‘‘Most brands are too scared to shock.’’

Anthony Vaccarello takes the sacred house of Saint Laurent ‘Rive Droite’.

By Carine Bizet
Portrait by Juergen Teller

Saint Laurent. Rive Droite. - © System Magazine

Anthony Vaccarello takes the sacred house of Saint Laurent ‘Rive Droite’.

In a white T-shirt and black jeans and a calm voice, a relaxed, yet controlled Anthony Vaccarello welcomes me into the Saint Laurent studio, inviting me to sit down upon one of the big black sofas. The studio, located in the former Hôtel de Sénecterre, a large hôtel particulier on Rue de l’Université, has pale parquet that is bathed in the morning light and decorative white moulding that emphasizes the height of the ceilings. It is a space as opulent as its occupant is unassuming.

In 2016, Anthony Vaccarello was handed the keys to the kingdom of Saint Laurent, the legendary house that today remains as ubiquitous as it is divisive. When he arrived, the fashion birds of ill omen predicted the fall of the YSL empire after the departure of the turbulent deity that is Hedi Slimane. But they were wrong. Anthony Vaccarello has determinedly made his mark on the house, bringing a smouldering sensuality to the 21st-century Saint Laurent woman, one who, beneath the lights of the Eiffel Tower, struts in stiletto heels with disarming authority. Too bad for the censorial or the nostalgic, business is brisk and constantly increasing: sales in 2018 were €1.74bn, up 16.1% on 2017. Now, three years into the job, Vaccarello has given himself a new project: in mid-May, at 213 Rue Saint-Honoré,the former home of concept-store pioneer Colette, he will unveil a new Saint Laurent space. Neither a classic boutique nor a new Colette, the space will be home to a series of collaborations between Saint Laurent and brands from other domains. Because Anthony Vaccarello has both a taste for teamwork and a sense of independence, a spirit of contradiction very much part of Saint Laurent’s genetic heritage. In April this year, System sat down with Anthony Vaccarello who, for a designer of few words, proved that he definitely has something to say.

Why did you call the store Saint Laurent Rive Droite?

The Left Bank – la rive gauche – is the original birthplace of the house. With this new store, we’ve crossed the Seine to the Right Bank, and we’re establishing another chapter of Saint Laurent history. It’s also a nod to Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, the line that led to the democratization of the house’s style in the late 1960s. With Rive Droite, we’re saying we want to address a wider audience; there will be things at all prices.

What kinds of things?

It’s going to be very varied: furniture reissued in collaboration with the Comité Jean-Michel Frank, toy cars by Candy Lab, rare books and magazines, lighters, pens and vintage 1970s record players. Outside, in front of the store, there will be a truck selling food by New York restaurant Sant Ambroeus. Inside, the space is modular, so we can organize events and exhibitions.

When you mention lighters and pens, I think of those 1970s and 80s YSL licences…

These days, that sounds almost exotic or charming, but at the time thoses licences totally diluted the identity of brands such as Saint Laurent. When I arrived, we bought up all the licences, and the idea behind Rive Droite is actually the opposite of a licensing deal: everything is decided internally, and built upon the Saint Laurent identity.

Are there any limits for this project?

No limits, no censorship – within the law, of course! We’re also going to open a Rive Droite store in Los Angeles in what has been the menswear store on Rodeo Drive, and because marijuana is legal there, there will be gold rolling papers, which we won’t be selling in Paris. We also have condoms. To start with I wanted to design really outlandish ones, like leopard or zebra print, but then someone sent me an image of a 1980s Saint Laurent advert for St Valentine’s Day, in which Yves Saint Laurent
was photographed slipping condoms into people’s letter boxes. I thought it was amazing, so together with Juergen Teller, we redid some photos using the same principle, with a nude man and a fully dressed woman. There’ll be a new cuvée of Saint Laurent condoms at the Rive Droite boutique.

Was this playful approach to the store concept important to you?

