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Paris Is Not A Soft Cheese

Fashion people love to eat shit like radish sprout salad with bulgur sprinkled with gomasio and algae, so that's what I ordered when I sat down with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld biographer Alicia Drake and Kate Moss biographer Francoise-Marie...
2.3.09

INTERVIEW BY MARIE-ÈVE LACASSE

PHOTO BY NYCOLAS DYSZEL

Alicia Drake and Françoise-Marie Santucci

Fashion people love to eat shit like radish sprout salad with bulgur sprinkled with gomasio and algae, so that’s what I ordered when I sat down with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld biographer Alicia Drake and Kate Moss biographer Francoise-Marie Santucci. You know, to put them at ease. But these ladies are constantly on guard because, as they explained, fashion is a sea with a hundred sharks swimming inside…

VICE: What interests me is to compare your point of views about fashion, depending on your various fields of specialization.

Alicia Drake:

I wrote a guide about fashion ten, twelve years ago.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

Writing is a fabulous experience.

Will your book be translated into English?

No. It seems that English people do not want a biography of Kate Moss. Apparently the English are very protective because Kate is a Brit… Imagine a bio of Édith Piaf written by an Englishman. There are two biographies of Kate Moss that were published in England but they are very creepy, written by tabloids journalists.

Alicia Drake:

Is it a book that you wrote while working as a journalist?

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

I continued to work, but much less. They understood that the book would benefit them. There was a tacit agreement. I am not a fashion journalist. I don’t want to write always about fashion reviews, it doesn’t feed me enough. You [to Alicia] are interested in fashion over time, in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s…I've written about the last 20 years with a rock ’n' roll modern point of view, but fashion to me is an excuse to talk about the world. It is an economic and an aesthetic vision, a marketing vision that speaks to the aesthetic vision. It’s also celebrity to the power of ten. The clothing itself, I don’t really care. We can talk about the collections, the crisis and all that, but…

I would like to know what happened after the publication of your books. I know that Lagerfeld was annoyed by the publication of yours, Alicia. Did you talk to him? Has there been a trial?

Alicia Drake:

No, there was no trial this time. Lagerfeld had aggressive comments against me. But this was not the purpose of my book, and the book is not a fight. I was not in a fight with him. I took no pleasure in reading these things.

But it was quite risky to write this book because you knew that Lagerfeld has always refused to speak about his childhood, and he doesn’t like when people search his archives, his photos.

OK, when I was working on the book, he did not say at all that it was forbidden to talk about his childhood. Second, it's hard to understand your sentence. I am a historian. I studied history at Cambridge University. We don’t “search” in the archives. The archives are available and you can consult them. It is not “searching.” Yes, I did research in England, Germany, France, and the United States, but I have not “searched.” Lagerfeld was aware, he said yes to the interview at the beginning. I did not hide it. I do not agree with the idea that we had no right to go into his history. I have written this book as the story of two characters, two geniuses, two careers that touch the same object. This is not a scandalous book or some kind of investigative journalism.

The scandal is only due to the Lagerfeld’s paranoia…

I don’t know. In any case it wasn’t wanted or sought.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

One of the criticisms that I enjoyed the most about my book was from a French magazine that said, "This book is not creepy enough. " On the other hand, I think most people who access world-famous celebrities are tempted to revisit their pasts. Bob Dylan arrived in New York in the 1960s and said for years that his parents were dead. But his parents were totally alive! He built this character of a crazy, lonely poet. Everybody rewrites his or her own history. Sometimes Kate Moss said that when she was a child, she was a poor little girl though her parents were middle-class. I think that there is always a very narcissistic temptation of control. I have met Lagerfeld several times for the newspaper I work for; it is true that he has an absolutely incredible personality! But he wants to control his world. He is one of the most brilliant people I've interviewed for

Libération

. He has an amazing culture and a very magnetic way of taking you into his world. The first time we had lunch at his home, he showed his original Bauhaus prints… When I started Kate Moss’s biography, I read a beautiful sentence from Virginia Woolf that said that a person had a thousand facets so writing a biography was something totally absurd and pretentious. You can’t understand clearly somebody. You can just as you can try to paint an era, showing the main characters, drawing atmospheres and influences.

Following the publication of Kate Moss, did you finally meet her?

No. There is drastic control of her life. I went to see her agents in London who told me it would never work, she does not speak to journalists, and even if I manage by my own contacts (which I tried, of course) to pass a message to her, someone will forbid her to speak to me. Why? She is someone whose body and face is still "active" and marked by contracts that amount to millions of pounds or dollars or euros, and she is not able to shut off. She could say, for example, that fashion is a world of idiots and because of that it is normal to take drugs or drink champagne because everything is so vain. But how can this 35-year-old woman who continues to be a top model say that? This is why the silence is mandatory. So I wrote this book and it was more like an exercise of literary style, a portrait of a girl without the girl.

