Alicia Drake

August weather in Paris can be schizophrenic. After a glorious sunlit day my evening apéro was delayed by a torrential downpour but twenty minutes later as I gazed out my window Notre Dame was back lit by a blue sky and framed inside a rainbow-schmuck, no camera!


When we last met at Les Deux Magots in August 2006 it was raining cats and dogs and today in January 2018 the felines and canines were once again falling from the sky.
TG: It's been 10 years since the publication of the highly praised A BEAUTIFUL FALL.The sole exception being Karl Lagerfield. Talk about the difficulty in selling the English-language edition in France and perhaps some of the anecdotal clandestine efforts to sell it. 

AD:  As you know Karl Lagerfeld sued me for breach of privacy (privacy laws in France are very strict, unlike in America.) The case was dismissed, he was ordered to pay my costs and he did not appeal. Denoël published The Beautiful Fall as 'Beautiful People' in Paris in 2008.
Many of the small independent booksellers that existed in those days were selling the book surreptitiously under the counter. TG
TG: Twelve years is a along time between books. What have you been doing?
AD: So I was 8 months pregnant with my fourth child when The Beautiful Fall was published. I then went on to have a fifth child. So in the ten years since, I would say I have focused on bringing up children and writing. One of the reasons I left Paris was because I was seeking the isolation I need to write. I went from living in the centre of Paris to living down a lane in Oxfordshire, actually I spent two years in Saint Cloud in-between, perhaps that was preparing to leave Paris. I miss Paris, but the countryside suits me. It’s the first time I’ve lived in the countryside. I grew up in the Liverpool suburbs. I like being with horses, goats, sheep, walking the dogs, being in the wind and the rain. And sometimes the sun. I like being alone. It gives me time to think and to write. 
TG: What was the inspiration for I LOVE YOU TOO MUCH?
AD: When I started writing fiction I wrote some short stories. I started a novel. Pretty soon I realised that what I was writing was just thinly veiled autobiography. I kept on writing. I had to write through the autobiography to come out the other side and start creating fiction. That took me about two years. I abandoned the novel I’d been writing. That is when Paul came to me. We have a house in Brittany and I used to have a 1970s caravan to write in. I remember sitting down and writing the sentence: What if this story is about a boy who is searching for unconditional love. What will he do if he can’t find it?

That is how I love you too much began.
Paul, the character, came to me from the start. I knew his pain. I knew his story. I knew that his parents were so caught up in their own narcissism that they could not give him what he needed. I wanted to know how he would find that love. Where would he find it. I wanted to write about Sarkozy Paris, that time when Paris still believed it could live with the gates to the city closed, that time when social media was at its outset, when there was Facebook, but before Snapchat, Instagram took over our lives. Loneliness was the inspiration for the book.

TG: With a novel under your belt do you prefer to write fiction or non-fiction?
AD: I love writing fiction. I’ve got an idea for a play and I would love to try writing a piece of theatre. The essential for me is to write. 
Conversation 2006

August weather in Paris can be schizophrenic. After a glorious sunlit day my evening apéro was delayed by a torrential downpour but twenty minutes later as I gazed out my window Notre Dame was back lit by a blue sky and framed inside a rainbow-schmuck, no camera!


So, just two days later I took no chances and found a seat under the awning at the entrance to Les Deux Magots- rue Bonaparte to my left and St. Germain in front and to my right-waiting for my meeting with the very charming and very pregnant author of The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake. As I rose to great and seat her the skies erupted. Warmed by expresso we began a leisurely discussion of her book that tracks the careers of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent as the principal icons of the worldwide fashion revolution of the 70s.

TG: When did you first come to Paris?
AD: When I was in university (Cambridge) I had a job as a tour guide showing France to American teenagers. I used to pick them up at the airport. There were about 50 students plus a few teachers and parents.

TG: So you learned French in school?
AD: I was also an au-pair and an exchange student where a girl from Brittany stayed with us and I then stayed with her but I hadn’t been to Paris. The first time I came to Paris in 1987. I was at the front of the bus pointing out the monuments to the students.

TG: When did you come back to stay and work?
AD: Eleven years ago. I had just gotten married and we came for six months. We rented a little van and we drove over. We rented an apartment on the rue du Chemin Vert in the 11th arrondissemnt, perhaps one of the most charmless streets in Paris- a one way street going up to Père-Lachaise. I had come to Paris expecting to find my dream and spent several unhappy years there.

TG: Were you working at the time?
AD: I was a struggling freelance journalist. I was terribly lonely and used to walk around a lot on my own. I think that in Paris you are always between euphoria and depression.

TG: When did you start writing about fashion?
AD: I was doing fashion journalism. I took an evening class in fashion history at Parsons. And I finally realized that I had to write a book-I couldn’t write another magazine article. I used to have an office in the chambre de bonne that had a very small window. It was very hot in summer and very cold in winter. I remember a very dramatic moment. I took all of the magazines in which I had articles and piled them into great big pile in the middle of the room and realizing that they were all I had to show for all my angst and fear and work and it couldn’t go on. From that moment I had an overwhelming desire to write a book.

