Did you know that a woman can stroll topless in Manhattan without breaking the law? Carine Roitfeld has made it her business to know.
A maverick editor, an arbiter of Gallic chic and, most recently, a brand, Ms. Roitfeld has made the most of that city ruling. For the cover story of CR Fashion Book, her twice-a-year glossy magazine, which arrived on newsstands on Sept. 5, she had models parade along upper Fifth Avenue, prim from the waist down in box-pleat skirts and rigid boots, louche from the waist up, breasts on display.
The photographs by Steven Klein were a calculated affront to bourgeois sensibilities. And that’s the way she likes it.
A natural-born provocateur, Ms. Roitfeld, 64, is perfectly happy to take a swipe at the kind of crusty patrician style resurrected for fall by Hedi Slimane at Celine, and reinterpreted with deadening literalism in the September pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, where models are garbed in a profusion of so-called heritage looks: polo coats, glen plaids and pearls.
To Ms. Roitfeld, those models stand in for a type. “I know this woman very well — I grew up around her,” said Ms. Roitfeld, who was reared in an affluent suburb of Paris. Wryly, she added: “This woman doesn’t have enough money to shop at Hermès, so she goes to Celine. She is not very nice to her maid.”
Sending her up is the kind of brash move that once sealed Ms. Roitfeld’s reputation. But as superstar editors go, she is one of the last in a vanishing breed. The 1980s and early ’90s witnessed the advent of the celebrity editor, Anna Wintour of Vogue and Franca Sozzani of Italian Vogue among them. Today they are all but extinct, much of their authority ceded to cadres of chattering influencers.
“On Instagram, these people say what they want, show what they want, without any culture or judgment,” Ms. Roitfeld said. They are far too busy airing platitudes that, she said, “travel like fire on the web.”
“There will be no more Francas, no more Annas,” she said with stony finality. “Fashion has finished that chapter.”
Ms. Roitfeld is not looking back. “I try to be like Karl,” she said, referring to Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she often collaborated. The designer, who died in February, “was a bit like my dad,” she said. “They came from a generation that never complains. I respect that. I think it is chic.”
In the latest CR Fashion Book, Ms. Roitfeld celebrates her warm but somewhat formal working relationship with Mr. Lagerfeld — he addressed her unfailingly as Madame Roitfeld — in a lavish portfolio showcasing some 20 ensembles from the ’90s, pulled from the Chanel archives: abbreviated jackets worn with thigh-high skirts, bras with men’s briefs, and layer upon layer of black mousseline.
That those looks seem of the moment does not surprise her. “Karl was never nostalgic,” she said. “He always looked forward. I’m not nostalgic. One has to change.”
What has changed very little over the years is Ms. Roitfeld’s lightly mannered insouciance. In town for New York Fashion Week, she rambled through the cavernous art-filled uptown apartment that belongs to her son. She wore slouchy fatigues, a black V-neck T-shirt and gold sandals. Slung like an afterthought over a leather club chair was the crowning element in her uniform, an Azzedine Alaïa denim biker jacket.
Ms. Roitfeld leans in as she speaks, laughs out loud more often than you might expect, her warmth improbably mixed with a stubborn audacity. During her decade-long tenure as the editor of French Vogue — she left in 2011 — she upended convention with a string of firsts: She was the first mainstream fashion editor to dedicate an entire issue to a black model, in 2002, and first to put a black transgender model on the cover, in 2007, over the fretful objections of her publishers.
“How do you put it?” she asked. “I had balls.”
Mostly unchastened, she is still lobbing spitballs in the face of convention. The current CR Fashion Book is filled with images of dead-pale models locking lips or sprawling, legs splayed, on a Central Park lawn. Another feature explores the otherworldly universe of the designer Rick Owens, highlighting models with alien-tall foreheads, prosthetics for cheekbones, faces bleached like chalky masks.
Fashion needs to push boundaries, Ms. Roitfeld said, but that has become problematic. “It’s a very delicate moment,” she said, “People accept some things — you can change your body, you can change your sex, you can even show breasts on the cover of a magazine. But they don’t accept others. You never know when you’re making an error.”
It was her son, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, who encouraged her to reimagine herself as a brand. Together they have developed a fragrance line. In the future they plan to introduce cosmetics, accessories and ready-to-wear.
The notion of branding is still foreign to her. She has spent a fair part of her career interpreting the visions of others, she said, a reference to her varied contributions as a stylist. (She is credited, most famously, with injecting some steam into Tom Ford’s early collections for Gucci.)
“I’ve always helped people tell their stories,” she said. “Now I would like to tell my own.”