There are few other fashion editors in the history of magazine publishing who can claim to have made more of an impact on popular dress than CARLYNE CERF DE DUDZEELE. From her early days in France at DEPECHE MODE and ELLE to her role as fashion director at American VOGUE and beyond, the signature Cerf Style has long infiltrated our modern conception of glamour. Carlyne, who grew up in Saint-Tropez, mixes the sacred and the profanewith punchy accessories and outrageous ease. She largely defined the VERSACE look in the early 1990s, working in tandem with GIANNI VERSACE (1946–1997) as he became a household name that was synonymous with aspiration and desire. She styled a pantheon of supermodels, Amazons-turned-muses who conquered the late 1980s and early 90s with thier buxom and uncanny beauty. Dressed best by Carlyne, they were often clad in ALAÏA. And as KARL LAGERFELD laid the blueprints for CHANEL’s brand revival in the 21st century, Carlyne has been there to help it blossom to near omniscience, renegotiating the expectations of luxury and taste of a bygone era for a new woman. Cerf Style has been photographed by RICHARD AVEDON, IRVING PENN, HELMUT NEWTON, and STEVEN MEISEL, and it remains as urgent and vital today as it was at the beginning of her 40-year-long career. Simply said, Carlyne is a legend.
CARLYNE CERF DE DUDZEELE: Yes, I work a lot because fashion is my passion. I always work, except for maybe during the ten years after I found my dog, a Jack Russell, in St. Barts. My life was devoted to him. He traveled with me and I worked less. But I don’t have my dog anymore so I work like crazy.
Your images are known for certain signatures. The models have a strong, sexy attitude, there’s lots of jewelry, and you’re never afraid of accessories. How does the process begin?
Everything is in my head. I never, never, never follow trends. Fashion editors should have ideas and make their own thing. I have an idea, so I look on style.com with my assistant to see what I want from Italy and France. Afterwards, in America, I personally go to every showroom. I always pop by the showroom – whether I’m doing numbers from Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Proenza Schouler, or Marc Jacobs – because I’ll see something that wasn’t on the runway. Perhaps I’ll find a little something hidden, and say gotcha! I’ve always worked like this. I don’t trust anyone, I trust myself. I really hate when something that doesn’t appear on the runway appears in what they call the “commercial” collection. This means nothing to me. If something’s on the runway in black and the same shit comes in blue, they’ll call it “commercial.” I can’t stand this. This is why I go everywhere – because I find things.
I don’t take the number eight look from Chanel or number seven from Saint Laurent and present them as they were on the runway. Everybody sees the looks on the Internet, so what’s the point of a magazine showing it exactly as it was three months after people have already seen it?
I think the role of a magazine is to show clothes from the runway but in a way that one can wear them. It’s what I call my salade. I’ll take this [reaches left], I’ll take that [reaches right], I’ll take this [reaches forward], and I’ll mix it like you might see it on the street. Nothing is more of a compliment than to have a woman rip the page out of the magazine and want exactly the same pieces I’ve done for the picture. She wants to look exactly like the picture.
Women do shop that way.
Yeah! But there aren’t a lot of magazines that do this anymore. People forget that when a woman pays five dollars for a magazine, she buys it because she wants to know what she’s going to be buying for the season. She’s going to be inspired by what she sees in the magazine. I’m sorry for the word but it’s a “catalog”: pictures to help the woman know what she has to buy. Magazines now aren’t about style. It’s freaky pictures that no one understands. A good photographer knows how to show fashion. The word I hate the most is “modern.” What is modern? I would love to know. They think when you see a girl with her legs open or in a dark room it’s modern. No way! We need talented people who are not afraid to look modern.
“A singer is born with a voice. He has to work on his voice, but you can’t be a singer if you’re born with no voice. Fashion is the same: you have to be born with this innate talent inside of you.”
Not looking modern, or feeling like you don’t, can be really uncomfortable. In the case of shooting total looks, does this pressure come from advertisers or is it politics?
I don’t think so. People might say this, but I’ve never had a problem with any designer.
Let’s talk about your entry into fashion – you had a subscription to American Vogue as a child?
Years ago! I was obsessed with Veruschka and the pictures of Franco Rubartelli. I was obsessed! The make-up, the hair, the clothes – I loved it.
You started as a fashion editor in the mid-70s?
I must have begun in 73. I worked at Depeche Mode, and at other magazines that were very creative. I worked with Paolo Roversi, who had never worked before. Afterwards I went to French Elle for 10 years. Very amusing because it came out every week – that’s a lot to do. Fashion should be very quick. I hate brainstorming for fashion. It’s ridiculous to have 40 people at a shoot. You just need the people who really work on the model. Now, it’s reporting to the assistant of the assistant of the assistant. If I like something, I’ll do eight, ten pictures right away. I react to making a woman look divine, sexy, attractive – if she passes by I want people to look at her and say, “Ooh, I like this.” In the beginning it was really bing, bang, let’s do it!
