PARIS — My interview with the fashion designer Agnès B. on the occasion of the release of her first film as director, “Je m’appelle Hmmm...” (“My Name is Hmmm…”), takes place two days after the opening of Paris Fashion Week. The city’s streets are crowded with men and women attired in apparel that is supposed to reflect sophistication and make a statement of independence.
In reality, they are dressed in mere uniforms, the uniforms of fashion: a calculated collection of codes aimed at grabbing the attention of some blogger and making the list of the best-dressed people of Fashion Week.
But Agnès B, whose film is being screened as part of the French Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, which began last week and continues through April 5, seems to have little to do with this hyper-fashionable atmosphere. Though her brand has 332 boutiques worldwide, she keeps her distance from the industry.
She was born in 1941 as Agnès Troublé, to a bourgeois family in Versailles. She left home for Paris when she was 17, and shortly afterward married Christian Bourgeois, the source of the famous "B." of her name. She divorced him at 20, and in 1973, after a stint as a stylist, Agnès B. launched the brand named after herself.
Her style, which became an instant hit, draws on classic items, such as the long-sleeved striped shirt and the small cardigan. In her hands, those two items preserved their classic relaxed flavor, but were integrated into a punchy contemporary look. These days that all sounds fashionably self-evident, but Agnès B. was the woman who conceived that fusion.
Though "My Name is Hmmm..." marks her directorial debut, it is not her first venture into the world of film. In 1997, she founded a production company called Love Streams, named for the 1984 film directed by John Cassavetes. Two years later, she produced “Peau Neuve” (“New Dawn”), and has been the producer or executive producer of many movies since then. Her cinematic taste is far removed from the glamour of the fashion world.
For her first directorial project she opted for a particularly difficult subject. Her film tells the story of Céline (played by Lou-Lélia Demerliac), an 11-year-old girl whose father abuses her sexually and who, in an impulsive decision, runs away from home. She meets a truck driver named Peter Ellis, played by Douglas Gordon, and the two embark on a journey.
“Even though the starting point of the film is incest, it is about a character, about a primal journey," Agnès B. tells Haaretz. "It is a film about the results of incest. We often ask ourselves, ‘Why do children run away from home?’ I too ask myself this question. But it seems to me that we do not answer it correctly. Maybe the child runs away because something is bothering him? Something he cannot bear?”
Asked if she had feared addressing such a sensitive theme, she responds with an emphatic "No."
“I think that over time people have shown a certain respect for me, and that is wonderful, because it allows me to occupy myself with what truly interests me," she says. "But yes, because of the subject I did not look for funding for the film. I know what happens when people hear the word ‘incest.’ So I made it myself, which I was able to do thanks to my work. I think it is important for this story to be told, and if possible in different cultures, because incest is a universal problem that needs to be exposed. Did you know that in France incest is not considered a felony, only a misdemeanor? And there are people here who are seeing to it that incest will not be considered a crime in legal terms. It is so widespread, yet no one talks about it. Not the children, of course, but not the parents, either.”
Fed up with fashion
This is not the fashion designer’s first foray into political involvement. In fact, she relates, “I discovered politics when I was only 17. Just when I arrived in Paris there were demonstrations against the war in Algeria, and I took part in them, along with my babies.”
For Agnès B., a hippie with a work ethic, everything is intermingled: fashion is her profession, film art and music her great loves, while politics is in her heart. She made the film in the course of six weeks and then took six months to edit it, “in the evenings and on vacations. Because I have a job.”
In the film, it’s Peter, the tough-looking truck driver who takes care of Céline, who is the immediate suspect.
“That is the way we judge people," says the designer-cum-director. "Peter has tattoos, and that is what people see about him. In this sense, the film is about prior assumptions that we apply to people — assumptions that lead us astray. I find this quite depressing, because in fact we don’t know anything. The judge can only think that Peter is guilty and never suspect the father for a moment.”
Agnès B. is aware that, whether or not it is designed by her, what people wear has a lot to do with the way people are often judged.
“You know, I am completely fed up with fashion,” the designer says. "I draw clothes. I like doing that and I do it very fast. I like to make people happy, and the success of Agnès B. is related to this ability that we have, that the brand has, to delight people. I like clothes that remain for 10 years, which you can wear time after time but they always remain with you. From my point of view, I work for people who are looking for clothes that will accompany them for years; I don’t work for fashion types. And you know what? In the end you can always be in fashion with my clothes. There are things I did 20 years ago that you can still wear today. In fact, to this day I occasionally reprise old designs.”
It’s hard not to think about the way in which the fashion industry makes use of young girls who become the objects of men’s gaze. “I know all that and I have never used advertising,” she says. “I abhor the advertising world and I abhor the consumer society. Beginning in the 1970s, we started to create needs, we invented needs. And then we created frustration. You watch television and all day you see cars, and then the young go and burn cars. That does not surprise me. Advertising is provocation and manipulation, and I am very proud of myself for never making use of that tool. I can truly rest easy in that regard. I never employed underage models, and I don’t like and don’t employ anorexic models, either. I also ensure that my models come from different cultures, so there will be a variety of women on my runway.”
The journey of Peter and Céline generates a powerful sense of freedom in the film. But what is freedom for Agnès B.?
“Freedom is ‘Be yourself and don’t bother others,’"she says. "That about sums it up, I would say. By the way, this is not a chance journey. The first movie I saw was when I went on a trip with my father. I sat next to him in the car and we drove between villages and saw the road and looked at people. I didn’t dare fall asleep, so as not to miss anything from the trip.”
And afterward, I ask, was fashion a means to freedom for you, or something else entirely?
“Fashion…,” she says, stretching out the word, which clearly causes her great discomfort. She replaces it with another: clothes.
“Clothes are more to express ourselves," she says. "Clothes serve us, because through them we identify people. Clothes are important to people, and they are far more important than fashion, which has succeeded in making itself overly important. Clothes give people identity and help them feel more comfortable in their own skin. Fashion is a pose, and making poses is funny. Fashion is also a game. But no more than that. It has no importance beyond that.”
She has preserved her brand as a small family business, even though there are hardly any brands left in the hands of designers.
“Forty percent of our production is done in France, and if possible we would be happy for an even larger percentage to be made here," she says. "But that is very difficult, so we have no choice but to work also with Romania, Spain, Tunisia and Portugal. That’s why my label says ‘Made in France and the world.’ Regrettably, these days even the most highly regarded prêt-à-porter fashion houses in France do not make their apparel here, which makes things difficult for all of us. Still, to my delight, thanks to measures taken by the minister of trade, we are beginning to see a slow return of brands to manufacture in France."
The designer says she knows what it means to be poor.
“I feel that my responsibility is to do what I can in my country," says Agnès B. "If we close a factory, or a workshop, do you know how many more people are added to the ranks of the unemployed? When I left my husband I had very little money and two children to support. I know what it means to be poor, how everything becomes complicated when you don’t have money. The rich have to share their money. People die with a great deal of money, so what are they doing with it there? Why are they safeguarding it? I don’t understand. It is truly ridiculous.”
'You know, I am completely fed up with fashion,' the designer says. 'I like clothes that remain for 10 years, which you can wear time after time but they always remain with you.'