I tend to get bored very quickly; I need the excitement of new things. It’s not that I think I’ve explored all options on how to make a jacket, or how to make a dress, but nearly, and for Rive Droite, I wanted something that was more fun, more personal. I think it’s important to put playfulness back into fashion. Everything is so formatted and compartmentalized. Even when people say they’re going to try something new, they always go back to the same old structures. I’m not saying that everything we
do is amazing, but we’re definitely looking to have fun.

‘The Rive Droite store is a nod to Saint LaurentRive Gauche, the line that led to the democratizationof the house’s style in the late 1960s.’

Anthony Vaccarello

Have these collaborations allowed you to move towards new ideas?

I love the technical side and talking to manufacturers, people who have different points of view, other ways of doing things, another sense of design. Modifying the shape, texture or colour of something that doesn’t enter the production chains of the brands we collaborate with takes longer, so you have to find out how to do it. Putting real gold leaf on a skateboard, for example, requires a lot of technical research. In the process, there’s a lot of editing and elimnation; some things are useless and others we’ll end up using later. But every stage is interesting. I’m not directly inspired by all this in my work, and I’m not going to start designing furniture, but this change of perspective is a real breath of fresh air.

How were the collaborations chosen?

It’s quite a personal selection, a little bit ‘selfish’. They’re often objects I have collected or things that I love. For example, when I redecorated my house I was looking everywhere for a particular Jean-Michel Frank lamp, but it was totally impossible to find. I’ve always admired his work; it evokes a sort of minimalist Paris for me. It’s pure design in noble materials. Until recently, only Hermès had permission to reissue Jean-Michel Frank furniture, but the Comité accepted our request. I chose pieces from the back catalogue that had never been reissued. I love this idea of reissuing pieces that have been slightly forgotten. For the Willy Rizzo reissues, we avoided the famous tables, because
we were more interested in the lacquered trays that are just as representative of his style, just less well-known.

Would you say that collaboration is the height of fashion right now?

Yes, but at the same time, the principle of a creative collective has always existed. I’ll admit that I don’t really like the trendy and systematic aspect of collaborations, but I don’t see Rive Droite as this sort of exercise. It’s more like a way of extending the brand universe and its DNA. It’s also a new platform of exchange between Saint Laurent and the public that revolves around all sorts of objects that might catch your attention: a pen, a boom box, a toy car reissued in marble and XXL format. In addition, there’s no seasonality. Of course, we’ve planned to keep the store stocked for at least a year, but after that, new things will be launched as and when they’re ready. It’s an organic process that will permanently evolve. For example, quite by chance, I came across a photograph of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol wearing Everlast boxing gloves and shorts, and I thought why not collaborate with the brand and make a boxing outfit? And we’ve done just that.

The fashion industry spends a lot of time questioning the best way to sell luxury. Is Rive Droite a way to take a stand on this issue?

Today, with the Internet, we have to ask what makes people want to open the door of a physical store rather than just click and buy at home. What is the added value? And then, to be honest, deep down no one really needs an umpteenth shirt or a new coat. Today, people are buying lifestyles that go with
the brand and so it’s really important to offer something else on top of just ‘product’. Rive Droite is part of that idea: it’s a place for life, for expression. It also shows how Saint Laurent is more than just a luxury brand; it’s an attitude.

Why do this now?

It seemed like the right time. Three years in, I feel really good at the house.

It’s a house with a particularly imposing legacy: Monsieur Saint Laurent and that specific idea of the French woman. Does that, or did it, weigh on you? You seem relaxed in the face of it all.

I’ve never thought about it to be honest. When I first arrived at Saint Laurent, I said to myself, OK, you’ve been taken on to do this job, do what you know how to do. And nothing was imposed on me, even though I didn’t have experience of working in a major house. I’ve never had to do so many pictures and products. There are so many burned-out designers, so I didn’t want to put myself under that sort of pressure, the ‘I must make this much money’ scenario. I genuinely have fun; I do want I like. Francesca Bellettini, our CEO, has given me carte blanche in spite of the risks – and I am truly grateful for that.

Would you say you have anything in common with Saint Laurent himself?

