Growing up immersed in the world of fashion – her mother a celebrated Danish model, and her father the founder of French fashion house Emmanuelle Khan – it’s little wonder that Vanessa Bruno followed in both her parents footsteps, starting out in modeling before creating her own brand. Here the iconic designer talks 'urban poetry' and flesh and blood goddesses with Indigo Clarke.
Hi Vanessa, how are you today?
Vanesa Bruno: I’m very well thank you!
Are you in Paris at the moment?
Yes I am, full time living in Paris – born and raised in Paris. My mother is French and my father is Italian, so I was never a totally typical French girl. When I was a kid I spent some time in the States, I got to travel because my parents loved to travel. I lived in Denmark and Canada for a little bit growing up. My mother really loved to travel – especially road-trips in the States. We’d go on the road and visit vintage markets and thrift shops – my mother had really great style, she was always mixing old with new.
What was your childhood like?
I had a very healthy sense of freedom growing up. We were very free in that we were encouraged to discover things that inspired us – to visit museums and galleries, to go out into nature. If we were passionate about something we were encouraged to pursue it.
Were your parents particularly creative?
My mother was really creative, she was into so many different things; embroidery, quilting, patchwork. She was a model when she was young, and she later regularly contributed to an inspiring French women’s magazine that was arts-and-crafts, do-it-yourself focused. The magazine would feature my mother and the things she had created, often shooting her at our house. I was lucky because I grew up in the fashion industry – I was surrounded by the people who started Cacharel and Helmut Lang among so many others. It was a very exciting time. My father was in fashion too, he had his own label. I was backstage at the first fashion shows in Paris, the very first Pret a Porter. To see the pattern makers and designers working behind the scenes was fascinating, and it felt very natural to be a part of it.
Having such interesting parents must have motivated you to follow in their footsteps…
What I’m doing now is absolutely shaped by my parents. I’ve always said my mother is my muse because she was stylish and creative, creating beautiful lifestyle and fashion items from vintage and new materials. She was doing this in the early 70s before vintage was considered cool. She had such incredible style – pairing romantic old broderie anglaise tops with Osh Kosh jeans. I was totally inspired by looking at her and her friends and how they dressed – taking old-time delicate pieces and mixing them with authentic Americana or cool folksy things, combined with contemporary chic items.
Are your siblings creative too?
I have two little brothers – one is a photographer and the other one works with me, but is also a genius chef. In a way we were all raised to embrace our own creativity, to express ourselves through doing what we love.
What were you like as a child?
My mother says I was very self possessed from a young age. I knew what I liked, what I wanted to wear, what I wanted to read. I was a bit of a tomboy actually – wasn’t very girly at all. I was feminine but a bit tough…
Well growing with two brothers you have to be!
Yes! I was never afraid to get into a fight with my brothers. I didn’t play with dolls and would get bored if a friend asked me to, I preferred listening to music, making things or playing outside.
What did dream of being when you grew up?
Two things: one was to work with children, the other was to work in fashion. I loved the idea of working with clothing, playing with beautiful clothes all day.
As a teenager what music or bands were you into?
I was really into American songwriters like Carole King, but I loved all kinds of music from rock and pop to folk – not disco though (laughs). I loved Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Chet Baker and Bobbie Gentry. I grew up in Paris listening to Serge Gainsbourg, and for a long time I was the girlfriend of a French musician so music was a big part of my life.
What did you think of fashion as a teenager – did you have a particular style?
I was pretty much doing the same thing as my mother – going to vintage and thrift stores, wearing 19th Century Victorian tops with jeans or a stretchy, sexy skirt. It was kind of a classic French look I think, but with a twist.
You started modeling when you were quite young - what was that experience like?
I hated modeling (laughs)! I hated doing the castings, hated getting my make up done, I really wasn’t keen on it at all – I earned some money, but really didn’t enjoy it. The only thing I liked about modeling, was the fittings – because then I was learning, I could see how certain cuts fit, listen to the designers and pattern makers speak in technical terms about the garments. It made me excited about the art of fashion design.
Starting your own fashion label at a young age must have been challenging – did you ever dream it would be such a success?
It was so challenging. It’s one thing to start your label, it’s another thing to earn your money. I started my label in my early 20s, but I was also working with lots of other brands to make ends meet. If I was today if I would do it again I’d say, ‘no way!’ because I worked so hard. I spent all my energy designing and working, constantly doing so many different things.
When you’re starting out it’s hard to find a balance, that’s true ambition…
Yes, finding a balance with success is tricky – it’s so important to be true to yourself, to be true to your own taste and style and not swayed by outside trends. It’s always important to take a step back and consider what really matters in your life, not just work, but when you’re young you are doing what you need to do to survive.
How would you describe the clothing you create, your aesthetic universe – do you have a type of woman in mind when you design?
I make everyday cool clothing with a sense of urban poetry about them – they are all effortless pieces that a woman can mix with her own style. I love having my own stores because they really are my own aesthetic universe - they are my chance to really communicate my identity and vision, to have my own little world.
You’re known for your beautiful, whimsical fashion films – why do you create them and what they mean to your brand?
I worked for eight years with the photographer Mark Borthwick, who shoots the most beautiful light-filled images on film. Four years ago I had this feeling that film in fashion was moving ahead and that they would work so well for my clothing, so I decided to start making films to present each collection. To be able to bring to life the girl I like, the girl I design for, within the moving image was really special for me. My label is a total universe, my own world, and the films really present the sensibility and spirit of what I am all about, and who my girl is.
How would you describe your ‘universe’?
My world is filled with ‘real’ girls who have a poetry about them, who live a fairytale in real life. So my films reflect this through beautiful magical moments where we’re at one with nature, kissing the water, dancing in the night air. The films are about real women, the true natural beauty of woman. I’m not trying to promote ‘fashion’ through these films, they are about expressing beauty and nature, and feeling empowered and feminine – they are a little bit hippy, and centred around the true spirit of a woman, a flesh and blood goddess. She’s not a plastic girl, not a doll.
Who have been some of these ‘flesh and blood goddesses’?
We’ve featured Lou Doillon and Valentine Fillol-Cordier in the past, and Kate Bosworth in the latest one. Kate is a really cool girl, she was really involved in this project 200% - she understood that what we were creating was a visual poem, that it was an artistic project, and she was really committed to it. When we work with these girls, they get very inspired by the end result – Valentine said to me when she saw her film, “Ooh it’s me being the goddess I wish I was!”
Are you ambitious to do even more with your label? What are your plans or dreams for this year?
I’ve never been ‘ambitious’ in a classical sense – I mean, I never thought ‘I’ve gotta make it!’, I’ve just continued to work hard and do what I love. I was actually talking about this the other day, and realised the strength I have, or real talent I have, is in gathering people together and making things. Recently I’ve opened even more stores in France, which I really wanted to do, I will open a store in New York probably this year, I just opened one in London – I opened four stores without really planning it, I always like things to happen quite naturally.
What do you love to do when you’re not working?
I love to spend time with my family – with my 16 year old daughter Lune. I must say I go to a lot of galleries. I’m passionate about art, I actually just came back from a weekend in Berlin visiting art galleries.
What would you say matters most in life?
To be happy – to do the things that make you happy.
What is something totally unexpected about you?
I have a complete phobia of birds! Birds of every kind terrify me. If a bird is too close to me I totally freak out. The other day I was in a space where there were some little birds in a cage, I had to leave the room immediately – and don’t even get me started on pigeons!