Purple Magazine
— S/S 2012 issue 17

Olympia Le-Tan

Portrait by Cecile Bortoletti

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

All handbags and minaudières from Olympia Le-Tan’s Spring/Summer 2012 Still Ill Collection, presented at the Museum of the History of Medicine, Paris


OLYMPIA LE-TAN is the daughter of the famous French illustrator Pierre Le-Tan and an English mother. She grew up in a house full of books and comedy. At 19, she worked for Karl Lagerfeld in Chanel’s studio. After a decade of that she quit fashion to go on her own, traveling, dating, and DJing in the trendiest clubs in Tokyo, Paris, and New York. Now she’s back in Paris and has created a very successful line of luxury handbags and minaudières (handmade with love in France), in which she brings together all the dimensions of her talent: her cultivated snobbery and the playful irony that makes her work her life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’d say that Olympia Le-Tan is partly fiction and partly reality. Let’s start with the fiction: you were the heroine of a children’s book, right?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes, Visit With a Mermaid, which my dad wrote for me. He wrote a story for each of his children. For my sister he wrote Cleo’s Christmas Dreams; for my brother, Visit to the North Pole; and for me, Visit With a Mermaid. But it’s not really a fictional character — it’s a fictional story. There’s a mermaid, but I wouldn’t call her fictional. She has my name, and she looks and behaves like me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you do in the story?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I sit on the beach while my mother and brother buy ice cream. I meet a mermaid, and she takes me underwater to meet fish that are like humans and have toys and TVs. I make friends with one. When I come up out of the water, I go back to my sand castle on the beach. But I’m not allowed to tell anyone. It’s for children, after all.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the Olympia character in the story a curious girl?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes, quite, and a bit annoying and shy. She doesn’t do much. It’s a very short story.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe yourself now, 20 years after the story was written?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — You mean 30 years after — I was four in the story and I’m 34 now. I’d say I have a good sense of humor — maybe too much of one. I’m a bit cynical.But as to my public character, people might think I’m annoying — or frank. Sometimes I don’t know where the limits are. But I’m working on it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Olympia Le-Tan known in the fashion world has a certain look and attitude, and a certain way of behaving socially. You like to look like a sexy but very girly playmate.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I like a certain aesthetic, and I try to reflect it in the way I look. I also have a body type that suits a certain style. I have more shape than the average fashion girl, and it’s better to play with it than to hide it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your best quality?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I don’t know. I think I’m nice. People tend to see me in a different light, though. I’m always surprised when people say, “You were so horrible yesterday!” I always have a different version of things. What do you think my best quality is?

Photography by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re faithful to your friends.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I’m always there for the close ones. But then, it’s difficult to build up a close circle of friends.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but you like to interact with people and go out.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It depends on the people. I’m less of a party girl now. I used to DJ, so it was my job to be in a club and party. I haven’t been out much in the past two years. I’ve been making these bags that everyone’s carrying now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems to me you became a DJ because you were a party girl.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — That’s true — and I had records. So I went behind the decks. One day I criticized what a certain DJ was playing and he said, “Take my place.” [Laughs] That’s exactly how I got started.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the bad side of Olympia Le-Tan?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I talk too much, and I can be offensive to people. But you tell me — what’s a bad thing about me?

OLIVIER ZAHM — That you like to have famous boyfriends?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I don’t! I do not! I don’t even have a boyfriend right now! [Laughs] There aren’t any famous ones available — at the moment!

OLIVIER ZAHM — What qualities do you like in a man?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — A sense of humor. A man has to be funny. I like cynical people. People who are funny and dry and aren’t afraid to tell racist jokes. Weird people. People who aren’t politically correct. I also like handsome people. It’s difficult to find all those things in one person.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you want life to be funny and light, to continue your comic book life, the one your father drew for you?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I have trouble growing up. Not wanting to grow up is a part of my character. It’s a whole aesthetic. I like children’s stuff.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you like to do the most?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Nothing! Sleeping. Watching films. My favorite occupation is sewing and drawing. But to be honest, I like doing nothing best, just chilling.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you resist maturity?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN— I think children are more amusing than grown-ups. They have funny personalities and a vision of life that’s weird and fresh and funny — it’s that funny thing again. I like being a child and hanging out with children and watching Totoro.

