With porno-chic shoots and provocative child models, Roitfeld caused outrage during her 10 years as editor-in-chief of French Vogue. Here, she reveals her plans for the future.
Carine Roitfeld opens the door to her Paris apartment. She is talking on the phone but flashes a warm, sparkly smile. The place is airy, open, with high ceilings and lots of fancy cornices - painted white from top to bottom.
A copy of Sumo, the oversized book of Helmut Newton's photographs so huge that it comes with its own miniature table and costs £9000 ($17,865) a copy, stands unwrapped in the hallway.
Until earlier this year Roitfeld, 56, was the impeccably cool editor-in-chief of French Vogue, a position she had held for 10 years. To see her arrive at a fashion show - or at the Cannes Film Festival, where she hosts the annual Cinema Against Aids event for the charity Amfar, of which she has been acting chairman since 2004 - you would be forgiven for thinking her a rock star.
She looks like Iggy Pop's younger sister - skinny as an X-ray, with the crowds parting before her and three or four photographers always snapping at her heels.
When Roitfeld left Vogue in January, the fashion world speculated that she had overstepped the mark with a story in the December/January issue, guest-edited by her long-term friend and collaborator, Tom Ford, who was pictured on the cover with model Daphne Groeneveid.
The issue included 15 pages of 10-year-old girls modelling overtly sexy, grown-up clothes and real diamonds, complete with high heels several sizes too big and lots of makeup. The pictures caused outrage everywhere from the Daily Mail to Good Morning America. Fleur Dorrell of the Mothers' Union described the images as "physically disturbing" and "blurring all thoughts of beauty".
British Labour MP Helen Goodman accused Vogue of being "disgraceful and totally irresponsible", saying it should have known better. "They have descended into the gutter by doing this," she said.
"The sexualisation of children is one of the most pernicious ills of our era. They should not have done this."
It was not the first time Roitfeld caused controversy. The previous Christmas issue, edited by John Galliano, came with a calendar featuring Karen Elson tied up with curtain cord.
As a free spirit who likes to push boundaries, Roitfeld was always going to get the magazine talked about. Jonathan Newhouse, her publisher at Conde Nast, has described her as a "giant in her profession".
"Jonathan Newhouse was really cool with me," Roitfeld says. "I don't know if he trusted me or was having fun with me, but he let me do almost everything I wanted. I don't think you should be frightened - you have to follow your nose."
She denies that the controversy surrounding the December/January issue led directly to her departure from Vogue soon afterwards.
"The issue was prepared a long time in advance," she says.
"It's true that if you invite someone like Tom Ford you know what you are going to get - nothing too classic. But my last issue was not too challenging, I don't think. Vogue 20 to 30 years ago was more provocative, there was less censorship."
It was also read by a small elite, whereas today pictures of a sexualised 10-year-old will not go unnoticed by the world's bloggers - and the world's press.
She simply felt, she says, that she had been there long enough. Indeed, in an interview two years earlier she had talked of her plan to leave the post at the end of 10 years. She had built up a strong team with her fashion editor, Marie-Amelie Sauve, and her fashion director, Emmanuelle Alt, who took over from her in a smooth transition.
Over the past six months, Roitfeld has hardly been twiddling her thumbs. She has worked with Karl Lagerfeld on an advertising campaign for Chanel (something her Vogue contract never allowed) as well as on a book on Chanel dresses, to be published in December; she is the subject of the windows at Barneys in New York this month, photographed by her long-term partner-in-crime Mario Sorrenti, alongside 28 other women she has chosen, including her daughter, Julia Restoin Roitfeld.
She has also guest-edited next month's V Magazine - a 72-page tribute to Elizabeth Taylor - and appears in the October issue of W, photographed by Paolo Roversi, wearing haute couture.
Most importantly, to mark the start of a new chapter in her life, she has put together a book, Irreverent.
The 190-page visual autobiography is packed with pictures of her as a child, with her parents, with her partner, Christian Restoin (he launched the cult shirt label Equipment in 1976), her children (Vladimir, 28, an art dealer, and Julia, 30, an art director and advertising consultant), notes written to her by photographers and designers, and tearsheets from magazines she has worked for including Vogue, V Magazine and The Face.
"It's a mix of work and family life," she says. "I hope it doesn't seem pretentious to have pictures of me as well - everything was always mixed up."
When her children were young, she took them to shows and to her shoots. She met Mario Testino when he photographed Julia for Vogue Bambino.
