‘I Was the Queen of French Fashion. Then Came the Guillotine.’

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In the fall of 1970, the look was Distressed Peasant. I concocted an ankle-length suede outfit, its laced bodice complemented by laced platform boots, my head wrapped to suggest Ottoman harems over a base note of shtetl. I was almost 22, I’d been a fashion assistant at Glamour in New York, and I knew my stuff. Guy Bourdin arranged for me to meet the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Francine Crescent, about a job.

At the Vogue mansion on the Place du Palais-Bourbon, the doors were the same midnight blue as our front door at home in London. I knew this was where I belonged.

Francine Crescent was a woman around 40 in a canary-yellow suit. The neckband of her sheer white sweater had the texture of a gauze bandage, the “ac” of the André Courrèges logo like a Band-Aid floating askew over her collarbone. The look was so far from Distressed Peasant that I wondered if she knew what year it was.

When she looked up from the pages of my portfolio, she saw a sneering turbaned Levantine in torn suede.

“You do fashion, but you edit and you write, also?”

I nodded. “Oui.”

“But, in French also?”

“Yes,” I said patiently, “but these are American and English publications, so they asked me to write in English.”

With a frown, she exclaimed, “Ah! But — you are a professional!” I modestly lowered my eyes.

The editor-in-chief closed the book, shook her head sadly, and said, “We have no room for professionals at Vogue. And anyway, I’ve already hired a young woman for the job. She’s an ambassador’s daughter, so she has good taste.” (Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, I would later find out.)

I marched out of her glass enclosure, past the thin-lipped editors in kilts with lapdogs under their desks, making as much noise as possible with my platform boots. I’ll be back, I thought, you’ll see.

I became features editor of British Vogue at 23, Women’s Wear Daily’s correspondent in London and Italy, was put under contract to American Vogue in 1980, published my first novel in 1982, and in 1985, I moved to Paris to finish my second one while writing for Vogue and Vanity Fair, ensconced in the little clique around Yves Saint Laurent. And that’s when the publisher of Vogue Paris invited me to lunch at Maxim’s.

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Buck’s covers, from left: Sept. 1994; Dec. 1994–Jan. 1995; Dec. 1998–Jan. 1999.

“Maxim’s,” Pierre Bergé said when I told him. “At lunch?”

“Maxim’s,” Hélène Rochas said. “That’s a little vulgar in the daytime.”

The publisher — a prince of Polish lineage — unfolded his napkin, ordered two glasses of Champagne, asked if I wanted to edit Vogue Paris, and added, “If you say yes, you could eat lunch here every day.”

I told him that I’d been approached once before. “You were too young then,” said the prince.

I said I didn’t want the job.

“You’re an artist,” he said. I picked at my coquilles Saint-Jacques.

Yes, I thought, I am an artist in a garret who can borrow Saint Laurent couture anytime she wants and would never be caught dead eating lunch at Maxim’s. I might be a serious writer if I could finish my second novel and write a third one. I am American Vogue’s French-speaking creature, Vanity Fair’s French-movie-star correspondent. I don’t want the play-pretend power of a magazine editor. I have play-pretend bohemia instead.

I went back to New York and played up Paris. In my black tights, perfect shoes, and tight Saint Laurent suits, an Hermès shawl thrown over one shoulder, I dropped names no one recognized and presented myself as an imported luxury object. It was preferable to being seen as a single woman of 40 who couldn’t get started on a third novel. I resented being taken at face value, but that was all I was offering. I had affairs.

I prayed that something would happen to liberate me from the infernal cycle of writing profiles to pay for new dresses to wear to old parties, but I was passive in the trap, a patsy. I was in bed on heavy doses of parasite-killer when I heard that the editor of British Vogue, Liz Tilberis, had decamped to Harper’s Bazaar, and I called Si Newhouse to ask for the London job.

“We thought you didn’t want to edit a magazine,” said Si.

“I’d do anything to get out of New York,” I said too frankly.

