Carine Roitfeld recently stepped down after a decade of running the French edition of Vogue. In a SPIEGEL interview, the former fashion editor talks about how businessmen have squeezed the fun out of the fashion industry, the end of the glamour era and the power that comes with wearing high heels
SPIEGEL: Ms. Roitfeld, you were editor in chief of the French edition of Vogue, the fashion and lifestyle magazine, for 10 years. Before that, you worked for 10 years at Gucci alongside then-creative director Tom Ford. Can anyone who has spent 20 years in the fashion industry still be normal?
Carine Roitfeld: My only drug is a small glass of vodka in the evening, if that's what you're asking. But I was fortunate because -- in addition to the very special world of fashion -- I also had a family, which is something probably rare in this business. I have also been married to the same man, the father of my two children, for more than 30 years. And that has helped me remain relatively normal.
SPIEGEL: For a former Vogue editor in chief, you also look remarkably normal.
Roitfeld: That's part of my newfound freedom. I always wore a tight skirt at Vogue; it was like a uniform.
SPIEGEL: Can you tell us what you're wearing today?
Roitfeld: A no-name T-shirt from Los Angeles, corduroy jeans by Current Elliot and satin shoes I had custom-made in violet. So the glamour's limited to my feet.
SPIEGEL: Does this world of vanity, in which fortunes are spent on trivial things, corrupt people?
Roitfeld: The fashion industry certainly has its obscene sides. The cost of a coat can be obscene. So can the cost of a photo shoot if you're working with a really good photographer. But when I see how good the photos have turned out or even how well the coat was made or how many people worked on it, it's not quite so obscene anymore. Of course, it's not like we're working in a hospital; we don't save lives every month. We just make decisions about skirt lengths, about an inch more or an inch less. That's all.
SPIEGEL: Did that ever seem pointless to you?
Roitfeld: For 10 years, it was a hell of a lot of fun. But, toward the end, it unfortunately got less and less fun. You used to be able to be more playful, but now it's all about money, results and big business. The prêt-à-porter shows have become terribly serious. The atmosphere isn't as electric as it once was, and they now have about as much charm as a medical conference. But it takes just one good fashion show to get things exciting again.
SPIEGEL: If fashion can tell us anything about the age it's created in, what do you think current fashions tell us?
Roitfeld: Today's fashions don't let people dream as much as they used to. Twenty years ago, fashion was a promise -- something that was part of your life and perhaps enriched it, something that reflected a particular era. If you look at advertisements these days, all you see are handbags. They aren't about dreams anymore; customers are buying objects now, not dreams.
SPIEGEL: Is that why you left Vogue in January?
Roitfeld: Ten years is a long time -- and especially 10 years in a gilded cage. They were wonderful years; but, sooner or later, birds want their freedom again.
SPIEGEL: Your French publisher said the time for being provocative and trashy was over.
Roitfeld: I'd put it this way: Fashion needs glamour, provocation and broken taboos.
SPIEGEL: Was it your decision to go?
Roitfeld: Absolutely. And at the perfect moment. The French edition of Vogue had never been more successful, had never had more readers or advertisers. And it had never made as much money. For 10 years, my American publisher, Jonathan Newhouse, let me do what I wanted, even when he thought it might be crazy. But it couldn't have gone on for much longer.
SPIEGEL: Is this the end of era?
Roitfeld: Creativity needs space and a willingness to take risks, but businessmen don't like risk. What's more, designers are coming under more and more pressure. Today, a dress can't just please the women in Paris; it also has to please those in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and New York.
SPIEGEL: Is globalization making fashion more boring?
Roitfeld: At the very least, it's leading to a lot of compromise. But globalization is only one factor. Today's designers no longer have to create two collections a year; they have to create four: spring, summer, fall and winter. And some fashion houses also add haute couture twice a year. Who can possibly manage all that? Good designers are artists; they're fragile people.
SPIEGEL: Two of the biggest stars in the Paris fashion world, Britons Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, both left this stage in a very dramatic way. McQueen committed suicide a year ago. And Galliano, the Dior designer, made his exit a few weeks ago after publicly professing his love for Adolf Hitler.
Roitfeld: McQueen's artistic creations always had a very dark side, but his death still came as a shock. After all, it's not like he was alone. He had a big team surrounding him, but it unfortunately wasn't able to protect him.
SPIEGEL: And Galliano?
Roitfeld: I had no idea how unhappy John Galliano must have been. You have to be very unhappy and lonely to praise Hitler in public while completely drunk. The House of Dior has always addressed a range of topics, for example, by having haute couture shows on homelessness where all the models look like people living on the street. But drunkenly shouting "I love Hitler" and calling people in a bar a "dirty Jew-face" is unacceptable. I don't think he really believes what he said; they were simply the actions of a drunk.
SPIEGEL: Are drugs an everyday part of life in the fashion industry?
Roitfeld: No more and no less than they are in other artistic circles. Yves Saint Laurent was the first person to openly admit to being a drug addict. Since I never touched drugs myself, I find it hard to tell whether people are taking them. But, of course, some people do. The industry has become faster and faster. People are constantly fighting jet lag and working through the night.
SPIEGEL: Now that Galliano and McQueen are gone, is German designer Karl Lagerfeld the only one left?
Roitfeld: Yes. Good old Karl. Superhuman Lagerfeld. I don't think he experiences this pressure in the same way. That's why he can put up with it.
