INBEDWITH Olivier Zahm: a dialogue in four chapters about THE EXTREME.
By Jina Khayyer
Olivier Zahm, born in 1963 in Paris, France, is the founder and editor of the biannual fashion and culture magazine PURPLE; an avant-garde chronicle. But in the past ten years OZ, the man, the editor, the writer, the photographer, the lover, the father, the son, the friend, became as famous as the magazine he is publishing.
Long before Instagram gave this tool to billions of people, Zahm made his private life public when he launched the infamous Purple Diary. He allowed everyone who was interested enough to follow him daily to understand what his universe is about. A pioneer in the way he approaches fashion and art but also pop-culture, Zahm studied philosophy and art history and is a rare intellectual specimen who enjoys surface and depth at the same pace.
Zahm is as anti-fashion as he is fashion. As anti-art, as he is art. He is extreme!
Olivier Zahm, a life between hedonism and existentialism.
You are a man. What does that mean today ? Is masculinity a concept you pursue ?
Masculinity is half of myself and it is half of humanity. We are all masculine and all feminine. Masculinity gives femininity the chance to exist, and vice versa. Masculinity only exists because there is an opposite pole and these two poles are reversible, exchangeable, dialoging together. So masculinity is not an identity, it is half an identity.
People believe masculinity is in crisis. That is a good thing. Because when masculinity is not in crisis we would have more wars, more scandals, more rape. Masculinity should be in permanent crisis. The most interesting state for me is when masculinity questions itself and uses phallic symbols like motorbikes, boots, girls, cars, extreme sports, guns, beer to prove to itself that masculinity is not a fiction.
Masculinity believes that it is all about power, control and force. But that is an illusion of masculinity. Femininity is more difficult for me to describe as it is the opposite. But for me femininity is certainly more about harmony and fluidity, empathy and emotions. But femininity can be as radical and extrem even as violent. But I don’t believe that men are men, and I don’t believe that women are women, if they don’t integrate both poles and absorb them. But how do you integrate femininity in yourself, as a man ? And vice versa ? For me it’s all about the dialogue between the two genders. We are definitely in a transgender time, which is interesting. The fluidity of identity and the fluidity of sexuality is a new territory of expression, aesthetics and creativity.
As an editor what triggers you to tell a story ?
I am interested in freedom, provocative ideas and extrem beauty.
It’s about opening the mind of people. If you open the spectrum of what you can understand and love or what you can see the conversations start becoming interesting. At the same time it is a way for me to open my own mind.
As an intellectual, what is currently your biggest concern, or a topic that you reflect on ?
Injustice. The world is getting more and more violent. Injustice is a big issue for me. When I see the situation of the refugees in Europe, so much pain for these families, kids, women, people, it’s horrible. The mother of my daughter started working with an association that allows her to invite refugees to sleep over at her house. I was so impressed that she did that. The refugee sleeps in my daughters room on the floor. And Asia, my daughter, is also there.
I think about that a lot, this injustice, violence and poverty we are facing every day. Especially because I am working in the luxury world. I am not part of it, but I work in it, so I guess I am very conscious because I see how privileged we are.
You love to love. What does being a lover mean to you ? How do you stay desirable ? Or is that a question that only applies to women ?
Staying desirable applies to all, men and women. For me a very important element of seduction is the style of a person, because style combines both, the inside and the outside. The way you look, the way you dress, the way you move, the way you talk, the way you think. These are not separable. A person who has style is extremely sexy. Whatever the age, whatever the body shape is. You know for me the body-shape is overestimated. I don’t believe in body-shapes. It is the least interesting thing to me. Style is first. So for me love is connected to style.
What is friendship to you ?
I don’t consider many people as friends in the true sense of friendship. But I am open to people, as much as I possibly can be. The only thing that makes me close the door is being tired or being sick. And then I suffer, as the most interesting part of my life is meeting people. I love to share and to discover and I believe you can only discover with and through other people. Also, I try not to pre-judge. Even if what the person does is not fantastic. Nothing can be as fantastic as you have it in your mind. So stay open.
If you start to be judgemental and if you believe – talking about fashion for example – that the past was better – you close the door and you are dead. That doesn’t mean that you should accept everything or lose your point of view. But for me it’s all about staying open towards other people. Because we don’t discover anything alone.
You are a father of a daughter and a son and you have a full-time working partner. Modern parenting, tell me some daily routines of your everyday life as a father please.
Being a father is not a routine, it is a permanent care. It is also joy but also anxiety. Everyday there is a new situation with the children: You wake up and one of the children is sick, you wake up and one doesn’t want to wake up. You call and my daughter doesn’t answer so I start to worry. One part of my brain is always devoted to my children. Being a father means being constantly alerted.
You are also a son, how close are you to your parents ?
The struggle with my parents is to keep the communication alive. It’s not even that they live far. They live just outside of Paris, in the South, in the countryside. They are both retired teachers. But somehow they have stopped to catch up with life. They can’t understand what’s going on now. And I am in the opposite cycle. All I want is to understand what is going on. So there is a cultural gap between me and my parents. I try to reduce the estrangement by calling them and seeing them but I am far from being a good son. I should see and speak to them more. But at the same time I don’t want to feel guilty. I mean how do you find time to take care of your parents and your children and yourself ?
Paris, a city between hedonism and racism.
Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, and then the success of the Front National: Paris, post 2015, has the city changed for you ?
I can see what is happening with Paris and France just by observing my parents. They used to be politically aware and progressive but now they are conservative, which is shocking to me. People who used to be left become right. You would think the opposite. You would think the older you get the less you have to lose. But people are scared.
