agnes b (2000)
It makes perfect sense that agnes b. likes her name in lowercase. Visit one of her low-key shops, and you'll find clothes, not Fashion. This isn't to suggest a sea of bland basics. Au contraire! You could walk in looking for one of her sturdy-yet-sexy t-shirts and walk out with a vampy gold lace wrap dress. Her collections are never all about one theme. Maybe that's why she has so many agnes b. groupies all around the world. What with designing collections for men, women, babies, and teenagers, not to mention doing bags, shoes, watches, and cosmetics, it's a wonder ms. b. had even a sliver of time to talk. But she kindly took a break for an exciting transatlantic phone call. She was super-friendly, giggled a lot, and even told me what she was wearing.
MARY: I wear so many of your clothes. I'm thrilled to be talking with you.
AGNES B: Thank you.
MARY: I seem to remember reading that you used to be ... were you a fashion editor? You worked at a magazine?
AGNES: Yes, for Elle, when I was very young. They noticed me because I was dressing a different way. I was wearing clothes from the flea market and from Monoprix ...
MARY: That's the discount chain in France?
AGNES: Yes, because I had no money at all. So they noticed my style and that's why they asked me to work for them.
MARY: How long were you at Elle?
AGNES: Less than two years. And then I was studying to be a stylist, but choosing clothes was not so exciting from my point of view. I thought, if I had to work in fashion, it was more interesting to make them. So I worked for a few different companies — little payment, no holidays, nothing. But I learned a lot, and then began to design for myself.
MARY: Did you start straight away by opening a shop?
AGNES: Yeah, in Les Halles. That was twenty years ago. We had birds flying around in the shop, with nests in the plants. We started with two birds in a cage, and one day we opened the cage and there were thirty. Baby birds were born. It was a very cool atmosphere. There was a swing for the children who came into the shop. It was the end of the hippie moment, and we were like left wing hippies. It was a cool time. We were idealistic. We did the shop ourselves and all our friends were coming every day.
MARY: So this would have been the late '70s?
AGNES: Yeah, late '70s.
MARY: Now when did you open on Prince Street?
AGNES: We opened in '83. I wanted to be in New York because I loved the city, and because I loved American cinema from the '30s, '40s, '50s - what we call in France film noir.
MARY: You always have those beautiful vintage posters up in the window. Would you say that film has influenced much of your design?
AGNES: I don't know. My designs are constructed to be unfashionable or ... out of fashion. You can't say it was from this year or that year.
MARY: Well, the first really expensive thing I bought was a leather jacket of yours. It was plain, with a V-neck. Later, I saw it on Cher and Robin Wright in two very different movies — Suspect and State of Grace.
AGNES: Yes. [laughs] I like clean, simple clothes. There must be an idea, but it doesn't have to be complicated to be beautiful. The material has to be new, or at least the use of the material. I like to make army pants — but in black satin.
MARY: Cargo pants?
AGNES: Yeah, I did that five years ago. I'm wearing them today.
MARY: I love how some of your earliest designs continue. I'm thinking the snap cardigan ...
AGNES: I was always wearing sweatshirts, and one day I thought it would be nice if I opened it up in the front. And I thought to have all these snaps very near to each other. Because in the old eighteenth-century portraits, like from Versailles, the buttons are very close together. So that's the story of the snap cardigan. I did one for myself in white, and then a black one. And then I made them for babies and for men ... for everyone.
MARY: Now one thing that I love about your clothes, especially if I go into the shop uptown, you see a lot of mothers and daughters shopping together. It seems that anyone can wear anything of yours.
AGNES: I always think of many different people when I design, and not just about very young people, but older people who don't want to be excluded.
MARY: Do your customers ever come up to you on the street?
AGNES: Yes. And sometimes they ask, "Why don't you do any more of these skirts?" So I say, "I'll make it again for you. You will find it in the shop." I like that — to be able to find again what you love.
