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Catherine Baba

Bringing a whiff of the Jazz Age to the streets of Paris

No one dresses with élan quite like the enigma that is Catherine Baba. She left Sydney for Paris in the mid-90s to work as a creative consultant at Ungaro, Givenchy and Balmain, making her styling debut for Dazed in 2004 for photographer Irina Ionesco. She’s notorious for cycling through Paris in perilous Yves Saint Laurent footwear, and injecting a thoughtful collage of kimonos, theatrical turbans and 20s and 30s vintage into the blogosphere. She has the spirit of a grand dowager who would’ve danced all night with Zelda Fitzgerald, and insists she was never young. Now Baba is bringing her eclectic eye and historicism to the cinema and to an opulent collection for venerable jeweller Gripoix. Dazed met with the fantastical aesthete at a rest between her “multiple rendezvous”.

Dazed & Confused: You grew up in Australia. How did you develop your eye for fashion?
Catherine Baba: I was prone to going to the flea market and secondhand stores when I was quite young. In Sydney you’re not going to find Belle Epoque pieces or 1920s anything – it’s a little bit more retro than vintage. My brother used to work as a cutter for Brian Rochford, but that was resortwear, beachwear. So fashion was sort of non-existent, but on the street there were groups of eclectic migrations, which were more entertaining and free-flowing. If you were walking with a paraquet on your shoulder no one blinked or looked twice.

Don’t dare to think about what someone else is going to think about what you’re wearing. You don’t need to be a part of the clone age.

D&C: Do you have a styling philosophy?
Catherine Baba: Don’t think! Don’t dare to think about what someone else is going to think about what you’re wearing. You don’t need to be a part of the clone age. But of course, when I was growing up in Sydney, we were obliged to wear a uniform. If someone wore Dr Martens boots they were sent home because they were coming out of that box.

D&C: What was it like when you first moved to Paris? Did you always have a lot of confidence in your taste?
Catherine Baba: Maybe it’s ego-driven, but I always love to have fun and enjoy myself, and if there’s something I find interesting I don’t think twice about expressing it. When I arrived in Paris 18 years ago to study fashion I think I did shock a lot of people, and for me I was quite simple. Everyone had a chignon, dressed head-to-toe black with flat ballerinas – there wasn’t a lot of colour. Then at the end of the 90s kids started playing with crazy colours, so there’d be blue hair, green hair, red hair, but when I arrived it was very bourgeois, so I was like a thorn in the side. I was very apart.

D&C: Have you always been a bit of a show-woman?
Catherine Baba: Yes darling, well, je ne sais pas, we all love to be on the stage of life, no? Some of us prefer to observe and some of us prefer to be completely involved. When I was tiny, maybe two, and my family was in one of these big department stores in the south of France and there was a fashion show; when we got home apparently I got dressed up and started parading and mimicking what I had seen.

D&C: What do you think of London street-style?
Catherine Baba: London is and will always be the epitome of youth culture. I have never really been young, I have always been 158. J’adore the diversity – the music scene is always the backbone in any aesthetic, from the pirate look to punk rock. It also has to do with what is happening in society. When there is a recession the art movement becomes more exciting, and music becomes a bit more nervous, more passionate. There is a vein of that constantly in London, more so than in Paris.

The music scene is always the backbone in any aesthetic, from the pirate look to punk rock. It also has to do with what is happening in society.

D&C: How do you manage to cycle around Paris in five-inch Yves Saint Laurent stilettos? Are you one of those enviable people who don’t find heels painful?
Catherine Baba: Yes, I am. I’ve been wearing heels since before I was born! I’ve been cycling in Paris since I arrived – it’s the best way to get around this city. I’m someone who can be quite impatient, and being stuck in traffic is not something that I would like to embrace in my life often. But j’adore, it’s a mini-luxury, a freedom.

D&C: Tell me about your collection with Gripoix.
Catherine Baba: It was poetic heaven, darling! They approached me at the end of last year, and I always wanted to create my own collections, but of course you need a structure. So when they proposed it, it was very exciting and I accepted immediately. It was very intense; the collection was ready in a month. It was fabulous working with the atelier. The inspiration was of course the neo-romantic poets. I was reading a lot of poetry from that period, so I was definitely deep-sea diving in all of that lifestyle, and Gripoix was founded in 1869, when you had the Beardsleys, the Wildes, the Keatses, the Sarah Bernhardts, j’adore! It sort of made poetic sense to embrace that period, because I was in it and it just so happened Gripoix was that aesthetic.

D&C: The collection is full of witty surprises, such as a cuff that doubles as a powder compact...
Catherine Baba: That’s something very personal, because I love a bag but we all need our cigarettes, if we smoke, our cigarette holder... Where am I going to put my lipstick if I don’t have room? No. I love surrealism and to play, and I love secret doors, and passageways into something else. You know, something that hides something else.

D&C: You were nominated for a César for your costume design for the film My Little Princess (directed by Eva Ionesco and based on her controversial childhood as a muse for her mother Irina’s erotic photographs). How did you get involved with the project?
Catherine Baba: I had been working with Irina Ionesco for nearly ten years then met her daughter very separately, and then we became friends and she mentioned the project of making the film inspired by her true story with her mother. It is a period film, set from the late 70s to early 80s. I love cinema – the Fellinis, the Fassbinders, the nouvelle vague, the silver screen and, of course, Hollywood – but the psychology of each character was the driving force of the aesthetics and I wanted to create a sort of tableau within the film like a painting. Voilá.

D&C: Is styling for film a different process to styling for fashion shoots?
Catherine Baba: It’s another world, but coming from a fashion background obviously gave me a different take on everything. Working for the first time in cinema, I was surprised at how mechanical it was. It was like giving birth, sort of a painful birth, but it was fabulous, and I wouldn’t say no to working on another film. The costumes were like a character within a character; the aesthetic of each character was very important, and we could see the pain or the confusion or the love through the visuals of what they were wearing subliminally.

D&C: You and Irina share a maximalist, baroque aesthetic. What do you think of her work?
Catherine Baba: When you see her work, it touches me so much. I discovered Irina Ionesco’s work through old photomagazines in Paris. Every time I would see her work I would collect the magazine or whatever, and then I started buying her books. The photos of Eva are not my favourite images or works by Irina. I always thought they were beautiful, but I prefer the iconic ladies, the goddesses.

D&C: And you first met her through a shoot for Dazed?
Catherine Baba: When Dazed proposed that I shoot a special something, I wanted it to be with Irina Ionesco, and when we first met I stayed at her place for at least six hours talking. It was obvious that we had a lot in common even though we were both completely different. Irina’s story is fascinating – she grew up in the circus, she was performing with pythons. She was born in Romania, lived in Paris – her story is very biblical, hence the continuity into her daughter’s difficult story. Both of them have been victims of an ugly scenario, but they are both turning that around in creative ways.

D&C: You have written that you were born in 1936. Why is that?
Catherine Baba: That was sort of like a personal joke. Oui, I love the 30s, I love that period between wars. I also love mythology, the neo-romantics, the surrealists. Voilá. Why? I mean, don’t ask why, darling, these things happen, but all I know is I don’t think I was ever a teenager.

Photography by Bruno Werzinski

All images shot at Boutique Nouvelle Affaire

This interview was taken from the current issue of Dazed & Confused