Conversations on Power: Irene Silvagni

Q&A with Irene Silvagni, Former Creative Director, Yohji Yamamoto

IRENE IS ONE OF the fashion industry’s many éminence grises. She started her work in fashion in the late 1960s and worked her way from Mademoiselle to Elle to Vogue. In the late 1980s she became the fashion editor of Vogue Paris where she pioneered the work of photographers like Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber and Paolo Roversi, at the time all young and looking for a break. In 1991 she resigned, after a lunch meeting where an important advertiser tried to put the screws in, and her publisher’s silence spoke volumes. On the day she left she famously received the gift of a photograph from every photographer she had worked with at Vogue, delivered to her office every hour, on the hour. Shortly afterwards a chance encounter with Yohji Yamamoto led to the next phase in Irene’s life, as the designer’s creative director. Next to Yamamoto, who Irene affectionately calls her spiritual ‘brother’, she helped the designer fine-tune his vision and shape his legacy, in the process leaving an indelible mark on the history of fashion.

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Irene: I have a story to share with you on the topic of fashion and power. Many years ago now I ran into a friend of mine on a train. She told me that she’d recently been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in the ear and given only six months to live. After seeing her doctor she went to see a healer. The healer asked her whether she was stressed or anxious at work, and if there was someone who often lost their temper or raised their voice there. She held a prominent position in a high profile fashion house then, a very stressful environment. The healer told my friend to quit her job, and take the time to get well in a positive environment. My friend followed his advice and her cancer actually started receding. She told me all this, and I knew that the fashion house she’d left was Jean Paul Gaultier’s. Back then he was famous for having regular ‘meltdowns’ ahead of shows. Everybody in the business knew how bad he was at dealing with stress, and how he used to yell at his staff to get his way. This is a pretty common way for designers to exercise their power, it always has been.

Anja: The yelling tyrant as the flip side to the Munchkin image that Gaultier projects in the media is a somewhat eerie juxtaposition… But do you think that the fashion industry in fact attracts a certain type of person with a sizeable ego or do you think that the industry changes people, that it allows them to act like divas?

Irene: It’s a bit of both I suppose. But I’ve worked in this industry long enough to see a pattern regarding a certain type of hysterical homosexual male designer—the type who flaunts their authority over their mostly female employees by screaming and being mean. This is a well-established pattern, Monsieur Balenciaga was not an easy person for instance, and Yves Saint Laurent is known today as a sensitive soul, but everyone who knew or worked with him knows that he could be incredibly cruel. If he didn’t like a model for example, he could say the most horrible things in front of her. His partner Pierre Bergé would protect him and often screamed on behalf of Yves, but neither of them were easy.

Anja: There seems to be an interesting power dynamic in many fashion houses, with the work force often being mostly female and the positions of power, creative directors, CEOs or other people in managerial positions being occupied by men. Do you think female designers work in the same way as their male counterparts? 

Irene: Fashion designers have traditionally been men and their employees women, starting with Worth. And at the risk of sounding simplistic, male designers do often exercise power over their female employees by being callous or cruel; there is nothing new under the sun there. Women always have a second life that men don’t, family and children that perhaps help to bring some balance. But to return to your earlier question, I think there is something about this industry that attracts people with very strong egos, male and female, and that can unleash a sort of hysteria at times. Fashion designers are ‘artistes’. There is something about all types of creation that is about putting a piece of yourself into your work, and that can be very draining.

Anja: The pressure cooker that the fashion industry has become has been well documented lately, with the public meltdown that John Galliano had a few years ago, and the complaints that Nicolas Ghesquière made about his former employers more recently. 

Irene: Yes the pace is incredible. Designers often have the attitude that they do what they want because they are also ultimately responsible for it all. Before a show, the pressure is immense. The first outfit of a show carries everything. And they feel that. They are like actors going on stage. For the ten, twelve minutes that a show lasts, from the choice of models, to the hair, make up, music, venue, everything is their responsibility. It’s a lot! I think they invariably need to blow off some steam, in one way or another. That’s the way it is in fashion.

Anja: In my old job at Acne Studios there was a curious dynamic between the creative director and the CEO that reminds me of the relationship you described between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé: a sort of good cop/bad cop scenario. The creative director was allowed to be the good guy in most cases because the CEO usually handled the tough situations. 

Irene: I have seen many situations like this. I have known Miuccia Prada since the beginning of her career, and her husband, for example, is a yeller. I remember seeing him bleeding from the nose when he just started at Prada. He got so upset. He was on the bed and he was bleeding from his nose and we were all around him. But raising your voice doesn’t have to be the only way of exercising your authority. Karl Lagerfeld is very good at putting people in their place, no need to scream. And in twenty-two years of working with Yohji I only saw him lose his temper three times. But when he did, mon dieu!

Anja: You have worked in the fashion industry for over forty years and I know you’ve seen it change enormously. What was it that made you leave editorial fashion at Vogue Paris and start working with Yohji Yamamoto?

Irene: It’s true that I’ve seen the fashion world change a lot. I have been part of the shift away from creative freedom towards an industry much more dominated by financial power. Many fashion editors today are bought by big companies. You have the deals that go on, mostly rather openly, between advertisers and magazines, where an ad in a magazine will also buy the company a certain amount of editorial coverage for the brand. This is an open secret by now. But editors also make money by working as brand consultants, which means that they are not only paid by the publishing house that employs them but also directly by brands who then expect coverage in the magazine as well. I know that Condé Nast in America forbids these kinds of backroom dealings, but in Europe many editors still do it. Why is that allowed? To me the ethics of this is very questionable.

