"We Built Fairy Tales In Tiny Little Rooms"

Star stylist and co-fashion editor-in-chief for Vogue Paris Martine de Menthon speaks about sleepless nights with her longtime friend Guy Bourdin and reveals why celebrities do not impress her at all.

A naked body in a hotel room and a man with round glasses who gave directions on how to put it best into a scene sparked a young woman’s interest in fashion: more than thirty years ago she was standing there, in her vintage dress holding a plastic bag, full of jewels. “Right when I arrived, I understood that this was exactly where I wanted to be,” remembers Martine de Menthon of her first shoot with Helmut Newton. Indeed, it was not to be her last: the French stylist has become well-known for her collaborations with famous photographers and undertook numerous cover stories of renowned fashion magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Egoiste and more.

Once the iconic stylist enters the room, my attention is all hers. While we are going through her portfolio which is full of photos that have inspired history of fashion forever, she openly talks about some stories behind the one or the other picture. I could have listened for hours (and this is not only because of her charming French accent).

Unlike most of her colleagues, she started her career in PR. “The job at Cartier was my first step into the luxury world. It helped me to get to know people. Without this experience, I would have been lost at my first job with Guy Bourdin.” 

Guy Bourdin for  Vogue France , Styling: Martine de Menthon

Guy Bourdin for Vogue France, Styling: Martine de Menthon

SLEEPLESS WITH GUY BOURDIN

Asked to describe her longtime friend, his unique nasal voice and catlike gait pop up in her mind. “Guy is my genius,” she says. Having worked together for decades with a perfectionist like him often lead to sleepless nights: “We met in the morning and would spend hours of discussing. Over and over again, until the next morning.” 

According to the stylist, this way of working wouldn't be possible nowadays: “We could take our time. There was no pressure. Today, it’s all about money.” Bourdin had high demands. All of a sudden, he would stop at a shoot, asking for things that were hard, if not impossible to put into practice. “One time he wanted the Place du Palais-Bourbon full of chicken,” remembers de Menthon. 

Nonetheless, neither the stylist nor anyone else she had known, ever felt uncomfortable with his shoots. “He was always looking away when the girls took off their clothes. He was so shy.” During the shoots, however, he was in his element: “No one ever questioned Guy. It is important to just go for it, otherwise you risk to do something average. And with Guy you already knew that it’s going to be perfect.” 

Was he tough on his models? “His work was not only aesthetic but violent and provocative. He pushed the models to their limits. He made them do forbidden things, he made them angry. He was definitely pushy.” De Menthon talks about Bourdin’s shoot with L’Wren Scott. “She was lying naked on a sofa, all day long...” waiting for the artist to take a picture but “...he couldn’t. One couldn't force him. Guy was very instinctive, very sensitive. A total artist.” Years later, says de Menthon, Scott confessed to the stylist that it was the most horrible experience she could think of.

In 1985, Bourdin and de Menthon worked on a project in China. When taking pictures of the rather reserved Chinese models, the French artist allegedly got furious. “They didn't follow Guy’s instructions. And he couldn't take a photo when he was not completely satisfied.” Eventually, they headed back to Paris, empty-handed.

I was curious: how was Guy Bourdin different from other famous photographers? “Patrick Demarchelier, for example, is a fantastic technician. Incredibly quick. He sets it up and is done. Steven Meisel is a master. Mathieu César is a very young talent, a guy with a lot of imagination. All of them are good photographers, but they are not artists. And Guy was an artist.” She smiles, “We built fairy tales in tiny little rooms.”

Guy Bourdin for  Vogue France , Styling: Martine de Menthon

Guy Bourdin for Vogue France, Styling: Martine de Menthon

If she can think of anyone she would not like to work with again? The discreet stylist gives no names but mentions one photographer that “makes things more complicated than they actually are.” Getting up at three o’clock in the morning belonged to the daily agenda: “We were in Mexico. I had high fever, over 39 degrees, but this guy had no limits,” she reveals. 

Faces of celebrities and famous models as well as names of renowned photographers grace Martine de Menthon’s portfolio. Is there any difference between working with a model and a celebrity? “It completely depends on the person… and the level of fame.”

Nicole Kidman by Patrick Demarchelier, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Nicole Kidman by Patrick Demarchelier, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Nicole Kidman’s portrait for the Chanel No. 5 campaign is one of the first works she tells me about. “She is a diva. One has to be very careful with her. In hope she would feel comfortable, we took la mademoiselle to a beautiful suite, next to the studio. I gave her a box full of lingerie as a gift but all I got was a broken smile. She is pretty cold, has high expectations. As soon as she begins to work, she is perfect. Quick and very professional.” 

TWO DIVAS IS ONE TOO MANY

Some stylists put pressure on their models. “You cannot have two celebrities on the set. Your job is to make the best out of your models and to make them as comfortable as possible. They are often really insecure,” says the stylist. Besides experience, curiosity is key to success: “You have to feed your mind. Go to exhibitions and read, read, read.” 

