Although Carine Roitfeld is no longer the editor of French Vogue, she remains steadily at the perch of the fashion world, standing atop those super-high bondage-referencing heels that she partly made a staple of Parisian style (along with close-fitting pencil skirts, black leather, cinch-waist toppers, and if any woman dared follow her dictates, a little nipple). But la femme parisienne, which Roitfeld very much is, makes her own ground wherever she walks. After all, it is Roitfeld who, with Tom Ford and Mario Testino, started a movement of overt sexuality in fashion with their campaign for Gucci in the ’90s, which she later polemicized with her redesign for the French edition of Vogue as the hard-edged emblem of “erotic chic” during her aughties tenure at the magazine.
The Paris-born Roitfeld put in her paces first as a model before slipping behind the camera in 1975 to become a freelance stylist for French Elle, her home base for many years. In the early ’90s, Roitfeld hooked up with Testino at French Glamour, the just-launched and still malleable glossy, where the pair translated his iconic nudes as somewhat-more-clothed existentially bored bourgeoisie waifs with Roitfeld’s deft styling. These images caught the attention of Ford, who brought the duo on board at Gucci where they created an in-your-face aesthetic of slashed-to-the-navel cleavage and racily imprinted monograms that went on to define a fashion generation. Roitfeld also brought her signature edge to editorial shoots for The Face, Vogue, and French Vogue — where she succeeded Joan Juliet Buck as the woman in charge in 2001.
French Vogue is now “so Carine” in its aesthetic that it’s hard to believe she only took up the reigns 10 years ago. Her departure in January carries with it the knowledge that, though it might well retain its influence, French Vogue will never be the same. Nevertheless, there is a silver—or perhaps, black silk faille—lining: Roitfeld has resumed her very busy freelance career, having already styled Freja Beha Erichsen for Chanel’s Fall 2011 campaign. She will also offer her lacquered sophistication to Barneys New York as the fashion emporium’s specially designated “guest editor,” and has somehow found time to curate a visual autobiography comprised of tear sheets from her still-developing body of work with a little help from Olivier Zahm and Alex Wiederin, aptly titled Carine Roitfeld: Irreverent (Rizzoli)
Karl Lagerfeld, long-time friend and fellow multi-hyphenate, spoke with Roitfeld in late July in Paris.
KARL LAGERFELD: How far can you take an image?
CARINE ROITFELD: I think that when you’re taking pictures with my principles, you can try anything. Dare to do a lot of things — dare with sexuality, dare to break taboos as long as it remains photogenic. As long as I find an elegance and beauty in it, I am not afraid to tackle anything.
LAGERFELD: I think it was Marlow who said, “There is no beauty without some strangeness in the proportions.”
ROITFELD: Exactly. I think that something needs to be weird in order to have a real beauty. Beauty can be quite boring, especially if you’re talking about beauty that doesn’t last. And what lasts is exactly the thing that maybe wasn’t pretty at first—it comes over time to be beautiful or interesting or exciting—
LAGERFELD: For example, during the golden age of movie stars, there were plenty of actresses who were deemed unattractive at the start of their careers, but struggled and finally appeared more beautiful and more iconic. Sometimes that idea of being truly iconic has something to do with not necessarily being beautiful and thus trying harder.
It’s very difficult to know when you’re crossing the boundary. I hate the word boundary because I never think about it when taking a picture.Carine Roitfeld
ROITFELD: Because they had to fight and struggle more than others. Absolutely. And there are certain models who might not be considered beautiful either
LAGERFELD: Some who aren’t the most beautiful end up becoming the greatest of all time.
ROITFELD: Exactly, look today at a model like Mariacarla [Boscono]. She might not be one of the prettiest girls in the classical sense but she outlives everyone and everyone wants to work with her. I think personality is more important than looks.
LAGERFELD: When do you think a photograph become erotic? And when does it cross that boundary into the x-rated or pornography?
ROITFELD: It’s very difficult to know when you’re crossing the boundary. I hate the word boundary because I never think about it when taking a picture. Very often it doesn’t mean anything because it depends on who’s looking at the picture more than the content of the picture itself.
