Art and Fashion are magnets, repulsing each other, but invariably linked at the butt end. The fashion magnet pulls artists towards it with “collaborations” and the promise of piles of money and glamour. Rare is the artist—our divine lady Julie Verhoeven being of the exception-proving-the-rule variety—that begins embedded within fashion and then traverses to the other side. In fact, most artists hate fashion, and only trifle with the industry under the “collaborative” auspices (i.e. for heaps of legal tender). Verhoeven—possibly the sweetest person in the world with her disarmingly bubbly British lilt—began working in fashion design with John Galliano in the late-‘80s, and for the greater part of her career, she worked as a clothing designer, illustrator, and product designer for fashion houses and magazines. Her florid designs and outlandish illustrations oftentimes came across a bit wild for fashion. They were messy and colorful and wonderful. Soon, her work was being touted as more than vestiges of the fashion world. As she progressed in her career, Verhoeven did a curious thing: she started to drift over to galleries and public projects and, finally, museums. Her next show is with ZINGERpresents in Amsterdam, opening in September 2011.
What are you teaching these days?
I’m teaching women’s wear. Fashion.
What does that entail?
I teach at Royal College one day and Saint Martins on the other. It’s just with the masters. It’s supposed to be one-to-one tutorials, really. They’re getting on with their own thing and I just sort of comment on it.
Are you a tough teacher?
Yeah, I’m quite... I’m honest. I think that’s the best policy, isn’t it?
What are you working on that you’re teaching?
They’re getting on with their collections, really.
So you’re looking at sketches?
Yeah, sketches, research ideas, garments-in-process. It could be anything; it depends what stage they’re at. I’m just with the first years, so it’s quite nice; they’re still unjaded.
How do you view today’s fashion student? Do you think their aim is true?
Yeah, of course. Everywhere it’s an attractive option, isn’t it? It’s always got that illusion that it’s glamorous, which it isn’t.
You got into fashion around ‘87, is that correct?
And you started working with John [Galliano], huh?
What do you think about all the stuff with him lately?
It’s really sad. He’s getting help, you know? It’s awful. I think the way they reacted was just ridiculous. They just wanted to get rid of him, didn’t they?
Have you talked to him at all?
No, no, I haven’t talked to him in years. He is on another planet, there’s no denying it.
It’s just so weird though; I guess that’s the nature of the tabloid.
Yeah, it’s been fictionalized, isn’t it? He’s just troubled, that’s all. He’s obviously not racist.
What was your experience working with him like? You’re saying he’s from another planet.
It was absolutely fantastic. When I went there I was 18, I didn’t know anything. I was thrown into the fire.
Was it just crazy fun?
Yeah, we had really good fun. He was living at the time with Jasper Conran, and I lived in their basement flat. So, not only was I working there, I was also running errands during the evenings. A 24-hour job.
Let’s rewind a bit: your parents were in design and illustration?
My dad was a graphic designer and my mom was an illustrator. Not that it was encouraged.
Do your drawings look like hers?
Yeah, they do a bit, actually. She was very much pen and ink. Her work changed quite a lot. The sort of fine line and the meandering stuff from 10 years ago.
Do you ever look at her stuff as inspirational?
No, that’s too traumatic. Obviously, I’m completely subconsciously influenced by both of them. I don’t want to look at it now; it’s too sad.
It’s interesting, growing up, I had no idea that fashion illustration was something you could do. But you obviously had that knowledge that it was something you could do from a young age.
I knew I wanted to work in fashion, but I didn’t really know what to do, or how. That happened organically just through the love of drawing. I ended up drawing clothes. It’s a little bit of a nonexistent career path to do this, and I really don’t encourage it. I don’t. I really don’t. There’s no work there.
Lately you’ve been showing more in a purely artistic arena. What inspired that shift?
I think it was age. I feel so relieved it happened now. Now I realized where I wanted to go, do you know what I mean? I have been working for 20 years now as a sort of fashion arena. I don’t want to make clothes or anything, so then [my career in fashion] just feels flawed. I realized I can actually use it in an artistic sense without being embarrassed. I’ve gotten over that now, now I’m just, ‘Oh, actually that’s part of what I do.’ But it’s for no commercial purpose.
I’ve always found the whole idea of being an artist really unattractive—totally self-centered and selfish. But now, I’ve gotten over it and become like that. [Laughs.] Now I’m totally self-centered. I think you have to be to be an artist, don’t you? You have to be focused on that and nothing else.
