For almost 50 years now, Agnès B. has stood firm: she doesn’t do fashion or advertising or publicity. She does clothes. And they have shaped an incredible life.
By Marc Beaugé and Gabriel Sultan
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 7
An afternoon in October. Outside, the skies are gray. Inside, all is white. At the Agnès B. head office on Rue Dieu in Paris, immaculate walls surround lots of big, light-filled spaces. There’s hardly any color or noise. Fifteen years ago, right here, between the dining table and the bar, staff were treated to a surprise concert that included performances by Patti Smith, Rachid Taha and Brian Molko. It was a euphoric occasion, celebrating the 30th birthday of the Agnès B. fashion house. Today, calm has been restored. In an adjoining room, you barely notice the works by graffiti artist Futura leaning up against a wall, arranged in chronological order. Agnès will soon be down to supervise their hanging, in the same order, for an exhibition that opens the following day. Until then, you have to go upstairs if you want to see her.
“Oh, are you already here?” she asks as she opens the door to her spacious office on the building’s sixth floor. At the back is an ordinary-looking door with “cabine” hand-written on it. This is where the models get changed on the days when they shoot the videos of each new collection. Farther on is a big oval table surrounded by chairs. “This is where I spend my days, sitting at my desk,” says Agnès, drawing on a cigarette. “People keep coming in with their issues and questions, and I try to find answers.” And so it is: just a few minutes later, someone arrives with a query about the cuffs on a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Thick or thin ribbing? “Thick is good.” Then there’s a contract that needs looking over. Next, there are questions from a journalist to answer. A little later, someone brings Agnès a letter from a car manufacturer she’s doing a joint project with – she needs to specify which charity she wants to donate the profits to. Then there’s an exhibition to plan. Then a book project. Then a slogan urgently needs to be written down on a piece of paper. Then she’s struck by an idea for the name of a new left-wing political movement. “Every day’s like this,” says a nearby staffer. “She never stops.” “But why would I stop, this is my life!”
UNDER THE RADAR
This November, Agnès Troublé, known as Agnès B. (the B came from her first husband, publisher Christian Bourgois), celebrates her 80th birthday. Her life today seems no different from the life she’s always led. Every day, she arrives at her office in the late morning and leaves around 9 PM, often heading out to a private view or a dinner party. It doesn’t stop on weekends or during vacations, either. This is how – running on instinct and energy – she runs a company of over 800 employees worldwide, some in France but many more in Japan and Asia. Thanks to the same spirit, her life has been filled for all these decades with an endless stream of ideas, impulses, encounters and fashion collections. She corrects us: “No, not fashion, please! I don’t like fashion, I like clothes.” Agnès b. isn’t a brand that makes waves or comes out with this season’s musthave. Just the opposite: it’s a brand that we sometimes forget all about because it’s always there in the background, operating under the radar with no media plan, no advertising, no tantalizing influencers. But it’s a brand you always end up returning to, to buy a striped sailor jersey, a snap-up cardigan, a work coat or a pair of chinos.
“All right then, let’s sit down,” she says finally, after giving us a tour of her office, pointing to the sofa in the corner under the TV screen. On the coffee table are books, lots and lots of books – books she wrote and gives away freely, books she wants to read, books by friends of hers and books by the street artists whose work she regularly shows at the Fab, her exhibition space in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. And then there are also our photos, the ones we brought to show her as prompts to encourage her to tell her story. “So you want to hear some of my memories, right? Are you really sure?” That’s exactly it, and we’re quite sure.
“THEN ONE DAY, WE JUST OPENED…“
“This is where it all began. It’s 1975, and I am outside our first store on rue du Jour. I have to say, it looks good! [Laughs]. In those days, the area round Saint Eustache Church, behind the Forum des Halles, was a bit of a no-mans’ land. There was fencing everywhere covered with advertising posters. But we didn’t have much money, so the neighborhood was great for us. We took over an old butcher’s shop and turned it into a clothing store as best we could. Jean-René de Fleurieu, my second husband, and I did everything ourselves; we cleaned the floor, painted everything, scraped the grease off the tiling and so on. We left the butcher’s hooks on the ceiling, and they’re still up there today. We use them to hang caps on. The day the store was ready, we just opened the door–no official opening or party or anything. There were plants inside, and birds flying around. People started coming in straight away. Why? They just liked it, that’s all. We didn’t do any advertising; we never have. But the press got behind us immediately. Before Agnès b, I’d been a designer for other brands, and my work had already appeared in magazines like Elle and Marie-Claire, so they knew me. A lot of them actually got their clothes from us. It was the journalists who made me. I don’t think it could happen in the same way now. These days, the big advertisers call the shots.”
“WE DYED THINGS IN THE BATHTUB AT HOME…“
“We had to improvise a lot in the early years, but it was great fun. We already had a style of our own; our clothes looked a bit military or like workwear. They were made of comfortable materials and had a loose cut. We dyed loads of things in the bathtub at home, then hung them up on the hooks to dry. People would grab them while they were still damp, saying, “No, it’s okay, I’ll take it like this!” Everyone wanted those T-shirts with the wide stripes, women and men alike would be fighting over them. The quality of the cotton was insane, tightly knit two-ply cotton, made by Duarig in the Vosges Mountains. It was originally meant for rugby shirts. We still sell them today. We buy the cotton and dye it ourselves near Paris. Not much has changed, really. Except my bathtub has an easier life now.”