Has publishing books rather than articles about fashion allowed you greater freedom of writing?

No. Take the problem in reverse: the subjects of books are individuals. That makes it difficult to publish something unsavory about Bernard Arnault and find a publisher, when you think about the risks of a trial.

Alicia Drake:

Fashion is not a place for truth. Everything is based on artifice, idealism, the romance of youth, of beauty. There isn’t any truth in fashion. Fashion is not art, it is a business related to an applied art. It’s a trade: clothes are made to be sold and worn. There is an unconscious agreement between the designers and journalists. It’s to stimulate desire, not to find the truth. Women don’t want the truth, they want a trend.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

I agree but I think there is still artistic emotion in a very small space for creation. In the 1940s, the 1950s, what was fashion? Fashion was for the elite. Magazines showed photographs of the latest creations from Dior and Chanel and the way people looked at that was with admiration and envy, but not of consuming. Now fashion is fully globalized and the possibilities of creation for designers are increasingly small because they have the marketing objectives and financial forecasts on their backs. This is a hard and an incredible challenge.

Alicia Drake:

Absolutely. When I said “applied art,” it was not to criticize fashion. The ability of fashion to renew is extraordinary, and the need to recreate is incredibly powerful. And that is why I was fascinated by Karl Lagerfeld and his ability to create. But this creativity is the reality of trade. And I also wonder: Are women interested in fashion today? I know that women are interested in models, in Kate Moss, but are they interested in fashion? If we look around us, right in front of me I see a woman wearing a gray turtleneck and another one, a sweater in another kind of gray. In the 1950s, there was a real search for style. Yves Saint Laurent's mother was a dressmaker and used to travel back to Oran three times a week for fittings. What women now take as much care when dressing? Are they interested in the idea of glamour or in fashion itself?

But we can’t deny that trends exist!

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

That is the fashion that bothers me. See how it works in the style offices? The trends are divided into different categories, [design] houses, styles, each time with pictures and slogans and small speeches by the head of the agency explaining what the trends for 2010 to 2011 will be like! This is absurd. Many

maisons de couture

consult these studies and the divination is accurate. That sucks. It is a uniform while yesterday there was an elitist research, a way of distinction. However, besides few exceptions, I found that people are better dressed than before. Now there's not too much bad taste. When I was a teenager, everyone was badly dressed! The fabrics were cheap, badly cut…there was no equivalent of H&M and Zara. We don’t even know where we dressed, anyway. There was no effort of style. Things have changed when people who work in the fashion industry look on this extraordinary market. I read studies about the male clothing market, and the margin of increase is staggering. And men want beautiful fabrics, while women want the latest shirt, the latest accessory.

Alicia Drake:

But to return to your idea of "bad taste," in England in the 1970s and 1980s there were groups for whom clothing were so widely studied. I come from Liverpool, and there were the mods for example…

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

You're right! Precisely, that's what I say in the book: Why Kate Moss exists, it’s because she is English! France could never generate a Kate Moss. We are not rock ’n’ roll. I am a rock critic and I'm fascinated when I see the pictures of the Stones, the Who, the Animals from the 1960s. They had not a penny, the Stones were poor, they had no heating but they were divinely dressed. Brian Jones and his bowl cut, small jackets well cut, there is something, it looks like it is in the genes. In France, what do we have? Johnny Hallyday?

Alicia Drake:

It's true that in England there was a tradition of young man dandies. And in your book, what came out in terms of Kate’s personality?

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

Like all people who cut a road to success, she is a chameleon. This ability to get into the desire of the photographers, designers, advertising, while retaining something… We feel that there is always something irreducible in her eyes, something like "Fuck you." And at the same time she is girly, she obeys like a sweet, innocent bitch. She has understood quickly that fashion is a sea with hundreds of sharks inside.

There is a paragraph in your book where you talk about the emptiness in her eyes, and that's what would make her so fascinating. It's a bit strange and disturbing to see this empty sight, like a dead-alive person.

Alicia Drake:

An emptiness in which we can project desires, fantasies … A top model who creates today for a high street brand called Top Shop! Are women interested in fashion or the celebrity that transforms in fashion? They like that dress or the fact that Kate Moss has created it? The dress she created in

Nylon

for Top Shop is a dress inspired by the 1970s retro dress that she bought at Portobello Road. That's creation, a copy. I read the articles; she buys from Portobello Road, she returned to Top Shop’s headquarter, she wears the dress, it fits extraordinary on her, and there are ten stylists around her.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

All young women in England want a piece of Kate Moss. But how did you come to fashion? How did you move from the Department of History at Cambridge to fashion?

Alicia Drake:

Well, in England studies are more fluid. When you study history, it is not to become a history teacher. You study history to learn something, a scientific approach. And after I worked as a journalist in England, first in a press office for the arts (where I was not really great), and then I left it to become a journalist in my garret in Paris. And fashion was something that interested me while remaining part abroad. And I think my book could only be written by someone outside this world. Now all that I wrote about fashion is behind me. I left fashion and journalism.

