A mes­meris­ing sphinx

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Paul Tier­ney

Michèle Lamy walks for­ward to greet me in the foyer of her Parisian town­house like a tiny wood­land crea­ture: in­quis­i­tive, glis­ten­ing, mes­meric— as though she has just bur­rowed her way through a mound of wet peat and emerged into the sun­shine. In that inim­itable French way, we em­brace like old friends. She stud­ies me care­fully, first di­rectly in the eye, and then all over, as if search­ing for my soul.

Owen­scorp is sit­u­ated in the Palais Bour­bon, an im­pres­sive 18th cen­tury build­ing that also houses the par­lia­men­tary As­sem­ble Na­tionale. It’s said this grand res­i­dence used to be the head­quar­ters of the French Com­mu­nist Party, al­though Lamy dis­misses this out of hand. “It was the French So­cial­ists. Why do jour­nal­ists al­ways ex­ag­ger­ate?” Pol­i­tics aside, in its lat­est in­car­na­tion Lamy brings a rough hewn, pri­mor­dial chic to the space, ren­der­ing every­thing in earthy shades of putty, slate, and a dis­arm­ing use of brown. Con­crete, both in­dus­trial and un­pol­ished, forms every­thing from floor to ceil­ing, al­though the finest suede, wood and mag­nif­i­cent dis­plays of flow­ers soften the bru­tal­ist edge. Speared through the ceil­ing like a gi­ant ar­row is the ar­rest­ing sculp­ture Bring Me The Head Of Matthew Bar­ney by Barry X Ball. Ev­ery­where you turn there is ar­chi­tec­ture to di­gest.

“What would you like to drink?” She drawls in hard to de­ci­pher Fran­glish. “Tea, red wine, cham­pagne?” Within sec­onds, out comes a mag­num of vin­tage Bordeaux, served by a quiet Columbian in­tern, a girl who has been loi­ter­ing in the back­ground pre­par­ing plates of smoked mack­erel, salmon, and thin, sil­ver sar­dines. For the record, every­thing is ex­quis­ite, al­though Lamy doesn’t join me in assi­ettes froides, or wine, opt­ing in­stead for end­less black tea and a con­stant stream of ex­pen­sive cig­a­rettes. She leans in, tuck­ing neat tanned legs for­ward, a wise, en­quir­ing face framed by fingers that are stained black by her hus­band’s hair-dye. The eyes again, glint­ing like coal. “Please, en­gage me. What shall we talk about?”

For the unini­ti­ated, Lamy has been the wife and busi­ness part­ner of Rick Owens— the avant-garde, post-amer­i­can fash­ion de­signer—for over 27 years. “Rick and I did not get mar­ried to make ba­bies,” she ad­mits. “We saw some­thing in each other and went with our in­stincts. In essence, that is what we have been do­ing ever since.” To­gether they have built an ob­tuse cloth­ing brand that shares lit­tle with pre­scribed no­tions of fash­ion, and whose sludge-like colour pal­ette, un­flat­ter­ing shapes and gen­eral ‘oth­er­ness’ are sought af­ter by both club-kids and fash­ion mavens alike.

She is as cool as the un­der­side of the pil­low— a liv­ing, breath­ing gothic high priest­ess with more wit, style and imag­i­na­tion than seems plau­si­ble for one per­son. Jus­ti­fi­ably, al­beit much to her cha­grin, she has been branded Owens’ muse, and yet it easy to imag­ine, from aura alone, that she has clearly nav­i­gated her hus­band’s suc­cess. Al­though it’s his busi­ness, it has hugely ben­e­fit­ted from her in­put. He de­signs the clothes; she brings the je ne sais quoi. She calls him “my honey”, he once de­scribed her as “a mes­meris­ing sphinx— some­one who acts com­pletely on in­stinct and feel­ings”.

It should be stated from the out­set that Lamy is cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­tinc­tive. Sim­ply look­ing at her, you know this is a per­son who is the out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of every­thing she be­lieves in. Her sin­gu­lar look stands out even in fash­ion cir­cles, but she is not part of the silly hat brigade, rather her own won­der­ful cre­ation— an ever- evolv­ing map of life thus far. Gold teeth are framed by blue tat­tooed lips, ear­lobes stretch un­der the weight of gold, and that trade­mark voodoo line etched on her fore­head—“it keeps me cen­tred”— only high­lights the se­ri­ous ec­cen­tric­ity of it all. “You wouldn’t be­lieve how many peo­ple dressed as me for Hal­loween,” she says with­out re­morse. “I looked on In­sta­gram and laughed so much. I think it’s su­per funny. They call me ‘the witch’, and I don’t mind that. I am the new witch.”

In Lon­don she goes about her busi­ness with­out so much as a back­ward glance, but in Paris re­ac­tions can be ex­treme. “You know, when I get in a taxi, or go to Le Marais, the peo­ple think I am a palm reader. In New York, they stop me in the street and want to talk to me, but not much the French. Per­haps they think I am go­ing to rob them, or cast some kind of spell. I might look like a witch, but come on, I don’t be­lieve in all that stuff.”