Anja: Can you remember when you started really noticing this shift?

Irene: To me personally it became very obvious in the late 1990s, when I was still the fashion editor of Vogue Paris. I remember an incident when the president of a very important fashion house took a colleague, our publisher and me to lunch. We had a lovely lunch and then suddenly he said to me, ‘You do realise that I’m paying you a salary?’ I asked him what he meant, and he said, ‘Come on, you know exactly what I’m saying.’ He meant that he was dissatisfied with the way we were showing his brand, and that the money he spent on advertising should get him more. I said, ‘I don’t accept it.’ And he said, ‘You will have to.’ And during this whole exchange, our publisher didn’t open his mouth. I can still feel the sting of that encounter almost two decades later. When lunch was over and we got into our limousines to go back to the office, I decided that it was over for me. Magazine work was over for me; I could feel what was coming.

Anja: Was this a feeling you shared with your peers or did you feel alone in your sense that this new direction was wrong? 

Irene: I think those of us who objected were very few! [Laughs] I remember how, around the same time, there used to be someone going around the photographers’ studios with a little valise full of money. The suitcases were given to the photographer as a ‘gift’ and in return the clothes of a particular brand made it onto the pages of the magazine the photographer was working for. That was the beginning of the relationship between brands and magazines that we have today. This system supposedly began in Italy with a backroom deal made between a very famous Italian designer and the head of advertising at Italian Vogue, and today, though perverted, it’s seen as completely normal. ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine.’

Anja: And the most depressing thing is that these relationships are largely hidden from the consumer. After all brands still rely on the fact that consumers trust the authority as tastemakers that fashion editors have.

Irene Silvagni: All the same there are still some absolutely beautiful stories being made where advertisers are managed in a fantastic and very tasteful way. Grace Coddington at American Vogue is a good example of someone who manages this balance; how to make people dream without having the advertising stand in the way. Someone like Grace Coddington is very influential in her own way actually—if she wants to feature a completely unknown designer on a full page in American Vogue, she can do it.

Anja: That’s a testament to her power isn’t it?

Irene: That’s her power, yes. American Vogue is the perhaps most powerful magazine in the world. The power of Anna Wintour is immense. If a designer crosses her, she is very quick to retaliate. She will refuse to feature that designer in the pages of Vogue; she has that power. There’s a longstanding feud between Anna Wintour and Azzedine Alaïa for example, and American Vogue hasn’t featured his work for years. But Azzedine is unfazed—he’s one of the few designers who isn’t scared of Anna Wintour, and as it turns out he’s been very successful anyway.

Anja: The power struggle between fashion editors and brands can be pretty fierce. I remember speaking to a friend recently who used to work as the PR for Givenchy. We were talking about whether it’s right or wrong to ban an editor from a show. And he was saying of course not, it’s ridiculous, everyone should be able to see the show. But then he told me about Riccardo Tisci’s first show; there had been some controversy surrounding his placement as creative director at the house. Apparently a well-known English editor had pushed hard to get a British designer the job, and after Tisci’s show she wrote a critical review. And my friend, the PR, felt that this review was some kind of personal vendetta because the designer she’d backed didn’t get the job. So he went to the CEO and advised him not to let this critic into their show next time. It made me think about the discrepancy that so often exists between what you say and what you do.

Irene: That’s the same reason Hedi Slimane banned Cathy Horyn after his first show for Saint Laurent. But there can be a lot riding on just one review, especially small brands are very vulnerable—if an influential critic gives a bad review, buyers get disenchanted and sales suffer.

Anja: But criticism in fashion is so rare now that even the slightest touch of something that isn’t completely positive is taken as a slight. The relationship between the critic and the brand is so intertwined that you have to be a master at reading between the lines to understand whether the opinion given is in fact positive or negative.

Irene: Nobody trusts the critics now. A critic should be fair and understand the history of fashion. But this often isn’t the case anymore; we’re trapped by the incestuous relationships that exist between advertisers and publishers.

Anja: Some time has passed since you left Yohji Yamamoto and lately reporters seem to be insinuating that his work has lost its edge. What do you think?

Irene Silvagni: I was so lucky to work for all those years with Yohji. Such a genius. Such a charismatic person. I’m always melancholic because I have the feeling that right now he is hurting himself. I think he’s tired of it all. I can see it in the clothes. His old partner, Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons is still fighting to be the most modern, the most daring. She is building a veritable empire. She knows how to surround herself with people who will protect her, who can speak for her when necessary. She has nurtured young designers like Tao and Junya Watanabe and keeps them close to her. Her husband works with her, as does her brother. They are all working together, and this sense of protection and loyalty is so important. Yohji isn’t running after success anymore. This is what I get from looking at the images from his presentations. I don’t go to the shows anymore, it’s too much you know. It was such a close relationship—we were really like brother and sister. I can’t go there and just sit in the audience when I once did so much for him. I think Yohji is trying to disappear, and when he does one of the great masters of this industry will be gone.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Fashion and Power.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.