Photo by Lenedy Angot for dumbofeather.com
Editor's Note: This is from a couple of years ago but I just happened to stumble across it while researching something and thought it just to good to not share. Catherine has, if anything, become even more iconic in the fashion world and I see no signs of that stopping. This is a great little candid glimpse into the woman behind all that over the top, old school glamour. Enjoy! xx Cherie
Before I interviewed Catherine Baba, I studied her. Fashion nous and avant-garde wardrobe had earned cult figure status for this Australian-born, Paris-based über-stylist, and plenty of candid photos of her dotted the internet. All reeked of Parisian fabulousness. Baba can usually be seen awash with vintage fur, dazzling costume jewellery, stiletto heels, harem pants or turbans, and—strangely—none of it seems contrived. Even with her exaggerated punctuations, her long cigarettes, her turbans, her thin, Garbo-esque arched eyebrows, there’s an effortless style. You look at a photo of her riding her bike through the streets of Paris, all flowing kimono and sky-high heels, and think, who is this wonderful woman?
We had two lengthy phone conversations, from my home in Melbourne to hers in Paris. The second time I called, there was a slight problem. Instead of getting Baba on the line, I listened to an answering machine message, with a single word on it: “Darling.” I had been stood up, but it only intrigued me more. It was just another part of the Catherine Baba mystery. If she wasn’t partly elusive, it wouldn’t have been so much fun. Two days later, an email arrived in my inbox, saying, in capital letters, “DEAR RACHELLE, UNFORTUNATELY, I WAS TAKEN HOSTAGE COMPLETELY THIS WEEKEND,” before she asked to reschedule. Mon dieu!
Finally, we spoke again. She answered my questions without self- censorship. That’s not to say that she had the gush or lack-of-boundaries that often comes with people in the public eye. But she wasn’t trying to create soundbites. Her language was often stilted, as she struggled between her inclination to speak in English and her inability to always find the right word. It was pure Baba: enthusiastic, informed, interesting delightful.
When our final conversation drew to a close, Baba didn’t just say adieu. Instead, after I thanked her, she said, “It’s my pleasure and I wish you everything divine.” I’ve been touched with Baba-isms for several days now, and for a short while, I start bringing swaths of silk out of my wardrobe, wearing them with the highest heels I own. Donning that combination, I’m reminded of Paris and courage and mystery and— voila! A bit of Baba in one’s life is as good as a makeover.
RACHELLE UNREICH: Looking through photos of you, even random snapshots of you caught unawares—bicycling in stilettos around Paris, for example—are fantastic. I’m not sure how you put yourself together like that the whole time.
CATHERINE BABA: I don’t know, either. I just enjoy and have fun. It’s really one of my passions. I mean, I’m not going to say getting dressed is a passion but I definitely enjoy life, so I play. Maybe that is the key factor of all of this: to play and have fun. To amuse oneself!
With you, fashion is clearly an extension of your personality.
I think fashion is definitely a tool of expression. To me it’s important. I have to be honest, I don’t think I could ever wear just a t-shirt and jeans.
I did want to ask you if tracksuit pants ever featured in your wardrobe.
It’s probably a velvet jumpsuit that I would wear.
So no jeans, then?
I don’t want to say it easily insults me, but it’s like it erases my personality. For me—and I would like to think for everybody—what we wear is who we are, and I think it’s important to express that. But then I’m not going to be the guru of the world and tell everyone what to wear. It just so happens that it is my job and I enjoy it, and I express myself that way every day as well.
What do you mean by your personality being erased?
Oui, I mean I can wear jeans but it would be with a kimono, turban or something else. For me, it’s really always about pleasure.
Is your wardrobe a 24-hour thing for you?
Of course, completely. I love but—and maybe it’s on the verge of obsession—I do not live a nine-to-five life, I live more a 24-hour life, even 36 sometimes. My work is constant and every day, and weekends don’t really exist, but I need to feel that I’m comfortable and I’m comfortable in that way. Again, it’s maybe not a casual comfortable for others, but that’s my version of comfortable. Otherwise, I can’t really work.
What exactly does your work as a stylist involve?
I think “stylist” was maybe reborn on a very important level in the industry around the mid-’90s. The whole concept of stylist involved in collections with designers became extremely important. For example, if I’m consulting with designers, I work really in collaboration with the concept. I bring in inspirations—either images or details—for cuts, for fabrics, prints. It’s really a collaboration and a partnership. And there are houses, designers or brands that produce enormous amount of pieces of clothing without necessarily a really fine direction. And a stylist’s job is maybe to finetune and imprint a specific direction within the collection. Designers like John Galliano, Gaultier and Alexander McQueen, rest in peace, don’t need a stylist. They have their muses. But for me that is a generation that is not like today. Today, young designers are looking for stylists to collaborate with. And this is something that didn’t really exist before. A stylist may have arrived at the last minute to just tweak—it’s like finetuning—hair and make-up and to work with the casting to get the right girls and the right aesthetic for the collection. The editorial work is really where I play. It is more visual, for me, to create a world, to create a fantasy. It’s not just getting clothes and putting them on a model and voila! It’s really to create a fantasy, a world, and it’s around pleasure and expression. For many, it’s superficial. But for me, it’s definitely a love.
