In the 17th and 18th centuries, the ability to converse with both wit and depth about a wide range of subjects was a skill assiduously cultivated by French aristocrats (see Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation). It was the ticket to inclusion in worldly society, in particular the influential salons of historical figures such as Madame de Stael. Olivier Echaudemaison, the colorful creative director of Guerlain would no doubt have thrived in this environment. I recently had the privilege of spending a delicious hour in his company along with Christian Poulot (Le Modalogue).
In a conversation that ran the gamut from Asia's current engouement for Western luxury brands (he believes it's only a matter of time before Asia's love affair with Western luxury brands cools in favor of homegrown talent and creativity) to his French military service in Algeria (he found comfort in cashmere) to the power of a well placed complement ("The right complement can make someone feel good for the rest of the day."), he had both Christian and I easily mesmerized. With a vast reserve of amusing anecdotes, the ability to jump seamlessly from one subject to the next and insightful observations gathered throughout a rich, full life, we could easily have talked well into the evening.
And for good reason. Echaudemaison's career spans over five decades (and counting) during which he has worked with the who's who of photography (Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Helmut Newton to name but a few), royalty, models and editors including the legendary Diana Vreeland (both at Harper's Bazaar & Vogue). He is in some respects not unlike a walking encyclopedia of late 20th century fashion history only a lot more fun.
By his own admission, Echaudemaison is comfortable with extremes ("I travel only by private plane and by metro."), an attitude that extends to his work as well. He most enjoys making up random women at Le Bon Marché's makeup counter (" … because they truly appreciate the attention.") and aristocrats ("They have the most impeccable manners.") but would just as soon avoid celebrities and their entourage ("They can be so unpleasant to deal with."). He explained that he owes his creativity (not to mention his professional longevity) to his great curiosity. He also prefers to always look forward rather than look back, a philosophy he shares with Karl Lagerfeld.
I suppose what impressed me most however was how progressive and modern his view is of women and beauty. "Women have it tough. They're under pressure to look good but have only a few minutes to dedicate to the task. We can't expect them to apply ten different products before they leave their home in the morning." With this in mind, Echaudemaison and his team at Guerlain pursue a mission of developing state-of-the-art products that require minimal time and skill to apply. Interestingly, he also noted the shift in cultural expectations towards men. "They too have to make an effort to look good now. They're under pressure both from younger men but also from women who increasingly are going after their jobs." For someone who spent the better part of his career looking after aristocrats, socialites and models, I was surprised by how well he understands the constraints of the average working woman and the complicated dynamics of contemporary culture.
His autobiography (Les couleurs de ma vie) which also includes a make up guide has recently been reedited. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the art of living life to its fullest. And if it just so happens that you find Olivier Echaudemaison at Le Bon Marché's Guerlain counter one day, do drop by and engage him in conversation. You won't regret it.
The Luxe Chronicles
NB In keeping with my policy of full disclosure, I received a copy of Olivier Echaudemaison: Les couleurs de ma vie in preparation for our meeting.