The house has fashion’s most beautiful DNA – it’s so modern, with this mix of sophistication and a hint of scandal. I really want to respect and honour that. I always have images of Saint Laurent in mind, but it’s subconscious, not at all intellectualized. I don’t really see things in common, but sometimes when magazines make comparisons between certain designs by Monsieur Saint Laurent
and my own, including those from my own brand, I think, ‘Actually they’re right.’ That said, Saint Laurent has influenced so many designers, and he’s still so present in the public’s collective consciousness.

‘It’s a new platform of exchange between SaintLaurent and the public, expressed through differentobjects: pens, condoms, lighters, toy cars…’

Anthony Vaccarello

Yves Saint Laurent built a close circle of collaborators inside his house. Do you have your own circle today?

I’ve always been convinced that it’s complicated to do things on your own. I like the exchange, the discussion around design. I’ve always worked like that. To evolve you have to be open, but that doesn’t mean spreading yourself too thin. I believe in the idea of diversifying around a shared image. There has to be a powerful vision, a driving idea that can be expressed in different ways. That’s very much what I do with the campaign photos. Last season, for example, I started working with Juergen Teller because I wanted there to be a rawer edge to the campaigns, less sleek. I met him while working on a project for Man About Town magazine, which also involved Béatrice Dalle. It all went so well that I called him afterwards. Among today’s photographers, I think Juergen’s the most authentic. He gives an image of women that’s neither unrealistic nor aggressive, yet remains strong. For me, he’s the new Helmut Newton, but without mimicking Newton’s style. His photographs of women can seem quite raw, but that’s only because we’ve become so conditioned to looking at ultra-Photoshopped images of women. Juergen’s pictures are his way of seeing beauty, and it’s full of
benevolence. At the same time, we shot the denim campaign with Gray Sorrenti, Mario’s daughter. She’s 17 years old and so confident. She knows exactly what she’s doing and what she wants; she was so at ease with the models who were all her age. She has a fresh and modern viewpoint that I really like and I’m planning on working with her again on other projects. Ultimately, there’s no strict plan or rules; I can collaborate with several people on different approaches, then sometimes we take a break, and then meet up again.

Your job also allows you to meet people you admire and with whom you have since worked?

Absolutely. I have always adored Béatrice Dalle. She was unforgettable in Betty Blue, and in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Behind her flamboyant personality I discovered a really sensitive and shy person. She’s going to be in a short film – actually, not that short, it lasts 40 minutes – that we’re doing with Gaspar Noé, a director I really like. He brings something very free to film-making. It should be ready for the Cannes Film Festival this year and features Béatrice, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mica
Argañaraz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, a mix of really strong actresses and models. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I gave them carte blanche. We discussed the concept thoroughly, but I chose Gaspar with the intention of him expressing himself freely. The film’s not about fashion, it’s not going to be ‘Saint Laurent the house’; everyone is dressed in Saint Laurent and they are Saint Laurent women, but it’s not a campaign. I can’t wait to see it; I know that Gaspar’s happy with the results. I stopped by one night on the set and there was fire, witches, screaming… I can’t tell you anymore. In any case, I was pleasantly surprised by his working method. He makes spontaneous cinema and you
might get the impression he improvises with a hand-held camera, but not at all. He pays such close attention to every detail, colour and shape; nothing is left to chance. It’s fascinating to watch.

There are a lot of women with big personalities in your inner circle, like director Nathalie Canguilhem, Charlotte Gainsbourg, model Anja Rubik and Béatrice Dalle. Is that deliberate?

It’s come out of chance encounters and close connections. It’s all happened organically. There are just some people you have more to say to than others. I met Anja in 2011, working on my own brand, and she was on my wish list of models that I wanted for the show. She came along and I quickly realized she wasn’t ‘just a model’, a girl passing through; she was interested in the clothes, the creative process and the brand. I found her inspiring and we’ve frequently worked together since. I
try to avoid anything systematic, but when she wears a Saint Laurent look and starts to walk… She is incredible and there’s no reason to stop working with her just for the sake of saying we’re using different models. Along with Freja [Beha Erichsen] for me, Anja’s the woman who best embodies the house of Saint Laurent. The brunette and the blonde, they’re both totally unaffected, both super feminine, but they never simper. And outside of the show context, it’s as if they’re almost not interested in fashion at all; it’s completely secondary in their everyday lives. We can talk about other things and I really like that.

