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A woman of taste and influence | Article

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A woman of taste and influence | Article

Post by xyz on Fri Mar 08, 2013 1:59 pm

from 1984 article in The Independent

A woman of taste and influence: In the first of an occasional series about insiders who have subtly changed the course of fashion, Irene Silvagni, one of the most idiosyncratic editors to have worked at French Vogue, talks about her long career, her passion for photography and her most recent role - as the European envoy of the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto

SUNDAY lunchtime in St-Germain-des-Pres and the woman I'm to meet has described herself to me briefly and not well. The Cafe Flore is packed with its usual mixture of tourists (seated outside, facing the street) and regulars (inside, smoking). But it's easy to spot her: alone at a little corner table, her back turned pointedly to the massed ranks beyond the glass screen that divides the brasserie from the salon du the. She is a woman in her fifties, with greying dark blonde wavy hair falling almost to her waist, and, as I get nearer, a pair of intricate Moroccan earrings nearly lost in it. She is dressed simply in a fawn man's cashmere V-neck cardigan, buttoned but bare at the neck, and grey flannel trousers. She has grey-green eyes which narrow at a drag of her cigarette, large breasts that move comfortably beneath the cardigan, and no make-up.
This is Irene Silvagni, one of the great international fashion editors, who through her patronage of certain key photographers is one of the people who can be credited with bringing about a perceptible shift in the way fashion looks today. She has a famous eye, a maverick instinct, and in a business where youth usually has the upper hand, is something of an eminence grise. She has been in fashion for 25 years, and to sit at her table on a Sunday afternoon is to understand a little the difference between the worlds of fashion in Paris and London.
Our conversation, over coffee and boiled eggs, is broken from time to time by the arrival of one of a number of men of a certain age, all dressed casually, expensively, but with rather too much care, who make their way to our table to pay their respects. It was a ritual, I felt sure, that had been enacted every Sunday she'd spent in Paris over the past 20 years. But it had none of the self-conscious exaggeration that dogs such encounters in London. In Paris, where the fashion business is taken seriously and for granted, it seems easier to grow old respectably and in style.
She has not been one of those editors who seeks a public profile - neither a power-driven Anna Wintour nor an outrageously eccentric Anna Piaggi - but inside the profession there is hardly anybody who doesn't speak well of her: her individuality, her ability to spot the new and the talented. When doing so, however, they tend to reinforce the elusive - which is not quite to say illusory - qualities fashion has always relied on.
'She catches l'air du temps . . .' Colombe Pringle, the editor with whom Silvagni used to share the running of French Vogue, told me. 'Irene has amazing intuition. She is marvellous to sit next to in a show. She always finds the new thing, the new girl. She is passionate about images. Always finds the next photographer. And she knows immediately what the reader will want to buy. At Vogue, she knew that the reader was going to buy atmosphere. 'I have never
bought a single garment from looking at Vogue,' Irene would say. 'And I don't believe the readers do, either.' '
She has a reputation for wilfully pursuing the new at the expense of safe commercial formulae, and has helped many designers, models and photographers over the years. But the most important of the three, she explains, is the photographer. 'The photographer is the last step before the customer goes into the store and buys.'
SHE WAS born in Cannes, in 1941, the daughter of Russian Jewish emigres who had come to France before the war, and she is one of Trotsky's great-nieces - an honour she shares with her friend Joan Juliet Buck, who, coincidentally, takes over the editorship of French Vogue next month. Her father, a diamond merchant, died in a concentration camp. Her mother was arrested but survived the war. Irene was brought up by her grandparents until 1945, when the whole family, including eight aunts and uncles, moved to Paris.
'My mother was a very, very beautiful woman,' she said. 'When we first came to Paris, she worked in a lingerie shop. As a little girl I would hear people coming to place their orders. I grew up in that atmosphere. I was always cutting my own clothes and dyeing my sweaters. I loved black, even then. I think it was partly because I had very, very big tits and I was tiny and tried to hide them. My mother was always fighting me because my sleeves were long, and hung down over my hands. My clothes were never neat, my hair was never neat. I like a little disorder in my life . . .'
In 1959 - and this explains her excellent English - she
was sent to finishing school in England: 'at 21 Pont Street, just behind Sloane Street, a school for girls of 17 and 18 to learn English, and to have fun'. While in London she met her husband, the Italian film producer Giorgio Silvagni, who was also a student there. They married in Italy in 1963 and in 1966 they returned to Paris.
At first, Silvagni wanted to be a designer, and for a while slogged her sketches round boutiques in the hope of selling them. 'But in fact I was a ghastly designer. Jean-Paul Goude was a very good friend of mine, and he said to me: 'You have no talent at all. You should stop designing.' And he was right, so I stopped.'
It was soon after the birth of her second child in 1968 that a friend of her husband asked her to become Paris correspondent for an Italian magazine, Annabella. From there she went to American Mademoiselle as its European editor; on to French Elle as fashion editor; and, in 1982, to American Vogue, where she stayed for five years as the magazine's 'eyes and ears' in the European market.
