Shunning the spotlight, her life would best be explored through other people, but it’s hard to ignore the impact that she has had on pop culture. She is no doubt responsible for our vision of quintessential Parisian style – the Breton stripe tops and snap cardigans, all iconic Agnès designs from her namesake brand that has steadily evolved from her first boutique in Les Halles, Paris in 1975 to an empire of 332 stores worldwide. From Leonardo Di Caprio to David Lynch, they all slip her messages of gratitude, just proving that she’s never more than six degrees away from influence.
Growing up in a strict Catholic family in the high-end Parisian suburb of Versailles, Agnès spent the majority of her life rebelling the bourgeoisie upbringing she experienced by immersing herself into a fully bohemian lifestyle. It was the intellectual and cultural revolution of 1960s Paris that allowed her to fully blossom, wiling away her days in Cafè de Flore on the Left Bank, with a group of artists and writers who became her friends. This love of young creatives has inspired a lifelong devotion to up and coming artists through her own gallery, being the first to champion the likes of Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinley, and of course Jean-Michel Basquiat. We meet Agnès before the opening of the UK’s first retrospective of Basquiat’s art, an exhibition that counts Agnès as one of its most important patrons, donating pieces from her own personal collection. A cultural icon who is permanently young at heart, we talk to her about a life lived out in magical moments.
agnès b. ‘Love’ T-Shirt
Do you take a lot of pictures?
Oh yes, I take pictures of everything. This morning I walked around the neighborhood (East London) and took pictures of all the graffiti. I have always loved taking pictures of graffiti, for the last 30 years, and I represent a lot of graffiti artists in the gallery, as well as video artists, photographers, so not only graffiti.
You have said that in regards to graffiti ‘the walls speak’. What do you mean by that?
I like these silent shouts, where people are saying that something is wrong or something isn’t good. These people are fighting with their words or they are philosophers with a very beautiful vision of life. I call them shouts because they really are things they have to fight against, and they talk a lot. In different cities, in Brooklyn, Amsterdam and even in Venice you can see some graffiti. In Venice you have posters, none of these JC Decaux advertising boards; I hate them. I love these torn posters in the streets. They talk a lot.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it seems that graffiti really came to life, with this new type of art. Do you think it is still relevant now?
Yes, there are still new people all the time and good ones. My friends Keith Haring and Basquiat, Keith started in the New York subway on these black panels with chalk in the early 1980s, and Basquiat similarly with his SAMO tag. I bought a self-portrait from him in 1982 and I kept it unframed for a long time.
How many Basquiat pieces do you own?
I own six of his artworks.
Have you collected art throughout your life?
I started with postcards when I was a little girl.
Basquiat started selling postcards actually, he sold one to Andy Warhol in a café once and Warhol didn’t know who he was at that point but loved it.
Yes, and he loved my agnès b. white shirts, I didn’t know that until recently.
So you are here for the opening of the Basquiat exhibition in London.
Yes, they invited me to the dinner for the patrons of the exhibition.
You know that it is also London Fashion Week right now?
Is it? I don’t know, I never look at any shows, nothing.
That’s why I mentioned it because you say that you don’t like fashion.
I hate fashion. I like clothes, I like to style and I like forever pieces. I have pieces in my wardrobe that I have had for years, and my customers are like that, they are many different people who like to mix it up. For example, the jumpsuit I am wearing today is 40 years old, and it’s fun for me to see other workwear styles coming back into fashion because I have always loved the simplicity and functionality of that style, with the pockets. This is a forever piece.
I have dressed many people over the years, like David Lynch who wrote me a note recently thanking me for dressing him for 25 years, which is an honour really.
"David Lynch wrote me a note recently thanking me for dressing him for 25 years, which is an honour really."
What’s the best message you have received like that, something that sticks in your mind?
I don’t know. I collect love from people but I don’t have anything special in mind.
What does that mean, you collect love?
I have an enormous box with nice messages and letters I collect for instance. Now you can get these messages on your phone or on the Internet. It’s amazing because I love people and I want them to be happy, so I try to make people happier through my work, which is dressing them. It’s a pleasure to do this.
I think it’s very interesting that you are here without even realising that it is London Fashion Week, it really represents your mentality.
Exactly, I knew there were models in Rome last week but I had no idea it was in London right now.
Do you have shows for the agnès b. collections?
