NEW YORK, United States — On a scorching Sunday morning in July, Carine Roitfeld stands at a well-known photo studio in Manhattan's far West Side, dressed in a Claire Barrow top, tall boots and one of her signature fitted skirts that falls just an inch under the knee. She has arrived before the rest of the team, ready to shoot a story for Harper's Bazaar, the magazine that appointed her global fashion director in 2012. "I am like New York, I never stop. Being at a photo-shoot is still my biggest pleasure," she beams.
The shoot is for one of four yearly directed by Roitfeld that appear simultaneously in the magazine's 30-plus international editions. The current instalment, Roitfeld's second ‘Icons’ portfolio, features, among others, Oprah Winfrey as Glinda the Good Witch and Mariah Carey as Marie Antoinette, shot by Jean-Paul Goude. Roitfeld’s planet-spanning title means every September issue of Bazaar on earth, regardless of language and specific content mix, has one of Roitfled’s ‘Icons’ images on the cover. Harper's Bazaar India, for instance, chose Katy Perry, whom Roitfeld styled to look like a Warhol screen-print of Liz Taylor.
If Mumbai newsstands and American media moguls like Winfrey seem worlds away from the rarefied fashion orbit of the former editor of Vogue Paris, very little one might assume about Carine Roitfeld holds true in her latest incarnation — perhaps the freest, most global and happiest phase of a career that has seen its share of highpoints and hurdles. She is certainly busier than ever. On top of her duties at Harper’s Bazaar, Roitfeld is working on a series of seven fragrances, the launch of a men’s-focused addition to her own magazine — CR Fashion Book — and the arrival of her much anticipated collaboration with Japanese giant Uniqlo.
The greatest discovery upon meeting the editor and stylist is her utter lack of pretension. In person, Roitfeld is warm, shy and quite often very funny, her candidness colouring a constant stream of bon mots. She is surrounded by a loyal team, who describe her as an unusually caring boss. According to one staffer, it isn't rare for Roitfeld to call one of her New York-based team members from Paris just to ask how they're doing, especially if they seemed a bit run down. In exchange, her assistants protect her as much as they tend to her. Roitfeld is surprisingly vulnerable. A recent series of back surgeries left her physically fragile (her friend Karl Lagerfeld likes to compare her to a precious but delicate antique). But beyond that, Roitfeld is unusually unguarded for someone of her stature. Admirers feel at ease approaching her and asking for help getting into a show or securing an internship. “They would never go up to Anna Wintour the way they come up to me!” she says with a smile, referring to the fearsome American Vogue editor.
At 60, the soft, girlish demeanour and motherly streak of a private woman, who views having raised two children as her biggest accomplishment, are in compelling opposition to Roitfeld’s seductive, hard-edged public persona — emblazoned in the minds of anyone who has followed fashion in the last 15 years. Not that she doesn’t still cut a striking silhouette. Roitfeld remains one of fashion’s most stylish and sexy figures, but she is also a grandmother. And it is this new role that fuels her boundless energy, the joy she finds in her work, her readiness to try new things, and her refusal to hold grudges. Seeing her jump around the studio and try on prop pirate hats between takes, it’s easy to believe. Carine Roitfeld is a bit of a goofball.
Even though Roitfeld’s backstory is well-known, its milestones still impress. "In life, you have to meet certain people who enable you to do what you're destined to do,” she says. “If I had not met Mario [Testino], maybe I would not be a stylist. If I hadn't met Tom [Ford], my career wouldn't have become as international as it is. If I hadn't met Jonathan [Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International, which publishes Vogue Paris, I wouldn't have been able to be an editor-in-chief. And if it wasn't for Stephen [Gan], I wouldn't be at my own magazine today. When you're lucky and open to opportunities, you find people that can change your life.”
