The Legacy Issue

The Naked Truth: Carine Roitfeld on Post-Vogue Life, Her New Perfume, and Collaborating With Karl Lagerfeld

The fashion impresario reveals a new side of herself.

Photo by Ferry van der Nat.

“I know that my father would be very proud of me—that my name has become something in fashion. Not just working to help others, but to help myself. It’s a big difference to help Tom Ford, or the other people I’ve worked helping for thirty years. Now I’m helping myself.”

Carine Roitfeld has just arrived at an exclusive pop-up store in New York’s SoHo, created by Etienne Russo, the longtime producer of Dries Van Noten’s beguiling runway shows. The prolific editor and stylist has, for more than three decades, been steering trends, reframing the identities of major fashion labels, and helping launch the careers of young designers all over the globe. Even inside Russo’s space, surrounded by industry luminaries, her glow is singular. Newfound self-awareness has brought about even greater intention, a recalibration of her powerful place in the fashion industry. She is to French fashion what Joe DiMaggio was to the Yankees, what Big Ben is to clock towers, what “Sunflowers” is to post-impressionist artwork. Something like a Platonic ideal.

Typically, that ideal is something like this: a dark haze of eyeshadow and full eyebrows, a tightly belted coat that’s at once covering and revealing, the highest of heels, bare bronzed legs, tousled brown hair that covers the face just so… It’s a little bit Nico, a little whimsical, a little something original that defies description. You can buy this look from Barney’s or Bergdorfs, but only Carine Roitfeld will ever really own it. Which is a large part of why she’ll receive the CFDA Founder’s Award this June. It’s also why her look is now among the most bankable commodities in modern fashion. It’s this strength of her position that is now unlocking the doors to her next move.

But for Roitfeld, this look, and thousands of others she has crafted over the years, is about telling a story. And that, she says, invariably requires revealing an ultimate truth.

“It’s like directing a film,” she explains. “I never use a model as simply a model. I like to think of [her] as an actress.”

Even if you don’t recognize her name, you’ve certainly felt Roitfeld’s seismic impact on fashion and design. Born and raised in Paris, she soaked up culture in the city’s posh 16th Arrondissement, an experience that informed her sensibilities from a young age. (Her father, a Russian emigrant, was a film producer, and she describes her mother simply as a “classic Frenchwoman.”) After catching the attention of a photographer on the street, she began modeling professionally in her teens, but eventually settled in on the other side of camera. Roitfeld spent the better part of two decades as a stylist at French Elle, before meeting photographer Mario Testino on a shoot in 1990. They clicked, and the duo was soon recruited by Tom Ford, at that time the creative director at Gucci, to help relay his vision for the brand. In a series of epic runway shows and advertising campaigns, Roitfeld’s expert styling heralded Gucci’s radical new persona: slick, irreverent, and overtly sexual. It caused a media sensation (the aesthetic was dubbed “porno-chic,” a term Roitfeld hates), shattered perceived creative limitations, and inspired a generation of young designers.

Carine with friend and mentor the late Karl Lagerfeld. Photograph courtesy of Carine Roitfeld.

The work with Ford made Roitfeld one of the industry’s most sought-after talents. She consulted for top houses, including YSL and Dior, and was tapped to run the French edition of Vogue, in 2001. Roitfeld wasted no time making the publication her own. As well as overseeing a radical redesign (and, later, the controversial ousting of award-winning creative agency M/M), she also renamed the magazine. French Vogue became Vogue Paris, in part because she felt the city’s legacy fashion labels were on the brink of a major comeback. Both in private and in print, she championed Balenciaga, Lanvin, Chloé, Rochas, and Givenchy, all of which soon enjoyed major resurgences; this, in turn, propelled fresh-faced designers like Nicolas Ghesquière, Olivier Theyskens, and Riccardo Tisci to stardom. Depending on your perspective, this is either a testament to Roitfeld’s prescient instincts, a marker of her influence, or incredibly fortunate timing.

