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  • Fashion
  • Issue 41

Michèle
LAMY

The High Priestess of Paris. Words by Robert Ito. Photography by Luc Braquet.

Michèle Lamy is in a hotel room in Venice along the Grand Canal, sunlight streaming in through sheer curtained windows, the calls of seabirds in the air. In addition to being one of the world’s most genre-confounding creatives, Lamy is also one of its most idiosyncratic dressers. On various occasions, she has worn sphinxlike headdresses and suction cups on her forehead; enormous, sculptural jackets paired with short shorts and foot-tall platform boots (for British Vogue’s “Inside the Wardrobe” series); and a purse fashioned out of an eerily lifelike replica of her husband’s head.1 

So I ask what she’s wearing today. “I’m wearing a cashmere sweater,” she tells me, “but upside down.” Her arms are through the sleeves, but the neck hole is dangling down by her waist. “I’m wearing a bodysuit on one side,” she continues, “and a shirt on the other.” Since we’re on Zoom, she stands up so that I can see how the fabrics and pieces are arrayed. Atop her head is what looks like an elfin skullcap, but it’s actually a face mask created by the fashion designer Rick Owens, Lamy’s husband and business partner, who is behind her in the hotel room, working at a small wooden desk. On every finger are rings atop rings. “I’m always wearing the rings,” she says. Stacks of bracelets click click click every time she moves her arms.

Lamy is in town for the opening of the Architecture Biennale. When she was here in 2015, she commandeered a barge once used to haul trucks to create Bargenale, a floating house party/art project/communal dining hall that included a recording studio and onboard restaurant, and attracted guests like the American rapper A$AP Rocky and the English musician James Lavelle.2 In 2019, she returned with LAMYLAND: What Are We Fighting For?, a boxing installation that featured nine punching bags designed for the show by a host of international artists.

The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale is “How Will We Live Together?” which seems like an appropriate topic after the year we’ve all muddled through. “It’s a question I’ve personally been asking,” Lamy says. “How do we live together? It’s very complicated, when it should not be.” 

This year, Lamy is at the Biennale as a spectator, but she hopes to return to the city at the end of August to participate in a “floating cinema” planned by the curator Paolo Rosso. There will be a big screen floating in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, she tells me, accessible only by small fishing boats, and there will likely be great parties along the docks. Lamy has been asked to curate her own 90-minute program for the aquatic film festival. 

( 1 ) Lamy carried the prosthetic head to attend the Rick Owens Fall Winter 2020 show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. “It has everything I need: my phone, money and cigarettes,” she told Vogue at the time.

( 2 ) A$AP Rocky has been a friend and collaborator of Lamy’s since 2008. She shot his At. Long. Last. ASAP album cover, on which he wears a ring gifted by Lamy.

I am speaking to Lamy from Los Angeles. She tells me she’ll be visiting in July to shoot some things for the Lagoon project, although what exactly—maybe a movie, maybe some videos—she’s still not sure. “You know that I lived for 30 years in LA?” she asks me. During her tenure, Lamy was a near-mythic figure in the city, heralded for her sense of style, her parties, her ability to move between subcultures and peoples. At 77, she is still a presence here, collaborating with and encouraging the town’s rising artists, designers and creatives.

Lamy was born in Jura, France, in 1944. After boarding school, where she boned up on her English by reading the works of Henry Miller (“the books are very sexy”), she worked as a cabaret dancer and took part in the May 1968 protests in Paris.3 In the late 1970s, she moved to New York, hanging out at places like Studio 54. Her brother told her that she didn’t have enough money “to be cool in New York,” but that Los Angeles was a different story. “He said it was like New York on the Riviera.” Lamy was drawn to Los Angeles by writers like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, who immortalized and pilloried the city in many of her best-known works. “The music, the literature, everything was attracting me there,” she says. She moved to the city in 1979.

“I’ve always tried to put myself in situations of being with people you think you belong with, or that you want to belong with, or that surprise you.”

