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Catherine Baba is a stylist
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I'm reading
Catherine Baba is a stylist
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I'm reading
Catherine Baba is a stylist
Pass it on
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"I'm sure every little girl has this fantasy but it was something that really would not let go."
1 April 2011

Catherine Baba is a stylist

Interview by Rachelle Unreich
Photography by Lenedy Angot

Rachelle Unreich on Catherine Baba

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.

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

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.

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.

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #27 of Dumbo Feather

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.

When did you first develop an interest in fashion?

It was very early, when I was growing up, in Sydney. My mother is a dressmaker and my brother used to do the patterns for Brian Rochford swimwear. He had his factory and my mother had her sewing machine and there was always fabric, always.

So I really started at a young age going into my mother’s workroom and cutting fabric and making dresses for the dolls. I’m sure every little girl has this fantasy but it was something that really would not let go.

I worked with my mother, which was fabulous, because she has her old school of cutting and techniques which I always tried to play and break, to create something else apart from the classic jacket or the classic whatever. I think I used to drive her crazy. I continued and studied textile and design at school. After high school I knew that the only direction in my life was to go next to Paris and continue studying, and that’s what I did. I wanted to completely learn as much as possible and my whole goal was to work in couture houses and to learn all of that. When I arrived in Paris it was in ’94 and it was really the burst of the young designer period. Everyone was a designer and Tom Ford had just started at Gucci, so the industry was morphing into different levels than what it was. It was also the birth of the art director as designer. It was different to a designer like Monsieur Saint Laurent for example. He was the designer artist, I dare to say, whereas Tom Ford who j’adore, he is fabulous, he did give birth, I think, to the art director designer. I’m not going to say every single house is like a style lab—of course Karl Lagerfeld is still the pre-Tom Ford period—but this is what the industry is now.

When you were younger, do you remember having some key fashion moments? A tenth birthday party when you wore something particular, for instance?

I was actually a tomboy when I was young, but at the same time I did love my blue floral printed dress with the bow. It was one extreme and the other. In a way, I can still be completely masculine, but feminine is something I still have, too. But at ten years old, I was being dressed by my mother. She made clothes for us, for Palm Sunday, for example, or for special moments. They were like couture pieces. And I was literally dressed identically to my other sister, who is not that much older than me. When I started making money—my own pocket money that had nothing to do with my parents—that’s when I started really going to the markets in Paddington and the second-hand stores in Darlinghurst and Newtown. I really wanted my own identity, like a twin would feel. I have pieces from when I was 16 that I still wear today. A paisley butterfly winged top for a summer look—we love that.

And I’ve always been taught to cull my wardrobe.

Really? I just can’t let go. I have things that I have had since Sydney that I just can’t let go of and I still wear and the same with other pieces. I can accumulate.

Where do you keep them?

I just need to, I think, find a bigger apartment now. I’m very specific with how I organise my things. It’s a controlled bordello, voila. We try and control it.

Is there a specific piece in your wardrobe that’s valuable to you above all others?

Oh god, there are so many. But, again—the Bermuda Triangle of my mind… you’re putting me on the spot. I suppose… Yves Saint Laurent couture pieces that I bought at the auction after his passing. Everyone was there – designers, stylists, all the major vintage people in Paris that exaggerate prices to another level.

I was sure everything was going to be over my lifestyling budget, but I just wanted to observe and breathe the Saint Laurent air, and see all the beauty and drama.

But there were a lot of pieces, full Russian collection skirting, tops, lamé, velvet, taffeta—everything we live for, maybe ten pieces—and I heard “dernier appel” and my index finger shot to the heavens, and voila! It was an out of body experience and literally a present from the universe or someone else specific—what I paid for literally a hundred times less that it’s worth!

Any memorable turning points for you, fashion-oriented or otherwise?

Well, the real turning point will be my collection, of course! But… when I arrived in Paris and started going to the flea markets, I was seeing these vintage pieces that I used to see in films that I loved in reality. I found an Yves Saint Laurent blouse, a very simple black and white striped one with the ribbon that falls in the front—I still have that—and I bought it for maybe $2. I loved the world of Saint Laurent and the Saint Laurent woman and the Ballet Russes, but I bought it because it wasn’t expensive. It wasn’t necessarily because I liked the shirt or thought it was fabulous but when I wore it, it was interesting that I was getting a lot of compliments just on this blouse. I started to buy more Saint Laurent—again, I don’t wear Saint Laurent for compliments but it was interesting that this happened with the Saint Laurent pieces—and even though the person had nothing to do with fashion or knew about it, they always complimented these pieces. It is true that Saint Laurent was a master with an enormous sensibility to please and beautify women, in my opinion. So Saint Laurent: that was a turning point for me, and I did become slightly obsessed or every time I saw a Saint Laurent piece I was like, “Oh! I have to have her!” In Paris at that time, vintage wasn’t a big deal. It was maybe six or seven years ago where prices completely shot to the sky.

It’s interesting, because the same piece of clothing can dramatically change in price, depending on what people perceive its market value to be.

All these pieces circulate and they all have souls. And it’s the value of the soul that I think is more taken into consideration. Soul is charming but aesthetic and cut are everything!

