Oyster #96: Olivier Zahm
This is me, I am punk.
For Oyster Issue #96, Alice Cavanagh, caught up with exhibitionist, publishing magnate and Editor-In-Chief of Purple, Olivier Zahm.
Olivier Zahm is keeping me waiting. I've arrived at the Purple office on rue Therese in Paris' first arrondissement and the editor, photographer and all-round entrepreneur is casually slouching against a bench, fiddling with his lighter. Cigarette poised in mouth, his thumb moves back and forth over the ignition wheel, as if teasing his cigarette: flick, flick, flick. In the flesh, Zahm is exactly as he appears in photographs: trademark leather jacket, sunglasses and skinny jeans; he exudes an air of beguiling cool. I, on the other hand, am standing awkwardly in the corner, trying not to look like I am standing awkwardly in the corner. Thankfully, just as I have run out of things to pretend to do on my Blackberry, he looks at me and says in a slow Parisian drawl, "Shall we do this?"
Very few times in my life can I say that I have walked into an interview and felt as though I could ask the subject anything at all; this, however, was one of those moments. When it comes to publicity, Zahm is famously candid, and his every move is out in the open for all to see courtesy of his blog, Purple Diary, which documents his daily and (for the most part) nightly exploits with friends, lovers and many of the fashion industry's elite. A voyeur's fantasy, to some it might appear to be a self-indulgent photo album, but Purple Diary does serve a greater purpose; although, for those who came a little late to the party, Zahm could appear to be something of a parody. Here is a man with a fetish-like fascination for photographing women in high heels or with their breasts bared (or both), who goes out late every night and rides motorcycles by day. He is a French Terry Richardson, though with a lot more class, and while all of these traits are certainly a part of his life, there are also things missing from the picture.
Both of the Zahm's parents are teachers and he, by his own admission, has always been academic, having studied literature, linguistics and philosophy at university. With his keen interest in art, he started off as a journalist and a critique for various art publications such as Artforum, before starting up Purple Prose magazine with Elein Fleiss. Though his expertise was founded in academic writing, he was ultimately destined for something more creative. "I always wanted to become a journalist, a photographer or a filmmaker. I knew since I was very young that I wanted to work in fashion, art or cinema. I didn't know what my position would be, but the text, the writing, came first."
It didn't take long for Purple to take off as a publishing force, but during the early stages of the magazine Zahm stayed out of the spotlight. "My position during the nineties was totally the opposite [of what it is today]. I didn't want to exist; I wanted to be just the person behind the magazine," he explains carefully. "After September 11, publishing became more difficult. As an editor of a magazine, I understood that if you wanted to be part of the competition, you had to be visible."
Being part of the competition, however, was not always Zahm's prerogative. Purple was the alternative publication, spurred on by new ideas and inspiration, with little need for compromise, but the day came when Zahm needed to change tact. "Elein said to me one day, 'Olivier, we were quite radical in the nineties, trying to push a different aesthetic with different photographers and different artists, but now with this new commercialism, the media is too obsessed with the celebrity culture and it is too vulgar. We don't belong to this time anymore - we have to stop.'" Initially Zahm agreed with her. "You can't compete and be against it all at the same time. So I said, 'OK.' But the day after, I came back to her and I said, 'Elein, you are wrong. I will go on.'" That was in 2003. "This is why my position is a schizophrenic position: we are part of it and against it. A magazine is an economy and it has to be part of the system. If I am suddenly radical, I step out of the system and I will lose what I have constructed."
The look, the lifestyle, the blog are all part of the system as well, although Zahm takes a less flashy approach when it comes to the magazine itself. "Purple is a transparent brand, because the content is more important. We are just the bridge between the clothes, the art and the reader. I don't like when magazines are over-branded or over-designed, so this is why the aesthetic of Purple is quite calm, no? And respectful. It wasn't like that at the beginning we were more like, 'Fuck the system.' We wanted to express a voice that wasn't there at the beginning of the nineties. But then time passed, and I saw all these magazines emerging trying to make more noise, more promotion? So I stepped back and a tried to create a frame that was more delicate."
