Interview: Valerie Steele

Steele and Stoppard in conversation

by Lou Stoppard .

I think whenever you have designers who are exploring something that's significantly new it's going to look for, the most part, strange and possibly ugly at first. So when Poiret started doing some of his early designs at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was designing for the house of Worth, people were horrified by them, and thought, 'what are these ugly experiments?'

Lou Stoppard: So, the idea for the series came from that much quoted Prada comment, 'Ugly feels new, it feels attractive, it feels exciting.' I want to know if you feel that Miuccia Prada is the person that established that 'ugly' aesthetic or if she had predecessors.

Valerie Steele: I think that Prada became very associated with the new trend for ugliness a few years ago, when she did that very seventies collection that had all of the seventies colours, the browns and the chevron prints and things like that. That did help establish a particular kind of ugliness as being trendy. I think she's not alone in that, there have been other designers that have been exploring what you might call the aesthetics of 'ugliness'. I think that Rei Kawakubo for example has been exploring that for years, although she didn't put it that way. She never said ugly feels new, but she did talk at some points about exploring new ways of thinking of beauty. For example with the lumps and bumps collection, that some people call the Quasimodo collection, that I think was clearly looking at silhouettes in a new way.

LS: It's interesting to me, because when you were talking about Prada you said 'new trend for ugliness' - that's how you put it. What is it about that moment where that felt right? Is it because women are starting to no longer want to look conventionally sexy or conventionally attractive?

VS: Well I do think that old conceptions of prettiness became somewhat devalued. Both because they seemed too clichéd and also because in a way they seemed too disassociated with an outdated view of woman - almost a kind of Mad Men image of women trying to look pretty and appealing to men. And so it seemed more interesting to try and make a statement for yourself, and perhaps for other women and gay men in the fashion world. Because in a way, the traditional ideals of feminine beauty have often diverged from the most fashionable high fashion as well as avant-garde looks of fashion. Which seemed at the time, and when they first appeared, as strange.

LS: It's interesting when you talk about that with relation to Prada. Do you think in her passion for an exploration of ugliness that's where her feminism comes through? Do you think that there is something innately feminist about doing something deliberately ugly?

VS: I think in her work that could be quite plausible. And it may be a factor as well in the explorations of different beauties in Rei Kawakubo's. But I think in both cases it would be a very complicated, post-modernist kind of feminism, so not easy to draw direct connection.

LS: We've talked a lot about Prada but I'm interested in other people who did sort of explore ugliness before her. Whether it's just people like Schiaparelli who wasn't afraid to push boundaries of what was considered beautiful or even looking far before that to the Victorian age. Do you think that there is a sort of predecessor of ugliness in fashion? And what starts it?

VS: Well I mean, prior to Prada, prior to Comme des Garcon, you certainly had individual icons of fashion who had often very eccentric images of beauty. Think of the Marchesa Casati for example in the early twentieth century. I think also that it's true that Elsa Schiaparelli was pushing all kinds of boundaries particularly with the surrealist experiments, where she was in some ways blurring the line between clothing and the body and violating a lot of rules of what's attractive. So I think Schiaparelli would be another good predecessor. I think in a way, whenever you have designers who are exploring something that's significantly new it's going to look, for the most part, strange and possibly ugly at first. So when Poiret started doing some of his early designs at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was designing for the house of Worth, people were horrified by them, and thought, 'what are these ugly experiments?' And apparently one of Worth's clients, who was a great Russian aristocrat, said to Poiret when he was at the house of Worth, 'If one of our serfs did something like this we'd throw them to the wolves - what are you doing?' But once these new ideas started to catch on, in part because of the wild success of the Ballets Russe and the tango and other exotic elements, then Poiret helped establish a new ideal of beauty which was slim, girlish and also exotic.

As for nineteenth century and eighteenth century things, I think the more outre elements in fashion like the wild hairstyles for wigs in the eighteenth century which were much mocked and caricatured, would have seemed bizarre and kind of ugly to many observers of the time. But to the fashion trend setters they were á la mode and desirable, they weren't really supposed to be understood by the masses. Similarly some features of nineteenth century fashion like the 'idiot' sleeves, the big puffy sleeves in the 1830s, were again widely mocked but that was again being mocked from the perspective of somebody who doesn't really appreciate that fashion will carry to an extreme whatever trend is moving towards.

LS: It's interesting isn't it? Because there's almost two elements to ugliness in fashion. There's the side where it's employed knowingly and deliberately and then there's the side where if anything is high fashion and very innovative it's always going to look slightly jarring because it's going to be new.

VS: Exactly! Those are the two elements of it. That's precisely right.

LS: Do you think that's part of the reason a lot of the designers we see coming out of London - and I think a good example of this is Christopher Kane - are always tied to doing something that is always slightly bad taste? Or 'so right it's wrong' is an expression that often gets put with him, because it's so new? Do you think that's why the younger designers often get that tag, because they're more experimental?

VS: That's part of it, yes. They're unafraid to look for something new and it's a little bit ironic because fashion is supposed to be the one art form which is supposed to be all about the new. And yet in many ways it's a fairly conservative field that moves, on the whole, slowly and incrementally. And there are not that many designers who are willing to do something radically new or to change course rapidly every season, and to throw away last season's style completely and move in a completely different direction. So Prada's one. Marc Jacob's one of those sort of neophiliacs. And I think some of the English designers, partly because of their art school training, are looking for something that's going to be significantly original, new and startling.

LS: One thing that you mentioned was the women who embody that deliberate ugliness. You mentioned the Marchesa Casati, but I want to talk a little bit about other high fashion icons and women who really love and adopt fashion. Because it often seems that they don't mind wearing something that is striking or ugly in some way. Whether it's Isabella Blow or Anna Piaggi or even someone like Daphne Guinness, they're quite striking on the eye and you could argue that an element of their silhouette is quite jarring. Do you think that again just goes back to this idea that they're adopting fashion in a way that was always going to seem abnormal to your ordinary person?

VS: I think so because it's a very, very rarefied high fashion and also a kind of very personal sense of style that doesn't really want to listen to what other people are saying. I mean Daphne told me once that Manolo Blahnik had told her how he hated her great clumpy heeled shoes. And he's the greatest shoe designer in the world but she has this love of this kind of shoe so she went with them anyway. Issy Blow I feel had many complexes about thinking that she was personally unattractive, and some of her extreme fashions like the hats etcetera may have also expressed a desire to hide. That's more complicated.

LS: Let's talk a little bit as well about this deliberate ugliness. We talked about Prada but I'm also interested in this idea of vulgarity, we've seen that a little bit really recently...

VS: Sure the Jeremy Scott thing for example - all that ghastly, ghastly McDonald's kind of thing. Well that can be a very ironic stance, I mean I think also of Marc Jacobs and his tattoos of SpongeBob SquarePants, and you're thinking, who could want clothing with McDonald's or a tattoo of SpongeBob? But there is a kind of ironic gleefulness about wallowing in bad taste. And even someone like Diana Vreeland once said that bad taste is better than no taste at all. At least it kind of comes right out and says, 'This is what I look like now.'

LS: What do you think sparked that sort of immediate fascination with bad taste? People always tie it to the internet or street style culture.

VS: I think it has a longer history that goes back to the way artists and intellectuals have had an ambivalent relationship with kitsch. You know, so avant-garde art used to be thought of as the opposite of kitsch. But from pop art onwards a lot of avant-garde artists started becoming interested in playing with the whole aesthetics of kitsch. And then once you start doing that the floodgates are really open.

LS: It's also interesting I guess, when you see it in a fashion context, when kitsch becomes tied almost to opulence.

VS: Yes!

LS: So Christian Lacroix or John Galliano's homeless Dior collection, that interplay there.

VS: Yes which I think was quite a brilliant brilliant collection and I don't think Galliano's homeless collection was about kitsch. I think in a strange way it was actually about a sincere acknowledgement that the clothing of homeless people can in fact be quite fascinating to look at. The layers and layers and the bits and pieces of it. If you're looking at it from a wholly aesthetic and amoral perspective it could be quite inspiring for a fashion designer.

LS: Do you think Christian Lacroix was perhaps more about slight bad taste, slight tongue-in-cheek? I always feel like his stuff is always so knowingly amusing and fetishistically opulent.

VS: I don't know if you'd say it was bad taste so much as playing with excess.

LS: Exactly.

VS: Excess was very much the term that really captures a lot of eighties fashion, both high couture and street style. If you think of Lacroix on the one hand and then Vivienne Westwood on the other both doing such extreme shapes and sort of outrageously excessive silhouettes in the eighties. It reminds me of the era of the crinoline in a way where the bigger you're pumping yourself, the more important the fashionable woman seemed. How can you ignore this woman that was eight feet across?

