Feature The French designer Agnès b has one film company, two art galleries, over 200 shops and 2,000 employees, but her international triumphs are merely a means to more compassionate ends.
More than a soupçon of success
The French designer Agnès b has one film company, two art galleries, over 200 shops and 2,000 employees. But, she tellsHelena Frith Powell, her international triumphs are merely a means to more compassionate ends. Agnès b is wearing green. I am surprised. This is a woman who has made her name and global brand based on black and white. I even wore black and white to the interview because I didn't want to offend her.
When I tell her I am shocked she laughs. "I love colours," she says. "I made this dress for Cannes." She is, of course, referring to the film festival, from which she has recently returned. Customers will see the dress in her shops in the coming weeks. This is one of the ways Agnès works. "When I need something I make it and then I do it for the shops," she says smiling, her blonde hair falling over her face.
Agnès b is many things: a global brand, a designer, an environmentalist, a patron of the arts, a mother (of five), a grandmother (of 14), a restaurateur, a chocolate maker, a screenplay writer and soon to be a film director. But she is most famous for her classic clothes that women, men and children all over the world wear with great loyalty. I met a friend for lunch in London shortly before my interview with Agnès. This is not a man renowned for his fashion sense. But when I mentioned my subject his face lit up. "I've had this tie for over 15 years," he told me, proudly showing me the label on his tie. "In fact, it's the only tie I own."
Agnès b was born Agnès Andrée Marguerite Troublé in Versailles in 1941. She graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Versailles and originally wanted to become a museum curator. "I wasn't sure how I could get close to art," she says. "It seemed like a good way. Then I got pregnant. At 19, I left my husband Christian Bourgeois [whose name is the b in her brand]. I was alone with the twins, so I had to get a job."
An employee from Elle magazine spotted Agnès in a flea market and liked her quirky style so offered her a job as a junior editor. She worked there for two years before becoming a designer, buyer and press attaché for the Parisian fashion house Dorothée Bis. She carried on working in Paris as a freelance designer until she opened her first shop in Les Halles in 1976. "It was very cheap then," she says. "I did it with some money from my father and my mother-in-law. As a joke we called the company the Comptoir Mondial de la Creation [meaning world company for design] and now it really is global." She opened her first international store in New York in 1981, and opened in Japan in 1985. She now has 234 boutiques and in-store corners around the world and employs almost 2,000 people.
But she claims she never wanted to get that big. "I'm just like that," she says. "Being big is much more complicated. And it is getting more and more complicated. There are so many parameters we have to follow when we create. And right now we are in an extremely difficult time globally. I will have to close shops." In the Middle East, however, Agnès has expanded with two new stores in Dubai and plans for stores in Abu Dhabi. She is extremely impressed with the cultural life in the region. "I love all that is going on there, the great musicians and the concerts," she says. "There is a huge amount going on. I am also really excited about the possibility of making some Agnès b pieces for women who cover themselves. They love fashion there and I would love to make some veils with my own prints, for example, or an abaya - in the same way that I made kimonos in Japan. I love to put an Agnès b touch on a traditional style but I need to know exactly what the requirements are."
To find the answers to these questions, she plans to visit the region when her boat, Tara, is here in 2010. Tara is a 36-metre ice-breaker, named after a boat Agnès's family owned when she was a child. It is about to embark on a three-year voyage around the world to study the effects of climate change on marine biodiversity. Agnès b is the main sponsor of the Tara expedition which will be in Abu Dhabi in March next year.
One thing that might prevent her from visiting then is that she is scheduled to start filming her first feature film on March 15, 2010. The film is based on a screenplay she wrote and the working title is My Name Is Mmmm. "It is about a little girl who doesn't want to say what her name is," she explains. "It is a road movie, a very visual drama and Terence Stamp will be in it." How will she cope with all her other commitments?
She laughs. "I'm crazy. This is a big project, but I have always loved film and this is so exciting. Sonic Youth are working on the music. It's going to be great." I get the impression from Agnès that one of the reasons she loves her job so much is that it allows her the freedom to do other things and to support causes she is passionate about. "My idea is to share," she says. "This century has got to be sharing; sharing of water, money, everything. We cannot go on like this. But then sharing has always been in my nature. I never wanted to make a big fortune for itself, but if it's a way of helping people then I am happy I did it. It's a means not an end."
Agnès's son Etienne is now a director of the company, having worked his way up from his first job as a courier. "He was always on his Mobylette. So I told him to become a courier. Now he is my boss. And always telling me to stop smoking," she adds, lighting another cigarette. "I will stop, I hate smoking, but it's difficult when everyone around me smokes." Though they are now adults, I wonder if it was difficult bringing up five children while running such a vast fashion empire?
"It is a success story," she says, "but like every success story it has its downsides. Things are not pink all the time. But I worked very hard to be a normal mother. I was always home at 7pm to bathe my children and put them to bed. I was with them all weekends. I used to say to them, 'If I were working as a check-out girl in the supermarket you wouldn't see any more of me'. They were always my first priority."
Agnès says she will eventually hand over more responsibility to Etienne and others. "I will retire once the company is OK and I have the right people to run it," she says. "It exists because we do everything here. We all work together. Once that stops, it all stops." Of course, retirement would not mean slowing down for her. "I have always thought I would finish my days in a dispensary in Africa helping children. Africa is a place I got to know through its art more than by travelling there and I love it. I have a dispensary now on the Ivory Coast. I would be happy in a little house, playing music, making food. I am a very simple person."
Unlike most hugely successful people who claim to be simple souls, I believe that Agnès really is. She has a lovely office in Paris with a roof terrace that looks over the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Cour. But inside the decor is shabby and she has been at the same address for years. It wouldn't surprise me if she got around the streets of Paris on the Mobylette Etienne first used to deliver packages on.
When she gets up to leave for a male model casting, I ask if she has a final message for her fans. "Keep your eyes open and love each other," she says, turning her hand to show off a large round silver ring at least 2cm in diameter with "Give Love" written on it. "It makes things so much easier." Agnès b has stores in Dubai Mall, Galeries Lafayette and the BurJuman Centre.