Radio Agnes B.

Over the past 40 years, Agnès b. has nurtured a rare kind of closeness to women and female artists of all ages. We experience the warmth for ourselves during an evening with loyal supporters Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Added and Diane Rouxel.
By Romain Charbon Photos Thomas Laisne [...] +

Over the past 40 years, Agnès b. has nurtured a rare kind of closeness to women and female artists of all ages. We experience the warmth for ourselves during an evening with loyal supporters Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Added and Diane Rouxel.
By Romain Charbon Photos Thomas Laisne Produced by Laure Orset-Prelet
Those who have already set foot in Agnès b.'s premises on Rue Dieu in Paris are familiar with the feeling that engulfs you when you step through the door. Rue Dieu is the stuff of dreams. The designer's unshakeable Christian faith is reflected in this immense cathedral of light, where a glass roof lets the sunlight stream through. But night has fallen by the time we arrive, and despite the rather dazzling lighting, a party atmosphere hovers in the air. A bottle of champagne is uncorked, and Jeanne Added, the latest thrilling arrival on the French music scene, is waiting, along with the graceful Diane Rouxel, the actress who shot to fame in Larry Clark's The Smell of Us and appeared, more recently, in Standing Tall. So what's the occasion? The 40-year career of the woman who calls this space home. But no occasion is really necessary here; the atmosphere appears to be one of eternal celebration. When we gather to meet the woman herself in her top-floor office, we are a far cry away from the studious concentration that normally reigns supreme here. Works of art adorn the walls, people come and go although we're never really sure who is doing what. A stylish and elegant young man distractedly plays some Chopin on the piano. The designer ushers us in and invites us to take a seat, checking everyone is comfortable and has a glass of champagne in hand.
Today, she is wearing a black jumpsuit that lends her a teenaged youthfulness. A woman's age ought never to be mentioned, but as Agnès b. has long laughed in the face of passing time, we can respectfully confirm that she is 74 years young. She tells us about her early days when she worked in a shop that sold work clothes, taking home the stock, cutting it up and dyeing it in her bath tub: “I love the past, but I'm not nostalgic”. Her latest book, Agnes b., styliste (see box p. 98), is a testimony to her timeless appeal. “I wanted to explain that my work is timeless. There are some pieces I could recreate today. I couldn't care less about fashion. You need to have one or two key pieces, and that's it. Timeless pieces,” she explains, before adding “I love the idea of clothing that lasts”.
She focuses on clothing that is designed to live and grow with its wearer, just as when she makes one-off pieces for the people she loves or admires. She mentions Bashung and Bowie, for whom she has designed clothing, as well as “boxing shorts for Jean-Marc Mormeck. Making clothing is a complex process, sometimes. Dressing a boxer is like making a wedding dress; it's a piece for a very important occasion. Like costumes for the stage.” She turns to Jeanne Added and Diane Rouxel, sat by her side. “I hope that when you wear my clothes I bring you luck, as if I were there with you.” Jeanne nods. "That's definitely what it feels like. She made me a jacket, which I wore to the Victoires de la Musique ceremony. And the other day I realised that pretty much every day I wear something made by Agnès. I feel supported in her clothes, not alone.” Diane reflects on her own experience. “She dressed me for an event when Larry Clark’s film was released. We clicked immediately.” The importance placed on encounters and friendships is one of the designer's defining traits. “I'm a firm believer in fate. If our paths cross, it's no mere coincidence.” Yet she also enjoys forging her own destiny, such as the time she jumped on a plane to Venice to see a film by Harmony Korine, who then became a close friend. To her, encounters mean taking a step towards others. This makes it somewhat revealing, then, when she explains just how much she loved I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach's latest Palme d'Or winner. “The film shows encounters with people who are willing to help, and I find that beautiful.” Community, generosity, mentoring and humanitarian work: really, they’re all just synonyms. For Agnès feels an endless sense of wonderment for her fellow human beings – which is probably what fuels her eternal youthfulness – and for everything she stumbles upon. In the middle of a discussion, for example, she might just suddenly proclaim how much she loves CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. "The one set in Manhattan, though. The Miami version is crap. It's not cinema per se, but it's good. Having said that, I put on an episode the other day and saw that Tarantino had directed it!” Maybe she's right. Maybe there is no such thing as chance. She did the wardrobe design for Pulp Fiction, after all...