LAGERFELD: Yes. But even it’s simpler than that. Take Helmut Newton. Some of his photos were shocking. But there’s always a beauty in the composition. There’s always an artistic interest in terms of the image.
ROITFELD: I am against absolute gratuity.
LAGERFELD: That’s what I wanted to hear you say.
ROITFELD: Moreover, I think in Helmut’s pictures, it’s a stolen moment, like a snapshot. He didn’t try too hard.
LAGERFELD: He never tried too hard, right?
ROITFELD: It was very, very, very fast.
LAGERFELD: The Germans have a saying, “Things are spicier if they’re short.”
ROITFELD: Well, you and I have worked together so you know this about me. I think the first picture taken is often the best one.
LAGERFELD: Oh yes. But I worked with Helmut a lot too. I was even Helmut’s stylist with Caroline of Monaco. I know his work process. The rest of us were making such a fuss, trying so hard, and he’d just come in and do it. What was his secret? Even the most explicit photos were an art form.
ROITFELD: There are so many people who try to emulate him now, or draw inspiration from his work.
LAGERFELD: There are two things that are being imitated everywhere: Chanel and Newton’s photos. There are photographers that I will not name who are really shameless.
ROITFELD: Yes, but I find that some do it well. The interesting thing with him is that he didn’t copy anyone. It was instinctive.
LAGERFELD: It didn’t exist before
ROITFELD: It lasted just for a minute and that’s what’s brilliant. Imitation always stinks. When I take photos, I don’t go back. I don’t look at the past. I’m always original. In photo shoots, I rely on instinct. Which is not to say I don’t bring ideas to a project or consider it beforehand.
LAGERFELD: I don’t know anyone in this job who is as prepared as you are.
ROITFELD: At the same time I do go very fast. I think if I don’t go fast it’s going to be boring. That’s what photographers need to do. I hate people who over intellectualize. It bores me deeply.
LAGERFELD: You have a gift for bringing talent out in others. The same photographers seem more talented when they’re working with you than with other editors or stylists. What do you attribute that to? Maybe it’s an impossible question.
ROITFELD: It’s like when you’re making love to a woman. A man will say, okay, I have more fun with her than with others. [laughs] But, really, I am anti-boredom.
LAGERFELD: Is it a conscious or unconscious choice?
Roitfeld: It’s completely unconscious. Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have done the photos I’ve done. And I won’t be blamed as being porno chic.
LAGERFELD: Oh, no, no, no.
ROITFELD: It’s a very bad word. I like erotic chic.
LAGERFELD: That’s its own art movement. Today there are galleries that sell photos under the name of erotic art that are very explicit.
ROITFELD: Yes, but porno is not a pretty word. Porno chic doesn’t mean much. It’s been sticking to me and I don’t understand why.
LAGERFELD: You’re photos are erotic. I want to ask you: How did you come to be the stylist you are?
There are people who give you the confidence that you’re lacking and once you have confidence, you’re free and finally you can let out what’s inside of you. I think a lot is due to the encounters I’ve had.Carine Roitfeld
ROITFELD: It’s because of the encounter. There are people who give you the confidence that you’re lacking and once you have confidence, you’re free and finally you can let out what’s inside of you. I think a lot is due to the encounters I’ve had.
LAGERFELD: For example, when you were with Tom [Ford], Mario [Testino] wasn’t very well-known yet. It speaks to what you did with Mario that made him so famous.
ROITFELD: Yes, but Mario helped me with other things. Maybe I helped him.
LAGERFELD: It doesn’t go one way.
ROITFELD: No, I helped him understand what a woman is, how she closes her legs, how she feels on high heels, how she wants to pull at her T-shirt and skirt . . . And Mario taught me to speak better English, which I was doing badly at the time. [laughs] He also gave me confidence. When you have confidence, when you feel loved by people, you can tell them the truth. It’s important that I can say the photo isn’t beautiful or the photo shoot sucks.
LAGERFELD: You don’t fall into the trap that a lot of stylists have fallen into of doing everything. You think about the woman first. You let the woman come out.
ROITFELD: Clothing is always a tool that helps me take a picture. But it’s never about the clothing.
