Woman behind the Name

Agnès b on fashion, friendship and her first feature My Name Is Hmmm...

by Richard Mowe

Lou-Lelia Demerliac in My Name Is Hmmm...
Lou-Lelia Demerliac in My Name Is Hmmm...
My Name Is Hmmm... director agnès b (her chi-chi brand-name signature all in lowercase with the “b” borrowed from her second husband Bourgeois) has emerged over three decades as probably France's best-known instigator of chic, no nonsense, ready-to-wear clothing. She is frequented by an A-list that includes Jodie Foster, David Bowie and Gérard Depardieu and she has provided costumes for films including the clothes worn by John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

agnès B
agnès B
The Dear Green Place - where her film will screen at GFF - came in to her field of vision through her friendship and support for the Glasgow-raised artist Douglas Gordon. She pursues myriad activities in the arts world, especially cinema, as well as supporting social causes such as the rebuilding of Sarajevo, a hospital in Tibet, and commitments closer to home.

“I love Douglas and his work, and he and his friends have always been telling me to open a shop in Glasgow. I have the sense it would be a very exciting city to set up our business. And, of course, I really like Scotland,” she once told me at a film festival in Locarno.

“The last time I was in Scotland was for a panel at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when I had the chance to meet Sean Connery. I could not believe it: when I arrived at my hotel there was a message that Sean Connery wanted to see me. I thought it was a joke, but no – he invited me to tea with his wife Micheline who is an interesting artist. He’s so great, and he actually asked Micheline to move so he could sit opposite me. It gave me a great frisson…”

The close friendship between Agnès and Gordon began many years ago when she was on a jury judging a video competition in London. They had to watch 250 videos in two days. She has consistently supported the showings of his work in Paris.

She saw his work first in Paris before she met him. “The piece was called 30 Second Test. You went into a dark cupboard and the lights stays on for only 30 seconds in which time you have to read the text on the screen. Apparently, 30 seconds is the time it takes for the head to die after it has been cut from the body. I was born in Versailles, so it held a special interest for me. That got me very interested and I wanted to get to know him.”

Douglas Gordon in My Name Is Hmmm… directed by agnès b
Douglas Gordon in My Name Is Hmmm… directed by agnès b
Madame agnès, as she is known to her staff, has her own gallery in Paris, specialising in photography, and she created her own film production company, Love Streams in 1997. Her love of cinema, including patronage of several festivals and filmmakers (such as Harmony Korine), culminated in her directing My Name is Hmmm…

The film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl (Lou-Lelia Demerliac) who is molested by her father and runs away from home by hiding in the truck of a kindly Scottish driver (Gordon). The pair build an ultimately heartbreaking friendship (even though they don’t speak the same language) as they travel through Bordeaux.

“I wrote the story 12 years ago and always wanted to make a movie of it. It’s not my own story but I know what I’m talking about. The film and the text are radical. I was surprised by the reception at Venice Film Festival. The theatres were full and nobody left! I didn’t expect it for my first film. Many women came up to me afterwards to thank me. They needed to talk about this story.

“Previously I had directed little films, three to five minutes, as exercises in telling stories. That’s how I learned to make films. I’ve been taking photos and drawing since I was 16, so this felt natural for me.”

Agnès b who has three outlets in London in Hampstead, Westbourne Grove and Covent Garden, has become one of France’s richest women with a business that has an annual multi-million pound turnover. She advertises rarely, doesn't take part in catwalk shows and refuses to hang out with the fashion pack. She describes herself as having had a classic French upbringing, with lots of cultural exposure from an early age, hence her interest in the arts.

Originally she wanted to be an art gallery curator when she grew up, but instead became a fashion editor at Elle magazine and started making her own clothes in protest at what she saw as the moribund scene of the times in the Sixties. By 1975 she had opened her first shop in Paris in a converted butcher’s shop, which still exists as one of her menswear outlets. It’s opposite a soup kitchen for the poor near the church of St Eustache which she continues to support. Agnès is a Catholic who has five children by three different men.

Sylvie Testud in My Name Is Hmmm...
Sylvie Testud in My Name Is Hmmm...
Her Paris HQ employing more than 100 personnel is close to the regenerated area around the Canal St Martin, close to where first she started business in the Marais district. “But you know,” she said confidingly, “I am not so much involved in the fashion world. I do my work, and I love it, and I love people, which is essential to do this work. I am also interested in many other things too – in cinema, art, publishing, and exhibitions so I like to share around my time.

“It all started out of necessity. I was divorced and had two children by the time I was 20. I had to provide for them and earn a living. I wanted to work in the arts world, and planned to be a gallery curator. But life decided differently. I dressed from the flea market and second-hand shops, and became noticed as a person with a particular style, even though I had no money.”

Most of her clothes are manufactured in France where she ensures that the factories are run properly and employees well treated. She has also units in the Czech Republic and Poland and recently spent two years sourcing a jeans factory in Morocco that met her high standards.

“We still manage to keep 60 per cent of our production in France but that makes prices quite high because one minute of work in France is 70 times more expensive than one minute in Thailand. It’s crazy…”

As part of a move to promote young designers, she instigated a new collection under the title Vive l’Europe with a new Bosnian designer simply known as Lijlija as the first contender to be given the opportunity. “I met her in Sarajevo, and liked what she was doing. I’ve been going to the city every year since the conflict ended in 1996 – and I designed little hearts, which were used to raise funds for food and rebuilding. Her collection is very graphic and modern in white, red and black. She came to Paris and worked in our ateliers for two weeks. Now I’m looking out for other new designers to follow in the UK and Japan.”

Her philosophy is as uncomplicated as her beige top and neutral wrap. “I am a very serene person. My mother was so nervous that I am the contrary. I like cigarettes – that is why I smoke, not because I’m nervous. I swim three times a week, because that is where I can do my thinking in my own little world. I am Christian, and I have faith.”

Having reached her three score years and 10 she sees no conflicts in her stance as a fashion outsider, charity worker and arts champion. “Everything inspires you when you create. It is difficult to know where it all comes from. I like to be a sponge soaking up the sights and atmosphere of the streets or going to galleries and concerts. I work listening to music. I know very few other designers. I don’t want to be aware of what other people are up to. I never go shopping myself and rarely look in magazines. I want to keep my eye free.”

Agnès B will give a master-class on filmmaking and her cinematic inspiration, with Douglas Gordon at GFT on Tuesday 25 February in GFT at 13.45. My Name Is Hmmm… screens on Monday 24 February at 18.00 in GFT.

Share this with others on...

A Northern tale Chris Cronin on the ancient legacy behind The Moor

All fun and games Megan Seely on play and making Puddysticks

Contemplating change Cécile Embleton and Alys Tomlinson on filmmaking and life choices in Mother Vera

The price of seeing Gary Lennon on the work of Cathal McNaughton and I Dream In Photos

Speaking the unspeakable Christine Wiederkehr on starting urgent conversations with 7 Fois

Cannes Critics’ Week to open with Ghost Trail Record number of contenders vie for space in the selection

Coppola, Arnold, Cronenberg hope to make bumper Cannes Thierry Frémaux announces the return of the Festival’s big guns for 77th edition

More news and features

We're bringing you coverage of New Directors/New Films and Fantaspoa.

We're looking forward to Queer East and Cannes.

We've recently covered the Overlook Film Festival, BFI Flare, the Glasgow Short Film Festival, SXSW, the Glasgow Film Festival, the Berlinale, Sundance, Palm Springs, the French Film Festival, DOC NYC, the UK Jewish Film Festival and the Leeds International Film Festival.

Read our full for more.

Visit our festivals section.


More competitions coming soon.