PARIS — Vanessa Seward has often been described as the quintessential “Parisienne”.
If anyone can capitalize on the aura of Parisian chic, it’s the Argentine-born designer, who graduated from the ranks of Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent before eventually taking over the creative direction of Azzaro in 2003 In 2015 she founded her own label. The problem is, she doesn’t believe in the concept.
“I think it’s a bit of a myth. I think we’re all just products of many different cultures,” says Seward, noting that even her friend Inès de la Fressange, a global icon of French style, is actually half Hispanic.
Seward goes even further in her new book, Le guide de la gentlewoman, due out Wednesday from JC Lattès. “The Parisian doesn’t exist,” she explains in the autobiographical volume, which is made up of alphabetical entries covering everything from style icons to surgeries to selfies.
The cover of ‘Le guide de la gentlewoman’, edited by JC Lattès.
Courtesy of JC Lattes
Although the term “gentlewoman” referred to well-born women who historically frequented aristocratic ladies, for Seward it’s more of an attitude. She likes the idea of kindness that the word conveys, and her manual is less about what to wear and more about how to wear it.
“There’s so much pressure to always be perfect, and even the Parisian seems a little aloof,” she notes on a Zoom call, her white cat, Jo, on her lap.
“I like fashion when it’s light and expresses itself, not when it’s something of a social status or carries too much pressure. It was actually more of a mindset than a lesson on what to do to be cool,” she adds.
Seward also wrote the book for her community of more than 55,000 followers on Instagram, where she regularly posts hallway selfies. “It was a way of talking about myself without talking about myself. The gentlewoman was another shield to hide behind. She’s kind of an ideal alter ego,” she says.
The 208-page tome reflects her eclectic style influences, which range from old Hollywood stars like Carole Lombard, to ’70s erotic film actress Sylvia Kristel, to Seward’s glamorous mother Helenita, and counter-cool personalities like Britain’s Princess Anne, Dolly Parton, and Julio Iglesias. Even Peter Falk, aka “Columbo” from TV, makes an appearance.
“Inspiration comes from everywhere and I wanted it to be quirky because I feel like I’m quirky and I like quirky people. I like it when people surprise me,” she explains.
“Jo and his lover” by Vanessa Seward, 2021.
Courtesy of Vanessa Seward
Seward discovered the power of looking great early on. As a shy teenager, she wore the uniform of her prestigious private Catholic school in Paris, commonly known as Lübeck, by day, while at night she shone at nightclubs like Le Palace and Les Bains Douches, wearing a mix of vintage and borrowed clothes.
“It was kind of like a dual personality,” she recalls. “I was afraid of being wishy-washy, which is what my mom used to call people who, in her opinion, didn’t have enough personality … I had this older sister who became a fashion designer and had a very strong personality, so I had to find my way.” I kind of recreated myself.”
Seward is open about her shyness. In the book, she recounts how she once turned it down Diane von Furstenbergoffering a ride on her private jet for fear of committing a faux pas.
“I was so impressed with her and she was so kind and lovely,” she recalls. “I’m a bit clumsy and figured I’m sure I’m going to screw it up, so I figure better leave it now that she’s still making a good impression.”
Seward also reveals that she was approached with the design Kanye West‘s first collection after the two were launched by French entrepreneur and APC founder Jean Touitou after she left Azzaro in 2011.
Ironically, she was in the middle of a networking training session at her local employment office when West’s number flashed on her phone. “Unfortunately, in order not to disturb the training session, I didn’t dare to answer one of the most famous men in the world,” writes Seward in her typical self-deprecating style.
“For various reasons, it didn’t work out in the end,” she says today about the project. “I had a feeling it was going to be a bit rocky.”
Vanessa Seward, Fall 2018
The designer is once again working as a freelance agent put her eponymous label on hold in 2018. “I’m 52, I’ve had ups and downs in my career,” she says. “I really still want to work in the fashion industry and I’d love to do a collaboration or something. I miss it.”
But these days, she’s more focused on that her burgeoning career as an artist. One of her portraits of Kristel features on the cover of the book, and Seward sold six of the eight paintings she had on display last year, proof – if any were needed – that her calm approach, inspired by her early London upbringing has been forged, none is an obstacle to success.
“I’m fascinated by this whole English, Anglo-Saxon culture that French people sometimes don’t understand at all. It’s like all the understatement or self-mockery,” she says. “I do it all the time because it’s kind of a twist. It is also the armor of a good shy person.”
Often referred to as “neo-bourgeois chic,” Seward’s subtle approach to glam sets her apart in a time when celebrities are sharing everything, right down to their bikini wax routines. “I don’t want to be judgmental, but I think it’s good to keep a little bit of a secret. I get that social media is exhilarating,” she says. “It’s probably difficult not to escalate.”
But she believes she’s not the only one who prefers a more subtle style.
“I can feel that there are other women who think like that. I don’t have a lot of people following me, but I have a real conversation with a lot of women who follow me, and I think there’s an alternative,” she says. “I hope I can help them find confidence in themselves because at the end of the day I find it interesting when you can feel their personality.”
She hopes readers will find her book liberating. “I sometimes miss fashion as it was when I started, which I found to be more free in a way. It was less corporate,” she explains. “I wanted to celebrate that and just remind people that fashion should be fun, at the end of the day, no matter your age.”