It is a sunny September afternoon when CARINE ROITFELD, fashion icon and now-legendary editor of Vogue Paris, comes trip-trapping and beaming up the Avenue George V. “You look so skinny, I hardly recognise you!” she begins, charming and perfectly flirtatious from the off. Carine, however, is looking a bit chubby; a couple of stone seem to have been put on in all the wrong places. Only joking. Fashion’s best front-row legs and most influential stick physique are perfectly turned-out, as they surely will be for every day Roitfeld lives and breathes. I can’t be bothered to ask exactly what she’s wearing, but the shoes are worth licking. We repair to a nearby corner coffee spot, surely the perfect interview setting for the woman who is virtually single-handedly creating a vibrant new café society feel at the heart of modern Paris.
ASHLEY HEATH: Carine, let’s start big. You’re actually redefining Paris, aren’t you? I told you before that I feel you’re reinventing the café society. Your magazine is extraordinary in managing this very inclusive mix of people and ideas, from the brazenly showy, to the left field and arty, to the obscure and maverick.
CARINE ROITFELD: Well I do have all these different faces in me. I love fun, I am not bourgeois, but I love the princesses and I love the gutter too sometimes. I want all of these things to work together. I think Vogue Paris is a bit of a snob magazine, but it has to be snob in a nice way. Snob can be good, too.
It’s not French Vogue, it’s Vogue Paris. That seems important.
It’s a good moment for Paris. I think I’m lucky because I took over Vogue at just the same moment that a lot of things started to happen in Paris. There was a moment for Dior and for Vuitton, but now they’re a bit old and there’s all these other houses coming back too. It was my thought that in fashion we could bring back all the old big name houses like Rochas, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Chloé. All these houses had new interesting energy. Right now, Paris is at the center of what’s happening in fashion and all the people want to be here again, they’re happy to visit. So I want my Vogue to be at the very heart of all this.
And beyond fashion?
“I never go to the archive. I never look back.”
Well, I think what’s really important is that they’re taking more care of Paris now. I’ve always lived here and I’ve seen what they’re doing to make the city more beautiful and clean and simple. They’ve rebuilt the Grand Palais, they’re opening up the museums and putting new exhibitions on. They’re taking care of the gardens and generally making the city more beautiful than before. The authorities have eased up too. It was forbidden to film inside the castle at Versailles before, but now they’ve let Sofia Coppola in there to make a film about Marie Antoinette. These things make a difference. A lot of foreigners are coming now …
How would you sum up the Paris attitude right now?
Well, I still don’t think the attitude of Parisians is very nice. They’re not really very smiley. But there’s something in the moment that has this magic and somehow it all works! There’s not one leading figure or politician who has done this. It’s like a dinner party when all these people come together and it works and it’s great fun. Another time you can have the same people and it won’t work. It’s just the time I think.
How difficult do you find it to transfer all this energy into the pages of Vogue?
I hope it looks easy to the reader but the truth is it’s difficult to organize everything. There’s actually not a lot of money available for budgets. But at the end of the day we will make it work. I’m coming to the office each weekend, but I don’t care, I love being the editor of Paris Vogue. You know, for ten or even twenty years before me I don’t think the magazine was so good. But before this, during the time of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, it was an incredible magazine.
The magazine had great writers too like Françoise Sagan.
Exactly, and all the great names of art and painting and film too. They had the special Christmas issues and people like Cocteau, Baryshnikov, David Hockney, Orson Welles, Roman Polanski were all contributing and acting as special editor-in-chief. I’ve tried to go back to this tradition, having special issues by Catherine Deneuve and by Sofia Coppola.
What was your starting point for change? It certainly wasn’t revisiting past glories and reheating the Vogue archive, was it?
I never go to the archive. I never look back. I’m a very visual person and I think before maybe the magazine had some very good things but the pictures were just not good enough. I tried straightaway to give back to Vogue Paris the beauty of the pictures. That was the big thing for me. I don’t think I have a big ego, but I really do have ideals. I wanted to put this magazine at a higher level very quickly. I wanted to have the biggest name photographers in the magazine and as we don’t have any money I had to make sure they’re happy to be in the magazine. There’s that whole gymnastics of keeping the photographers happy and getting what you want and keeping the advertisers happy too. And in fact this is now the most successful time in terms of advertising pages at Vogue Paris since 1985.