And you're currently working on another subject?

Yes, I'm working on a novel. Nothing to do with fashion.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

There will be no young Rastignac inside who wants to conquer the world?

Alicia Drake:

No.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

But what I find interesting in these destinies is that they are totally romantic.

Alicia Drake:

Yes. And the collection that Karl has done for Chanel is absolutely beautiful, sublime. It's incredible, this ability to continue like this. He is huge, with such a high idea of life. Both, they never stumbled. They have such a desire to win. It was almost like they do not have moments of crisis.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

They are unsinkable. That is fascinating.

Alicia Drake:

Also in this book I wanted to explain how Paris works. Coming here, I look at a book written by an Englishman, in English, and the character has a very romantic idea of Paris, cheeses are soft, the wine, the small squares on the restaurant’s floors… I always hated that. I am not at all into the fantasy of Paris. I do not like the French

bistros

, bars, I can’t stand this idea! Paris is cruel, it's super depressing, it’s a city of lonely people, it’s hard…that's Paris for me. I love Paris, but it is not a city of soft cheeses. You talk about Rastignac in

Father Goriot

, Paris is a hard and for Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld, nothing and no one will touch them in their desire, their ambition.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

Did you have the opportunity to visit the 55 rue de Babylone, where Saint Laurent lived in his duplex apartment?

Alicia Drake:

Yes.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

Because they will sell everything. When I returned there I felt like I was in the Des Esseinte’s room. I visited these places with the commissioner at Christie's and I was shocked. Saint Laurent never goes out. Even Bergé said he was psychotic, he never leaves his home. That's what I like very much in your book. Genius, it’s always strange.

Alicia Drake:

He did not need anyone except Pierre Bergé. Everything was there, in his universe. He did not need to go out. He had his books, his paintings…

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

In the lobby, there is the Léger, the Goya is beautiful, sublime, the small Cézanne, the Vuillard…. It is true that it is enough. We understand what he felt, maybe. Once in this room, there is something that falls over you. When he was in his living room he had his pictures and to look at them was enough to travel. And also about the relationship between fashion and art, fashion is necessarily an art for producing that kind of amazing people. There is a degree of involvement in setting up the madness, they have paid a lot and they had no choice. It was their thing. But designers like that today, is it still possible? Do we leave them the right to express themselves with marketing managers on their backs? Yves Saint Laurent had Bergé, a screen between him and the world. Today's young designers have drafts here and there. It is so much pressure. Alessandra Facchinetti who was at Valentino, and Gucci before, Gucci fired her, she went to Valentino. A lovely girl, very fine, two collections outside. Fired.

Designers should be great and revolutionize fashion every season.

Alicia Drake:

The expectation is so high. Fashion, it’s not like selling a bottle of milk. It’s all about creating a desire. You can live without fashion; fashion is not a basic necessity of life. It is more subtle and more difficult to achieve the same benefits.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

Of course we could say that fashion is ridiculous.

Alicia Drake:

And we have already done so, but fashion continues. The fantasy exists in women: fashion is an escape. You escape into Kate Moss, in haute couture, it’s an image where we project, we dream.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

When we asked Kate Moss about her relationship to clothing (not about fashion, but the clothes that she loves), she said that they were an armor between her and the world. The way you dress says what you are or it masks something. It is a disguise or something very intimate and at the same time, it is a chimera. I find these questions about the image and the body very contemporary. The diets, the obsession of weight, all this about organic food, is not far from fashion.

Alicia Drake:

Clothes are very powerful as a communication medium.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

But at the same time I think it's surprisingly conformist. I don’t know why, because of my taste or whatever, but I never wear heels and I am always in pants. I like to dress in a rock style or marked by this, and I am always surprised that women's fashion (when we see what Yves Saint Laurent was able to do in the 1970s) is now so conformist, in sort of women's

cliché

as if we had to conform to the idea of fragility with small flowers, evanescence, and embroideries. This is another reason why I like Kate Moss, because she is rock ’n’ roll, she wears hats, leather boots, she looks like something. Saint Laurent's “Smoking Collection” with tuxedos and everything, that was extraordinary.

Alicia Drake:

Yes, but that collection was in 1966, nearly 1967, in harmony with what was happening in society at that time. Today women are not fighting for their position; they have tremendous confidence in terms of work, sexuality, everything. They are extremely powerful so they can play the femininity card.

And Paris? Is it still the capital of fashion?

Yes. In England we do not take fashion seriously; this is not really in our heritage. Here everyone has an opinion about fashion. I think about Saint Laurent’s funerals, the fact that the President was there …

It's so French

.

Françoise-Marie Santucci:

This is because the French have an opinion on everything.