Mémoire Universelle

  • Images  Mémoire Universelle
  • Words  Giorgia Baschirotto
A female voice whispers in French, interfering with the haunting music in the background, a blur of mesmerising images overlaps the silhouette of a woman. Red permeates everything: faces, flowers, fields, and body parts; a twisted fantasy by Richard Kern intertwined with the black and white scratched sequences of Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland—otherworldly and utterly beautiful. “Never say goodbye” announces the video at 01:46, introducing you to the mystical world of Mémoire Universelle. The film, made by Stéphanie Croibien, accompanies the launch of the latest chapter of Benoît Béthume’s ambitious experimental book project is an immersive sensory experience that brings memories and sensations back to life. With this third tome in particular, the Belgian stylist and visual narrator, together with curator Béatrice Gross, investigates mourning and loss, paying homage to Benoît’s dear friend and fashion muse Manuela Pavesi, who sadly passed away last year, leaving behind an invaluable collection of life lessons and days full of meaning. Still coping with the unbearable pain that her departure brought, Benoît wanted to reflect on the dimensions of death and bereavement, a process of internalisation that led him to a revelation: as long as memories remain, there is no end. Collected, cherished and catalogued, his moments with Manuela are now stored in the immersive volume, for everyone to see. They live along with us, inscribed in the present moment, offering comfort, wisdom and hope.
Photography by Estelle Hanania
How did you come up with the idea of Mémoire Universelle?

In 2010 I was about to end a very long and emotional professional collaboration. Between two flights I spent a night in San Francisco; I went to the zoo and then I went back to the city centre by foot, a very long walk indeed! That’s how it happened —I was there, alone, looking at all those nice animals in the cold wind, and then walking for ages thinking about what the next step could have been and how I could treasure what this great collaboration had taught me, how to turn this experience into a positive start. So within the next two hours the entire concept was born — a timeless book, in the format of a magazine but deeply connected to the human experience; because that’s the best part of our job — we meet lots of people and hear a lot of stories, we collect memories, so why shouldn’t that be the subject? What on earth makes us so different and similar at the same time, and all of us facing some peculiar situations.

Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie aimed to systematise the founding principles of Enlightenment, which ask for more devotion to reason. Mémoire Universelle, instead, investigates human emotions. Would you consider your book project an anti-encyclopedia?

I would say yes and no. Somehow my process is based on a very random way of thinking, an attempt to “rationalise” the irrational. Each volume is dedicated to a human emotion — something that is supposed to touch everyone and that we can’t control or explain (love, sadness, instinct…) — and my aim is to explore those feelings from an aesthetic point of view. I prefer to discuss them rather than explaining them toleave room for different interpretations. The Encyclopédie put the truth down on paper, but I hate to think that there’s only one truth, I think everyone creates their own reality. I prefer the concept of sharing rather than teaching so that the discussion stays open.

Photography by Estelle Hanania
Photography by Paolo Barbi Styling by Benoît Béthume
Photography by Paolo Barbi Styling by Benoît Béthume
In today’s fast-paced world you decided to launch Mémoire Universelle, a biennial project, which according to your website will come to an end in 2028. How will the way we channel and analyse emotions change through the years in your opinion?

The subject of each volume comes with time, allowing us to stay in touch with what happens in the world. The difficult part is to create a content that is coherent from the first to the ninth issue because the timelessness of the project is very important. I’m not a nostalgic person, and I love technology — I simply think that this way the project becomes more relevant. So I don’t really think that the nature of human beings will change, maybe only the way it manifests itself due to the context in which they live.

Each volume gathers a select range of international contributors. How do you pick your collaborators and who would you work with in the future ?

I always try to choose instinctively. Of course there are people that I would really like to work with, but I want them to feel involved in the process and to do a story for a good reason and not just to name-drop. Along with my close contributors I work with people I discovered through life stories, specific events and so on…I also contact lots of people coming from really different walks of life, and I travel to a small village in Michigan, a fancy collector’s house in New York, or even a stable in Belgium to meet them. I speak with these people, get to know their path in life – that’s the best part of my work.

Photography by Benoît Béthume Styling by Véronique Leroy
Photography by Paolo Barbi Styling by Benoît Béthume


Never Say Goodbye is dedicated to fashion icon Manuela Pavesi. What are the most important lessons you learned from her and how did your relationship shape who you are?

She changed my life. One time she told me confidentially, “A cool person doesn’t choose to be cool, if someone wants to be cool then they’re already not.” We are surrounded by people that are trying so hard to make a cult out of “coolness”. She was experienced, with a very posh look, living in the countryside, and always in the shadows, but she was the coolest person I’ve ever met. She could understand immediately what was interesting about you, looking beyond beauty or the aesthetic, and at the same time she could always transpose her vision into fashion.

I am obsessed with people — I love to look at them all the time and imagine their life, the context in which they live, how they looked as a child or how they will be when they are old, what their home might look like and so on. That is my true obsession and what led me to fashion — the interest in “building a character”. The fashion system is not paying attention to it, especially nowadays. When I started my career in 2002, I felt that analysing people was totally useless, I probably should have been more involved with what was going on in the fashion world and build a strong network — which isn’t really my cup of tea. When I met Manuela we immediately clicked: she had this character in mind and I immediately connected with what she was saying. Finally, someone that spoke the same language as me. There wasn’t any specific reason to work together, I think she just liked something about me. I was twenty-two at the time and I didn’t know anything about the job. Working with her was so refreshing all the time; in ten years she brought out the best of me, she gave me the confidence to start Mémoire Universelle.

Now sadly she is gone, when it happened I felt so lonely and lost again. I decided to finish the last project we had started together, but instead of using one model I wanted to bring together all the people she talked about often, or with whom we had been working together. Her assistant Paolo Barbi brought her own polaroid camera, I selected some pieces from her wardrobe and we organized a fitting day with all those people. That day was crazy, we were all between tears and laughter because we all felt connected without really knowing each other, and I think we all felt less lonely for a moment.

Photography by Mark Lyon Styling by Benoît Béthume
What did you learn about loss and mourning while working on this issue?

I had to face another big loss in my life when I was younger. One of the people I loved the most passed away and I denied it to myself, it was terrible. I decided to face the loss of Manuela, to let those feelings soak into myself. I tried to move on and work with new people quite soon, but nothing felt like working with her. The pain was eating me away so I thought I should make something out of that experience. That’s how Never Say Goodbye was born. Just as with love or instinct, you can’t really rationalise death. Even if you know that something must come to an end, no one can really anticipate what loss may feel like. So I decided to make an issue about this, but I didn’t want it to be sad, more of an open discussion about what “the end” means, questioning the concept of the end and whether the end really exists.

I had this dream of Manuela and I, we were working and she told me “I have an idea! Let’s do a story about divorce.” I woke up and I immediately started working on it, that was a great fashion idea. So, I think I can say we still work together somehow… She is my guide.

See more at memoire-universelle.com