You’ve been in the job three years, how long did it honestly take to see that commercial turn-around?
It took two years for us to be happy with what was happening with the advertisers. But every month it gets better and better. It has really taken all three years to be honest. It really takes time, even with Vogue.
“People used to say I was a nymphomaniac because of all the sex in my pictures. But I’m really not like that”
The whole package is impressive. You even manage to make advertorials look fantastic and inspiring.
I do want it all to be at a very high level. Even if it’s jeans and a T-shirt it has to look incredible. So, yes, we can make jeans and T- shirt promotions look high level too. We do a lot of promotions now. It’s good for the magazine because it’s bringing in a lot of money, but I don’t think the reader really distinguishes too much between editorial and promotions. Who is David Sims? He might have shot a whole issue for me, but the reader doesn’t know who David Sims is, she just knows beautiful pictures.
Tell me about the shift in art direction from M/M to Baron & Baron.
I think as a designer Fabien Baron is better at magazines than M/M, knowing what a magazine is and needs to be. He’s just changed the whole front of the book again because he knows that when you’re successful then all the other magazines try and look like you. To me he’s a magician. M/M I love, but my honest feeling is that they’re good to do something special for you but that they’re not so good for the long distance. But after we split we stayed friends, they still call me up.
Did you see that great special-edition poster M/M did for the London Design Museum? It featured both their celebrated “Carine” typeface from your Vogue Paris alongside the letter that got them sacked or resigned or whatever it was that happened. It was ironic that just as their work was winning European design awards, they were being replaced at the magazine.
Yes, I remember that poster very well as they sent me one. It featured a letter I didn’t like, it was like their joke: “the Carine letter” with “the Carine typeface.” And I didn’t like that it was on this big poster. But it is okay, it was just after we decided to separate. You know, Fabien is more my world than M/M.
Fabien’s approach is, almost by definition, more international. He’s got the French background but he’s been based in New York for so long now. How does the chemistry between you work?
Fabien really is very American sometimes. He’ll be like, “Oh no, the girl is smoking! Oh, she’s naked!…” He’s been in America for twenty years. I have to say, “Fabien, we’re a French magazine, this is not New York, we can push a bit, we can take the risks.” But I’m happy when the magazine’s perspective is not just French because actually I don’t feel I’m so French. I’m French from my education and from where I’m living and the way I’m dressing, sure. There is definitely something very French in me. But remember I’m half Russian because my father was Russian. I’m a totally crazy person. French is a bit too controlled, but I have something more wicked and also generous in my mind. I like to make the magazine more generous and also more special and more wicked.
When I worked with Fabien [Arena Homme +, 1997-2002] I really felt he shared that same philosophy for magazines.
Yes, because actually there are no laws with fashion and fashion magazines. People say, for example, that you cannot wear white shoes in winter, that somehow it is impolite. But I just say, “Why? It can look so beautiful!” I don’t want to be conventional with this magazine.
We live in an age where the lessons of the great “style magazines” have been subsumed by the fashion palaces of Vogue. It’s not so much what you wear but how you wear it.
Exactly. You know the way I grew up was very special in helping me realize all of this. I’m not that French I feel, but I am very Parisian. My father was a film producer like his father before him and he came to Paris as an immigrant. When you come from immigrant people you are never so attached to just one place or one idea, you have an open mind. Tomorrow I could maybe move to New York or LA or St Petersburg. But my parents were very cool with me letting me wear what I wanted, short cropped-tops or bell-bottomed jeans or whatever. When I was fifteen years old I was totally in love with the magazine Elle here in France, which my mother was buying. Vogue magazine was not my world then. Even up to my twenties I would not be going to Chanel or Saint Laurent, it would be names like Dorothy Bis that I would go out and buy.