SPIEGEL: And no one else can?
Roitfeld: He's not the only one. There's also Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Miuccia Prada and, of course, Tom Ford. And then there are the up-and-coming talents. But they still need time. In a way, we've already seen everything. What else could they hope to invent?
SPIEGEL: And, in any case, copies of their designs soon turn up in Zara and H&M shops.
Roitfeld: Yes. At fashion shows, bloggers sit in the front rows and transmit new looks around the globe. It's all become terribly rapid. You're sitting in Paris, and people in Beijing already know what's going on. It's pretty crazy. But designers are probably really flattered that their looks are being copied.
The Power of High HeelsSPIEGEL: But don't you think that this copying is still a problem?
Roitfeld: I don't see it that way. Fashion stopped being a matter of money a long time ago; it's a matter of taste. These days, even women with less money can dress well. I was always saddened by the idea that elegance was only something for a minority. It's about style. Karl was the first one to understand that. It was very smart of him to design this H&M collection, and very smart of Chanel to allow him to do so.
SPIEGEL: Today, it's mostly wealthy Russian and Chinese women who are buying expensive fashions. People working at many boutiques in Berlin speak Russian.
Roitfeld: That's right. This obsession with particular designers is somewhat strange. I think it's the safest way for these customers to find their feet when they first discover the world of fashion. You can't learn how to be elegant; you can only learn how to avoid mistakes. The rest is instinct. Elegance is about the way you cross your legs, not the label or the newest clothes from the latest collection.
SPIEGEL: Now you're undermining all the sales arguments your own industry makes.
Roitfeld: It's often the case that what a women reads makes her more attractive and more elegant than what she wears.
SPIEGEL: Do French women read more than German women?
Roitfeld: From a very early age, French women learn not to exaggerate. Yves Saint Laurent once said that the purpose of clothes is to make women more beautiful but that a coat must never attract more attention than the woman wearing it.
SPIEGEL: In France, you have a reputation for being the woman who invented "porn chic." Your photos were criticized because they showed young Lolita-type girls, pregnant women smoking and smooching seniors.
Roitfeld: Yes, of course. Fashion has to be given free rein and only a small number of restrictions. I never used any photos that my children shouldn't see; that was my benchmark. The little girls wearing makeup were never naked; it said "No Smoking" under the pregnant woman; and why shouldn't old people kiss? You must be allowed to play. Anything else is terribly boring. I've also painted white models black and later red, which (the French anti-racist NGO) SOS Racisme complained about.
SPIEGEL: Did you find that silly?
Roitfeld: It's absurd to accuse me of being racist. I dedicated an entire issue of Vogue to the black model Liya Kebede. I'm always looking for connections to real life. I once had a series of photos about fur; but, in these politically correct times, you can't even go out on the street in New York or London without getting a pie thrown in your face. The photos showed extras holding up posters of animal rights activists. It was meant to be ironic, but unfortunately not everyone got it. Why can't we wear the animals we also eat, such as sheep and rabbits?
SPIEGEL: You're 56 years old. How difficult is it for a woman to age in the fashion industry?
Roitfeld: Well, during photo shoots, you come across these beautiful 16- or 18-year-old women who have perfect bodies and not a single wrinkle -- but their pictures are retouched. Under these conditions, when you look in the mirror, you have to be happy with yourself, remain young at heart and keep that rock 'n' roll attitude. Otherwise, you won't be able to deal with it.
SPIEGEL: What will you do with your new life?
Roitfeld: I have numerous projects in the works: a book with Karl Lagerfeld, another about my own work, an ad campaign for Chanel and some consulting work for Barneys, the designer fashion store in New York. Who knows? Perhaps I'll become a muse for designers again.
SPIEGEL: So you won't take the place of your former colleague Anna Wintour at the head of the American edition of Vogue?
Roitfeld: That was never seriously under discussion. I like to provoke. I'm very French. In America, they're not even allowed to show a hint of nipple in photos. Anna Wintour is the most powerful woman in the global fashion industry, the first lady of fashion. She's a politician; I'm a stylist. They are two very different jobs. Incidentally, despite all the rumors, she is actually very nice.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any fashion principles?
Roitfeld: I don't change my handbag every season. I believe in the Yves Saint Laurent woman who either has her hands in the pockets of her pantsuit or is holding her lover's hand. She doesn't need a bag.
SPIEGEL: You also always wear high heels.
Roitfeld: Yes, they give you power. You move differently, sit differently and even speak differently.
SPIEGEL: So you never wear flat-soled shoes? Not even when going for a walk?
Roitfeld: I don't go for a walk very often. I wear flat-soled shoes on vacation, but I also travel in high heels, which is why I'm regularly stopped by customs officials at the airport. Wearing high heels in an airplane is suspicious. Nobody else does that.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any fashion tips for us?
Roitfeld: If you don't want to make any mistakes, buy black clothes. That's always good. And from age 50 on, you can slowly start adding a little beige. That's softer. Every five years, you should take a critical look at your own wardrobe and, if necessary, eventually swap your bikini for a one-piece swimsuit.
SPIEGEL: And, if necessary, eventually stop going swimming altogether?
Roitfeld: There comes a time in your life when you even have to consider that. You should always be one of the best, whatever your age group. That may mean staying away from the beach.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Roitfeld, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Claudia Voigt and Britta Sandberg
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission