Why fashion's fairy grandmother Agnes b. is a true believer

Jean-Louis DE LA VAISSIERE
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Fab: Agnes Trouble, the fashion designer known as Agnes b., in her new gallery in Paris

French designer Agnes b. really doesn't like the fashion world of which she is one of the great survivors.

"I don't like fashion. I have nothing to do with that world where everyone is in a bubble," said the veteran creator, a lifelong activist for progressive causes.

"Some people like to go out and be seen," said the 78-year-old who dressed her friend David Bowie for decades and who made the famous black jacket with the leather collar that John Travolta wore in the movie "Pulp Fiction".

Like her, Bowie would run a mile from the "celebrity scene", she told AFP.

Both, however, shared a passion for all kinds of modern art. And now Agnes b. -- whose real name is Agnes Trouble -- is opening her own gallery in an up-and-coming corner of the French capital.

Fab will not only house her eclectic private collection of more than 5,000 works -- half of them photographs -- but will also, she promised, be a "factory of culture and social solidarity".

Next to Station F, the world's biggest startup incubator in the shadow of France's national library, the designer wants to put some fizz into what was a soulless corner of French capital.

Her idea is to bring the art, music, fashion and publishing worlds together with the neighbourhood's young tech crowd and its multi-ethnic working-class residents.

Even as she approaches her eighth decade, the grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother to 19, has lost none of the daring, drive and curiosity that helped her build a fashion empire of 300 boutiques, largely in Asia.

- Art and activism -

Indeed, Fab's first show is called "La hardiesse", or "The Audacious One", a nod to the self-taught designer who started out in fashion as a penniless young single mother with twin boys to look after.

Back then, after marrying a much older man straight from school, the young Agnes Bourgois (hence Agnes b.) dreamed of being a museum curator.

Now, she has a collection of Basquiats, Warhols, Nan Goldins, Martin Parrs and paintings by Gilbert and George all of her own that many institutions would mortgage themselves for.

But Agnes b. sees herself more as a motherly custodian than a collector of artists who can fall rapidly out of favour.

The art world can be just as ruthless and as capricious as fashion.

"Suddenly, no one cares about what these artists have done, and they drop them. I don't like that," she told AFP.

For her, an artwork becomes "an orphan when it leaves an artist's studio. It needs to be adopted, loved, seen and understood," the designer insisted.

Born in Versailles, near Paris, into a genteel, but impoverished Catholic family, Agnes b.'s adolescence was marked by abuse by her uncle.

It took her more than 60 years to tackle the subject with the film "Je m'appelle hmmm" ("I'm called hmmm"), which she wrote and directed, although she insisted it wasn't actually her own story.

Agnes b. married the future publisher Christian Bourgois -- who was 12 years her senior -- when she was 17.

- '78-year-old Greta Thunberg' -

"After I had my twins at 19, I left Christian at 21 without a penny. I was lucky to be very poor without being very unhappy. I would buy ham from the shop with the money they gave me for bring them empty bottles.

"One day, one of the twins said to me: 'Aren't you lucky Mammy to to have us!'"

The experience helped forge her social conscience that has seen her support innumerable liberal causes in France and beyond.

"I really feel for the Rohingyas, the Uyghurs and the climate," the designer declared, adding that she is "very afraid of Trump".

With France hit by strikes sparked by government pension reforms, she worried for those who have been "forgotten".

"Nobody talks about the cleaners or the artists who have nothing. Who is defending them?

"I am a bit of a 78-year-old Greta Thunberg," she joked, referring to the teenage Swedish climate activist.

Her liberal Catholic faith, however, is a comfort. "It's pegged into me," she said. "I don't have that doubt even though I really like people who doubt. I need to talk to my friends in heaven."

"We are not machines or animals, even if animals have a kind of soul themselves too."