At various times, Lamy headed up her own eponymous clothing company, and ran a retail store on Santa Monica Blvd called Too Soon To Know. Around 1991, she  opened  Les  Deux  Café, a legendary meeting place for  the city’s  A-list actors,  musicians and artists—everyone from Al Pacino and David Lynch to Lenny Kravitz and Madonna. Everything about the place was ostentatiously secretive, from its nondescript parking lot to its unmarked steel door. “When I built Les Deux Café, it was a parking lot,” Lamy says. “And I said, ‘I’m going to transform it into a garden.’” From there, the story morphs into something so magical and fortuitous—an empty lot metamorphosed into one of the city’s most mythical hotspots—that it sounds like it all came about by happy chance. Of course, there was more to it than that. “I’ve been a hard worker, feeling the pain, so now, what you call chance, you make your own chance,” she says. (Lamy’s English often has a charming habit of going its own way.) She’s also intensely curious, she says, with a “nomadic spirit” and so many places she’d still like to go. “Can you believe I did not go to Japan yet?” she asks. She hopes to go there soon. “I’ve always tried to put myself in situations of being with people you think you belong with, or that you want to belong with, or that surprise you.”

( 3 ) During Paris Fashion Week in 2019, Lamy returned to cabaret at Manko Paris. She performed twice, dressed entirely in boxing hand wraps, dancing with the artist Jean-Biche.

Lamy left Los Angeles in 2003. “We moved to Paris because Rick Owens had to move there,” she says, using his entire name as if I might not know who he is, or that he’s right behind her in the room, within earshot. (Owens came to Paris to serve as artistic director of the venerable French fur company Revillon.) But Lamy still loves Los Angeles, and quickly rattles off several spots she would take a first-time visitor to the area: the arts district downtown; the skatepark and boardwalk in Venice Beach; Palm Springs, where she once got her fingers tattooed; the fabled Chateau Marmont. “I would even take them to the Valley!” she says. When she talks to me about LA she adds, pointedly, “where you are!” I’m going back to LA, where you are! I was coming back from LA, where you are. It is an endearing point of connection from a woman who clearly misses the place.

Janet Fischgrund, head of PR at Owenscorp Group, has arranged to have a copy of Rick Owens Furniture, a lovely coffee-table book from Rizzoli, messengered over to me from the Rick Owens clothing store in West Hollywood. For years, Lamy has collaborated with her husband on a furniture line, which tends more toward the artistic and the minimalist (a recent show at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art featured pieces constructed from marble, concrete and ox bone) than to the practical or cozy. The book is unlike nearly any other furniture book you might happen upon: part travelogue, with stops in Tuscany, Dubai, Montreal and the Dead Sea; part family photo album, with portraits of the couple by Danielle Levitt and Jean-Baptiste Mondino; part art book. A photo of an “antler stool” crafted from poured aluminum, with two horns where your buttocks would go, is next to a close-up of Lamy’s front teeth, which feature several small diamonds embedded in the gold fillings.4 There  are  pictures of  toilets  made  of  rock  crystal,  shots  of  cigarette  butts  and  TV  remotes in the couple’s home, which is part of the five-storey building at the Place du Palais Bourbon (site of  the French National  Assembly  building) where Owenscorp is headquartered, and  candids of Lamy driving a forklift in one of their factories and walking in the snow of St. Moritz.

The captions in the books are one or two words long, so I ask Lamy to explain what’s happening in a few of the photos. In one, labeled “Hollywood, December 1995,” Lamy is standing in front of two enormous photographs that look like 1950s mug shots. Her left arm, adorned with a stack of bracelets, is on her hip; in her right hand is a cigarette, held aloft as if she were a glamorous figure advertising it. She looks like a model. “This picture was taken when I was building the Les Deux Café, and Rick had his studio across the street,” she says. “That was his first [fashion line], it was not even a collection, then,” she says. They both lived and worked at the studio. It was a time of intense creation for Owens and Lamy, she says, a “carnival time.” “This is one of the more joyous pictures,” she says. “And I think I look good in it.”

“I like to perform, the more people the better. If it’s a bigger venue and a lot of people, I’m floating in the air!”

