The Future of Fashion: Olivier Zahm

Olivier Zahm’s love of women is well documented, not least by Zahm himself on his Web site, But the French editor and founder of the twice-yearly independent publication Purple Fashion has many other passions: art, fashion, his daily uniform of white or gray jeans and black Yves Saint Laurent leather jacket, parties, freedom. There may be an element of self-promotion behind some of this, but in an increasingly conformist world, Zahm offers an original, entertaining, and astute voice. During our conversation, conducted by phone last month between New York and Paris and somewhat condensed here, he discussed his conviction that magazines will exist as long as fashion exists, his suspicion that the financial crisis was just a pretext to scare people, and his fervent wish that the world in general—and Lindsay Lohan in particular—would stop spending so much money on clothes.

What was the original impulse behind Purple Diary?
[It happened] in a way by accident, because the Purple Diary was just a section of a bigger project I had, and because I started to take pictures every day of parties or pictures of my life, I needed an interesting way to use these pictures and not to let them go into digital archives and disappear. Because now everything disappears. It’s digital, but if you don’t copy your hard drive, pictures disappear after one or two years…So then I had this idea of having a personal diary, an intimate diary, mixing intimacy or privacy with my public life and creating a sort of contrast between what’s really intimate, like sex and love, and what’s really public, a party, a fashion show, an exhibition. What’s meant to be public and what’s meant to be private and make them, like, coexist. It was suddenly exciting because it was, in a way, breaking the barriers of something, which is actually what the medium itself, the Internet itself, does. For celebrities it’s a nightmare, but for me it’s a pleasure. It’s a decision. I would love to go further into intimacy, but my girlfriend and my lovers are sometimes a bit reluctant.

Have any of the reactions to the blog surprised you?
What surprised me is the number of people coming, because I print 60,000 copies of Purple[a season] and I have 100,000 [weekly Web site visitors], more visitors a week on the blog than I have readers in one season with the magazine…I can tell from the discussions I have that people know that I’ve been there, I’ve done this, I’ve seen that exhibition or this film, and then it comes into the discussion and it’s changing my life in a way and my interaction with the girls, with the friends. It hasn’t changed my interaction with the advertisers yet. [ Laughs.]

Well, let’s talk about that.
I haven’t found the right way to make a little money off it because I don’t want regular advertising. I think it would be really bad. So I don’t want advertising [of that kind]. I’m looking for a way to involve brands, but I haven’t found it yet and it’s not my priority.

You say you’d like to go further into intimacy?
It’s always delicate because I respect the girls around me. They’re real people and I respect their privacy, so I can’t really go too far, but sometimes it’s really playful and they’re OK. But when they’re more emotionally involved, it can be a bit difficult, and I totally understand. To me love and sex is the most beautiful thing on earth, you know. It’s more beautiful than a landscape, so I love to keep pictures of the girls in these private moments because they are giving you the most beautiful side of themselves. It’s like a gift from God. It’s beautiful. I’m not New Age, I’m not mystical, I just really love it, and it’s so beautiful to capture with a camera that I really want to share that, you know…And also, Purple is a lifestyle. With my magazine, what I want to do is personally to be more free, and I want people to be more free, to open their possibility of contact, of sex, of love. I want that. This is important to me. I consider that Purple is a free lifestyle. Not in a stupid way, not in a childish or immature way, in a mature way now because I’m 45, 46. So the blog is also this vocation to see what constructs a lifestyle, to see what could be. If my life would be perfect, it would look like the Purple Diary. You see what I mean? It’s an illusion, too. I’m constructing a character.

Even Jefferson Hack joked to me that he lives vicariously through your blog, and Jefferson’s not exactly the kind of guy who stays home with his slippers and pipe.
It’s interesting. I’m discovering the possibilities of this medium, the Internet and the blog, and there’s a lot of possibilities. It’s also a way for me to train myself as a photographer, because now it’s my new obsession. I want to become a photographer, not just an editor. I want to be a photographer. I was a bit shy before and now I’m convinced I can do as good as the people I’m generally working with, except for five of them. [ Laughs.]

