Carine Roitfeld /
'Drink espresso, sleep in your makeup, don’t take selfiES’
Carine Roitfeld, queen of French fashion, reveals her rules for Parisienne chic to a ‘terrified’ Sophie Heawood
‘I did everything first. But people forget, because people forget everything’: Carine Roitfeld wears jacket and skirt by Tom Ford; Clash T-shirt her own; necklace by Dior. Makeup by Hugo Villard at Saint Germain Agency using Chanel; hair by Olivier Schawalder at Bryant Artists using Oribe. Photograph: Patrick Swirc/The Observer
Carine Roitfeld was the editor of French Vogue for 10 years, worked closely with Karl Lagerfeld, is an adviser to Tom Ford – and is an absolute titan in the global fashion world. Naturally, what this means to me is that the thought of meeting her is absolutely terrifying, so I sit down in the Parisian hotel where we have arranged to do the interview and tell her this. She is dressed in black, of course, her slightly hunched posture making her look more like her 64 years. She is sipping a tiny coffee, and isn’t remotely surprised I’m terrified.
“People think I’m judging, but I’m not judging,” she says. “I’m watching. It’s different. People sometimes say, ‘My God her eyes will scan you,’ but it’s not to judge you. It’s to get ideas. It’s observation.”
I feel totally comfortable with everyone. It is my strength, to be open -minded, always
Well that’s all right then. French Vogue, under her tenure from 2001 to 2011, was a force to be reckoned with. It looked like nothing else. She believed in bold ideas and she loved boobs, even naked on the cover. She loved cigarettes dangling from models’ mouths. She loved fur. And she loved curves. She used unskinny models Crystal Renn and Lara Stone, and did a cover with the blonde, mainstream-looking model Carolyn Murphy prancing around with Andre J, a black transgender model in a dress and a beard. “Would Anna Wintour ever allow such a thing?” asked the American website Jezebel at the time.
I have brought the current issue of French Vogue with me and we flick through it together. All the models are the exact same skinniness. “I do not like this,” she says. “I like older women. I like bigger girls. I like black women. I did everything first. But people forget, because people forget everything. I feel totally comfortable with everyone. It is my strength, to be open-minded, always.”
It does seem to be true – she is even interested in my red handbag, which is made of fake leather, cost about £50 from a small animal-friendly brand she’s never heard of, and is bursting at the seams “because you put too much stuff in it,” she says, as if she’s my mum.
After too many years spent reading all those books about how to be chic like a Frenchwoman and hating them so much I’d feel compelled to go straight out and buy one about how to date like them, too, and then how to raise children who eat like French enfants, I feel I should be expert in how to be an insouciant yet glamorous Parisian – except it hasn’t worked at all. I am not remotely chic. My love life is so English it’s practically Chaucerian. My child subsists on potatoes. So I want to ask this most Parisienne of Parisiennes for her secrets – can she make me chic? I have this scarf, you see, and every time I tie it in a knot it doesn’t look right. I ask her to tie it better on me, but she takes it off me and ties it better on herself – by not tying it at all.
“Never a knot,” she says. “But I learned this from Tom Ford, not France.” She shows me that you either wrap it around your neck once with two long ends dangling down either side of your chest, or you fold it so it’s doubled over and half the length and then thread it through itself a little bit like a tie. Not a knot, you understand.
I ask Roitfeld, when I look at a Parisian woman who doesn’t have much makeup on and is in a simple navy sweater and jeans and yet looks stunning, what is she spending her money on. What has she paid for that I can’t see? Is it a dermatologist? Roitfeld nods – I have hit the nail on the head.
