Meeting with agnès b.
agnès b. has been loyal to paris’s 1st arrondissement since she created her brand in 1976. here she reviews her philosophy of clothing, her love of street art and her many social commitments.
“It all began in my famous boutique in the rue du Jour.”
Your legendary boutique is at no. 3 rue du Jour, and your Paris home is in rue de Rivoli. Why are you so attached to the 1st arrondissement ?
Yes, it all began there, in my famous boutique. The sloping workroom, with just a low table and an armchair, was barely 20 m² in size. We used to do fittings there …
We were opposite Saint Eustache, that wonderful church with a very beautiful altarpiece by Keith Haring in one of the chapels. I loved that neighbourhood; we had a daily routine there: we would go to the Grille and the Escargot in the rue Montorgueil and to Joe Allen’s, who have always been friends!
I’ve seen Les Halles change twice and even sat on committees to decide the future project.
On one of my photos you can still see a corner of the original 19th-century Halles designed by Baltard; then for years there was an enormous open pit which gave you the slight impression of being in a port, with the water accumulating near to Guyomard’s, the Halles fish restaurant. If you wanted to know which direction the wind was coming from, you looked to see whether the dirt was piling up on the east or the west.
I made ephemeral artworks on the walls of the boutique with fragments of notices torn from the boarding alongside the church.
It was like a haven for buddies more than a boutique, and was decorated accordingly…
We lived in the rue du Bac with our three children. That was my night-time home (painted in dark colours), while my Daytime home (maison du Jour) was in the 1st arrondissement.
You could see papyruses in the shop window, and up to 36 waxbills flying around the boutique! We had put baskets above the papyruses, and the birds would gather all the fibres to line their nests. They laid their eggs, we could hear them hatch and then the babies were born and called for their parents. It was fantastic.
There was a swing attached to a meat hook, and the children from round about came to have a go on it; a school desk with a wooden flap stood in for a cash desk. We would write on the walls, and stick up comments about the arguments between Matisse and Picasso …
My second husband, Jean-René de Fleurieu, and I chose this place that was going for a song and we each borrowed money from our parents. We did everything ourselves and opened as soon as we had finished. That was in 1976. After parading through the streets in ‘68, we had become hippies: we loved music, and began our days to the sound of Bob Marley; I wore long skirts and dungarees and had long blond hair; there was a spirit of sharing. Friends would come and have lunch with us without any fuss or ceremony. Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, musicians, artists – they all popped in to our place to see us. I’d been very shy up until that point, but then I came out of my shell and started to talk … at the age of 30!
Very few tourists know the 1st arrondissement well, and so you have decided to create a new clothing design.
I work with an artist, Adrien Beau, who takes his inspiration from old maps of Paris. We are designing a scarf showing the centre of Paris, which will be sold exclusively in the rue du Jour boutique from the spring.
On it will be the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Canopy over the site of Les Halles, Saint-Eustache, the rue du Jour, the Comédie Française, and the Palais Royal. I’ll write on the names of the streets and put arrows indicating the Pompidou Centre and the Joe Allen pub, as well as a bit of text recounting the beginnings of this boutique.
They love me in Japan, and I’m sure they’ll come to find out where it all began.
You have always had this obsession with cut, with clothes that last. Why do you feel so strongly about it?
We choose very high-quality materials, all tested by us, with exclusive designs. I always think about comfort – clothes are made to be worn, next to the body, they occupy a place in people’s lives. Once you have solved this problem you are free to think about other things.
“It gives me pleasure to prove that you can earn money and that others can benefit from it.”
As one of the only designers to have retained 100% ownership of your brand, you have paved the way towards more responsible fashion. How do you ensure that production conditions are fair?
We manufacture in France and in emerging countries and work with producers of materials; we make llama jumpers in Peru, and cashmere ones in Mongolia.
We have a responsibility that goes beyond ethics and morality. This company is a community of people who get on well together, and loyalty is a priority in our professional relationships. We work less with India because there is a lot of pollution in its clothing industry, even though it’s in the process of changing.
As for my contribution to the environment, it consists in supporting the scientific expeditions made by Tara, the ship I bought with my son 12 years ago.
You have a 5000-piece contemporary art collection. Does street art still exist today?
We opened the Galerie du Jour in 1983, with the photographic work of Martine Barrat, a friend of Felix Guattari, focusing on boxing gyms in Harlem.
The second exhibition was by the Ripoulin brothers. I had spotted them in the metro where they were sticking their work onto publicity posters.
They have now become important contemporary artists. In 1983 I bought a self-portrait by Basquiat, who specialised in street art. It was a time when he was still unknown in France. It was called the counter-culture.
For me there is only one culture – very good contemporary artists. You just have to go and see the extraordinary wall opposite the Centquatre at Aubervilliers or even the wall on the Quai de Valmy. I raise my hat to the amazing Banksy; he knows what he wants to say. He looks at our society critically, in an intelligent way.
His work is very meticulous, showing great consistency between form and content.
You support about forty associations through your endowment fund. What motivates you?
It’s in my nature and my Catholic upbringing. The message “love one another” has always inspired me. I admire the people working at the grassroots, especially those in the soup kitchens opposite Saint-Eustache – they’re volunteers with big hearts.
People of all ages are able to come and eat there quietly.
This moves me. There are many who put themselves out for the needy without having anything themselves. It pleases me to prove that you can earn money and that others can benefit from it. Those who are rich should pay their taxes in France; I don’t understand how people can want to acquire wealth at the expense of losing their public-spiritedness.
We have to be better citizens, appeal to consciences and change things!