When fashion stylist Christine de Lassus looks at clothes, the first thing she sees is a story. The cut, the drape, the history behind the piece; everything about it mixes with her knowledge of the industry, to create narratives that bring the fashion world to life. She gives these stories life through her spreads published in magazines like the international editions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and L’Official. Born in Paris, Christine’s career has been defined by these stories, drawing inspiration not only from the pieces themselves, but from some of her favorite film directors and photographers, bringing as much influence from the films of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch and the photographs of Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Garry Winogrand as she does Prada, Alexander McQueen and Charles James. With a career that’s spanned over two decades and allowed her to collaborate with some of the biggest names in the business, Christine recently spoke with LASTBLOG about the roots of her career, her frustration with the changing nature of fashion publications, and how she creates the stories that define her work.
LASTBLOG: Where do you go for inspiration? Is there anything that consistently inspires you?
Christine de Lassus: Well, my inspiration has come from different places throughout my career. It used to come a lot from the street and the club scene, when there was a really vibrant scene happening in New York. I’ve always also drawn a lot of inspiration from movies. I’m a big fan of cinema, and there was always inspiration there because I like my fashion [stories] to have the sense of a scenario, like if it’s a little movie. So if I can write a story in my head, and create a character, that helps me choose the clothes, or the style, the hair and makeup, and sort of direct the whole thing.
These days, unfortunately, the fashion scene has changed a lot, and it’s become harder and harder to create such scenarios. Most magazines just want you to use advertisers’ [clothes], and do studio pictures, where it’s just about the clothes. There is a lot less money to travel and shoot on location. Therefore the inspiration [becomes] more about the silhouettes and the girl for me. I’m big on silhouettes when I work in studios, it’s the main thing when there’s no decor, no location. I do that well, but that’s not where my heart is most at.
LASTBLOG: When do you remember noticing the change from that very vibrant scene you were describing, to what the fashion scene is like now?
CdL: I would say in the last six years. Before, when you were doing an editorial story, about one-third, or half the garments could be [from] non-advertisers. So you could use Japanese designers, you could use Belgian designers, or any new creative designers. Now it’s all about the big fashion houses, Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Armani, etcetera… [Advertisers] count the number of publications they have in different magazines, and if the magazine you work for has less than another magazine they’ll go to the editor in chief and say, “I’m going to pull my ads out because the other magazine has more tear sheets with my clothes than you do.” It’s as if the magazines are now owned by the advertisers. So it has become a different exercise of style, it is now about photographing advertisers’ clothes as creatively as possible while showing well their products. It is a different challenge.
LASTBLOG: Do you think it has something to do with the way that print is trying to survive in the internet age?
CdL: I don’t think it has to do with the internet at all. Actually, I think in some ways the social media and the use of videos have allowed for more creativity. For print, I believe it has to do with the way that the big fashion groups are controlling the magazines and their own image. For instance now if you want to use Louis Vuitton clothes, their PR has to approve the model you have booked before you can request looks! Before there was a lot more freedom, now it is more like advertising, but the challenge just becomes to do something creative within those boundaries. It is still fun and challenging but not as creatively thrilling.
LASTBLOG: Working within those boundaries, how do you know when you’re doing something that might fall outside of them?
CdL: Well I almost always choose my stories’ themes keeping the advertisers of the magazines I work for in the back of my mind, so I do not fall out of the boundaries.
I get inspired by art, movies, creative photographers and images I see in my life, and I pitch different themes to different magazines according to the level of creativity and freedom they give you. People don’t impose stories on me, I choose the theme, and then find a way to make it work. I wouldn’t choose a theme that I can’t get inspired and excited about. I also collaborate a lot with photographers on the visual rendering of the story.
It is sometimes difficult to perfectly express what you want to say unless you are [with] a very powerful magazine. When you work for American Vogue, W or Interview – to only mention U.S. publications – then you know that you’re going to get all the looks you requested. You know you’re going to have directional looks as well as some extra choices when it comes to mixing or really creating a story. When you work for foreign magazines, and are based in ny, you usually don’t know [which look] you’re going to get until the last second, and you only get one look, so it’s harder to do a very strong, powerful story. Though I must say that most PR houses are wonderful and go out of their way to help me create my vision. Also there are so few samples and so many magazines in the new global world that sometime you have to use the only looks available from some of the advertisers which have little to do with the original concept so you have to re-invent slightly your story to make it fit with the clothes you have. It is like dancing on a thin wire. It’s hard, but you always manage to make it work. The fun is always in the challenge.
LASTBLOG: I read that you studied math and physics in school, and that you wanted to go into architecture initially.
