As a model, Inès de la Fressange was an icon of the 1980s, and as a muse she has inspired Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent and Gaultier.
Vivier la diffèrence
With her long, egret limbs, husky French drawl and unflappable elegance, Inès de la Fressange has the sort of chic that money cannot buy. Sitting on her office sofa, dressed in slim grey trousers with a fitted tweed jacket and shirt, her style is classic, muted and unexpectedly restrained - but for the brightly coloured Roger Vivier flats on her feet. She is also strikingly beautiful with chocolate brown eyes, a wide smile and a very expressive manner.
Only last year, the former supermodel and current brand ambassador for the French shoe label Roger Vivier was voted "Most chic woman in Paris", knocking Carla Bruni Sarkozy, the wife of the French president, off her perch. "There were very handsome young girls, actresses and famous people," says de la Fressange, "but I was the one elected - I was so surprised because I was the eldest!" As to that, she might now be 52 but Karl Lagerfeld once said of his former model and muse at Chanel: "More chic than Inès you cannot be." And, frankly, once you've got it you don't lose it.
For the past six years it has been de la Fressange's role to put Roger Vivier back on the fashion map. The highly talented Bruno Frisoni is the shoe designer, and de la Fressange oversees the brand strategy. She spends her days in meetings with antique dealers - the decor in the Roger Vivier shops is a testimony to her good taste - meeting the web team, designing the look books and talking to the media.
"Brand ambassador is such a stupid title," she declares. "I am too old to be a model and it is boring to say 'consultant'. I am the only one in the company who works with everyone." She is also the only person at Roger Vivier to have known the visionary personally. In the early 1990s Vivier asked her to lunch, hoping she would be able to relaunch him in Paris. Although Vivier invented the stiletto heel (in 1954), designed the shoes for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and provided the glamorous footwear for Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve (including the famous buckled pumps she wears in 1967's Belle de Jour), he had fallen from fashion's A-list.
She was not then able to help but two years after Roger Vivier died, aged 85 in 1998, Diego della Valle, the founder of Tod's shoes, bought the label and hired her. "Della Valle wanted the company to be very French, very Parisian and very into fashion and he thought I could be someone for the press," she says. "Of course, like all French people I could not shut up and immediately understood that I could be more than just an image."
She spent the first years acquainting everyone with Vivier much as she had done 30 years earlier for Chanel. In those days she remembers arriving in Japan with leather jackets, miniskirts and trainers from Chanel "and they would ask if this was Chanel style. They knew nothing about her - they just imagined an old lady". Now a consultant to della Valle, she says: "I am there as the clown to the king, to tell the truth, to say what is missing, what is good, what is not good." It is a brief that she looks like expanding across his brands as she feels she has achieved what she set out to do at Vivier and della Valle thinks he can still use her magic.
De la Fressange's mix of aristocratic and exotic roots are absurdly glamorous. Her mother, Lita, was an Argentine heiress who became a singer and modelled for Guy Laroche; her father, André de la Fressange, was a stockbroker. However, her biggest childhood influence was her grandmother, Simone Jacquinot, who took responsibility for the welfare and schooling of Inès and her brother. She drove them to school every day in a gold Rolls-Royce, much to her grandchildren's embarrassment, until Inès was old enough to get herself a motorcycle.
As the Lazard banking heiress, Jacquinot initiated de la Fressange in the finer points of haute couture. "I remember when I was tiny, her wearing taffeta and jewels that made so much noise," she muses, "while I wore jeans with holes in them." Jacquinot would take her granddaughter with her to Dior and Balmain. "When I was five years old she wanted me to have an ermine coat and hat like the little girls in the 1920s - can you imagine!" Jacquinot got her way. "I liked couture but not fashion. I love traditional good-quality clothing, but I don't like bourgeois attitude."
De la Fressange began modelling when she was 18, striding down all the catwalks, and advertised for Dior and Shiseido before Karl Lagerfeld signed her at the age of 22 to work for Chanel. She charmed the Chanel audiences for seven years. Unlike the models of today, who stomp with attitude, De la Fressange was all smiles, waving at her friends and occasionally even stepping off the catwalk to sit briefly in the front row. We were recently reminded of this relaxed, friendly style when she made a guest appearance on Jean Paul Gaultier's catwalk at the spring 2009 haute couture show.
She has two daughters, Nine, 16 and Violette, 9, and it is Violette who shows a bent for fashion. She went along to the fittings at Gaultier and the designer, visibly impressed with the young girl, "told her how everyone would laugh at him in class when he was at school. Then one day he was caught drawing in class by his teacher and made to walk around the school with the drawing pinned to his back as punishment. The other children saw how good he was and instead of the teacher humiliating him it earned him respect."
De la Fressange proudly recalls an earlier meeting her daughter - then six years old - had with Yves Saint Laurent: "She said to him that she wants to be a designer too and Saint Laurent took her little hand and said to her, 'I am sure you are going to succeed.' She was so proud and happy, meeting Saint Laurent is something she will never forget. Although she knew Balmain and Vivier, de la Fressange never met Coco Chanel. When she left Chanel she launched her own fashion label and boutique during the 1990s, but her investor sold the business; the new relationship broke down and ended up in court. She has been unable to reclaim her name and although she works on other projects, such as designing the interior of a new Paris hotel, her name cannot be attached to them.
Meanwhile, at Roger Vivier she finds herself explaining to the Chinese press why she does not have boxes of shoes at home, because they are piled up beside her on the floor of her office. She is rather partial to a yellow pair of flats, but she has eyes on the ponyskin riding boot from the new autumn collection and the giraffe print kitten heels: "So elegant yet eccentric," she says. "Like the giraffe bags: eccentric but chic and easy to wear - just what I like." And if an icon as stylish as Inès de la Fressange likes something, you can be sure a lot of other women will, too.