That was when Nicole Crassat was the editor. How was it working with her?
Perfect. I loved Nicole. She loved me. I began as the assistant to Betty Bertrand, who was an extremely good editor at Marie Claire. They were real personality people. A lot of people who work in fashion now are absolutely not fashion people. I think they think it’s trendy but they have no clue and they think they are chic because they have a bag from Fendi, a Manolo Blahnik thing, a Marc Jacobs. It doesn’t work. You need to have personal style to make this happen and it’s not a question of money. Fashion does not only mean money. I always have to have a mixture of cheap and chic and expensive.
Do you know the book Cheap Chic from the 70s, with its frugal style tips from fashion professionals like Diana Vreeland and Jean-Paul Goude?
Yes, there’s a picture of me inside! That was a good book. People don’t know how to do this anymore.
I wonder if it’s because it’s become more about buying clothes than actually wearing them. A shopping instinct. It’s easier to achieve something when you can buy it.
Yes! They think they look perfect because they have the latest Marc Jacobs or Prada on. They look at the collections and they change three times a day, what’s the point? You just have to look good, and of course you can look good buying from Forever 21 and Marc Jacobs and Prada and Gap.
At Elle you had a lot of control. It was a small team and a smaller magazine.
And fun! Because I think fashion should be fun. And I think they lost it because they don’t have fun anymore. Me, I always put an incredible energy into a shoot because I have fun doing my own shit, my own trafficotage!
But there was a big change when you moved to New York and started at Vogue.
Yeah, Daniel Filipacchi, the owner of Elle, asked me to do American Elle. At that point he wanted to do two issues a year to see if he could launch it monthly. So I did two issues with Bill King and it was a success. The day I told French Elle I was leaving, Alex Liberman asked me to see him. We had a lovely but extremely long discussion where he asked me to come to American Vogue. After a month I decided that if I came to America I would work with American people and not stay in a little group of critical French eyes. So I went to American Vogue as Director of Special Projects. I moved in January 1985. My father used to have an apartment in New York so I arrived with my bag and that’s it. I moved like I was going on a trip, easy.
What was Vogue like in the 80s?
Grace Mirabella was there. Anna [Wintour] was the creative director. Our little group was Anna, André Leon Talley, Isabella Blow, who was André’s assistant at the time, and myself. We were together against – well, not really against – Mirabella, Polly Mellen, Jade Hobson, and all this.
“I react to making a woman look divine, sexy, attractive – if she passes by I want people to look at her.”
I’ve read Mirabella’s memoirs and understandably they’re a bit bitter.
She was not a fashion person. She was business, an executive – which I hate… the opposite of me!
In her book she wrote that when she was let go she called in the staff to tell them the news that she was leaving and being replaced by Anna Wintour. You stayed behind, closed the door, and whispered to her, “This is a tough place.”
She also said I was a talented editor, and other things …
She doesn’t speak well of anyone in that book.
Hey listen, I don’t care. But it was extremely tough for me. Anna left for London to be the editor-in-chief there and they killed everything I was doing. We stayed in Grace Mirabella’s office for six hours with three girls trying on every, every, every piece of clothing there and Polaroiding them. I was going crazy. It was extremely boring. Every week I was in Alex Liberman’s office, telling him, “I have to leave. I want to do my own shit.” He was very nice and well-mannered, but after months I said, “Either I work directly with you or this time it’s finished, I’m done. I can’t work with the people downstairs because we’re on totally different levels.” He told me, “fine.” So I did my first story without showing my clothes to Grace. I went to Casablanca with Patrick Demarchelier and Christy Turlington to Cabo San Lucas and it was an enormous success. Alex loved it, so of course Grace loved it. After that I began as fashion director and Anna arrived. I had a lovely time working for Anna. It was divine.
Your stories in Vogue in the early 90s made a huge impact on the era – you defined the look of the Vogue woman.
We were all working as a team. That’s what I miss. Many people today don’t work like a team, they work for themselves. I always like to work with Oribe. It’s easy and it’s always the same thing and I adore. You work for the image. I work with the photographer. I work on the girl. I can’t do the same fashion on her that I do on someone else. It’s about personality!
Is that something you learned in your early years at Marie Claire and Elle?
No, it’s instinct. I don’t command this, it just comes. This is why I don’t think fashion can be learned. It has to be inside you. Me, I love to cook, but I have never in my life opened a cookbook. A chef needs to have taste. A singer is born with a voice. He has to work on his voice, but you can’t be a singer if you’re born with no voice. Fashion is the same: you have to be born with this innate talent inside of you.
You mentioned that you love street style. How do you take inspiration from it?
I love to see Prada on the street, but in a way that’s good and not that makes you look like a fucking fashion victim, like the ridiculous people you see before the shows – they can’t even walk. Style is not about money.
And they slow down when they walk by the photographers.
