In her new book, Cléo Le-Tan draws an intimate portrait of her family, darlings of the French art and fashion scenes. When she first started writing her novel Une Famille (A Family), which comes out with Grasset this month, the 27-year-old party fixture knew she had large shoes to fill. It is no coincidence that she chose to write about her family. “I adore them, I find them so hilarious, full of eccentricity, and full of faults,” she tells The Daily Beast in French. “Yet it is precisely those faults that make them so endearing.”
Her father is Pierre Le-Tan, the son of Vietnamese painter Le Pho and one of France’s most renowned illustrators. (He is also known as an art collector.) His work has been featured in several publications, including The New Yorker, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times Magazine. He has also created ad campaigns and designed book covers—including the one for Cléo’s book, which features a drawing of his two daughters when they were young.
And then there’s her older sister, Olympia, who has conquered the fashion world with her book-shaped clutches and more recently a ready-to-wear line. Inspired by book covers of the ’40s and ’50s, her quirky clutches and minaudières have become red-carpet staples over the last few years—carried by Michelle Williams at the 2012 BAFTA ceremony, by Natalie Portman at the Black Swan premiere in New York in November 2010, and by French actress Clémence Poésy at the Harry Potter premiere in London that same year. And Olympia’s logo was also created by their father. “It’s always encouraging when you grow up surrounded by beautiful things, and I wouldn’t have been the same person without this education,” Cléo says.
Quite an education, indeed. “An artistic way of life with bourgeois taste,” Pierre Le-Tan told French magazine L’Express last month of his lifestyle. Cléo and Olympia were raised among “antique dealers, designers, writers, decorators, architects, landscapers ... same-sex couples who lived together and dressed up to attend masked balls. Nothing about that was ever shocking, but at school, it wasn’t considered ‘normal,’” Cléo writes in the book. The family’s closest friends include Gilles Dufour (Karl Lagerfeld's former design assistant at Chanel for 15 years), French writer Simon Liberati, and decorator Vincent Darré.
Even though the book reads like an autobiography, Le-Tan defines it as a work of fiction. “The protagonists bear several similarities with my relatives, but what they do in the novel isn’t real,” she says. “I chose fiction because it leaves it up to people who inspired the book to identify with these protagonists or not. I also wanted to give a sense of freedom to the reader’s imagination.” A readership that will surely include many fashion aficionados: on May 22, Cléo Le-Tan will be doing a stop on her book tour at Colette, one of Paris’s trademark concept stores and a global fashion institution. As for her own personal style, she admits that she almost exclusively wears her sister’s designs.
Though she has a strong tie to her father and sister, Cléo is quick to point out their differences. “I’m a bit different from them,” she says. “I am more attentive to peculiar and funny details in life, rather than their aesthetic and artistic tastes.” Cléo depicts the character who most closely resembles Olympia as “the perfect housewife”—a woman who is “always absorbed by her professional success, [and who] dreams secretly about starting a family and taking care of the man she loves.” But when it comes to the maternal character in the book, Cléo’s writing gets unequivocally harsh and merciless. Born in a Jewish family from North West London, Beaule (as she is called in the book) was allegedly a “monster” to her husband. “She didn’t care about anyone but herself, and as a mother, she was behaving in an almost disgraceful manner,” Cléo writes.
Asked about how her family reacted to the book, Cléo declined to talk at length. She explained that they were mostly surprised, since they found out about it a few months ago, even though she had been working on this project for years. “They used to see me as a disorganized little girl,” she says. “I think they are proud that I managed all of this by myself, and maybe they were also touched by the story,” she added. It’s a story that takes the reader to the very core of the Le-Tan family—where the borders between reality and fiction are purposely blurred. “One needs to accept one’s family, to embrace it, and sometimes to love it—for better or for worse,” she writes. “Sometimes only for worse.”