She also explains how much she loves Diane Rouxel's work, with the latter cautiously explaining that she takes photos (“I don't take it seriously”, she says, only to be asked: “but does one need to be serious?”). She's just finished an exhibition she put on with some friends. “We hid in cargo wagons, like traditional American hobos, and took pictures. I wanted to try it once, and then after that I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to go back. The first 30 minutes is total euphoria, because you have no idea where you're going.” The anecdote rouses Agnès, who asks us if we'd like more champagne. Some members of the group want to smoke: Agnès only smokes roll-ups, like a teenager (if they are, in fact, really roll-ups…!). We're all starting to get a little tipsy when Isabelle Huppert arrives on the scene, high on life having just won a Gotham Award for her performance in Elle, which is now up for an Oscar. After greeting us, Isabelle Huppert begins. “I've known Agnès for a long time now. Our friendship has grown stronger over the years, becoming increasingly close. I love wearing her clothes. I often attend her catwalk shows, each of which is more different than the last, because they're so much more than runway shows. She steps back in time to different eras, which creates a sense of timelessness while always being contemporary and current.” Agnès admits a passion for clothing inspired by the 18th century. It's no surprise she has a weakness for the Enlightenment period. Her first boutique on Rue du Jour (meaning Day Street in French) is just another one of those all-important signs. The street name influenced the name of her gallery: the Galerie du Jour. And it's here that the inhabitants of this microcosm flock for the vernissage of an exhibition by Sébastien Lifshitz entitled Mauvais Genre, which showcases photographs of cross-dressers. The designer seizes the moment to criticise the protests occurring in France against gay marriage. “I'm religious, and so I vote left. I can't understand how you can be both Catholic and a far-right supporter.” There is perhaps nobody better placed than Agnès to appreciate family values. Her life as a woman has been like a political struggle. “She could be considered as something of a feminist icon. She was a very young mother, she raised a lot of children alone, went on to have a lot of grandchildren, and as well as all this, she's also an exceptional businesswoman,” explains Isabelle Huppert, before going on to add: “she's held on to all her child-like whimsy.”
Isabelle Huppert stars in Souvenir by Bavo Defurne, in cinemas from 21st December. She is also touring French theatres throughout December with Phèdre(s).
Jeanne Added is touring with her album Be Sensational. jeanneadded com/concerts.
Diane Rouxel will soon be starring in Les Garçons Sauvages, directed by Bertrand Mandico.
The book opens on the rooftops at twilight, with a handwritten note jumping off the page in white: “Depuis la fenêtre de mon bureau, je regarde le ciel…” Agnès b. has been treating us to her unique, unflinching vision of the world for 40 years, contemplating the simple, essential things in life, meditating on fashion and art. This anthology is an ode to her point of view. We retrace her beginnings on Rue du Jour, back in her early bohemian days of uncertainty in her first boutique, before seeing her set off to New York, where she was forced to grow up, spread her wings and conquer the entire world armed only with a press-stud cardigan, a men's collection and, later, a childrenswear range. We also explore the gallery, meet the artist friends who gather around the designer's kitchen table, experience her visceral passion and enthusiasm, watch her son Etienne's boat set sail on new missions to save the planet, visit Cap d'Antibes on a family holiday, and an assortment of other souvenirs and memories that all feed into the designer's bright, luminous and tirelessly reinvented style.

Sabine Maida
agnès b. Styliste
by Florence Ben Sadoun
(La Martinière, 288 pages)
In all the photos, Jeanne Added, Isabelle Huppert and Diane Rouxel are wearing agnès b.