She can be ad­mit­tedly feisty, but her un­ortho­dox ap­pear­ance, wild, tran­sient life, and predilec­tion for the raw, dark side of cul­ture are no re­flec­tion of her per­son­al­ity, which is as warm and but­tery as the suede tabard she in­hab­its this evening.

But who is this 72 year old enigma? And what does she ac­tu­ally do? At turns she is a fash­ion con­sul­tant, a fur­ni­ture maker, a mu­si­cian, a mother, a match­maker, a one-time restau­rant owner, and a woman with an ex­tra­or­di­nary past. Leg­end has it (and noth­ing is com­pletely firm truth-wise in Lamy world) that she is part Al­ge­rian Ro­mani, part Rus­sian spy, part ex­tra ter­res­trial. “My fam­ily are French moun­tain peo­ple,” she says, some­what dis­ap­point­ingly. We come from the Franche- Conté re­gion, Jura, which be­longed to Spain for a long time. But we moved about, and I think that made me feel quite worldly. Also, be­cause of what my fa­ther did, mak­ing ac­ces­sories for the likes of Paul Poirot, it

gave me an in­sight into style and into so­ci­ety it­self. My fa­ther spoke seven lan­guages and was in the re­sis­tance dur­ing the war. We talked about lots of things— every­thing from phi­los­o­phy to Jean Cocteau to Jean-luc Go­dard. This man has been a huge in­flu­ence on me. Huge! The style. The smok­ing— I won­der where I got that from! And his last movie, Good­bye to Lan­guage is the most in­cred­i­ble thing ever. Did you see it?”

Per­ceived no­tion has it that at the end of the 1960s, af­ter study­ing Law in Lyon, Lamy moved to Paris and made her way as an erst­while strip­per. In­deed, she was present and ac­tive in the ri­ots of 1968, when youth­ful revo­lu­tion hit the streets with alarm­ing fe­roc­ity. “For me it was like the best party I’ve ever been to,” she says, bright­en­ing at the mem­ory. “All the baby boomers came of age af­ter the war. It had been so ter­ri­ble, and then sud­denly there was this joy to be alive. Af­ter that Paris was fin­ished for me. I went to Lon­don where it was all about the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones, I adored Biba and Por­to­bello Road. More deeply, I thought Win­ston Churchill was the most amaz­ing per­son— some­one who could keep their head when things got tough, but also some­one with an artis­tic side who ap­pre­ci­ated the finer things of life. He was pow­er­ful and ro­man­tic and I ad­mire that greatly.”

Paris re­mains an un­der­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I don’t feel it here at the mo­ment. Every­thing seems so re­served. When I go to Lon­don, or es­pe­cially when I ar­rive in New York, I sud­denly feel alive. New York­ers are so in­quis­i­tive, and the streets of Lon­don, with that in­cred­i­ble mix of per­son­al­i­ties and looks. Wow. Paris is where all the im­por­tant fash­ion shows are, and there are art fairs, but what­ever ‘it’ is, it isn’t here. In Lon­don you are, how you say, eclec­tic? And you have the Queen. It was Rick who wanted to move to Paris. He loves the city and likes the or­der of so­ci­ety. But to me he will al­ways re­main Cal­i­for­nian. He is much more Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard than the Champs El­y­sees.”

In 1979, Lamy trav­elled to Amer­ica in search of Bob Dy­lan (“the voice, the po­etry, the life”) and ended up liv­ing in New York’s Chelsea Ho­tel. “But my brother sug­gested I should move to LA, so I went there with­out even vis­it­ing be­fore­hand. At first I felt that noth­ing was right in LA— it wasn’t Lon­don, it wasn’t the Riviera. I cer­tainly needed some­thing to wear. Every­thing was too dressy or too t-shirty, so I opened a store and de­signed ac­ces­sories and sun­glasses like I had been do­ing in France.” At the time she was also run­ning Les Deux Café, one of Hol­ly­wood’s true in­sider spots, based be­hind an un­marked door in a car park. “I was al­ways do­ing dif­fer­ent things at once. With the clothes, I wanted to hire some­one in par­tic­u­lar to help me, but he said he wouldn’t come un­less he brought this bril­liant pat­tern cut­ter with him. And that was Rick. I think I’d seen him in the street be­fore this. He looked the same as he does now, but per­haps his look was a lit­tle more fierce. He stuck out. I don’t know what I was feel­ing, and bear in mind that we came from com­pletely dif­fer­ent places in so many ways.”

