In recent years, Claire Courtin-Clarins’ spot on the front row during collections season has been all but assumed. As one of the newly minted ubiquitors of the fashion week microcosmos, Courtin-Clarins has done her “It” girl diligence, plonking down in front rows from Louis Vuitton to Rodarte season after season, typically with her clique of kin: sister Virginie and cousins Jenna and Prisca.
Thus her absence at this past spring’s ready-to-wear go-around was palpable.
“I have to say, this fashion week, I was not a good fashion girl,” Courtin-Clarins says, a smile creeping across her face. “I love fashion.…But I had to miss a lot of shows because this was my priority.”
The beauty heiress and (most seasons at least) street-style standard-bearer is splayed on a tufted velvet armchair on the second floor of Haven’s Kitchen in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on a recent afternoon. Upstairs, a fleet of tool-belt-accessorized handymen are unpacking crates, yanking out measuring tape and drilling. They are installing “Faces of Change,” a portraiture exhibition by Courtin-Clarins, who has created 25 wood and paper collage portraits of philanthropists and human rights activists for Feed, which Clarins (the brand) has been in partnership with since 2011. Lauren Bush Lauren, Feed’s chief executive officer, creative director and cofounder and, of course, close friend of Courtin-Clarins, curated the show.
“We do charity, my family. It’s in our blood,” says Courtin-Clarins. “I get my love of helping people from my father and my grandfather.”
Like her sister and cousins, Courtin-Clarins is both a shareholder in, and ambassador for, the 59-year-old French beauty brand from which she derives half a surname. The company is now run by Claire’s father Christian and uncle Olivier. She has the initials of her late grandfather Jacques, who founded the company, tattooed on the back of her neck.
Later upstairs, Courtin-Clarins beams as she scans the pieces already hung. She’s in a black Wolford top and swingy Marni skirt. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail, held together by what can only be described as a full-on scrunchie. An assortment of silver hoops dangle from her ears. She flutters around the room, explaining the process for each piece, her Marni pony hair sandals clomping on the hardwood floor.
“If I could, I wouldn’t wear shoes in general,” she says, conceding that she typically works on her artwork sitting on the floor barefoot. “I love being comfortable.”
The room is clean, sun-soaked and airy. Basketball-size bulbs hover overhead. Courtin-Clarins’ vibrant, poppy pieces punctuate the whitewashed brick walls. This is her first proper exhibition, though she shrugs off a question about pre-show nerves with a “not really.”
“I like this idea of representing people without the cliché. No faces. Because I wanted to give this idea to people that this could be you. There’s a quote from Gandhi that goes ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” Courtin-Clarins says without a whiff of cynicism. “So that’s the idea I wanted to communicate through the portraits. It’s like that could be you, too. That’s why I represent these people without faces or the cliché details.”
The portraits are faceless and therefore focused on silhouette. Each is devoid of familiar signifiers, meaning no plump lips for Angelina Jolie or prominent nose for Bill Clinton.
“You don’t realize how much you can recognize from a gesture or a pose,” she continues, pointing to Jolie in an over-the-shoulder position. “For example, Angelina Jolie has a very strong profile and jaw. I used thicker paper on the jaw to accent it. But I didn’t want to do the obvious, so no tattoos.”
Courtin-Clarins is no art naïf. She’s been immersed in the art world from a young age. She studied fine art, graphic design, architecture and urban planning at ESAG Penninghen Institute in Paris and later earned master’s degrees in interior architecture and design, and sustainable urban planning. Though, as of late, she’s been flexing her fine art muscle drawing and painting. (She will cochair the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Louis Vuitton-sponsored Studio Party next week along with a handful of equally buzzy fashion girls.)
“My sister, I love her face. She’s not my muse but she’s always my starting point,” she says, flipping through her iPhone to find a pencil sketch of Virginie that she recently posted on Instagram. “She’s getting married actually, so she wants me to paint the save the dates in water colors. She thinks I’m able to do everything.”
Someone soon scurries over with a copy of another kind of save the date — this one for the opening party Courtin-Clarins will host tonight, appropriately on World Hunger Day, to toast the installation. The in-crowd as well as her extensive clan is expected to make an appearance.
“Ah, I love it!” she squeals of the invite. “It’s perfect!”
Bidding on each piece starts at $500, which provides 4,000 meals through the U.N. program. For those who can’t make it to the bash, the auction will run online until Tuesday on Charitybuzz. Courtin-Clarins is eyeing a piece herself.
“My father asked me, ‘Claire, which one do you want me to bid on for you?’ and I said, ‘This one,’” she says, standing in front of a portrait of Leymah Gbowee. “I think we’re going to start bidding the day before it closes. That’s the trick!”