"I think there is a little artistic part in every person, even in the most preppy guy," said Thierry Gillier on a recent afternoon, leaning into a supremely deep sofa in his country home in France. "Maybe it's just in the morning when he wakes up, with his messy hair and his shirt pulled down, but even he can be the sexiest guy on earth for those two minutes. In a way, our clothes are inspired by that kind of artist's silhouette: 'If I just throw my tunic over this...'"
Barefoot and clad in black T-shirt and jeans, the founder of the Parisian fashion label Zadig & Voltaire looked a little more relaxed than the the boho rocker image projected by the clothing he makes. In person, he maintains a distinctly French vision of ease.
On this particular Sunday, Gillier had retreated from the city heat to the Normandy getaway he shares with his family: wife and former Zadig model Cécilia Bönström, now the company's creative director, and their four children (three from previous marriages).
Sited on 10 acres of apple tree-dappled pasture, their renovated farmhouse integrates elements of sleek modernism into the region's Gothic style, uniting the half-timbered walls, shingled roof and limestone of the original 16th-century living quarters with a new kitchen and entryway. A second addition, built in soft Canadian wood with floor-to-ceiling windows, links those spaces to the property's stables, once used to shelter champion polo horses and now housing an indoor pool. Throughout the living areas, a selection of contemporary sculptures is woven seamlessly into the architecture, set atop piles of books or standing in the middle of the room.
"To me, an art collector is basically a freaky guy," Gillier said. "You don't know why you keep buying; there is just this need to get the pieces that you want. And then later, you might find a way to put it all together, but in the meantime it's just about filling my desire. I can't deny that, today, art is money — but it's worth it. You can say anything you want about it, but it's worth it."
As a self-proclaimed man of extremes, Gillier's collecting habit is not measured or rational but rather frenzied, driven by ravenous bouts of desire that reach a climax of consumption and then fade into the next fixation. Moving quickly through the spaces of his Normandy home, he said he can recall periods in his life based on the artworks that obsessed him at the time. In the living room, the violet beams of John McCracken's 2008 Flower are propped precariously against the wall. Jeppe Hein's 2010 Geometric Mirrors III, installed on the floor next to the sofa, infinitesimally refracts the surrounding glass and brick. A pink Franz West sculpture sprawls like a tangle of pipe-cleaners along the length of the pool; it has surely been splashed.
"My favorite art piece changes every day," Gillier said. "Because when I bought the McCracken, it was like, 'Wow.' I couldn't get my eyes out of it. But then the next piece comes, and then another, and another."
Despite declaring that "good" contemporary sculpture is difficult to find, Gillier has managed to do so, scouring the art landscape from California to Israel, Morocco and Sweden. His collection includes eccentric works by the likes of Sigalit Landau, Latifa Echakhch, and Ann Edholm, as well as more obvious choices: Hirsts, Basquiats, Twomblys and Judds occupy his palatial homes in both New York and Paris — the former a townhouse on 73rd and Madison, the latter a 19th-century apartment previously occupied by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
"If you don't have storage, then you don't collect," Gillier said with a smirk. He cast his eyes in Bönström's direction.
"It's always excess, excess, excess with him," she jumped in, eating a strawberry from the garden. "But what I like about Thierry's connection to art is that it is not the museum aspect. Art is not something we hang on the wall, it's something we live with, and we are not precious about it. My older sons play football in the house, but they have always had this natural understanding, this natural reflex to the art."
Art is, indeed, an important part of the Gillier family history. Born in Troyes to an old French clan with classical tastes, Gillier, a distant heir to the Lacoste fortune, always had artistic inclinations of his own. As a teenager, he spent his time in experimental bursts of creativity — drawing, painting, cutting up his jeans and dyeing his shirts. To his parents' dismay, he wore all black; he got piercings. "They were collecting mostly 17th, 18th century French art, and always had books of Picasso, Braque, or Kandinsky around," Gillier said. "But I was very upset by Picasso because it seemed so easy, like a child's work. So of course I wanted to outdo him. That's kind of the story of my life, you know: if he can do it, I can do it."
To better oversee Zadig's success in the American market, Gillier and his family have moved their operations to New York for part of the year. It's a city, of course, with particular resonance for Gillier, who followed an American girl to Bard College in the 80's, speaking little English, and managed to get himself enrolled in the painting program by seducing the admissions secretary. He was promptly thrown out, he said, for being "too wild," but he eventually graduated with a Bachelor's degree from the film department, and went on to study at Parson's School of Design.
"I mean, every artist has been fired from some place," he said. "But Bard was so important to me, because I was interested in the weird connections between things, and France was not at that time. My father honestly thought I was gay! Then I fell in love with a girl, and she led me to Bard, and finally, I was allowed to just do me."
"So it was for love that you went, not for your art!" Bönström interjected.
Gillier laced his fingers behind his head. "It all gets mixed up together," he said, "when you love things."
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