LAGERFELD: Although for a stylist, doing a nude is even more difficult.
ROITFELD: Mario did a lot of nudes. Every morning when we worked together, he had boys coming over and he would take naked pictures of them. I learned a lot because there’s no artifice and it’s all a question of position, of looks, of attitude, the way to position your legs, position your knees . . . It gives you something.
LAGERFELD: There’s a big difference between photographing naked boys and naked girls.
ROITFELD: I was too shy, at first, to come close to these naked guys. I would stand a little ways away from them. With girls it’s much easier.
LAGERFELD: I think it’s easier because naked men are more awkward.
ROITFELD: Yes and then there is always a bit of seduction to it when one person is clothed and the other is naked, which can be a little weird. Everybody should be naked. In that case, it would be easier, wouldn’t it? Let’s do a huge naked photo shoot!
ROITFELD: It’s very you and very me, isn’t it, Karl? It would be perfect. I couldn’t do things like that before with my job. Because now I have all of this freedom ahead of me. I only want to do fun projects.
LAGERFELD: I think freedom is your biggest luxury. You were literally jailed before.
ROITFELD: I am like a lemon. I’m pressed for more juice. When I have fun, there’s still juice. I am not dried up . . .
LAGERFELD: I think you’re more like a bird that can’t be put in a cage. I don’t want to compare myself to you, but it’s like at Chanel, I can do what I want, when I want, where I want. And that’s because I am worth more when I’m free. I think it’s the same thing for you.
ROITFELD: I can never work full time for a large fashion house. I could never do it.
LAGERFELD: You can work in a big house if you stay free.
ROITFELD: Yes, I just couldn’t work full time. Maybe as a freelancer.
LAGERFELD: Your talent comes from the zeitgeist. If you were locked up with an air-conditioning unit—
ROITFELD: Then it would be over. They want to own you.
LAGERFELD: What I think is particularly accomplished with you is that you always have a vision of fashion and a fashionable woman, but you also have a very successful life as a family woman. You have beautiful, intelligent children and they give you stability and credibility in the eyes of others.
ROITFELD: It’s because I’m a Virgo. Either you are a good Virgo or a crazy Virgo! The good Virgo side of me is educating and raising the children—being there for them.
LAGERFELD: Yes, no one can say that you don’t take care of them. You’re also lucky because they are very beautiful. It would have been difficult to have an ugly daughter.
ROITFELD: A moment ago, you said some flaws are necessary in beauty. They do have a temper sometimes. But they are very good children.
LAGERFELD: The care you take in your children gives a balance to your life. I think it accentuates your talent.
ROITFELD: Well, otherwise you’re too far removed from reality. You’re in your car, you’re in your jet—you don’t have a grip on reality. We can lose touch with reality quite easily.
LAGERFELD: I know some stylists who are like that and it’s sad. If I were a woman, I would love to have lots of kids. But for men, I don’t believe in it.
Clothing is always a tool that helps me take a picture. But it’s never about the clothing.Carine Roitfeld
ROITFELD: I am better at mixing things, and I think that life has brought a lot to fashion, and fashion brings plenty to life. I took my children on photo shoots—they have professional connections in fashion—and, at the same time, I borrowed my father’s sweater for a photo shoot and, then, I am inspired by a Russian princess because of my Russian roots. Everything is all mixed in together.
LAGERFELD: How did you start compiling all of the different work for your book? Did you keep everything?
ROITFELD: It’s very complicated. I have been digging through my closet, you know. We archived everything. You have people archiving stuff for you, keeping track. It’s a lot like going to see a psychiatrist. What’s funny is that people say I have ticks. I didn’t think I had tics, that I didn’t repeat. But there are certain tics that appear in the book. I love black lingerie and white shoes and I love knives. I am afraid of blood, but for some reason often I put blood in my photos . . . I don’t know why. Maybe I used to love chopping up the cat’s food when I was a little girl.
LAGERFELD: When did you become aware of being Carine Roitfeld, that you were different than others?
ROITFELD: I never felt different. Different from others, yes, but not more talented than others.
LAGERFELD: Where in your life and achievements do you place fashion? Is it extremely important to you?
