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Michele Lamy Joshua Gordon
Photography Joshua Gordon

How to live beautifully with Michèle Lamy

The many lives and faces of Dazed Beauty’s very own pin-up Michèle Lamy

Pin-up is a series where we shine a light on the individuals whose unique take on visual identity has reshaped beauty standards as we know it

Michèle Lamy is skulking, barefoot, on a patch of tarmac outside of the east London studio where we’ve been shooting all morning. Born in France before moving to LA in the 90s where she would meet her partner, Rick Owens, and open the infamous hangout spot Café des Artistes and then Les Deux Cafés, the now 70 something-year-old artist, musician and designer is fashion’s favourite enigma. Her tiny chestnut feet are curled like a bird around the edges of her chair. Her kohled fingers are constantly searching for a cigarette. When she smiles, which is a lot, her gold-plated teeth are exposed. Michèle has worn many guises throughout her life: priestess, soothsayer, shaman, furniture designer, stripper, defence attorney. Today she’s a Greek fate dressed in Rick Owens and Nike boxing boots, smoking cheap cigarettes. Morgana in grills. A weird sister pattering around Shoreditch.

Michèle tells me that taxi drivers often ask her to read their palms in Paris. Transcending trends and exuding a sensual and earthy beauty, she is the definitive Dazed Beauty centre-fold. The face is world-famous; bejewelled teeth, deep-lined skin, tattoos, the henna hair, heavy pirate piercings, and sooty sweeps of black pigment. “I want to see my eyes looking big,” she gestures, flashing her hands wide, “and I like the kohl because it sort of goes everywhere with your hands.” We’re discussing Michèle’s rituals. “I haven’t been to the hairdressers for 40 years. I’ve always done the henna. I used to have a mousey colour. I liked wearing the wigs today for the shoot because I’ve started thinking about not using the henna, any more and just letting it go.”

Famously, Michèle contributes to her own mysticism by alluding to sensational moments in her past and then not clarifying them- her precise age is unclear and she has referred to her family vaguely as “mountain folk”. A few things are certain though: she was born in France and grew up there during the Second World War and she did attend boarding school. Later she would move to America in 1979. She tells me she knew her “family were a little different - sometimes people would mistake us as Indian.”

Her teenage years in Paris informed her identity. In the late 60s, during the height of the Parisian students’ unrest, when Michèle was moonlighting as a stripper and working as a defence attorney simultaneously, she found her clan. “At 18 I didn’t look so different from now,” she pauses. “I was hanging out with transvestites like my friend Hélène Hazera but also being inspired by Marlene Dietrich and Jean-Luc Godard, and movies like Pierrot le Fou. They pushed me to do my own thing.”

Transmutation and performance have skewered Michèle’s career. “As a young person, I was aware of playing with my body. When I would perform stripteases with Hélène – at the worst fair outside of Paris– with the soldiers coming and paying it was an incredible kind of energy. It was all about playing different roles.” Her 9-5 was spent as a specialist of sexual crimes. “I passed the bar. It was a time in the early 70s when we thought we are changing the world and there were great people in jail. I used to feel very alive when I would listen to a big criminal attorney. That was a fantastic performance.” Later on in the 90s, Michele would play host to performers like Joni Mitchell, Madonna and Sharon Stone at her venue, Les Deux Cafés (“that was being alive”). And now, Michèle continues to perform within her band, Lavascar, alongside her daughter Scarlett and sound performance artist Nico Vascellari.

Michèle names Paris as one of her greatest sartorial influences in the late 60s and early 70s: “We would go to Clignancourt and Les Puces [flea markets in Paris] and search inside bags for clothes. It didn’t matter what size you were.” Michèle sees more conformism on the streets of Paris now than she used to. “It was a time when everyone was opening up little shops, like Thierry Mugler at Gudule, and things were changing. We were creating the trends - more gypsy, more bohemian, more from the street mixed up with other things. It was not about what a magazine or advertisements dictated.” Michèle has previously been open about how much Berber culture influenced her after a chance a trip to Tunisia, aged 17. “I like the Berber women in North Africa, I like the signs on their faces, I like everything, I like the chador on the head, I like to be squatting on the ground.”

I ask Michèle if she feels like progress has been made in terms of promoting or talking about different ways to look and exist. Are we freer? “I’m so disgusted, in a way, by what is represented still. It’s the same picture over and over again. I’m attracted to people that - as you say- don’t have their nose in Vogue. I want to see more types of people. Travel a bit. Beauty should be about personal storytelling. About 13 and 14-year-olds in Ukraine or in Nigeria, slowly the world is opening up to this.” I take this moment to ask about Michèle’s evident choice to not have plastic surgery. It seems brilliantly resilient in 2018, as a woman in the public eye and fashion amphitheatre to have resisted the knife. She cackles. Another cigarette is lit. “You know I spent 30 years in LA. I remember being at this David Hockney opening and there were all these women with huge boobs,” she motions, “and no wrinkles – but – they looked like they were having fun. French women will cut their hair because it’s more practical,” she falls about laughing. “Otherwise, I’m so against plastic surgery. I like to work on the body but to work without a knife.”

Michèle is renowned for her love of boxing (she hosted a space in London’s Selfridges called What Are We Fighting For? last year – a conceptual space that used boxing as a metaphor for life and encouraged community participation). “There is something about standing on your feet and knowing you’re not doing it to fight. I used to go to the gym, but I got bored. Boxing and I go together.”

 “I feel beautiful in Comme. I think of it as art and I merge with the art when I’m wearing it”

Maybe not through surgical means, but via more traditional, ritualistic ones, Michèle’s modified her body to better suit how she feels on the inside. “You’re talking about my teeth! Everyone asks about my teeth,” she clenches her mouth open for me to get a proper look at her 24-carat smile. “It started in LA. They were supposed to be le plombage [French for filling] in mercury. I had a new age dentist, who used an alembic thing [alchemist’s tool] – and I said, ‘It has to be gold.’ I smoke so much, so it’s always, ‘Oh just one more,’” she gleefully tells me. Would she get any more piercings? “Perhaps a bone,” she deadpans. “A bone. I admire people who change their face or transform themselves in some kind of way.”

For Michèle, her extensive Commes Des Garçons archive makes her feel special. “I feel beautiful in Comme. I think of it as art and I merge with the art when I’m wearing it. Especially wearing it on the dancefloor, dancing with Rick.”

There are many occasions for Michèle to wear her archive – from an outsider’s perspective her energy, considering her age, is absurd. “I’m not alone too often. For me, meditation is meeting new people. I relax when I’m talking.” I ask about how she feels about the future. She shakes her head. ”We’re such a small part of history.” I ask if she believes in the afterlife. “I’m very pragmatic on this. It’s too bad but perhaps it’s just the end. We have to do the best with what we have, even if times are horrible. I’m very lucky to have already lived so long.”

So, who is Michèle today I want to know? Witch? Fashion mogul? Woman? “It’s all in the head - these roles. The wife or the female who needs to attract a man. Let’s say I have a hard time with some middle-aged heterosexual men. I am past this urge to live by definitions of male and female.” I push her on this. “I don’t know which gender I am. I’ve always been very confused about gender, in a nice way. I feel both. I am fluid. Voila. Boom.”

Photographer: Joshua Gordon
Stylist: Kate Iorga
Make-up Artist: Daniel Sallstrom
Stylist Assistant: Milun Kumar
Hair: Pablo Kuemin using Hv-wigs
Wigs: Eugene Souleiman
Michèle Lamy wearing Maison Margiela Artisanal designed by John Galliano