Paloma's return

Success - in business and in love - has mellowed Paloma Picasso and brought her back to London.
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When you look at Paloma Picasso's photo in magazines, you can't help thinking she must be tough as nails. With her strong features, raven- black hair, white skin and shocking red lips, she certainly does not look like a softie. So, before meeting her, I was reassured to read that she admits: "I am not as strong as I look. I am actually incredibly shy. Very often, when one is timid, one puts on a strong front, because it's easy to hide behind it. And that's certainly true of me."

Yet, in person, Picasso comes over as neither hard-edged nor retiring. True, it is easy to imagine that she doesn't take any nonsense in her jewellery and perfume business, but otherwise, she is relaxed, funny, chatty and - it would seem - extremely happy. Indeed, she looks very much like the cat who got the cream. As she sits curled up on the sofa in the Chinese room of Blake's Hotel, you can almost hear her purring with delight. The reason for her satisfaction is quite simple: a complete change in her life. A new man (a French osteopath called Eric Thevenet), a new home (London) and a new, quieter style of life. According to her close friend, the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, "She's like herself again, finally doing the things she wants to do."

She moved to London from New York in 1994 and has since completely redecorated a Chelsea town house. She first came to the city as a teenager in the Swinging Sixties and almost moved into an apartment on the Fulham Road in 1968. However, she believes that, from the mid-Seventies onwards, the city became "very sad", and she made only very rare visits. "Then, four years ago, I had a feeling that something was happening in London," she declares. "Now it's great to see it become the centre of the world again."

But Picasso is not really planning to take too much advantage of the city's new swing. She says that she doesn't go to night-clubs any more, and has been so busy recently that she has not even had the time to take in much theatre. Instead, she prefers to spend her spare time walking by the Thames, visiting her favourite antique dealers (Peter Farlow in Westbourne Grove, and Christopher Hodsoll in Pimlico) and browsing around the Conran Shop and Egg, the modish interiors and clothes shop, for new finds for the home. She brunches at Brown's in Draycott Avenue, lunches at Joe's Cafe in the same street and also enjoys the Indian cuisine at Noor Jahan in Bina Gardens and the summer pudding at Wilton's in Jermyn Street.

However, spare time for Picasso remains a luxury and she still spends much of her week travelling for business. When asked how much time she spends in London, she turns to her PA and asks, "Am I ever here for a week at a time?" "It's very rare," comes the reply. Still, she is making efforts to ease up her schedule. "I've travelled more than anyone can stand," she says. "When I decided to leave New York I realised that in the 12 years I had been based there, I had only once spent three weeks in a row in the same place. I know that hostesses are not allowed to travel as much as I used to. That shows how bad it was."

Yet, when she did finally touch base in New York, she found she could not relax. "People go out a lot there and if you don't go out to parties, people get really upset," she asserts. "I felt that the social thing was really starting to get too much, and was also beginning to get very boring." She did not want to go back to Paris, where she was born in 1949, because "there may be a lot of people expecting me to be here and there" - and finally plumped for London because "I felt it would be more private which I must say it is. People are much more respectful of your privacy."

She tells me that she recently refused to do any interviews for a period of two years, and the reason she has agreed to meet now is to talk about her new perfume, Tentations, which is being launched throughout the UK this week. She is also back in the spotlight as one of the sponsors of the Antonio exhibition at the Royal College of Art. She posed for the Puerto Rican fashion illustrator in the early Seventies, and danced away many a night with him at Paris's famous Club Sept. "His great quality was not just to represent fashion, but to anticipate it," she says. "His style changes as often as fashion, but usually precedes it."

Picasso remains rather guarded about more personal matters. For example, her new house was strictly out of bounds for the interview. What you do learn about it is that it has five storeys, with a guest bedroom in the basement, and that Thevenet's practice takes up the ground floor and it is decorated in, "my own" style. When pushed further, she reveals there is "some Biedermeier furniture" and that "it is ornate at times, but not in an opulent way."

Nor does she seem comfortable with questions about either Thevenet or her former husband and business partner, Rafael Lopez-Cambil, from whom she separated when she left New York. How did she meet Thevenet? "At a dinner party." What about the rumours that her relationship with Lopez- Cambil broke down because he was too ambitious? A slightly irritated sigh: "It's hard to know why something stops working. It's true there was a lot of stress from the fact that we worked together and lived together."

Apparently Picasso gets very tired of answering the same old questions about her father, but when the hairdresser for the photo-shoot starts talking about him, she replies without appearing in the least jaded. She remembers how she once copied some Picassos and Matisses when she was little and took them to her father. "He told me: 'Don't copy anyone. Don't come to me and ask me if it's OK. You should decide for yourself.' " At the age of 14, she got a mental block about painting and would not even doodle; even now, she does not want to recognise her father in her own jewellery and accessories designs. "It's the only way I can exist," she asserts. "Most people have to make a name for themselves. I had to make them forget mine. Forget the Picasso, build up the Paloma."

She started doing so by making a name for herself in the early Seventies as a jewellery designer. In 1980 she joined the design team of Tiffany's and Lopez-Cambil swiftly persuaded her that she should take advantage of her success with the press and launch a fragrance. Her first perfume, Paloma Picasso, was launched in 1984 and was followed by a men's scent, Minotaure, as well as a lipstick, accessories, home furnishing and bath products. Today, her licensing business generates between $700m and $800m a year in retail sales. In spite of their split, Cambil-Lopez, who has always been the business brains behind her success, is still very much part of the company. He has even relocated to London, too.

What does she like most about London? "I have everything I want at home." She is frank about the fact that she is not going out of her way to make any new friends: she has even hired a cook so that she doesn't have to go out to restaurants so often. "Eric and I are really happy we moved," she beams. "Every week we congratulate ourselves on this wonderful idea"