On May 1st, 2017, a relatively unknown brand by the name of MaisonCléo Instagrammed a photo of a model in a white blouse.
Dubbed the “Agnès,” the featured top was rendered in 100% cotton with dramatic puff sleeves, a low scoop neck and dainty ties that gaped just enough to reveal a bit of skin. The photo was hashtagged #handmadeinfrance #madetoorder.
It quickly became the brand’s best-selling item.
In a matter of months, it appeared on Man Repeller, L’Officiel, Elle Netherland, Refinery29 and Vogue. At one point the mother-daughter duo behind MaisonCléo had to temporarily close their online shop due to the sheer volume of orders.
The tiny brand had blossomed into a veritable fashion industry darling. All thanks to a plain white cotton blouse that sells for 80 euros. (It’s currently sold out.)
Eight months later, the blouse hype has yet to die down; in fact, I have a hunch it’s only just getting started. Earlier this week I was scrolling through Instagram when my heart and fingers stopped in tandem at the sight of an image posted by the popular vintage retailer Courtyard LA that featured a white wrap blouse with puffy sleeves and a ruffled neckline.
My reaction to the blouse was identical to the one I had when MaisonCléo’s first popped up in my Instagram discover feed: intense, spontaneous delight. I was intrigued that an item so simple could illicit this gut-level feeling of YES! That’s what I’ve been looking for without even knowing it, but perhaps simplicity is precisely the point.
Both blouses convey an aesthetic similar to that of a great vintage find — something you might spy out of the corner of your eye at a street fair in Italy or France and purchase for next to nothing from the grandmother who sewed it — and the corresponding thrill of discovery along with it.
That fantasy is familiar to almost anyone who loves to shop, but it has a significant flaw: A great vintage find is a needle in a haystack. The satisfaction of discovering one doesn’t come around often. Or rather, it didn’t. MaisonCléo, and now Courtyard LA, are making that satisfaction more available and accessible than ever before via Instagram.
It’s no coincidence that both Marie Dewet and Alia Meagan, the respective brains behind Maison Cléo and Courtyard LA, have backgrounds in vintage retail. Dewet is an International VIP Service Manager at Vestiaire Collective, a luxury resale store and bonafide treasure trove for pre-owned fashion. Meagan worked with vintage clothing for 15 years before founding Courtyard LA in 2016. Moreover, they have valuable insight into what silhouettes and specific pieces sell out instantly, as well as an understanding of what’s missing.
“There are a lot of big, rather pricey brands whose pieces are made in polyester or synthetic fabrics, which I hate so much,” Dewet told Vogue, “so I decided to start a brand that uses no synthetic fabrics at all.”
“I personally didn’t find myself connecting to how a lot of vintage was sold,” Meagan told me in an email. “After selling thousands of unique pieces you develop a rough science as to what may do well on a market. It’s not always what you think, either. Entering production ourselves, it’s a fine balance between making something that we know a multitude of women would want and also making something unique.”
The first of those somethings turned out to be a white blouse: “With so much out there in the design world, the simplicity of a cotton blouse never goes out of style,” said Meagan.
While echoing Meagan’s emphasis of timeless aesthetic, Dewet also mentioned the importance of feel: “People want to wear simple and very comfy pieces — oversized, big, airy, puffy — the looser, the better.”
Listening to what people want and making production decisions accordingly is integral to how MaisonCléo and Courtyard LA operate as brands that have grown organically through Instagram. Their followers and customers are also their built-in focus groups and cheerleaders.
Though they may have fewer resources and reach than bigger retailers, this intimate access to their consumer base is a huge advantage, and the conversation is a two-way street. Both women strive for as much transparency as possible about how their clothes are made, whether that means sharing a behind-the-scenes Instagram story of a sewing machine at work or admitting there are fewer quantities than usual due to a recent holiday.
This transparency extends to their price points, too. On MaisonCléo’s website, there is a cost explanation written beneath each individual item. The explanation under the 80 euro Agnès blouse reads, “The fabric is a cotton at 10 euros for 1.5 meter, the production (pattern cuts, assembly, finishing touches, ironing, packaging) takes approximately two hours.”
Meagan told me that if she priced Courtyard LA’s blouse according to traditional markup percentages, it would cost $130, but she decided to lower it to $112 to make it more affordable for her customers.
The white blouse phenomenon, as I’ve started calling it in my head, is not merely a harbinger of more cool white blouses sold directly to consumers on Instagram (though I’m all for that); it’s also another interesting data point in the ongoing conversation about the future of fashion.
Surrounded by mass production, over-saturation, trend fatigue and the need for new, we can’t help but crave clothes that are rooted in something meaningful.
“Clothes must have a heart,” Dewet wrote to me.
They must, and they will. Thump, thump, thump.
Photos via Maison Cleo.