It’s a shame. This security obsession, having soldiers everywhere in Paris now with machine guns and dogs, it’s just a masquerade. It’s creating an illusion of protection while the real problems are not dealt with, neither by politicians nor by society. You can put a soldier on every street corner, you won’t stop terrorism. You won’t fight the problem. It is just to make people believe that politicians care. Politicians don’t care. Politicians don’t fight the problem.
I saw this horrible demonstrations in Calais the other day. Residents were wearing this sticker; « J’aime Calais », I love Calais. They were demonstrating against the refugee camp which they call « The Jungle». Already the wording here is horrifying. So they say they love the city but they don’t love the people. That is such a sad metaphor for today. What does it even mean to love a city but not the people ? I love Paris because of its people and because of the diversity.
“I am interested in freedom, provocative ideas and extreme beauty.”
Fashion, an industry torn between creativity and consumerism.
2015 brought all the topics on the table. Not just in Paris and France. The ruin of Greece, the instability of the Euro, the questioning of Europe. The bitter truth of climate change, which finally reached every household. Hundreds and thousands of immigrants on the move, from Africa and the Middle East all heading towards Europe. Not just political and war refugees but also climate-fugitives and economic refugees. At the same time Europe is struggling too: unemployment and poverty in France, unemployment and poverty in Italy unemployment and poverty in Spain, the list goes on.
But the luxury and fashion industries remain unaffected, continuing their vivid paces, while the idea of fashion used to be to mirror the present.
Is fashion blind towards reality ?
You are right, Europe is a crambling castel. But the fashion industry should stay politically incorrect. Fashion is a dream. It is an absurd world. An absurd waste of money. That is the nature of fashion: to spend money for purely aesthetic reasons. We can’t moralise fashion. Fashion is amoral. It’s a fantasy. The desire to look good is one of the most common human desires. Even to those who might not have access to fashion. Look at me, I don’t have access to all those products, I don’t buy them. But still to me fashion is, in its absurdity, in its exaggeration and its obsession for beauty, a source of hope and pleasure. We can’t disqualify or rationalise this aspect.
Fashion has a beautiful irresponsibility. Look at David Bowie, why did people like him so much ? It wasn’t just because of his great music. It was because he was an icon of fashion. He had such an amazing sense for style. It made his pop music something extraordinary, beyond music, by constantly creating his own characters and personas. That inspired people.
Why don’t we like the Rolling Stones anymore ? Because the Rolling Stones don’t offer a dream anymore. They just offer what you pay for. The Rolling Stones are commercial, David Bowie was a dream. To deliver this dream is not superficial, it has a value. It is a necessity.
And regarding the extreme situation in fashion; it’s certainly not a very creative time. It is an extreme obsession for commerce. What is extreme today is the speed of the circulation of products. It’s a disaster. It forces the designer to create too many collections, to change their aesthetics and their idea every season, sometimes even two times a season. That’s what’s killing fashion. If you have to change your vision every season you are losing yourself, your are losing your quality, your mind, your creativity. The extreme in fashion today is the extreme forced creativity.
What is love to you?
It’s a source of inspiration. A way of meeting people. A sexual pleasure. And – I am very seventies – love is what politics should be.
Remember when John Lennon was singing « Give peace a chance « he was also singing, we know that this is impossible, we know that this is totally naive, we know that this is a dream. But this is the only thing to believe in. The only thing we should never give up thinking. Love is not only what we need in our private life, or what we need in our sexual life. Love is what we need for the planet. What we need for our children.
Love is the only anti-religion! All the religions want to grab the concept of love, they want to possess it. All the religions pretend that they are the true origin of love. But no, the source of love is life. Religion is just trying to monopolise the idea of love while love is the only thing that shouldn’t be controlled.
In which way has raising your children changed your perception of love ?
Being a parent is a fantastic way to learn empathy with humanity. I don’t understand why the family is still the main polticial and social value system ? To me the real value system are the children. A family can be made by two gay guys, by lesbians, by a menage a trois; as long as the children remain the main value system. Children are what we should love and protect and cherish.
Your favourite love song ?
Wow, there are so many. Every song is about love. About the impossibility of love, about the pain of love. Just recently, actually just yesterday, I listened a few times to a song by a French singer called Léo Ferré, based on a Rimbaud Poem called les Corbeaux (The Crows). The song is celebrating the sinister beauty of crows (which is the symbol of death). In the last chapter it says, however how dark and beautiful the crows they should not hurt the fauvette, which is a little bird that comes with spring, which is the symbol of love. I adore this song.
by Arthur Rimbaud
Seigneur, quand froide est la prairie,
Quand dans les hameaux abattus,
Les longs angelus se sont tus...
Sur la nature défleurie
Faites s'abattre des grands cieux
Les chers corbeaux délicieux.
Armée étrange aux cris sévères,
Les vents froids attaquent vos nids !
Vous, le long des fleuves jaunis,
Sur les routes aux vieux calvaires,
Sur les fossés et sur les trous
Dispersez-vous, ralliez-vous !
Par milliers, sur les champs de France,
Où dorment des morts d'avant-hier,
Tournoyez, n'est-ce pas, l'hiver,
Pour que chaque passant repense !
Sois donc le crieur du devoir,
Ô notre funèbre oiseau noir !
Mais, saints du ciel, en haut du chêne,
Mât perdu dans le soir charmé,
Laissez les fauvettes de mai
Pour ceux qu'au fond du bois enchaîne,
Dans l'herbe d'où l'on ne peut fuir,
La défaite sans avenir.