The self-taught, Paris-raised daughter of a Russian film producer rose to international prominence as the co-author, along with Testino and Ford, of the defining fashion aesthetic of the 1990s — an overtly glamorous brand of sleek that teetered precariously between brazen sex and good taste. As creative director of Gucci, Ford invited Testino and Roitfeld, at the time already a rising photographer-stylist power duo, to help him revive the sleepy Italian brand. The collaboration resulted in ad campaigns and runway shows now considered landmarks, all styled by Roitfeld. As Ford’s muse, Roitfeld was instrumental in helping turn Gucci into a global superbrand.
The success of her work as a stylist led to Roitfeld's appointment in 2001 as editor-in-chief of the French edition of Condé Nast's flagship fashion title, which she renamed Vogue Paris. Her 10-year tenure at the magazine was known for bold editorial choices, such as putting a black, bearded drag star on the cover in 2007.
Along the way, Roitfeld became a global icon, photographed as much as the actresses and models she featured in her pages, and revered for her idiosyncratic sartorial sense — invariably involving towering heels, simple but ultra-fitted blazer-and-skirt ensembles and the hair and makeup of a night owl.
Just a few years ago the world wasn't at her feet in the way it now appears to be. In December 2011, a profile in The New York Times referred to her as one of fashion's most influential but “underemployed” figures. Roitfeld is characteristically candid when speaking about her split from Vogue publisher Condé Nast — which both parties maintain was amicable and mutually agreed — and its difficult aftermath, specifically the way in which the publishing house is said to have forbidden its top photographers from working with Roitfeld.
"There was no drama when I left, no doors were slammed. It was a cordial conversation in which there was a mutual agreement that it was a good moment to leave. But you cannot deny that certain things go through your mind when you've given so much to a photographer or helped a model become who they are and they then tell you something like, 'I am sorry Carine, I cannot work with you anymore because your former boss called me yesterday,'” she recounts somewhat ruefully. “It's not very nice, it's really tough and disheartening, but I came out stronger, and it taught me I needed to protect myself. I resolved that I wasn’t going to let it make me be bitter. Old people are sometimes bitter and I think it's horrible.”
Roitfeld explains why she had to keep going at a moment where others would have taken a break or, at the very least, receded from fashion’s centre stage: "I wasn’t just going to stop, I couldn’t. I am like a singer — and I have new songs to put out. I am far from finished."
Her resolve has been the engine behind a remarkable reinvention. Less than four years later, she is clearly enjoying her freedom and increased global reach. But if her closest accomplices and charismatic sincerity remain the same, her motivation, focus and attitude have changed.
As expected, after Vogue, Roitfeld returned to styling. She is proud that her roster of clients reads like a role call of fashion’s most prestigious brands, including Louis Vuitton, Dior and Chanel — for whom she styles all six of the brand’s yearly campaigns. “One of my favourite things that I am allowed to do since I left Vogue is working with Karl [Lagerfeld]. He’s one of my mentors and truly a genius, probably the only person in fashion who has the luxury to say anything he wants,” she enthuses.
Then, in 2012, Roitfeld did something few expected, launching a new magazine in a market crowded with glossy fashion tomes. Today, she states openly that of all her various projects, being the founder and editor-in-chief of CR Fashion Book is the role closest to her heart, not least because of the freedom it affords. "I am very proud to be the owner of CR Fashion Book. It’s what makes me happy, it’s like a window to what I am still able to do. And I’m able to do it in an uncompromised way. Too many people are anxious about everything, but at my magazine I am free to do whatever I want."
The current, seventh issue of CR Fashion Book includes a new men’s publication that eventually will become its own book as well. According to Roitfeld, the hefty biannual finances itself. "We've been able to keep all of the advertisers we had for issue one," when a lot of brands were keen to be part of the influential editor’s much-hyped new project.