I think you said somewhere, though, that the Internet is not a creative medium.
It’s not a creative medium for fashion, you know. For fashion, I think a magazine is the place for creativity, because for fashion photography, you don’t only show the last collection and the clothes, you show the way they should be worn, you show or you try to capture a spirit, a certain moment in time, and this is creativity in fashion. It’s a way to incarnate and interpret fashion. On the Internet, I don’t see [it], but maybe I’m wrong. I think this is what a magazine is made for. It’s the perfect medium for fashion. Television is not a medium for fashion at all. I don’t know what television is the medium for, actually. It’s a medium to control the population and to make them more stupid. Definitely, the Internet is a medium for interaction. It’s a medium for contact. Not for creativity.

So you don’t think the Internet will replace magazines?
The commercial magazines may be replaced, because the Internet is a better place for commerce and immediate information. The Internet is a chance for magazines because it forces the magazines to be more creative and to really explore what they are, what is the essence of a magazine and what a magazine is meant for. And it’s not meant for commerce…Magazines are also made for instruction, for energy, for voyeurism, for sexiness, for pleasure, for a lot of things. Not only a place to sell products. This is why you don’t have any good magazines now in Japan. It’s a disaster because they just consider magazines like an extension of advertising…This kind of magazine, strictly commercial, will certainly disappear because you have more information, more contact, more possibility of buying on the Internet. But a true creative fashion magazine can’t be replaced by a true creative fashion site because it doesn’t exist and it won’t exist. You don’t want to look at a fashion shoot on your screen, do you?

Well, no one’s done a good job of it yet.
It’s really difficult. Maybe some creative people will find a way to make it really fun and entertaining and surprising. Maybe we’ll see soon some interesting fashion and art site that will change [things]. But do they need the format of television then, of a small TV program, something moving?…I don’t know, it’s complicated. But to me the future of magazines is actually the future of fashion. If fashion disappears, magazines will disappear. But as long as fashion has something to say and as long as fashion is a dream or as long as fashion is a creative domain made by a few crazy people that we love, from John Galliano to Sonia Rykiel, then we’ll do magazines. We’ll do the best magazines we can, because we are there to celebrate their minds, in a way. The designers are the true inspiration for fashion magazines, or the artists, architects, filmmakers, whatever. As long as art and fashion are exciting domains, the magazines will be good.

Are fashion shows, the live experience, still important? How big a leap is it to go from Nick Knight filming the Alexander McQueen show to a virtual show without an audience?
To me, the Internet is just an extension of reality. It can’t replace reality. A show is a ceremony. It’s a religious ceremony with the people that really believe. You don’t go to a Comme des Garçons show if you don’t really believe in Comme des Garçons. If you don’t believe in it, you go to a baseball match, right? So it’s a ceremony. You need a ceremony, you need a master of ceremonies, and you need a few people to witness the ceremony. It’s not a dark, obscure, dangerous ceremony. But then, the Internet is just a way to expand it and open the ceremony to a lot of people who want to enter. So I don’t see any competition. I don’t think the Internet will absorb the reality. I think the Internet can only expand the reality and open it and transform the perception we have of this reality. Because introducing the Internet into a fashion show, what Nick Knight was doing with Alexander McQueen, is also transforming what a fashion show is. [Using] really advanced technology for the Web, it’s a future step of fashion shows. It’s not that they will disappear, right?

But are there too many shows? You’re into freedom; I guess you’d say everybody should be allowed to show.
Yes, plus you only go where you want to go. Or you only go where you are not invited. You only want to go where you are rejected. The fashion show is a really important moment. It’s a ceremony, and it’s also still five to ten minutes of pure fashion, free from everything, free from commerce. I mean, we have to preserve this little moment, this psychological concept of potlatch, where you spend money for just feux d’artifice, fireworks. We celebrate, and we only celebrate and we spend the money away because we celebrate our love for fashion. So you and me, we have to go to fashion shows in this mind, with this spirit.

Are the commercial pressures on designers too strong now? They’re designing eight-plus collections a year. Is it possible to be creative under those circumstances?
That’s certainly true. That’s a big problem…They are doing too much and they have a lot of pressure, and I don’t even know how they are able to handle that. It’s really hardcore. They need to have a really good team with them. They need to be respected and to be protected from this. From what I can witness and for a few friends of mine, I can tell that it’s really not easy. And the designers don’t know how to react. They can’t be like Monsieur Saint Laurent was, like saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sick, I took too much drugs, I can’t finish the collection, I’m going to Marrakech now.” That was the old good times. [ Laughs.] They [would] be fired immediately.