Portrait by Cecile Bortoletti

OLIVIER ZAHM— Did you first see Totoro when you were young?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN— No, I saw it when I was 18 or 20. Then my sister brought me a little Totoro toy back from Japan, which I slept with and carried around everywhere. I recently lost it in New York. It was really devastating. It was 15 years old, and I lost it. I have a new one, but it’s not the same. Nothing can replace the original.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your father, Pierre Le-Tan, the well-known French illustrator — isn’t he also like a child, in a way?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — He’s definitely a child. That was always a problem for our family, for my mother. He dealt with all our family’s issues in a childish way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was he funny?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — He was hilarious. We had fun with him when we were children because he was so much like us. He liked making jokes and playing games. He’d poke people’s butts in the street with his umbrella. He’d ask people if they knew where Vomit Street was. [Laughs] We’d make reservations at restaurants for 24 people under false names — stupid pranks that you wouldn’t expect a father to do with his kids.

OLIVIER ZAHM — His drawings and illustrations are more nostalgic than funny.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — There’s a public Pierre Le-Tan and a private one. The public one makes drawings that are nostalgic, very poetic, and very beautiful. And sometimes sad — the streets in them are often deserted, for example. He reveals the absurd side of his personality in his private drawings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t there also something a bit weird about his poetic drawings?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — The ones that people see are the classic ones. He likes the ’40s, and you can feel in his drawings that he would have rather lived back then than now. But he also does more private drawings on paper tablecloths in restaurants — crazy caricatures of friends or someone sitting in the restaurant or people with weird hair. He did one of you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I was afraid you’d mention that. The one where I’m peeing and…
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — You’re in your underwear. You did that photo shoot wearing ladies’ underwear in Fantastic Man, and my father couldn’t help but draw on top of it. He gave you a really funny-shaped penis and covered you with dirt.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does he ever show the tablecloth drawings?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — No, they’re just for fun, for friends. They’ll rip them off the table and keep them. He does loads of caricatures of us. He has an eight-year-old son, Edouard, who’s half-African and has a normal-sized afro. My dad’s always drawing him with a massive afro — a huge one! Edouard gets really offended.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That could be disturbing.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — He also thinks, rightfully so, that my sister and I are a bit chubby, so he draws us having barrels instead of bodies, and with angry, grumpy faces — and my sister with big glasses. He caricatures everyone.

Photography by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your mother?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — She’s not conventional, but she comes from a bourgeois Jewish-English family. She was a hippie when she met my father, and her style was a bit eccentric. But she isn’t distant at all, and she doesn’t have the humor we have, even though she’s English — and so should have it. Maybe she got tired of it because it can be too much.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your family has a sort of twisted geography.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s like the United Colors of Benetton: Vietnamese, English, French, Jewish, and African. My father is half-French, half-Vietnamese. My mother is English-Jewish, originally from Russia or Poland.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With a little black blood.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — On one side. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — What makes you jealous?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN mdash; I used to get jealous. I still do a bit, but it’s reduced. When I used to date our friend André [the French artist and graffitist André Saraiva], I couldn’t cope with the fact that he could have dinner with friends and not invite me. I’d go crazy. I’d call him and say, “I’m on the bridge. If I can’t come, I’m going to jump.” It was that bad. I don’t know why I was like that. It seems ridiculous when I think about it now. I’m not like that now — I promise. I’m not jealous anymore. I’ve learned a lot from my various relationships, and I know exactly how not to disturb a man.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like how to hide your jealousy?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN— If you keep it inside, it disappears after a while.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But doesn’t it eat away at you?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — You get used to it, and instead of it being something you repress, it just becomes a behavior. Anyway, there hasn’t been anything for me to get jealous over in the past few years.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not really driven by money. What does make you happy?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Not money, otherwise I’d be doing something else. When we were growing up, we never missed out on anything. We always had quite a good life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Bourgeoisie de Gauche?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — My parents aren’t political, so I suppose it was “de Gauche” only because my dad’s an artist. I don’t know how you could describe it. I hate the term, but I suppose they were bourgeois-bohème.