Meanwhile, her children were growing up: 'However hard you try to be a good mother and a good professional, you always lack on one side. Often it's the good mother that wins out.' But she carried on working and, in 1987, Jan Poniatowski, the publisher of French Vogue, offered her the job of fashion editor alongside her old friend from Elle, Colombe Pringle. 'This time I was very afraid, I thought for the first time I could not do it. Suddenly to be facing the real responsibilities was frightening, I could see everything that would happen as if it was a film unravelling in front of me.'
It's hard to imagine now quite how much has changed in fashion since then - in fashion terms, 1987 is centuries ago; they call it the final year BC: Before Christy.
In 1987, the term supermodel had only just been invented. Linda Evangelista looked like lots of other big-mouthed American models; Naomi Campbell was a happy little teenager from South London; Steven Meisel and Peter Lindbergh were already known fashion photographers but couldn't have dreamt that three years later they'd be fought over by the editors of the world's two richest magazines and come away with contracts worth dollars 1m each. In 1987, the world economy might have been on the brink of disaster, but models and photographers were about to strike gold.
To understand the difference Irene Silvagni made to the way fashion was presented at that time it is necessary to understand the particular 'personality' of French Vogue. All the international Vogue's differ slightly in their responsibilities, and the French and Italian editions have senior status: the big fashion capitals are Milan and Paris; the big designers are French and Italian; the big advertisers, ditto. French Vogue has always been the grandest and most formal of all. Twice a year it is given over to Paris's ancien regime of haute couture. Its society pages are a mixture of fashion folk, Euro-aristocracy and Euro-trash, a group that can still accurately be described as the 'international jet-set'. It is glutted with so much advertising that this, rather than the editorial fashion pages, threatens to be the dominant aesthetic. In 1987 it was stuck in a rut. Its great photographers, Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, had done their best work in the Seventies. By the mid-Eighties, they had left the magazine if not in body, certainly in spirit. 'Helmut was not interested in fashion any more,' Silvagni said. 'Guy was not at his best.' But the great battleship steamed on: fuelled by an endless supply of advertising, guaranteed by the automatic patronage of the big French houses. As a vehicle for editorial, however, it was seen by the young fashion crowd as moribund and out of touch.
Things had to change. 'It was unbelievably difficult,' she said. 'When I came to Vogue, it was like the Dark Ages. I knew the most important thing was to begin to change the image. I'd always been passionate about photography. In my previous job I had been looking at a lot of photographers' books to send to Alexander Liberman (the creative director of Conde Nast in New York). I knew I would have to use young, freelance fashion editors to work with the photographers I wanted to use, because the staff would not appreciate their work. And then I had to persuade the photographers to come.
'My first choice was Peter Lindbergh. We knew each other slightly. He was working for Marie Claire in Paris at the time, for Interview in America, and for New York Woman, which was art directed by the young Fabien Baron (now the celebrated art director of Harper's Bazaar). I made an appointment. His office was the Cafe Flore. I was nervous because I knew that if I didn't get him, none of the others would have followed.' She also wanted Paolo Roversi who had worked with Grace Coddington, another great fashion editor, at British Vogue, but was considered too whimsical for the French market; a young American called Max Vidukul, whose pictures were thought too crazy, and Steven Meisel, 'whom no one wanted at the time', Silvagni said. 'He was forbidden at Italian Vogue and at American Vogue.' (For those who know how much he is used by both these magazines now, this only underlines how ridiculously capricious fashion can be.)
Peter Lindbergh accepted her proposal. 'I had worked once or twice for French Vogue before,' he said. 'But it always turned out terrible. Somehow I wasn't inspired. The magazine looked old. It looked boring. Irene wanted to change the style. She brought fresh air to Vogue. When you work for her, she inspires you, then let's you go free. She backs you right to the end.' Lindbergh brought with him the models he liked to work with: Tatjana Patitz, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Steven Meisel came too and both photographers made pictures that fulfilled what Silvagni felt was the magazine's role.
'I had in my mind a clear idea of what Vogue should be,' she said. 'I have always been a magazine and newspaper freak, what we call a papivore. I had always bought Vogue since I was very young. I would shut myself in my bedroom and turn the pages and look at those wonderful pictures. It gave me so much joy and dreams and escapism, I thought that's what Vogue should be, that it should be full of the most unbelievable images.' With her blessing, Lindbergh and Meisel developed the characteristics that would define their individual styles. Meisel produced sexually ambiguous, sometimes violent pictures, exemplified by a set which had the model Pat Cleveland vamping up black dresses to the point where she gnawed her own forearm in ecstasy. (This usefully caused one of the periodic public furores in the magazine world.) Lindbergh specialised in creating narrative fashion stories, shot on location, in soft black and white, with the quality of movie stills. In one memorable set he paid homage to a fellow German, Wim Wenders, by echoing the Berlin settings of Wenders's film Wings of Desire. It was a lot of work for a few overcoats, but it was worth it.