“The job’s taken, but we’ll keep you in mind,” he said.

Eighteen months later, Anna Wintour called, breathy and confidential. She told me to expect a call; it turned out to be from Jonathan Newhouse, the head of Condé Nast International. He wanted to talk to me about Vogue Paris. We met, and I told him what I thought. There wasn’t enough to read. French women were intellectual snobs, curious and educated; the magazine should be on their level.

“What about fashion?” he asked.

“French women know how to dress for an assignation,” I said. “They want to know what to wear when they’re not having sex.”

Snowflakes thumped on the air conditioner outside, my study smelled of kitty litter, and I had three movies to review for Vogue and a profile of Mike Nichols to rewrite for Vanity Fair.

The phone rang. After six months of silence, it was Jonathan Newhouse.

“Would you like to come to Paris to edit French Vogue?” he asked.

I hadn’t worked in an office in 16 years, I’d never had a staff, I had no relationships with photographers or designers beyond Karl and Yves, but because my family left Hollywood for Paris when I was a toddler, I spoke French like a native. The only thing I really knew was Vogue. Maybe it was time to run one of my own.

“Why not?” I said. Sometimes when there’s too much traffic in the street, the only way to get across is to close your eyes and hurl yourself in.

I called my parents to tell them I’d accepted the job.

“Darling,” my mother said, “remember, you’re going to have to wear shoes during the day. High heels, every single day. And what about your nails?”

I polled my editor-in-chief friends for advice. Button your lip. Every issue you do should be your first and your last. Don’t make decisions until you have looked and listened. Fire first. Do the first six months without a budget. Keep your own counsel. Act as if you have friends and not enemies. Control your natural tendencies. In his white apartment in a tower by the East River, Alex Liberman, the artist and creative director, gave me further instruction.

“Avoid, at all costs, Visions of Loveliness,” he said. “They’re cheap.”

“I’d like to revive the wonderful pages they did before the war,” I said, “the illustrators, the artists.”

“Forget the past,” said Alex. “Only Today counts. Today and tomorrow.”

The way he said it, Today had a capital letter. I hadn’t seen more than a few fashion shows since the ’70s. Once my appointment was announced in April 1994, I caught up with Today at New York Fashion Week. Wearing a secondhand Burberry raincoat, I darted through the tents at Bryant Park, sat down in the front row next to Grace Coddington, and took out my compact to powder my nose.

“Don’t ever do that!” hissed Grace. I put the compact away. First row, on show. Don’t show weakness. Smile. I glanced at Grace. No, she wasn’t smiling. Set mouth in firm expression of — another glance at Grace — incipient disgust. Really? I looked at the other faces, front-row faces, second-row faces, PR-girl faces, photographer faces, famous-guest faces. Everyone looked miserable.

If the tents were any measure, there were going to be some bad energies floating around. I packed some cedar smudge sticks to wave about in the manner prescribed by Native Americans and ordered new clothes from Jean Muir in London. I didn’t want to look as if I belonged to Karl Lagerfeld or Yves Saint Laurent.

My office in the Vogue mansion was one floor above the fashion room, and my desk had no chair. Alone in my office one lunch hour in my first week, I lit a smudge stick to clean out the atmosphere, oblivious to the fact that burning cedar smells very much like pot.

Vogue was a stroboscopic world where people finished my sentences for me, agreed before I had phrased a full question, nodded as if I were always right.

What photographers would we use? No matter whom I chose, I was going to hurt strangers, acquaintances, and people I loved.

“I always knew that I was really Vogue,” Mario Testino said across the tiny desk. “I am Vogue, and Vogue is me.”

Everyone who worked for us had to believe that they were Vogue, that Vogue was them, to make up for our tiny budgets.