For a time Bill Cunningham was the only one taking pictures when you arrived at shows. You were walking and suddenly you saw Bill, but you never saw him take a picture. You don’t pay attention while he’s running around you. Now all these photographers stop you: “Can I take a picture?” All the girls wait for it. They dress to have their picture taken! Everything about going to a fashion show is totally old.
You once said that black people have better style than white people. What did you mean?
I totally say this and no one ever writes it. I think black people know. I think black people have style inside [points to her stomach]. They know. You see a messenger on a bicycle, he is chic [snaps]. A big white woman rarely looks good, but you see a big black woman, she’s going to show her ass because she is proud of it! I don’t care if she’s big because she looks good. Black people have it! I’m dying do to a reportage about black people and the way they dress. They have much more style than white people. I’m obsessed with this. I went to a Rihanna concert in Brooklyn, and I went back again the next day before the concert because I wanted to see the crowd going in. I can go crazy. I love.
One of the hallmarks of your work is your relationship with Azzedine Alaïa, dating back to 1981. You both have a concept of fashion that’s not about trends or fads. It’s an essentialist connection.
He works for the woman. You can have a dress he designed 20 years ago and it’s still perfection. You know what Azzedine told me? “When you were at Elle, designers were looking at Elle because it was inspiring.” Jean Paul Gaultier would go “Carlyne! Carlyne!” I put jeans with fur. It was the first time I put a Chanel jacket with jeans. My thing was to put a white T-shirt with my jacket and a pair of jeans shot in the Jardin des Tuilleries… Jean-Louis Dumas, President of Hermès, was in heaven!
. That’s it. I prefer bad taste over good taste. I prefer a certain vulgarity over bon chic, bon genre. Just a little.
You were creating a new context, showing a way of dressing rather than just taking clothes and adding a funny wig or crazy make-up. Which is the connection you have with Alaïa.
He thinks about a woman’s body. If you go to a party and there are all these girls who work in fashion, the one with Alaïa will be the most [snaps her fingers] perfection. He works the way I work. He’s not trying to do a crazy runway show. These fashion shows are all done for a picture in a magazine. Alaïa’s pieces could go in a museum. What other clothes designed recently could go into a museum?
I always wonder whether a new designer is going to come along who can bring that level of technique and craftsmanship.
I always say they’re like mushrooms. Designers, models, make-up, hair, dressers, stylists. Overnight, like little white mushrooms they grow and they are like stars. Nuh-uh, it doesn’t work.
Do you think fashion moves too fast?
I don’t know if it moves too fast. I think a lot of people don’t have talent. That’s it, finished. They don’t have couture, they don’t think about the woman. Certain designers will dictate the pages of the magazines for the next six months. You know the designers. I’m not going to name names but you know the three. They dictate. Magazines follow designers now. Have your own identity! The pages of magazines all look the same. Some are better because they have better photographers but it’s the same fucking clothes, no one changes anything. At a show you’re either like this [perks up and eyes widen] or you’re like this [stares blankly ahead]. It’s been a long time since I’ve been like this [perks up and eyes widen]. They all try, thinking doing the make-up or hair will give the look. I don’t give a shit. I want to see the racks the day after, the clothes on a hanger. I don’t give a shit about the presentation. I don’t give a shit about the décor. Just the clothes the day after. There’s a big difference.
It is about the clothes in the end.
My darling, yes! Clothes are in the fucking store and people have to buy them. My dream for a long time has been to have journalists go to a fashion show without knowing who the fashion designer is. And if you tell them the name afterwards you’ll hear things that are totally contraire to what they would have said otherwise. If it’s a big name it’s “oooooh.” If it’s a name that’s not very well known it’s “ehhhh.”
It’s hard to be yourself sometimes, there’s so much pressure to be a part of the moment and be in the know.
I love people who care, who have it inside. Anna Sui always does what she loves. Not people who go, “Oh, this season I’ll do nah-nah, next season I’ll do nah-nah.” Michael Kors has always done what he loves. It’s sportswear, and he does it perfectly. Ralph Lauren? Perfection! They do themselves. It’s who they are. They don’t change every season. Never in my life was I a part of the fashion world. I’m like an outsider. I’m not a part of this. People don’t always want to tell the truth, and no one wants to hear the truth. I always tell the truth. I think people today forget what sincerity is. Gianni [Versace] used to always say, “The only person I trust is Carlyne because she will tell me.” I’m not part of this fashion world. I have some extremely good friends – Steven Meisel, Linda, Turlington, Naomi, these are my people, Azzedine, Karl, and some newer friends. These are the people who understand how real this is. A lot of people are not real. They’re just there. It’s boring. I love real people. I always work with my own panache, my own energy, and my own excentricités. La simplicité is the most chic thing in the world. I am a Parisienne with my own attitude. That’s it.
Interview by JEREMY LEWIS, Photography TIM WALKER