As wedding photographs go, it’s beyond premier league. It’s February 1968, and French model and Yves Saint Laurent muse Betty Saint is posing with her new husband, French interior decorator extraordinaire François Catroux. They’re leaning against a railing in Cap Ferret while boats bob in a marina behind them; the Côte d’Azur is going through one of its periodic hippest-place-on-the-planet moments, thanks to the patronage of Brigitte Bardot and various luminaries of the nouvelle vague. The bride interrogates the camera with her smoky eyes, her angular face framed by a mane of blonde hair; she’s skipped the white dress in favour of a black and white-striped fur coat by Pierre Cardin, teamed with black tights and patent leather boots. The groom’s tousled fringe gives him a Serge Gainsbourg-in-the-Small Faces kind of look, accentuated by his chocolate velvet suit and white turtleneck. Their studied insouciance is an extension of François’s design aesthetic, a credo the couple has come to embody: l’art de vivre.
It’s immediately apparent from studying this picture that M. and Mme Catroux are no ordinary couple. But even in haute Parisienne circles, they hold an exalted rank. “They bring an inimitable style and energy to any room they happen to occupy,” wrote David Netto in a profile for The Wall Street Journal —particularly, he almost but didn’t quite add, if that room has been designed by François in his characteristically elegant melange of modernist styles. He is one of the most respected practitioners of his craft in the world, a designer’s designer, with a client list that has included a posse of Rothschilds, Santo Domingos, and Millers (as in Robert, the co-founder of Duty Free Shops, and his wife, Chantal), as well as an array of potentates including the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. Betty, meanwhile, is now entering her eighth decade and still turning heads with her long, lean, androgynous elan. “I’ve been wearing the same thing every day since I was a child,” she told Porter magazine last year. “Black jeans, a man’s jacket, a long T-shirt and men’s shoes. It is always black. There’s nothing calculated about my look.”
The Catroux trajectory resembles that of a pair of comets cutting a path through the heart of post-war Parisian chic. François was born in colonial Algeria, the grandson of a French army general who served as governor of Algeria and, later, as French ambassador to the U.S.S.R. After a two-year stint in the French army himself, he made it to Paris at the age of 20. He had no formal training in design, but was soon immersing himself in what we might call the université de vie. “I began to visit people living in beautiful apartments and houses, and, without knowing it, I was learning,” he has said. “Schools can only teach you technique, not taste or flair.”