In 2014, the establishment’s leading rabble-rouser held sway over the closets of the cognoscenti (via CR Fashion Book) and the fashion-mad masses (via Harper’s Bazaar) like never before. She’s always game to reminisce about her salade days with Tom Ford, but it’s her obsession with the future that’s cemented her reign. BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
What’s the biggest surprise about running your very own glossy?
I have the freedom to do anything I like! You never know when you’re leaving a title like Vogue how people are going to be with you afterward. I wondered, “Where are they going to seat me at the fashion shows?” It is difficult. You know your position in the fashion world from where you sit at shows. So now, even though I’m not Vogue editor in chief, I get very good seats; I am very happy. It gives me strength. I loved my years at Vogue, but this is a new life. It’s a new adventure. I still get big recognition from the fashion world, and it warms my heart.
You’ve been a real champion of young talents post-Vogue Paris.
Some are faithful, some are not, which I have learned. But it’s okay. I found Sebastian Faena, Michael Avedon…I’m very happy with the ones who still follow me. I have a certain talent for discovering new people!
Gigi Hadid, for example.
I gave her the cover of CR, I gave her a try in Tom Ford, I gave her [a spot in] amfAR, I put her in my Bazaar spread between Iman and Claudia Schiffer and Lady Gaga. When I like someone, I really like someone! I am a courageous person to not work with the same people everyone else is working with. This is my talent. To put Kim Kardashian on the cover? It’s a talent. It’s a risk.
You were an early champion of Lara Stone.
She had something different; you cannot describe it. It’s an instinct. She was once the sort of girl you take for the show fittings, for the hair and makeup trials, but never to book for the show. Can you imagine? I pushed her. I gave her so many covers, so much visibility. Now she is one of the biggest girls in the world. She’s huge. At times she was a bit huge—you could not zip up a skirt on her. I didn’t care if she was a bit above the regular size; it made her more beautiful to me. Other people didn’t book her because they would think she was a bit too curvy. For me, it’s not a problem. We can cut the skirt!
Queen B is on your latest CR cover. That’s quite the coup!
Beyoncé asked me. I don’t know why: Maybe she liked the way Kim looked different on CR. Beyoncé is dressed in Comme des Garçons in the shoot; this is huge. I think this picture will stay in fashion photography archives forever. Honestly, it’s the picture I’m most proud of in my career.
How did you initially cross paths with Tom Ford?
I was working with Mario Testino at the time, and Gucci was, to me, just a pair of loafers. It was not a very exciting brand. Tom called Mario and me to work with him. We said, “Who is Tom Ford? What is Gucci?” One day we said, “Okay, come visit us.” The moment Tom came in the studio, Mario and I changed our minds. He was so charming! So sexy! So good-looking! So we decided to work with him. It was the first time Tom was really doing a collection for women, and it was such a compliment to be his muse. That’s stuck on me—it’s a good, quality label: muse of Tom Ford.
How long did you work together?
We did Gucci for 10 years, and four or five years with Saint Laurent. I just worked on his last [Tom Ford] campaign. You cannot ever take me away from him! He can find a beautiful model for his perfume or for his runway, of course, but what we have together is unique.
Does it feel the same working with him these days?
Sure, we’ve changed: I’m a grandma, he’s a dad. But we still have the same idea of an iconic woman. You know when you have a good feeling with someone? Tom is the person I feel the most “me” with.
What might we not know about Tom?
When he looks at you, it’s like a scanner. He checks everything you’re wearing; the makeup, everything. He tells me if something is out of place. When you know someone, you don’t have to talk. We’re like an old couple. We don’t need to talk to understand if he doesn’t like my skirt. It’s terrible!
Have you given Tom parenting advice?
No. It makes me laugh to think of Tom Ford as a dad; it’s very nice! I’ve never met [Tom’s son] Jack, but I think Jack and [my granddaughter] Romy are going to meet one day. Tom and I dream that one day they will meet! Also, the way my son Vladimir wears Tom Ford—he has something Tom Ford inside him! He is not a model, but he’s the best model for Tom Ford. He has a way of wearing it.
Do you have such a special rapport with anyone else?
Karl [Lagerfeld] and I have this very special understanding, too. He calls me Madame Roitfeld. Tom and Karl are both Virgos, and so am I. Maybe it’s a Virgo link. Karl loves Tom, and Tom loves Karl. They’re very smart, and very funny. I laugh a lot with both of them.
What’s it like working with Karl?
I’m going to do another book with Karl—we decided to do it based on a Sunday morning conversation. Like a Lou Reed song! Karl has a genius title for the new book: On Sunday Morning. I said, “Get the title now!” Our first book, The Little Black Jacket, might be the most successful fashion photography book in the world.
Stephen Gan has been such an important part of your career, too.
It’s very strange because I’ve known Stephen maybe 20 years, and through CR and the documentary [Mademoiselle C], I’ve discovered a new person. Not exactly the one I thought he was before. Before, we had a lot of fun, went to parties, but didn’t work hard together.
