The moment when H&M announces a new designer collaboration is the fashion industry equivalent of Glastonbury divulging its headline acts.
The statement tells you whose year this is, pop-culturally speaking. So the news that Isabel Marant, queen of Parisian haute-boho chic, has joined a roll-call that includes Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Marni, Versace, Lanvin and Martin Margiela puts an official seal on a title she has unofficially held for some time: the Most Influential Woman in Fashion.
The fashion obsessives who set their alarms for pre-dawn on 14 November, when the H&M collection goes on sale, won't be buying into a brand whose insignia is recognisable to remote rainforest tribes (Versace) or demonstrating their fashion nous by declaring allegiance to one that is traditionally challenging (Margiela). The appeal of the Isabel Marant brand right now is that it marks you out as in tune with the times. The Isabel Marant look is the wardrobe we want for now. In other words: for a piece of the zeitgeist, at £29.99, join the queue.
Marant, 46, is the woman behind the off-duty-model/actress uniform that wallpapers the pages of Grazia. The look is bohemian and ethnic but done in a simple, chic way that says Parisian fashion insider rather than Edina from Ab Fab. It is cut to flatter – slim jeans, T-shirts with just the right amount of slouch, sweatshirts that finish at just the right point on the hips – but never body-conscious in a try-hard way. It is day-to-night dressing for women who would much rather head out for a casual glass of wine after work than lose hours to the Spanx-and-Carmen-rollers school of event-dressing. Show me any paparazzi shot of the beautiful people looking fabulous at Coachella, or touching down at JFK, or yacht-hopping in Ibiza, and I'll show you a game of spot-the-Marant.
Details of the collection have not been revealed yet, but a greatest-hits collection has become an H&M tradition. The fashionista's fantasy Marant-for-a-song range would have to include peasant blouses with ethnic detailing, cowboy shirts, and bomber jackets in oriental embroidered silk. Cropped skinny jeans and slouchy ankle boots are Marant mainstays likely to be included, while the hidden-wedge hi-top trainer, now much copied, was an original Marant piece and is likely to make a comeback. On the accessories stand, a Navajo-style belt and/or perhaps a fringed cross-body bag seem highly probable.
On a micro level, this Marant moment is about drawstrings, ethnic detailing and all the insignia of urban bohemia. But on a macro level, it represents the return of Frenchness as an aspirational look in youth culture, for the first time since the 1970s. French labels have never lost their allure – Chanel and YSL have been the gold standard of designer names for decades – but for decades, until recently, there was a disconnect between those lofty names and style as it happens on the street. The Isabel Marant girl is the spiritual heir to a youthful Jane Birkin in the early 1970s, when she was hanging out on the Rive Gauche and wearing cute summer dresses on holiday in the South of France. Frenchness – which was always chic, but for a generation was lacking in youthful edge – is cool again, and Marant is one of the reasons why. (Note that H&M's press release announcing the collection was titled: "Isabel Marant brings her French touch to H&M.")
Marant has been a slowburn success story. For the first 15 years, her label enjoyed respect and modest sales, but it was when French Vogue's Emanuelle Alt, a childhood friend, collaborated with Marant in styling the clothes that the look caught the public imagination. These days, Kate Moss, Alexa Chung and every cool girl in Paris describe themselves as diehard Marant fans. Marant herself says she is "a representative French girl … my clothes say more about me than anything else". She wears little makeup, smokes roll-up cigarettes, and has a 10-year-old son with her partner of 16 years; she says they may marry when they retire and have more time. There is a pleasing mix of free-spirit and practicality in her clothes, which are head-turning without looking overdone. She has said that when a design turns out too spectacular or delicate she tends to go back to the drawing board, preferring to make something that is useful as well as glamorous. Her aim, she says, is to create "an ideal wardrobe, that you can do a lot with".
Marant has been a vociferous opponent of high-street copies of her designs, calling the phenomenon "disgusting" and "vulgar". Her decision to join forces with the high street suggests that she recognises that the oxygen of publicity given by making your fashion accessible is hugely valuable to high-end brands. And in a funny way, the very existence of Isabel Marant for H&M is a testament to the enduring importance of designer labels. After all, Marant-"inspired" peasant blouses, bomber jackets, cropped jeans and wedge trainers are all available on the high street right now. H&M's versions will likely be crisper, cleaner and punchier – and, if past collections are our guide, far better quality than your average fast-fashion rip off. But above all, the reward for queueing in November will be the Isabel Marant name in the label.
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