When Marithé and François Girbaud first appeared on the French design scene, the hoity-toity fashion press turned up its collective nose. In Paris, a town accustomed to the bandbox upper-class creations of Givenchy and Saint Laurent, the Girbauds' scruffy Wild West sports clothes were considered closer to no couture than to haute couture.

That was 15 years ago. Today the Girbauds have won over the toughest critics with their functional street pants and sexy tops. "They are the hottest thing in France," raves Patrick McCarthy of Women's Wear Daily. Indeed, fashionable Continentals, including Princess Caroline of Monaco and French actress Isabelle Adjani, have been sighted in the latest Girbaud.

Not content with their standing in the European market, the Girbauds have set out to conquer the New World. Last fall they launched a $3 million ad campaign featuring Flashdance's Jennifer Beals. "Finally, clothing as intelligently designed as you are," reads the ad, which shows a tousle-headed Beals in quintessential Girbaud rags, a washed-out sage-green jacket and beat-up khaki pants. "It's hard to get people to learn a new name," concedes François, "and I don't think we would have had the same impact without Jennifer. She was the detonator."

Judging by sales, and the frequency with which it is copied, the Girbaud look is exploding indeed. This year the Girbauds' nine companies, which produce men's and women's sportswear, knits, leatherwear and children's clothes, are expected to sew up $155 million in sales worldwide. And this spring they are betting on their Amer-Asian collection, a blend of Eastern and Western street chic. "The Girbauds were always ahead of their time," declares Jon Weiser of New York's trend-setting Charivari stores. "But now their moment has come."

With their Gallic inventiveness, the Girbauds have been giving Army-Navy uniforms and work clothes that offbeat allure for years. But the couple's most inspired work has been with le blue jean. The Girbauds claim to have been the first on the street with bell-bottoms in 1970. Two years later they popped up with the skintight "French" jean. In 1978 they dazzled their hip fans with baggy pants. And now it's prewashed denims with a crushed look, created by gluing sand particles between two layers of cloth.

Marithé, 41, and François, 39, grew up in the provinces—François in Mazamet in southwest France, Marithé in Lyon. As a boy, François read about America in comic books and drew soldiers in uniforms during class at a Catholic boys school. A high school dropout, he moved to Paris in 1963, hoping to make it as a rock star. He didn't. Instead, a longhaired François in boots and jeans ended up selling U.S. Western gear.

The daughter of a former professional cyclist, Marithé Bachellerie hung out in her father's bike shop. "I wanted to study drawing, but my parents thought that wasn't a good profession for a girl," says Marithé. Pregnant at 19 from a relationship she would rather forget, Marithé left her job as an accountant. (Her only child, Olivier, now 22, works in their business.) Marithé eventually headed for Paris, where she did odd jobs and concentrated on selling her handcrafted knitwear. When she met François in 1965, she was decked out like a Mexican peasant, and he was in a Buffalo Bill getup. "It wasn't love at first sight," says François, "but it was a very well thought-out decision. We're a bit like vagabonds. I think that is our strength."

In 1969 the pair set up shop in Les Halles, Paris' open-air market, where they sold their own Western wear. They decided the denim in that first collection was too stiff. "We washed our jeans four or five times in every washing machine in the neighborhood," says Marithé. "People thought we were crazy." They also treated the cloth with bleach, scraped it with emery boards and pounded it with rocks. Then they scoured the fabric with pumice, et voilà, stone-washed denim was born.

These days the Girbauds (they have never married, and Marithé uses her own last name except for business) are on the road eight months a year, visiting their factories in Italy, Asia and Africa. When in Paris, they camp out in a cramped, two-room duplex.

In spite of their gypsy ways, the Girbauds have learned some tricks of the fashion trade. Last October they put on their first ready-to-wear show. As models walked down the runway in loose work clothes, huge video screens flashed images of Chinese peasants in baggy pants and jackets. One critic wrote, "Pretty soon, if the Girbauds don't watch it, they too will become part of the establishment."

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis.