Gia Kourlas / Time Out New York / September 11 - 18, 2003

Bored by runways and fashionistas, designer agnès b. champions young NYC artists.

Exposure is the name of the game in fashion, and the surest way to get it is in the form of a celebrity muse. Make good with Gwyneth or Nicole and voilà! - the clothes fly out of the shop. But the French designer agnès b. (she prefers all lowercase) struts down a different runway. She doesn't show her wares in the seasonal collections, instead making short movies that she then sends to journalists in DVD format. She avoids the public eye so rigorously that people who don't run with the fashion intelligentsia - people who nevertheless covet her understated clothing - often don't even know she exists.

The designer is indeed a real person. She was born Agnès Troublé in 1941 and took the b from her first husband, the prominent French publisher Christian Bourgois. And while she opened her first boutique in Paris in 1975 and now has 115 of them worldwide, she is focused on much more than la mode. A generous supporter of the arts, agnès owns her own gallery in Paris, Galerie du Jour/agnès b.; she also copublishes a periodical, point d'ironie, in which artists are given free rein to create whatever they like in a newspaper format (Gilbert & George, Harmony Korine and Louise Bourgeois have all contributed), and produces indie films (Peau neuve). Her newest gallery show brings a bit of Gotham to Paris: "What About New York?" highlights the work of young local artists she has met during the past few years. Speaking with TONY over the phone from the City of Light, she made it clear that she prefers the company of those artists to that of fashionistas.

Gia Kourlas: What made you want to highlight the work of these younger artists?

agnès b: Last winter, I went to New York two or three times, and I figured out that something new was happening with young artists - some that I didn't know before. I was the first one showing Ryan McGinley in Paris, even before the Whitney in New York. So there are some of his friends in the show, but others, too, like artist and graphic designer Rostarr. And I spent a great deal of time with them; I'm very interested in what they are doing - in music and video and photographs and drawings and installations.

Kourlas: You've shown Harmony Korine's work twice in your gallery. How did you become friendly with him?

agnès b: I met him in Venice. We spoke for 15 minutes, and we became friends. He's a great person. He's very quick, very sensitive, very lovely. He sees everything. And he plays the fool or the idiot sometimes, and I love it. All my friends are artists, in fact. They are the people that I love to talk with. And they're funny, too. I like very much to laugh.

Kourlas: When did you first visit New York, and why are you so interested in New York culture?

agnès b: It was in 1973, I think. When I went to Soho in the night, it was like all the black-and-white movies from the '50s that I went to see in old cinemas in Paris. It made such an impression. There is such a memory of your city and the people from movies. It's a treasure. I love New York! I have been influenced by American culture since the beginning - from Lou Reed to American cinema. I am so fond of American actors and people like Scorsese and Cassavetes. It's part of my culture and European culture. It's not that because we don't agree with what's happening politically, we don't love America and New York. It's the first foreign country where we opened a shop. I remember sweeping the floor in front of my shop on Prince Street - I figured out that there was the big, black dust of New York on my broom. It was like, I'm sweeping the floor in front of my place in New York! [Laughs] I was so happy.

Kourlas: How do you stay inspired designing clothing when you have so much other stuff going on?

agnès b: I think you really have to love people to do this work. I always want people to be happy. This is my line of thinking: People have to feel comfortable, they have to look beautiful, they have to like the material they're wearing - it should be soft on the skin and have an identity. You must have an ID for clothes. I don't think I do basics. Even a white shirt has to have a cut that is contemporary. A knee-length black skirt should be a good line. We make knee-length black skirts always, but now they are very fitted on the bottom, because I know that women go to the gym, and they want to show their legs. So you have to think about all that.

Kourlas: Do you keep an apartment in New York?

agnès b: No, no. I like to go to different hotels. [Laughs] You don't have anything to fix that is broken. I love to be in a hotel in New York. You have nothing to do. For me, it's only work and pleasure.

Kourlas: Where do you stay?

agnès b: I like the New York Palace. This is uptown. I like to have a very high room, so I can see New York and all the East River. It's beautiful. Sometimes I go to the Mercer. I love even small hotels. I went to Croatia because I had just come from Sarajevo for the festival of cinema. We traveled by car, so we drove all along Croatia, staying in little rooms in people's places. I love that, too. [Giggles] I'm not only traveling in palaces.

Kourlas: What do you think of Soho now?

agnès b: Ah, it's changing a lot. Yep. I won't say any more. [Laughs] I still have friends there who moved when it was not expensive. So it's changed so much. There is so much good taste - forgive me - in Soho. Everything is selected with an idea of good taste, and it frightens me a little. There's no room for eccentricity. Or it's only very expensive eccentricity. So I prefer young people. They have not so much money but they are so individual.

Kourlas: I've read that you're against moving your boutique to Chelsea. Why?

agnès b: I think it's going to do the same to Chelsea as what happened to Soho. To mix fashion and art? I'm not so fond of that.

Kourlas: What's wrong with that?

agnès b: Because it changes everything - and then the galleries will go somewhere else. They don't want to be mixed, to have all the french fries and ice cream on Saturday with people shopping.

Kourlas: What was your first shop like?

agnès b: It was like our day house. We had a black apartment, and the Rue du Jour was very light. Everything was white, and there were some birds flying - three - in the shop. They had babies, so then we had 34 birds in the shop. And plants. It was very alive. We had a swing for the children from the area, and they were always coming in to swing. It was a very cool time. It's different now. People were maybe more generous then. We had no money, we were sharing everything, and we were very happy. [Laughs and pauses] I still try to share everything. And I am happy still.