CdL: [Laughing] Yeah! Basically, because I loved drawing and art since I was a kid, and was always going to museums with my parents, [architecture] was kind of a good combo, to mix art and mathematics. I was actually very interested in urbanism, I thought it was great, to be able to create cities and [decide] how people are going to live. But my father would not let me do architecture in those days. First of all, it [required] a very long education, and was a very misogynistic profession, so you’re going to spend seven years of your life [studying] and then you won’t get a job. He made me meet some old, nasty architects who really discouraged me. But I really think the reason my father didn’t want me to do architecture was because of what we call the monomes, which I guess is like the freshmen at Beaux-arts in Paris. In those days they would really be rough on the women freshmen. They had a woman who was painted head to toe and died. So, more than anything else, I think my father didn’t want me to do architecture for that one reason.
So they sent me to see this woman, not a psychologist but a woman who did tests and said, “Oh, she’s good in art, and she’s good in mathematics, so she should do advertising.” What she forgot to say was that the creative floor was not on the same floor as the marketing department, so I found myself in a business school specializing in advertising, and when doing my internship at TBWA Paris, I was not on the floor where I wanted to be. So I spent all my time on the creative floor, and became very good friends with the creative director, and that’s how I met a photographer’s agent who was working with him. She really liked me and liked my energy, and said, “Why don’t you come work for my photographers?” And she just made me a stylist overnight. I didn’t even know what a stylist was, but I guess it was in my blood. She found my calling for me.
LASTBLOG: If you just sort of fell into the role of a stylist, I assume you had something of a trial by fire. Can you tell us a little about that?
CdL: The first job she gave me was for Windex! It was in a suburban, one story house, with huge glass panels and a car parked outside. There was a vanity, and I had to bring antique silver brushes, all the very cliché stuff. I spent my whole day polishing mirrors. So I told Michelle, the photographer’s agent, that this was not what I wanted to do. I want to work in fashion. She was representing this charming American fashion photographer that I started working with and ended up having a romance with, and when he moved back to New York, I moved with him.
But basically it wasn’t until I moved to America that I started doing serious styling. The first years, [all] I did was mainly cosmetic advertising. I worked with Irving Penn doing the L’Oreal cosmetics campaigns. I worked with Steven Klein, and Steven Meisel for Revlon, and also styled all the Elizabeth Arden campaigns for years. I was doing them all at the same time, just making sure they didn’t look like each other! And I was also doing a little freelance editorial for Spanish Vogue, mainly with Sante D’Orazio. But then one day I decided, “This is not what I want to do. I want to be an editor. I want to work for magazines.” So I packed everything, shipped all my belongings to Paris, rented the apartment that I owned in Tompkins Square Park, and moved back to Paris, where I started working as an editor for French Elle and for Spanish Vogue. I really learned the job then; I really learned what I love to do. And when I finally came back to America after seven years, I didn’t want to go back into advertising like [I had] in the past, I wanted to do editorials. But it was always hard for me to get into American Magazines, because my taste is much more European and creative.
I was [asked] to be the fashion director of a new magazine called Trace, which was more like a lifestyle magazine about youth culture. I’ve always been so interested in youth culture, so I just said, “Yes,” and I became their fashion director for almost 10 years. A lot of it was about mixing, mixing high and low, street and high end design. In those days — from about 2000 to 2008 — I could get anything I wanted from Dior, from Chanel, from all the big designers. I would just mix it with my own little throws to make it relevant, to make it how I think people should wear designer clothes. The Park Avenue lady that dresses head to toe in one designer was not relevant to me. I was kind of a pioneer of mixing street-wear with high end fashion, and using vintage. I’d actually started with vintage in 2000 because in the beginning [of Trace] I could not get big designers to lend me samples, but I had access to this amazing collection of vintage from this generous woman I knew and she lent me anything I wanted. So I mixed vintage with clothes from new, young designers. For instance I would take an old Chanel jacket, but put it inside out and backside front, so the old Chanel label would show like a necklace, and I mixed it with a bottom from a young designer. So that was the way I started using vintage, and then everybody loved what I was doing with the magazine so they all started lending me whatever samples I wanted.
It was a very creative moment, a very joyful moment. We traveled a lot. Once a year we did a special on a country – Japan, South Africa, Jamaica, Mexico — all about the youth culture [there], so music, fashion, photography and art.
LASTBLOG: Do you still have a love for vintage and young designers today?
