–By Sally O’Dowd
“It is quite unnecessary, Monsieur. I have many of them at home.”
–Queen Elizabeth II to the mayor of a French town in Provence, after he offered D. Porthault linens for her visit
It is with great pleasure that I present my latest interview, the result of a lovely soirée at D. Porthault on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Founded in 1920 by Daniel and Madeleine Porthault, the French maker of luxury linens still uses the same artisanal approach it used nearly 100 years ago. What I find so interesting is the craftsmanship and the true, personal effect this brand has had on so many people’s lives.
In the interview below, D. Porthault CEO Joan Carl does what every business owner should be able to do: she uses creative storytelling to bring to life her the essence of her brand and she shows intimate knowledge of her audience’s desires—whether we’re talking royalty, Dominic Dunne or Jacqueline Kennedy. What’s more, as a symbol of how much the brand means to France, Joan received France’s légion d’honneur for her leadership in building the company. Many brands strive to be engrained in pop culture: D. Porthault has made it into the highest political stratosphere.
Sally: It’s important for all business leaders to clearly describe the essence of their brand. What do you think D. Porthault stands for?
Joan: The mood of D. Porthault has always been fresh, and the color, line, and form – whether in printed or embroidered goods – clear and refined.
Each design can also have a unique meaning. For example, our clovers (trefles) pattern represents hope, faith, luck and good fortune.
Sally: When visiting your store, I realized for the first time what a labor of love a sheet can be! Given how high-tech our world is, I became fascinated with your artisanal approach. We discuss the manufacturing process in detail in our second post, but, in general, what does your process say about your company?
Joan The process begins with an inspiration – whether it be from nature, fashion, theatre, music or the visual arts. Our current printing process has changed little from the 1930’s. It’s truly an artisanal process that is rarely seen today – one that is labor intensive, but one that allows for a full saturation and stabilization of color into fabric – creating prints that last a lifetime. Other prints, manufactured en masse, just don’t hold up that well. The first printing was done with hand-carved wooden blocks that Madeleine Porthault commissioned from craftsmen in Paris. Several years later, hand-engraved printing screens were developed, and wide printing tables were designed that allowed Porthault to increase the amount of fabric being printed. Those early innovations are still at the heart of what we do today.
Sally: You’ve mentioned how somber and dreary France was after WWII, and that New York provided inspiration for D. Porthault designs during that period.
Joan Madeleine Porthole drew inspiration from the world outside of France. During a trip to New York at the end of WWII, for example, Madeleine was struck by the vibrancy of color in the City – especially the red sports cars and yellow taxi cabs – all of which formed a stark contrast to the black cars in France and the devastation caused by the war. As a result, upon her return to Paris, she created the “New York Mille Fleurs” print. At first specifically for the US market, this design has become iconic to the house, and remains a popular classic today – celebrating victory, joy and rebirth on both continents.
Sally: Jackie Kennedy used D. Porthault at the White House…what a nice bit of history…
Joan: Yes, she was a loyal D. Porthault customer and was responsible for bringing D. Porthault linens into the White House during her husband’s administration.
She became familiar with the brand as a child. Her childhood summer home was Hammersmith Farm in Newport, Rhode Island. The property – built for John Auchincloss (the great grandfather of Jackie’s stepfather Hugh Auchincloss) – was also the site of Jackie’s wedding reception. Every bedroom at Hammersmith Farm was furnished with Porthault linens, many reflecting the field flowers outside the windows. Madeleine Porthault recolored Les Violettes pattern in pink at her request.
Sally As I am of Irish descent, I love the four-leaf clover pattern. How did that come about?
Joan The French writer Louise de Vilmorin, a friend and client of the Porthaults, inspired the brand’s iconic clovers (Trèfles) design. The motif was taken from her signature on her letters to her brothers during WWII: Louise would sign her name with a large “L” embellished with a 4-leaf clover – each leaf representing one of her four brothers away from home. All boys survived, and were reunited with their sister in Paris after the war. That’s why the clover design has always symbolized faith, hope and the blessing of good fortune.
Later in the 20th century, Dominick Dunne mentioned the D. Porthault clovers in every one of his books. He brought me aside one day in the NY Porthault store on Park and 58th and said that he did this because of “the good luck it always brought him.”
For the second post in this series, please click here.
Sally O’Dowd is CEO of Sally On Media LLC, an integrated marketing and PR firm in New York. Contact Sally: sally at sallyonmedia dot net.