Fashion Provocateur and Haute Hotelier
by Jim Gladstone
Le vieil homme est mort aujourd hui ("The old man died today"), Gerard Tremolet explains in French. He releases a wistful, melancholy hum. It's a coincidence that we've made an appointment to speak by phone on this December morning when, he says, "the whole world is calling me."
But we need not postpone our conversation, he suggests. For him, this is a day in which past and future, old and the new are sentimentally intertwined.
As Tremolet sits in the Normandy parlor that he's decorated in a dashing mash-up of Versailles and Shanghai styles, he recalls the old man in question: François Lesage, the 82-year-old embroidery artisan and impresario, dressmaker to Dietrich, consummate craftsman. The Lesage family's fabled Paris embroidery atelier was the oldest in France, responsible for the exquisite hand-sewn beadwork on extravagant couture dresses from Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent among others.
To Tremolet, Lesage's passing last December marked yet a further darkening in the slow twilight of haute couture. From 1986 to 2004, Tremolet served as Lesage's right-hand man and the creative force behind a boutique brand which, unlike their behind-the-scenes work for the who's who of fashion design, bore Lesage's name along with Tremolet's idiosyncratic whimsy (a petite black clutch decorated with a sequined handgun; beaded likenesses of Marilyn Monroe; a gown embroidered with a crystal chandelier, suggesting its wearer had just a bit too much fun at the ball and was dragging home an enormous souvenir).
Born to French parents in Algeria, Tremolet returned to France for his schooling, gravitating toward fashion design after a false start in business and marketing. "Not my cup of tea," he recalls with a chuckle. After graduating from Paris' L'École Fleuri-Delaporte and showing his sketches at the couture houses along Avenue Montaigne, Tremolet was offered his first position in couture as accessories studio assistant for Jean-Louis Scherrer, the former ballet dancer whose clothing lines were found to be extraordinarily popular in Japan. "He was very surprised and amused by my ideas," Tremolet recalls.
After five years with Scherrer, Tremolet helmed shoe, luggage, and costume jewelry collections for Sidonie Larizzi before beginning his nearly two decades of artistic direction at Maison Lesage.
When Lesage was acquired by the Chanel luxury conglomerate in 2004, Tremolet parted ways with the company. Like François Lesage's passing, that acquisition was a sign of what Tremolet, a moody fantasist always more concerned with art than commerce, views as the death of "real high fashion."
But le petit mort is accompanied by ecstasy, death by renewal. Tremolet retreated from the mercenary machinations of the Paris fashion scene, "Paris is not the Paris of my youth, it's not happy enough, not as simple and not as crazy in a good way. There's so much stress and aggression," he says. So he found new ways to focus his fascination with old school glamour and personal artistry.
In addition to fashion design, Tremolet had always been passionate about interior design. With the exception of the occasional freelance project in restaurant or retail design, it had been largely a private passion, finding its expression in Tremolet's one-bedroom apartment on rue Bleue in Paris' 10ème arrondisment. There he created kaleidoscopic, ever-changing layers of period furniture, lush draperies, carpets, and objets d'art (precious antiques mixed with sheer kitsch) that were featured in a French Elle article that declared Tremolet, "The Prince of Pell-Mell."
After leaving Lesage, while dabbling in freelance work for Lacroix and Lapidus, Tremolet began to search for a larger canvas than his small urban walk-up. In December 2007, Tremolet headed west to the Calvados countryside with his partner, David Barré, where they threw themselves headlong into the renovation of a château and the creation of one of France's most unusual bed and breakfasts.
"We bought it on December 7th and moved in on December 9th! We were excited and impatient. It hadn't been inhabited for five years, and there were lots of problems: water damage to the walls, mushrooms deteriorating the wooden structure, plumbing and wiring disasters. Along with David's father, Jack, we've done all of the structural work."
After four years of renovation, Tremolet's bed-and-breakfast castle officially opened to the public on Bastille Day, 2011.
Château d'Ailly dates back to 1105, with the last major exterior renovations taking place in 1721. Prior to Tremolet and Barré, it remained in the hands of a single extended family, ownership shifting through deaths, marriages, and falls of fortune. It sits on over seven acres, dilapidated when Tremolet arrived, but now transformed into a sprawling carpet of manicured flower gardens and fruit orchards.
"And the décor, this is my fantasy. I've painted murals on the walls, I've sewn the curtains, I've upholstered the furniture, I've searched out the objects and the paintings."
OF GERALD TREMOLET
Rather than opting for a style aligned with any particular portion of the château's 11th-century history, Tremolet has created an atmosphere that draws on his personal predilections.
"The decoration comes from my imagination. I dream of the 18th century, of the Venetian Empire, of China, colors, fabrics, and materials are dancing in my head. I think about my visits to the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's little farm at Versailles, the Château de Fontainebleau in the town where I went for school as a teenager."
"I incorporate my memories of great Hollywood movies and stars: Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette; Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra; Claudette Colbert; Etorre Scola's Le Nuit de Varennes."
"All of this is finding its way into the château. All of these things I daydream about are the base of my decoration. I continue to change things constantly. And I am having such a good time!"
It's a good time that extends to the guests who stay in the château's two extravagantly furnished bedrooms, a bargain at 130 Euros a night. There are actually a total of 11 boudoirs in the château, including Tremolet and Barré's master suite, and a warren of small rooms they use when entertaining larger groups for special events, including costume extravaganzas for which Tremolet has sewn and collected a wardrobe of outfits to lend.
Château d'Ailly (www.chateaudailly.fr) is about a two-hour drive from Paris, and Tremolet will also arrange pick-up for guests at the nearby train station in Lisieux, which can be reached directly from Paris. A car is advisable, however, because while Tremolet is indeed happy to to arrange candlelit dinners, D'Ailly is situated in a gourmet's country paradise you'll want to explore.