Photo: Hedi Slimane
C’est la guerre! An article on Carine Roitfeld in this week’s New York Magazine, called "The Anti-Anna," really highlights some of the pressure points of Franco-American conflict– chez les filles, that is.
American women love to effuse over how innately stylish French women are; entire forests have been levelled for books telling them how not to get fat, how to tie their scarf correctly, how to infuse their life with savoir faire, savoir vivre, joie de vivre, French flair, etc. Tell us how we can be stylish like the French! they cry. So pragmatic, such dedicated students. As if style is something one can learn from a book.
But underneath this clichéd worship there is a certain undercurrent– of what? resentment? dislike? impatience?– which is far more compelling, that I wasn’t aware of until I read Amy Larocca’s article this morning. You’re left at the end of the article pretty much expecting a war to break out, even though everyone is all smiles and styles.
It all seems encapsulated in this one quote:
“The American editors are very, how you say, slick,” Roitfeld says.
“Very perfect. Hair is perfect, they have a manicure. They are very
clean, they follow fashion. I don’t think they take many risks. They do
the total look of Prada. Me, I wear a lot of Japanese piece mixed with
a bit of classic Hermès and Prada. Even though jeans suit me, I never
Judging from the tone of the article, Roitfeld’s veiled insult doesn’t
sit well, somehow, with Larocca. She is not provincial enough to get
defensive about it, but once the reader is attuned to the discord, all the details of the profile fall into place, and the deep ambivalence with which Americans regard the French becomes very clear.
Throughout the article, Larocca repeats verbatim what Roitfeld said to her in their interview, and any Anglophone who’s lived in France long enough will instantly recognize the cadences of a French person speaking English:
On why she is staying at the Carlyle Hotel in NY instead of someplace trendier, like the Mercer:
“For me, it is best to be the youngest in hotel,” she explains, “and I was not having this feeling at the Mercer.” (…) “It makes me happy because there is vewy gweat lighting,” she says
about the restaurant. “Vewy flatter.” (Roitfeld has reached a
compromise with the hard American r by converting them all to ws.)
On her entry into the fashion world:
“Some editors, they have that, they know all the designer from the
beginning of the nineteenth century. They know this is triple cashmere,
this is simple cashmere. Maybe they went to fashion school. Me, I
don’t. I just get a feeling about what is exciting. It is all just from
feeling. So I don’t know”—she pulls her lips into a pout and gives one
of those poufy little French exhales—“I think maybe I have a talent.”
Or her disdain for sneakers and those furry Australian Eskimo boots: "She has outlawed (…) what she calls "Hugg boots" in her office because "they are hugly.’"
Or her work at Missoni: “I like not to shock,” she says, “but there must be a bit of
provocation. The girl can never be with bruise or violence, but there
must be sex.
Do all New York Magazine interviews with foreigners reproduce their grammatical mistakes so faithfully?I don’t know, and I don’t have the time to check. But somehow, Larocca’s constant inclusion of Roitfeld’s accent smacks of passive-aggressiveness.
The putdowns keep coming, and always in response to a criticism
Roitfeld has made about America. "She still finds the idea of an
office with a door where she’s expected
every day (at least by telephone) somewhat troubling. All she ever
wanted was to be surrounded by very attractive people and very
expensive clothes." This segues into a passage where Roitfeld confesses
to being no good at business, and then saying that being good at
business is very American.
out that Roitfeld "clogs" the back part of the magazine with photos of
herself and her daughter, then "claims" not to like the attention and
calls Anna Wintour "so iconic that she becomes a puppet." She calls
Roitfeld "Rizzo to America’s Sandy," which anyone who grew up in
America in the late seventies and eighties will immediately recognize
as a diss.
To an American reader, it’s hard to ignore the meanness behind some of Roitfeld’s comments. Like this one on her recent trip to Thailand:
“You think this will be so glamorous,” she sighs. “You have the idea in
your mind and then you get there and the people in the hotel …” She
grimaces and gestures hugely in the hip area. “There were lots of
people who were so fat and like that.”
It’s sad, but she sounds just like my (French) boyfriend. Maybe someone should write a follow-up book called French Woman Don’t Get Fat, and Laugh at Women Who Do. Roitfeld says she only hires skinny models and skinny girls to work for her with an attitude that could only come from a skinny woman (and Larocca reminds us of how skinny Roitfeld is several times).
It’s repugnant in any language (and pottery has been thrown when said boyfriend has uttered such inanities), but fashion does not exist in an ethical realm (just ask PETA). Which is what makes the American fashion industry, who promise that you too can look like a model, if you buy this dress or try this diet, that much more complicit than the French, who simply say "you’ll never be this cool or this thin." At least they’re honest about it.
Larocca’s respect for French Vogue and for Roitfeld’s personal style (if not her person) comes through– but at the end of the article we are left with a feeling of strong ambivalence, one which is echoed in the comments left by readers, which range from "I love her" to "What a ridiculous, self-absorbed git."
When it comes to someone as creative, infamous, and successful as Roitfeld, the point is not that you love her or think she’s a git. She doesn’t care so much what you think, because so many of the right people find her impossibly stylish, and want to "be sitting and looking like her." And this insouciance is, in fact, quite French. That’s the thing American audiences respond to (thus the popularity of self-help books), and the thing that drives them crazy.