LONDON, United Kingdom — I have known Diane Pernet for over twenty years and whenever we meet I am always reminded of King Lear's words about his daughter Cordelia: "Her voice was ever soft. Gentle and low." But Diane's voice is more than that. It is also full of humour — usually self-deprecating — and reflective of an eye for fashion that is passionate, informed and never indulgent. Gently, she tells it like it is, often against the general consensus. "The standard is so low," she says. "Most people don't know enough about what they are seeing to have an opinion. What's the point of an opinion that is not based on knowledge?"
Diane Pernet thinks different. She also looks different, known instantly to the fashion flock by the unique way in which she dresses, always in black layers and dark glasses, with a headpiece that is like a mantilla, but not quite. "It gets me into a lot of trouble at airports," she laughs. "I don't know what they think I have hidden in there, but I usually have to go through the screening at least twice. I have a wardrobe full of black skirts and tops in all different weights and cuts, most of them from designers I admire."
The designers she admires, I might say, make up a very small, select group: Dries van Noten, Rick Owens, Thom Browne and Gareth Pugh are amongst the ones she thinks are doing something of real interest. Add Boudicca, Raf Simons — "sometimes, but not at Dior" — Isabel Toledo and, from the past, Claude Montana: "I'll never forget his first show for Lanvin. The hairs on my arms literally stood on end. Nowadays, people don't even know who Montana is." Then there's Madame Grès and Azzedine Alaïa and that is about it. Diane admits she finds most commercial fashion "depressing."
But she loves fashion and respects designers too much to be negative. "I understand that designers, especially young ones, have to find a balance between creativity, wearability and [sales] but what worries me is that at this point they seem to be thinking only of [sales]. That is what is so tragic. It breaks my heart to see the wasted talent. But I don't trash people. I don't want to reduce their efforts by saying the end result is crap, even when it is perfectly clear that it is. Better to keep quiet."
Diane Pernet was born in Washington DC and educated in Philadelphia at Temple University, where she took a degree in documentary filmmaking. Like so many young people in the late Seventies in America, she migrated to New York, where she lived on 17th and Broadway, right across from Andy Warhol's Factory, and worked in film as a costume designer before setting up her own fashion business.
"I started designing because I loved Charles James. That was around 1979 and I continued with two collections a year for 13 years. My collections were for strong, sensual women. My muse was the Italian actor Anna Magnani. I loved that magnificent face and the just-out-of-bed hairstyle and the fact that she was always in black. But, as a designer, of course, I loved colour. I still do. I always wore my own designs in those days, of course, and they were colour. But then I began to think about Dior, Martin Margiela and all the great designers who always wore a white lab coat in the atelier. I got to wondering why and then I realised that it was to neutralise themselves, so that their personal appearance didn't distract anyone else in the room and enabled them all to concentrate on the job in hand. I decided to do the same, but I took it slowly. First, black tops with skinny black pants; then I moved towards my dress today. As a designer, you have to be absolutely pure and never distracted by your own appearance. Black neutralises."
Diane's life in New York was clearly eventful. For her last thirteen years there, she lived on West 11th and Bleeker. The first of her four husbands — "mad as a hatter and totally sexy" — was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 31. "The others didn't count. Don't know why I did it. I don't remember them, really."
But things in New York began to change for the worse. "It was the total desolation of AIDS. It was so depressing. It seemed that everybody in my neighbourhood was ether dying of it or already dead. Eighty to ninety percent of my friends had it. Then, they let people out of the mental hospitals to save money and things became really spooky: horrible screams at night — you didn't dare look out — and even during the day you were afraid to go out. It was like Blade Runner. No kidding. I used to beg the taxi drivers to wait until I had gone into my house and closed the door behind me. Abingdon Square Park, known locally as 'rat park,' was just across the way. It was just horrible. Immediately after each collection, I would think, 'I'm getting out of here.' I used to go away to clear my head. Then, I got to thinking, 'I'm ready to leave.' I guess I knew it was time to move on."
But where to? "I wanted out of the United States. I really knew that. London? Not exotic enough for an American in those days. Milan? Too small — everybody knows everybody else, although I was tempted by the beauty of the language and the marvellous land and sea of Italy. Paris? Well, I definitely wasn't a Francophile, but I have now been in Paris for 23 years. I was happy from the very beginning and I still am very happy. Looking back, I now realise that, mentally, I came to Paris to stay."
In Paris, Diane lost interest in designing — "in any case, my ego couldn't take working for another designer." She realised she had to find a new outlet that let her express her views on fashion and, for a while, she worked as a journalist with titles including Joyce and the French editions of Elle and Vogue. But her true second coming came along the pathways of new digital media.
It began with her blog — one of the first fashion blogs and certainly, at that time, the most mature and interesting. Launched in 2005 and named for the dark glasses she perenially wore, A Shaded View on Fashion distinguised itself as a site known for surfacing fresh, avant-garde talent. Then, three years later, following the rise of digital video, Diane launched the very first festival dedicated to fashion film, then a nascent genre. In the intervening years, A Shaded View on Fashion Film has grown in stature to such an extent that blue-chip sponsors like Kering and Bulgari are happy to be associated with the festival, presented annually at its homebase in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, as well as at satellite events in New York, London, Rome, Milan and Antwerp.
Indeed, through her pioneering blog and film festival, Diane Pernet has affected the fashion world with her own powerful and permanent revolution, which is, like the lady herself, a quiet one. And as fashion marches on, along a path that's more straight and commercial than ever, it's clear that we need the oblique perspective of Diane's shaded view.