"I don't like fashion," said the French designer Agnes b. For someone who has spent four decades at the top of the fashion tree, it is a curious confession to make. "I like clothes," she added quickly as she put the final touches to her autumn winter collection before her Paris fashion week show Tuesday.
The creator who dressed pop icon David Bowie and cult film director David Lynch is a living contradiction. She hates advertising, yet she married an advertising guru; she loves clothes but never goes to fashion shows.,"I never go to any of them, not to Kenzo, nor Sonia Rykiel, nor Isabel Marant. I don't want to know. Instead I like to look to the streets," she told AFP.
"I love clothes you can keep and still wear after 10 or 20 years." Forty years after she opened her first shop in a workaday side street in central Paris, the 74-year-old designer claimed that her philosophy has not altered.
Dyed clothes in bath
Some things have changed though. "I dyed my first collection in my bath," she remembered, "and some of them weren't even dry when the shop opened." Now Agnes Trouble -- her real name, the "b" came from her first husband Christian Bourgois -- is the head of a fashion empire with a turnover of 300 million euros (328 million US dollars) and hundreds of shops across the globe including 141 in Japan alone.
Yet she made her name with deceptively simple pop-button cardigans and striped T-shirts that were an almost instant hit in Paris, New York and Tokyo. "I always wanted to create well thought out clothes, made for modern life, which you could rely on," she said as she smoked a cigarette in her attic office overlooking the Canal Saint-Martin.
With exhibitions and a book about to mark her singular career, she is celebrating her 40 years in the business by indulging her twin passions -- clothes and art. The longtime art collector and gallerist, who has dedicated part of her fortune to bringing on young artists and film-makers, has commissioned a line of T-shirts from artist friends.
The designer was close to some the biggest art world stars of the last three decades including New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat -- "we were as thick as thieves" -- and Keith Haring. Art seems to have been a release from the relentless demands of running a fashion house and her pet hate, advertising.
'I hate advertising'
Even though she had a daughter with the late advertising guru Philippe Michel, she boasted of never advertising her brand, which has always traded on its urbane, sober look. "I hate advertising. It's pure manipulation," she said, claiming to have been hugely marked by the revolutionary spirit of France's May 1968 street protests.
Despite coming from a right-wing family from Versailles outside Paris where the "Sun King" Louis XIV built his gigantic palace, she has "always voted for the left" having been politicised by France's long, bloody and failed war to stop Algerian independence in her youth.
She married the publisher Christian Bourgois at only 17, had twins at 19 and was separated at 20. One of the twins, Etienne Bourgois, now runs the business side of the brand. "We were on protest marches all the time," she recalled. A devout Catholic and environmentalist, she is hugely worried by the rise of France's far-right National Front, tax evasion and the plight of refugees trying to reach Europe.
She recently joined calls demanding that the French government stop demolishing the migrant camp outside the northern port of Calais. "I am different," she said, "I am a straight talker." Nor has having 2,000 employees convinced her that France's 35-hour week is economically unsustainable. She also proudly points to the fact that nearly half of her clothes are made in France, a rarity in the globalised rag trade.
With other fashion houses in a flap over whether to change to a "see now buy now" system which would allow customers to buy straight from the catwalk, she plays it cool. "We do not make clothes that go out of fashion in two months, so we don't have that problem," she said.
You would think as a mother of five, grandmother of 16 and great grandmother of two children, she might be thinking of putting up her feet. But she does not seem obsessed with finding a successor. "I am going to organise it little by little," she said, but "I live from day to day, and I love my work." So don't hold your breath. (AFP)
Photos: AFP / Miguel Medina