“IT WAS A REAL PAIN WITH MY LONG HAIR…“
“I got the idea for the snap cardigan because of the gray sweatshirt I’m wearing in the ID photo. Or rather, thanks to this gray sweatshirt. I loved it, but I hated taking it off–it was a real pain with my long hair. A couple of journalists wrote that I had cut it with scissors, but that’s not true. I think I still have it somewhere. That’s why I made a jersey cardigan with snaps: so that I could undo it easily: snap, snap, snap. I wanted the snaps to be very close together and for there to be lots of them because it reminded me of the soldiers’ uniforms you see the officers at the Château de Versailles wearing in old prints. Don’t forget that I grew up in Versailles. This was 1979, and it took off straight away. I couldn’t tell you how many we’ve sold since then, but it’s a fair amount…”
“THE COLLECTION ON THE CARPET…“
“Oh, New York! I think it was 1980 when we landed there, if memory serves. Our first store was at 116 Prince Street, in Soho, a very industrial district in those days, a bit similar to Les Halles. I used to have to sweep the black grime off the pavement outside the store. There again, having the press on our side made all the difference. One day, I met a journalist from The New York Times in a big department store, and I laid out the entire collection I was lugging around in my suitcase on the carpet – he couldn’t believe it. [Laughs] So he came to Paris, and I took him to Barbès one Sunday morning. He wrote an article about it, illustrated with a photo of me in a leather coat, hat and trainers. That changed everything. The cool people in New York came to us. This picture is of Bruce Weber and Bill Cunningham, the photographers. We were the epitome of Parisian style in their eyes. We still have three stores over there that do very well.”
“SO THIS IS YOU, AGNÈS!“
“Jean-Michel… In 1981 or ’82 I was in a little art gallery in Paris and came across a work by this artist called Basquiat. I asked a friend in New York to try to find this guy and go and see his studio. A while later, he sent me a photo of a self-portrait. I bought it without thinking. Later on, Jean-Michel came to Paris. When he saw me, he said: “So, this is you, Agnès!” He was a bit smitten with me. Over the next few days, he’d call me in the middle of the night and ask to meet at the Crillon. But I didn’t really fancy showing up there at four in the morning, especially since I had a boyfriend, so I said no. I guess you could say that I turned down Jean-Michel Basquiat–not just once, but two nights in a row! [Laughs] I heard that he turned his room upside down because of me. But I was very fond of him. I managed to buy several of his pieces around that time. This one was stuck to the wall with drawing pins for ages, like a poster. Then I had a proper glass frame on it, at home, but the red has faded a bit with time. I’ve sort of communicated with Jean-Michel [laughs] and asked him if he’d like the picture to get a bit of its color back again. He said yes, so I’m allowed to run a little red crayon over the glass.”
“YOU’RE EXPOSING YOURSELF WHEN YOU EXHIBIT“
“This is me with Jean-René at the Galerie du Jour, in Rue du Jour. We opened the gallery in the early ’80s. I’ve always been drawn to art. When I was 12, I went to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, which was a revelation – everything was so beautiful. At that time, I had a thing about trying to identify painters just by their work without looking at the names. Later on, when I was 17, my first job was in a gallery as assistant to Jean Fournier, an abstract painter. I’ve always wanted to show art because you’re also exposing yourself when you exhibit. Fashion design isn’t an art; it’s a craft; you’re trying to please people. Whereas if you’re an artist, you give yourself to people. I think that’s more important.”
“A TOTAL FIASCO!“
“It was Jean-René who wanted us to open a shop in Japan after we’d been around for a few years. Sure, it was a big chance for the brand, but my daughter was only nine months old, so it wasn’t the right time. I remember the journey over there took forever. I also vividly recall driving all the way across Tokyo at 9 o’clock one morning for an interview at a newspaper office. It took us two hours. We sat down, and the journalist asked me: “How do you manage to balance your work life and being a mother?” I burst into tears and told Jean-René: “We’re leaving!” Then, when I grabbed a tissue to blow my nose, it turned out to be a coffee filter! [Laughs] It was a total fiasco, that meeting. I was exhausted, and we left. My first trip to export the brand to Japan… But after a bad start, things turned out really well over there. The Japanese instantly took to Agnès B., they liked the simplicity of the clothes, the fact that they don’t date… We still do good business in Japan. We have almost 200 stores across the country and employ hundreds of staff – it’s a crucial country for us. When I go there, I’m a bit of a star. I stay holed up in a hotel with people knocking on my door every quarter of an hour for an interview. Last time, there was a bit of excitement because we were awakened by an earthquake. The whole room was shaking. I felt like I was in a plane going through turbulence. A few minutes later, all the Japanese were sitting down at breakfast as if nothing had happened. It measured six and a half on the Richter scale!”