Are there equivalent brand names out there now that you think eighteen- or twenty-year-old Parisians are buying in that same way?
“I never think of underground. I never did. I have always just tried to think “special.””
Maybe Margiela, maybe Raf Simons for the boys. But this younger age group is still not so much the reader of Paris Vogue, I believe. My reader is more 25 to 40. But I want there to be lots of things in the front of my magazine for younger women – the front pages are dedicated to these girls. Okay, sometimes there are more expensive things in there but I know they can find the copies now in Zara.
Do you think when you took over Vogue Paris and changed it you lost all the older ladies-that-lunch?
I think we kept all those ladies-that-lunch in a way. But even when we do our social pages we’ve tried to change them totally by going to Cannes and Los Angeles and focusing on a younger trendy type of people. And with celebrities like Nicole Kidman on the cover … of course we love that.
Why “of course”?
Because I want to try to be as international as possible, it’s not just about a French attitude or spirit. It’s all about young people and young energy. The most successful pages in the magazine are the social pages and I am working myself very hard on these pages. Also, I am still a working editor – that is, I am a fashion sittings editor. I think I am the only one like that on a big monthly magazine. I am still doing a lot of fashion stories myself. And that keeps my head in a certain place, because you’re up at 9 am to shoot with David Sims and you’re carrying half the luggage.
You mentioned earlier about never looking into the archives. You even suggested that archive referencing depresses you. Yet your iconic work as a consultant stylist for Gucci really opened up a whole era of archive referencing in Western fashion culture.
When I was working with Gucci I never went to the archives ever. I still don’t know those archives. To me Gucci was an old name and very boring and at first I told Tom Ford I didn’t want to work with him. But I think I was a Gucci girl myself even though I didn’t know it; even the way I was putting my hair and doing my makeup. Tom picked up on that and after a while I said, “Okay, I’ll work with you,” because he was very good looking basically. But everything was possible with Tom. I’d say “Bell bottoms with diamonds around the bottom” and he’d say, “Great! let’s do it!” It was the right designer and the right girl at the right time and that’s really a once in a lifetime thing.
Do you still consult for companies behind the scenes now in the way you did with Gucci?
No, I have no time for that. Of course I have people who call me a lot for advice: “Which photographer do you think for my campaign?” and “Which model should I use?” And, yes, I try to help everyone. But it’s not like it was with Tom. And also I really don’t like the way there’s now all these stylists as consultants to designers. I think it’s stupid. Someone like Gianni Versace never needed a consultant stylist, nor does Rei Kawakubo. I think all this consultant styling is bad, over, finished. So it’s good I’m not doing it, right?
Who were your mentors and important personal influences?
I was not the best stylist when I worked for fifteen years for French Elle, but certainly when I met Mario Testino something happened. The right person for me at the right time again. Maybe he just made me more happy or something. Certainly he then made me more international and that evolved through the work we did for Glamour and then for you at The Face. Just before I came to Vogue I’d been working for Anna Wintour at American Vogue. She’s very difficult and tricky, but very straightforward and strong. I work a lot with American people and you learn to be quick and to be efficient. When I worked with Anna she taught me how to be journalistic through the fashion pictures. I learned there how to manage a magazine. I also learned when she put my story in the garbage. I learned that there is the right story for the right magazine. I was happy there too, of course, because you earn a lot of money; I got paid well for a two-year contract. But just working around that environment taught me such a great deal because at that point I’d had the freedom and fun of Gucci with Tom and I was doing things like the mad Princess Anne story at The Face. It was a magical time.
“I’m not that French I feel, but I am very Parisian”
In my scribbled notes here I wrote, “the notion of slick revolt.” And I guess we should talk about how sexy some of your work has been?
In the early ’90s no one was doing overtly sexy pictures so I did it a lot. Now people talk about “porno chic,” but the time is gone and I really don’t do sexy pictures so much. People used to say I was a nymphomaniac because of all the sex in my pictures. But I’m really not like that; I am stable with the same man and have brought up my kids carefully. The sexy pictures were maybe my way to fly. I always tried to do sexy pictures that were fun too. I believe everyone should be touched by sex in a nice way. So, for example, Mario Testino and I would do fun pictures of the boys in their girlfriend’s underwear [Arena Homme +, 1996]. But however much I pushed, Mario would not take a vulgar or nasty picture. He was incapable of it I think.
