A casual observer might mistake Roitfeld for the embodiment of French froideur, thanks to her uniform of stilettos and severe pencil skirts—not to mention her fondness for bondage and nudity in shoots. But once you get past the intimidating surface, both her work and her manner are much lighter and more down-to-earth. In conversation, Roitfeld is composed but enthusiastic, frank and a bit shy. Her predilection for heels only became a thing, she explained, so she wouldn’t have to talk up to Testino, who is quite tall, and with whom she’s worked for most of her career.
Watching her play dress-up in couture salons for this story was a master class in controlled giddiness. “Ooh, I love zis one,” she said to Versace, about a saloon hall–style gown made out of perforated black leather and crystals. The oohing and aahing continued from behind the dressing screen as she wriggled into the dress. “It’s more princess-y, more couture,” she said when she emerged, celebrating yet another victory of fitting into a sample size. “I feel like a Barbie,” she later said to Azzedine Alaïa, one of the designers she respects most, as she squeezed into a faux-croc skirt suit straight out of Blade Runner. It got to the point where her entire entourage—designers, producers, assistants—just wanted to dress her up and see how she would react. She indulged them all, putting her hands on her hips and squinting, taking a second and a half to decide, before politely reaching for her preferred choice. Usually, it was black.
Roitfeld is having a good time with her life, too. She’s devoted to Christian Restoin, her partner of 30-plus years, and their two kids, Julia and Vladimir, with whom she’s in touch almost every day by BlackBerry Messenger. She smiles a lot. She drinks vodka. She does ballet and yoga. (Roitfeld doesn’t take fashion dead seriously: For our final sit-down interview, she had just arrived from a class, and paired her workout gear with black canvas Givenchy lace-up stilettos. “Look! Isn’t that glamour?” she said, laughing.)
She gets some of her best ideas sitting around in airports, because “you see such a mix of people, from first-class to economy, and all types of bodies—skinny, round, short.” More inspiring than perfection, she says, is “bad taste.” (Hence her choice of Elizabeth Taylor for V—“a woman who I think had the worst taste in fashion,” she said.)
Roitfeld’s work is often a study in contrasts. She likes to incorporate quotidian props and personal belongings into the sexiest shoots, posing sharp-dressed models with oven mitt–size reptilian gloves, Frappuccinos, her father’s sweaters, or kitty-cat masks, as she did for the fall Chanel ads. In the pictures taken for this story, she followed the same impulse; in each photo there is an item from her family—either her partner’s, her son’s, or her father’s. And she stayed away from anything too literal: A look featuring a transparent tulle Givenchy gown was nixed for being “too historic”; instead, she popped out of the fitting room with a black harness underneath and, of course, more eyeliner. When directing models, “I want a lot of little gestures like this,” she said, biting her thumbnail, twiddling her hair, and tugging on her shirt. “Natural gestures. I think when women see pictures like that they can see themselves more, because they’re not just looking at a beautiful body.”