Meanwhile, Roitfeld’s work for Bazaar makes sense in a different way. Although she makes it clear that her ambitious editorials for the magazine require a significant investment of time and effort, Roitfeld has been able to get a global title without too much of a commitment, leaving her free to pursue the many projects on her plate. And Hearst, the company that owns Bazaar, gets to be associated with a bankable, high-wattage name, which conveniently happens to be historically tied to the title’s more famous competitor. Hearst Magazines president David Carey confirmed the mutually beneficial exchange: "Carine is a player in all global markets and has a famously deep relationship with both designers as well as photographers. This [position] was form-fit around Carine in terms of both our needs and her needs. It provides her with a global media presence, while fulfilling what Hearst is hoping to accomplish."
While at Bazaar, Roitfeld, who is known for her transgressive ideas, may not have the kind of creative freedom she so enjoys at her own magazine. She says she doesn’t feel pressured to rein in her imagination when working on stories that reach multiple regions of the world and, therefore, must contend with a range of varying cultural sensitivities and politics concerning sex, race and other hot-button issues. "No, I don’t have to dilute my vision. I am very respectful of my readers but I do exactly what I feel. It took me some time. At first I thought too much about the things I couldn’t do, but now I feel liberated to be myself and just do what I think is right."
Between all her projects, Roitfeld relishes having multiple platforms and a bigger total audience (her Bazaar stories alone reach about 14 million readers) to do what she enjoys most: using her influence and eye to find and promote young talent. To circumvent Condé Nast’s ban, Roitfeld has begun working with more and more emerging creatives. "I am more generous as a result of what happened," she explains.
Today, she seems as much driven by the desire to continue producing stimulating work as by a new-found mission to pass on what she's learnt. "I could stop and do just some advertising and make some money easily. But that's not exciting. I want to work for myself, and share what I know.” Indeed, it’s possible to see her newfound function as a mentor, facilitator and bridge to a younger generation as a focal point of Roitfeld’s post-Vogue reinvention.
"I have my own school of stylists," she says, jokingly. But there is some truth to her remark. Wherever she goes and whatever she is working on, Carine is accompanied by a constant core team, which includes two styling apprentices in their early 20s. "I can have a genius idea, but it would be worth nothing if I didn't have the right people to make it a reality,” she continues. Roitfeld encourages the junior stylists and editors she is training to be resourceful and bring their own ideas to a job. "I love to push my young team. I don’t feel threatened if they come up with a better idea than what I had in mind, because in the end this expands my vision. Eventually they might end up working at my magazine."
Roitfeld is bashful when she alludes to the quality that some of her best-known collaborators, including Lagerfeld and Ford, often say is one of her greatest talents — namely bringing out the best in whoever she is working with. “This is going to sound pretentious, but I think in a way I make people better. By always being honest and telling them, very diplomatically and at the right moment, how I feel about something, I think I push them to do their best.”
Another designer who often finds himself on the receiving end of Roitfeld's feedback is Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci. "Carine has always been a go-to figure for me in terms of what style means. She mixes sexuality and elegance with a certain ambiguity, and her work always comes from the gut. Her honesty and incredible instinct are what have kept her on top for all these years," Tisci says.
Stephen Gan, one of Roitfeld’s closest professional partners (it was Gan’s publishing company that backed the launch of CR Fashion Book), perceives her greatest gift to be a mix of dedicated engagement and blithe remove. "She treats everything with a lot of importance and no importance at the same time. It's a great strength of hers, this peculiar way of being very detached and at the same time 100 percent invested. Working with her you always have this feeling that what you're doing might somehow change fashion. How many people can you say that about?”
But you don’t have to be a star designer to benefit from Roitfeld’s advice. "I have 30 years of tricks behind me, so when I come on a shoot I can give a young photographer so much,” she says, adding that she has learnt not always to expect loyalty in return. “Some appreciate it more than others."
Today, Roitfeld isn't just sharing her tricks of the trade, she is also about to divulge the secrets behind her much-admired personal style — handing, as it were, the keys to her coveted closet to the masses. In April, it was announced that a creative partnership with Roitfeld would be the latest in Uniqlo’s series of design collaborations.