“I’VE NEVER LIKED RUNWAY SHOWS“
“Oh, I loved those pants! [Laughs] This was at a show, maybe in 1988. I’ve never liked runway shows much. And taking a bow at the end was always nerve-wracking. I remember that afterward, the newspaper Libération wrote that the best part of the show was the bow we took when it was over. It was awful. I was really gutted. We’d worked so hard on that show… You don’t even see the clothes properly on the runway, and that’s what I’m interested in: the clothes, not fashion per se. That’s why I do videos nowadays. It means you can see my work, and I don’t have to go to Fashion Week.”
“MICK NEVER NEEDED ME FOR CLOTHES“
“Oh, Mick! This was in Cannes, about 10 years ago, I think, at an Agnès B. party. We’ve met several times over the years; he invited me to his birthday party one year. But he’s never needed me for clothes – he’s good at dressing. So was David Bowie. I liked him. I dressed him for about 15 or 20 years. I used to send suits to him on the other side of the world. He wore Agnès B. for his 50th birthday and for his 60th. I’d made him a three-piece suit in tweed with a silkscreen print in silver on the vest. How did we meet? I don’t recall exactly, but I remember one day I found myself backstage in the dressing room after one of his gigs. He was in his brown phase, and his clothes had lot of pleats, and volume. I’d prepared a little bag holding a pair of leather jeans with a note in one pocket that said: ‘You should stick to rock’n’roll style’. Next thing I knew, he went into our London store and bought himself four pairs of leather jeans. Then he asked me to dress him. I love dressing artists. We’ve been outfitting David Lynch for years and years; we make those white shirts he famously wears buttoned all the way up, with the soft collar. I also provided the wardrobes for the guys in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I dress women, too, of course. Patti Smith, for instance. I’ve known her for ages. We met in Venice; she was about to do a gig in Saint Mark’s Square. I saw a chair on the stage. In those days, I’d often carry some heart-shaped stones in my pockets. So I wrote a note with my phone number on it and laid it on the chair with a stone on top. She rang and invited me to have dinner with her the day after her concert. I write lots of notes like that, and people often respond. Even [French President Emmanuel] Macron responds. Although the responses aren’t always nice.”
“FOREVER A LEFT-WING CATHOLIC“
“That was a very special meeting. One day, the people at Elle magazine told me they wanted to set up a meeting between me and someone famous, anyone I liked. They had Yves Saint Laurent in mind, but I said, Abbé Pierre! [a French Catholic priest who devoted his life to helping the homeless]. This picture was taken at that meeting. I was so happy. When I was 13 or 14, he used to drive around the Paris region in his truck, wearing a beret while he collected empty bottles. I don’t know what he did with them, but I remember emptying bottles and putting them out on the sidewalk for him. That day, he showed me where he said mass, on a little table facing the railway tracks. He lived in Ivry-sur-Seine, in front of the Austerlitz Train Station. We spent two hours together. I admired him tremendously because I like generosity, quite simply. He had such strength when he ranted. And, you know, I am a believer. I’ve never had any doubts. I don’t practice much, but it’s part of me. I think having a spiritual life is a universal need, and I couldn’t live without it. My bourgeois family from Versailles was very religious, but I’m a bit different. I’m a left-wing Catholic, and that’s not the same thing at all. I’ve always been on the left; that’s also ingrained in me. I think it was the war in Algeria that ‘radicalized’ me. I had friends over there who’d deserted from the Army so they didn’t have to torture anyone. I was 17, and I realized all the evil that had been done by colonization. I’ll be a left-wing Catholic until the end of my days, that won’t ever change.”
“THE CREATIVE JOURNEYS BEHIND THE WORK“
“This is a piece of graffiti art by Gérard Zlotykamien, one of France’s pioneering street artists. But I think someone messed around drawing in the teeth, because they’re not really his style. I’ve always been interested in urban art. I consider it to be abstract art and just as worthy. If you think of it, the Lascaux caves were also that. I’ve always taken loads of photos of the graffiti I see in the streets of Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Venice–I have thousands of images. That’s how I found out about a lot of artists, and that’s how I got into it. And then there are the creative journeys behind the work. These aren’t ordinary people; they paint in the streets because they don’t have a choice –that’s all they have. I’ve always tried to help them as much as I could by buying, collecting and exhibiting their work. In La Fab., our gallery space in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, on Place Jean-Michel Basquiat–you couldn’t make it up, could you?–we’ve got a big graffiti exhibition on at the moment, especially of the work of Futura. I think his stuff is brilliant.”
“THIS IS MY WORK, MY LIFE…“
“This is a jacket we did a few years ago. Womenswear makes up most of our business, but I love designing for men, making nice things for them, too. I’m involved in all decisions, things like buttons, zippers, the depth of the ribbing, etc. Obviously, I’m not going to stand by and do nothing if a button looks ugly. This is my work, my life… Actually, this jacket really reminds me of the early days. My father had lent us a bit of seed money to get us started. After a while, I went to see him and pay it back. He couldn’t believe it; he’d been convinced he’d never see that money again. So what he did was, he went to a tailor and two suits made. See, it’s always about clothes…”