spring fashion

You Can’t Box Yseult In

Meet the French singer, model, and bag obsessive — who’s here for more than just luxury labels.

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN Dress, at alexandermcqueen.com. ALEXIS BITTAR Molten Gold Puffy Teardrop Post Earring, at alexisbittar.com. Photo: Mel Bles
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN Dress, at alexandermcqueen.com. ALEXIS BITTAR Molten Gold Puffy Teardrop Post Earring, at alexisbittar.com. Photo: Mel Bles

Way back before I decided to wear my hair big and curly in France I questioned myself and thought it would be too much,” Yseult Onguenet says, her signature raspy voice sounding silkier and self-assured. “Then I quickly asked myself, too much for who? I was like I’m wearing my hair like this, fuck it.”

The 29-year-old French singer and model, who has walked some of fashion’s most-watched runways, isn’t big on compromise. Yseult (she goes by only her first name) grew up in Paris, France, to parents from Cameroon, who urged her to study dance and piano — “No one asked me what I was passionate about” — but music didn’t click until she became a teenager. At 15, she picked up her father’s guitar, and four years later she was singing her breathy ballad on Nouvelle Star, France’s version of American Idol. After an attempt at a pop album called Yseult—her label “forced me to do something very popish, and it was not giving at all,” she says—she switched back to the sweeping, emotional hymns her fans now know her for, a sound that lives somewhere between Édith Piaf and Toni Braxton.

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Yseult’s breakthrough moment came with her October 2019 single “Corps” and again Stateside when the track went viral on TikTok in late 2023. Looking back, Yseult says, she wasn’t expecting the piano ballad to be a hit. In France, at the time, she explains, the attitude was: If it’s not pop or rap, why bother? “But I said I’m going to go against the grain of what other people are doing and I’m going to release it,” she says. “Everyone around me was like, ‘You’re going to crash.’” Tell that to the over 49 million streams on Spotify. It’s that brazen confidence that gives Yseult her edge — though it’s one that’s not without smooth and inviting corners. When she walks into Café Mogador in the East Village, straight off a flight from Paris, for our chat, her all black outfit — a Balenciaga bomber, wide-leg pants, a beanie hat and a Fendi purse — might give off an intimidating air if it weren’t for the hug and double-cheek kiss she quickly sweeps me into.

SCHIAPARELLI Black and White Kaftan, available upon request. ALEXIS BITTAR Jumbo Molten Donut Bangle in Gold, at alexisbittar.com. GIANVITO ROSSI Lindsay Pumps, at gianvitorossi.com. Photo: Mel Bles

It didn’t take long for the fashion world to come calling. In July 2020, Balmain’s Oliver Rousteing asked her to perform during his fashion show, which took place aboard a boat on the Seine. The designer created a few custom looks for her. “His team said, ‘We’re so happy to create this dress for you because usually we don’t work on this type of body.’ This was the first time that people told me, ‘Oh, it’s possible,’” she says. Performing at shows soon became walking on runways, and Yseult has since worked with other designers like Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen and Demna of Balenciaga.

Access to this luxurious world was something Yseult could only dream of. In 2021, the first time she really saw money from her music she decided to go all out and treat herself — like really treat herself. In one day she bought her first Birkin bag from Hermès, her first Chanel bag, her first Dior saddlebag, her first YSL bag, and a Chanel bag for her mom. “My mom was so happy with her bag,” she says. “That was the first time I got paid for my work, my music. I earned the fruits of my labor.” And she’s still going: Her Christmas present to herself was a black Fendi Peekaboo.

Photo: Mel Bles

But Yseult isn’t just interested in what’s available to checkout. Now that she has the keys to the fashion palace, she wants her own room. For Yseult that means pushing for size inclusivity beyond just a brand’s marketing materials and pressuring designers to actually consider specific alterations that hold up and look good on bigger bodies—something high-fashion brands in particular haven’t yet figured out Yseult admits it feels like a “scam” when she walks in shows knowing that women who look like her cannot shop those brands. It’s why she first reached out to Cédric Charbit, CEO of Balenciaga via Instagram DM to ask him about expanding sizing. “It’s because I was like, ‘I really fuck with this brand. I really love this brand. And this brand reflects my attitudes and my character.’ I’m wearing black everyday. I’m wearing oversized shit every day. And I’m little punky-ish on the side. I play Pink Floyd on set during my campaign shoots.”

Soon after, that DM got her a dinner date with Demna in Paris, to talk more about collaborating on a capsule collection, even if that meant making custom pieces for her. Their dinner sparked a conversation about so much more. “It started a discussion about the needs and the specificities of my body,” she says. “Demna wanted to learn more about bras for larger women, having wider straps. We went into the details talking about underwear because we were talking about what my body needs. We even talked about calves and shoes, like wider feet and calves and what they need, all of those little details. He was attentive and honest in the way that he was listening.” She went on to walk Balenciaga’s runway and wear custom Balenciaga at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

NINA RICCI Halterneck Sleeveless Maxi Dress, at ninaricci.com. Photo: Mel Bles

Yseult makes a point of using her voice backstage too, in ways that she knows a traditional model may not. “In this industry, models don’t have a lot of power when it’s about speaking because they’re scared. And so because I know I am an artist, I have this privilege to be an artist and to speak what I want to speak.” She points to the time she worked with Adut Akech, a 24-year-old South Sudanese-Australian model who is herself no stranger to the runway or luxury campaigns. Yseult remembers her expressing her concerns over her hair backstage at a show: ‘I don’t like my hair, I want to wear my natural hair or an Afro wig, because this is my mood now,’ Akech told Yseult. After pushing Akech to speak to someone, Yseult did it herself by way of a simple request. “Can you just change her hair because she doesn’t feel comfortable?” she asked the team on set. “And they did. She was so happy.” 

Because for Yseult, the spoils aren’t enough if they don’t spill out to those watching her, to those who, because she’s there, are able to be seen and heard, too. “For me to be an artist today it is political,” she says. “When you have an audience, someone who’s listening to you, they see themselves in you. Even if it’s ugly; even if it’s beautiful. It’s me.”

BALENCIAGA Maxi Clutch and Chain Earrings and Chain Necklace, both in Antique Gold, at Balenciaga.com. Photo: Mel Bles

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You Can’t Box Yseult In