Kate Moss by Michael Thompson, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Kate Moss by Michael Thompson, Styling: Martine de Menthon

THE METALLIC DRESS

Especially when it comes to Chanel, one has to choose wisely: “You have to make the not-so-special things special.” For the Coco Mademoiselle campaign in 2002 she decided to do the unexpected: instead of making obvious ‘Chanel choices’, she chose a metallic dress. “Kate liked it so much, she asked me if she could keep it.” As long as the model wouldn't wear it in public until the campaign was released, she could keep it: “It has to be kept as a secret. When the photo comes out, it has to be the first time people see it.” Naughty Kate couldn't wait though: weeks before the campaign was to be seen, Moss wearing the dress hit the headlines in several magazines. “She even designed a very similar dress for her Topshop collection.” De Menthon takes it with humour and laughs: “She is cute but a little bit sneaky.”

THE MISSING BOX

Three years later, de Menthon styled another Chanel Coco Mademoiselle shoot with Kate Moss: this time, the stylist chose the iconic accessories of the French fashion house; pearls and a black casquette marin. “I put them into a box and told my assistants to send it to the studio. But it never arrived there. So we couldn't shoot.” The whole team, including the make-up-artist and the model from London, the hairdresser and the photographer who flew in from New York, were all waiting for the box to arrive. “It was a nightmare.” Yet, the outcome looks like a perfect dream: “It proves that we were a great team actually,” she adds. 

Kate Moss by Dominique Issermann, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Kate Moss by Dominique Issermann, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Besides Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss is among her favourite models to work with. She remembers the British supermodel arriving on set, right after rehab: “She was very sensitive at that time. We were pretty concerned how this will work out, but as soon as she was in front of the camera, she was another person.The camera is her lover, she plays with it. She is incredibly present. So vivid. There is no photographer out there who wouldn't want to work with her.”

Ketchup, spaghetti and a big portion of sensuality: “We were in a kitchen. Bettina thought about the spaghetti, I came up with the ketchup and the red latex dress,” says de Menthon about the epic photo with Monica Bellucci, taken in 1995.  

Monica Bellucci - Paris Match, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Monica Bellucci - Paris Match, Styling: Martine de Menthon

Does the stylist tell the models about her ideas in advance or does she explain them directly on the set? “It depends. Sometimes, in case they have any questions, they call me.” Having a good relationship to her models is important to her: “I am a bit of a mummy,” she laughs. “I want to be there for them.” 

 Natalia Vodianova by Paolo Roversi, Styling: Martine de Menthon

 Natalia Vodianova by Paolo Roversi, Styling: Martine de Menthon

About Natalia Vodianova: “She was scouted when selling vegetables with her grandmother on a market in Russia. She is a girl with a lot of personality.”

Linda Evangelista for  Vogue Paris

Linda Evangelista for Vogue Paris

About the Vogue Paris cover featuring Linda Evangelista putting her make-up on: “It’s not a very good photo. But it’s vivid and spontaneous. Not arranged. Sometimes those shoots are the best ones. It was taken backstage. That moment captures couture.”

What is it that makes a good shot anyway? “Intimacy is the magic,” reveals the stylist, “and always seek perfection.”

Naomi Campbell was the first black model to star on the cover of French Vogue lensed by Patrick Demarchelier in 1988. “It was a statement. I was told to take two pictures with Patrick: one with Linda and one with Naomi. We chose Naomi. It was so important back then.” And it certainly still is: all-white fashion shows are no rarity and few coloured girls are featured in fashion magazines as advertisers say black models don’t sell. Nonetheless, continued racism in the fashion industry didn't keep Campbell from being one of the “Big Six”. 

Naomi Campbell by Patrick Demarchelier

Naomi Campbell by Patrick Demarchelier

I couldn't help but wonder: are we going to see supermodels like in the 1990s ever again? “Times were different. Those girls were like a gang, it was all about having fun. Today it’s more about money.” The internet and increasing social media apps have changed the way fashion is represented. “One has to be careful what and when to share things. Nothing is a secret any more. Everything can be copied easily and everything has been done at least once. It has become more difficult to impress the audience. People are looking for something new, something different.”  

What’s the difference between working in film and photography? “Film is mostly commercials. The art director has the say then. In editorial shoots you are less limited. You have the idea, you can make decisions and direct things. I like both but I could not only do adverts. I need to be creative.”

Last but not least I had to ask what it is that keeps the talented stylist so grounded? “Celebrities don’t impress me. It’s nothing special. And when you take off somebody’s clothes, you automatically have a different relationship to the person anyway. In the end, we are all the same. After work, I go home to my husband and children, just like everyone else does.”

Throughout the entire interview, it was the stylist's humbleness and positive attitude towards the future of fashion that inspired me most. "We can't keep looking back. Fashion is about the present, not about the past. And it's always the now that is the best time."

FashionMia Windisch-Graetz