What do you think of the sexual element in the work of a photographer like Terry Richardson?
Well, let me just say that I think the strength of Mario and I was to do sex in a non-vulgar way. Today a lot of people do sexy pictures but it’s in a very vulgar way. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is my honest feeling. I do love Terry’s pictures and I think he is a great person, a rebel, but also very sweet. But the pictures where he shows his penis I find vulgar. I think maybe he is not quite ready to be subtle and charming all the time, he still needs to be provocative. But when he is subtle, he is one of the very best photographers.
So, who are your three favorite contemporary fashion photographers?
It always has to be Mario Testino because I love working with him and he has the same imagination as me. Right now I love shooting with Patrick Demarchelier so much; you can push him, he can do everything for you. And third? Okay, I love Craig McDean, I love David Sims but I would choose someone who actually doesn’t want to work with us and that’s Juergen Teller.
Those Yves Saint Laurent campaign pictures of Juergen’s really are tremendous I think.
For me, his Marc Jacobs campaigns are even better. I love them. I worked with him a long time ago and my secret wish is to work with him again. He’s changed, broken through to something else altogether.
But do you think you’re using enough new names in Vogue Paris? Are you breaking talent?
In the front of the magazine we’re using new photographers, but we’ve made a family and I want to keep the family like this. The truth is that all the big photographers like to be amongst each other; Mario is happy to be beside David Sims, then he’s happy to be beside Mario Sorrenti. You introduce someone new and you break the balance. It’s difficult to make this good weather inside the magazine. Maybe one day I’d like to have Mert and Marcus in the magazine but right now that’s not possible.
Because they work for Pop magazine and if you work for Pop you cannot work for Condé Nast.
Shouldn’t all the magazines be spending more time and energy coming up with new ideas and new talent to execute them? Mert and Marcus are incredible photographers, but they’re hardly fresh blood either.
No. It would be good to break more new people. I know what you’re saying. The time is right to find new people and the magazines really need that. I’m hoping Fabien can find new photographers for me. Personally I like very new people or else the big names and nothing in the middle. For me, it has to be either front row or else standing!
The “mainstream” versus the “underground”? That debate just doesn’t exist any more, does it? You’re innovating more and saying far more than most so-called edgy independent titles.
I never think of underground. I never did. I have always just tried to think “special.” And that is not underground. It could just be a white shirt, but it can be so special – and it doesn’t have forty buttons and three sleeves. But I also want new things all the time. I get bored very easily and very quickly.
I think Vogue Paris now blows away all those fashion biannual titles for ideas and quality, and you do it every single month. What’s your take on the rising tide of fashion biannual glossies? The ever-rising tide and the ever-falling standards, I should add.
I mean I flick these magazines and then I’m finished. To me they’re just fashion catalogues and nothing more at all and that’s not interesting to me. Let’s take the magazine Pop that you started, for example. When it started it was definitely a big thing and it felt new and exciting. It felt like new competition to everything else. But now I didn’t even look at the last issue. Everything is too slick and fake and it’s not coming from the stomach. Vogue Paris is coming more from the inside. We have more to say than just go and wear some red lipstick, or whatever. We are interested in so many different things. I am a fashion person, but I want to do a whole journalistic issue, I want to do new and exciting reportage photography.
Who honestly is the next most important person on your team after you? Your art director? One of your sittings editors?
Olivier Lalanne, definitely. He’s my features editor-in-chief and my continuity. He’s a hard worker with a great sense of humor and he’s good looking, charming, and sweet. He was actually an intern and then he became an assistant and now I have given him this position already. I want all my team to be young very hard-working people. A lot of Vogue now is very young girls with great energy. Olivier is only 33, so you see I really am the old person of my magazine. And I’m the shortest of the girls too.
But you have the best legs Carine.
Oh, you! This is not for me to say.