In a way, we’re just bags, full of spirit, and then somebody puts a label on and you get out there and you push the product. I’m just the container you know, that’s all I am. I learnt that from Joan Crawford. But I feel like a perennial; they planted me in the right soil and I just keep coming back year after year. I serve a purpose, you know me – I’m just a flag pole. People put their flag on me and I fly it proudly. That’s part of being a model. Beauty is my goal: to find the most beautiful things. Whether it’s inside a person, or a flower, or a place, or the clothes they wear, I try to find the most beautiful thing I can in the moment. I have this needle inside me like a compass that says, ‘due north, follow your star, this way, this way!’
When you make your commitment as a monk, after five or six years of probation, you are officially clothed in a cowl. The experience of being enveloped by it signifies being brought into monastic life. You become part of the fabric. The actual experience for the wearer is to be enveloped, and it induces a thoughtful, sober mood. It’s not frivolous. At the same time, nothing could be simpler in terms of the shape of the garment. But it’s not a totally impractical garment, so long as you don’t want to do a lot of things. If you want to sit, it’s perfectly comfortable, but it gives the kind of sobriety that’s inductive to the contemplative life. My best cowl and my newest (I have three in total), is seventeen years old. My oldest is from 1965 and I’m still wearing it every day. There is the slowness in that it impedes fast movement, but also attesting to the stability of the cowl. I suppose that is another sort of slowness, since you’re wearing the same garment for fifty- odd years and it doesn’t change colour, or season, or style.
People expect clarity of vision from a designer; a lot of people come to fashion for reassurance. Sometimes people just don’t know what they want so the role of the designer is to say, ‘This is what’s good for you.’ But I’m a very intuitive designer, I don’t always know why I do what I do so when people rush up to me after the show to get my references, I don’t always know what to say. I don’t work with grand concepts, I’m interested in cutting, sewing, draping, structure and silhouette. I’m a dressmaker. I’m inspired by gestures and movement. The way a woman zips up the back of her dress, the way she rides a bicycle, or talks, or smokes. It takes time for me to digest and conceptualise what I’ve done. But as a designer you get that one moment – the show – which is over in fifteen minutes, and then you have another ten minutes to explain yourself to journalists afterwards. The idea of success in fashion today doesn’t always allow for someone like me: I doubt a lot, I’m not always sure. It’s normal; I think most people are like that. But the system isn’t set up to integrate it.
‘I have the feeling that if you talk too much about the meaning of something, some of that meaning slips away. I’ve gone through so many interviews with questions about China and Chinese design. It gets tiring. I used to hate being grouped together with other Chinese designers in the ‘China column’ in some Western magazine. But I don’t take it personally anymore. People will always stereotype others. I can’t change that. My feelings can’t be stereotyped though, and as long as I can grow and evolve and avoid feeling trapped by those stereotypes, it’s okay.’
We practice what we call ‘security with a velvet touch.’ We stay in the shadows. The PRs check people in, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing but that’s another story. Anyway, we stand behind the PR people. If we see them lingering with an individual, we might catch the individual trying read the guest list. People do that you know – they can read upside down. If we see that one of these PR persons is taking more than a minute or two with someone, then there’s usually a problem. Basically, we play the bad cop. But we always try to give people a gracious way out, like, ‘Sorry you’re not on the list, obviously there was an issue with your invitation, maybe you didn’t RSVP in time?’ You never say, ‘Oh get outta here,’ even though you want to. But you can’t, because like I said they cry very easily and you never know who they know.
‘As a young teenager I was already making all these garments, clothes for a much more glamorous life than the one I had. I remember my sister being really freaked out and telling our mother, “You must stop her, she looks like a fool. I’m not going to school with her.” I’d made myself this version of a Yves Saint Laurent gypsy costume with a big flowing skirt and a peasant blouse. I really must have looked like a freak. But both my mom and my grandmother kept encouraging me. My mom had this famous saying – “Let’s go shopping for ideas!” It was basically window shopping.’
A conversation with the family behind Manny Gammage’s Texas Hatters Inc.
‘I’ve seen wills being written up about hats. Once I saved a family from not talking to each other, because two grandsons were fighting and both thought they had right to the hat. They didn’t want the money or the land, because the hat was a status symbol of an elder. They asked me to make another one just like it. I made an exact copy, but then they got shuffled and I couldn’t tell which one was real. They both came and both offered money to me to let them know what the real hat was, but I honestly couldn’t tell them. They both have his hat over the mantelpiece.’
A Conversation with Virgil Abloh
‘I did a fashion show recently called “Nothing New.” It was based on criticism I got from another designer. So I took that statement and tried to unravel it and make it into a question. Does fashion have to be new? What is new anyway? Does fashion have to be new to be valid and relevant and important? People often lob ‘it’s been done before’ as a critique but without asking themselves those questions. “Newness” has become the barometer by which we judge things in fashion. “New” is a farce to me. It’s a critique intended to keep people like me out.’
A Conversation with Miuccia Prada
‘Censorship is huge now. Basically you can’t say anything interesting on the record. I did an interview with a very important journalist some time ago, but then I told him to cancel eighty percent of what I’d said. I know that makes me the censor but I don’t want to ruin my life over an interview. I have responsibilities. It’s hard because whatever I do, someone ends up being upset. A company our size has to think about everything. I made the choice not to be niche, only for the sophisticated few, so I have to accept the limitations of that choice.’
A Conversation with Demna Gvasalia
‘I like playing roles; it makes me feel safe. Authenticity for me perhaps means something different than for most people. I don’t have one interpretation of authenticity when it comes to style; I like moving between them. When I wear a sweatshirt with “Monoprix” on it, what am I signalling? Am I saying it’s cool to work at a supermarket or am I making people ask themselves why I’m wearing a Monoprix logo, when I could be wearing one from Balenciaga? Well, you tell me. Obviously everybody knows that I don’t work at Monoprix, well everyone who knows me does anyway. If a stranger sees me in the street wearing my Monoprix jumper, they might think I really do work there and I quite like that.’
Conversations on the Transformative Quality of Ritual Dress
‘Within the context of a public event, clothes help to endow the wearer with a greater sense of themselves. You find yourself behaving differently when wearing a costume and you are often less inhibited. The costume helps to give you a new persona to project yourself from. With a ritual, a simple black robe does the opposite and is often worn as a form of anonymity. I find elaborate robes project ego and when working in a ritual context the will needs to be focused on the job in hand.’
A Conversation with Elizabeth Sweetheart Rosenthal
‘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.’