Carine Roitfeld on life after French Vogue

By Melissa Whitworth

As famed for her rock-chic looks as for her talents as a fashion forecaster, the former editor of French Vogue remains one of the most influential figures in the business. So what's next for the world's hippest grandmother? Carine Roitfeld talks to Melissa Whitworth about the past, the future and peeing in carparks.

Carine Roitfeld at the M.A.C photoshoot. Photo / Supplied
Carine Roitfeld at the M.A.C photoshoot. Photo / Supplied

Carine Roitfeld conducts our interview wearing a black negligee. Reclining on a black leather sofa at the photography studio at Pier 59 in New York she has just finished a day in front of the camera, rather than behind it, where she usually resides.

The shoot was with Mario Sorrenti, who this year took the pictures for the revered nude opus known as the Pirelli calendar, and is photographing Roitfeld in moody black and white for her campaign with Mac cosmetics.

The 57-year-old former editor of Vogue Paris has just become a grandmother - her daughter, Julia, gave birth to a daughter in May. But today there is nothing grandmotherly about her. She is wearing that black silk slip, commissioned by Olatz Schnabel, and a black silk robe by Kiki de Montparnasse. Her smoky eye make-up is smudged just so. The pictures will launch a collection for Mac based on Roitfeld's signature makeup style, which is, she says in fabulously discombobulated English, "a little bit destroy. I like to put black on my eyes, but I never put it on very well and I think it looks sexy," she says. "When you put it on in the morning it looks better by the evening.

It is very wrong to sleep in your makeup but when you wake up the next morning, I think it looks very good."

There's a little black star on her left cheekbone. "Since I've always wanted a beauty spot like Marilyn Monroe, I added some star stencils that you can fill in with liquid eyeliner. I never had a beauty spot but I think perhaps a star is much more fun.'

She tells me she thought of the actor Ryan Gosling to make her feel sexy during the shoot. She likes to tease. There's a Gallic irony ever present in whatever she says and a sense of theatre, naughtiness. She is undeniably alluring, living proof that a woman - or at least a Parisienne - can be sexy at any age.

The erotic has been the selling point of Roitfeld's career - as a stylist starting out 30 years ago at French Elle, as a consultant for Tom Ford during his Gucci years, and then as the editor of French Vogue for 10 years. "Pfff" she says to this. "A lot of people say I am the queen of porno-chic. Chic is good, but porno is not. I am very happy you use the word erotic and not pornographic.

"I never treat a woman as an object, and even when we use bondage [Karen Elson, for example, was pictured in the magazine in 2007 tied up with a curtain cord], I don't think the woman seems to suffer; she is never just an object. She is tough, my woman. I always think model and woman is more important than the clothes. Most of the time when I do shoots I think the girl is an actress more than a model.'

But make no mistake, the erotic sensibility is purely for work. "Only in pictures," she says firmly. "People told me I was a nymphomaniac. Maybe I seem crazy because of some picture; maybe it's my art, what I have to express. But I have been with the same person for over 30 years - we never married because I am superstitious - but with the same person forever. I've never been a nymphomaniac."

It's true that however hard-edged she may seem in conversation she is more maternal than mosh-pit. She and her partner, Christian Restoin, and their two children have become one of the royal families of international fashion.

Restoin is behind the classic shirt label Equipment. Julia, their daughter, is a model, photographer and creative consultant for fashion labels (Tom Ford picked her to be the face of his first perfume, Black Orchid, in 2006). Vladimir, their son, is an art dealer and curator, and fixture on New York's social circuit.

"I look a bit rock'n'roll because of my black eyes, my black clothes, because I am quite skinny." she says. "But I have always been more of a mummy than an editor. I speak to my children every day. We are a very compact family. For me they are the most important and they know that. I never fly away because of that, always with my feet on earth."

And now she is a grandmother. "I am very excited, but to be a grandmum, what is it? For me a grandmum was always a very old woman." At this point Sorrenti's wife, Mary Frey, arrives at the studio and, as if to prove a point about grandmeres, Roitfeld informs her that she thinks Sorrenti "fell a little bit in love today". She leans towards me in faux conspiracy. "I prefer to tell her I try to seduce her husband," she says, eyebrows raised.

Roitfeld was born in Paris to a Russian emigre father and a Parisienne mother, whom Roitfeld describes as the ultimate chic, classic Frenchwoman. One of her first memories of chic is doing her mother's eyeliner.

"It was the mid-1960s, and she was wearing a Pucci dress, and I was helping her put on her black eyeliner in a straight line. To be symmetrical can be difficult, so she asked me to do it."

