Carine Roitfeld wears controversy as effortlessly as some women wear perfume. She entices it through her provocative work – imagery where Gucci logos are shaved into models’ pubic hair, where a plastic surgery operation becomes the stage and story for some taboo-shattering fashion theatre. Alongside the erotic discourse, the bondage, leather and spiked heels, there is her French sophistication and Russian descent, a mix that has marked Roitfeld’s vision since the beginning; a puff of hedonism, a whiff of seduction, with a nod to tradition and risk-taking. It’s an attitude that’s been labeled ‘porno chic’ and has made Roitfeld, who transformed Vogue Paris in the decade that she was editor-in-chief, into a contemporary fashion icon.
Throughout the 90s, her style was reflected in the seasonal runway looks for Tom Ford at Gucci, for whom she consulted in a unique relationship that did more than most to define the visual style of modern luxury globally. In this decade, she has been a fervent risk-taker with the editorial choices in Vogue Paris and a pioneer in championing new design talent. Now untied from editing Vogue, Roitfeld is a free spirit in the world of fashion, full of ideas and ambition to do new things – “I still have a non-conventional taste, but always in a respectful way, and try to keep my sense of humour as long as possible!” she tells me as we begin to talk about the launch of her evocative monograph, Irreverent.
Dazed & Confused: Why did you choose the title Irreverent for your book?
Carine Roitfeld: I love the way it sounds in both English and French. In French it has a slightly softer meaning, it’s more poetic – a disregard for the conventional point of view, without being negative.
DD: There are a lot of images of your family in the book. Why did you mix them with fashion?
Carine Roitfeld: My life is mixed with my work, so there’s no weekend, it’s everything mixed – fashion and life. I have a picture of my dad where he is wearing a Peruvian sweater and then we have Helena Christensen wearing the same sweater in a fashion shoot for French Glamour in Peru. Everything is mixed. I think this is charming. It’s something personal.
DD: What is your earliest fashion memory?
Carine Roitfeld: I think I was eight or nine years old. My mother was preparing to go out and she wanted me to help her put her eyeliner on. I remember very carefully putting on her designer eyeliner for her – it is such a strong memory. I also remember coming to London for the first time as a young model. I lived in Portobello Road and I found all these crazy looks – it made France seem so classical.
DD: How did you transform French Vogue when you took it over ten years ago?
Carine Roitfeld: I didn’t transform it. I took it back to what it was in the 70s and 80s, when it was really exciting, glamorous and took risks, and when it had the best photographers – people like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Now, those images – once so controversial – are in art museums around the world. They had the best writers at French Vogue – Françoise Sagan, Jean Cocteau – and I wanted to bring that back, too. We worked with incredible artists as well – we did incredible things with Cindy Sherman and and Wong Kar Wei that I love.
DD: And you built a home for the best fashion photographers in the world…
Carine Roitfeld: Yes, but it wasn’t easy. I had a long relationship with Mario [Testino] but many photographers did not want to shoot for French Vogue at that time. They all waited to see what it would do, as it was not considered a magazine to be seen in. It took at least two or three years to convince them, but then all of the ones I wanted to work with came – Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Inez and Vinhoodh, Mario Sorrenti, David Sims, Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber…
DD: Why did they produce such interesting work with you, what is your trick?
Carine Roitfeld: I think I just gave them a lot of freedom,and I know how to push photographers. I have a way of working with them. I guess it’s a lot like sex – sometimes you have a bad lover and sometimes you have a good lover. I am a good lover of photographers. Yes, I think you could say that.
DD: Is it your love of risk-taking that inspired you to invite Kate to guest-edit the issue?
Carine Roitfeld: We decided to invite Kate Moss as the editor-in-chief of French Vogue because I think she is a dream, and I really like her – she has a great sense of fashion. When I proposed it to her, she was very happy. We did a shoot based on the Cocteau film La Belle et la Bête and after the shoot she had to go into rehab. Everyone jumped on me saying ‘Oh, Carine, you need to stop the issue because you’re going to lose advertisers, – they’ll never follow you if you promote Kate!’
DD: Because of all the negative publicity?
Carine Roitfeld: Yes, but it’s bullshit. I would never have stopped it. We finished the issue without her and put four covers of her on the front, it was amazingly beautiful and sold very well. Three months later Kate got back all the advertising she lost, so I was totally right to follow my idea. Kate is exactly the type of girl we love at French Vogue – she’s beautiful, and not politically correct.
DD: Do you think that fashion, now that it’s got so commercial, has become more politically correct?
Carine Roitfeld: Of course. It would be impossible to do what we were doing 20 years ago now – totally impossible. Fashion is like a piece of art, fashion is a dream – it needs freedom because fashion without freedom is not fashion. If I’m doing something in fashion, I will try to respect the “laws” of the business but I will try to keep my integrity and my respect for the designers and for my readers.
DD: Do you think fashion is led by the designers now or by the corporations behind them?
Carine Roitfeld: I think more and more it’s the big groups controlling things. It’s changed a lot over the years. There is still a lot of young creativity around, but as the editor-in-chief of French Vogue I had to go to shows and see everything and some became very commercial. But a great show arrives and you forget anything ‘annoying’ and it keeps you excited about fashion. Now, I can see what I want. I am very excited to be able to work more with young designers and support them.
DD: Are we going to see you on the front row next season or are you going to be putting a collection down the runway for the front row to see?
Carine Roitfeld: (Laughs) I am working on some ideas but it won’t be next season – a lot of people like my style, so I am in talks about doing a line. I am looking at launching a cosmetics line, too – there is a brand that loves my look and wants me to put my name to a line, so my name could become a brand.. I am also putting a dream team together to make a magazine. It’s an ambition of mine to make a really iconic magazine that’s fresh and exciting.
DD: Will it be a French magazine?
Carine Roitfeld: No, there is no value in it being in French, it needs to be international and in English. It will be something less frequent than a monthly to make it more iconic, more collectable. I want to make something really beautiful, chic, different… I have to find a new way, so I am dreaming about it and working it out.
DD: You’ve been labelled Porno Chic – is it a label you’re proud of?
Carine Roitfeld: In Porno Chic, there is the word chic! And I like that, but I would prefer Erotica Chic. It’s a bit like being a singer, you get given a title by the public – I didn’t choose this title, it was chosen for me.
JEFFERSON HACK is co-founder and group editorial director of DAZED & CONFUSED.
CARINE ROITFELD: IRREVERENT is published by Rizzoli/Photography Roitfeld Personal Photo
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