But then how do you explain Karl Lagerfeld, who can handle it all?
Karl has a good team around him, and he knows how to drive them and how to have everyone working in the same direction very quickly. And he is extremely quick at finding ideas, so he doesn’t lose one day, one hour, one minute. That is quite exceptional. He finds ideas very quickly because he’s also an encyclopedia; his mind is an encyclopedia, so he opens this book in his mind on this chapter and, tock tock tock, this chapter for this idea, boom boom, and then he puts everybody working in that direction. And everything is well articulated and clearly organized in his brain. He doesn’t confuse or have too many ideas; his mind is clearly oriented and structured. He is a living encyclopedia. He is quicker than the Internet, than Google.

Has the rise of fast fashion affected luxury fashion?
I don’t see any problem with that. To me, it’s always been there in one way or another. It’s part of the game…The fashion system itself is a mega copy machine. Fashion doesn’t stop copying—the past, the tribes, the workers, whatever. Fashion is just a way to copy, copy, copy, copy everything. I don’t think in a bad way. You know even Martin Margiela clearly has a line that’s just made by the exact reproduction of clothes. That’s fashion. That’s the essence of fashion. How do you copy? The problem in fashion is not that you copy, it’s how do you copy and what do you copy and how do you mix different copies…All the clothes have been made and made and made and made. They are just remade and remade and remade.

Is the economic situation just a bad moment, or has it changed everything?
To me 2010 is a new start. I’m really optimistic about 2010. I can’t tell you why, but to me it’s a new start. It’s not only economic. Everyone is picking up on the money or the economy or the credit [crisis] as the main determination. To me, in fashion the main determination is the desire. Is it a period where we really want to move on, or is it a depressing period in a psychological way? To me it’s very open. I don’t know why I have this feeling, but it’s a very clear and open period. It’s a new decade. It’s exciting. You have a few more years to live; let’s go for it. We are really lucky and we are living in a very privileged world. To me this economic crisis is just a massive intoxication. We are rich and we are smart and we are, let’s say, beautiful, so what’s the problem? It’s just a way to scare people and to make them work more. There is no crisis. I don’t see the crisis. To me there is no crisis. It has always been difficult to find money, and it will always be difficult to find money when you want to be free and to do what you want, where you want to, whatever the bank system is. And when the bank system will have collapsed, I will continue to do a magazine.

Talking of the magazine’s survival, I think you’ve said the way you dress, your uniform, was a conscious decision to brand yourself, to raise Purple‘s visibility.
The same uniform every day is a good way to avoid extra expenses in this difficult time. [ Laughs.] I put Lindsay Lohan on the cover of Purple, but I disagree with her obsession for buying, buying, buying every day as much as possible clothes. I’m doing a fashion magazine and I know I’m [being] recorded, but I would love all the people who love fashion to buy a minimum of fashion, just what they really like and wash carefully their clothes. [ Laughs.] What was the question? If I branded myself? Yes, because today fashion is about celebrity, so you have to be glamorous yourself if you want to be taken seriously in a superficial world that we call fashion. You have to look glamorous so that people think you’re part of what you’re dealing with. Before, I thought that to be taken seriously you should just be invisible. But that was the nineties. I was really anti the star system and anti-fashion and anti-labels. I was like Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang, and then I totally changed in 2001. I changed to survive, but also the times changed. What was relevant in the nineties wasn’t really relevant anymore. And in 2010, it’s again more complex. It’s not enough to be a celebrity. No one cares no more. I will have to move on.

You’ve been an art critic and an art curator. Do you ever worry that the playboy image will overshadow those aspects?
Every man should be a playboy, no? It’s the nature of man, right?

I don’t know, my wife might have something to say about that.
Every man should celebrate and seduce women because women love to be celebrated and seduced, and they’re bored if you don’t try to be at your best or have the best conversation, the best look. It’s not an insult to be [called] a playboy…Of course, I love art and have been doing art critiques and have been curating shows, but if you ask me what I prefer, woman or art, I would say woman. Art is art. I need art in my life as much as I need food, but the most beautiful thing on earth is to meet a woman. That’s what you will remember at the end of your life, right? Plus, it’s a game. It’s really funny. You can’t seriously consider yourself a playboy, or you’re already a bad playboy.

Photo: Theo Wenner

Originally published:, March 24, 2010