He may be an influential stylist and successful consultant for the likes of Carven, Paule Ka and Veronique Leroy, but Benoît Béthume is a bit of an oddity in the fashion world. We caught up with the soft-spoken talented Belgian a few hours before the launch of Mémoire Universelle, the bookazine he’s been working on for the past two years. In this intimate interview, Béthume discusses love, the value of honesty and why he stays away from mean fashion people.
The theme of this first issue is love. Why?
It’s the first book of the series and I was looking for a generic idea. I guess you don’t get much more generic than love, but I tried to approach it in a more personal way. I called it “Oh, l’amour!”, referring to the Erasure song. It’s not Romeo and Juliet I was inspired by, but by the ways through which love expresses itself in everyday life. Mémoire Universelle deals with obsession, too, and the kind of behaviour that characterises being in love.
What’s your definition of love?
It’s something that pushes people to do crazy things.
In your work as a stylist and consultant, would you say that love is a driving force?
Yes, it is. I’m not a control freak and don’t give myself limits most of the time. Whether or not there are mistakes on the way, that’s fine by me. With Mémoire Universelle, I was looking for things anyone can relate to. There’s a feature on erotomania – which is a serious illness – except that once you’ve read the article, you realise you can actually identify with it.
Did you mix shoots with articles?
Yes, some articles are illustrated with images and there are as many texts as there are pictures. I didn’t want fashion shoots as such, even though some stories reference the fashion world.
Did you photograph some of the features, too?
Yes, I did. It was photographer Venetia Scott who told me I should take pictures for the book. The first story I did was a shoot in San Francisco with a friend. It’s called “Toute Première Fois” and revisits the places where she had her first memorable experiences, like kissing a boy or stealing something. The shoot took place at the end of March last year.
What format did you have in mind for Mémoire Universelle?
I was thinking about encyclopedias. Still, I didn’t want it to be purely descriptive, as personal memories often have more charm than reality.
Would you say it’s nostalgic?
No, I don’t think so. It deals with human emotions and feelings. I didn’t want people to talk about how great everything was ten years ago.
Are you reacting to the clinical – and overtly retouched – nature of contemporary fashion imagery?
I thought about what could be different now. I guess there’s a trend towards authenticity. Look at the success of The Gentlewoman. Manuela Pavesi decided to photograph her daughter for the book and that’s the kind of personal perspective I was looking for. In fashion, you come across so many amazing people and I’m deeply grateful for that. When you work on ad campaigns with models, you don’t really have time to develop a relationship with them. Maybe you’ll find yourself on the plane next to them a few hours later and they’ll tell you about their childhood and how they grew up. That’s the moment when you start feeling this connection to them and I really wanted to capture this in the book.
Would you say it’s a book more than a magazine?
Yes. There’s no advertising in it and I want to be able to publish it whenever the time is right. I’ve already signed for a series of 9 books with the publisher and we’ll see how it goes. One release a year should do.
People think the fashion world is bitchy and unforgiving, but that’s not the whole picture. I avoid frustrated people and don’t work with them.
How do you feel about fashion now?
There’s this perception that fashion is purely glamorous and superficial, with women in high heels getting photographed at the shows, but that’s just a part of it. People think the fashion world is bitchy and unforgiving, but that’s not the whole picture. I avoid frustrated people and don’t work with them. I’m interested in authenticity. I don’t want to name-drop either. These are the individuals I want to talk about, not famous bloggers or anyone who’s trendy at the moment. I didn’t want a Mario Testino shoot in the book. I’m not Carine Roitfeld, you know.
What’s your take on blogging?
I think we’ve been witnessing strange changes within the industry. You have powerful people with no knowledge of fashion, yet their opinion seems to matter. It’s odd. Some companies try to stay away from people who are too edgy or influential because it worries them.
How will Mémoire Universelle be distributed?
It will be sold at selected retail spots in several Belgian cities, like Hunting and Collecting in Brussels or Copyright in Antwerp and Ghent. From early 2013, we will start distribution in Paris and New York.
Who’s your publisher?
I chose Laconti in Belgium. I was keen on working with a human-sized company and wanted an artisanal approach.
Fashion people normally publish books in order to promote themselves, but that’s not very you, is it?
I hate the idea of self-promotion and that’s not what this project is about. Mémoire Universelle is not a narcissistic trip. It’s about the people who are in it. They are the ones close to my heart and my only focus.