You don’t have to be a regular at Paris Fashion Week to spot the super-stylist Suzanne Koller. Flick through an online street-style gallery and you’ll see her. In among the cartoonish bloggers, anxiously on-trend Insta It-girls and off-duty models, Koller cuts a sophisticated figure.
Dressed head to toe in tonal Céline (Phoebe era) or Givenchy (for whom she consults), Koller’s go-to look is a modernist beige mac over a shirt and trousers, finished off with a perfect black boot. On the day we meet at the chic Café de L’Esplanade in Paris, just after the Dior couture show, she’s dressed in a symphony of expensive neutrals. Her caramel-coloured shirt with the cuffs folded back, matching trousers, at brown leather sandals and tan-trimmed beige shoulder bag are all by Céline. A pair of toffee-tinted wire-framed shades hide her eyes from the glare, and her honey-blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Koller looks effortless, unstudied and comfortable in her skin, but also impossibly, fabulously chic. “I believe in taste, but it is difficult to describe because it is something you cannot learn,” she says in her rich Germanic drawl.
But Koller isn’t like the peacocks on the front row. She’s truly independent of mind, spirit and style. As the co-founder of Self Service magazine, she’s been at the forefront of fashion image-making for 23 years. She was Phoebe Philo’s go-to stylist at Chloé, influencing how a whole generation of women dressed, and now works with Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, where she says her job is to be a fresh eye, to bring an outside view and “nourish Clare with ideas”.
Jacket and trousers by Céline AW12
Koller’s fashion CV is gold plated. She is royalty in independent-publishing circles but she also spent three years as the fashion director of French Vogue, leaving in 2017. These days, she lends her exacting, fashion-director eye to Le Monde’s M magazine, a newspaper fashion supplement so stylistically cutting edge and rich in content that it puts the rest to shame.
At the heart of it all is her work. Koller describes herself as an image-maker rather than a stylist and puts narrative and character at the centre of what she does. “It’s documenting women, in a way, and that’s what I enjoy. I realise now, with a little more objectivity, that I really like to tell a story,” she says. For Koller, what makes a great fashion image is the woman in the picture. “It’s about the character of the girl. I keep saying that more and more. That’s the same in real life – you’d like to see the women first and then the clothes – and actually I realised that, in images, when you see a picture of a woman and almost forget the clothes, that’s where it becomes timeless. You don’t think this is from that year because it is more about the character.”
She uses models of all ages – Raquel Zimmermann, Malgosia Bela, Anja Rubik and Amber Valletta – but singles out Adut Akech, Cara Taylor, Rianne van Rompaey and Kiki Willems as favourites from the new generation “They’re not supermodels playing up. No, they have a nice attitude and are very interesting.”
Coat by Céline AW14, trousers by Céline AW12, shoes by Charles Jourdan
Koller was born in Vienna and lived in Germany and Switzerland. Her father was an actor and had his own theatre, and her mother was a secretary. Fashion didn’t enter her orbit, but at the age of 13, the young Koller got her elegant hands on a copy of French Vogue. Flicking through its glossy pages she came across some pictures by Guy Bourdin and had a sudden realisation: here was the world she wanted to inhabit. By 15 she was studying graphic design, dreaming of working in advertising and dressing like Madonna in her Like a Virgin phase. “I actually have pictures of it. It’s terrifying,” she says.
She came to Paris in 1992 because she wanted to work in fashion and interned in the graphic design departments at Elle and French Glamour. “Glamour was really good back then. Robin Derrick was the art director. I got an unpaid internship and stayed for a year.” While there, she met Ezra Petronio, and the pair soon co-founded the creative agency Petronio Associates. (At this stage, her look consisted of “mostly Helmut Lang”.) They launched Self Service in 1995, to chronicle the burgeoning creative scene in Paris, with early issues featuring Chloë Sevigny, Daft Punk, Emmanuelle Alt, Frédéric Sanchez, Inez and Vinoodh, Jane How, Nicolas Ghesquière and Mark Borthwick. “It was really small back then, with only 60 pages, and was not just fashion but art and music and everything in the early ’90s.”
Coat by Givenchy AW18
She admits that she and Petronio had “no clue about publishing” and learnt as they went along. A few issues in, realising that most of their main advertisers were fashion brands, they decided to do more fashion shoots, “which kind of required a fashion director, and as I was the core of the magazine I was the best person”. But art direction was her thing, not styling. “So I had to learn all by myself, pretending to be a fashion director while not knowing how to do fashion,” she says. “Because it was my own magazine, I could do whatever I wanted, which was nice. But it does mean that, on the other hand, I could do shit.” She wishes now that she had assisted a big stylist before becoming one herself, but she also recognises that being her own boss has allowed her to develop a unique and powerful visual voice
She’s not so indie that she can’t t into the mainstream. Koller found herself on the “fast track” in her three years at French Vogue and relished working with their roster of big-name photographers, but having worked for herself for most of her career she knew there was life outside the bubble. Now she says, “I don’t think I could be anything but independent.” As fashion director of Le Monde’s M, she sees it as her job to champion new young creatives. “There is a whole new generation of photographers who are really interesting. For a while you’d see photographers copying each other’s work, but now they are interested in their own work. It’s a pleasure to work with them.” Most, such as Harley Weir, Brianna Capozzi, Zoe Ghertner, Coco Capitán and Bibi Cornejo Borthwick, are women and she loves the dynamic this creates. “It’s a woman photographing a woman, and sometimes they are the same age. It’s a very different approach from a young girl being photographed by a 40- or 50-year-old man. I kind of feel more free.” Rather than mould her young photographers, she lets them be. “They know what they like and are very sure about themselves, very confident.”
Top by Givenchy AW18
She finds new talents on Instagram, a medium that Koller has embraced wholeheartedly: “It’s like a magazine where you can express yourself.” The relentless scroll suits her personality, she says. “I am a workaholic. When you have a creative mind, you cannot really stop your brain, I feel. It is on all the time, no matter what you do.” She’s also fascinated by how it has changed how images are consumed. People can react much more strongly to an image you have done by yourself in two seconds than to a fashion image you spend hours on.” It’s made her think about how to create “fast fashion” visuals for the flipping and scrolling and screenshot culture.
In conversation she often says, “I feel… ” before revealing a sharp insight such as “having a lot of money doesn’t make you creative”. One current frustration is aimed at brands choosing to focus on selling lipsticks, bags and shoes, as opposed to making clothes that work for women in real life. “Why do I have the feeling I have nothing to wear?” she asks. She doesn’t shop as much as she used to and has edited her own look down to “pants and shirts. I keep buying dresses and heels but never wear them.”
Coat by Vetements AW16, shirt and trousers by Céline SS17, belt by Prada, bag by Hèrmes
Whether she’s styling, working with brands or choosing collaborators, Koller listens to her gut reaction. “It’s my instinct and it’s been right for a long time. You have to train that. It is just like a muscle,” she says. She keeps those instincts sharp by waking up at 5.30 every morning and going for a run in the Jardin du Luxembourg near her apartment. “It’s the only moment in the day when I don’t think.” Her kids, aged 10 and 14, keep her grounded in real life, which in turn refreshes her fashion eye when she re-enters the bubble. But the best way to stay on point is to avoid nostalgia at all costs. “I’m excited by the modern world,” she says. “Curiosity is what drives me, and it needs to, especially now in a moment of change. If you become nostalgic, you become one of the old ones,” she says with a shudder. “I feel sorry for these people who cannot adapt.” Facing forward, with her eyes open and her instincts honed, Suzanne Koller has no fear of that.
Ten Portraits: Suzanne Koller is taken from Issue 12 of 10 Magazine, out now.
Photographer Bibi Cornejo Borthwick
Fashion editor Suzanne Koller
Hair Soichi Inagaki at Art Partner
Make-up Karim Rahman at Open Talent Paris
Photographer’s assistant Marion Parez
Fashion assistants Ray Tetauira and Charlotte Thommeret
Hair assistant Sayaka Otama
Make-up assistant Lauren Bos
Retouching Digitart Paris
Digital assistant Jérôme Vivet