Michèle Lamy: Chaos
Maxine Leonard cuts through the myth of unwilling muse, cultural nomad and boxing entrepreneur Michèle Lamy to discover something even more elusive lies beneath.
Interview MAXINE LEONARD
Photography MARTINA HOOGLAND IVANOW
Beauty Papers: Vanity can be explored through the idea of performance, splendour and show. Is your approach to beauty part of a performance?
Michèle Lamy: You started with the hardest question! I’ll just tell you what comes to my mind because I prefer to tell stories rather than analyse abstract things. Perhaps reflecting on beauty is about a judgement of somebody. There is a sense of being conscious, in the representation of who you want to be, but in general, I don’t think about this. I like to think about people being themselves and then there is reflection. It’s not about trying to be something you’re not, although there are aspects of that that can be fun. Performing is not something I relate to. This is who I am.
And I have a couple of quotes to share on the subject: St Augustine: “Beauty is the splendour of truth.” And Jeff Greenfield: “This is part of the involuntary bargain we make with the world just by being alive. We get to experience the splendour of nature, the beauty of art, the balm of love and the sheer joy of existence. Always with the knowledge that illness, injury, natural disaster or pure evil can end it in an instant for ourselves or someone we love.”
BP: So it’s an unconscious thing for you?
ML: Conscious or unconscious… If you are young it’s important to go through certain ‘performances’, if you like, to figure yourself out, exploring who you are. In fact, I do not think it’s even a question of age, it depends on how you feel. At a point when we say that we relate to a person it’s because you can see in them that they understand who they are and are comfortable in their skin.
BP: Have you always been comfortable in your own skin?
ML: I don’t remember not being, but perhaps I was not. I think deep down, since I was a little girl… there was a moment I had a pessimistic view of the world, but I challenged this by becoming really enthusiastic and set out to enjoy every minute. I am always ready to explore my limitations. I like the process, the journey.
BP: Is this ever-evolving for you?
ML: Of course. That’s why I am always happy to get up in the morning. I always like to feel some adventure is coming, even if it is a little one.
BP: What does vanity represent to you?
ML: An image of Dorian Gray springs to mind.
BP: As a woman I’m seduced by how you look. It fascinates me. As a make-up artist in the industry, I feel the standard today is limited. Do you find it intrusive that the world is your mirror or that I’m sat here asking questions about how you look?
ML: No, it’s funny because I don’t really understand it in a way. I believe it’s about genes, a past history, perhaps that I invented or by things that have touched me. When I was 17 I went to Tunisia, I tried to work there, finding locations. I became fascinated by the older generation of women there, the Berber women. There was a particular type of woman I was drawn to – they were adorned with marks on their faces, skin that had been exposed to the sun and wrinkles on the face. I was attracted to this more than, say, Marlene Dietrich. I was intrigued by their beauty. I think that more than anything, having lived in America, particularly when people ask where I am from, I think about this. But we are who we are. I have always been like this. And I’m well at ease in the corner booth of the Claridge’s tearoom with you asking me questions.
BP: Did you set out to provoke then?
ML: No, if I provoke it’s on a subconscious level. I just think if we think enough and are clever enough we can do what we want. My approach to everything is optimistic and not about provocation.
BP: Storytelling and the voice of the dream makers are really important, I think. How important is fantasy to you? Are you a realist?
ML: I’m a realist but I want to tell stories that have happened. I like stories, I’m very One Thousand and One Nights, like Scheherazade, the storyteller. I’m always inventing something because I think if I don’t have a story it stops, I’m gone. I love making a story up and I love stories that I can translate to people and be a part of. I’m not into reading novels. I prefer stories about people. It’s like poetry, you can paint pictures reading the words, I like to get into the song.
BP: Is that why you like rap music?
ML: Yes, it’s a story of now. Since the Last Poets, it’s been a part of American black literature and poetry. Rap makes language scream, stutter, stammer or murmur. But I feel cursed with my French accent. [Laughs]
BP: The French accent is so seductive!
ML: We always love what is different to what we have. Sometimes I think I would like to have another accent. Why not?
BP: You always seem to be sensitive to political moods and social movements. I read that you were involved in the May 1968 protests in Paris. Was that the case and if so what motivated you to protest?
ML: Everybody was involved, it was a burst of joy, a time of expression, and it was fun to throw a rock, it was liberating, it was free. When we say politics, it was really a cultural thing and it’s why I think it would be nice to figure out how, moving forward, I can be involved with Raw Power, which is a movement in its infancy. Raw Power is about connecting activist groups with modern media, enabling them to communicate. I love being a part of these places because it’s not specific – it’s like when you talk about your magazine. I think beauty has been represented so badly with the message, it’s been taken over. I always want to be part of something. I became a citizen in America when I lived there because I wanted to vote for [Democratic LGBT rights campaigner and state assembly member] Jackie Goldberg, who was a great powerful woman. When you are in a place it’s important to be a part of it, when it’s around you it’s important you are in it. In a way it’s why I love souks and flea markets, they are gatherings of people where you can immerse yourself in the environment.
BP: What do you feel is worth fighting for?
