Born Sophie Haggiag in 1967, in Paris, France; daughter of Yvan (a clothing-company executive) and Nicole (a clothing designer) Haggiag; married Franck (a clothing company executive; separated); children: Adrian Joseph, Paul. Education: Studied management at the Sorbonne; attended the Institut Français de la Mode.
Addresses: Home—Paris, France. Office—c/o Paul & Joe, 46 rue Etienne Marcel, Paris 75002, France.
Codesigner for the French clothing company Le Garage, c. 1983–90; worked as sales assistant at Azzedine Alaia, Paris, France, early 1990s; began the label Paul & Joe with a menswear collection, 1995; added women's line, 1996; opened first American boutique in New York City, 2001; signed deal with Target for limited-edition collection of juniors clothing, 2006.
Paris-based Sophie Albou founded the small but successful clothing line Paul & Joe in the mid-1990s, and accrued a devoted legion of stylish fans for her whimsical, eclectic designs. In 2006, she became the newest name to launch a limited-edition, signature collection for Target. She admitted that there were no outposts of the American mass merchandise retailer in her native France, but she often shopped at Target stores when she visited America. "People said you have to be careful, Paul & Joe is a high-level French brand," she told Los Angeles Times journalist Booth Moore, but said she looked into Target's fashion-forward lines and "saw the super cool things that they were doing with Isaac Mizrahi and other designers; I was really impressed. For me, this is a way to introduce the brand to America."
Albou was born in 1967 just a few years after her mother had emigrated to France from Tunisia. Albou's father, Yvan, was also of North African heritage, and she and her older brother, Serge, grew up in Paris. "I was raised a petite bourgeoise. As a little girl, I looked very Parisian; I was forced into Liberty-print dresses, velvet-collared coats and hats. Always hats, as my mother was convinced I'd get a cold," she told Polly Williams, a writer for London's Mail on Sunday. "Of course, by the time I got to high school, I took jeans in my schoolbag and changed" outfits on the way to class, she confessed.
Albou's parents launched a shirtmaking company called Julien in 1976, and it was thriving by the time the family vacationed in New York City in 1982. There, Albou's mother, Nicole, was struck by the use of a French word, "garage," because in France such public-parking structures were called "parkings." Inspired by the arty New York new-wave scene, Nicole began designing a new line of shirts for an offshoot label they dubbed Le Garage, and its sales soon eclipsed that of Julien. Albou was soon assisting her mother in the design atelier as the venture took off, and the family opened the first of several Le Garage boutiques in Paris in 1987.
Albou had never planned on a career in fashion, but found herself immersed in one anyway. "Really I wanted to be a journalist—I like the idea of getting scoops," she told Lisa Armstrong in a Times of London interview, "but I was lazy." She eventually moved on to a job with the Tunisian-born designer Azzedine Alaia as a sales assistant, but her own penchant for clothes quickly made the position a money-losing one. "He paid me £500 a month but I spent more than that on his clothes," she recalled in the interview with Armstrong. "I ended up owing him money."
Taking a business management course at the Sorbonne, along with classes at the Institut Français de la Mode, gave Albou some of the necessary skills to launch her own label in 1995. She ventured out on her own, in part, simply because she found French fashion rather dull for her tastes. "Most Parisians are very conservative," she explained to Armstrong in the Times. "The French care a lot about what everyone else thinks. And they don't touch color—too frightened that it will make them look like hippies or drug-takers."
Married and a mother by that point, Albou named her new company after her two young sons, Paul and Joe. Her parents provided the initial financial backing, while her husband, Franck, joined the company management team as well. Albou started with a menswear collection, but it was her women's line, launched in 1996, that quickly proved a hit. Top retailers, such as Barneys New York and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, began carrying it, and within a few years her small Paris boutiques were a well-known secret among the fashion set as a place where unpredictable yet appealing designs could be found along with carefully culled vintage items. Armstrong, writing in the Times in 1999, claimed the Paul & Joe address on rue Etienne Marcel was a stopover for journalists and buyers during the twice-yearly Paris fashion-week presentations, a store she described as "stuffed with deliciously up-to-the-minute, affordable clothes that never make it near a runway, yet are all indubitably stamped with the season's handwriting—and always in the most legible of scripts."
Albou followed with boutiques in London's Notting Hill neighborhood, and one in New York City, on Bond Street, which opened in 2001. Two years later, she launched a cosmetics line, followed by lingerie and accessories. Her international appeal made her an easy choice for the U.S. mass retailer Target, which invited her to become the third de-signer in its "Go International" series in 2006 for its juniors' apparel department. Design stars Luella Barton and Tara Jarmon had already come up with limited-edition, Target-exclusive collections that quickly sold out, and Albou's dresses, tees, skirts, and accessories also proved a hit. Over the years her designs had become known for their signature imagery of cats, butterflies, turtles, and other animals, and this time she added an owl for the Target venture. "The owl is very charming and it's weird at the same time. It can be scary. I think it was perfect for this collaboration," she told Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Sara Glassman.
Albou's sons were teenagers by the time she launched her line for Target, and the designer told one interviewer they seemed entirely disinterested in becoming the third generation in the family to work in the clothing business. Separated from their father, Albou lives in the Left Bank section of Paris in an apartment that reflects her eclectic tastes, where vintage and modern mix easily. That aesthetic sense is reflected in her designs, too, and she is unabashed about sources of inspiration. Flea-market finds, Japanese manga, and even people on the street serve as creative spurs, but approaching strangers is an occasionally risky proposition. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes people are scared," she admitted to Vanity Fair writer Eve Epstein. "But I try to be very quiet and nice."
Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 13, 2005, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2006.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 6, 2004, p. 22.
Sacramento Bee, August 2, 2006.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 13, 2006, p. 6E.
Times (London, England), October 18, 1999, p. 38; March 10, 2005, p. 9; March 11, 2006, p. 130.
Vanity Fair, June 2006, p. 78.
W, September 2004, p. 310.
WWD, November 1, 2001, p. 12.