“To be beautiful costs so much money,” she agrees. “For something you don’t see.” She favours the aesthetician Hervé Herau for her own skin treatments, which she suggests are just a bit of cream, really. She is not keen on younger women getting Botox at all, while she thinks older women often overdo it. “I don’t want to name names but there are some who can’t move their faces any more. Like Cher.” Roitfeld also says that French style is quite conservative, so the chicness comes from a certain coolness in attitude, a lack of overt polishedness, as well as the cut of the trenchcoat, the quality of the shoe. But she insists she prefers English style “because we are not good at fantasy, French people. In New York you see all this crazy nail art and I love that, too, but we French are more quiet, discreet.”
But how, how do I become chic? There must be a way. She looks at me sympathetically. “Chic,” replies Carine Roitfeld, “is innate.”
In the years after leaving Vogue in 2011, her son Vladimir worked on convincing her that her name was valuable and that rather than keep only working for other brands she could become one herself. She was surprised, but she trusted him, and gradually they went into business together, launching her bi-annual magazine CR Fashion Book, her creative talent agency CR Studio, and now her Carine Roitfeld Parfums, for which she has created her 7 Lovers range, sold exclusively at Net-a-Porter, each perfume is named after a different fantasy lover from her imagination. So there is the English lover, called George, like our royal prince, “Yes, like him, your future queen,” she says, suggesting either a language barrier or that she knows something I don’t about Prince William’s son.
George the perfume started off quite green, so she added a shot of cannabis and a shot of espresso to the mix, as you do. Then there’s Sebastian, who comes from Buenos Aires and is as dark and troublesome as the tango, and smells spicy and woody and is “a very selfish lover, the fight between life and death is what I want for him, he’s very proud of himself”. So he’s the one you shouldn’t marry, I suggest. “Oh maybe you should,” she replies, quite seriously. My Englishness floats around me like virginity.
‘My kids are well brought up because I was so tough with them’
Her daughter, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, has also been involved, having taken a nude photo of her mother a couple of years ago that they decided to use for her marketing, after checking with Vladimir. “If he say I can do it, I can do it.” She says the French aren’t hung up on nudity like we are, although when her own Russian father would parade naked around their French apartment during her childhood, the neighbours did sometimes call the police, “because they didn’t like to see it in front of their windows. But he didn’t care.”
Vladimir also encouraged her to put a Muslim model in a hijab on the cover of her own magazine. The model was Halima Aden, a Somali who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to America as a child, becoming her American school’s homecoming queen and entering Miss Minnesota. Roitfeld saw those photographs, used her on the cover and Aden now has a high-profile modelling career, having now appeared on the cover of BritishVogue, too.
“When I’m thinking about something he say yes you can do this no you can not do this. He gives a balance to me, which I need, because I’m a bit fearless, I can go too far. When I put this girl with the Muslim scarf I was not sure because no one did it before. But he say, ‘I think it’s you, do it. Even if some people kill you, it’s you, do it. You open minds.’” At this point I realise this went beyond a cultural or fashion decision – she genuinely thought she might get murdered. “And they do kill me, but it’s OK.”
Wait, Carine, nobody killed you, you’re still here. You mean you were… criticised?
I’m lucky because I’m rather blind now so I don’t see myself very well, it’s much better
“Yes, but a lot. It’s different in different countries. When you’re doing something new, it’s normal to have critics. Every time I did a new thing I get criticised, but funnily I do a new thing because it’s my way of thinking, my way of loving people. I’m very open-minded. This girl was so beautiful, and she wore her scarf, and there are a lot of girls in scarves in fashion now – you’re not going to put them away from fashion, they’re too big now.”
I mention how multicultural British Vogue has become under its new editor Edward Enninful. It’s been a huge shift. “Yes, good! But he took my girl! He take my model! Halima become a huge voice now and great for her. I find other ones. It’s part of the world today.”
On the one hand, CR is from a world of French chic that is, to me, impenetrable. On the other, she is really very funny and tells me that she likes makeup best when you only take half of it off at night “so you’ve got black smudged around your eyes the next day, and this is why people think French women are dirty,” and that she doesn’t follow the supermodel maxim about obsessively moisturising on aeroplanes, “because I’m always too cold, I just put my big sunglasses on when I land.” Her high-powered morning health routine is composed of the two major nutrients, “espresso and cigarettes”, and she doesn’t like seeing women doing their makeup in their cars, on their way to work. Because it’s vulgar? “Because it’s dangerous!”