Do your clothes hold a certain talisman-type power for you?

Oui. I mean, it’s not really serious, but with a friend of mine, we do have this joke where once the helmet—the turban or the hat—is on, then you know, we are ready for action. Also my bangles, my pendants—I feel naked if they’re not on. I don’t wear them constantly at home but really it’s like a uniform I’ve created for myself without knowing. Voila! It’s as though I have created my silhouette or my uniform, my code—that’s more the term I want to use.

How many turbans do you own?

I live for the turbans, darling!

How many are there? Give me a rough count.

I have no idea. At the same time I have fabrics that I also create my turbans with. It’s the scarves and the twists and I just couldn’t stop myself. The more the better; more was never enough.

I love the turban. I love hair also. The diamond! Maybe I have… God, I’m sure less than 100, but I do collect.

And in Paris I’m very lucky because there are so many places where we can find these gems for not that much, and then create, and voila!

How long have you been in Paris?

16 years, maybe. I think this year we’re going into 17. I also grew up as an adult in Paris. Even in Sydney, I was breathing Paris, I studied French, I was listening to French music, going to see the French films at the cinema. Sydney is amazing—I love and I miss it—but for me it was inevitable to come to Paris and do what I wanted to do.

Was it one of those stories where you arrive with $10 in your pocket?

Yes and no. I saved when I was in Sydney already—my part-time job after school. I worked a lot—maybe four different jobs at one point—just to try and make as much money as possible and then come to Paris. But of course my mother helped me, my sisters helped me when I needed. I am in complete debt—indebted to them. I did have support from my family but it wasn’t like everything was set up for me. It wasn’t easy, but it was a challenge. I look back on those days with a lot of warmth.

Was it a struggle when you first arrived in Paris?

I was lucky that I did always land on my feet. I didn’t ever do anything else but fashion in Paris, and then the editorial work just happened. I never intended on being a stylist, I was doing as much in the industry as possible, and not just working in a couture house or prêt à porter. I was getting a lot of requests for editorial work and finally I gave in and said pourquoi pas? And that’s how that happened. Hopefully this year I will be giving birth to my collection.

Why did you yearn to come to Paris when you were so young?

For me, Paris is fashion, couture and all of that. All the other capitals for me are more industry—fashion industries, rather than the creation of fashion. We lived in France when I was really young, like one to two years old. We have pictures of our French days, and I just always fantasised about being in Paris and conquering Paris. But there’s this romanticism, and it’s probably for me the most aesthetically beautiful city in the world. It’s a jewellery box. There was this energy that I needed from Paris.

How did your family end up there?

We travelled a lot when we were really young. My mother is part French, and we ended up in France. There was a possibility of staying in France, but Australia was calling. My father is mixed—East European and European mix.

Their backgrounds must have opened up the world for you, a little.

Yes, and we’ve always sort of thrown French into our vocabulary. We always said “bonjour” and “bonsoir.” And there is a multinationalism I think, that I grew up with which is fabulous, which injects—for me, anyway—more richness and to be open to other things and knowledge etcetera. But it was very eclectic and maybe that ignited an eclecticism in my aesthetic, that’s also very personal. You wouldn’t say the rest of the family shares that kind of eclecticism.

To what extent does being Australian inform your sensibilities?

I think I have a sense of detachment from a lot of the politics that exist. Maybe my nature, my personality is Australian. A lot of people say that I’m quite positive and that’s nice to hear. I think maybe that also comes from coming from the end of the world. It’s also like that underdog motto, really to just go for it, and I think that’s something definitely that is Australian. And I’m very sensitive to the underdogs. I do love to support friends or people who are working in the industry who are independent.

Who have you met in your time in Paris that has inspired you?

So many. I feel lucky that I have met a lot of fabulous and great people. I met Monsieur Saint Laurent before he passed. I think the first time was at the opening of the Pompidou Centre—because it was under construction—over 10 years ago. I was actually in a Saint Laurent piece mixed with something else and something else. I always mix everything. I could feel someone just looking at me, and he was there, and I could see that he knew that I was wearing a piece of his. But the time we actually met was at Loulou de la Falaise’s boutique. She had a small gathering of people for a cocktail for the opening of her boutique and then we would bump into each other in restaurants or situations, but that was a rarity because he hardly…

He was quite reclusive and shy, wasn’t he?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. But he also had a very wicked sense of humour. Also, when I worked at Chanel right after school with Karl Lagerfeld, that was an amazing experience. He was the complete opposite of Monsieur Saint Laurent, he would just break out visual stories while he was sketching silhouette.

He comes across in the documentary Lagerfeld Confidential as a talker, and quite effusive.

Oh yes. And you just drink every word he says, and it’s always with so much humour and wit. He is an encyclopaedia and he’s fabulous. You can’t really have a conversation—I mean you can but you just want to listen to what he says and not interrupt and maybe at the end there is a little applause. But he’s fabulous. Also Marc Jacobs, I met him when he first started out Vuitton through a friend of mine from New York. We were quite close at the beginning, I mean literally living together. He had just arrived in Paris and we were at Marc’s place a lot and that was fabulous. There was all that New York energy in a Parisian apartment. I probably had one look with different pieces, but every day I would change the silhouette—like my sweater would be my skirt or it would be a turban.

