Being as effortlessly chic as the French is a popular fashion goal. Onlookers can buy all the right things, cut their hair in all the right places, distress their jeans, smudge their lipstick, and tousle their blouse in all the right ways, and still not have "it" — "it" being a certain je ne sais quoi that lies in subtleties. It's why covert garments and accessories that might fly under the radar elsewhere play such an important role in the Parisian fantasy: Those who are aware are aware, and those who are unaware, well... We weren't really worried about them, were we?
This is the thinking behind Polène, a quintessentially Parisian leather-goods brand founded in 2016 by three siblings. Polène began with a collection of handbags and has steadily gained global recognition for its strong, simple designs that insiders may recognise on the shoulder of some Jeanne Damas-type. You won't find any flashy logos or hardware here, as is customary in the French-girl myth. The label strives to be "discreet," allowing its work to speak for itself through pristine materials and elegant savoir-faire. Prices are still reasonable, with most bags costing between $300 and $450.
"Our point of view, and also the whole idea of the company, is to build something from the product, from the design, from the quality, from the story," says co-founder Antoine Mothay, who keeps his own background private so that it does not distract from the brand's.
What Mothay does reveal about himself is that he is the middle child, sandwiched between big brother Mathieu and little sister Elsa, the three of whom co-created Polène. After all, fashion is their family business: In 1889, their great-grandfather founded the iconic French clothing line Saint James, purveyor of cult-favorite Breton-stripe shirts. "Its products are of very high quality, and you can keep them for many, many years," Mothay says. "I believe it gave us a flavour of what good products should be."
Polène, on the other hand, happened by chance. While Mothay and his siblings were always fascinated by leather goods (what French person isn't? ), it wasn't until he found himself in a Hermès workshop in Madrid in 2014 that the lightbulb went off.
"I stood in front of an artisan making a bag and explaining all the details about what it takes to have the perfect bag for two or three hours," he recalls. Mothay was excited by the new crop of digitally native, direct-to-consumer brands emerging from the United States during this peak Mansur Gavriel era. So he and his siblings set to work creating something unique.
Their research and development efforts were extensive, as the European leather-goods industry — much of which is still family-run — is notoriously difficult to break into. Since the Middle Ages, leatherworking has controlled the economies of entire towns and cities throughout Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and manufacturers aren't eager to open their doors to any new label that comes knocking. Mothay spent two months in Eastern Europe, three months in Portugal, and a year in Spain developing a series of systems and procedures from the ground up.