The colour purple

Art meets fashion meets social analysis in a trio of must-have magazines that have got the fashion establishment on the run. Alicia Drake penetrates the Purple Institute

For two flaming stars of the Paris media world, Olivier Zahm and Elein Fleiss are remarkably understated. Their London equivalent would be talking hard-faced hype with coke-congested nasal passages. But this is Paris, so Olivier is contemplative with a mouthful of nicotine teeth, while Elein sits opposite with a blunt-cut fringe and quiet self-assurance.

In a city not known for media innovation, Zahm and Fleiss have created an inspired triumvirate of pocket-size quarterly magazines called Purple Fashion, Purple Prose and Purple Fiction. "A vision of contemporary culture, rather than traditional theory or criticism," is how Zahm describes the Purple editorial policy, which covers poetry, photography, art, architecture, fashion, social trends, film - and, from November, erotica, too.

"Basically we are interested in everything that is pertinent to artists," says Zahm. So, that might mean a feature on the bio-degradable artwork of some obscure Austrian artist or an analysis of the social and ethnic implications of the Tommy Hilfiger brand. Earnest, urban and edgy, it is the ultimate example of the French cultural approach: caffeine-induced esoteric analysis, heart-felt intellectualising with a load of labels thrown in.

In fact, Zahm and Fleiss are fast attaining guru status here. Designer store Colette and two French fashion magazines have used them as consultants and trend forecaster Li Edelkoort has invited them to contribute to her seminal magazine, View On Colour.

In short, these two are the darlings of the modern fashion establishment - but the feeling is not always mutual. Mention the subject of the imported British designers working at the French couture houses and Zahm loses all sang-froid and starts comparing Alexander McQueen to a British football hooligan. "We liked McQueen when he was in London and he had a violence and an instinct. But now he comes across here and just turns out a trash parody of Paris luxe," protests Zahm. "Rather than overturn tradition or smash the Ming vase, he's completely reinforcing the system and its conservatism. The couture ladies get off on being served by this faux punk. He has become the King's fool," he finishes with a flourish.

It's not that Zahm is against foreign designers, far from it, he thinks Paris fashion survival relies on them - and he's right. "The avant-garde in Paris has always been international and that's what makes up the permanent revolution in France." But he's looking for a challenge to what he sees as the poodle-pushing, stagnant world of haute couture teamed with a real understanding of this city. "We want to be close to reality, to people's sentiments and what touches them inside. We don't find reality depressing. In fact, we find it very beautiful." "Reality", purple style, means pictures of trashy white men peeing, adolescent shoppers at Les Halles shopping mall, a red nipple dress, body parts and butterflies.

They met in 1989 when Zahm was writing as an art critic and Fleiss was organising exhibitions and already faxing around a monthly anonymous gossip sheet to the Paris contemporary art clique. The purple reign began in 1992 with the launch of Purple Prose, a contemporary art magazine which, says Fleiss, "is intended to speak to a new generation of artists that emerged in the early Nineties. They are no longer interested in fine-art theory, but more focused on everyday life, reality, and open to other art fields such as literature, fashion or cinema which interact with their art." They added Purple Fiction in 1995, but it was the launch of Purple Fashion later the same year that gave them a high profile. It may only have a meagre print run of 4,000 (increasing to 6,000 this October), but it's got credibility. Karl Lagerfeld keeps a copy on his desk, Helmut Lang advertises in it and American fashion magazines use it to talent-spot hot new photographers.

Determined to hang onto their editorial independence, they have created the Purple Institute as a separate commercial limb for the consultancy side and as a space for exhibitions, performance art and fashion shows. The money will fund their editorial, as they do not want to get caught up in the usual magazine ad/editorial abusive relationship. "We are not ready to make those concessions," begins Fleiss, then lightens up with, "or do stories on Versace's home-wear or Calvin Klein's house."

But just then the telephone rings at the Purple Institute and it's Comme des Garcons asking Zahm if he would like to model in the forthcoming menswear show, an honour that has absolutely nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your perceived intellectual validity. Even Zahm can't keep the grin off his face.

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