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From left: Buck wearing a raincoat as a sack dress in London, 1958. With Alexandra Shulman, left, and Anna Wintour in London, 1998. On the dance floor with Norman Mailer in New York, 1994. Photo: Jules Buck/Dave Bennett/Getty Images/Jean Pigozzi

I wanted color. The fashion editors wanted edgy. “Fashion is an attitude,” explained Carine Roitfeld. Like all the others, she wore a little sweater, a straight skirt, and stilettos. They were all proud to be above what they called the diktats of fashion. They weren’t bourgeois dupes who aspired to couture and diamonds. They were free women. They were de gauche. They were anti-fashion.

Carine was six years younger than I. A pointed face, freckles, thin lips, flat hair, and green eyes; how odd: Our eyes were the same color. I looked into those eyes and had the unbidden certainty that Carine would replace me in this job. So that’s who you are, I thought.

A neutral fact, it left me unmoved.

At night I went to bed with mock-ups of covers for my first issue. Whichever one I still liked in the morning would be the choice. Photocopies in my bed instead of a man. I was a Vogue nun.

At the early-morning breakfasts with advertisers, I sometimes caught, creeping between the collar of a Charvet shirt and a pink neck, the lingering odor of bodies in the night. Well, you’re doing it, I’d think, so people are still fucking, and you didn’t shower, you dog. Some men dropped hints, but I had only the vaguest grasp of kinship patterns, the complex chains of exes, and didn’t want to risk sleeping with an enemy.

“I need some French clothes to wear at the couture,” I told the fashion director, Brigitte Langevin.

“All you need is a Burberry trench, some jeans, and some T-shirts,” she said, eyeing my black priest’s tunic from London that had been pissing her off for weeks.

“Burberry is English; jeans and T-shirts are American.”

“But it’s a very Jane Birkin attitude,” she said. “She’s a French icon.”

“She’s English,” I said.

“But the Hermès bag is named after her,” said another editor brightly.

Prada,” suggested someone else. Italian. And Gucci. Gucci? The handbags? Yes, there was this young American designer who was a friend of Carine Roitfeld’s, Tom Ford; in fact, she styled his shows, and he was doing wonderful things. Such as? Little sweaters, little skirts. And Jil Sander, Jil Sander was cool.

“That’s two Italians, an American, and a German,” I said. “Who is actually French?”

“Hermès,” said one. But Hermès was designed by a German and a Vietnamese-Italian, with a Belgian about to take over.

No one was French, Karl least of all. So they could all stop bitching about the American at Vogue Paris.

That was why I decided I’d dedicate my first issue, September, to the French woman: “La Femme Française.” It sold better than any issue had in years, but I kept getting these little “La Femme Française”? questions, as if I’d done something really sick.

“We died laughing over your ‘Femme Française’ cover,” an art director said years later.

“What was wrong with it?”

“It read like a rallying call to the far-right wing. It was as bad as if you’d put the words ‘National Pride’ on the cover. It looked like a poster for the National Front.”

Yves Saint Laurent’s friend Charlotte gave a luncheon for me. Yves had become bloated and vast. He was 58; his face hadn’t aged, but his hair had turned to wood and rose from his forehead in hard ridges. Sitting on my left, looking like a carved Austrian bottle stopper, he gave out intermittent, uncertain giggles and smiled sweetly.

“Remember the time we danced all night at New Jimmy’s?” I asked.

“All night,” he said. “You wore an antique paisley shawl.”

Lemon mousse arrived on 18th-century plates; Yves grabbed my hand with an urgent plea. “Do you remember my phone number?”

“Of course,” I said. “How could I ever forget your phone number?”

“Would you tell me what it is? I can’t remember.”

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From left: With Karl Lagerfeld in Paris, 1976. With Anjelica Huston at St. Clerans, 1963. With Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, 2000. Photo: Michael Childers/Getty Images/Jules Buck/Roxanne Lowit

I’d been close to Karl Lagerfeld, had stayed with him on the Rue de l’Université in 18th-century rooms lit only by scented candles set on the floor between taffeta curtains, slept under the ostrich-feather canopy of a lit à la polonaise, while he sat up all night drawing, writing, and reading. He, too, was an only child. He was as cerebral as he was gossipy. He’d adore and then loathe the same person in less than a week. He was critical of the living, enchanted by the dead, and thought his hands were ugly. There had been tangos and waltzes and fancy-dress balls, whispers behind his fan, long letters and longer phone calls, projects for movies that never happened, and, always, a deluge of clothes, and an equal deluge of books — all 18 volumes of George Sand’s correspondence, of which I read only four.

