Photo: Courtesy of Rouje Paris
Jeanne Damas’s Rouje Paris, among other "It"-girl-founded brands, is selling it online and off.
There's a fantasy for everyone on TikTok. Should you yearn for a moss-covered existence in a quiet wood or a slick skyscraper apartment towering high over New York City, rest assured the algorithm has your back. Recently, my own "For You" page began supplying a steady stream of "French-girl-aesthetic" TikToks, defined by smudgy red lipstick, Juliet balconies and spritzes of Chanel No. 5 in marble bathrooms. I scroll these videos instead of practicing my own French on Duolingo.
Clearly, I'm not alone in this endeavor. On TikTok, videos for "French-girl style" and "French beauty" have accrued 372 million and 15 billion (yes, billion) views, respectively. The French-girl myth — because it is a myth — is one of the most persistent across fashion and beauty, at least here in the States. It's accessible and dependable, executing the difficult task of existing outside the trend cycle while still remaining trendy. That a new generation would bring it to their social platform of choice was inevitable.
Off-screen are a legion of quintessentially French brands founded by quintessentially French "It" girls-turned-designers, including Anne-Laure Mais's Musier Paris and Chloé Harrouche's Loulou de Saison. Then there's Jeanne Damas's Rouje Paris, which has experienced significant growth since the now-30-year-old Damas founded the brand in 2016. It's now launching into new categories and expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint, all the while selling the French-girl fantasy, one silky wrap dress at a time. And we'll just keep buying it.
Like many style influencers, Damas, a former model who grew up in Paris' residential 12th arrondissement, got her start blogging. As the media landscape changed and Damas became an Instagram fixture, she eventually parlayed her distinctly Parisian appeal into blue-chip brand deals with the likes of Comptoir des Cotonniers and & Other Stories. In 2016, she launched Rouje as a digitally native, direct-to-consumer clothing brand, later venturing into cosmetics with a standalone makeup line, Les Filles en Rouje, in 2018.
"I wanted to create the perfect wardrobe for my friends and me, focusing on easy and timeless pieces," says Damas. "I had an advantage in that Rouje didn't need lots of funds in the beginning, as the collections were small and there were no big expenses that come with shops. It all sold out quite quickly. That first season, we were only a team of three!"
Damas attributes early growth to social media platforms like Instagram, where the brand now has nearly 1 million followers. It was a great way to build a global community while still exploring what it could look like to scale a lean company with fewer financial costs. Today, social media is still a priority — obviously, Rouje is now on TikTok (as is Damas) — but it's not the lifeline it once was.
On TikTok, the brand posts an artful mix of styling videos and more lifestyle-adjacent "POVs," directly conflating its pieces with the greater French-girl experience. Who better to do so than Damas herself, who is featured on occasion doing some variation on generally cool Parisian things: balancing on a bike in knee-high boots, crossing a street in a slick trench coat. As a tidy encapsulation of the Jane-Birkin-ian fantasy that draws consumers to Parisian clothing labels in the first place, Damas gives Rouje a leg up over many of its competitors.
To understand Rouje and fashion's Francophile complex even more generally requires a macaron-sized history lesson, going back to the mass rise in European tourism from North and South Americans throughout the second half of the 19th century. Deirdre Clemente, a historian and curator of 20th-century American material culture, explains that France was considered a must-visit for any "cultured" American up until the Great Depression, when international travel waned. In some sense, sartorially and otherwise, the French were — are — everything the Americans were not.
"The number-one thing about the difference between the two cultures and the clothing they produce is that there's a tradition of and appreciation for textiles that never really took root in the U.S.," says Clemente. "The way French people shop and consume objects is just fundamentally different from the way Americans do."
This is still true, a century and a half later. Americans are still flocking to Paris in droves. We're still trying to style our hair like a French woman who couldn't be bothered to own a blow dryer; still trying to track down that impeccably tailored pair of straight-leg jeans; still trying to replicate a uniform that we, on the whole, don't have.
According to Clemente, the definitive French wardrobe has long consisted of just a few staples — wide-leg pants, a little black dress, a cool suit. It's fewer trends, better everything else: quality, fit, style. Consumers can replicate the aesthetics in theory, but in practice, it's harder to execute when the clothes themselves lack that je ne sais quoi.
"There's something so familiar yet au courant about [brands like Rouje] that makes you want to live life in those clothes," says Cat Ward, a creator who generates often-viral fashion- and style-centric content under the handle @glowupu. "American brands don't sell a lifestyle like French-founded brands do. These brands sell a promise of chicness. They also all manage to be modern without slipping into overt trendiness. This makes buyers feel like the clothes will be in style longer, which is never a bad thing."
Damas describes Rouje as a brand "where women design for women," with the design team taking "a lot of care to develop clothes that fit all women, ages and body types" — though, that begs the question of size inclusivity, as the brand only carries up to a U.S. size 12. (Anne-Laure Mais's Musier Paris only carries up to a size 10.)
While Rouje doesn't release its financials, the brand has scaled significantly in the six years since its launch. For Damas, physical retail experiences have emerged as a priority: Rouje is a lifestyle brand, she says, and it's necessary for clients to experience it in person. She'll often pop into the brand's flagship store in Paris's 2nd arrondissement — a bright and spacious shop beneath her office that opened in 2019 — and surprise shoppers. There have been pop-ups in New York City and Los Angeles in recent years, with more to come across the U.S. and Asia and permanent locations in NYC and London to follow.
Beyond retail, there's additional category expansion ahead: Les Filles en Rouje will debut a simple, three-piece skin-care line — a cleanser, a face cream and a face oil — this spring. Damas wanted to keep the range narrow, at least at first, so to once again focus on creating fewer, better products that are very easy to use. Such is the French way, as any French-girl myth-believer will tell you.
Rouje, as with any effective retail business in 2022, is an experience, a destination, a comprehensive style of living: Rest assured, it communicates to shoppers, you may be just one matte lipstick or crisp blazer away from a bistro in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. While this has always translated to social-media stalwarts like Instagram, TikTok is even more immersive, feeding into a 360-degree fantasy.
"French girls find beauty in imperfections, and I think that's a really encouraging perspective, especially for Gen Z," says Ward. "TikTok is also so much more organic than Instagram, and it's allowed a new generation to experience what makes the French-girl aesthetic so captivating. Who wouldn't want to feel beautiful without having to FaceTune their pictures? Who wouldn't want to feel stylish without having to buy all the latest trends?"
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Photo: Courtesy of Rouje Paris