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05.11.11

Egoiste: French Fashion's Cult Glossy Returns

Egoiste, the French cult magazine that comes out every few years, is back with a new issue this week. Isabel Wilkinson on the venerable glossy's latest offering, which comes in two volumes—one featuring Keira Knightley.

In a world of tweets and Tumblr, RSS and news feeds, even a monthly magazine can begin to feel old. Not to mention a magazine that comes out every few years. But Egoiste, a French magazine that is part fashion bible and part literary journal, has become a cultural touchstone. Until this week, there had been only 15 issues of the magazine since 1977, but it has developed a loyal cult following. This week, issue Number 16 hits newsstands around the world—retailing in the U.S. only at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York. It is so coveted that its early issues have become collectors’ items; the December 1977 issue, featuring Mick Jagger, recently sold on eBay for $1,100.

Gallery: Egoiste Covers Over the Years

The new issue has two volumes: a more commercial edition with Keira Knightley on the cover, and a literary one, featuring James Thiérrée, a well-known French performer who is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin and the great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill. Both volumes feature interviews with everyone from Roman Polanski to Tom Stoppard to Beth Ditto. Diane von Furstenberg interviews activist Ingrid Betancourt; Bernard-Henri Levy provides art historical analysis; Ellen von Unwerth photographs Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, and Charlotte Kemp Muhl mid-pillow fight.

Egoiste is the brainchild of Nicole Wisniak, who founded the magazine in 1977 at the age of 26 with a $1,500 investment from her parents. “I was living in my bed in my parents’ apartment, and I wanted to do something that would give me the possibility to express myself and have the sensibility of an artist,” she says. The 16 issues she has produced since have featured everyone from Andy Warhol to Ava Gardner; Richard Avedon (Wisniak’s collaborator of 20 years) to the model Natalia Vodianova.

And much of the magazine’s editorial process occurs horizontally: Wisniak famously works from a Marie Antoinette-style bed in her apartment in Paris’ 6th Arrondisement. “A friend once told me: ‘It’s better to work from your own bed than somebody else’s,” she laughs. “Her idea of dinner with a friend was a cold roast beef from a catering shop and you sit on her bed and talk,” says Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French Vogue, who has contributed to Egoiste. “She is a true eccentric.” Wisniak has long red hair and a thick French accent. “I met Nicole more than 30 years ago in Venice,” recalls Diane von Furstenberg. “I thought she looked like a Rossetti painting.”

In a way, Egoiste is a self-portrait of Wisniak’s own life—a chronicle of her tastes, her friends, and twisted sense of humor—though she says the title of the magazine was chosen to appeal to the “egotists of the world.” “[Nicole] has invented a lot of people and a lot of things,” says Buck. “She’s one of those kind of endlessly inventive and creative people who absolutely couldn’t work for anybody else.”

Unlike most magazines, Egoiste embraces its ads. So much so that Wisniak receives money from advertisers carte blanche—and then conceives and executes her own ads. As a result, the advertising spreads, all shot in black and white, are twisted stories from the depths of Wisniak’s mind. The Louis Vuitton ad took Wisniak and her deputy, Eleonore Therond, a full year to create. It features a lost polar bear on an adventure with a monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunk. He embarks through the tundra with it; clings to it like a buoy in frigid waters, eventually finds shelter on a boat bound for civilization—and then, trunk in hand, crashes onto the stage of a lecture given by Al Gore on the perils of global warming. An advertisement for Cartier jewelry begins with two tiny diamond alligators slipping from their mistresses’ necks and disappearing down the drain—they wind up loose on the Parisian waterfront, where they’re picked up by a more deserving girl. Diane von Furstenberg’s ad features a girl covered in text, staring at the camera. “Nicole has a wonderful eye,” von Furstenberg says of giving Wisniak control of her advertisement. “She sees me as a young woman surrounded by men... maybe because that is how I was when she met me!”

Because the ads in Egoiste are mini-vignettes produced by the editors, they blur the line between advertising and editorial. “Often there’s a tooth grinding in magazines that happens with the ads,” Buck says. “These people are paying for you to survive – but it’s a strange relationship with a lot of denial. But the way she does it, it’s right out there.”

A central theme of Egoiste is its staying power. Wisniak insists that the magazine does not respond to trends—and seeks to cultivate timelessness in its pages. “It’s not speaking about next week’s movie or next week’s book,” she says, “It’s about lasting. It’s like a bet to see who will still be interesting in 10 years.” As a result, each new edition of the magazine comes out only when it’s ready. “I couldn’t care less about time,” Wisniak says. “I’m not interested in that. Time is the best editor in chief. If you can leave a photograph in a drawer for two or three years, it will be good for long time.”

Because the magazine is essentially a one-woman show, it’s uncertain what will happen to Egoiste in the future. Wisniak is 59, and has recently involved her 25-year-old daughter, Judith Grumbach, who comes from the Internet marketing division at corporate behemoth L’Oreal. As Egoiste’s deputy editor in chief, Grumbach adds a young person’s perspective, and is slowly developing its online presence.

Eventually, she’ll inherit the magazine. Grumbach says she would like to make the publication appeal to a broader audience—which might mean translating it into English. “The language of photography is universal, but it’s a shame (English-speaking readers) don’t get to read the features,” she says. Wisniak disagrees: “All the spice that you get in some of these writers will be lost. The world belongs to English!” Grumbach insists that no matter what, she’ll preserve Egoiste’s rarified identity. “I definitely don’t want to make it more common or less rare,” Grumbach, who has only a slight French accent, says. “It has to remain a collector’s item, it has to remain something that people—how do you say this in English?—wait for.”

Egoiste is available at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York and at (800) 52-BOOKS. A complete list of where to buy it worldwide is available here.

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Isabel Wilkinson is a fashion and arts correspondent for The Daily Beast.