In any event, the style she cultivated as editor-in-chief made an indelible mark—so much that, when she departed in 2012, the so-called Vogue Paris Girl had became part of the style lexicon. In the years since, Roitfeld has worked tirelessly to parlay her personal brand into an international empire. She took over as global fashion director for Harper’s Bazaar; launched two independent fashion publications and a full-service creative agency; and dropped a steady succession of well-received collaborations, including seasonal collections for Uniqlo and signature cosmetics for M·A·C Cosmetics. Earlier this year, the late Karl Lagerfeld appointed Roitfeld as a contributor to his eponymous ready-to-wear line.

The initial fruits of that partnership arrive in September, in the form of The Edit by Carine Roitfeld, a selection of essential pieces from KL’s autumn/winter 2019 collection, which she says emphasize “mix- and-match appeal.” The famously discerning Lagerfeld, like most everybody else in fashion, trusted Roitfeld’s eye implicitly.

But for her latest venture, the 64-year-old fashion maven is asking us to trust something else: Her nose.

See, the SoHo pop-up shop we’re inside now is her own. It represents the arrival of Roitfeld’s first-ever fragrance collection, sold through Net-a-Porter and her website, and to “elite clientele” at this temporary retail space. Eight years in the making, she says the new Carine Roitfeld Perfumes brand is her most personal project to date—a claim she backed up during Paris Fashion Week, in February. On the second day of the event, her street team covered the city with some 4,000 promotional posters, all of which carried a single image: Roitfeld, out of focus but very clearly naked, gazing out a window and flashing a peace sign. “My daughter took the picture four or five years ago in my apartment in Paris, in front of the window so everyone can see me,” Roitfeld says. “She takes this somewhat private photo, and now you see me on all the walls of Paris, and I’m nude. It’s true, revealing the ultimate truth. Like when you have given your soul to your perfume, the process is exactly like being naked.”

The metaphor works on several levels. Roitfeld’s industry cachet is unassailable, but her roles up to this point (stylist, editor, advisor, mogul) have suggested a certain kind of low-key powerbrokering. Even her own magazines and creative agency (CR Fashion Book and CR Men’s Book, and CR Studio, respectively) have only carried her initials. With Carine Roitfeld Perfumes, she is stepping squarely, and unabashedly, into the limelight.

Still, as ever, she found comfort in the familiarity of the creative process, which she says wasn’t all too unlike styling a runway show or conceptualizing a print spread.

“There was no model, but it was conceived the same way. I tried to tell a story,” she says. “Because telling the story is something I am good at. [It’s] something important to people, and now they can play a part.”

(FROM LEFT) Discovered on the streets of Paris, Carine began her career in front of the camera. Photo by Karl Lagerfeld, courtesy of Carine Roitfeld; Quintessential Carine. Photo by Bjorn Iooss.

To wit, each of the collection’s seven perfumes is named for a fictionalized lover in a major city. Each has a narrative, a personality. Each represents an amalgamation of its designer’s identity. There is “Vladimir,” from St. Petersburg, a Russian man with a beautiful body who’s trained in the French art of ballet, a tribute to both sides of Roitfeld’s familial lineage. New York’s “Orson,” who is named after Orson Welles, and shares her appreciation for white flower arrangements at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. “George,” in London, whose royal name belies his punk rock inclinations, and whose scent carries a hint of cannabis. Then there’s “Aurélien” in Paris, “Lawrence” in Dubai, “Sebastian” in Buenos Aires, and “Kar-Wei” from Hong Kong. The masculine names, Roitfeld insists, are not a directive on who should wear them. In her story, Orson or Sebastian (or the lovers they take) could be anybody.

“It’s for both men and women,” she says, bluntly. “It has no gender.”

But Roitfeld stops short of claiming these scents are for everybody. In describing her approach, she uses terms like “audacious” and doesn’t pay lip service to subtlety. She wanted her perfumes to be “strong,” introducing an element of risk. Shrinking violets need not apply.

“To me, perfume is a powerful addiction to someone—a desire or even a rejection. Someone you don’t like over a perfume? It’s finished. So dangerous… When you wear [Carine Roitfeld Perfumes], you won’t be forgotten. It is very important. When you walk the streets of Paris you can often follow a woman by the trail of perfume that she leaves behind. For these women, a lover has to be strong to be with her, because she is a tough one.”

