It’s at the JoBo hotel that Bambi Sloan has just finished working on, where we meet. An incredible personality with crazy charisma and an incontestable talent, this Franco-American opens up with no filter, to Luxury Design.

We start our interview in a very disorderly way – unnervingly, the energetic artist tells me she prefers meeting face-to-face to a simple question and answer session on paper. She’d have spent months writing me a book, whereas meeting up means she can give direct answers to my questions – especially since her life is so full of ups & downs, stories and anecdotes. Bambi smiles as she says, “if you look briefly at my work, I am a very young decorator. I started, almost accidentally, in the business. Before that I worked in communications: I was a fashion beast – I know it inside out. Nowadays, I think fashion, made by the greats, those I call the ‘designers’, still exists.

BAMBI SLOAN JOBO

Franck Demaury: Are there still great designers?

Bambi: Yes, there are! I think that people like, for example, Christian Lacroix. What happened to him was criminal, a crime against fashion. All that for a story about his finances…to lose his legacy is really such a shame – someone as extraordinary as him should have a castle.

Franck Demaury: How did you get into fashion? What was your path?


I happened to stumble upon fashion jobs by accident, much like many other things & I realised I liked it. I made my own building site aged 13. My dad had bought an apartment in New York; he showed us around and described the rooms. There were two rooms for my sister and I. My dad asked me how I wanted to decorate my room; I chose the one with the brick wall. My dad told me I could decorate it the way I liked and so I went all out! I even hung flowers on the brick wall.

I spent a year collecting Coca-Cola bottles. Back then; we took the capsules off the Coca-Cola bottles as they were forbidden. People threw them away all over the place and we thought it was dangerous. We asked friends to collect them for us too. I used them to make a ‘Paco Rabane’ style curtain. Daddy said, “What sort of paint do you want?” I asked to have a sky-blue ceiling, so I painted a sky on it. In my Duplex in Madeleine, I currently have a sky on the ceiling. In my bedroom, I’ve got another one that’s navy blue with golden stars. As you can see, I haven’t changed that much!

I still have the same tastes as when I was 13.

During my adolescence, the neon paint fashion trend came around. I repainted all my walls lots of different colours. So those were really my first steps in the job, at the time I didn’t even know that I was capable of doing it or that it was going to become my job. It’s the same thing really for my press officer job, I didn’t know what it was and did it by accident. My whole life is made up of encounters. The only thing I wanted to do, the one and only thing, was to become a dancer. I was at Balanchine in New York City, they would hit us with sticks – it was my life really until I had a skiing accident, followed by 1.5 years of physiotherapy.

At home, we spoke French and English. My father being American, we used to mix languages when we were home.

Franck Demaury: Did your parents meet in France or in America?

Oh, the story’s even better than that, my parents actually met out at sea. My mother was leaving to become an au pair. She looked after Maria Montez and Jean Pierre Aumont’s daughter. When Maria Montez died, it was my mum that found her.

A few months later, Jean-Pierre Aumont got a contract to shoot a film; in the morose atmosphere, he decided to take everyone with him – the Montez sisters, his daughter and my mother. They left Le Havre first class to New York City. My mother met my father on the journey there, once in New York they met up over the two weeks. My father said to my mother, “I beg you, please don’t go back!” My father had sold his advertising agency; he had already been married and had left to mess around in Europe. I think he’d made the most of it, and then he fell in love. That’s how the story started!

Maria Montez Jean Pierre Aumont

I was in a French Lycée in New York; I did my BAC before spending my holidays in France, as usual. I never went back home. I wanted to become a painter like Picasso & set up in Montparnasse. My father sent me a terrible letter saying, “My daughter, you’ve lost yourself. Paris is dead! Art is in New York.”

I had a totally romantic vision of Paris – however I was quickly disillusioned. I guess you could say that I wasn’t made to be alone. I took evening classes in “Place Victor Hugo”, did all my prep. work for ‘Beaux Arts’ but at a certain point I asked myself; am I made to be sat alone in front of a canvas? The reply, clearly, was no.

Voyage New York  Top of the Rock Rockfeller Center Thomas Van Geete
Top of the Rock Rockfeller Center – Thomas Van Geete

I then became a press officer. I met a young Englishman, Simon Baker. He was the marketing director for a large petrochemical company who had launched a textile fibre; I was the press officer for the fibre. We asked ourselves a lot of questions about what was the best way to launch it. I wanted to aim high, going all the way to the top of the pyramid and work downwards. I went to see Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier to propose the fibre, then we decided we had to do a huge event with the fabric house ‘Première Vision’ and target the international market. I spent lots of time with Simon, we laughed a lot together. We had meetings in London, generally Mondays or Fridays, meaning we spent the weekend there. We worked very hard but we had a lot of fun in doing so. Simon said to me one day, “Your house is the place I love the most in the world. Your house is a whole lot of nonsense! I feel so good here; it’s both funky and elegant. It’s weird, there’s so much happening. If only we could create a place like this in London, make a club like your house and spark things off.

09_lacroix_mariee_fall_2009
christian-lacroix

In 1999, we made something improbable near Notting Hill. The club was called Harry’s Social Club. It used to be an old, rubbish club made up of elderly regulars. We tore off 50 years of wallpaper that stank of beer and cigarettes. I did it all with a more than limited budget and I had great fun. I tried mixing Emmaüs with other things…I went to Emmaüs because I didn’t have any money. I had spent it all on a carpet, my own carpet, pub-flooring style. People came in and they couldn’t believe they were walking on a carpet. I bought rosaries and wooden crucifixes, Simon asked what I wanted to do with them; so I told him, “They’re for my Madonna table.” Simon said, “You’re doing a Madonna table?

Franck Demaury: Wasn’t Simon scared at that point?

Bambi: Simon was never scared – it’s just like for JoBo – I was scared, I terrify myself. Everyone thinks Bambi knows what she’s doing, sometimes I look at things and I say to myself “Am I going too far?” Then I remind myself it’s only decorating and not surgery, it’s not that bad if I get it wrong.

I was scared, I terrify myself

Anyway, we open Harry’s Social Club and three weeks later Madonna’s sitting at her table. Initially, we didn’t know how she got there. We led an investigation to try and understand how she knew about the place. Each time something like that happened, I was on the train heading back to my press officer job. Simon would call me and say, “You’ll never guess who’s sitting at the Madonna table?” I once said, “Michael Jackson?”, he replied, “Bigger than that! Mick Jagger.” I said to myself, “Fuckin’ shit, they don’t want to see me! Every single time they come, I’m not there.” Simon and I didn’t know these people. The club’s reputation was built on word of mouth. Madonna’s producer lived 300 metres from it, he was a member – he made her come. He made a star come! One day, she wanted to come back alone, but she wasn’t a member…she still managed to get in anyway. I’m really not good with faces, so for all I know I could’ve easily refused ‘people’.

We called it Harry’s Social Club after Harry, an old Jamaican who came to drink in the bar every evening since 1954. When he saw me glued to the ceiling, painting it Turner style, Harry said, “I’ve been coming here since 1954, I’m the first black man to have played in an English football team, will I still be welcome here afterwards?” We became crazy about this guy; all throughout the refurbishments at 5pm he came in to the construction site and asked the same question. He always sat in the same place, so I gave him a chair and wrote on it, ‘Harry, here since 1954.’ We decided to make the entrance fee £80 because Harry was 80 years old. We also made a corridor whereby you had to buy Harry a drink, so he got spoiled & we always found someone to take him back to his little council house. There was also the phenomenon of the shoe being on the other foot: whilst I was a press officer, I chased after journalists to write pieces for my creations, all of a sudden journalists were chasing after me to write about me!

Then there was an Italian member who asked for the club’s decorator’s name, Simon gave him my name and called me saying the guy had a house to decorate…I asked Simon if the guy was nice and he said, “I don’t think you quite understand, you can get paid for it.” That scared me! I was scared to be a fad, a bit like ice creams and the flavour of the month. In the end I wasn’t one & the projects just kept coming.

Joséphine Bonaparte

Franck Demaury: Did you have competitors back then?

Back then I didn’t pay attention to anything. Nowadays, I find people have very strong personalities, they do what they wish – it’s great. That’s why clients come looking for us.

It must be the reason why JoBo’s owners came looking for me. Xavier (one of JoBo’s owners) spoke to me around 3 or 4 years ago about taking inspiration from Marie-Antoinette’s universe, but I proposed a different idea because I couldn’t transpose Versailles to JoBo. I immediately though of Joséphine Bonaparte (Napoléon 1st’s wife) – This woman had a crazy history. She left the Antilles, 16 years old after marrying the useless Beauharnais. Did you know that ‘Joséphine de Beauharnais’ isn’t actually her name? Everyone makes the mistake – it’s either Rose de Bonaparte or Joséphine Bonaparte.

In any case, I love the ‘Directoire’ period before the 1st Empire and the ‘Julius Caesar’ era. The crazy Napoleon III era too, we should give Napoleon credit for restarting Arts and Crafts, which had suffered greatly. Therefore, for this project, I had the chance to play around with both the ‘Directoire’ and ‘Josephine’ eras. For a long time, people compared me to Madeleine Castaing. I was over the moon about it as, much like her, I wasn’t from a certain school of thought, and I thought freely. Madeleine Castaing loved Joséphine and around 80% of her work was inspired by her, by ‘Directoire,’ by panther rugs and Malmaison – this hotel was kind of a flash back to all of that. I want to give credit where credit is due – I didn’t invent anything. Everyone added their sixpence. Mine is the rose; we can easily imagine this woman going to cut roses, filling baskets, tossing them on the panther rug and walking all over them. I like to tell myself stories and that’s why there are roses on the rug.

My structure guidelines are based on history

My structure guidelines are based on history, for Joséphine I really wanted to visit the ‘Hôtel Beauharnais’ (German Embassy) and discover Joséphine, the decorator’s, universe.

She made this private mansion for her son, yet neither her nor her son ever lived there as once Bonaparte saw the bill; he refused to pay it and sold it to the Prussians.

HOTEL-DE-JOBO_OTHERS_03

Franck Demaury: What is the story of the Saint James?

The Saint James is a whole other story…we’re in the era of Napoleon III, the hotel finds its origins in a Napoleonic palace – the great thing about it is the whole period is nonsensical. Yet, this period was all about the top of comforts for the Bourgeois, whilst keeping the flashier elements permitting them to show off. During the Napoleonic era, the slate wasn’t once wiped clean: they took the ‘Louis’ the ‘Charles’ and they mixed it all up. When I walked into the palace, rather ugly and sinister, I disregarded everything I saw. I looked at its skeleton – the structure and the walls – it was magnificent. I entertained the idea of magnifying everything and telling a story.

saint James paris couloir

In the garden the hot air balloons remind us of the origins on which the Fondation Thiers (St James original surname) site was built on. The site was the runway from which the hot air balloons took off, so I took the site’s origins and I put it into my wallpapers… I also added monkeys.

 Why monkeys? I felt like putting them in and as it’s Napoleon-esque, I can do what I want.

saint James paris terrasse

Franck Demaury: Have your projects already received criticism?

I once had an Englishman write a spirited paper on my work saying that the Saint James looked like a brothel…I didn’t find that very nasty, it was actually pretty fair, as when looking at a brothel (without my décor) it’s a mix of various elements. The film ‘House of Tolerance’ could have been shot in the Saint James!

saint James paris lobby 3

Franck Demaury: Numerous people call themselves “Interior designers, creators, designers” what do you think about that?

Ah, not me…I don’t call myself an interior designer, I’m a decorator. I’m obliged to advise clients on cupboards or other things, but I’m not an interior designer. I’m like a concierge, and that suits me. I don’t want to be inaccessible. It’s actually pretty funny because there are surely people who hesitate to call me because I might have worked on larger than life projects and I might have a reputation reflecting my work and not me personally. One day, I had a woman call me in the office, “Hello, Bambi Sloan Studio”, the woman asks, “Can I speak to Bambi Sloan?” to which I reply, “Yes, speaking.” After a long silence, she explains she’s very shocked I answered… personally; I believe the person beside the phone should answer it. She told me she really likes what I do and she had a project in mind; she confided that her friends didn’t think I’d ever accept her project, so I asked myself why? Where did that image come from?

Bambi asked me if lots of people didn’t reply to interview requests, without hesitation, I answered… yes.

We speak about distance and the images people give to titles, whether it be Editor-in-Chief, decorator or otherwise. She tells me that back in the day in the fashion world, there were people within the editorial board of Marie Claire that were intolerable.

Bambi: I asked myself if I considered going to the other side of the desk.

Bambi tells me that she once called Claude Brouet, the Editor-in-Chief of Marie Claire.

Bambi: She humbly met me within the week, much kinder than the little shit that dealt with ‘special accessories’. I actually saw Claude Brouet again a few years ago, I was queuing for an exhibition at the Grand Palais – she was in front of me. I tapped her on the shoulder to say hi, we spoke and I said to her “You are a very great lady in fashion, you are a very great lady full stop. You’re a very great lady because you’re attentive, approachable.” My friend, a communications director for large companies said, “Bambi’s right, you aren’t often told so, but you’re a very great lady.” I think that the greats aren’t always those who we believe to be so. The greatest are generally those whom it is a pleasure to be around. She’d be a train wreck. My father used to say, “There’s two ways to grow old: dry and wet. Take Fred Astaire, dry; on the other hand Gene Kelly, wet.” One became thinner and thinner, the other became fatter and fatter.

Franck Demaury: Do you travel? Have you been back to your city, New York?

 I don’t travel often and if I have to spend 8 hours on a plane, it’s to go to a different country. I went back to New York two years ago for the weekend. My daughter announced she’d bought a plane ticket. She reminded me that I had promised to take her and since I hadn’t done it yet, she decided to go by herself and meet her cousin. I felt bad about it; I’d completely forgotten that she’d never set foot in New York. As per usual, it wasn’t the right time but I took the weekend off to ferry them around my New York…the good news was that I met up with a friend. We went to all the places I’d lived, but I’ve decided I don’t care about New York anymore – it’s ghastly.

Franck Demaury: Can you see a difference between working in England & working in France?

In England, people struggle a lot. They are very strict about safety. The English often laugh at the French because they think we don’t work…but they drink a lot of tea!

I’m going to work on a private house project in England. I’m going to try to stay in my place…

I have a tendency to want to know everything and implicate myself in matters that don’t concern me – it’s horrible. Sometimes the plumber explains something to me like you can’t put a bathtub there…it annoys me so much!

I have a tendency to want to know everything and implicate myself in matters that don’t concern me – it’s horrible.

I have a tendency to want to know everything and implicate myself in matters that don’t concern me! I’ll ask him to explain the problem, whilst saying to myself “What an idiot! Why do you do that!” The guy explains he’ll have to raise the bathtub so that it empties properly, I’ll say to him “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to make a stage and put the bathtub in the middle of it, surrounded by red curtains.” Everyone thought I was a madwoman. In the Saint James I told the team “I’m making a Bambi Sloan bedroom” it’s the smallest one, but it has a bathtub on a stage.

 

saint james Bambi Sloan

Sometimes, I regret not being consulted on technical details – I don’t think I talk nonsense. Sometimes, things really aren’t possible but we should at least try and find a solution together.

Franck Demaury: Do you intervene after the architect or do you work together?

99% of the time we work together. Accidentally, I’ve already had to intervene afterwards and I don’t want to do so again. It’s similar to the relationship between a surgeon and a great make-up artist – the one without the other could be a disaster. I don’t like to work in isolation, I like working in a tribe and playing table tennis with them… sometimes I feel that people don’t understand a thing, maybe I didn’t explain myself properly? I’ll get a pencil and paper and finally we understand one another. However, with others I’ve barely got the words out my mouth and yet the person is already completing my sentence.

HOTEL-DE-JOBO_ROOM_MERVEILLEUSE_00
Hotel de JoBo

Franck Demaury: Do you feel that arts and crafts are important?

Oh yes! I’m for nothing but it! I’ve never had huge budgets with which I could allow myself to do gold-leafed bronze or to spent 15000 Euros on a curtain rod…it actually sickens me. I love people who work with their hands and who are small like me. Look here at the great job the girls did highlighting with different colours. I try to work with the same people; it all depends on the job and each person’s means.

Franck Demaury : If you were to define Luxury, what does it mean to you?

It’s complicated – Luxury is a term that means precious, rare, and sometimes expensive. When it’s expensive, I don’t even care.

Franck Demaury : What’s your personal luxury?

 My personal luxury is time, something I can’t sell! In my opinion, Luxury would be having breakfast in bed every morning… simple things… it’s pretty simple since I don’t eat in the morning, but I would like to do so with a coffee, an ash try and a sea view.

One person’s luxury isn’t necessarily another’s – I found that extremely sophisticated

Luxury could be a simple sophistication; I spent a week in a lodge in Senegal. There was a wood cabin, atop a baobab. There was a sort of ladder, a terrace and a bed. All in this handmade lodge composed of planks of wood and leaves.
One person’s luxury isn’t necessarily another’s – I found that extremely sophisticated.

In the tree trunk, I had cold-water mains and having a bathroom in a tree might also be considered a luxury. Given the context, I found that to be a luxury, one person’s luxury isn’t necessarily another’s.

Luxury can also be something well made…I prefer eating the best ever croque-monsieur over bad caviar! I prefer something well made! There’s no need for it to cost an arm and a leg. Incidentally, there are fashion shops where I skim the handrail and I struggle to touch the tissue because they’re undeserving of the money.

Franck Demaury : Is there a designer that you’d like to work with?

Not at the moment – sad, isn’t it? The top three real designers are Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix and Galliano. They’ve all got a vision! In this field, at the beginning, I would systematically cry both because I was exhausted but also at the end of fashion shows. I was touched…then one day, it all stopped. I no longer felt the same emotion. Was it because I was jaded? I remember the runway ‘Comme des Garçons’ where the girls all had leprosy, greasy hair…next I had a seat for Galliano’s Dior show at l’Opéra de Paris – I came home crying. It wasn’t just a runway; it was a show. We all arrived in a room themed like the morning after a party – there were dirty tables covered in dishes and leftovers, we knew they had danced all night. Then all of a sudden, we were carried into a crazy situation with tango dancers, their eyes tired and darkened. The girls had ripped tights, I couldn’t believe my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, nobody had managed to move me in such a way before.

I loved the Gucci collection – I had a ball. We had great fun – dreaming of beautiful things is important! A well-produced play is good, but it doesn’t make me dream. It has to explode!

I loved the Gucci collection – I had a ball. We had great fun – dreaming of beautiful things is important! A well-produced play is good, but it doesn’t make me dream. It has to explode!

Dreaming of beautiful things is important!

Dreaming of beautiful things is important! Lacroix broke the rules but without meaning to. He didn’t say to himself “I’m going to do this just screw things over,” it’s his imagination, his way of working. He transgressed established codes, mixed materials and colors. I think that made some pretty ladies. He’s also brilliant at décor too.

Franck Demaury: What are you really proud of?

I can’t say…I feel like I never finish things. My house isn’t finished, by the way. I’m really proud of the trust people give me – I’m proud to have gained it, trust is something which is earned…that means I’ve earned this trust, which to me is a great success and something to be proud of. People blindly trust a madwoman (she laughs)… When you work with me, you quickly realise that I’ve got my two feet on the ground and I’m the most reasonable person, maybe not in my taste but in my planning and costs…In general, I save everyone’s skin at the end of the project…I have a housewife side!