The arresting images in Irreverent are often erotically charged. "After I finished the book I thought, I have to go and see a shrink and ask him why I use so much blood in my pictures, why so many scissors, so many white shoes with black tights," she says.
She frequently uses imagery of raw meat and butchery, which, Roitfeld says, is part of who she is.
"As a little girl my mother would always ask me to cut up the raw meat to feed the dog," she says. She still has the same knife, 50 years on.
She likes her models to show the whites of their eyes, making them look other-worldly; she likes suspenders.
"Mario and I laugh a lot on our shoots." She is a big fan of the Japanese artist Araki and describes her work as erotic-chic. "I push too far, but never in a mean way or a bad way - just to have fun. People say it is porno-chic, but I prefer erotic-chic."
Surprisingly, Roitfeld is a woman with a strong conscience about other aspects of her image making. Irreverent is dedicated to Restoin (they have been together for more than 30 years but are not married) because after a lifetime he recently gave up smoking. She herself has never smoked, and has decided never to use another cigarette in her pictures. "It's a nice gesture when you hold a cigarette, but you can be sexy without a cigarette. When you have a magazine like Vogue you know a lot of kids are going to follow your pictures. But it's not the right thing to do to have a cigarette."
As a mother, she says, she has a responsibility to her children. "Neither of them smokes. I never push violence in my pictures; I never push anorexia, I never try to push somebody looking drugged - I don't think it's a good message to give. Okay, it was often about sex, but sex can be a very positive thing. I try not to give a bad example to the young readers because they are like sponges. I see girls who are so skinny on the catwalks and I know so many of them destroy their lives and their family's lives."
And it's true, there is a mix of body shapes, sizes, skin colour and ways of approaching beauty in the pages of the book.
"I try to tell the girls you can be beautiful if you are different. I prefer personality and character," Roitfeld says.
Born in Paris to glamorous, well-heeled parents, Roitfeld grew up with one brother in Auteuil, in the salubrious 16th arrondissement. Her mother was always well-dressed, a typical bourgeois Parisian housewife. Her father, Jacques Roitfeld, was the Russian film producer who worked with Roger Vadim on Please, Not Now! starring Brigitte Bardot and featuring a risque nude dance scene. He was not at home much, she says - his schedule didn't coincide with that of a schoolgirl. When she was 17 she accompanied him to the Cannes Film Festival and was introduced as his new fiance.
"He was always a very charming, seductive man. I was flattered to be with a man with white hair - it's chic, you know, he was like Gainsbourg. He was my mentor in a way."
He died in 1999, while she was still a freelance stylist working with Tom Ford at Gucci.
"He always let me do whatever I wanted. He never said you have to study; I had total freedom." She went to nightclubs when she was young and decided on the path she wanted to take.
"I wanted to be a stylist, but if you say you want to work in fashion, people think it is very superficial."
Instead, she said she wanted to practise her Russian and went to school to learn the language and about the culture.
When she left, she started doing a bit of modelling, and that was her way into the fashion world. She began writing for Elle.
"I started from the bottom," she says. Eventually she was asked to produce pictures to go with her words, and they got bigger and bigger until she was styling fashion and beauty stories.
She moved to Glamour and teamed up with Mario Testino, who was shooting a lot of nudes. She suggested he shoot fashion with the same body language that he used for his nudes.
In the mid-1990s, Tom Ford asked them to work with him at Gucci, to help create the look that became so influential. She continued to work as a freelancer until she was given the job at Vogue.
Roitfeld has been inundated with offers since leaving Vogue but is working out what to do next.
"I don't know exactly what it's going to be but I don't want to have a boss. Even though Jonathan was a great boss, I feel like they have opened the cage and finally I have my freedom and it's much better for creativity. Freedom has a price but you feel fresh and honest and have more integrity."
She is currently working with Riccardo Tisci, the creative director at Givenchy, for whom she has been a muse as her Vogue contract did not allow her to work for a designer.
"I get propositions I never could before," she says. "My name has become a brand - it could be makeup, clothing, perfume. I'm not a designer but I have this way of dressing. Maybe I can find a way to make it happen."
And though she is not about to go back to working for a big publishing house, she is working out a way to have a platform for her images that she can control.
"I have a lot to say about fashion, not just about fashion but beauty, art. I'm looking for a new way to talk to readers. We make the dream team - Marie-Amelie Sauve, Testino, Stephen Gan. We are dreaming of a way to make something different, maybe to do it on the internet.
"Maybe in six months I will be ready for this new project. I am thinking. The project is almost there in my mind."
* Irreverent by Carine Roitfeld, RRP$175 (Rizzoli).