Designer Roland Mouret was working alone at his studio in London’s Chelsea neighborhood last summer when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it, and there stood a girl who looked remarkably like Scarlett Johansson. “Are you a lookalike or the real one?” asked Mouret. “The real one,” she answered. “I’ve got some paparazzi following me.” Eager to help the damsel in distress, Mouret invited the actress inside for some temporary shelter. They talked, she tried on some of his dresses, and then she disappeared back onto the streets. “After that I didn’t hear from her,” says Mouret. Not until six months later, when Johansson’s stylist called. “Scarlett would like you to do her dress for the Golden Globes,” she said.
Wearing one of his gowns to the Oscars as well, Johansson quickly joined the likes of Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman and Sienna Miller as a Mouret devotee. “One of the things I love most is his admiration of the female form,” says Johansson. “He celebrates shapes and curves, and you can see that in his work.”
The French-born Mouret, 43, who is gay, is the first to admit he doesn’t focus on women 24/7. But, he says, “my job allows me to be straight 10 hours a day”—and only women inspire his designs. “For me, a woman is just like a mirror ball,” he says. “I try to catch new mirrors of her personality.” Since his first collection in 1998, his ultra-feminine designs, from signature draped gowns to formfitting suits, have caused a stir. In 2003 he brought his brand to the U.S. “Mouret can make a body look beautiful with a rectangle of jersey and a few well-placed knots,” wrote one fashion critic of his debut show in New York. Last year his revenues reached $2.4 million.
All that dough hasn’t done much for his own wardrobe. Wearing dirty jeans, Adidas sneakers and a plain brown sweatshirt with a couple of stray needles nestled in the fabric, Mouret, whose only bit of flash is a rough-cut diamond from his jewelry line that he wears around his neck, is more wary of appearing pretentious than poor. “It’s too pompous for me,” he says of posing for a photo on a sofa at his studio, suggesting a shot of him working instead.
He certainly had humble beginnings. His passion for style, he says, began at his father’s butcher shop in Lourdes, where his mother, a waitress, and father raised him and his two sisters. While working at the shop as a teenager, he became intrigued by the different ways he could fold his apron in order to hide the blood stains. “And the knives—they’re like scissors,” he says. “I learned from my dad to go for it. To cut.” He learned to sew from the family’s landlord, whom he lovingly refers to as his grandmother.
In his 20s and 30s Mouret slowly moved his way up the fashion ladder from a Paris runway model to stylist to creative director for a trendy label called People Corporation. Still, when he created his first collection, “I didn’t even know how to sew a button hole,” he says. “So I used hatpins to close a dress. Hatpins!” In two months, working out of his flat in London, where he moved in 1991, he designed a 15-piece ’50s-inspired collection. As a part owner of a popular café in London called Freedom, Mouret had made a lot of fashionable friends, many of whom made an appearance at his first show, in February 1998. It was a raving success. Wrote Vogue’s Plum Sykes of the collection: “The ladies and coolsters will be lining up.”
They still are. Meanwhile, Mouret’s must-have item is the next season of 24. “I like to wait for it on DVD and watch it all in a row with four hours of sleep in the middle,” he says. “I have my glass of wine, I don’t answer the phone. It’s just like I’m in 24.” When he’s not in front of the TV or watching movies (he sees up to six a week), he’s hanging out with friends. “Right now life is as good as it gets,” says Mouret. “For years I’ve been waiting to be a designer, and now I can say I’m a designer—and I love it.”
Jennifer Wulff. Courtney Rubin in London