While her hus­band re­mod­els fash­ion to his own ‘sports goth’ aes­thetic, dress­ing mon­eyed yoga buffs and rich, layer-happy mu­si­cians, Lamy is more in­clined to so­cialise and en­gage with the clien­tele. She has made videos with FKA Twigs, and recorded with rap­per and poet A$AP Rocky. “He’s some­one I ad­mire greatly, and he is so charm­ing. And we can talk to each other— he’s young and he’s from an­other planet, but we are in the same world at the same time and that’s a beau­ti­ful thing.“

In­ter­na­tion­al­ist in out­look, Lamy is also drawn to the thin white boys of north­ern Eng­land. “All the good peo­ple I meet are from the north,” she de­clares, cham­pi­oning the likes of artist Matthew Stone, magazine edi­tor Richard Mor­timer, and per­haps most fa­mously the Bri­tish fash­ion star Gareth Pugh. “When I met Gareth he was liv­ing in a squat. He sent me an email, want­ing to be a fur in­tern, and it was so charm­ing and so well writ­ten that I felt com­pelled to call him and in­vite him to Paris. Rick was laugh­ing, say­ing, what do you imag­ine he is go­ing to be like? He couldn’t be­lieve that I was ask­ing him to come to Paris, this lit­tle Bri­tish refugee! Any­way, when he ar­rived, he knocked at the door wear­ing the long­est, most pointi­est shoes I have ever seen in my whole life, and a beau­ti­ful jacket with a Chanel-like bow that he had made him­self. And he’s from Sun­der­land!. Any­way, I love that guy.”

She has been adept at dis­cov­er­ing de­sign­ers and nur­tur­ing their tal­ent, has she not? “Well they ar­rive to win, to be suc­cess­ful,” she rea­sons, “and I can see that. I am an en­tre­pre­neur, and I have a good eye, and I like to over­see and ad­vise. For in­stance, with my fur­ni­ture I love to work with the ar­ti­sans that bring it all to­gether—that meld­ing of ideas, and see­ing the ex­e­cu­tion come from such tal­ented hands. Per­haps I am a con­duit for all that?” “She sim­ply con­nects to the pre- ex­is­tent cre­ative spark deep in­side each of her pro­tégés,” says Matthew Stone. “She sends them on­ward as larger ver­sions of them­selves.”

To a greater de­gree, Lamy is con­stantly broad­en­ing her own hori­zons and reimag­in­ing her cre­ative vi­sion. One only has to look at the be­spoke fur­ni­ture she cre­ates un­der Owens’ name— bold, chal­leng­ing, of­ten un­yield­ing pieces that ex­plore the in­ter­face be­tween art and sofa. “We were al­ways mak­ing our own fur­ni­ture, and then some­body from a gallery saw it and de­clared that it could be art. There were not many peo­ple do­ing fur­ni­ture in the con­tem­po­rary art world, and it was not ob­vi­ous that Rick should go there, be­cause es­sen­tially he’s a cloth­ing de­signer, but that’s what we did. With the fur­ni­ture it’s labour in­ten­sive, sta­tion­ary, and a lit­tle bit eter­nal. Our chairs are like sculp­ture. It’s a chair, but it’s also some­thing you want to look at.”

Lamy knows she is dif­fi­cult to cat­e­gorise. “Well, thank God. We are liv­ing in the age of In­sta­gram, where every­thing de­mands to be put in a cat­e­gory. Things get eas­ier as you age. It feels great to do what­ever you want to do with­out over­think­ing it, as you might do when you are younger. My mind wan­ders; it is in many dif­fer­ent places at once. In that sense I am quite rest­less. The fur­ni­ture takes most of my time, but it is peo­ple that in­ter­est me, and sto­ries, and of course, mu­sic.”

She moves from area to area with such con­sum­mate ease, one won­ders about her mo­dus operandi? “I guess it’s what you might call schizophre­nia. The most de­press­ing thing for me— even if it was suc­cess­ful—would be to be stuck on one thing. I am cu­ri­ous; I like to do many things. I also want to meet peo­ple and I do come into con­tact with lots of tal­ented peo­ple who I feel like I want to or­gan­ise in some way. It’s never a plan. I meet these in­di­vid­u­als for some rea­son, or they meet me, but I’m not look­ing for it. It’s all about feel­ing the mo­ment when it ar­rives.”

Lamy’s pas­sion for art and artists is un­yield­ing. In a bid to bring the two to­gether she has cre­ated Bar­ge­nale— the oc­ca­sional gath­er­ings of al­lies and co- con­spir­a­tors, on an in­dus­trial barge, held in a bid to make some­thing— any­thing—hap­pen. No one—from UNKLE’S James Lavelle, record­ing live mu­sic in the base­ment, through to those shar­ing quixotic food on deck—know what’s go­ing on. But to Michele’s eyes it sim­ply feels right, and that’s what she is good at: feel­ing right about things. “On the barge you can be to­gether, dine to­gether, sing to­gether, this is what I like. I see my­self through my guests, whether it’s Gareth or Matthew, or my dar­ling Rick. I am part of them and they are part of me.”

Photo by David Du­nan.

Photo by Danielle Levitt.

Jew­ellery by Abraxas Rex. Photo by Monika Biel­skyte.

Copy­right trunk­archive.com / Snap­per Me­dia.

Photo by Monika Biel­skyte.

Copy­right trunk­archive.com / Snap­per Me­dia.

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