When it comes to marketing himself, however, it is a different story. In 2002 and 2003 there was a shift within the fashion industry and the fascination with celebrity culture reached fever pitch. Zahm has tried to put his own spin on it, most famously (and most recently) by putting Lindsay Lohan on the cover of Purple, despite her less-than-inspiring career trajectory. "To me it is a punk thing pushing the celebrity culture and high fashion. It wasn't radical though, it was an experiment: what we do with an icon of mass celebrity culture and high fashion? How can the two co-exist?" This statement speaks volumes of Zahm's reasons for launching the blog in early 2009, and why he decided to become the 'face' of Purple.
A self-proclaimed "exhibitionist", the editor found it easy to broadcast his life on the internet. "This is me, I am punk. I behave the same way behind the camera as in front of the camera. Before, I did not go in front of the camera, because I did not think it was my position. But I started because I needed to play the game." When Zahm started the blog it was no-holds-barred. He posted everything online, from pictures of his daughter Asia, to images that captured intimate, sexual moments. There was a true sense of freedom, an uninhibited insight into a decadent world, and it was the perfect postcard with which to promote Purple magazine. But it hasn't been without its setbacks. "It's not easy with your friends and personal entourage, because they feel a bit exploited. I played with that in the beginning, when the internet was still a virgin place, but now it has become so big that it is a bit scary, so I have had to step back a little, because you don't know it's too much." He is referring, in particular, to images of his daughter, who will no longer be featured on his blog, at the request of her mother. Perhaps he is also referring to the very public break-up he went through with girlfriend Natacha Ramsay. It was just last year that Ramsay parted ways with Zahm and he broadcasted a heartfelt letter on his blog which seems to have worked on Ramsay, as the two have since reunited.
It's Zahm's candidness that appeals to people, though, and it's something he will never lose he is somewhat of a hopeless romantic. "Love is the most important thing I believe in, but I don't love the way I used to love when I was 20 or 30 [he is now in his forties]. Also, the times have changed; the idea of having one partner for the rest of your life is not valid anymore. I am always searching for the deepest way of loving someone. I am open to a new formula." Does he have that with Natacha? "I think so, yes. I have to adapt to her and she has to adapt to me. We try to find common trust. I believe that love is all about trust and commitment, but not in the conventional sense. The conventional formula is a jail because we get quickly bored."
Zahm talks unflinchingly and openly about love with sex, and sex without love, and he looks me steadily in the eye when he tells me that sex is a source of true happiness for him. With anyone else I had just met it might have made me feel a little self-conscious, but his level of ease when discussing such matters is so great that we might as well be talking about the weather. "Sex is everything to me: it's spiritual, it's physical therapy, it's healthy. It's also a total escape from everything. True, deep, emotional sex still makes me happy, and I hope I will never lose this." I ask him what is his favourite part of a woman's body and he utters a small sigh. After lighting a cigarette he considers the question for a good 20 seconds before saying, "That's really difficult to say." After another 20-second pause, "Each woman has something beautiful. It's not necessarily a part of her body it's the combination of her physical allure. I would say that I love legs. I love girls with long legs, but now, as I am speaking about it, I would say that the breasts are maybe the most beautiful part of a woman; because each time I shoot topless girls it makes me happy. The breasts are like a fruit, like a source of joy."
Zahm has an unadulterated love for women, but it comes from a sentiment of respect rather than objectification. He is fascinated with women, much like he is by all the things he finds beautiful, including fashion. "I approach fashion as a source of beauty. Fashion can sometimes be whether it is a shoot, a show, or even a bag very beautiful and sensitive. However, this is not the priority of the industry, the priority is to sell; but mine is to reveal." The same could be said for the way that he approaches everything in life, be it personal or professional. Perhaps this is because, for him, there is no distinction. When I ask him what makes him happy besides work, he answers, "I don't divide life and work. That's like asking me, 'What makes you happy besides life?''"
Words: Alice Cavanagh
Photography: Xavier Cariou and Olivier Zahm