‘We hear about the return of the bourgeoise,but who really wants that? It’s like Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. It’s going backwards.’

Anthony Vaccarello

On the subject of women, throughout this conversation you have described a Saint Laurent woman who is a rarity in fashion today: a sexualized woman…

Yes, and I really want it to stay that way. I think it’s crazy that there is no sex in fashion anymore. We’re always talking about ‘strong women’, and the ‘power of women’, yet at the same time people
seem to think sex is synonymous with submission. I don’t see it like that at all. Firstly, a woman can find pleasure in a sort of submission, but above all, I don’t believe in this systematic opposition: submission-domination, powerful woman-bimbo, man versus woman. It’s so reductive. Life isn’t that simple or as unequivocal as that.

Does your Saint Laurent woman have a particularly French side?

Sexuality, or the representation of it, is very different in one place to another. Women, and men, too, going topless or wearing an open shirt isn’t necessarily a call for sex. Maybe in France girls can have a more masculine attitude and wear an open shirt with trousers without that being an invitation to someone to grope them. Maybe we don’t seduce in the same way in Europe as in the USA or the Middle East. When a woman at Saint Laurent wears a tuxedo open over bare skin, there’s never the idea of seduction, but rather the idea of affirmation of self and self-confidence. Maybe also a sort of defiance, but certainly not a call for sex…

Can France keep its celebrated exception culturelle, its cultural distinction?

Yes, but it wouldn’t take much to flip over into a state of mind that I find backward. On a global scale, we have the impression that most brands are too scared to shock. They don’t want to make waves on any market; they have generally chosen to eradicate the sexual nature of women. In France, I’m very lucky to be supported by the press. Journalists still have this culture of the liberated woman, but latent puritanism is gaining ground. We hear a lot of talk about the return of the bourgeoise, but who really wants that? It’s a bit like brandishing Donald Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’. It’s a sign of going backwards. Clothes, as a political tool, shouldn’t be carrying this kind of message. Ultimately, there is nothing more rigid than the bourgeoise. She’s been idealized, and we often see her as a bit naughty, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s much more likely to demonstrate in the streets against gay marriage; she is definitely not someone ‘cool’.

‘I don’t see why you can’t be a feminist and weara short skirt. And why can’t a Nobel Prize-winning woman be sexy? What’s wrong with that?’

Anthony Vaccarello

We actually get the impression that the female body has all but disappeared in this debate…

The female body is completely denied, or rather it has been transformed: you can’t show a single pore now. In campaigns from the 1980s, the girls were human; they could have shiny skin. Photographs looked like stolen moments. Today, images are frozen by Photoshop. Women look like robots. I’m fighting against this on a daily basis. When I’m brought a photo to sign off, I always ask
to see the unretouched image so I can make sure as few changes as possible have been made. I want skin; I want life. I don’t want to make big statements or brandish placards. My way of fighting is through my work and my collections. When I watch the other shows, it’s true that at Saint Laurent we come across differently, and all the better for it.

And yet there has never been so much talk of feminism and women’s rights…

Yes, rather strangely, movements like #metoo have also created a kind of caricatural sense of militancy. On one hand, we seem to have these intellectual, untouchable, powerful women labelled ‘feminists’, and on the other, these supposed victim bimbos with hyper-sexualized doll physiques like
Kim Kardashian. I don’t see why you can’t be a feminist and wear a short skirt. And why can’t a Nobel Prize-winning woman be sexy? What’s wrong with that? I just don’t think it’s the right battle to be fighting and it’s not particularly feminist.

So, what is feminism for you?

It’s about common sense: we should all respect women for who and what they are, stop overprotecting them, show tolerance and openness. That’s all.

Taken from System No. 13.