Portrait by Cecile Bortoletti

OLIVIER ZAHM — Bourgeois-bohème! [Laughs] So what makes you happy, if not money?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Love — and making things. Love makes me ecstatic. And a bit of a psycho. [Laughs] I get a bit out of control.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you expect too much from love?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — When I was younger, all my friends wanted careers. They knew what they wanted to do — to become businesswomen or lawyers or doctors. I never knew. I thought what I really wanted was a husband and a family.

OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes. Maybe it’s because my mom was a housewife that I always thought — from the moment I had my period when I was 12 — that all I wanted was to have a husband and kids.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s conventional.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s weird. I went to university because that’s what you did to pass the time while you were finding the right husband. I studied things like Italian literature and psychology, which don’t lead to a particular career. I didn’t want to be a psychologist. I just wanted to learn about stuff. Then I went to art school, and then I fell into fashion. But I never thought I wanted to be a fashion designer or an artist. Like I told you, I didn’t want to work. Love was my main motivation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But does love mean a family?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — No, love means love, and children mean unconditional love. I used to want a wedding, but I don’t really care about that anymore. I care about children because love is my motivation in life. So while waiting for love, I pursued various activities I turned out to be good at — I kept doing them, and now they’re the main part of my life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now you’re really ready for love.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Even though I’m still a child, I’ve learned that no man likes a girl who’s just waiting for love. A man likes a girl who’s her own person, one who does things. In every relationship I was in, as soon as I tried to be a housewife, and did the cooking, and waited for the man to come home, the men would all hate it. Now I’m ready to love because I have a life. What I do is not just a way to pass time. I love it, and it makes me happy. I always get excited when I get ideas and make things. I’ve decided to be an independently active person.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is making your collection of bags and accessories also a way for you to be a child?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s a way for me to continue being a child. You know, felt is a childish fabric. Kids use felt for arts and crafts because it doesn’t fray and it’s easy to cut. It’s actually a primitive fabric. It’s soft and comes in cute colors. There are lots of felt toys from the ’40s. My mother collects them. I like the texture. Even the embroideries I do, which are quite elaborate and time-consuming, use the really basic stitches, the first ones you learn when you start embroidering. I guess I just do it in a very advanced way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Meaning you’re a professional?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes, I’m definitely a professional. It’s not only that I love what I do, but also that it leads me to other things I find exciting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like the film with Spike Jonze you did for your second collection, for example?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — That wasn’t done for the collection. It was supposed to be, but then it took a while, and it became a side project. But doing these things makes me really happy.