ROITFELD: Yes, it’s very important. To live, to exist, to work, it’s very important.
LAGERFELD: I think it’s crucial to say that. You actually are what you seem to be. You match your brand, your image; you fit in with your universe, your world.
ROITFELD: I think, in many ways, certain people sought me out maybe because they liked my body language or they liked the way I wore a slit skirt, the way I cross my legs or carry my purse. It’s quite inspiring to play the seduction card—
LAGERFELD: Seduction is, first and foremost, it’s an art form. And seduction should not always be treated as a wild celebration, right? In fact, it’s more of an evocation of what you do. It’s more an evocation of seduction . . .
ROITFELD: Do you know after some of the pictures I did, I was asked if I was a nymphomaniac.
LAGERFELD: I think you are quite modest.
ROITFELD: People might think I’m very hard, what with my black makeup, my hair over my eyes, etc. My innocence didn’t always help me, but it did preserve something in me that maybe others don’t have anymore. I’m inside my bubble, you could say, and thankfully so, because I don’t think daily life is always great. It protects me. I don’t know if it’s my sign, but Virgos are very faithful. I’m a faithful friend. I’m a faithful lover—
LAGERFELD: I can tell you are, indeed, being a Virgo myself.
ROITFELD: We’re a faithful lot. Faithful in many ways.
LAGERFELD: Some people don’t deserve our faithfulness.
ROITFELD: Some don’t, but once we learn that, I can tell you that we also have a very good memory. I have a memory like an elephant. I don’t forget anything.
LAGERFELD: Me neither.
ROITFELD: And revenge! I forget nothing and then, one day, there will be revenge. Innocence isn’t exactly everywhere. But I will say innocence also takes you far in photography. I don’t have prejudices. I’m against taboos. But of course there are some things I’ll never touch—because as a mom, there are things one doesn’t want their children to be around. I think it’s very important what young people see in pictures or on TV or in magazines. Drugs, violence, anorexia . . . All of the things that I absolutely do not reference in my photos.
LAGERFELD: You are the price of virtue without merit since it is your nature.
ROITFELD: The article is going to be called “Santa Carina!” But it is extraordinary. I used to hold my son’s hand when crossing the street when he was little. Now he holds my hand to cross the street. He’s a giant. But now I know that I can rely on him. That’s what’s great about generations, it’s knowing that now you can rely on someone who used to rely on you.
LAGERFELD: I wasn’t allowed to hold my mother’s arm to cross the street. You know why? Because I squeezed her hard and it bruised her arm.
ROITFELD: Well, I love it when I feel clenched.
LAGERFELD: Are there some women early on who were big influences in what became your style?
ROITFELD: Certainly. I think in movies, there are many females, many scenes, many looks . . . I have always adored Romy Schneider’s trench coat and her little scarf with lace around the neck from the film Max and the Junkmen .
LAGERFELD: Romy was not very chic. She was an actress of genius, but that’s it. She had strange proportions. She was not that beautiful.
ROITFELD: But she had an exceptional face.
LAGERFELD: In movies. Not in life so much.
ROITFELD: Is it better to stay beautiful in the image or to be beautiful in life? That is the question.
LAGERFELD: It didn’t end well for her, so I think it’s better to be like you are.
ROITFELD: [laughs] I also really liked Liz Taylor.
LAGERFELD: Brilliant. She was more brilliant.
ROITFELD: She had it all. She had beauty, good for her. She had talent, good for her. She had great loves, Richard Burton. She was very lucky. She was the first actually to walk around with tribes of children, nannies, dogs, like today Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. She did it 40 years ago.
LAGERFELD: I made the costumes for the film Boom!  that she was in.
ROITFELD: She was one of the most badly dressed actresses. But in that film, she’s wearing a lot of white things, very pretty. She has flowers in her hair. I think she represents the last myth. I want to say that love and generosity, intelligence and beauty, all came together in her.
LAGERFELD: But the actresses from the silent era, there is nothing that strikes you from those? Yet you look a lot like plenty of actresses from that period. Like Pola Negri. She was the dangerous femme-fatale woman. She had dark hair. Blondes were always the innocent victims then. Only with Marlene did this concept of the “Blonde Femme Fatale” arrive. Garbo and Marlene and Jean Harlow, who died so young—they were dangerous blondes. Before, it was the brunette who was considered dangerous. The blonde was an idiot.