And there’s a psychological component to wardrobe? One can reinvent oneself through clothes, to some extent. Perhaps that’s why sometimes people cover up, too.
I think, yes. I’m a great believer that we have already been invented. But a lot of who we are can be erased from the eye of society, and we end up becoming not who we really are. We all have something that we feel and say constantly. We are energy, and our energy is always different, but yet we’re the same. It’s the mood. When you say cover up—if I’m feeling like, you know, sensitive one day, I might feel I want to, but then I would actually do the reverse and maybe play more with colour to just—you know—recreate my energy in a different way. We’re bundles of energetic atoms, darling!
Does the way someone puts themselves together help you to assess their personality?
Oh completely. You know how they say, don’t judge a book by her cover? I think you can. I don’t think we should all be dressed the same, but when we dress, it’s expressing who we are. I think it’s fabulous. Then we have—this is going to sound completely evil—the clones that really need to just fit into a category or a group or a shelf and will not express themselves at all. But—voila!—maybe I’m saying too much about this.
On the topic of how clothes can express people’s personalities, what do you think of the insurgence of celebrity stylists? Are those who use them unable to express their personality well?
I consult on collections, I do editorial styling; for me it’s more to create. I’m not necessarily a service that would style a celebrity. I have been asked to do it, and I have done so, but I would never put someone in a turban just to put them in a turban. If it worked for them, it works. I’m not going to recreate myself in somebody else. But it’s true that I’ve worked with some actresses who wanted to wear the turban—“Can we wear the turban now?” They literally take it off my head. It’s not always what I want to push for you, but if you like it, of course. But that’s why I don’t necessarily work with celebrities. I mean, they’re great. I just worked on a film doing the costumes, the film comes out this year.
What film is that?
It’s called I Am Not A Princess, and it’s based on the true life story of Eva Ionesco, who actually made the film, and her mother Irina Ionesco, the art photographer. I have been working with Irina, the photographer who is now close to 80, for maybe nearly eight years now. Her images always inspired my work—they are very baroque and j’adore. The actress Isabelle Huppert, who is one of the biggest French actresses today, plays Irina. It was my first film and I never thought I would necessarily do film although I love for example, Fassbinder, Fellini and others, especially where there is a very strong aesthetic. But I said yes, and voila!—that comes out this year.
Have you ever thought that someone was a like – minded soul because of the first impression you’ve gotten of the way they’ve looked and dressed?
Yes. When I first arrived in Paris, I was extremely and obviously excited because it was something that I always wanted: to arrive in Paris, to study here and to continue what I wanted to do. It’s the law of attraction, we attract like souls and energies, and I attracted a lot when I first arrived in Paris. That always happens when I meet someone and there is a completely fluid feeling with the energy. A lot of the people I know in Paris—the majority of them do work in the industry, be they photographers or stylists or designers, and also in architecture and the arts, and they share the same sensibility as me. The history of fashion, film, cinema, music—anything that is expressive, we’re all quite sensitive to it. I know I am. I have a lot of references—a lot of people do, usually—and it just so happens that I am attracted to specific things. That’s what references are when we use them in our lives. I love the ’20s and the ’30s and surrealism and voyage and colour.
What kind of references do you have?
I love photography. I love the work of Cecil Beaton. Books by Colette, Anaïs Nin, of course Helmut Newton. Horst, Avedon— that sort of fashion and photography. Diana Vreeland. I have a lot of references, but they’re all always around a specific aesthetic. For instance, Irina Ionesco’s work inspired a lot of my work, yet when I first saw her images it was very close to my aesthetic already. So it’s really like discovering a lover each time, in a way.
I saw a photo of you with Sex and the City‘s costume designer Patricia Field, and it made me think that Carrie Bradshaw aspired to dress like you. What I love about your dress sense is that it’s not contrived; it’s not like someone putting things together for effect.
I think that’s an interesting point. At the same time, I know that Patricia was also working maybe to open the arms to a wider population. It was television, and I think she did create an aesthetic that was very friendly for a wider population. Oui, maybe Carrie would have loved to have worn a turban now and then. Maybe not. But Patricia took fashion and television to another level. And it worked, it completely worked.