In another sequence of photos, labeled “Mons, Belgium, 2013,” Lamy is looking intently at enormous slabs of marble. “This is in a quarry of black marble, the only one left between Belgium and France,” she says. “You have to go 60 meters underground to see it. They take the marble with dynamite.” She was there to find large, blemish-free slabs of marble for the Rick Owens furniture line, to be later fashioned into beds and chairs and tables, some weighing in the tons. Lamy learned quickly what to look for and how to find the most beautiful specimens (“no veins”), she says. Then she spins off into a series of stories about an enormous mosque in Abu Dhabi crafted out of white Sivec marble, and how black marble came to be black (something to do with coal), and how, now, “because we have to save the world,” they and others are looking at “liquid stone,” which, in the end, just sounds like concrete. “So that’s another interesting story,” she says. It is, in fact, several interesting stories, emerging one from the other and sometimes wrapping back into the original story, sometimes not, which is a pretty decent way of describing what it’s like to talk to Lamy.

In another photo, captioned “Ebenisterie Dagorn, Saint-Fargeau-Ponthierry, April 2016,” Lamy is pushing a broom across a factory floor. Surely there are others who could sweep up? “Perhaps everyone was on a truck going somewhere,” she says. “But somebody has to do it.” She considers. “Or perhaps I did it as a joke?”

( 4 ) It was a shaman dentist in LA who first recommended that Lamy replace her mercury fillings with gold. “I want another one and then I want another one. You know how it is,” she told The Cut in 2015.

Like all of us, Lamy’s life and schedule has been upended by the pandemic. Even so, over the past year, she has made a short film with Kim Kardashian inspired by the tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, cooked up honey and mustard chicken (using honey from her own bees) with the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro, and traveled to Milan with Owens, via a custom-designed tour bus, to help launch the Moncler + Rick Owens collection.5 In other words, Lamy’s not easing up a bit. Unlike artists who create a particular voice or style then find themselves stuck within it, Lamy continues to push boundaries and herself. 

In the coming year or so, she hopes to go on tour again with LAVASCAR, a musical group she formed with her daughter, Scarlett Rouge, and Nico Vascellari, a Venice-based visual artist. The music is hard to describe, a mix of spoken word (Lamy performing the poems of Langston Hughes, Etel Adnan and others), and animal sounds (by Rouge). “It’s a noise band,” she explains. Planned gigs in Latvia and Georgia were scuttled last year because of the pandemic, but Lamy would like to begin performing again soon. “I like to perform, the more people the better,” she says. In smaller places, “I could be a little self-conscious. But if it’s a bigger venue and a lot of people, I’m floating in the air! I read my stories, and it’s like I’m in the stories, one after the other that go somewhere. And Nico has a way with sort of primitive time, the drums, that I love, and then I can laugh as much as I can.”

The laugh is actually part of her performances, so much so that a curator, intrigued by her laugh, among other things, invited Lamy to come to Abu Dhabi and laugh there. She told her about a tradition among Bedouin tribesmen, where, during times of crisis, a person wise in such matters would read the laughter of someone in the hopes of gaining insights into the future. Lamy will do more than laugh there, of course, but just what and when is still up in the air. “When there was hard times, war, or disease, they would read the laugh, and they could tell from the laugh if things were going to turn the right way, or if you were going to be in pain some more time,” she says. Lamy is unsure if someone will be there to read her laugh and, based on those sounds, foretell what is to come, but she’s not closed to the idea. “We certainly remind people that, with the laugh, you can express something without words. And then perhaps somebody will also be able to figure out what’s going to happen? And me, too.”

( 5 ) Lamy and Kim Kardashian have collaborated on other occasions. During the pandemic, the two appeared on the cover of AnOther magazine alongside text messages they had exchanged during lockdown. “À demain, twin monkey,” is how Lamy signs off the conversation.

( 5 ) Lamy and Kim Kardashian have collaborated on other occasions. During the pandemic, the two appeared on the cover of AnOther magazine alongside text messages they had exchanged during lockdown. “À demain, twin monkey,” is how Lamy signs off the conversation.

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-One

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