I gave the first big party during couture. Isabelle Adjani peered through the door, fled, and called me from the street to say, “I can’t go in. Too many models.”

In 1995 and 1996, at the height of an economic crisis that threatened the French way of life, daily strikes paralyzed the country for months. Fashion was a frantic carnival to counter the gloom. John Galliano’s first couture show for Givenchy was held in a football stadium. There were toreador hats, golden epaulets, floor-length white coats, bias-cut burgundy gowns, kimonos, his tropes; Galliano took his bow in a beaded Plains Indian vest. At a Louis Vuitton party, supermodels wove between steamer trunks the size of houses, dodging live camels, panthers, tigers, and dancing bananas.

Now that I had the semblance of power, time had the shape and speed of a bullet train, but it was filled with waiting. The Paris collections made Milan look like a holiday; many more shows, many more obligations, fashion houses whose ads paid for our existence. The shows were short, the waits infinitely longer: an hour, two hours, sometimes more. When there was nothing left to gossip about, no more rivals’ shoes to inspect from across the way, everyone fell into a sullen private silence; witless from boredom, the occasional front-row editor would run a finger along her chin to check for hairs. Then the music would begin.

The culmination of six months’ work for the designers, each show was a short paroxysm that lasted at most 12 minutes. Lights, music, girls, no plot. Nylon. Satin. Tulle. Nylon. Bouclé. Mesh. Models with new breasts so flattened inside sheer nylon tops that they looked like sunny-side-up eggs.

After each show I ran backstage to say the same set of words in French, or in English, on-camera for Fashion TV. I had to think in heels, fast, and stick with first impressions. Brilliant. Génial. Ugly. Moche. Cool. Cool. Great. Génial. Lame. Débile. Fabulous. Génial. My vocabulary grew as pointed and tiny as my attention span. Génial. Génial. Débile. Génial.

Toni Morrison was teaching at the Collège de France and needed shoes. I took her to Christian Louboutin, where she sat on a small sofa, her dreadlocks a crown of gray snakes, every pair of flats in the store set out before her feet in tribute. A man watched her through the window and then came in.

“You have the Nobel Prize and you’re buying shoes?”

“Every woman needs good shoes.”

Since 1969, every Christmas issue had been done by a guest editor, beginning with Françoise Sagan and ending with Nelson Mandela. It’s hard to top Nelson Mandela, so I did away with guest editors. Instead the December issue of 1994 celebrated “One Hundred Years of Cinema”; we went on to dedicate others to “Music,” “Theatre,” “Love” (which the French staff took to mean sex), and one to “Quantum Physics,” which probably cost me my job. Our best, most playful issue took the theme of “Art,” inspired by a Constructivist Chanel collection of Karl’s. All our contributors played the glorious game of make-believe with joy, except Mario and Carine, who found our imaginative effusions hard to take. I’d forgotten not everyone is good at charades, that some people don’t even want to play.

Carine demonstrated our aesthetic differences by showing me her apartment. “You have so many things, you must see how I live.”

Her nothing was infinite square meters of fine parquet overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides, the most expensive real estate in Paris. She took me around the way a child shows off her room, proud that there was nothing to see. No books in the living room, nothing on the tables, nothing in the kitchen. Everything in her apartment was behind closed doors.

“I don’t like mess, it’s confusing. I have only a few things,” she said.

Fashion was her element, which made her immune to the lure of beautiful things. That was her strength.

