My mother died a couple years ago at one hundred and four, and she had macular degeneration. But she could see in her periphery and she could always see me. We’d go walking together. She loved me being green. I’ve had a long life and have been through a lot and have my design studio and this and that. But when people see me they just see the Green Lady. That’s fine.
‘Every Congolese child is a sapeur. You shouldn’t ask when I became one. The point is that I’m still one. Some practice a bit and others practice deeply. I’m very deep in it. For us, clothing speaks. Fashion in general is out of fashion. One day it’s enormous rings, the next day they’re gone. La sape is beyond fashion; it’s like the earth. You’re born dust and you die dust. You’re born and we lose you as well.’
You’re not allowed to fail in fashion – especially in this age of social media, when everything is about leading a successful, amazing life. Nobody today is allowed to fail, instead the prospect causes anxiety and terror. But why can’t we celebrate failure? After all, it helps us grow and develop. I’m not ashamed.
I have been going to Jerri’s Cleaners since I moved to New York in 1993. I maintained a friendly but detached relationship with the staff there for the first twenty years. Then a serious stain threatened a favourite pair of trousers and the relationship changed. Through several rounds of – ultimately successful — experimentation, I gained a sense of the lengths to which a true professional will go to avoid failure and please a customer. Recently I invited my dry cleaner over to discuss his working method.
Yui and Takaharu’s designs feature almost no colour. One project, the Roof House, is all sandy wood, topped with a sloping gray roof. In their own lives however, colour is a defining characteristic. Yui wears almost exclusively red; Takaharu blue. The objects they share are yellow. Their daughter, fourteen, wears yellow, too; their son, eleven, wears green.
A hat tells the story of what you do. If you’re a bull rider, different hat. Barrel racer, different hat. I wear a cutter’s crease, which is for cutting horses – it’s an event. The only difference between a cutting horse and a cattleman is a dimple here on each side. Then there are the hats that we call a Kmart, Walmart special. Some people from out of town come here with those cheap straw hats, it’s kinda like a heehaw hat, comical. But we like it. They’re trying. They’re proud to have it on.
Poets hate the fact that I have a persona because poets aren’t supposed to have one. You’re supposed to be yourself, authentic, natural in T-shirts and jeans. To me it’s all show business. My whole poetic oeuvre is made up of falseness, inauthenticity, appropriation and plagiarism, so if I was trying to pass that off as an authentic persona, it would be contradictory. So I’m playing my role as a poet as much as they are playing theirs. My role is ‘inauthenticity’ and theirs is ‘authenticity.’ It’s all a construction.
There’s like, a hundred different grades of industrial wipers. The best kind of wipers were made from men’s underwear, called gansies. For jeans, nowadays it’s all about torn this and torn that, but thirty years ago pair of jeans with a hole in the knees used to be cut up and sold to the Navy. You’d clean your machinery with these wipers. Looking for vintage is like looking for a needle in a haystack. One year the Japanese want over-sized printed T-shirts, the next year they want super small ones. The dredge of the industry for one period was men’s polyester pants. Those used to sell for six cents a pound. Ten years later, those same pants were worth $15 a piece.
I felt like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
Fashion is popular because it’s a mystery. It’s the ebb and flow of the subtle things we propose as designers, and that people respond to like flocks of birds turning all of a sudden in the middle of the sky. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s all about instincts and subtle references that certain people can grasp in a very vague way. It’s a pattern or code that is understood by a group of people at the same time.
I’ve dressed kings, queens, beggars, prostitutes, lawyers, bankers. I dressed Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, The Rolling Stones, The Jackson Five and all four Hank Williams. I made Elvis’ gold lamé suit, and people say that I put Johnny Cash in black, but I’ve never in my life felt the need to be important or rich. I hate money, because of what it does to people. When Barbara Walters asked Johnny Cash about the black suits I made him he said, ‘I wore black before, but nobody put me in a better black than Manuel.’
I love fashion generally – I’ve always loved it. On my Sabbath, I read InStyle sometimes. I mean, I read the Bible as well, but I do love a good InStyle. I follow ‘Project Runway’ and I love ‘What Not to Wear’ and all those sorts of things. I already had this teenage interest in fashion. Then I realised I would be given my work uniform, and my work uniform has a lot behind it – it carries a lot of weight when you walk into a room. That can either be a really good thing or it can be a really challenging thing.