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Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

An Interview with Martine Assouline

Every two weeks, contributors from all fields of contemporary creativity and thought answer questions about the status of fashion in culture, and choose the pictures to illustrate their words

View from the Office
View from the Office Courtesy of Martine Assouline

Donatien Grau meets publishing pioneer Martine Assouline

Martine Assouline first gained prominence as a fashion model, and then worked in defining communications for brands including Louis Vuitton and Rochas. In 1994, alongside with her husband Prosper Assouline, she founded the eponymous publishing house, which they still head today. Assouline has grown to become the leading publisher for fashion and lifestyle – over 1000 books have come out in the last two decades. The success of the publisher has led to several bookshops opening all around the world, from Paris and London to Istanbul, New York, Mexico City and Lima.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
They are hardly connected today. Elegance is in the genes, as well as the fruit of experience, in the case of some singular individuals. It's a state of mind as a way to present oneself. You can use fashion to be elegant, but you can be elegant without using the fashion codes of the moment. Today, sadly, elegance is "has been"; this value has "gone with the wind", for most of our contemporaries.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
Inspiration. Unlimited inspiration. Even for Avant-Gardists.

"Elegance is in the genes, as well as the fruit of experience"

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Roland Barthes did?
Yes, totally. I'll change Fashion for Style, more adapted today. Most people go for a same "language", as most humans like to be part of a "community" (minimal, maximal, piercing, tattoo, WASP, hipster...). Others need desperately to create their own individuality and to become "unique". Fashion (or Style) is the first way for people to appear in the world; novelists as well as painters, filmmakers or photographers brought much of their talent to "create" a character through their looks.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
I am currently working on a book about Frida Kahlo. She was the first "fashionista". She used her style, and body, in order to be known, and to express her beliefs (nationalism, communism...),and to go beyond the limits her condition had set up for her, as an artist and a free woman. She is a good example.

How would you relate the concept of 'fashion' to one of 'style'?
Fashion is linked with research (forms, materials...) while style is more conceptual; it can go from allure to a lifestyle. Most of the designers currently working are in fact stylists. I'll put Azzedine Alaïa in the category of fashion. Not many other names can go there.

"Frida Kahlo was the first "fashionista". She used her style, and body, in order to be known, and to express her beliefs"

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
Everything can be intellectualised, and Fashion can create hundreds of subjects for those who love that! Let us think: Fashion & Narcissism, Art & Fashion...or like the popular French quote: "l'habit ne fait pas le moine"(You can't judge a book from its cover), etc..

You are a publisher: how do you translate fashion, which is a live experience, into a book?
Photographers are like yesterday's painters. My first step is to choose the photographers and illustrators. That requires a huge culture of image and a good eye. Then comes the design, thanks to which images and words dance in the good direction. All that process works only if you know about fashion history, which is the good key in order to show the modernity of any designer, or any creative figure. Another key is to find the good author, even if, today, everything starts with images.

The books you publish are luxury books. What does the world of fashion have to do with luxury?

In two weeks Donatien will interview the writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint


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