As the chicer-than-chic icon launches her collaborative project with luxury French jewellery house Gripoix, Dean Mayo Davies catches up with Catherine Baba to delve into the mind of fashion's favourite turban-wearing muse.
Catherine Baba is having a “mini au-revoir moment”, the sound of a continental fashion kiss and “J’adooore!” the ambience as a (metaphorical) door closes and a phone call begins. She is basking in the glow of her eponymous collaboration with maison Gripoix, a 19th Century Parisian house that has produced bijoux de couture for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Dior, Givenchy and Balmain. The sort of jewellery that has a story attached – or acquires one from being flung about energetically at a sybaritic soirée – needs a romantic force imagining it, and they’ve more than found one here. Baba is her own fabulous work of art – or she would be if she wasn’t too busy “birthing” and creating projects behind-the-scenes. She doesn’t linger too much on the notion of performance, she just is (darling!), despite the heady rush of her lexicon: pedalling her bicycle in an ensemble from the Paris soir of yore, but with heels a good four inches higher, or adding “ism” to the end of words to express herself because the English language isn’t quite passionate enough. Having worked with labels including Chanel, Givenchy, Balmain and Ungaro in the French capital for over fifteen years, whilst styling editorial for the likes of Vogue and Dazed & Confused, Baba has recently started dressing independent French cinéma. Sydney’s loss is Paris’ gain. Divine!
Where are you at the moment?
As we speak I’m at the Gripoix headquarters… And you’re in London?
Live via satellite! Glory be divine! So tell me everything – or you want me to tell you everything, don’t you? Well, Grégoire Marot who works as their press agent (and whom I’ve known for years) contacted me in November last year and asked me to come by and look at the Gripoix collection he had in his office. He then asked what I thought of creating a collection under my name with Gripoix. And I said “J’adooore!” [Laughs]. “Of course darling, let’s do it.” Immediately I was in complete ecstasme about the idea, so I started to delve deep, diving into the ocean of inspiration of what I’d want to say for my official collection, that would represent me, with a house like Gripoix. We started producing the collection the end of January, so it really was a speedy and very intense birth – I’m completely happy we could create the twelve pieces not necessarily because it’s 2012 but because twelve is a special, symbolic number for me. Each piece has her own meaning, it had to be twelve. So voilà.
And each piece is its own beautiful concept. What inspired you?
I was really in the world of the Neo-Romantics. My birthday is at the end of October and I always have to treat myself somehow: the bookstore Galignani has divine window displays and they were celebrating the Neo-Romantic writers and that period. There were books by Oscar Wilde illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, Lord Byron, Yeats, Tennyson; it was a complete orgy of Neo-Romantics and I went in and bought every book I could find! I was reminded of school: we studied this in our English literature program back in Sydney so it was sort of going back to a mini-moment of rootage. And that was a divine heaven, like a drug for me. A lot of mythology and the East coming to the West for the first time, all of that dialogue inspired me. Gripoix was birthed at that moment too, it made complete and utter poetic sense.
East meets West is a theme that also threads itself through your personal style.
My look is very eclectic – I love the 20s, 30s, 40s; Madame Grès drapage, the 70s, it’s a complete conglomerate of the things I love. So if I’m going to work and produce something under my name for me to share with the rest of the ladies of the world – and maybe a few men! – it is going to be, inevitably, a piece of me. I love the mix always, all corners of the continent, the world, the galaxy. The milky way darling! [Laughs]. Are you riding on my wave right now?
Totally! But what was your first fashion memory?