I didn’t know he would be such a hard worker—almost all his life is dedicated to work. He is a very discreet person, too. He never talks about himself. He gives a lot to everything, and he has the best education in fashion, and he knows everything visually, but he has to keep something for himself. I’ve learned so much from Stephen. And I’m not always easy to work with: I live in Paris, I change my mind a lot, I have my craziness…
Your personal style has become iconic: kohl-rimmed eyes, sexy pencil skirts, lots of noir, sleek tresses… Where did it come from?
I’ve had the same look for a long time! Even when I buy a new skirt, it’s always the same sort of skirt. I have a look, I must say. When I was working for Tom Ford at Gucci, 20 years ago, it was the Gucci girl look, but that was already my look. Tom didn’t copy me, but he interpreted me on the runway.
Have you ever tried to switch it up?
Of course, but when I’ve tried other looks, I say, “No, it’s not me!” My look is body conscious. I am lucky—I have good legs.
Have you modified your getups at all over the years?
My skirts now cover my knees. But I will stay skinny, I am sure. I have always been very skinny. The shape of my body, I don’t think it will change. I still wear the same John Galliano black dress I bought 18 years ago. I do my ballet to keep in shape and get the good posture. Maybe I will shrink a bit when I get old, so I have to stretch. Sometimes now I’ll go with heels that are a bit lower because my back is not so good.
Let’s discuss your global fashion director gig at Bazaar.
After two years, still most people don’t really understand what I’ve been doing for Bazaar! I’m not just working for American Bazaar; I’m working with no one above me. I have total freedom for [editions in] 30 countries. It’s such power. The job was not my idea; it was the idea of David Carey. I had lunch with him at the top of the Hearst Tower, and it was like, wow! What they proposed to me had never existed before. I didn’t know right away if I was going to do it, but I knew the idea was a genius one.
What felt so genius about it?
It’s very interesting to be visible in so many countries. It brings other editions things they would not have—I’m not sure they would have Gaga on the cover! For me, it’s big. You put one dress on the cover, and 40 million people see that dress. The message has to be very clear.
Do you have to play it a bit safe since it’s such a vast audience?
Of course, but each time I’m a little bit more wild. A bit more fashion. I’m lucky, because I have CR, which gives a strong vision of fashion for people who understand and love fashion. I hope Bazaar gives the pleasure of fashion to women who are maybe not as well educated in fashion. I try to make it a bit easier for them.
What kind of other projects have you gotten more invested in recently?
Now, all the models want to be there in the amfAR show—and it raises a lot of money! Three and a half million Euros just for 42 dresses is a lot of money, I think. I am very proud of all these big projects—the Pirelli calendar, too.
Why are you dabbling in perfume next?
Because it’s something I didn’t do before! I dreamed of a perfume because a perfume is not just for one season—it has a heritage. Maybe mine will be like Chanel, you never know! We have to dream. I’ve spent two years working on it.
What can we expect?
I’m hoping it will launch in September 2015. I’m doing seven different scents! With perfume, you need a story behind it, and my story is quite great.
Has being a grandma changed the way you work?
I don’t think I work differently, but I think a bit differently. I’m very in love with my granddaughter. Gaga says, “Grandma, this song is for you” at concerts, and it gives me tears, you know? I hope she will be as talented as Gaga.
Where do you see yourself in a decade?
See, that’s the problem: I don’t see myself aging. You get bitter—your body is not the same, you’re more tired—but I look at Karl, and in 20 years I must have the same energy as him. He sets the standard. I cannot say I’m tired or that I have too many projects. Karl can do everything, so I can, too! I’m not as chic as him, you know. I have a cold right now, and I’m complaining a lot. But I try not to do that too much, because I think that’s such a s**t attitude. As I said to Gigi, “You have to be happy every day.”
Do you live by that advice?
Of course, it’s not a perfect world, but comparatively I think I’m quite lucky. I’m Russian, so there’s the sadness in me, always, but I try to be happy, always. Being down and up all the time? That’s the Russian mentality!
You’re a model fairy godmother of sorts, non?
In a way, yes. Models I work with write me very nice cards. But sometimes with models and young photographers, I can be very mean. Not mean, but very tough, I guess. I’ll say, “You need to do this… stop complaining…”
Does your own experience modeling make you more empathetic?
Yes. I know that being naked in front of people is not very nice. So, immediately I will say, “Come on, give her a robe, she is not going to stay naked, she is going to be cold,” or “Give her something to eat!” I work a lot with Steven Meisel, and he’s the nicest person with models! He asks, “Do you want to drink?”, “Do you want to rest a bit?”, “Do you like this song?” He gives them the best to be more beautiful. It’s very important.
Do you find inspiration anywhere odd?
In my bath. It makes me think. It’s funny, because Tom is the same way. I hate showers, so I take a lot of baths. It’s a time for myself, with my music! I also think a lot on the plane. You can’t do anything else, anyway.