"It's the dream of my life," Carine Roitfeld tells me of finally launching fragrance amid a decades-long career in fashion. We're sitting outside at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles — a chic, exclusive hotel, though not nearly as chic as Roitfeld herself. I'd argue nothing in L.A. is (although perhaps CFDA President and local Tom Ford, with whom she's there to work, comes close). She says she's been developing the range of seven genderless scents — inspired by seven of her favorite cities and a fictional group of seven lovers — for the past eight years.
"I was a bit naive and I thought that the fashion world was the same as the beauty world," admits Roitfeld. "It's not the same people; it's not the same rules; it's totally different." She even might have given up, but she thought back to some advice she'd received from Karl Lagerfeld, who'd passed away not long before our interview in mid-March. "I'm very lucky to work with amazing people like Karl and I always follow all his advice," she says.
At his last Chanel show, he told her that the first time he was offered the Chanel job he turned it down because other people told him it wouldn't be the right move. "They asked him the second time and people said, 'No I don't think so,' and finally he accepted, just because people told him not to do it, and in a way the perfume is the same. I decided to do it even though people say [not to]."
Roitfeld recently took a step back from the magazines she founded, CR Fashion Book and CR Men's Book; while she continues, and loves, to work with clients like Ford and Max Mara, she's also setting aside more time to work for herself. It's perhaps a natural follow-up to collaborations she's done with Uniqlo and the Karl Lagerfeld brand. "This is the goal, to make my name a brand," she explains matter-of-factly. "This wasn't my idea, I'm too French for that," she clarifies. "It was the idea of my son, who spends a lot of time in America." Vladimir Roitfeld is her business partner in CR Studio, a full-service creative and production agency they launched in 2016, as well as in her namesake luxury products business, starting with Carine Roitfeld Parfums.
He even has a scent named after him: Vladimir was a collaboration between the two of them and inspired by her Russian heritage; St. Petersburg is the coordinating city. There's also Aurélien (Paris), George (London), Kar-Wai (Hong Kong), Lawrence (Dubai), Orson (New York) and Sebastian (Buenos Aires). Some names were inspired by real-life and fictional figures: George by future king Prince George, Lawrence, he of Arabia, Orson as in Orson Wells and Sebastian after photographer Sebastian Faena, for instance.
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After finding expert noses, which she did with help from Ford, Roitfeld said the biggest challenge in creating the line was to stop wearing her own perfume, which she'd been doing consistently for 20 years. "People know me from the perfume," she says. "They know I'm arriving in the office; they know I was in the elevator; they say, 'Carine was there, Carine left.'"
Of course, people know Carine for a lot more than her perfume. We chatted with the legendary front-row regular about her advice for the next generation, what else she learned from Lagerfeld, how wearing heels helped her career, and her thoughts on the age of influencers and where she fits into all that. Read on for the highlights.
At the beginning of your career did you ever envision yourself transitioning from styling to building a brand?
Never. Going to the shows (in the beginning), I was waiting outside the tents for someone to let me in because I had no invitation; after that I got standing, and after that I got a seat. After the seat, you go down the steps to get to the first row. It takes 10 years minimum [to get to the front row]. I get so many resumés; it is the dream of so many young kids to work in fashion. There's more and more competition, it's more difficult and just to be a dreamer is not enough today. It's hard work, physical work. Sometimes we carry 17 bags; you have to open them, to hang them, to iron them, to pack them. It's not just what people think, seeing me getting out of a car to go to a show. That's not the reality.
What's your advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
When you like something you have to go for it. You have to try. The good thing is to be an intern. You have to bring coffee and tea and carry bags. Most of my assistants, they start as interns. After assisting, they leave me after many years and they become stylists themselves. I think this is the way today. Now they are [starting] younger and younger. It's a lot of pressure.
I think we need the energy of the young people. I like to be surrounded by young people... Me, I don't know how to open a computer. They have the curiosity; they make my life easier; they bring me all the new talents.
What do you look for, or try to avoid, in a potential hire?
A lot of young people want to be a stylist or photographer; they think they can have everything immediately, but it's wrong. Sometimes [they have] a bigger ego even just working for one year. They have to work, work, work. They have to be very, very curious. Curiosity is the best quality and I think that's maybe why I survived so long in my work is because I'm very curious. I'm traveling a lot, I'm watching everything. People think I'm judging; I'm not judging, I'm just observing. That's always the way I find ideas.
What's the best advice you've gotten in your career?
It's not really advice, but when I started to work ... I started to wear high heels. Before, I wore flat shoes because it was more convenient when you have to take the metro. I wear high heels because it makes you tougher. You can look the photographer in the eyes and suddenly it changes your attitude. You become more present, more powerful.
Karl Lagerfeld, he gave me a lot of great advice. He said, 'Everything you're doing, [for example] OK, you want to do a perfume, now be the first one to do it. You're the first editor to make a perfume, go for it. You have to be the first one; you have to surprise people because people are always bored.' When I was working with him, I had to surprise him, he always wanted something new.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.