MARY: What kind of notes do people leave in your guest books? Anyone famous?
AGNES: Leonardo DiCaprio left a message a few months ago: "You are a savior for me."
MARY: Do you know what he bought?
AGNES: Sometimes I ask, sometimes I forget to ask, or they forget to tell me. Jodie Foster shops in my store in L.A. I love her as an actor. But many actors wear my clothes, because they don't like dated clothes. I think they like to be themselves in their everyday life, not to be wearing very flagrant designs. They like the absence of the design. You can't see it, so you forget about it. And the personality of the person wearing the clothes is more important.
MARY: There are so many celebrities being dressed by stylists now — especially in L.A.
AGNES: David Bowie, for instance, I dressed him a few times recently. And I've loved him for years. You know, I'm a groupie. [laughs] The young group, Air, dress with my designs. Do you know them?
MARY: Air. The electronic group?
AGNES: Yeah, they are very good, very interesting.
MARY: I know in Paris you have the Lolita shop — your clothes for younger girls. Why isn't there one here in New York?
AGNES: We are going to make a big corner shop, which is going to be called B Spot. And there's going to be a mix for young girls, with a lot of street wear. It's like another label inside AGNES B.
MARY: You've had a gallery in Paris for years, and been really supportive of new artists, and now you have a gallery here too.
AGNES: Upstairs from the store on Greene Street, the men's shop, we have a big space. And sometimes we make a little show there.
MARY: So how do you feel about Soho? You were such a pioneer. It's so different from when you first opened. It used to be an art neighborhood, and now it's like a giant shopping mall.
AGNES: There is so much to buy everywhere. It's changed a lot. And I'm not a nostalgic person, but I liked it the way it was before. We might move, because we have to. The lease is finishing soon. We may stay in Soho. And the Lower East Side is not so far away.
MARY: Are you thinking about Chelsea?
AGNES: I don't want to go to the gallery area. I don't want to make again what happened in Soho. No, I will not do that. I like very much to go to the galleries in Chelsea. I think food and fashion shouldn't go there. I don't want to participate in that. But I think fashion is going to go there.
MARY: Are you friends with other designers?
AGNES: I don't see people working in fashion. I don't know if they see each other. Although I like Xuly Bet, for instance, because he's nice and he's normal. All my friends are artists. I go to galleries, I go to cinema, but I never shop. I have no time for that.
MARY: Now what about shows? I only remember one in the early '90s in New York, and one even farther back than that. Do you not like to do fashion shows?
AGNES: My clothes are discreet, they're not really for the runway. People like to see them up close. They want to try them on. And it's a big energy to make a show. In the end, I prefer to make a film. So this time I did a movie.
MARY: Oh great.
AGNES: I put the clothes in different situations with the models and I did a little story for each theme. It's a twelve-minute film, and we're showing it around the world. And it's much better than a runway show. There are all these little jokes in the movie, and we're fighting and dancing, and there's a funny wedding scene. I prefer to make a movie.
MARY: So that's once a year?
AGNES: No, it's twice — for the summer and winter collections.
MARY: Do you think there's a particular French style of dressing? It used to be very distinct.
AGNES: I think more and more it's less different from New York or London. Because people have the same culture and they see the same movies and they have the same influence for music and everything.
MARY: And your wardrobe?
AGNES: The way I dress — white shirt, long sleeves; black pants, white shoes, a black leather coat ... There's a red dress, because I like red. And a little silver jacket.
MARY: I've always wanted to ask you; your T-shirts last so long — what's the secret?
AGNES: It's the same material used for the uniforms of rugby players in France. [laughs] So the clothes have to be very strong.
MARY: It's really good.
AGNES: It has to be. And I made my own stripes and colors.
MARY: I love those striped shirts. And a couple of summers ago I bought so many of the crinkle-cotton shirts. I think one was called the Vincent, and then there was the Ricky ... Do you name them after people who work with you?
AGNES: Sometimes. But it could also be an actor or a musician. That's why we have a DeNiro shirt, because I admire him so much.
MARY: That's a men's shirt?
AGNES: Yes, of course. And we've made it for quite a long time. He comes in and says, "You're using my name." He frightens the girls in the shop. But it's just a joke for him. He's great.
MARY: When did you start your men'swear?
AGNES: In '81. Because I saw men trying on the women's clothes. They were putting on the jackets I was making for women. So very quickly I did some pieces for men, and then we opened.
MARY: We have to talk about the communal dressing room.
AGNES: I thought it was interesting to encourage this relationship between the customers, so that they would be talking to each other. They don't know each other at first, but then they talk and they share the clothes. "Oh, I like you better with that." Or, "I took it first." It's funny. There are many things happening in the changing room.
MARY: On Prince Street, first you had communal, then you had private dressing rooms, and now you have both.
AGNES: When someone doesn't want to be undressing in front of other people, of course I understand that. We had to have a solution.
MARY: Another thing I like about the shop is that I know I can always find a great T-shirt or a great coat or a great whatever. But then all of a sudden you've got gold lamé pants or a lace shirt. How does that happen? You just decide you need that?
AGNES: We have the same collection all around the world. And I like it to be like that. But you have to surprise the customers. Otherwise it becomes less and less interesting.
MARY: And now you're opening a shop in Miami.
AGNES: Yeah, and it's funny. It's in the former Greyhound station. It's very beautiful outside, and we kept it just as it was in the '50s.
MARY: So you're in New York, you're in Boston ...
AGNES: L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, and now Miami Beach.
MARY: And then in Japan you have lots of shops, right?
AGNES: Yes. Like fifty shops in Japan.
MARY: Is it a different sensibility there?
AGNES: It's always changing very quickly. So I have to surprise them, and I'm happy to do that. It's quite a difficult period in Japan. There's a recession, so it's a challenge, but I like that.
MARY: What season are you designing right now?
AGNES: Next winter.
AGNES: I've got to be ready in the next month or so. I have to get the prints made ...
MARY: Do you design all your prints?
AGNES: I find them or I do them. And the materials too.
MARY: But you have a team you work with?
AGNES: I design everything myself.
MARY: That's crazy.
AGNES: I know. But I'm not a teacher. I don't want to judge someone else's work. I'm not comfortable with that.
MARY: Now, of all the styles you've done, is there one that's lasted the longest in the line? A favorite coat or jacket ...
AGNES: There is a cotton crewneck, for men and women, very simple. It's made with big knitting needles, and there are big ribs. I love it. I was wearing it for the pictures they took this morning. I love cotton sweaters, even in winter.
MARY: Well, your cashmere is pretty nice too.
MARY: A friend of mine just bought one of your sweaters and was showing it off. I was jealous.
AGNES: [laughs] Oh, I'm sorry.
MARY: Are you making everything in France?
AGNES: Yes. That's why it's a little expensive. Making clothes in France costs much more than in Thailand. One minute of work in France is seventy times more expensive. But there is a tradition here; the people who make the clothes are very faithful, and the clothes are very well done. It's part of the style, I think, and that also makes people faithful to my designs.
MARY: And then there's the fit ...
MARY: Because your clothes fit so well — especially for small people. And I thank you for that.
AGNES: Very often I jump in the clothes just to feel how they fit. I will take something from a model and try it on myself. You can feel the pockets — where they are, how deep they are.
MARY: Have you ever designed underwear, like lingerie?
AGNES: I would love to do that. And for men too.
MARY: I think you do everything else at this point. You do shoes ...
MARY: You do bags.
AGNES: I also work for Seiko for glasses and watches, in Japan.
MARY: And then you have a beauty line too.
AGNES: Yes. With L'Oréal. I do the style of the line. But I don't just put my name on it. I do the colors, the design, everything.
MARY: So now, just add to the work load and do some lingerie.
MARY: As if you have time. [both laugh]