I always have. The next season will be held at Ledoyen in Paris.
And do you come out onto the catwalk at the end of the show?
Just to say hello and thank you for coming. I’m just myself, I always say just be yourself and don’t bother with the others.
I saw a quote from your son Etienne that you have two families: one is your own family and the other is the artists’ world. Is that correct?
It’s true, all my friends are artists and I spend a lot of time with young people who are artists. I love my family of course, but I love to be with artists, I’ve always been very close to them. Like when I met Basquiat, he said, “Ah so this is you!” and I said, “Yes, this is me.” We met at his last exhibition in Paris, at the Yvon Lambert gallery. He was waiting for me at the pizzeria across from the gallery, and he called over to me, “Agnès, Agnès!” and we spent two hours talking.
What did you talk about?
Childhood. Artists talk to me about their childhood a lot. He told me that his father was very cultured and explained so many things to him because Basquiat was very interested in culture.
He had a Haitian background, is that right?
Yes, he was Haitian. So nice, so beautiful.
Jean Michel Basquiat, Plastic Sax, 1984 Courtesy Collection agnès b.
What kind of energy did you get from him?
He was very gentle. Yvon Lambert said that he fell in love with me when we met. He was calling me at 4 am but at that time I had a new lover so I couldn’t go with him to the Hôtel de Crillon in the middle of the night.
Do you regret not going?
No, I don’t regret anything, but he died in August. I told him that I would see him in New York but I did not have the chance to go before he died.
Do you think Basquiat was the greatest contemporary artist of our time?
Oh definitely he is one of the best artists of the 20th century.
Because his art is so different.
Personally, when I look at his work I find it quite violent.
He is violent, but it is his rebellion. The first canvas of his that I saw was at the Paris Biennale in 1982, and I asked to see more from him just from looking at that one painting. I remembered it and I had to see it again.
A lot of artists, from my own experience, are very eccentric, with a lot of ups and downs.
It depends, not all of them. Some are shy, some are quite different so they are not all the same. Many people say, ‘Oh, I’m an artist’, but they are not really an artist.
"He was calling me at 4 am but at that time I had a new lover so I couldn’t go with him to the Hôtel de Crillon in the middle of the night."
Agnès B. on Basquiat fawning over her
So what is an artist for you?
Someone living for their work. It’s a necessity for artists to express when they feel a certain way. They can be very fragile but also very strong.
You are here because of Basquiat. What do you think about his legacy and the fact that this is the first retrospective of his work?
It’s the first in London but there have been others. There was a really beautiful one in Marseille around 20 years ago. In terms of his legacy, there was a moment where everybody said that he was finished, after Warhol died and he was on drugs because it was very hard for him. My good friend Maripol produced the film Downtown 81, a beautiful film about him. She was living with him and was a great friend of Warhol too. There are many things to know about Basquiat and this is an important film to learn about him. He hated the world of art too.
Like you hate the world of fashion?
Yes, we have this in common.
But how can you hate fashion when it has given you so much?
I give to the world of fashion because I am copied a lot in French fashion. I can see it. My job is not to follow fashion or trends, I have never looked at that, but I can see ideas from my collection 2 or 3 years later in somebody else’s work. I did this white round bib collar, and a young French singer called Jain, who is great, she started to wear this so I did some more pieces for her, and now you see it everywhere. But these things happen quickly and disappear quickly as well.
Your work has been in many different guises in popular culture – on Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs, on musicians and artists like David Bowie. Do you like when your work blossoms in pop culture, is that the best way for it to be represented?
Yes, I like it. You know, I have never advertised. I hate advertising because it is manipulating.
But you do advertise organically in a way through these pop culture ambassadors?
Yes, but as you say this is natural. I love natural stories, even when I am copied these are natural stories and that pushes me to do something different. It’s like that.
David Lynch wearing agnès b.
John Travolta wearing agnès b. in Pulp Fiction, 1994
Harvey Keitel wearing agnès b. in Reservoir Dogs, 1993
Your success is also a natural story, starting from the bottom. I have been told that you are one of the richest self-made women in France.
I was married at 17, I had twins by my 19th birthday and I left my husband when I was 20, so I had to make a living.
I also read that you aren’t aware of how much money you earn?
I have to make sure that everyone working in my company is happy, earning a living, across lots of different countries like Japan and Hong Kong. There is something that makes me very happy to know that people in Japan seem to love what I say in interviews and my way of thinking, which is why they are proud to wear something from agnès b.