ML: That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Fighting for democracy even if you don’t like the term, we must fight for equality. It’s a difficult time for me, what is happening right now, with the media and women. I practise the noble art of boxing, which is now inclusive of women. Before it was considered a male sport. We were so stuck in time thinking women were walking around with their nails, jewels and furs – now it’s changed. Boxing inspires me and it’s where I source ideas from. With boxing I’m not fighting, I’m sparring, but I’m in the moment.
BP: You have fire in your belly.
ML: Yes. I have a few girlfriends who recently started boxing and they were slightly embarrassed. There has been a stigma attached to it, but it’s a noble art and it brings so much joy, physically and mentally. It is healthy for many reasons – cardiovascular, it clears your head, there is a focus. It has etiquette and there are rules that are observed.
BP: Selfridges is opening a new space called the Corner Shop. You have been appointed to creatively curate the space as well as the department store opening a boxing gym. Can you tell me more about the project?
ML: What I like about this project is that we are a part of something. To be in the store, mixing art with ideas. But it’s not in a gallery. It’s all under the overarching theme of ‘radical luxury’, Selfridges’ major campaign for 2018. I will bring my version/ curation of a ‘world of boxing’, literally and metaphorically. Art and commerce. I’m asking the question: what are we fighting for? It is a two-part project, kicking off with brand collaborations, as well as art performances, installations and an NTS digital radio programme, then developing to offer a fully functional, open-to-all boxing gym.
BP: It’s more revolutionary in a sense for it not to be in a gallery – a gallery is such a specific audience, no?
ML: Exactly, this is the thing. It feels like the right time and I need to speed things up because I don’t have so much time. [Laughs] We want to make people laugh, to engage. The women in Syria, these are things that need to be addressed. Talking about this, I read recently they are starting to rebuild Aleppo in Syria and the people who are moving there most are plastic surgeons. I don’t understand it but I think it’s something we should be questioning.
BP: Selfridges is like a city on its own and their events are always animated in a fun way. When we think about the art world, with these fairs, travelling with art, it’s not always the best way to observe and feel.
ML: At this point of the process the event is a pot pourri. [Laughs] And it’s moving, it’s evolving. It’s called Lamyland. It’s about all the people I like and wanted to participate with in one way or another. It’s like boxing – there’s relationships in place and an understanding of the collaborative process. It’s a gathering that includes talks, music, dance. Metaphorically speaking, the caravan is going to stop there and we are going to do this event and there will be a lot of people wanting to participate. What it represents is wide and I’m open, it’s exciting. I always have to be surprised, I like the process of things developing naturally.
BP: It is empowering to think of women boxing. Was it so inclusive back when you first discovered it?
ML: There were women but very few and the ones who did wanted to pass into the category of men to be able to fight. At the Wild Card boxing club in Hollywood there was a woman who was determined to fight men and win – she changed sex to do so. I’ve always been very confused with gender. I never pay attention in a way to whether someone is a man or a woman. We have progressed, there is a reason why now more boxing gyms are opening all over the world. There is an elegance to boxing, the bags and the ring you spar in. The sport was birthed in England but slowly it crossed to America and now it’s truly global.
When I observe boxers I find their footwork absolutely mesmerising – they move like dancers. What seduced you into the sport?
So, I went to the Wild Card, not far away from Les Deux Cafe, which I ran. I was going to the gym doing cardio but it was boring. I wanted to be in a place where nobody knew who I was and encompass this world. What appealed to me was the ritual of the sport. There was this crowd, there was James Toney who taught me how to wrap my hands but there were also men in diamonds, women in Rolls-Royces. There was a spirit of the underground too, the crowd was mixed. There is a rhythm to the sport, like music. When you have your hands wrapped in those gloves you cannot even drink alone, someone has to help you. The art of boxing is layered with etiquette but most importantly it has a good rhythm of life.
Do you ever play music when you box?
Always, and this is what we are going to do at the Corner Shop. The boxing goes perfectly with rap.
Style’ is often defined as the strategic approach a fighter takes during a bout. Do you have a particular style that you practise?
I’ve been told I have grace. I have a good right hook. It’s not about strength, I know how to look and escape and find my groove. There’s a joy and it’s wonderful, it’s difficult to explain.
The art of boxing requires discipline. Do you apply any of the rules of the sport to your everyday?
I think the boxing is good for me because it’s all about co-ordination and concentration. And there is a thing to be in the moment that I love. You detach yourself from other thoughts and there’s focus. There’s something about the eye contact, even though you know you’re not fighting you immerse yourself and take on a role, it’s very empowering.
Can you describe a day in Lamyland?
There are things that are very recurrent in my day-to-day. I am in charge of the furniture at Rick Owens, actually working outside of Paris with people I love. It’s a side to what I do where I am very precise. We source materials that are unique and rare and we work with artisans. Usually my day would begin like this if I am in Paris. Then we have the house, the shows, and I have a group of chefs who originate from Africa. I like the story of restaurants and what food represents because it’s a gathering and there are all these layers, working with chefs, farmers, I love the mix. Voila. Then there’s dancing.
Today the beauty ideal is one I find hard to relate to. Through cosmetic procedures it creates a tribal beauty where we all start to look the same. Your beauty presents a tribal quality in its purest form. What influences do you draw visual inspiration from?
There are many different tribes. It is difficult to judge. There was a David Hockney opening at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and a lot of people from LA came. The beauty ideal is different, though – the women were showing cleavage and had had procedures that were ‘anti-ageing’ and then there were the French women who had practical