When was the first time you ever showed something in a gallery setting?
It was 2002, in Mobile Home [Gallery] in London. It went bankrupt basically. Actually, everyone I show with tends to disappear. I’m like the kiss of death. It’s become a bit of a joke, actually. If I’m in a group show or a solo show, normally it doesn’t last long, the gallery. I’m thinking of making that into a work. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] All the places that have died.
Stick it on the old CV.
With illustration, with record covers or something like that, your name is almost nonexistent on the product. But in a gallery, your name is the first thing that is recognized. You kind of have to get over the anonymity of creation for a client.
Yeah. In illustration or fashion design, you’re always working to a brief of sorts. I have really loved that, because it makes you look at things you wouldn’t normally look at or work in a certain way. Having said that, the other side of things—doing exactly what you want—is such indulgence: it’s heaven.
Do you ever find that you come to similar conclusions when making art as when you’re illustrating anyhow?
Yeah. You think, ‘This will work!’ and you get excited and it always ends up looking the same. [Laughs.] That’s the constant frustration and why I try to work as hard as I can in the hopes that it will change.
Clearly you’ve been doing stuff that has really taken a totally different tract lately. I think the sculptural stuff, I almost wouldn’t recognize that it was yours from the illustration work I’m most familiar with. I get the key components that do make it yours, but I just had never seen anything like that from you before.
I really enjoy it. It has taken me awhile to realize I don’t have to draw. I kind of thought it only had any worth if I involved drawing in some way. But now I think, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get over that.’ It kind of answers that desire to produce 3D work which isn’t clothes, you know? I’m just really drawn, as an anti-fashion statement, to making things really badly. [Laughs.] It’s like really crude, really bad dressmaking skills. Everything’s put together in a really naïve, crafty-type way that I know really annoys people.
I’m particularly looking at the ‘Bling Bless You Box.’ It’s almost like opulent meets garish, and everything in between.
You get those tissue boxes, especially in the back of some dodgy taxi driver’s car, on the back shelf; they arrive in such weird places, tissue boxes. I’ve become quite obsessed with them lately. They needed to be celebrated.
Do you sneeze a lot?
I’ve got a big nose. [Laughs.]
Dasha Zhukova said something to the effect of the art world is less harsh than the fashion world. Do you find that to be true? In the art world, they say things behind your back; in the fashion world they say it to your face.
No, I think they’re on par. I just see them as super similar. Same snobbery—that sort of double-edged sword thing. The fashion world definitely moves faster; I love it for that. But, I dunno—I see the same characters.
Everybody’s at the same thing anyway. Tell me about the piece ‘Fairy.’ Is that entirely made out of soap?
Oh, no, that would be nice. No, absolutely not. That would be far too gorgeous. No, it’s just the bar. That was an instinctive piece. It is actually part of an installation, where I just manically try to customize loads of different crap bought in loads of different charity shops. Just buying trash and trying to turn it into something in a day.
Is that a glimpse into your working process?
Yeah, I’ve got a lot of preparation. Messing around, wasting time takes forever. Then, the actual physical act of doing it is pretty intense, and there’s a quick turnaround because I find those sort of responses better. Then you leave it for a day or so and come back to it and tweak it or just leave it.
You go around to vintage and craft shops. Is that your favorite part of the process?
Totally, yeah. I live in a really working class, poor neighborhood, and—this is going to sound really snobby—but the charity shops are so good because they have such horrendous, horrible ornamental things, which you wouldn’t get in a smarter area. On my journey, from my home to my studio, I pass three every day. So, I watch the windows. They put the new stuff in the windows; it’s pretty exciting.
Again, it took me a while to accept, but actually that’s part of my practice now. To begin with, it was just something I did for pleasure, and then my flat was accumulating rubbish. I didn’t realize that’s actually become the work in a way.
You’re a ‘hoarder.’ Have you ever seen that TV show?
There’s that, but also, Robert Rauschenberg did the same thing. His whole thing was that he would have this block he would walk around each day and he would pick things up and that would become the work. The things that you accumulate are built into the work.
But I plan to stop that. In the summer, I’m going to paint my flat black. I’m going to literally paint over everything, and I’m going to document it as a piece. I think it needs to be done, and then I’ll just throw everything away and start again. I’m kind of looking forward to that, because it’s a black full stop, isn’t it?