'With Karl [Lagerfeld], you never know exactly what you will do,' says Carine Roitfeld, former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, the French edition of the fashion bible. 'You have an idea but you never know how it's going to finish, how long it's going to take or who is going to come; it's always a surprise.'
Roitfeld is discussing her collaboration with the German fashion designer for Chanel's The Little Black Jacket book, which debuted in Tokyo on March 22 with an exhibition of photographs from the project.
She is sitting, small and snug, in a corner of the Tokyo Park Hyatt lobby, where light refracted through morning drizzle has cast a dusk-like ambience. Roitfeld's style, so often featured in the pages of fashion magazines, is instantly recognisable.
'It's quite simple,' she says. 'Always I am with a fitted skirt, tight jacket or coat, because I'm quite skinny, and then something boyish like this belt or something from a man's wardrobe.'
She combines the masculine with items that are indelibly feminine; today it is the slinky black lace slip dress she wears under it all. Her shoes are black strappy rope sandals with stiletto heels, worn in homage to Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki.
'When I am working with tall people, like Mario Testino, for example, I feel taller and stronger if I can look into his eyes,' says Roitfeld of her preference for stilettos. 'It gives you a different attitude.'
Before bowing out of Vogue Paris in December 2010, after 10 years at the top, Roitfeld had been tipped as a replacement for Anna Wintour (should she retire) at the helm of the American sister publication. As some might remember, her final days at the revered magazine made great media fodder. Rivalry between former friends Roitfeld and Emmanuelle Alt, her successor at French Vogue, was much talked about.
She emerged unscathed, however, and with a new magazine on the horizon - the first biannual issue of CR Fashion Book, or CR for short, is due out in September - and a documentary film crew following her around, Brand Roitfeld is stronger than ever.
'I'm free to do all my projects,' she says. 'In fashion you need this freedom. If you don't have it, it's finished - fashion doesn't exist.
'Fashion is not art, I don't like that idea,' she adds, 'because fashion is to be lived with and in and not just looked at.'
Roitfeld has rarely been far from controversy. Her style has been dubbed 'porno chic' (she prefers the term 'erotica chic') for its overt raw sexuality and relaxed attitude to convention. Edgy editorials produced under her direction have included model Crystal Renn scoffing spaghetti, sucking on her fingers and knifing a suggestively placed ham in a gluttony-themed shoot by Terry Richardson.
She made the French edition one of the most avant-garde and controversial publications in the Vogue stable. In the Tom Ford issue (December 2010), child models were dressed in grown-up fashion. Shots of a 10-year-old model in sultry poses and heavy 1990s make-up caused international uproar and landed Roitfeld in trouble with her bosses. Stunning transsexual Lea T was put on the cover on Roitfeld's watch; inside, a series of honest, natural and nude portraits featured.
'I'm not so excited by the girl next door,' she says, 'I'm excited by something more creative.'
Being a little controversial comes with the territory when 'defending the freedom of fashion', says Roitfeld, although she admits 'this is a very risky thing to do'.
'Of course my new magazine might be controversial, in a different way from before - but I think people who like fashion will be happy because I keep pushing, pushing forward.'
Roitfeld, who since leaving Vogue has become muse to Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and worked with Lagerfeld on Chanel advertising campaigns, is clearly beautiful. She was a model at 18 and looks remarkable for her 57 years, although often comes across as severe in pictures. Architectural cheekbones and strong eyebrows frame inky, deep-set eyes shaded by sultry smudged eyeliner. Her gaze often alludes to a raw, fearsome sexuality on the page.
In person, Roitfeld's intensity is tempered by an unexpected warmth and chattiness. She smiles often, her rakish figure appearing fragile, but her attitude is fresh, girlish and earnest. Perhaps it's the new lease of life she has had after cutting the cord with Vogue. Roitfeld's commercial and artistic projects since have involved some of fashion's big-gest brands.
'Me, I'm not yet 60 [Coco Chanel re-entered the industry in her 60s] but I also will build something new again,' she says.
The Little Black Jacket book came about when Lagerfeld and Roitfeld were talking about Coco Chanel's original and played with the idea of putting different kinds of people into that particular item of clothing.
'It started as a small conversation and finished in the art gallery,' says Roitfeld. 'We didn't know that it would be so big. It was a project for fun - the best kind.'
Combining their address books, the pair called in the likes of Uma Thurman, Lauren Hutton and Sarah Jessica Parker, as well as an array of artists, models and designers. More than 100 images were created in five days: 'three days in Paris, one day in New York and one day in the south of France', Roitfeld says.
'Sometimes we styled them as how they are, and sometimes it's something that they would never dare to wear in real life,' says Lagerfeld, in a later interview. 'This gives something special to the book.'
Roitfeld's favourite pictures include that of Vanessa Paradis, for the subtle, sexy fashion, a smooth leg revealing a bit of garter belt and then an obscured face - you can only tell it's the French singer-actress because of her mouth. She also loves Claudia Schiffer's portrait: 'You've seen her picture hundreds of times but I think in this picture she's more sexy, she looks like an actress coming from a Batman film; different from the nice Claudia you see all the time.'
Tisci, a close friend, also features: 'This portrait of Riccardo is very interesting - he looks like an old Italian painting - his beauty is a very classic Italian beauty.
'I was a bit anxious at times,' admits Roitfeld, 'but in the end [the subjects] were all so nice. Karl is very positive and makes everyone laugh.'
'Photography is something I discovered quite late,' Lagerfeld says. 'I've always admired photographers like Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton, but I never thought I could do it myself. I wasn't pretentious enough for that perhaps.'
When he started at Chanel, in the early 1980s, it was difficult to get someone good to shoot a lookbook or dossier de presse of outfits before the show, so he hired an assistant and started doing it himself, slowly sculpting a style that is now characteristic.
'When you photograph Anna Wintour from the back, but you recognise her immediately from the bob haircut, that is a genius idea,' says Roitfeld.
One of Lagerfeld's closest collaborators, fashion muse and friend Amanda Harlech, adds, 'What struck me when I saw the opening exhibition [of the book] is that what they have done is sort of beyond fashion. You have this incredibly engineered jacket that is instantly recognisable and yet everybody can be uniquely themselves in it - it's so extraordinary.
'[It] is perhaps capturing something of a cultural moment.'
Cultural moments are what all fashion houses hope to capture these days. Whether it be arts initiatives or dabbling in film, or even architecture, the pressure is on to extend fashion beyond fashion. Business dictates that designers for big brands must 'do at least four shows a year, sometimes even couture, plus design the 'it' bag of the season', says Roitfeld.
'The new generation of designers, for example Alexander Wang, are very strong in creativity but also very strong in business, too - it's a double job.'
Designers must be aware of how their clothes are received internationally and open shops across the planet.
And speaking of good business: 'I don't know exactly what I'm going to do with my name but it's true that it's almost become like a brand now.'
It is a name her daughter, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, a spitting image of her mother, has used to her advantage. Julia has become something of an ingenue in the fashion world, landing big campaigns for Lanc?me and prompting Tom Ford to declare her his ideal of ultimate beauty.
So, given the strength of the brand, might we see a fashion label from this elder doyenne of style? For the moment, Roitfeld says, no, she prefers to do projects 'for fun' and is enjoying having that luxury.
Last year saw the publication of the book Irreverent - a visual history spanning Roitfeld's 30-year career. In it she used images dug out from her old magazines along with those of her family. There was a lot of cutting up, imitation blood splatters and scissors - if we were to play psychologist, we'd say it was a form of catharsis.
CR, Roitfeld insists, will deliver something different, with an approach between that of a magazine and that of a book. After working for a big company such as Vogue, Roitfeld says, 'you have to be crazy to start a new independent magazine' from the ground up.
One agenda Roitfeld promises to push is to show fashion legends 'like Bruce Weber or Karl Lagerfeld' alongside fresh new talent: models, photographers or designers.
'I want the magazine to be like a window for these two worlds to be seen together - because the big brands are desperately looking for new talent. Everything has to be mixed. It will be a magazine that captures the trend of the moment but becomes timeless, too.
'I'm in a very good position today in fashion,' she says. 'You have to be very smart in all the choices that you have to make to keep this power.'
There is the business aspect but fashion, in Roitfeld's perhaps very French opinion, is all about dreaming ('Me, I'm a big dreamer,' she says) and sweet escape from the more serious matters of the world.
It's the kind of 'good escape' she tried to achieve on the pages of Vogue and between the covers of Little Black Jacket.
'I will stay irreverent,' Roitfeld says, 'but I'm going to be a grandma [Julia is expecting next month]. So my life is changing, and I will have to change, too.'