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Not just a pretty face

Former model Ines de la Fressange talks of life on the ramp

Tabloid on Saturday

If you thought being a model is just about being pretty, think again. Yes, you pretty faces over 1.7 meters may do well, but if you want to be remembered, you’ll need a little personality to survive in what can be a tough industry. But attitude isn’t just Naomi Campbell. Ines de la Fressange was doing things her own way before the girls who wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. The epitome of French chic became known in the early 80s as “the model who talks”, rarely keeping her opinions to herself and treading a path dictated by her own model walk.

“I was a terrible model, that’s plain,” she told The weekend tabloid! while in Dubai last week. The 55-year-old was in the UAE in as the face of shoe label Roger Vivier, which has a store at Dubai Mall’s Level Shoe District, a job she has done since the venerable French brand was revived in 2002. She still appears slightly baffled by the interest in her younger self. “I didn’t know how to make a dress turn like models do, I was walking like I was in the street, saying hello and rolling my eyes — and they thought it was charming. Funny things happened to me — I had huge bracelets and the designer would say, ‘don’t forget to take off your jacket on the runway’ — in those days, we did things like this — and I had to take off all my bracelets [she mimes piling bracelets on the floor of a catwalk]. People were laughing so much, but it was a real accident!”

De la Fressange is still gangly — she’s 1.8 metres tall — but she handles those long, loose limbs with grace now, as she draws on an electric cigarette and laughs, loudly, mocking herself and occasionally others.

Every decade or so, there is a model who comes along and breaks the mould; Kate Moss did it when everyone was curvy; Gisele did it when everyone was skinny; de la Fressange did it when everyone was trained and groomed to within an inch of their lives. “I was ridiculous,” she insists of her tomboyish style. But after Jean Jacques Picard, a famous consultant, said to the designers, she’s so French, typically French, old-fashioned, very good, I suddenly became ‘the French-chic girl’.

“In life, there are some people who help you. It’s not only you, it’s people who help. It’s important people trust you and like you. It’s important that you like them.”

And then there are times you have to listen to your heart. De la Fressange was the first model to become the face of Chanel, back when the brand was still considered old fashioned and had just come under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld, who would make it the fashion powerhouse it is today.

“There are people who say, ‘you shouldn’t do that’. When I was modelling, I was working so much — doing 40 shows in Paris, 20 in New York, 30 in Milan — then when Chanel asked me to sign this exclusive contract, everybody told me ‘it’s an old house, my grandmother used to shop from there, and you’re such a successful model, why do you want to stop?’ I said it’s more fun to work in the studio with Lagerfeld. They thought I was crazy. The decisions you have to do, sometimes the best ones, there’s a lot of people — because they love you — they think it’s something bad.”

She signed with Lagerfeld in 1983, and remained there until 1990, when the two fell out (they are now, finally reconciled). “After, when I decided to leave Chanel, I remember two French journalists took me for lunch. They told me ‘if you leave, you are going to be forgotten immediately’. They didn’t know I was already talking with my lawyer and the thing was done. I said, ‘thank you very much for your advice’, i didn’t dare say ‘too late!’. And I think it was a good choice too.”