I remember he said “God, you’re so Grey Gardens” and I had no idea what he was talking about.

He said, “I have to get that video and show you.” After that, I understood what he was talking about. But Marc is amazing. He is also—in a way like Karl, he’s also an encyclopaedia and he’s a lot of fun, he’s great. Who else? There are a lot of people.

Tell me about your collection.

Hopefully I will have pieces ready for June/July. I was aiming for last year but unfortunately during the filming I had an accident and was bedridden for three months.

Goodness! What happened?

I just collapsed down the stairs and I broke a bone in my back so I had to put a lot of things on hold. Last year was a year of extremity—six months of hardcore every day, every night on the film, and then six months recovering literally in bed. So that was an extremely challenging year, but thank God we’re back on our heels and back on the bike. We’re still getting put together again but it’s definitely a recovery The collection is a one-fabric capsule collection, it’s tiny. But it is to beautify every woman that wears it and maybe a couple of men that want to go there. Voila! I don’t necessarily want this to be a part of the fashion esclavage. It has to be ready for this certain moment. Of course, nowadays every- thing has to be done at the speed of light and with Twitter and Facebook and the internet, that’s just another world and another universe that we’re also living in.

And are you part of that world? Because it’s somehow jarring imagining you on the internet when I see you perennially wrapped in vintage clothes.

I’m not, but I have a baby toe in it. For example Dita, she put me on to Twitter…

Dita von Teese?

Yes. She’s a friend and she Twitters and she knows exactly what she is doing. She said, “you have to get online so you can Twitter,” and I can’t remember where we were in Latvia or in the Eastern country—so she hooked me up with Twitter, but I’m not so involved with it. And Facebook—my sister put me on Facebook—I’m more of an observer and I think curiosity is excellent, we should be curious about everything around us. I have been asked to have a boutique online, where celebrities and celebrity stylists etcetera are involved and I said pourquoi pas? Why not? This was never something that I would have considered earlier but now I’m embracing what’s happening.

Fashion is all about moving forward.

Voila! And also looking back, and living the moment, and moving forward. So it’s the whole mix of this. Even my collection will ultimately be on the internet. I am looking into those foreign waters.

When you meet someone like Dita for the first time, is there a shorthand, because you both speak the same kind of fashion language?

Completely. We’re both very individual, and we have really specific aesthetic values that we nurture and that you see. It’s not just something that we like and it’s hidden. We express it. we show it, we project it visually every day.

When I look at photos of you, there’s an air of mystery about you. Is fashion about mystery to you?

I don’t think about that.

So it’s not conceptual?

No, no, no. I wear glasses a lot because I actually have very sensitive eyes either from the sun or wind or cold. I’m on the bike, I’ve been riding the bicycle in Paris literally since maybe 15 years, right at the beginning. I just enjoy it, it’s a city to ride the bicycle in and get around—you’re everywhere in five or ten minutes and traffic is just like a phobia for me. I mean, I love driving, I drove and bike when I’m in Sydney but to drive a car in Paris would be like suicide for me.

And you manage to ride your bike in those high heels!

It’s not that… um, what’s the word? Ahh! I always have these black holes, do I say it in French or do I say it in English? It’s not that difficult—and the words are always so simple! It’s not that difficult, I always wear heels, I love heels. It’s not just because I’m petite. I think being petite helps also. I’m not a very large framed person but the heels just get higher and higher.

According to the photos, you stick to stilettos. I haven’t seen you in a platform.

I can do a mini-platform. I don’t like a brick, I don’t like a heavy foot and I can do a wedge. I’m looking at my shoes as we speak. I’m very lucky because I know a lot of the shoe designers in the different houses that love me very much and give me presents.

How delightful! So, if I’m you, and I’m at my apartment, would I suddenly get a little array of things on my doorstep in the morning?

That does happen, even with beauty products. I’m waiting—maybe today or Monday—for the Dior injection into my life of beauty. I was actually at the launch of the Dior Addict—the lipstick. Kate Moss is the spokesperson and she was there last night and it was a fête, a cocktail dinner party, and of course I know these people, I’ve known them for a long time, and in the industry it’s a constant musical chairs situation where someone is working here and then they work over there. The exchange just continues and evolves, which is nice.

I’ve got an image of your life being so glamorous. You’re friends with Dita and you’re at parties with Kate Moss…

It’s glamorous but it’s also not forced. We met, and things evolve. Of course Paris—it is the capital of fashion. It’s not the capital of industry, it is more the capital of fashion luxury. When I say luxury, it’s not just the Louis Vuitton and the price of couture, where these pieces cost mammoth amounts of money—they’re also vehicles of expressionism, which is divine, which is beautiful, it’s a creative vessel. In Paris, I think the creative side is nurtured a lot more than anywhere else.

Do you get to nurture the other sides of you?

In Paris—it’s the city of lights, sure, and work. But there is a sort of village feeling about Paris where you can detach yourself. And it is a city of pleasure, also. The city of love!

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