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From Fashion To Ocean: agnès b. Has Wind In Her Sails

At the 2012 Monaco Yacht Show, the International SeaKeepers Society bestowed its Seakeeper Award on Agnès Troublé, better known to the world as “agnès b,” designer and successful entrepreneur.

At the 2012 Monaco Yacht Show, the International SeaKeepers Society bestowed its Seakeeper Award on Agnès Troublé, better known to the world as “agnès b,” designer and successful entrepreneur.

Photos courtesy Tara Expeditions

agnes b. - Photo courtesy of agnes b. & Patric Swirc

agnes b. - Photo courtesy of agnes b. & Patric Swirc

Why would an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of the oceans recognize a fashion designer? The truth is, agnès b., who received France’s Legion of Honor in 2010, far exceeds this narrow classification.

Agnès b., the CEO of what is now an international fashion empire that she established in the early 1970s with not much more than flair and a dream, is a true Renaissance woman. An art collector and an artist in her own right, Agnès believes strongly in getting involved, and her foundation supports many causes, including the environment.

Born in 1941 to a well-to-do family a stone’s throw away from the palace of Versailles near Paris, Agnès received a loving but strict upbringing. She described her father, a lawyer, as someone with an unending teenage curiosity and her mother as distant and very beautiful. Agnès, herself, had luminous skin, blue eyes and blond curls, not unlike Renaissance master Botticelli’s Venus. French journalist Serge July, who made a documentary on agnès b., first met her in the early 1970s. “She was an overwhelming beauty, always dressed in eccentric clothing, overalls and beat-up hats.”

After a stint as editor for the fashion magazine Elle in the late 1960s, Agnès worked as a freelance fashion designer for various prêt-a-porter brands but, looking back on this period of her life, she told an interviewer she was rowing against a strong current. “I found the fashion of the time to be too complicated,” she told French magazine L’Express in 2009. “I wanted to start from scratch and was inspired by work wear.” She found her stride in mid-1970s when she decided to create her own brand and opened her first store in an old Paris street near Montmartre. She played music in the shop, which was decorated with papyrus, and she allowed birds to fly freely through it. By 1975, she had forged her new identity as agnès b. (she prefers the lowercase), the multi-talented woman behind the youthful hand-drawn signature found on all her labels.

While designing clothes for women, men and children and developing new lines (from shoes to cosmetics) for her expanding multinational following, agnès b. also delved in contemporary art, photography and cinema. She opened her own production company, named “Love Streams” after one of director John Cassevetes’ movies. She organized photo exhibits in her own galleries to display the work of budding artists. The New Yorker magazine briefly but favorably reviewed the exhibit showcased in her New York store opened in Soho in April 2011. Much of the artwork by French artists, including a portrait of rocker Patti Smith in Versailles, had a common theme of human vulnerability, which she seems to understand fully.

But it was Agnès’ support of Tara Expeditions (a non-profit organization dedicated to oceanographic research) that earned her the Seakeeper Award and piqued the curiosity of Thalassa, a French televised magazine dedicated to the sea. In the program’s 2010 documentary, the show producers revealed another side of the designer, who with her usual natural candor charmed her interviewer as she delved into an early childhood memory.

“I love the sea. I learned how to swim when I was three-and-a-half,” she said, recalling how her father, after watching her swim in the shallows by the shore, took her aboard his canoe. “He tossed me in the middle of the Garoupe Bay near Antibes. I came back and said I know how to swim!”

Later, Agnès learned how to sail with her younger brother Bruno Troublé, who eventually became a competitive sailor and founder of the Louis Vuitton Cup. His own son, Romain, took part in two America’s Cups. In fact, although they don’t often have an opportunity do this together, the whole family loves sailing. Etienne Bourgois, Agnès’ son and managing director of agnès b., never lost his love for sailing, even though he keeps very busy with the growing family enterprise.

In 2003, Etienne Bourgois made a discovery that changed the family’s common love into something bigger; he learned that Seamaster was for sale in New Zealand. In sailing circles, Seamaster is the stuff of legends. The 118-foot aluminum sloop belonged to competitive sailor and explorer Sir Peter Blake. A New Zealander with a passion for exploration, Blake was on an environmental mission in the Amazon when river pirates boarded the boat and shot him dead. Sometime after the fatal attack, the boat was returned to New Zealand where Blake was revered as a national hero and the greatest sailor to have ever lived.


The sloop herself has a pedigree. Built in 1989 in a French shipyard, she had been conceived to serve as a scientific platform able to endure the toughest conditions. Dr. Jean-Louis Etienne, a physician and explorer, cruised the southernmost regions of the earth aboard the sailboat, which was then named Antarctica. At the time of her launch, she was the largest of her kind, with a nearly 33-foot beam and sporting two masts 89 feet tall. A retractable keel allowed her to plow in waters as shallow as four feet, and thick aluminum plates made her extra strong.

This incredible find sparked an idea. Etienne and Agnès decided to return the sailboat to her initial mission and provide scientists with another tool to study the planet’s climatic changes. Refitted in France at the shipyard where she was built (SFCN in Brittany) and renamed Tara, the sloop became the centerpiece for what would become Tara Expeditions.

One of the first high-profile missions sent Tara to the Arctic. Sailing to the northernmost latitude ever reached by a sailboat, she stayed trapped in ice for more than 500 days, serving as home base for a team of European scientists studying the state of the Arctic ice. The trip became the subject of a 90-minute documentary released in 2008.

On September 5, 2009, the sloop set sail again for a two-and-half-year cruise through the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and then through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic. This time the goal was to take salinity samples and collect plankton to help scientists understand the implications of the planet’s increased temperatures on this nearly invisible and yet incredibly diverse marine life—and the entire food chain. Named “Tara Oceans,” the expedition was a mission on a grand scale with 126 scientists relaying each other during 938 days. The sailboat visited 32 countries. In February 2012, it made a stopover in New York’s Battery Park and arrived back at homeport near Lorient, France, in March.

Many international organizations are involved, but agnès b.’s foundation provides about a third of the organization’s annual operating fund, financing a great deal of these expeditions. And Tara Expeditions has become a family affair. Romain Troublé, who took care of logistics in Siberia during Tara’s Arctic expedition, is secretary general of the Tara Expeditions’ fund and Etienne Bourgois, who presides over the fund, was Tara Oceans’ co-director along with scientist Eric Karsenti. Agnès, whose distinctive signature is on the sailboat’s hull, makes herself available wherever possible.

“I always thought that my life would make no sense at all without a social agenda,” agnès b. once told an interviewer. “The 21st century will be the century of sharing and solidarity or it will not be.” n

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Tara Oceans in numbers:

Expedition duration: 2½ years or 938 days
Distance sailed: 62,000 nautical miles
Longest sailing:
3,700 nautical miles between San Diego and Panama
Fuel used:
 62,080 gallons (235,000 liters)
Expedition cost:
9 million euros
On board Tara:
15, including crew, scientists, journalists and artists or 196 over time (including 126 international scientists and 70 crewmembers)
Samples taken:
27,882 dispatched to various laboratories around the world, Most of them previously unknown

Catch the Wave with the International Seakeepers Society

The Bal de la Mer, which this year honored agnès b. with its prestigious SeaKeeper event, is one of the International SeaKeeper Society’s headliner events. The non-profit organization relies on donations to fund its programs. Originally, the ISKS’ primary mission was to equip private yachts with an automated oceanographic data collection instrument called Seakeeper, to help the scientific community understand changes occurring in the ocean environment. Since then, the organization has expanded its initiatives at the behest of its scientific advisory committee, comprised of some of the leading scientists in oceanographic and atmospheric research. One of ISKS’ recent initiatives is the so-called Vessels of Opportunity fleet, allowing boats of all sizes to become vehicles for science. ISKS will be at Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show hosting several events, including an invitation-only preview of the world’s most spectacular yachts, in conjunction with the superyacht membership organization SYBass, on October 24, 2012.

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