David Bowie wore her leather trousers, she counts Patti Smith and David Lynch as friends, and at 75 she is the president of hip-hop centre La Place in Paris’ Les Halles. How cool is Agnès B? The French designer, real name Agnès Troublé, has been writing her own fashion rules for four decades, and now is the subject of a lovely cloth-bound biography, Agnès B: Styliste (£30, published by Abrams and created with journalist Florence Ben Sadoun).
As one would expect from a culture-loving Parisian whose tastes range from 20th-century rock gods to the kings and queens of Versailles, this charming tome has a wonderful scrapbook feel, exploring the history of the brand together with Agnès B’s myriad influences through notes and sketches, personal photographs, catwalk pictures and campaign shots. “The idea was to make a book that would show people it’s OK to have your own style and not be influenced by other fashion people,” she tells me.
One of my favourite photos in the book is of Patti Smith on stage at the Paris Olympia in 2006 wearing a floral-print shirt and red, white and black striped pants. It was this laidback French take on rock ’n’ roll that appealed to me in the late 1980s, when as a recent graduate and newcomer to London I saved up to buy chic cotton T-shirts from Agnès B’s Floral Street store (to be worn with ripped jeans, of course). Later came a pilgrimage to the original Agnès B shop in Les Halles on my first trip to the French capital.
The designer took part in the Paris student protests of 1968, and there has always been a freedom and sense of gentle rebellion to her work – she created the best-selling Snap cardigan (from £155, over 2 million sold to date) one summer by taking a pair of scissors to the front of a favourite white sweatshirt and cutting it from hem to neckline, subsequently adding the “snap” factor in the form of pearly press-stud fastenings. Today she remains an independent spirit, more interested in art and culture than the world of high fashion. As well as running a business with more than 300 retail outlets worldwide, her career has been dedicated to supporting artists (she has shown the work of Martin Parr, Gilbert & George, Harmony Korine and Kenneth Anger at her gallery in Paris, Galerie du Jour) and a range of humanitarian causes – from fighting Aids to helping scientific research into climate change through her funding of the schooner Tara.
That Agnès B still designs her label’s entire collection is a given. “I work quickly, I’m happy to do what I do and I couldn’t put my name on something I didn’t design myself.” Yet in typical philanthropic style she is happy to collaborate with young designers such as Anne Blanchard (for autumn/winter 2017) and put their names “Chez Agnès B” on the label.
Surrounding herself with creatives of all ages is something she is committed to – she continues to fund the 94-year-old American-Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas in New York – and this range adds breadth and vitality to her work and her life. “I have 16 grandchildren and some of my friends – musicians, filmmakers – are 30-35, the same age as my oldest grandchildren. I have a very rich life,” she says. This book is testament to that.
Alyson Walsh is the author of Know Your Style: Mix It, Match It, Love It, published by Hardie Grant on September 7. She blogs at That’s Not My Age. To read more of her How To Spend It columns, click here.