Lunch with the FT

Last updated: May 22, 2011 6:17 am

Lunch with the FT: Carine Roitfeld

Carine Roitfeld, former editor of French Vogue, tells Carola Long why she left one of the most powerful positions in fashion
Carine Roitfeld

In Caviar Kaspia, beyond the deli on the ground floor, past the giant stuffed sturgeon suspended over the bar and the oil paintings depicting traditional Russian scenes, Carine Roitfeld is waiting. Sitting at her favourite table by the window, which overlooks the Place de la Madeleine in central Paris, the former editor-in-chief of French Vogue looks exactly as she does in the fashion blogs that hungrily record her every outfit. Her hair is the colour of burnt sugar on a crème brûlée and falls over heavy-lidded, kohl-rimmed eyes; her figure is lean and petite and she’s wearing a black silk Balenciaga blouse unbuttoned perilously low, black Céline pencil skirt and fetishistic Miu Miu stilettos with laced ankle cuffs. The look is Helmut Newton-esque; editrix with a hint of dominatrix.

Roitfeld doesn’t have the icy reputation of Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, but thanks to the hierarchical nature of the fashion industry she has an intimidating aura when she’s on the front row of a show. In person, however, she is free from hauteur, offering a warm smile rather than a fashion-style flicker of facial muscles as I sit down opposite her, and making easy conversation about the restaurant, which has a tearoom feel and serves beluga caviar at €1,345 for 125g. Roitfeld comes here frequently and likes the flattering lighting – “very important when you look tired” – and the Russian art, but she avoids it when the rest of the beau monde descends. “If you want to be cool, don’t come here during fashion week,” she advises.

Roitfeld, 55, has built a career on being cool. She made her mark as a stylist in the 1990s, when she and the photographer Mario Testino created risqué campaigns for Gucci, then designed by Tom Ford. As the editor of French Vogue, from which she resigned last December after a decade, she became one of the most powerful women in the fashion industry, famous for edgy, sometimes controversial and frequently erotic photo shoots. Then, with the explosion of street-style blogs a few years ago, she took on a cult status as the queen of the “French Vogue look” with its lingering air of le rock n’ roll.

With this in mind I am a little surprised when Roitfeld picks up her menu and says, in her heavy Parisian accent, “Me, I love the herrings.” Herrings just don’t seem all that chic. Roitfeld asks me what I’d like – smoked salmon – then takes over the ordering in a charming rather than bossy manner. She recommends a variety that isn’t too salty after consulting the waitress, then orders the “saumon sauvage fumé baltique pour Madame”, a haricots verts salad for each of us, and the herring for herself.

“What do you like to drink? Vodka? Me, I don’t have vodka at lunch,” she adds, shaking her head. “It will be around 8pm when I go home that I will have a little shot. It’s my Russian roots.” Roitfeld’s father was Russian and her Russian grandmother, “my babushka”, steeped her in the country’s culture. But her mother was Parisian and Roitfeld was raised in the French capital, where she still lives with Christian Restoin, her partner of more than 30 years, and founder of the shirt label Equipment.

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Lunch with the FT

While she has a taste for vodka, Roitfeld doesn’t like champagne, which is a “problem at fashion parties”, so before she goes out she will have a shot of vodka to ensure she arrives in a good mood. Not that I can imagine she needs much help when it comes to being sociable; during a three-hour lunch Roitfeld talks at Eurostar-speed, and doesn’t check her BlackBerry, take calls or even betray the twitchiness that comes from ignoring them.

I want to know why she left French Vogue, especially given the widespread and persistent rumours she was pushed. To put Roitfeld’s departure into context, Anna Wintour has been editor-in-chief of US Vogue for 22 years, and Alexandra Shulman has helmed the British version for 19 years. In fashion terms, a Vogue editor leaving is an event as rare and momentous as the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Roitfeld maintains that it was her decision to go. “When I started I said I would not stay for ever, a maximum of 10 years,” she says. “You know, I could stay six months more but it’s good to leave when you are in the highest position, and I think I did a lot at Vogue.”

