Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin isn’t like other models. Blue eyes, tan skin, “kinky afro hair” (her own definition) and a whole world in her genes, she is unique in every way except perhaps her perpetual unrest: “I have been back in Paris for a year, after five years in Tuscany. Before that I lived in New York City. New York and Tuscany felt home the most. Now I’m writing from Rio where I flew for a project after moving out of my flat in Paris. Where’s home to me? Who knows?”
Her roots in the Caribbean, variety has been a staple of her life since she was very small: “I was raised on the outskirts and suburbs of Paris, France. I first lived in Vitry sur Seine, a street away from Chinatown, and a very ethnically diverse place. When I was twelve my family moved to a rather well-off small town, where I felt quite a stranger. There was no diversity and I became really shy.”
Her wanderlust also helped kickstart her modelling career. In March 1994, Saint Louis Augustin was living in Paris, but her Media Studies course wasn’t as exciting as she expected it to be: “I wanted to escape boredom and be in life’s picture rather than only look at it. I was searching for an aliveness I didn’t see around. Brice Compagnon, the casting director for Benetton, introduced me to Oliviero Toscani and my first modelling agency, and I thought, why not? It’s a start.”
Making it as a woman of mixed ethnicity in the predominantly white fashion world is hardly a given, and Saint Louis Augustin had to confront her perception of self as well as the perception of non-white people in society and on the catwalk. “The term Black people generally refers to people of African ancestry. It replaces the term Negro, which is considered racist, but is it better? It’s still at best a lazy descriptive term that frames people within a skin colour, with all the prejudice it entails, and the confusion when you don’t match the clichés. I’d rather refer to geographical origin: African, African-American, Afropean, Aborigene, Indonesian and so forth. In truth, it seems that every culture has its “blacks”: anyone of a darker shade than the lightest skin tone. It’s still political to say “I’m Black”. James Brown sang “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud” at a time of racial segregation in the United States. Leopold Sedar Senghor coined the term “Négritude”. An afro hairdo is called a Black power in Brazil.”
Her highly focused vision extends, of course, to her perception of the fashion industry: “The western fashion industry – and the rest of society – needs trans-cultural newcomers at all levels, business to creation. Which is why I’m working on projects that challenge our prejudice on race, beauty and talent through art. I am also an ambassador for Folorunsho, a sustainable social project that aims at transforming the lives of street kids in Sierra Leone through fashion and creative work.”
At the same time, working in fashion helped embrace her looks. “The fact that my difference was desirable made me see it as an asset. It’s still a challenge to not be someone you can “race tag” easily. I’m definitely defying the racial game, and maybe that’s my main advantage. To be a woman of character rather than a marketing cliché.”
Her personal style is partly defined by being a working woman in Paris: “I look for comfort, ease of movement, with simple easy elegance, refinement, lightness. Nothing forced. I keep it basic as I never have the time to go out shopping. But I love colours, and I collect pieces of fabrics with traditional designs found in Japan, from Africa, Indonesia, India. I use them to wrap my hair or wear them as scarves to add a striking touch to my everyday clothes. I own kimonos that I wear as dresses or jackets. I always look for something that will spice up otherwise very simple casualwear. Then in the summer it’s an explosion of colours and flowy everything from pants to dresses. And hats when they fit! But I have to say I love to shop in my cool friends’ wardrobes. So much easier.”
Her first contact with the Missoni brand came through an industrial designer she used to date, who was really into Italian design and took her shopping. “The first pieces I bought were a knitted swimsuit, a long knitted zigzag dress, and long high-waisted zigzag pants. I see myself reflected in the Missoni style, their love of colours, lightness, patterns and knitwear. Elegance as style. Family as value. Creativity as work. Quality as aim. The luxury to “work in a place ideal for spending the week-end” and “spend the week-end in the city”. These are all things I understand and appreciate.
As for her favourite Missoni pieces, she has a small regret: “I’m still in love with the vintage zig zag design pieces: I made the mistake to sell my vintage clothes last year and that is what I’d like to own again. For the Winter I’d take the long V-neck strap dress with cowboy boots. From the summer season I’ll pick two looks made out of the pink, orange, aubergine and black stripes fabric. But I’ll start with one of the Mare Inverno colourful striped dresses, because I’d like to visit my grandmother and great aunts in Martinique this winter. Aunt Ginette just turned 99 years old and she is so much fun to be with.”
Photographer: Pascal Lopérena
Styling: Lydia Lobe
Assistant styling: Farah Bendjeddou
Make up: Dalila Daikha
Hair: Alimatou Coulibaly
Accessories: Philippe Ferrandis, Sobral, Marc Le Bihan, Dominique Denaive.