TG: Why this book, particularly thirty years after the inception of the story?
AD: I was fascinated by the period as so many of my generation are but not with nostalgia. I wanted to get to the other side of the mirror in fashion. I was born in May of 1968. Having worked in fashion I wanted to understand fashion. I was never an insider. As I dug into my research I was fascinated by the dichotomy between the euphoria and the pain. I think there was pain all along and many people used fashion as an escape.

TG: You used two fashion icons, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint-Laurent as a means of exploring fashion history in the seventies. As background to the story talk about the concept of haute couture and ready-to-wear and how ready-to-wear created this explosive affinity for fashion in the world.
AD: An Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth came to Paris in 1860s and set up the first couture house. Couture had a very strict regimentation. The very fact that it was called haute couture meant it could only be created by the elite for the elite and of course the myth of Paris-that it could only be made in Paris.

After Worth came Paul Poiret who revolutionized fashion by making clothes that could be worn without a corset. And in the tradition of fashion he was replaced by Chanel. The rest of France had their couturière, the local dressmaker who followed the fashion magazines. And then Dior happened with his “New Look” in 1947 that brought back femininity and the bosom-all of those clichés rolled into one and the women loved it. After his death in 1957 Saint-Laurent was given Dior’s position.

In this post war period London and New York’s young designers were beginning to turn out ready-to-wear but Paris stayed rooted in couture. Then in the early 60’s you began to get Emmanuelle Khan and Sonia Rykiel and the beginning of a breakaway from couture.

For me Yves Saint-Laurent at heart was really a couturier even though he made fantastic ready-to-wear. Karl was very daring and made the break from couturier very early. He was extremely savvy, very intelligent and got his generation’s need for ready-to-wear.  Historically Paris was all about looking elegant and now it was about self-definition-being who you wanted to be.

TG: Talk about the influence of Saint-Laurent’s childhood in Oran on his work and the influence of being a bourgeois in suburban Hamburg during the war on Lagerfeld.
AD: First of all for Saint-Laurent, to be a pied-noir (French national) in Algeria carried with it an extraordinary chit. He had a very blessed life surrounded by women who loved him. It was very privileged-tennis club, local elite. So he was always in awe of Paris and wanted to get to Paris. At the same time he had these wonderful influences in Oran– it was Jewish, it was Spanish and it was Arab. He therefore had all of these visual influences and his mother who was beautiful and always elegantly dressed.

TG: I think Karl’s background was hugely influential although he has denied much of his childhood in wartime Germany and that is huge. He lived in a small village that was bombed at the end of the war.

TG: Talk about Pierre Bergé, the man behind the throne at Saint-Laurent. Karl seems to be his own man.
AD: And Karl  did it all himself- design, PR, everything. Pierre Bergé was  a hugely powerful and dominant man who was fascinated by Saint-Laurent’s talent from the start. He was determined to make Yves Saint-Laurent into a star and they proved to be a great combination. But I think he was vastly misjudged as being a tough guy. Everything he wanted Yves got. He could stay in his ivory tower and do his creative work.

TG: Karl made a connection with Gaby Aghion at Chloe. Talk about that pivotal relationship.
AD: She was so important to Karl in so many ways. She was very maternal and at the same time the most fashion savvy woman I ever met. They had a fantastic way of working together. She taught Karl how to simplify his work. He would bring a stack of sketches and she would divide them into two piles–one that was right and one that they would revisit. They saw each other every day for about twenty-five years. I think she gave him confidence and was extremely nurturing.

TG: Karl made a tour of America that you describe as “Madame Pompadour meets Andy Warhol.” Describe the tour and the principles it established and how it was the launching pad for the extraordinary wealth that designers were able accumulate.
AD: He arrived with an entourage and thirty-five pieces of luggage for a two-week tour. It created a dramatic visual effect. He was a brilliant at PR. His flamboyance was memorable. He was always savvy about money. He was able to command high salaries because he made clothes that sold.

TG: What were their individual and unique contributions to fashion?
AD: I think Yves Saint-Laurent created a style that defined the 1970s that still exists that you can recognize in the broad men’s shoulder of many designers today including Saint-Laurent and the androgynous woman.
Karl hasn’t invented a style but he has been an incredible engine propelling fashion for almost forty years.

TG: He was constantly reinventing himself and reinvigorating fashion.
AD: You got it. He had enormous energy fueled by an insatiable desire for change. He is a natural innovator.

TG: How has Paris affected your work?
AD: It made me write a book. I had to do so much research into French culture that I think it has affected me on every level. Paris allows you to think and gives you breathing space to think unlike New York and London that are much more frenetic.

TG: And finally, how has Paris affected your life?

AD: I think the realization that I was looking for something that England didn’t have and maybe looking for a way to be at ease. The realization that Paris allows you to be an etranger, an outsider and to enjoy it and not be defensive about it.





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