‘Tom Fold told me: “Oh, you do not have a good angle Carine”’
As for her own relationship with the mirror, “I’m lucky because I’m rather blind now so I don’t see myself very well, it’s much better. Although I have to do my makeup in one of those amplified mirrors. Horrifying.” She did ask Tom Ford to show her how to take a good selfie, help her find her angle, “but he say to me: ‘Oh, you do not have a good angle Carine.’ I say: ‘Thank you Tom, that is nice of you.’ He say: ‘No no it is better that someone else takes your picture.’ I say: ‘OK, nice, stop. Do not say that.’ So I do not take selfies.”
She misses Karl Lagerfeld. “I really lost someone very important for me. My father died 20 years ago and Karl was… not a new father for me, but a protector.” Since he died in February, she has taken on the role of style adviser at his namesake brand.
I ask if he used to phone her a lot, but no, he would just text her photos of his cat, Choupette. “He was the king of sending big bunches of flowers and handwritten letters. No one else does it like this.” We meet just before French Mother’s Day, and she has been thinking about this, the first one since his death. “I know I will not get my flowers from him with the card saying you are a great stylist and a great mum. Mother’s Day is different date in each country, how could he even know it was Mother’s Day?”
She has become so tender at this bittersweet memory that I wonder, almost dreamily, what sort of mum she was.
“I was very tough with them. Screaming at them. Brush your teeth, go now to school, go and clean the car if you get a bad mark at school, make your bed, clean the kitchen even if the maid is coming. Say thank you to the taxi driver, say thank you to the waiter in the restaurant. My kids are well brought up because I was so tough with them. But I was very dedicated to them, too.” Every Saturday she would take Vladimir to play football; Julia every Sunday to ride horses. She sent them to a bilingual school in Paris so they learned perfect English and now they both live in New York. She feels confident her parenting was a success, because, as adults, “They are very polite, they’re working and they’re not taking drugs. And my daughter would never leave her apartment without making her bed.”
So how does it feel to be the most glamorous grandma in the world, now that Julia has a daughter, Romy?
“Oh, but on Instagram I see a lot of glamorous grandmothers. Andrea Dellal, who lives in Rio and used to be a model. She is very glamorous and she has seven grandchildren. Very funny and laughing all the time, which is what I love, and she has good bones. And she has this, which I don’t have,” she says, pointing at her lack of cleavage. “But grandmothers now are not like before. My own grandmother seemed so old with her white hair. I dye mine.”
You wouldn’t ever let it all out and go fully grey yourself?
“Never say never but… certainly not.”
She says it’s only younger people who could think the problem with ageing is wrinkles anyway, and that once you get old, you realise that the real trouble is your back, and your eyes going. Roitfeld tells me that six years ago, she had a bad fall, leading to seven operations on her back.
“I have very fragile bones. I got the ears of my dad and the backbones of my mum.”
A bit of cream, a bit of black, a bit of perfume
I ask if she is in pain at all times, and for the first time she pauses before answering. I sense she doesn’t feel able to admit it, or to complain. “I have some good drugs,” she says, slightly quietly. She then insists that she has to keep wearing heels because flat shoes are, according to her, not good for your back, at which point I realise that chicness is not so much innate as incurable.
Even if she’s not leaving the house, there are three things Carine Roitfeld never fails to apply every morning: “A bit of cream, a bit of black, a bit of perfume.” And there we have it: my new mantra.
That night, I try her trick of leaving on my eyeliner and mascara and the next morning, oh my goodness, the transformation has actually worked. All right, so it’s my transformation into a panda rather than a Parisian, but still. The 8th arrondissement wasn’t built in a day.