To translate this concept, she turned to three of the world’s best perfumers: Pascal Gaurin, Aurélien Guichard, and Yann Vasnier. The group’s collective résumé includes signed scents for Issey Miyake, Vera Wang, Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, and John Galliano. Each member of the brain trust brought special knowledge and expertise to the project, she says, merging rare and exotic ingredients in both scientific and “mysterious” ways.

(Like her forthcoming collection for Lagerfeld, the notion of mix-and-match was central to the genesis of these fragrances. In the past, Roitfeld layered two different fragrances, blending YSL’s Opium with Serge Lutens’s Fleurs d’Oranger, to create her signature scent. She’s taken beloved notes from her two favorite scents and replicated the combination within her collection as the Parisian Aurélien scent.)

Of course, Roitfeld was particular about the product design and packaging. She wanted something tactile, and the collection’s curved bottles are intended to be touched and held. The glass and magnetic stopper have a surprising grace and weight in the hand; the loosely scripted label is as sensual as it is distinct. It’s all in the service of the story, she says, just as it always has been. The difference is that, for once, it’s not a story for Tom Ford’s Gucci, or Vogue magazine, or one of her agency’s high-powered corporate clients. Carine Roitfeld Perfumes is something like Carine Roitfeld’s Platonic ideal, her absolute truth.

“With no one behind us to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like the color of the bottle, I don’t like this, I don’t like that,’ everything is one hundred percent my dream,” she says. “And I hope it’s just the beginning of a new chapter.”

After the launch of the fragrance collection, Surface spoke with Carine Roitfeld about her upcoming plans.

Images from the Carine Roitfeld Perfumes campaign. Photography by Sebastian Faena, courtesy of Carine Roitfeld.
Last fall, posters pasted up during Paris fashion week announced the arrival of the perfumes, the first of many projects to come. Photo courtesy of Carine Roitfeld.

Your next big project is a multi-brand runway presentation for LuisaViaRoma. You worked on this with your son, Vladimir, right?

Yes! This is really his idea. It’s going to be the first time that a show presents multiple brands. Sometimes brands say okay to do a [mixed-brand] show if it’s for charity, for example, because it’s a good cause. But when he talks about a normal catwalk, he’s mixing all of them, one brand after the other. It [has] never happened before.

We’re trying to create something that opens real doors. A lot of people don’t have the ability to go to runway shows, and maybe have no idea about a catwalk show. It’s going to be outside, 5,000 guests. And 2,000 of them will not be part of the press, just normal people, who get free tickets through a lottery. I’m very excited to open the door to more people to see a fashion show.

When you see a collection in a magazine story, it’s [one thing]. But when you see this live, you see the way they’re walking, with the music, the big screens and everything. We’ll be ending with a concert by Lenny Kravitz. It’s more than a catwalk. It’s really a big show, and I think people are going to be happy.

You have said that you’re going to be featuring a lot of younger designers. Who’s catching your eye right now?

Richard Quinn, Simone Rocha, LaQuan Smith, and more. I want to have a big number for the show, like ten or fifteen new—well, I don’t want to say new—but young designers [who are] capable already. The show will be a nineties look, because it’s celebrating [Luisa Roma’s] 90th birth- day. It’s an homage to the nineties, but [also tries] to help young designers, sharing the catwalk with all these big brands. This is going to be amazing for them, I think.

What do you think of Virgil Abloh and what he’s doing at Louis Vuitton?

I really like Virgil. We were maybe one of the first to talk about Off-White by Virgil in CR Fashion Book. He’s creating so many things. He talks to many different people, and he has a lot of modernity. I think it’s one of [his] generation’s talents, and I like his generation, because they’re totally different from the one before. I think they’re easier. They like to see other shows, they like to invite other designers to their shows, and that influence is really large. I think it’s a bit démodé to keep it just for yourself and not to share [with] other designers because maybe you’re not sure of yourself, or you want to be the only one.