I think, in many ways, certain people sought me out maybe because they liked my body language or they liked the way I wore a slit skirt, the way I cross my legs or carry my purse. It’s quite inspiring to play the seduction card.Carine Roitfeld
ROITFELD: But look, I spent a little time as a blonde, and I became brown again, back to my natural color.
LAGERFELD: Do you ever feel Russian? Is there anything in you that comes from the influence of having a Russian soul?
ROITFELD: Absolutely. My father was of Russian origin, but never lived his life in Russia. He was raised in Berlin.
LAGERFELD: He spoke German?
ROITFELD: He spoke pure Berlinois. That’s different from German.
LAGERFELD: For me, the only person who spoke like that was Helmut Newton.
ROITFELD: My father was very similar to Helmut. Same kind of man, same generation.
LAGERFELD; Was he cruel?
ROITFELD: No. My father was exceptional. He has always been a mentor since I was a kid. I always wanted to please him.
LAGERFELD: Did he have more influence on you than your mother did?
ROITFELD: I think so. You know why? Because he was less present, so we create some dream of him. The absence dream.
LAGERFELD: Do you think you have influenced your daughter as your father influenced you?
ROITFELD: [pauses] No. She was always very independent, and I think that, above all, she doesn’t follow our advice — mine in particular. And when she creates her own life and her own mistakes, maybe later, she’ll face a stumbling block when she has children. For the moment, she is very independent.
LAGERFELD: How do you feel you have developed? Is it conscious or unconscious how you have changed?
ROITFELD: My development has evolved over time. Because of all of these blogs, several people recognize me on the street. People see me everywhere. I mean, before, this concept of editor-as-star didn’t exist, so nobody recognized you. Nobody was talking about you. Now, people want to know everything, and so they put you in the limelight. Sometimes, I am not down to earth, and I think I am flying away from the outer realms of reality.
LAGERFELD: Do you surf the internet?
LAGERFELD: Me neither. Never. Besides, I don’t even want to have things associated with my name on the internet—it’s very dangerous.
ROITFELD: Is there a fake Karl Lagerfeld Twitter account?
ROITFELD: There’s one for me, too. Everything is fake.
LAGERFELD: I am not a fake . . . I hope.
ROITFELD: I don’t have a Facebook account.
LAGERFELD: I know enough people. We’re happy with the people we know, right? That’s enough for us.
ROITFELD: It’s insane. The internet is becoming more interesting, though. I think the quality of the image on iPads now is extraordinary. What if tomorrow I had to create a magazine? What I hope I would do is something new, but I still love print. I love to touch paper. I’m not sure if I will ever do a magazine again, but I have plenty of ideas on the subject.
LAGERFELD: The only advice I can give is to never lock yourself down. It’s all about being free.
ROITFELD: [Christian] Sisley [Restoin, Roitfeld’s husband], from the beginning, has always been against the work that I was given. From the start he told me, “You’re going to make yourself mad.”
LAGERFELD: The worst thing in the world is to create an ivory tower.
ROITFELD: There are plenty who are placed in the ivory tower, right?
LAGERFELD: Yes, it’s very bad. It’s sterile.
ROITFELD: It’s important to go out in the world.
LAGERFELD: I can’t even go in the street anymore. That bothers me.
ROITFELD: You’re more like a rock star.
LAGERFELD: Yes, it’s very strange. I will never understand it. It’s very bizarre. I do not sing. I do not perform in film. Yet I can’t even cross the street.
ROITFELD: But people love fashion.
LAGERFELD: How do you see yourself and your business evolve in the next ten years?
ROITFELD: Sometimes I do wonder, Where will I be in 10 years? And I just can’t answer that. I can’t project myself a decade into the future.
LAGERFELD: Me neither. As far as I can see is six months ahead.
ROITFELD: I can see into the fall, or next January, after vacation . . . That’s it.
LAGERFELD: That’s all I can do as well. It must be one of the faults of Virgos.