Certainly, Roitfeld left with a bang rather than a whimper. Having recruited guest editors such as Kate Moss, Catherine Deneuve and Sofia Coppola during her tenure, she invited her friend Tom Ford to work on the December 2010 issue. The results included a jewellery photo shoot featuring elderly models passionately kissing and groping each other while dripping in diamonds, and a shoot with children wearing evening wear and make-up. Even by the standards of French Vogue, with its high nipple count, or “nudity, transsexuals, men in suspenders” as Roitfeld puts it, some deemed this too provocative. Not least the president of Condé Nast France, Xavier Romatet. “No, he didn’t like it,” says Roitfeld, looking slightly amused, like a schoolgirl caught smoking Gauloises. “Me, I like to push boundaries, I am irreverent, but he would prefer something softer, more mainstream. Maybe he was anxious about the future because magazine sales are going to be harder and harder.”

French Vogue’s new editor, Emmanuelle Alt, who was promoted from the position of fashion director, has said that in future jewellery shoots will be more classic and that there will be more emphasis on the clothes. Alt and Roitfeld are no longer on good terms but all she will say is, “We aren’t friends any more. I think it’s sad. When you give a lot of confidence in people and you don’t get it back you are a bit disappointed but it’s life. I move on.”

But where do you go from Vogue? Roitfeld was variously tipped to work with Tom Ford or team up with her friend Riccardo Tisci, the designer at Givenchy, but in March she announced that her first major project would be to collaborate with the hip, high-end New York-based department store group Barneys on its autumn campaign, including its catalogue and renowned window displays. Or, as Roitfeld phrases it, “They suggested, and I love this, ‘to celebrate me’ during September fashion week in New York.”

It’s a clever first move; one that allows Roitfeld to cultivate her icon status in the industry while she moves from belonging to brand Vogue to boosting brand Carine. Roitfeld will choose and style the store’s autumn clothes and photographer Mario Sorrenti will shoot them on a group of Roitfeld’s family and friends, as well as her “family” of top models and faces such as Bambou, the French singer and wife of the late Serge Gainsbourg, and Victoire de Castellane, jewellery designer for Dior. She hopes to “celebrate herself” by recruiting someone to be involved who looks rather a lot like her: Iggy Pop. “People always say, ‘You look like Iggy Pop,’ ” she says, apparently unconcerned by the comparison to a rather grizzled-looking 64-year-old man. “I don’t know if it’s the eyes or the hair, anyway, he has a great style.”

As Roitfeld is telling me about the change to working on the retail side of the fashion business – “I have to fight with them a bit” – our food arrives: her herr­ings, served with curly lettuce, two green bean side salads and my smoked salmon. Melted butter is spooned from a silver bowl and soaked into a blini, a pale piece of smoked salmon is laid on top and a large spoonful of cream dolloped on top of that. “You can have a second one, like a sandwich, but I don’t like that,” says Roitfeld. “I tried it before and it cooks the salmon.” Actually, a warm buttery blini sandwich sounds like heaven but there’s really no more effective way to resist such a carb-fest than sitting opposite Roitfeld and her yoga-honed body. “Shall we start?” she says. “Not polite to talk and eat but ... ”

So we talk and eat, and Roitfeld explains what she repeatedly refers to as her new “freedom” is like, and muses on the nature of power. At Vogue, if she wanted to get hold of an actress, her assistant would call their assistant but she’s discovered that, “It’s funny, everything is so much easier when you do it yourself.” She seems genuinely free of the identity crisis that many influential people experience when they leave positions of power, explaining that the title of editor-in-chief is, “a crown or a costume”. “It takes you further away from people and I was very surprised to learn that a lot of people were scared of me because they thought that I was tough and mean,” she says. “I am not mean at all, I am not tough at all.”

When I ask her about Anna Wintour, she says: “Sometimes people are not the way you think they are. People think she is cold and tough, but she is a very nice person. When my kids, [Vladimir, 26, an art curator, and Julia, 30, a creative director] moved to New York she was the first person to invite them to dinner.” What did Roitfeld make of the rumours, a couple of years ago, that she was poised to take over from Wintour at US Vogue? She laughs. “It’s the biggest compliment that I could edit the biggest fashion magazine on the planet but I am not totally bilingual; I am irreverent, which works in a small country like France but not a big one like America and it’s a big business magazine. To edit a magazine like American Vogue you have to play politics and she is like a first lady.”

It’s unlikely Roitfeld got to the top of her field without herself knowing a bit about politics but she wears it lightly, portraying herself as a free-spirited, almost girlish stylist whose raison d’être is art, above commerce. She laments the days when the biannual rounds of fashion shows were more of a spectacle and you could smell the passion and the creativity in the air. “It’s less fun than it was 10 years ago,” she sighs, shrugging a little sadly. “I liked the times when people were more crazy about fashion, they tried hard with the clothes they wore, they were so excited it was like the royal wedding – they could sleep outside the show.” Now she thinks, regretfully, “Some people are more interested in what stylists are wearing to the show than in the show itself.”

