Made In France: Carine Roitfeld

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As editor of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld shocked and surprised by turns. Lee Carter talks to the fashion maverick about her glossy new book

Carine Roitfeld doesn't compartmentalise.

Life and work to French Vogue's editor-in-chief for 10 illustrious years – until her high-profile departure in January – is one big "mix", a word she uses freely to mean assorted emotions, moods, whims, and any other sensation that may stray into her ever-pulsing radar. Where her Vogue counterparts are celebrated for their ordered methodology, Roitfeld seems to move to an inner rhythm, acting on impulse and, if we're being old-fashioned, exercising a woman's prerogative. In this way she has become one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in fashion, at once puzzling and opinionated, compliant and contrary, submissive and subversive.

And so it is that her new book, Irreverent (Rizzoli, £60), is an exquisite jumble of images, 30 years of her most memorable, daring and sometimes controversial work at French Vogue and a host of other magazines. These are softened by family and personal pictures, including one in which she is topless and rifling through underthings in her closet. (She says she doesn't know why she has shown it as she claims to be pudique, or modest. That she is French will have to suffice.) It is an experiment of sorts, an autobiography told through this wealth of images, sprinkled with short Q&As given by friends – famous, industry, or both. Anchoring it all is a lengthy interview given by Purple magazine's Olivier Zahm, who, along with Alex Wiederin, is the tome's editor.

"It was supposed to come out a year ago," says Roitfeld by phone, from bed. It's the middle of the Paris spring collections and she's exhausted, but also exhilarated and talking a mile a minute. She speaks with a dulcet accent or sometimes in French itself. "But at that time I was at French Vogue, so I had a lot of work and it was physically difficult to find all the magazines from 30 years ago. As I do not have archives, I had to go in my cave [cellar] and to the last chest of my wardrobe to find old issues of The Face, Arena Homme Plus, and all these magazines."

She persisted, emerging from her cave with a trove of images that, for the book, she has annotated with recollections and anecdotes from the day of the shoot. The very first photo is of Roitfeld herself, wearing a T-shirt that reads "Vogue love you mum" in child-scrawled letters with the caption: "My son Vladimir made this T-shirt as a present for Mother's Day when he was eight years old. And I hadn't started working at Vogue yet!"

From there it's game on. Portrayals of S&M, pill-popping, cross-dressing, self-mutilation, and veil-wearing (a custom banned in France) soon follow, each more beautifully perverse than the last. One of the most jarring images, which appeared just last year in French Vogue, is of Hungarian model Eniko Mihalik, naked with an elderly woman's wrinkled and spotted arms wrapped around her, as if her own. Meant to disturb, and succeeding, it's a comment on the ravages of age. Next to it, Roitfeld recalls: "This is another one of the beauty stories I did with Mario Sorrenti. The shock: a beautiful young girl with old hands. Take care of your hands!"

All told, hundreds of images across hundreds of pages are reprinted, as are countless thank-you cards and letters from those famous friends – Riccardo Tisci, Helmut Lang, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Hedi Slimane – expressing heartfelt love and gratitude for using their designs. One of the letters comes from Tom Ford, with whom Roitfeld first achieved legendary status in the 1990s as the stylist of his Gucci collections as he transformed it from a lacklustre heritage brand into a modern luxury powerhouse.

Dated 2007, the post-Gucci letter congratulates her on a story featuring his eponymous brand of sunglasses on a model made to look like a fur-cloaked, impeccably bobbed Anna Wintour, who famously wears oversized shades in the front row. The shoot, the brainchild of Roitfeld's fertile mind, is ironic, self-aware, light-hearted, deferential and still talked about. It's enough to wonder if fashion, at the highest echelons, is a convivial place after all.

When asked about her most significant issue, she doesn't miss a beat. "It was my last October issue, which was the first year of the 90-year anniversary of French Vogue. We made a special book of 90 pictures since the beginning of its days. We mixed old articles with new articles, old pictures with pictures of today. It's like Vogue from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. I was very happy to work with the best photographers, in an irreverent way, and to see all the pictures mixing so well. French Vogue was always a photographer's magazine."

Even Roitfeld appears somewhat gobsmacked by the depth and breadth of her oeuvre. "I was a very, very productive person. I did so many stories that I forgot about myself. I could have put together two or three or four books with all the shoots I have done. People would get bored of me, but it would be possible. So I tried to choose my most iconic stories."

Sometimes stories were iconic for their sheer audacity. In 2008, Roitfeld styled and ran a shoot (she's the rare editor-in-chief who also styles) lensed by another of her famous friends, Mario Testino, that seems to mock the animal-rights group PETA. In it, the model Raquel Zimmermann, dripping in animal skins, marches past protesters holding placards denouncing the use of fur. Roitfeld's annotation reads: "Even though this was a statement against wearing fur, the people from PETA were very unhappy. I think it was because the girl is giving the finger – but that's what happens when you wear fur. It's risky, but I think it was funny to show it like this. I wear less fur now."

Over the years Roitfeld has adapted in other ways, too, disposing of devices long used to add gravitas to fashion imagery. "Smoking is not good," she's quick to concede, "but you know this book is 30 years of fashion, and 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, people were not talking about how bad cigarettes were. It was something very normal, you know? So when you see all the pictures, one after the other, there will be a lot of cigarettes in my book. That is the reason I decided to never use a cigarette again." Proof that fashion magazines are not impervious to public pressure; in fact they're quite sensitive to it.

Body image, however, is an issue Roitfeld has been right about from the very start. "In my 10 years, I never put a girl that was too skinny in French Vogue. I think readers can be very impressionable and you have to pay attention to what you tell them and put in the magazine. And I tell myself my kids are going to read the magazine and I don't want them to feel bad. I prefer to use curvy girls like Lara Stone. I don't think the woman in French Vogue was an object. She was always a real woman. Even if there was a lot of bondage around her, I don't think she looks like she's suffering. If she wears high heels and a garter belt, it's because it's what she wants. She's a strong woman."

Roitfeld is herself an image of strength, a former model who's gone from gamine to glamazon – a petite glamazon – in the course of her career. With her smoky eyes, which she applies with dark shadow to create her signature smoulder, she's often described in the Newtonian sense, a reference not to the 17th-century scientist Sir Isaac Newton, but the mid-century German photographer Helmut Newton. His seminal black-and-white portraits of self-empowered, dominatrix-like women lording over their surroundings – even the men, especially the men – are widely imitated to this day.

But Roitfeld isn't so sure she fits that mould. "I would love to be a Newton girl, but I'm not as strong as a Newton girl," she demurs. "Although it's true that I always like to mix femininity with something a bit masculine. It's the reason I love skirts with high heels and tights, and no handbag because I love having my hands in my pockets. Maybe it's a French style."

Even with the book as proof, no one would ever guess the kohl-eyed dynamo is in her 57th year, which isn't to say she isn't constantly evolving. While talk of blogs inspires a moment of ire – "a lot of rumours on the internet are wrong and horrible" – Roitfeld seems ready for her next venture, and there has been speculation it will be online.

True to form, however, she remains inscrutable. "I will try to do another magazine, but not a monthly, something different. I want to see a link between the catwalk and reality. It's difficult for the woman to understand how to wear the clothes she is seeing on the catwalk. Maybe I can find a new way of thinking and a totally different way to express myself. It's very exciting at this moment because it's a new challenge. Ten years is a long time. So I think maybe it's good to try to do something new."

Of course, those expecting further elucidation will just have to wait until she's ready.

Lee Carter is founder and editor-at-large of the New York fashion site Hintmag.com; "Irreverent" is published by Rizzoli, £60, rizzoli.com

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