Photography by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s something childish about your creation process, even if you don’t do everything yourself.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I have a very limited team, but a team, nonetheless.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You also work with books and book titles. I sometimes buy books just for their titles.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — The title is a very important part of a book. It has to look good, it has to be catchy, and it has to make you want to read the book.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Who’s the best author for titles — ­Françoise Sagan, maybe?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Sagan was good. Carson McCullers was really good. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a great title. Nabokov’s Lolita. I like Roald Dahl. And Simenon.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Simenon could give you the atmosphere of a novel in, like, two words. Who would you like to be if you could be someone else?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — A housewife! Like one of those on Desperate Housewives, or a Stepford Wife. I thought I wanted to be one of them. I think it has something to do with tidiness and taste — not that the ones on Desperate Housewives have particularly good taste.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, they don’t, actually.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I’m also very manic, as they say in English.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Obsessive?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Obsessive-compulsive. I like neatness. I’m a perfectionist. I’m a control freak.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But your apartment is like a little Disneyworld, full of characters from a Japanese manga.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — A doll’s house. Those characters are my version of the porcelain bibelots housewives have.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you describe your apartment?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — The house I have right now isn’t so elaborate because I haven’t been in it very long, and I don’t intend to stay. But I loved my house on Rue de Lille. It was a little house on a courtyard, and it had all different levels and weird rooms and lots of mezzanines. The living room was upstairs, and underneath it was a bedroom with a lot of little windows. It was really like a little dollhouse. I had hundreds of pairs of shoes, and books, and loads of little toys — both Japanese and American ones. I still have the teddy bears I had when I was a kid. I had two cats, my dad’s drawings and caricatures, André’s drawings, and pictures of kids. It was really quite nice. It was a reflection of myself. Kids loved to come over because there was so much to play with and look at and touch. There were so many children’s books. Maybe that’s why I want children, so they can share my taste. I need an excuse to have all this because otherwise it’s too much. But I’ve calmed down. I have a lot less stuff now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you romantic?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Very. But I wouldn’t say I’m that sexual. I have a weird relationship with sex.

Photography by Olivier Zahm

OLIVIER ZAHM — Attraction and repulsion?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes. I have a weird relationship with myself. I’m both a prude and an exhibitionist. I have slightly large breasts and I’ll display them at times — especially on Halloween in New York. I really love the Bettie Page aesthetic and all that fetishist stuff, the super high heels, and the black patent leather, the red lipstick, the Alaïa dresses. I guess there are two opposing aesthetics that I like — the fetishist stuff and the kids’ stuff.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Bettie Page is a gimmicky version of sex, a caricature. There’s a playful aspect to sex because she isn’t totally serious.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Like Betty Boop. Sex is also like a game for adults. Children play hide and seek and play with toys. For grown-ups, the game is sex. Chasing a partner, gaining a partner, and playing games like they’re your toy, or you’re their toy, or you use other kind of toys…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And lose them.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes. You break your toys.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You may have this playfulness, but you’re not afraid to go deeper, like when you picked the heavy topics of disease and medicine for your collection of bags — for women who usually like to carry a chic Louis Vuitton bag or a splashy Takashi Murakami one.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — That’s my cynical side wanting to see if women will walk around with La Peste. I also made a Viagra box and a Xanax box. The Viagra box has “will give your man a massive hard-on” written on it. And Brozac, my version of Prozac, has “will help your friends put up with you” on it. I like to see if people are cynical enough to wear them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of reader are you? Serious? Part-time?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I can be a serious reader. When I was at school, from ages 12 to 16, my parents wanted me to speak perfect English, so I joined an English-speaking book club, and I loved it. We read Shakespeare, all sorts of classics, Richard Wright, contemporary literature… Someone would read aloud, and we’d have to read chapters for the following week, and then we’d discuss it with the other people in the group — we were all teenagers. We put on Shakespeare’s plays, a bit like in American schools. They don’t do that so much in France. It was fun. After that I studied Italian literature at university. Since then I read mainly on holidays.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Based on the ones you choose for your bags, I’d say you like more classical kinds of books.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I like the classics, and they’re the ones people like to buy. Those books all had great covers. Contemporary books aren’t that nice — they don’t have nice pictures or drawings. The Gallimard books are nice, but they’re all the same. From the ’30s until the ’70s, books had amazing graphics and illustrations and nice typefaces, particularly in England and America, but not so much in France.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I bought a beautiful old book for you. It’s called Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates. I have to give it to you.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I need it! I’m basing next season’s collection on money. The title’s enough for me to make a bag about it. I made the first ones following certain rules: I had to have read the book, and the bag had to feature the cover of the book’s first edition. I thought I was going to make only one collection of book bags. But people liked them so much that I kept doing them. Now I’m a bit more flexible with my rules.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The books and their covers are also about the mental space that they open up. Your last collection was about disease and death and pain. Are the books’ covers a pretext to investigate a topic and its connection to you through the artifice of fashion?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes, but it’s not just about books. I explore everything about a topic.