If Uniqlo's utilitarian ethos and the stylist's more risqué proclivities don't seem like an obvious match, Roitfeld says it doesn't matter, because she isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. "I like that Uniqlo is about basics: jeans, a T-shirt, a good coat — nothing too ‘fashion.’ The last thing I want is for my designer friends to think I am trying to compete with, or worse, copy them. I am not a designer."
Instead, for the 40-piece line, Roitfeld focused on details such as the length of a sleeve, the lining of a jacket, or a perfect neckline, favouring cut and precision over creativity. "It's very simple, it's just my wardrobe. So if someone wants to dress like me, I am giving them what I wear, a classic coat, a classic skirt. Some people might even be disappointed and find it too classic. There's no jacket with three sleeves or anything wild like that. What's special are the proportions, how the pieces fit, which is what's most important to me. It's my box of styling tricks made accessible for everyone."
Roitfeld says designing a line that has to sell at an affordable price was sometimes challenging, but also a good opportunity to learn. "It was a little strange, because I was working with people for whom cost was always an issue. So if I wanted, for example, three rows of studs, they would say, 'No that's too expensive, we can only have two.'” Roitfeld, who says she is already working on the line's next two seasons, seems pleased with the result. "In a way it's like couture, it's clothing I can wear without having it altered — that's a first for me."
Romy Nicole Konjic, the daughter of Carine’s first child, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld, was born in May 2012 — and since then nothing has been the same for Roitfeld, who says she wasn't prepared for the overwhelming happiness being a grandmother would bring. "I never realised how important it would be for me to be a grandmother. It's changed me a lot. Romy lives in New York and I live in Paris. My son and my daughter and her family are here, so it's also made me have a greater attachment to New York than I ever had.”
Roitfeld’s mention of New York in the context of the changes in her life is interesting, as hand-in-hand with the softening of being a grandmother, the icon’s horizons seem to have broadened in a way that is more reflective of Gotham’s high-low melting-pot mentality than of her French roots. "Before, I was a total Parisienne, my English was terrible and people thought I was snob [sic]. And in a way it was true, I was less cultured because my world was small.”
Today, Carine’s eclectic orbit includes everyone from Hollywood scions Willow and Jaden Smith to scientists, royals and rappers. “Some of my friends are younger than my kids now. A 16-year-old girl feels very comfortable with me, as I do with her. It doesn’t matter at all that I have wrinkles and she doesn’t, it’s just a matter of attitude.”
As she has entered a new stage of her life, the muse, grandmother, stylist, editor, and entrepreneur has started to think about her legacy, how to affect change through her work and leave something behind for her granddaughter’s generation and those that will follow. “My perfume will be my legacy. I hope it will last for a long time after I am not around, I would love to be like Coco Chanel one day.”
Having, herself, designed the bottle for a collection of seven fragrances conceived around her lifestyle and character, Roitfeld is currently seeking a partner to produce and distribute the scents.
Roitfeld is also adding ‘humanitarian’ to her long list of roles. Already actively involved in helping fight AIDS with AmfAR, for whom she stages a glitzy annual fundraising gala and runway show on the Côte d'Azur, Roitfeld wants to expand her charity work and maybe even start her own foundation. “I know I’ve been extremely lucky, that’s why I enjoy helping others,” she says. “And I think that glamour and generosity can go together. It’s not a French way of thinking but it’s something I really believe, that beauty, fashion and creativity and giving back and helping those less fortunate can work together very well.”
Whatever she chooses to do next, it seems fairly sure Roitfeld will do it with conviction and gusto, but without taking herself too seriously. She believes she has come full circle since the beginning of her charmed ascent. "I think I am back to being who I was before joining Vogue,” she says. And that, it would appear, is not a bad place to be.
This article appears in BoF's third annual #BoF500 special print edition, celebrating the most influential people shaping the global fashion industry. To order copies for delivery anywhere in the world or locate a stockist, visit shop.businessoffashion.com.