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From left: With Paloma Picasso and Manolo Blahnik in London, 1978. With Jonathan Newhouse, 1997. With Charlotte Rampling in Paris, 1997. Photo: John Heilpern/Jean-Luce Hure/Roxanne Lowit

After my mother’s death, I moved my father to Paris and set him up in an apartment so as to surround him with evidence of prosperity and success, his or mine, it didn’t matter. As I went into my seventh year at Vogue, the magazine turned brown and sad. I was an inventor, not a manager, and I’d lost interest in fashion. If I’d been alone I would have quit, but the job was the only way I could perpetuate the glorious illusion I’d created for my father.

In the fall of 2000, Jonathan Newhouse asked me to meet him at Caffè Cova in Milan before the first fashion show. Shrieks of lightning hit the parking lot at Linate Airport, but the flight from Paris had been smooth. I sheltered flat against the plate-glass wall waiting for the car and wondered where this storm had come from. I told myself it wasn’t personal.

The lightning and rain created traffic jams in Milan that made me late to Caffè Cova. When I arrived, I apologized for the weather.

He sat on a corner banquette beneath a display of porcelain, wearing new glasses that made him look like Rodchenko.

The teacups shone in the glass case behind him; the brass fittings on the mahogany glowed around us in the muted clatter of high heels and waiters’ shoes and teaspoons in china cups and distant bursts of steam nozzles foaming cappuccinos in the front room. I could feel the tight armholes of my narrow tweed coat, the tug of the pink velvet seat against the crêpe of my dress, my platform shoes tight over my toes. My laptop was at my feet in a Gucci case designed for me, next to my Prada bag. New look for the new season, every label in place.

“I want you to take a sabbatical, starting today,” he said.

“On the first day of the European collections? I can’t do that.”

“Two months, starting now,” he said.

Sudden stillness. Ice water in my veins. Guillotine. It’s over. What did I do?

I sat completely still. Every second counted, because every second was the last second of being who I’d become. To make this pink linen napkin last forever in just this shape, this cup always brimming with foam, this sugar cube half-unwrapped, this spoon at this angle on the tablecloth, stop time in this turn of now, expand the stillness of this second to fill the room and stop the next one coming, to stop the next thing being said. I was amazed at how I could stretch out inside time and stop it, until I couldn’t anymore, and I heard the next words.

“This is where you’re going. They have very good therapy there.”

Jonathan handed me a piece of paper with “Cottonwood” written on it in neat capitals. My refusal to go, it seemed, would constitute quitting. If I went, if I obeyed, I could go on taking care of Dad.

I’ll need the therapy to get me over losing my job. How thoughtful.

“I’ll go,” I said. “But why?”

He leaned forward and said he didn’t want me to end up like one of his London editors who’d died of a cocaine overdose after an orgy with hookers in 1995.

Cocaine, orgy, hookers: This wasn’t some therapy place. Cottonwood must be a drug rehab.

“I don’t do drugs,” I said. “I don’t even drink. You know that.”

“It’s just two months, then you’ll come back. I’m doing this because I’m your friend.”

“Either you’re my friend, or you’re setting me up. I choose to believe you are my friend,” I said.

Then, having demonstrated how gallant I could be, I said, “I’m late for Prada,” and before he could stop me I rose and carried my two bags through the steam and crowd of the front room, out into the rain to the waiting car, and on to the Prada show, where I stared at the shoes on the feet of the editors across the runway, and then at the shoes on the feet of the models on the runway, until it hit me that my opinion of the shoes, the dresses, the models, the hair, had entirely ceased to matter. When the show was over, the front-row editors headed backstage to congratulate Miuccia Prada. I walked very slowly the other way, out onto the street.

Adapted from the forthcoming book The Price of Illusion, by Joan Juliet Buck, to be published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2017 by Joan Juliet Buck. Printed by permission.

Top image: Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; Makeup by Joanne Gair using Edward Bess; hair by Shalom Sharon using Oribe. Turtleneck by Calvin Klein.

*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

I Was the Queen of French Fashion. Then Came the Guillotine.