Portrait by Cecile Bortoletti

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the bag you made with the cover of Camus’s La Peste your favorite from that collection?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — What I love about La Peste is that it also means “The Bitch” in French. People often call me that. It’s a great book that works very well with my theme. It’s a scary book, but it has a really pretty cover that works well for a bag. I like the idea of someone walking around with a bag that says “The Bitch” on it. Anyone who speaks French gets the double meaning. The title is The Plague in English. Besides La Peste, I did One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which also has a really nice cover. There’s one from a medical dictionary, which has a really nice snake on it — a graphic image. When I decided I wanted to do the disease theme, I researched it, and I found really cool stuff, like old boxes of Vaseline, old pillboxes, and loads of books on psychology and psychoanalysis, especially ones in German.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Even with the Internet, we still have the need to buy books. How do you explain that?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I still buy books, DVDs, photographs, CDs — and vinyl records, which I like. I like having things. I don’t like to have everything on my computer, even if it is convenient. I don’t like reading online. I like paper. But I do love browsing the Internet. I sleep with my computer. I love looking at blogs and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and all those things. But there’s no way it can replace books and records.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I wonder if we’re not the last people to live before the multimedia environment digitalizes everything.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I don’t think so. Style.com was originally an online thing, and they’re doing a print version now. I don’t think books are going to disappear. Maybe records will disappear, but I hope not.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Don’t you think that part of the success of your bags is that they memorialize books in object form?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Each is a unique piece. Made by hand. And, they are pretty expensive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — People react to your bags. They stimulate conversation.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s a friendly thing. If a bag of mine is a conversation starter, all the better!

OLIVIER ZAHM — When a woman carries one of your bags, or goes out with one of your accessories, it’s also a statement about her. Is it pure narcissism? Do you need your clientele to be sophisticated enough to play with their own identity?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Yes. I know I’m a snob. I don’t have a problem with it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in that sense, your clientele doesn’t buy a status symbol or cover themselves in fashion camouflage.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s not a sign of their being rich, but more of their eccentricity because they have to be comfortable enough with their own identity to be able to play with it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s unusual in the fashion world for a designer to have fun, or to try and introduce humor into fashion.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — There used to be people like Schiaparelli. Or Line Vautrin — she made powder compacts, cigarette boxes, and bronze jewelry that incorporated a rebus or pun in them. She played with words and was funny and eccentric and chic. And La Vilaine Lulu [Yves Saint Laurent] — putting women in men’s clothes was definitely a bold move. I suppose their things were conversation starters, too. For example, Jeremy Scott does it quite well. I remember ten years ago at the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, or someplace like that, he did big swimsuits that were like mermaids, in the shape of shells. The girls came out wearing Lycra swimsuits in huge shells that they hid inside and then opened up.

OLIVIER ZAHM — His last collection was all about cowgirls and cowboys, so they had these…
OLYMPIA LE-TAN— Leather codpieces.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been living in London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo. What’s your favorite city?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I’ve only really lived in Paris. I went to university in London, and then I lived in Tokyo when the Le Baron club was opening. I love going to New York. But I can really only live in Paris. It’s my home. I know it so well. I’m a perfectionist and a control freak, so I like knowing where I have to go and where I have to be and being able to get a table where I want and all that kind of convenient stuff. In Paris I can walk everywhere. Everything’s pretty. It’s nice. I like Paris best.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you like about being in New York?
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Partying, the little restaurants, the hot guys! I can go crazier in New York.

OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I love the energy, the food, Totoro, Miyazaki, and Araki.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Don’t forget that you still have to do the Miyazaki interview for Purple.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s my dream to do the Miyazaki interview! Miyazaki — if you’re reading this, please accept!


[Table of contents]

S/S 2012 issue 17

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple TRAVEL

purple NAKED

purple NIGHT

purple SUMMER


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