Oh god. Darling! My first fashion memory? I don’t know if there was one moment. My mother was a dressmaker so there was always fashion, fabric, Burda magazine. Stockman. Pins and needles and sewing machines. I was always playing with fabrics and looks. It’s always been there and so obvious. Before you graduate school you have that moment with the headmistress or whoever and they want to know where you want to go in your life and I remember I said ‘Fashion’. They said ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ and I said ‘It will work’. When I arrived in Paris the industry was evolving and changing so much, that period where the designer wasn’t necessarily like a designer, more like an art director and the stylist was becoming more important than ever before, even though in the past we had our Diana Vreelands. The rise of the superstylist and everyone wanted to be a stylist, everyone wanted to be a photographer, everyone wanted to work in fashion, if you like. It’s become important and it is important – aesthetics are important, expressionism is important. If you can’t express yourself visually we don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say mentally. [Laughs]. You know? We don’t wanna know!
Wouldn’t it be awful to just suffocate in banal bordomism?
You are your work, of course – your realisations are inextricably linked to how you dress yourself. There aren’t very many stylists with that attitude at the moment. Would you like to see that change?
I was interviewed the evening of the Gripoix presentation by I-won’t-tell-you-who and they asked: ‘Do you think a stylist has to be stylish?’ I just thought that was so comical! Isn’t it? I didn’t know what to say. If you are going to promote any kind of aesthetic language to anyone that has to be something involved. But I honestly don’t care about anybody else. [Laughs]. There is room for everyone in the world, let them eat cake – and other quotes we can use. It’s an obvious situation, no? If you’re a doctor you should know what you’re doing! I think a lot of people thought I was maybe just a ‘fashion person’ but I do work in cinéma – darling I was nominated for a César!
I know, I saw the beautifully calligraphed nomination…
That was my first experience in cinéma and I’m completely overwhelmed at being recognised by the film industry in France to say the least. I’ve been working backstage, behind the spotlight for over fifteen years now and in a way that’s how I like it. Though I like to play, enjoy my life and have fun too. The way I dress is a reflection of me, my mood, all of that and I don’t know how to express it or analyse it more than that. I don’t think about what I wear – the clothes choose me. [Laughs].
Every muse has her clique. Who do you call for a good night out?
Monsieur Elie Top, who is also one of the most talented jewellery designers, he designs for Lanvin amongst others. Vincent Darré, who is like my godfather, I met him when I was at Chanel over fifteen years ago. And Riccardo Tisci I love, he is my complete darling. Let us throw a couple more names in there: Dita Von Teese I always have a laugh with, especially when there’s a secret santa moment happening. Betony Vernon is also a sister and when Tilda is in town we always have to have a sister moment as well. I consider myself lucky, when I first arrived in Paris I met a lot of people. It was the mid 90s and the time of the ultra-minimal: Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Prada was just starting. But there was the counterclash of the extremists like Galliano, McQueen and that whole theatrical extravaganza. And Comme des Garçons, Yohji. It was fabulous because there was also the birth of so many new journalistic expressions going on: Purple Fashion, Self Service, Dutch magazine existed then. This wave of ‘us’. A lot of the people I met then are still in my life. I feel very blessed – oh, I hear the violins in the distance! – but really. J’adooore Alister Mackie. Kim Jones. Karen Binns. There are these families; London, New York, Italian. It’s a fashion family world! We all get together during the tornado, the hurricane of fashion week. And it’s divine. Never a dull moment, darling!
If you can’t express yourself visually we don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say mentally. You know? We don’t wanna know!
A true romantic has their signature scent so you know they’ve arrived – or been and gone. What is Catherine Baba’s favourite perfume?
I still love Opium – I love bathing in Opium more, actually. And I love a Fracas, which is more for winter. Right now I’m living for Santa Maria Novella cologne, it’s heaven. I’m more of a – I was just about to say ‘spice girl’! [Laughs]. I’m more spicy. I love cinnamon, tuberose, those deep, drug-infused scent smells. It’s obvious darling! I’m not floral but I am very Neo-Romance.
Well, let’s put it this way, there will be more birthings to come: oui, oui! I will have the stretchmarks to prove it. More is never enough and without creation or creating, what oxygen do we have?
Oh! That’s so deep! [Laughs]. Wouldn’t it be awful to just suffocate in banal bordomism?
All jewellery by Catherine Baba for Gripoix