I remember Mr. [Azzedine] Alaïa was going to Comme des Garçons, he was going to Louis Vuitton. When you have someone with the talent and organization like Azzedine Alaïa watching your show, I think that’s a big sense [of pride] to be an owner. So I like that people are, because of Virgil, are going to support his friend Heron Preston. I like that. I like this idea for communication, a new way of thinking. Honestly, I hope it’s going to be the new modernity, because it’s what we’re missing in the houses. Marc Jacobs loves to go to shows. I saw him at Balenciaga. I saw him at Chanel. If [you’re] curious, you want to see what others are doing. When you love fashion, it’s not just about your fashion. It’s about the fashion of others, too.

(FROM LEFT) Carine with son and business partner, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld. Photo by Sebastian Faena, courtesy of Carine Roitfeld; Part of a collection of seven fragrances, “Vladimir,” represents her family’s Russian heritage. Photo courtesy of Carine Roitfeld.

You’re known for pushing boundaries. Are the people working creatively in fashion right now taking enough risks?

I think so. Fashion is a risk today. It’s always risky. First you need talent—that’s not everyone. You need some luck, to find people to help you. And then third, it’s true, when you don’t belong to a big brand, it’s very difficult to make your own brand. Because you [need] a lot of money, and just to buy the materials one year in advance, it’s very, very complicated. That is the problem all young designers have had to fight: How to pay [for] the next show. These young designers are the future. I remember when I met the first time Jonathan W. Anderson, he was showing in the 13th [Arrondissement] as a special young English designer in Paris. Look where is he now. He made his own show, and after he could do Loewe, because they went to his show. I think a way to show to have a talent, that functional talent, is more important, also that bit of luck. And a lot of work, of course.

What about your collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld?

Before Karl died, he asked me to [work on] a special project for the general collection. He also asked me to do a capsule that is not really announced yet. I [already] finished it, and it will be announced soon. But regarding Karl, and my relationship with him, it’s a lasting thing, to give me all this visibility and confidence with his brand. Because I knew Karl very well for many years. After he passed away, there were conversations about me just being part of the [Lagerfeld] world, to be sure that the collection will always have something of Karl, that his DNA will be present and recognizable. I’m not designing clothes—it’s not my thing. But when we talked, I tried to keep the right way of Karl, you know? It’s like a glass of red wine. If you put too much water at the end, it doesn’t taste of wine. So we pay attention that the glass of wine is truly a red glass of wine.

But it’s just a collaboration, it’s not [a full-time role]. There are so many other projects, I cannot be working just for one brand. You know I’m working on a new show for Tom Ford, a campaign for Max Mara… I’m doing my magazine, I’m doing Harper’s Bazaar, my perfume, and a runway at Cannes [Fashion Week]. I’m a very, very busy girl. It’s good to be working so much when you’re a grandmother. I think I’m the only grandmother in the fashion world. But I love to be surrounded by young people. It’s what keeps me young and curious and aware.

The theme of this issue is legacy. And you certainly have a long career that is incredibly memorable. What are your thoughts on legacy? What do you want people to remember about you?

Oh my god. You know, I never thought about myself this way. Then Vladimir told me, some years ago, to see my name [as] a brand. I never realized that, because I was working, working. Vladimir opened my eyes. And I said, “Ah, yes, this will be good.” I’m doing so many collaborations for six months, for three seasons—the magazine is for one month or six months. It’s always changing. Doing a perfume is a legacy to keep, maybe not forever, but to keep longer than just one collection. I think that it will be a success, and we’ll keep going, doing more projects. Maybe my own name—not CR but Carine Roitfeld—becomes a good name in fashion. I don’t know. I’m known as a talent, but I’m not sufficient or enough, you know, to think I would be a brand. But it could be amusing.

And I’m never short of ideas, that’s for sure. Ideas for what I can do after [the perfume.] But, like I learned from Karl, I will never go where people are expecting me to go. They will never think I will start with a perfume, they think I am going to start with a black dress. Oh no. No, I’m starting with perfume. And I’m going to do more projects. But in fashion, it would be something everyone is very surprised [by]—maybe something they never see on me.

I love challenges. Every day in fashion you have to fight to keep your talent, your position, your legacy. It’s very difficult today with so much competition, and business is less difficult than it was some years ago. You need a challenge, you need success. You cannot just relax. At the end of the day I’m a dreamer. And Vladimir really gave me the ability to make my dream come true.

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