Agnès b. Explains it All at French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF)

agnès b
Photos Laurel Marcus
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“Fashion does not interest me, only style,” said the inimitable designer, entrepreneur, gallerist, photographer, movie producer/director agnès b during an Art de Vivre talk last night at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall. “I don’t like fashion shows. I go a lot to see art but not to see clothes,” although she admits to making an exception years ago when “Yves Saint Laurent said goodbye.” (Her Fall/Winter show featuring the latest versions of her timeless workwear-inspired designs took place last week during PFW). The 75-year-old visionary was here to launch her new coffee table book, agnès b. STYLISTE, a retrospective celebrating 40 years of her eponymous brand which covers everything from her personal philosophy and signature style, to her many influences, including rock music, the 18th century, ingenués, and androgyny.


In the mostly filled auditorium, film critic Amy Taubin recounted discovering agnès b.’s first store in Paris on the Rue du Jour (agnès referred to it as her “day home in no-man’s land”) which opened in 1975. Previously a butcher store, it was all white perfect for writing on the walls and had an ever growing population of birds nesting overhead as well as young people hanging out. Here Taubin found the simple, yet chic, pure cotton, silk and rayon clothing that she couldn’t find anywhere else. At the time she had no knowledge of who agnès b. was and would have been too shy to speak to her anyway. Taubin was later thrilled when an agnès b. store opened in New York (there are now three including 50 Howard which includes an art gallery. She became acquainted with the designer years later when their paths crossed through the world of the cinema.

agnès b and Melissa Ceria

Journalist Melissa Ceria joined agnès on stage posing questions about her unique childhood and early career. You really do get a sense of adventure; that this woman has led an action packed, charmed life but not without its hard times. Growing up with three siblings in the town of Versailles gave the future designer a historical and design perspective (she was influenced by the palace’s clean architectural lines) evolving into a lifelong fascination. Her lawyer father, who shared with her his interest in art and music encouraged her childhood dream to become a museum curator even arranging a special tour of the onetime royal residence’s secret rooftop. “I read everything about Versailles as a child. When you see this empty shell you want to know what happened there. I’m still reading about it and I brought a book with me,” she added. As the anticipated snowstorm was alluded to, agnès reminisced briefly over her memory of how beautiful the snow topped statues at Versailles were. “Now they cover them,” she said in her lilting French.

agnès b Styliste book

Married at the tender age of 16, (“My parents said ‘You want to go — you go and manage yourself. Bon'” clapping her hands as if to dismiss the subject) to publisher Christian Bourgois — whom she adopted the b. from. A year or so later, dressed in her preferred original flea market finds, she was discovered and recruited by ELLE Magazine where she became a stylist. She also worked freelance for Cacharel and Dorothee Bis where she learned a lot about PR and buying (she hates math and any thought of marketing) and, to this day, she doesn’t believe in advertising her brand, only in storytelling. At 19 she had twin boys though her marriage turned out to be brief.

In 1973 she worked at Limitex creating her signature classic striped t-shirt, signifying her quiet style. “I don’t like emphasis (she says accenting the second syllable). I don’t like bling-bling,” as explanation for the usage of lower case letters in her brand. “I love to design for people — I want them to be happy with the clothes,” adding that the Japanese really enjoy the simplicity of her designs starting from 30 years ago to the new generation. “They hug me when they see me,” she said.

Book illustrates the snap cardigan

Other signature pieces which she is known for include the oversized white shirt (she remarked on the sudden ubiquity of white collars popping up on celebs everywhere) and the snap cardigan (a show of hands in the audience revealed that many own this versatile item; I actually own the longer version known as the snap dress). The book illustrates how she used a sweatshirt as a prototype for her snap cardigan after she got tired of having to pull it over her head. Garments featuring many buttons from Versailles served as further inspo — yet she tweaked that concept too — “I love the sound the snaps make when you open them.” She later had photographers “tell the story by doing their own version of the snap cardigan.”

“So many people (meaning designers) copied. I don’t look at trends, I have to make new trends,” she explained. Other iconic pieces that she revisits and reworks season by season include overalls or jumpsuits — her newest version involves two side zippers and elastic which facilitate use of the bathroom “without your sleeves dragging on the floor.”

agnès b Rue de Marseille store

Fittingly with her nationalistic efforts, about 40% of her collection is manufactured in France. As a humanitarian/activist she is a proponent of open borders and is not a fan of what’s going on in our country or needless to say, of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. “We don’t have the same vision at all,” she remarks. Her humanitarian efforts were visible during the siege in Sarajevo when she traveled to the war torn country 18 times and designed a heart which was sold in her stores to benefit the mothers who couldn’t feed their children — “after so many young men were killed you only see young women in the street.”

Other philosophies: “I believe in elective affinities. My friends are artists, musicians, not always family.” Besides her two sons she also had a daughter, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

As for her film career, in 2006 she met American film director Harmony Korine and “became friends with him in 20 minutes.” This lead to her signing on as producer for his commercial hit Spring Breakers as well as nearly 30 other films. She is also friends with legendary filmmaker/poet/artist Jonas Mekas. Her own directorial debut came in 2013 with the film Je m’appelle Hmmm… a story of abuse which she claims is not her story but that she cryptically says is one that “needed to be told.” She loves street culture and told of having met Keith Haring “in the street in Venice along the canal.” She touched on the story of her brother’s ship once owned by pirates, now used for photographers expeditions, which they named Tara after Gone with the Wind. “My parents took the boat back to Antibes which was like going home to Tara,” she explained.

Of her 287 privately owned boutiques (including the original Rue du Jour) employing 2,100 employees worldwide, she professed to particularly enjoying the cities of Hong Kong ” It’s a big Marseille,” and Manhattan which she admits has “changed a lot” but likes Canal Street. It is clear that agnès b. plans to stay busy. Besides designing her collection, collecting art for her gallery and taking photographs including those used for the book and those used as prints on her apparel (she previously used a Nikon but now mostly uses her phone) — she also loves to cook. During the Q & A, when she was asked which dishes she enjoys cooking, she got an idea. “Maybe I should do a cookbook.”

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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