LS: One thing that I want to focus on a little bit is whether we're seeing this actually change the way women dress? Because I do wonder, thinking about it in terms of society, whether even the adoption of boxier silhouettes or cocoon coats, whether it has filtered down to the point where everyday women don't want to, as you said, dress in a traditionally pretty way. Do you think it has had real effect?

VS: Oh hugely! Especially with Celine. I remember a fashion retailer recently said to me, 'oh everybody wants to look sexy, except Celine!' And yet there you have it. Phoebe Philo is probably the most influential designer of the last few years. Suddenly all kinds of larger shapes and boxier shapes have come back into fashion. We saw this also earlier with the oversized clothes in the eighties and nineties associated with hip hop. Girls on the street started wearing bigger and bigger clothes. I remember when my son was in high school I said to him and his friends, 'when I was your age I had to lie down the floor to pull on my jeans, now it's three of you kids into one pair of pants!'

LS: (Laughing) It's interesting that you mention Phoebe Philo, because she also, in a similar way to Miuccia Prada, does do those almost funny ugly pieces, like the furry shoes...

VS: Like the furry shoes! Which were suddenly so desirable! Oh my God they were fabulous! Absolutely fabulous, they were the shoes of that season. And maybe she was intending them as a funny sort of rejoinder to all of these sickening high uncomfortable heels that were going on around then. Suddenly they looked so perfect and now of course this season everybody's got their high fashion version of teva sandals.

LS: Yes!

VS: I just bought the Prada teva sandals. They're mad but they're so fabulous!

LS: You implied that Prada and Philo makes people want stuff before you know you want it, which I always find really interesting.

VS: Yes suddenly the eye has changed. You know, a year ago if my best friend, who's not a fashion person, had said, 'you're gonna want teva sandals', I'd be like, 'no no, I wear those on holiday, I would never wear those in the city.' Now I'm spending hundred and hundreds of dollars to get what's essentially red and blue teva sandals. So, your eye changes, that's what fashion is about. Suddenly something will look right that looked ugly only a few months earlier. But of course a few months later it may switch and start looking ugly again!

LS: I'm interested in the ambition of the designer when they're putting out something like that. Sometimes I wonder if they are deliberately trying to redefine notions of luxury, sometimes it even feels like questioning why someone would as you say pay such a huge amount of money for something when it resembles a laundry bag or a flip flop. Do you think that's part of it?

VS: Oh yeah I'm sure!

LS: What do you think their motivation is?

VS: I mean Coco Chanel herself used to say that she got a huge kick out of the fact that Americans would pay more for her clothes than they would for any other couturier and they were buying fabrics which were really, in her early years, inexpensive. Like fabrics that were done for men's underwear. She got a huge kick out of that fact. And she made a point of charging the most! Even though she was using these poor fabrics.

LS: That takes us back to Prada - clothes that look cheap even though they're expensive, like nylon suits. And maybe it is that element of wit...?

VS: I think there is a witty element and there's an element like a secret masonic handshake. I thought of that comparison back in the eighties when I used to wear a lot of Comme des Garçon and Yohji Yamamoto. In the mid eighties, even in New York, people didn't really know what you were wearing. And people would go, 'what is that big, black schmatta you're wearing?' It didn't look like any fashion they'd ever seen. Or when Norma Kamali made clothes out of sweatshirt material, and I had a suit made in that and I loved it! And people didn't get it at all they were like, 'how come your suit is made out of a sweatshirt?' So it's almost an easy way to subvert a whole look in fashion, and make people take a completely different look at what's going on.

LS: It's intriguing this idea that ugliness, more than anything, empowers the wearer because you have to have such a huge amount of confidence, firstly to wear something that is jarring, but perhaps also something that other people just wont get.

VS: Yes, that's the cool thing. Only a handful of people, like other masons! If you wear the Comme des Garçons '88, it's like the secret masonic handshake because nobody else knew what it was except a few of you. Like I had a Margiela skirt which was all yanked up so it looked like your underskirt was showing. And every time I wore it people would come running up going, 'miss, miss your skirt!', and I'd go 'yes thank you very much it's supposed to look this way, it's Margiela'. But I'd walk another three feet and someone again would run up to me. My colleague said I ought to pin a sign on it that said, 'It's supposed to look this way!'

LS: I think quite a lot of high fashion needs that sign.

VS: Yeah!

LS: I think that becomes even more the case on the street at the point where women start buying their own designer clothes rather than their husbands having the income to do it.

VS: Exactly! That's the idea of that girl, the blogger, Man Repeller. Now, our whole style is based on, 'men are not going to get this - but so what?' (Laughing) I love it!