Roitfeld began modelling aged 18, but quickly turned to freelance fashion styling. In the 1990s, the sexy, glossy advertising images she created with Mario Testino for Tom Ford's Gucci label (famously, she ignored Ford's phone calls for some time before eventually agreeing to work with him) not only helped to define - or redefine - the formerly ailing Italian house but were instrumental in launching the idea of the fashion label as global superbrand.

And Roitfeld's distinctive personal style and her outspoken nature have turned her into something of a celebrity. Cue another "pff. All kinds of girls and boys, they love fashion," she says. "People are very curious and they want to know everything. So before it was the supermodels or the photographers, and now it is the super-editor. Anna [Wintour of American Vogue] became a super-editor. Me, I have a strong character and a strong personality, but 10 years ago - before the blogs - nobody knew me."

One of the storylines in The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger's roman a clef about her time as an assistant to Wintour, which became a blockbusting film - concerned a French editor plotting to take over the American magazine. There were rumours that this was more than just a Hollywood storyline and Roitfeld was next in line at American Vogue.

'It was invented,' Roitfeld says of the supposed rivalry with Anna Wintour. And of Wintour herself: "She's tough but she's very honest. I like that. When my kids came to New York she invited them to dinner and as a mum those are things you don't forget. She is not my best friend, we never talk on the phone every day, but she is someone I respect, and the older you get in this business the fewer people you respect."

Roitfeld's time at French Vogue was filled with controversy - on the page at least. It was her desire to keep alive the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s, when photographers with erotic sensibilities such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton made their names at the magazine. She says that became harder. "Now it's so censured, it's very difficult, and you can do less now than you would be able to do 20 or 30 years ago," she says. "Sometimes they [her critics] were right. Of course now we discover that cigarette is very bad or of course anorexia is very bad. But I think you have less and less freedom and it is very sad because it is fashion. Fashion is supposed to be light and not try too hard."

One story, inspired by Roitfeld's paranoia about public lavatories, featured a model peeing in a car park. "When I was going in nightclubs there were cameras in the toilets looking to see if you were taking drugs, so I said, OK, I will never go to pee in the toilet in a nightclub. I will always prefer to go to pee behind a car. We took a picture like this."

It's not something one can imagine Anna Wintour or Alexandra Shulman, her British counterpart, admitting to. "It was reality for me," says Roitfeld. "It is important to have a sense of humour and always with a certain chic. Even if the girl is peeing behind a car, she is doing it with a chic attitude." But of course.

Things got more serious when, after the release of the December 2010 issue of French Vogue, which was guest-edited by Tom Ford, the magazine was accused of promoting paedophilia. The issue featured an image of a 10-year-old model, Thylane Loubry Blondeau, in high heels and lipstick, posing on a tiger skin, with the headline: Quel maquillage a quelle age? (What make-up at what age?) This, it is alleged, was Roitfeld's undoing. On December 17, 2010 she announced her resignation. As rumours swirled that Condee Nast had tired of her outre sensibilities Roitfeld gave an interview to the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

"Now it's all about money, results and big business," she said, adding, "Ten years is a long time - and especially 10 years in a gilded cage. They were wonderful years, but sooner or later birds want their freedom again."

Today she is more prosaic. "It's true, you are not free to do the project like we are doing today [with Mac]. You are not free to work with Karl Lagerfeld and the advertising. You are not free to help a designer. So now I can open all the perspective in front of me. I change job so I have a lot of possibility."

Her new projects in the freelance world are plentiful, and have included guest-editing an issue of V Magazine. Her book Irreverent, a visual history of her work since the early 1990s, was published by Rizzoli last October. She has also collaborated on a book with Lagerfeld, chronicling the history of the iconic Chanel jacket. She has styled the latest two seasons of advertising campaigns for Chanel. "Lagerfeld always calls me Mme Roitfeld, never Carine. It's funny, he's like a rock star now. You go on the street with him, it's like being with J-Lo,' she says. Then there is the collection for Mac. "Can you imagine, I am doing beauty shots, and I am a grandma? It's the new trendy thing," she says.

The other new trendy thing is that Roitfeld is returning to magazine publishing, with her own independent publication, the biannual CR Fashion Book. "When I started 30 years ago at French Elle, we never do the shoot thinking if Jean Paul Gaultier was advertising or not. We were totally free," she says. "But now I understand it is a business and you have to pay attention to the people who put money in your magazine. But there has to be a limit or otherwise you are not a journalist anymore. But this magazine is going to be totally different than what I was doing before, with a new dream team."

Later she says, "It is a lot of pressure that I put on myself. I could live very quietly, do advertising to earn money." But she is determined to do things her way. "The last Joan of Arc of fashion - it will be me."

* Carine Roitfeld for Mac launches at Paris Fashion Week and Viva will be there. Look out for our story when the range launches in NZ in October.

- NZ Herald

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