In the first two years of what would be a brief period at Vogue, Lindbergh and Meisel were joined by Bruce Weber, Paolo Roversi, Brigitte Lacombe, Max Vidukul, Pamela Hanson and Ellen von Unwerth, a former model turned photographer. With Silvagni as their impresario, they introduced a completely different sensibility into the pages of French Vogue. They were, it is fair to say now, a new movement in fashion photography, and their pictures had a looseness, a sexiness, a soft-grained sensuousness that was at odds with the rigid studio shots that had gone before. What these photographers had in common was a sense of narrative: their models were always doing something, not just posing for the camera in a studio. The models looked as though they were having fun, the pictures had movement and mood. This was fashion reportage. And it spread through Conde Nast like wildfire. By 1990, Lindbergh and Meisel were in almost every issue of Italian Vogue; Bruce Weber was back in favour at American Vogue and Ellen von Unwerth was everywhere.
They were never, it should honestly be said, going to change the course of French Vogue completely; the old lady in corsets and couture wasn't going be knocked off her perch by what amounted to a bunch of naughty schoolgirls chewing gum and hitching up their skirts. But Silvagni loosened the old lady's stays for a while, and what she started, other editors carried on. 'I asked a few people to come and help me, to make something new - and they came,' is how she puts it now. 'They thought there would be something good in it for them, also. And I think there was: 50 per cent for me, 50 per cent for them. We took some risks. It was good.'
Too good. 'You know,' Colombe Pringle explained, 'Irene is really an hippie, she is really a gitane. She has a very special sense of fashion. Something eternal. She has always dressed like nobody else - her mother was a very beautiful woman, you know, she grew up with all that. And she is a bit of a gypsy at heart. I think only once in the 15 years I have known her have I seen her in a tailleur Chanel . . . But she can be very stubborn. She believes always that you have to be a bit dangerous in your work.' It was that stubbornness, that inability metaphorically to squeeze herself into a Chanel suit, that spelled trouble.
Silvagni had joined the magazine at the beginning of the recession, when even the world of glossy magazines had to woo its advertisers a little more carefully. At such times, editorial freedoms are curtailed and editors have to fight if they want to take risks. 'Soon after the change, they wanted another change,' she explained. 'It wasn't that the magazine was losing money, not at all, but there was a sense that they wanted to make the magazine more Anglo-Saxon, more American - by which I mean they wanted photographs of a girl running across the street in a little Chanel suit - Linda Evangelista if possible. I have nothing against pictures like that, but I didn't believe it was right for French Vogue.
'You know, it's always in the worst economic moment that you have to keep your own integrity and be unique. If you don't make anybody talk, you're not doing anything interesting. I was often told I was trying to please myself instead of the reader. But if by instinct you feel it's good, you should do it. If you don't take risks, you don't go ahead.'
In the end, it was a battle she knew she wasn't going to win. 'I couldn't stand up to the pressure for much longer. I knew I would do pictures that they would not like. I told them it was better if I went. And I was tired. I didn't feel I had the energy to fight for what I believed in any more. I left for good reasons, instead of staying for bad reasons.'
ON THE day she left the office in 1991, she received every hour, on the hour, the present of a picture from each of the photographers she had worked with. And the day afterwards, she left Paris for the house she owned in the South of France. 'I left on the 21st of December, and on the 22nd I was in my house, and I stayed there for seven months. I was out of it.' She had left with no plans, except to live in the country and, literally, grow vegetables. But her escape was not to last long.
In the Spring of 1992 she received a special achievment award from all the photographers she had worked with at a ceremony in Barcelona. That same year, at a Comme des Garcons show in Paris, she was seated by chance next to Yohji Yamamoto, whom she knew slightly, and they struck up a conversation. It was, they would both say now, an immediate rapport. Yamamoto thought he had found somebody who could help him.
For the past two years she has been his creative consultant in Paris, a position that requires her to be an envoy between the designer - who spends most of his time in Tokyo - and his European outlets. It is she who decides how each new collection will be presented, who edits the range down for different retailers, who decides on the image that best suits the European market, who runs the advertising campaigns and decides which photographers and models to use . . . It is a job that has been moulded around her, and which requires her, as always, to be a person of influence and taste in a world which generally has too much of the first and too little of the second.
It suits her far better than the uptight world of Vogue. The unconventionality of Yohji's designs are easy for her because her own style is so loose and unconventional. 'I like the gypsy life, it's in my background. I like the colours, the jewellery, the printed fabrics, I like ethnic clothes . . . I could live in a tent if I had my family around me. I'm sincere. It's not a fabricated personality.'
You get, she says, to an age when you have to be honest with yourself about what you're capable of. 'I said I would use my eye until it proved me wrong. Until now, I'm pretty sure it didn't betray me.'

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