CdL: I use vintage rarely, as it’s become so hard to get, you have to pay a fortune to rent it, and it’s been sort of used and abused. But [I still love] young designers, and always loved creative designers. But it is not easy to place them in high end commercial magazines. I use them more in niche magazines like Style Zeitgeist
LASTBLOG: I read that, even as a child you really loved fashion…
CdL: I don’t know that I was actually so inspired by fashion as a child. I always remember that I had a doll, and I never played with the doll. I’ve always been a bit more of a tom-boy in my tastes. I had a pretty fancy upbringing, and this seamstress used to come to our home, and she made alterations [to our clothes] and our uniforms when we were little girls. So I had her make clothes for my doll. I wouldn’t play with the doll; I just wanted Mademoiselle Rousselet to make clothes for her.
But I did also rebel with fashion a little bit at the time. I was in this very straight Catholic school called St. Marie de Passy, and we had uniforms. But I fought so we could wear jeans in the winter when it was cold, so we could have pants rather than the ugly pleated blue skirt. I was always fighting for freedom, the freedom to express yourself through fashion, more than for fashion itself. When I was 10 years old I only knew Saint Laurent from my mother’s closet, but I was already fighting in my own way for the freedom his fashion gave to women.
LASTBLOG: On shoots now, how does collaboration work between you, the photographer, and anyone else working on the shoot? What form does it take?
CdL: It all depends if I choose the photographer, or if the photographer chooses me. FOR some magazines, the photographer works with the magazine and they ask me to style the story. For instance. when I did the cover of Flaunt with Elizabeth Olson, the magazine asked me to do it because they knew I had worked with the photographers. They had a concept they wanted to do, inspired by David Lynch’s movies . That was music to my heart, so I dived in and came up with a mood board that worked with their lighting and locations ideas.
When I worked with Harper’s Bazaar Latin America, for the cover story with Jacquelyn Jablonski, I was the one who proposed the photographer and came up with the concept. It was a special Haute Jewelry issue, so I chose to use only diamonds, but with A younger more modern way of wearing them. How a chic, young girl would wear diamonds. Old rock-n-roll band t-shirts with leather jackets.
LASTBLOG: So sort of that high/low contrast you were talking about?
CdL: Exactly, more of that. I thought it was a little risky to do that for them, but it seemed to be what they wanted. I think at the end they really liked it, and of course for the cover we used a more elegant Pucci top and Chanel diamonds, so it was a little more commercially elegant.
LASTBLOG: So what do you see is the value of collaboration? What does it bring out that you couldn’t necessarily get by working on your own?
CdL: For me that’s always been the joy and excitement of this business, collaborating with photographers. It’s like watching a movie; you’re creating your story. It makes everything so relevant because I love teamwork, and I wouldn’t be happy if I was just working on my own. The joy comes from the group, but it’s a danger to, because the weakest link is going to affect the results, so you need to have a great model, strong hair, strong makeup, strong styling, and strong photography to get a great result.
LASTBLOG: Could you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you take an idea and develop it into a final product?
CdL: Well, I guess it’s just a natural process. It starts by going to shows in Paris, that’s where I get my base inspiration. Seeing Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen. I used to attend his shows… Just to see a McQueen show was worth all my years of styling. It was like “This is why I do what I do,” and my stories for the season were always, on some level, inspired by his clothes, because I wanted to make sure i could use his clothes in my stories. He really took you places. He had the narrative, he had the story, he was so passionate about what he was doing. Now a lot of the shows are becoming less and less interesting, and more and more commercial, but you still get ideas. You see the girls, you see pieces that you like, and then they make you think of something. They make you think, “Oh, I’d love to do a story like that.” Then it’s just about impregnating yourself in your personal life, by going to museums and galleries, traveling and seeing the world, being involved with youth culture, [with] music, and going to see photography exhibits, going to see new and old movies. That whole mix just blends inside of you and then something will come out. It’s not looking at magazines that gets me inspired; they’re not nearly as exciting as they used to be.
LASTBLOG: You’ve mentioned a few campaigns you’ve worked on and a few photographers you’ve worked with, but I was wondering what some of the most memorable ones were.
CdL: Well, definitely Mr. Penn, because I looked up to him so much. I adored his work and he was such a gentleman, it was such an experience to work with him. I worked with him for about 3 years, so it was a pretty long time, and I just have so much respect and admiration for him and got so much joy from working with him. I’ve worked with so many great fashion photographers, and have had so many wonderful collaborations, that it’s not really about one that I favor over another one. It all depends on what project you’re doing. I really love to work with photographers, but particularly ones with a very good cinematographic eye. A photographer that takes you places, that has a universe of his own. Otherwise you are creating these stories, just to have a photographer take a polaroid of the clothes.
Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons