transgender community in New York, like in London and Paris, was not represented in fashion and that now is the time to push for this.”

The designer stresses that “sexualizaion in the fashion industry is something we need to move away from. A woman is not a woman simply because she wears a dress and high heels. It is fine to feel sexy in your power suit but you do not have to be feminine to feel feminine. The same goes for men. Everyone is different and we need a range of role models, not just sexy women or manly men.”

A fan of Dior’s former creative director Raf Simons and his genderfluid conceptions (he was the first to put women on the runway for the Menswear Week is 2015), Ducruet creates her collection envisioning a variety of people. “I see it on my mom, I see it on my brother, I see it on my dad, I see it on my friends. It is important to design for everybody because feeling confident in your clothes and your own skin can rock your day.”

"Ethical sustainability in Fashion is an urgent subject. I feel it is one of the most polluting industries and already late getting in the game of eco-responsibility."

 

It all built up to this moment. After graduating from Parsons, she launched her own label, Alter Designs, in 2019. “I had so much doubt and fear and I matured very quickly,” she laughs. “As starting a company goes, there were tough moments of ups and downs and I had people to report to. Every day I had to make an effort for something bigger than myself. It was the first time I felt like an adult.”

The Monaco-based Millennial may be a novice entrepreneur but she did not compromise when it came to incorporating her values and ethical sustainability into her brand. “I could not have consciously launched another nice brand of nice clothes. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries and is late getting into the game of eco-responsibility. Now there is a sense of urgency and as designers we have to use our creativity to bring more awareness.”

She admits it is easier to buy silk that costs ten dollars a meter than to find a fair-trade silk with natural dyes. All sourcing for her label is done in France, except for cashmere made in Italy, and upcycling means dead stocks of leather and denim do not go to waste.

“It is time-consuming and more expensive to be fully sustainable and big brands are about business and making money. The U.S. has a business side of fashion that is far more important than in France.”

She adds, “The American approach to fashion is all about clothing’s functionality and businesses rule the big designers, leaving little room for creativity. In France and Europe, clothing is more about aesthetics and big designers in Europe rule the fashion industry.”

For Ducruet, the message is simple: “Our new generation of designers is more about purpose and value of brands. And it is important we go towards that.”

With Alter Designs, Ducruet is learning as she goes. “I did not take any business courses and because I was so driven by this project and brand, I felt like I wanted to manage everything simultaneously. I have worked my butt off.” Other than a couple of workers overseeing the technical elements and sewing, Ducruet brought together her first collection on her own over six weeks. “At my first show in June 2019, I did not want family backstage because I was so nervous, This was a lifelong dream and there was a lot of crying and shaking in bringing my true vision to life without worrying too much about the reviews.”

Ducruet is not wide-eyed when it comes to bad press. “I am open to criticism if it is well put together. I do not take it personally but see it as something I can work on. But I know I cannot please everyone.”

Her goal for Alter is to grow it into a more purposeful company and become the main label for the nonbinary market, reaching all genders and generations. Covid postponed her plans for a second collection (“I decided to only do one a year”) and worldwide pop-ups (she did manage a few in Monaco last summer) but she says the health crisis has had a positive impact on the industry. “The pandemic freed the fashion industry from an archaic way of thinking, like Fashion Week. Creative minds needed to find new solutions for shows and everything, including established brands, went digital.”

Alter is sold exclusively at Galeries Lafayette in Nice and Wolf and Badger online and in London. Ducruet is dedicated to developing her unisex brand in strategic fashion cities (London, New York, Dubai, Milan and Paris) where gender-inclusivity is valued and her voice for sustainability can be heard.

Named after her two grand-mothers, Pauline Grace Maguy Ducruet recalls how her mom used to tell her, “As long as you are happy to wake up every morning and go to work, that means you are doing something right.”

“You know, my values make a difference and I need to live up to them every day with my label. I never feel like I am measured differently because of who I am but everything I have achieved with Alter I have worked for. I must be doing something right.”

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Nancy Heslin is an established journalist and lifestyle writer. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Monaco magazine (bimonthly in English) , since the magazine's 2nd issue . Launched in November 2018, Forbes Monaco is part of the Forbes family, with its 7 million readers and 71 million monthly website visitors worldwide.