In Japan, you are a superstar.
Is there an artist that you wish you had met or spent time with?
Oh there are lots, like Brassaï, because he was looking at graffiti a long time ago. You know graffiti is not recent, even in 17th Century prisons you could see it.
I met with David Bowie, who was wearing my clothes until he passed away, like the stars and stripe t-shirt. I am always listening to his music and when I had the chance to meet him I loved him.
What about the artists you didn’t get the chance to meet?
I am confident that these things can happen in the future.
Another artist you have championed is Ryan McGinley, who we also recently featured.
Yes, I was the first person to show his work. We met at a weird party in New York, drinking vodka from this big bottle and he took out 10 mini photographs from his pocket and I offered him a show in Los Angeles where I had a shop. That was his first show and then I showed him in Paris. I have a big collection of his work because I was representing him. The gallery is such an honour for me because I’ve been showing people like Martin Parr and Nan Goldin, and when I saw Ryan’s work for the first time, it was as beautiful and as sincere for me as Nan’s in the beginning. I love her work and the way she took pictures – it was never trash. Like Dash Snow, who was a great friend of mine, I loved him very much. So I have this big group in New York, including Jim Joe, who I found on the street. I saw his name high up on a wall and I asked where I could find him, he’s great.
When you foster and cultivate a new artist, how do you go about it?
I look at things and show people. I have had the gallery since 1983. Right now we are showing Jim Joe and Harmony Korine. I met with Harmony when he was very young. I don’t know, I am confident in these sorts of ‘rencontres’.
Agnès B. & Harmony Korine
When you were young you used to sit in Café de Flore with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre?
Yes, and that is why I want to restore Café de Flore to how it was then.
What was it like to be part of that?
They were there but I was very shy so I didn’t talk to them, but it was very normal to see Simone and Sartre.
France has changed.
It is more the areas that have changed. Like here in Shoreditch, a few years ago it was very different, and the same thing has happened in Paris. It moves. Saint Germain-des-Près is too expensive now, it is only luxury.
Why do you think French people have this reputation of being rude?
I don’t know. But then when you see them in Morocco bartering for a pair of babouches for 2 euros less…maybe in other countries they don’t behave well. Sometimes they can be vulgar.
We spoke with Cédric Villani, a close ally of President Macron. He said that this year’s election was the last chance for France because after that people like LePen and the Front National will take power.
No, no. Marine LePen is over. I am very interested in politics, I read Le Monde every day.
Do you think Macron is doing a good job?
I think I am a Communist in fact. I listened to this beautiful speech by Pierre Laurent, who is from a free Communist newspaper called L’Humanité. He spoke at the Fête de l’Humanité and I loved everything he was saying about humanism. I think he is a great man. Macron, I am quite confident with him but he takes some decisions that are absolutely unpopular, like taking 5 euros from the youth budget. The young people loved him at first but this has been unpopular, and it was explained badly. But French people have been known for centuries for their ability to change very quickly. They loved Louis XV and then they killed Louis XVI.
Is it true you live in a house commissioned by Louis XIV?
Yes, he gave the house to his doctor. I love this house and there is a connection with my grandmother who is from Versailles, where I was born. There is a mixture of furniture from my grandmother and Basquiat pieces, my dining room has Afghan columns. The 19th Century part of the house is painted red and the 17th and 18th Century parts are plain.
How long have you lived there?
More than 20 years. The house found me really. I was on the train looking at Le Figaro and I saw this announcement for a 17th/18th Century house with a big garden, so I cut it out and kept it in my book. 6 months later I found it again and called, and they told me that the woman who owns the house wants to sell it to someone she will love. So I went to the house at night, climbed over the wall and went in, started a fire and made some food that I had brought, and the owner was not there yet. It was crazy that we did that.
"Artists talk to me about their childhood a lot."
It seems that you live your life in a series of defining moments.
Yes, and I have a good memory of these moments, from when I was 2 or 3 years old. I have a photographic memory and a feeling. I remember everything.
What do you do with your art collection?
I have a lot in storage, a lot in my home and people ask me to loan my pieces for shows all year long. I am going to do an agnès b. foundation in Paris.
How would you advise someone to start a collection if they don’t have money?
Buy at the flea market, drawings from young artists at galleries that aren’t too expensive.