Cerf's Up

Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele set the gold standard for blinged-out chic. Now her "rich bitch" styling is connecting with a new generation.

Published November 19, 2012
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I was feeling beat. Long month of shows, long night of editing. I met Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele in the Tuileries after the Valentino show. She was wearing a pink and red Comme des Garçons coat, yellow jeans, gold driving mocs, her ever-present gold Rolex, and enough gold bangles to make Lil Wayne feel under-accessorized. It looked quite effortless. I was immediately caught up in a whirlwind of laughter, Marlboro Gold smoke, and Carlyne-isms. (If she likes something, it becomes "EVERYTHING that I LOVE." If someone does not live up to her standards, they are deemed "poverino" or rather "POVER-IIIII-NO," a term that denotes not so much a lack of funds as a paucity of spirit, imagination, joy.) By the time we had arrived at a nearby hotel bar to conduct this interview, I was no longer beat. I was positively giddy.

The sense of uplift gets to the essence of de Dudzeele's work as a stylist. You can break down the elements of her famous shoots for French Elle or American Vogue, where she was fashion editor, director, and editor at large from 1985 to 1995—the high-low mix, the piled-on jewelry, the irrepressible use of color—but what you are really witnessing is the direct transmission of her personality to the page. That and the force of an exacting eye.

This season, fashion has fully succumbed to the cult of Carlyne's personality. Labels as diverse as Dsquared² and Joseph dedicated their collections to her, while the young New York jewelry designer Eddie Borgo paid homage to her love of gold—the chunkier, the dorier. And de Dudzeele is as busy as ever, whether persuading Nicole Kidman to bare her bum for V, working with her pals Steven Meisel and Mario Testino for Vogues Italia and España, or getting behind the lens herself to shoot a Tahitian idyll for WSJ. magazine.

As this Saint-Tropez-born countess' daughter, who now divides her time between New York and Paris, likes to say, "Everything is about attitude."

DS: Why do you think all these designers are suddenly citing you as an inspiration?

CCDD: I don't know. Me, I love real. You know what I mean? I love real. I do always my salade. I mix things with real. I love the street. I am always thinking about the woman in the street. I love to do pictures crazy, too, but I always think about the woman I want to be. Lady, sexy. Pas déguisée—je déteste ça. I love a woman that men could follow in the street. Or they come in a restaurant and say, "Look at that girl." This is what I like.

DS: Is that element missing from magazines now? When you look back at a photographer like Newton…

CCDD: Yeah. Of course. Of course. You know when you go and see the exhibit of Helmut Newton that was some months ago at Le Grand Palais, you can look at every picture, every girl is powerful. She is never treated like a poverina on the floor, like you see in some pictures now. It's not the same feeling. Me, I love when the girl is powerful and dominant…I hate photographers who destroy women. I hate and I think it's enough of this destroy. Je n'aime pas ça.

DS: I am sure you have always felt that. Your aesthetic, was it fully formed at the beginning? Did it develop over time?

CCDD: I think you have to be born with this inside, the fashion. There is nothing that you can learn. Like a singer, you know? She is born with a voice. You work on a voice, but you need a voice at the beginning.

DS: Would you ever edit a magazine yourself?

CCDD: No, I want my freedom. I want my freedom totale…I want if I decide to leave tomorrow to the South of France, I can.

Photo: Tommy Ton

DS: Who are some of the people you admire?

CCDD: Karl. Azzedine. I loved Hedi Slimane's show yesterday, but I get inspiration from Mr. Alaïa, Mr. Lagerfeld. They know, you know? They know. They are not like all these young designers [who] change every six months. I think this is strange, because when you have talent inside, you never really change. You don't do one time an homage to this one, one time an homage to that one.

DS: What was Vogue like when you started working there in 1985?

CCDD: It was extremely boring. Very, very, very boring. Afternoons in [then editor in chief] Grace Mirabella's office to try every, every, every look on the girl. They were calling this "run-through," and they were doing Polaroids. I mean, it was the most boring thing. And discussing…For me, fashion is not brainstorming, you know what I mean? Everything is instinctive. You like or don't like.

DS: And then you created that iconic cover for Anna Wintour's first issue as editor.

CCDD: Yeah, I was working with Peter [Lindbergh] in Paris during the couture, with the great Michaela [Bercu], and suddenly I said, "I am going to put my jeans on with this cross [sweater]." And I don't remember if it was her jeans or my jeans. I don't remember this. And I even bet with Monsieur Lindbergh, and I said, "This will go in," and he told me, "I don't think so," and I said, "OK, let's do it anyway." And after, he sent me a fax saying, "Sometimes, it's good to lose." [Laughs.] And of course I make the cover. It was a great cover. But you know, this is exactly how I was at this time. I was wearing my jeans with all my Chanel jackets in every color. And all the bags, everything was assorties de ballerines. My room in the Crillon was like every color. Everything pink, everything turquoise, everything yellow, everything orange. All the Chanel jackets, all the bandanas that they were doing at Chanel, everything was like perfect.

DS: Have you had periods where you've withdrawn from fashion? Where you have sort of stepped back from it?

CCDD: Yeah, because I found my Jack Russell in St. Barth, and I totally adore my dog. And I don't want to work anymore, because my dog was first. So you know, I went a lot in Brazil at this time, because I can take my dog. I was going everywhere just with my dog. I was preferring to be with my dog, walking with my dog, which I love. Taking him on a trip et voilà. So now I don't have my dog anymore. People were thinking perhaps I will suicide, and I said, "No, I will go back to work!"

DS: Talking of work, what do you think of the clothes this season?

CCDD: I think it's a lot of good stuff, and you know, I hate to tell I love this one, I hate this one. No, I always find clothes everywhere. Always. I don't work with trends. I never, never follow trends, so I do my own thing in my head that comes suddenly, and I find the clothes with my idea of what is appropriate for the story. But I never follow. For example, everybody is going to do color, you know, red and pink, black and white, ruffles…you know, trends. They are all going to do this. Me, I hate to do this, I hate trends. I always, you know, I do ma salade.

DS: But overall, do you think the mood's quite dark in the collections?

CCDD: I don't think. I never see this, no dark, no. If you have the eye, you always find things. Always. Toujours. Oui.

DS: It's just instinctive with you.

CCDD: But that's it. I think a lot of people don't know how to judge anymore. You see awful bags in collections and the houses send it to the actresses, you know, ten actresses, so they wear it and people want to follow and have the same bag, even if the bag is the most awful thing in the world. I don't think people judge anymore. They judge by the name and who is wearing it. You know all those handful of actresses. I mean it's just monstrueux. C'est monstrueux. It's terrible. When I see these pauvre Birkin bags worn by all of these people now, c'est terrible. Because they don't know how to wear it. Suddenly it's becoming vulgaire, you know? And I love vulgarity. Sometimes I prefer vulgarity to bon chic bon genre. But it's a certain vulgarity.

DS: It has to be the right vulgarity.

CCDD: Yes! I love! I always say I prefer Saint-Tropez to Île de Ré. Île de Ré is caviar, French, you know, very striped T-shirt, bicycle, the market, we talk, da, da, da. I prefer Saint-Tropez. I prefer the rich bitch. I love the rich bitch. I always try to make my girl look like a rich bitch.

DS: And the advertisers, are they more powerful now than they were?

CCDD: Of course.

DS: Does that destroy creativity?

CCDD: It depends. For some people, I'm sure. Not for me. If I have to put some names in, I manage to put some names in with a big pleasure.

DS: It's part of the salad?

CCDD: Of course. I tell you to make gold with shit, I love. Love totale.

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