NEW YORK – 25 years ago, Anne Fontaine and her husband discovered a trunk filled with white shirts in his parents’ attic. The find would result in her eponymous line of crisp white shirts, a wardrobe staple that has grown into an international lifestyle brand with currently more than 70 boutiques worldwide. In 2011, the philanthropically driven Fontaine combined her two passions, design and nature, with the launch of the Anne Fontaine Foundation, which promotes reforestation initiatives in Brazil. Implementing its efforts through a variety of programs, the foundation’s latest project is Trees in Focus, an exhibition and charity auction at Sotheby’s New York. Curated by Christine Dutreil, the foundation’s executive director, the auction's 32 tree-themed photographs are by artists Fontaine admires such as Almudena Caso, Andrew Moore and Vincent Munier. The show opens 18 May for viewing and silent bidding and culminates in a live auction on 25 May, following Sotheby’s Latin American Art sales. We spoke with Fontaine about her life in Brazil, why nature is her number-one inspiration and some of her favourite photos from the auction.
DESIGNER AND PHILANTHROPIST ANNE FONTAINE.
Let’s begin with your iconic garment: the white shirt. Why do you feel the white shirt is so special?
It’s an essential for women. It’s timeless and elegant. With the white shirt, each woman can play and create her own identity and express her creativity. For me nothing is sexier than a white shirt.
What are some of your other “effortless chic,” as you call it, wardrobe staples?
Many, but the one I like most is the black smoking jacket. Every season, in all my shops, I offer The Essential Collection of staples for women. The smoking jacket is part of this collection – I call it the Smart Jacket, and the name means everything.
Now, for your second passion: nature and the environment. When you were growing up in Brazil, do you have any experiences that made you feel particularly connected to the rainforest?
I had the chance to live near the Mata Atlântica (the Brazilian Atlantic Forest), and I was fascinated – even obsessed – by the trees and the green of the forest. I grew up in Rio, and before I came to France for my studies, I decided to travel around Brazil and then spend six months in the Amazon with the Canela tribe. These people introduced me to the forest – the plants, how they take care of them – it was very special. You found everything you needed in the forest. Because of that experience, I really feel in my bones how much nature is an amazing source of inspiration.
TWO LOOKS FROM ANNE FONTAINE'S SPRING 2016 COLLECTION ARE A PLAY ON THE DESIGNER'S ICONIC WHITE SHIRTS.
What specifically made you want to return to the subject in 2011 when you created the Anne Fontaine Foundation?
I didn’t want to remain a spectator and see the forest disappear more and more every day without doing anything. I thought it was time to give back and do something. For me, it’s very important to be active in order to leave a more sustainable world for our children.
How have you seen the rainforest change since you were a child?
Rio is a big city, but I remember as a kid all the beautiful mountains and the forests around it. But now instead you find the favelas. It’s very different. People are destroying nature. It’s very sad to see. Just 7 per cent of the Mata Atlântica’s original coast is left. That’s why it’s very important to protect the remaining 7 per cent.
Tell me about some of your past and upcoming initiatives for the foundation.
We’ve planted 40,000 trees in Brazil so far, and the last initiative was in Rio, where we organised a two-day workshop with 60 kids in a favela: we planted almost 100 trees, and the kids painted, drew trees and learned about the rainforest. Two months ago, I did a conference around International Women’s Day with women committed to the environment and conservation. The Foundation also created an annual Forest Day in my shops, which we just celebrated in April. We give 50 per cent of the sales from all our boutiques around the world to the foundation.
If you want to change the relationship between people and nature, you also have to remind everybody how beautiful nature is.
A significant part of your foundation is using fashion and art as efforts for the cause. How does art play a role?
I think it’s nice to talk about environmental problems through fashion and art because people are more receptive. If you want to change the relationship between people and nature, you also have to remind everybody how beautiful nature is.
Why is photography particularly appealing?
I work in fashion, so I always work with pictures. And in the past I made a limited-edition catalogue called Carte Blanche where I helped promote emerging photographers. For each of my fashion collections, a few artists would shoot pieces of the clothing and accessories and the photos were published in a beautiful book.
Do you happen to collect photography?
I really love photography as a genre, and I love our selection for Trees in Focus. I began collecting more when I started this project because I’m looking at photographs all the time, especially landscape photography.
To see six of Fontaine's favourite photographs from the Trees in Focus exhibition and auction, click ahead.