She thinks that fashion has lost some of its creativity, as the pressures generated by big brands have changed the nature of the industry. “There’s so much money involved and the designer has to produce a great show that will sell clothes but also keep the name of the brand high to sell the perfumes. Sometimes you can really feel the business behind the fashion show.”

Much of this pressure falls on the designer, and Roitfeld cites John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst and subsequent dismissal from Dior earlier this year, and Alexander McQueen’s suicide last year, as symptomatic of this. “Fashion is very tough and we shouldn’t forget that before designers were money-makers they were artists. Galliano was an artist, McQueen was an artist. These people are very fragile and can’t support this pressure.” She thinks that globalisation has contributed, because, “It’s difficult to please a woman in Shanghai, Rio and Paris, and to design a jacket that will suit all three of them. It’s difficult for a brand to talk to a lot of people, to seduce all these new customers, and sometimes designers don’t have the shoulders for it.” She adds, “It’s good for business that you can buy Dior in Shanghai or Brazil. I would prefer to find something different from what’s in Paris, but it’s over – a dream – and you can’t go back now.”

As Roitfeld sips a Darjeeling tea and I my espresso, she has the air of someone who doesn’t waste time looking back. The freedom to pursue new projects is, she says, “like being 10 years younger”. Plans include a book about her work, in which she answers questions from famous friends such as Sofia Coppola, who asked her what she hates the most in fashion. The answer? “Mules – those shoes – I hate them.”

What she does like is to “take an outfit in a very different direction from what it was supposed to be, say, to pair a transparent white shirt with a black bra. I like to take the classic bourgeois pieces and make them irreverent.” She thinks that in 30 years in the industry the only thing that has changed about her look is that her hems have got ever so slightly longer. There is one other difference, though: having had a longstanding distaste for handbags she is now forced to use one because she doesn’t have an office. “I have discovered how useful it is to carry a book, perfume, agenda,” she laughs, glancing at her capacious black leather Alexander McQueen bag by the table. “It’s a new life.”

Carola Long is the FT’s deputy style editor

Illustration by Seb Jarnot. James Ferguson returns next week

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Caviar Kaspia

17 Place de la Madeleine, Paris

Baltic smoked salmon €30

Fresh blini €2.50

Herrings €19

Green bean salad x 2 €20

Coffee €6

Darjeeling tea €6

Evian water €12

Total (including service) €95.50

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The art of window displays: Through the looking glass

Window shopping is one of those rare pastimes that is both democratic and aspirational; anyone can do it and everyone wants what they see through the glass, writes Daisy Prince. Nowhere is this experience more intense than Barneys department store on Madison Avenue in New York, where famous “windows” have included one by Helmut Newton that used live supermodels (1987) and Stephen Sprouse and Andy Warhol’s camouflage painting of the Statue of Liberty (1986), both presided over by creative director Simon Doonan.

Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of US Marie Claire, says: “Barneys windows have a wonderful sense of humour, which is how their displays differentiate themselves from the displays at Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue.”

Doonan, who also created his own displays, including a tableau made with real food, was succeeded in January by Dennis Freedman, former creative director at W magazine, who has commissioned displays by artist Ella Kruglyanskaya and architects Lee Mindel, as well as lining up former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld to create a display later this year. Freedman says: “I want people to talk about them, and I want them to reflect the Zeitgeist.”

Window displays as advertisements for the goods inside began in the mid-19th century, when factories started to produce panes of glass large enough to be installed in shop windows. They have consistently attracted the attention of artists, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who collaborated on windows for Tiffany – one used potatoes, dirt and real diamonds – and Salvador Dali, who famously pushed a bathtub through the window of New York’s Bonwit Teller when his display of a mannequin’s hands reaching out of a bathtub had been changed without his consent.

Maxine Groucutt, head of visual identity at London department store Liberty, believes displays help create a strong store brand – and are about not being afraid to have a little fun: “We did a display of quilts with 1960s soft porn illustrations sewn on them as a way to celebrate Liberty fabrics. It became an iconic window for us.”

With internet shopping stealing sales from stores, attention-grabbing windows are more important than ever. As Freedman says: “I am always thinking about how we can make the experience of shopping at Barneys richer than shopping online.”

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