PARIS — Vanessa Seward has often been described as the quintessential “Parisienne.”
If anyone could capitalize on the aura of Parisian chic, it’s the Argentine-born designer, who graduated through the ranks of Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent to take the creative helm of Azzaro in 2003, and eventually launch her own label in 2015. The problem is, she doesn’t buy into the concept.
“I do think it’s a bit of a myth. I think we’re all just products of lots of different cultures,” says Seward, noting that even her friend Inès de la Fressange, a global paragon of French style, is actually half Latin American.
Seward goes even further in her new book, “Le guide de la gentlewoman” (“The Gentlewoman’s Guide”) due to be published by JC Lattès on Wednesday. “The Parisienne does not exist,” she declares in the autobiographical volume, which consists of alphabetical entries covering everything from style icons to surgery and selfies.
Though the term “gentlewoman” referred to the well-born women who historically attended aristocratic ladies, for Seward, it’s more about an attitude. She likes the notion of kindness that the word conveys, and her manual is less about what to wear, than how to wear it.
“There’s so much pressure always to be perfect, and even the Parisienne, she comes across as a bit unaccessible,” she remarks on a Zoom call, her white cat Jo nestled in her lap.
“I like fashion when it’s light and it’s self-expression, not when it’s something that is like a social status, or it has too much pressure in it. It was more a way of thinking, actually, than a lesson on what should one 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 to talk about myself without talking about myself. The gentlewoman was another shield to hide behind. She’s a kind of ideal alter-ego,” she demurs.
The 208-page tome reflects her eclectic style influences, which stretch from Old Hollywood stars like Carole Lombard to ’70s erotic film actress Sylvia Kristel, by way of Seward’s glamorous mother, Helenita, and counter-cool figures like Britain’s Princess Anne, Dolly Parton and Julio Iglesias. Even Peter Falk, aka TV’s “Columbo,” makes an appearance.
“Inspiration comes from all sides, and I wanted it to be quirky, because I feel that I’m quirky and I like quirky people. I like it when people are surprising,” she explains.
Seward discovered early on the power of a great look. A timid teenager, by day she wore the uniform of her prestigious Catholic private school in Paris, commonly known as Lübeck, while at night she shimmered in nightclubs like Le Palace and Les Bains Douches, wearing a mixture of vintage and borrowed clothes.
“It was kind of a dual personality thing,” she recalls. “I was scared of being wishy-washy, as my mum would call people which she thought didn’t have enough personality.…I had this older sister who became a fashion designer, and who 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 down Diane von Furstenberg’s offer of a ride on her private jet, for fear of committing a faux-pas.
“I was so impressed by her, and she was so kind and gracious,” she recalls. “I’m a bit clumsy and I was like, I’m sure I’m gonna blow it, so in my head, I’m like, better leave it now where she still has a good impression.”
Seward also reveals that she was approached to design Kanye West’s first collection, after the two were introduced by French entrepreneur and A.P.C founder Jean Touitou following her departure from Azzaro in 2011.
Ironically, she was in the middle of a training session on networking at her local job center when West’s phone number flashed on her phone. “Unfortunately, in order not to disturb the training session, I did not dare to answer one of the world’s most famous men,” Seward writes in her signature self-deprecating style.
“For different reasons, finally, it didn’t work out,” she now says of the project. “I felt that it was going to be a bit of a rocky ride.”
The designer is once again a freelance agent, having 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 fashion, and I’d love to do a collaboration or something. I miss it.”
But these days she’s more focused on her burgeoning career as an artist. One of her portraits of Kristel is featured on the cover of the book, and Seward sold six of the eight paintings she exhibited last year, proof — if any were needed — that her quiet approach, forged by her early education in London, is no barrier to success.
“I’m fascinated by all this kind of English, Anglo-Saxon culture, which actually French people sometimes don’t understand at all. It’s just like all the understatement thing or the self-deprecation,” she says. “I do it all the time, because it’s a kind of twist. It’s also a good shy person’s armor.”
Seward’s subtle take on glamor, which has often been dubbed “neo-bourgeois chic,” sets her apart in an age when celebrities share everything, down to their bikini waxing routines. “I don’t want to be judgmental, but I do believe that it’s good to keep a bit of mystery. I understand that social media is intoxicating,” she says. “It’s probably difficult not to escalate.”
But she believes she’s not alone in favoring a subtler style.
“I can feel there are other women who feel that way. I don’t have masses of people following me, but I have a real conversation with a lot of women who follow me and I do think there’s an alternative,” she says. “I hope I can help them just find confidence in themselves because, at the end of the day, I think what’s interesting is when one feels their personality.”
She hopes readers will find her book liberating. “I miss sometimes fashion, how it was when I started, which I felt in a way was freer. It was less corporate,” she explains. “I did want to celebrate that and just remind people that fashion should be fun, at the end of the day, at whatever age.”