Agnes Trouble Bourgeois, known to the world as Agnes B., started to design clothes at the age of 19 and opened her first boutique in Les Halles in Paris in 1976. Twenty-nine years later, her company has 129 boutiques, selling clothes, accessories and travel goods around the globe. While there are 32 in France and others scattered in Europe, Asia and the United States, Japan is her biggest market at 48 stores.
Her image is embodied in the company’s well-known logo, agnes b., handwritten in her lower-case cursive, and her designs for women and men are loved for their equally elegant simplicity. Many of them — the horizontally striped T-shirt, for example, or the snap-fasten cardigan, unveiled in 1979 — have had the rare ability to stay stylish long after other fashion trends have died on the rack. Her company’s annual collections, though, are about more than just classic casual wear.
Culture and the arts have an important place in Agnes B.’s designs and her life. The company maintains two art galleries/libraries, and her stores sell a line of limited-edition artist T-shirts that feature the works of visual artists such as Jonas Mekas and Gilbert and George. Her passion for photography can be seen in the most recent collection; photos she took of scenes such as bull-fighting arenas in Spain or gondolas in Venice are printed on some of the dresses.
Cinema is another longtime interest of the French designer. Her production company, Love Streams, has produced films of cutting-edge directors such as Harmony Korine, Gasper Noe and Claire Denis. And it is perhaps no coincidence that her designs have appeared in hip flicks such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Lost in Translation.”
Agnes B. was recently back in Japan after a 1 1/2-year absence. Appropriately, as one of the reigning royals of French fashion, she hosted a big event at the Takanawa Prince Hotel’s Kihinkan, one of the former residences of the Imperial family. Here, she showed off her latest collection and entertained guests. Looking relaxed and dressed in a black jacket and a gold-colored skirt from her collection, she was beaming with satisfaction after the show.
The one-time event was also held to celebrate a turning point in her career: After 21 years of partnership with Sazaby in Japan, she has bought her partner out. She acknowledged that throughout her life she has been lucky, and the optimistic, radiant 64-year-old designer expects her new independence in Japan will allow her to better express what her clothes are really about.
We started the interview in one of the Kihinkan’s ornate private salons. Though she commented on the room’s magnificence, she said that as she was born in Versailles, she wants to see things other than beautiful woodwork. “Next time I would love to have my collection in a parking lot,” she said with a giggle.
Only after getting our glasses of champagne did we start the interview. Indeed, Agnes B. knows how to have fun and do it in style.
Why are you back in Japan?
Up to now we were in a joint venture with Sazaby. Now we are going to do things the way I like them to be done. I will be able to show my work better. They had a tendency to buy mainly basic items. I think it is a pity that people only associate me with the image of agnes b doing only basic and permanent items, because that’s only 10 percent of my work. The rest are all new creations.
Do you regard yourself as a tastemaker?
Fashion is like a stone that you throw into the water. There are ripples and little waves. I see some clothes that were inspired by mine, readapted, redefined. But as far as I am concerned, I love to create new trends and I do not want to be influenced by the work of others.
Hence I never go to other designers’ shows or boutiques. The only show I ever attended was for Yves Saint Laurent’s farewell show. I do not want to do what others are doing. I do not want to do what is “a la mode.” I want to do something else . . . Perhaps that is what you mean by creating trends and being a tastemaker.
What is the important part of the creative process for you?
The mechanism is always the same — what I mean is, that I want to create what you do not see instead of what is done everywhere.
I create for my friends. I spend a lot of time with my friends; most of them are artists and musicians. I do not create by working from documents. I create by having in mind people whom I like. When I create, I think of an actor, or a movie, or someone I like. At the moment I am very inspired by the actress Chloe Sevigny. I think this or that will suit her perfectly. . . . She is someone very inspiring, but it could be someone else. Like Isabelle Huppert, whom I adore and whose latest film, “Gabrielle,” I coproduced with Patrice Chereau.
Do you draw a strict line between what is work and what is play?
Creation is for me a fun process because it is part of my nature. There is no dividing line between work and pleasure. I draw everything myself. I work very quickly in a state of euphoria with my team. I like a lot of the people I am working with. I like to see them in the morning — but not too early because I do not get up early, but I work up to 8 or 9 p.m.
I like to work listening to music. In my company, there is a man in charge of music — un homme musique. He is only in charge of music. We receive lots of records, CDs, because in my boutiques there are listening posts. I go to many concerts. It’s where I can let my mind wander. Even when I am very busy with a show’s collection, I go to concerts in the evening. I love that.
Do you think it’s necessary for a designer to have a sense of social responsibility?
More than as a designer, I think as a woman I must have social responsibilities. Since I was a kid I always thought this way. We are living in a time when we can do it and we must do it. Especially those who can afford it must be committed to a cause as much as they can. I have a boundless admiration for those who are committed to work on the front lines, like, for instance Medecins Sans Frontieres or Medecin du Monde. I deeply admire this kind of commitment. I am deeply moved by this.
For Sarajevo, I saw people transporting food in the middle of the war, in the middle of winter. This is why I thought, I too will do something in Paris, so I designed little hearts. It was so beautiful. All these people coming to my boutiques and buying those hearts to support Sarajevo war victims. All the money went to Sarajevo and there was a deep connection between all those who bought the hearts. By the way, this heart became the award for the Sarajevo Film Festival. I thought it was a great honor when they decided to choose the heart I created during the war as this film trophy.
What are your secrets for bringing up five children and being a successful designer?
I have always been a mother and a designer. I had two kids by the time I was 19 years old, so I am used to it. There are many women who work and are far less lucky than I am. I think I am very fortunate to be able to do everything that I’m doing. I like to open doors, to be a catalyst. I do things that go along with my nature. I have a good disposition. I never have to force myself. That is why I can do things easily. I do things with no ulterior motive. I have no regrets and I just follow my natural disposition.
My mother used to say that I always had a good nature — even as a baby I never cried, except once, when they had forgotten to feed me. You know, I love life and I love to swim, in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense.