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Interview with Jeremy Scott

Jeremy Scott is one of the fashion world’s most quirky designers. An outsider who has created his own successful universe filled with humour and irreverent cheek. For the last couple of years, he has also been in charge of the Italian fashion house Moschino. The favourite designer of pop stars who has given us everything from shoeless heels, one-legged trousers and winged Adidas sneakers to fashion inspired by SpongeBob SquarePants, McDonald’s and Barbie. Often misunderstood by the establishment, but loved by an ever growing band of fans, including stars like Björk, Robyn, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Kanye West. Susanna Strömquist managed to get him on the line on an early winter morning in his hometown of Los Angeles, and took the opportunity to congratulate him on his twentieth anniversary as a designer.

BOY
Twenty years as a fashion designer, what an achievement – congratulations! What are you most proud of so far?

Jeremy
Thank you! I’m probably most proud that I am still alive and have a career. It feels like a gift. Fashion is a tough industry, I’m proud that I have managed to stay in it. That I have made a name for myself on my own terms, with a large group of fans but without financial backing. I’m grateful that I have got to do what I love throughout the years and that, at the same time, my designs have touched so many others. I am one of few in my generation who has managed to create their own brand. Many others who started at the same time have disappeared into the big, established houses.

BOY
You have always gone your own way, and not always been lauded for your unconventional choices, at least not by the establishment. I remember one of your very first shows, for the autumn of 1998. I was in the audience, pressed up against the wall on some stairs right at the top under the roof of Printemps department store in Paris. Like many other fashion journalists, I had been drawn there by the fact that you had been acclaimed as fashion’s new megastar the season before. The reaction after this show was completely different though. The critics were not kind. I still remember the feeling of total flop in the reviews the day after. What happened?

Jeremy
It was very upsetting, but now looking back I think it was a useful lesson that definitely made me thicker skinned. I’m glad that I learnt early that you don’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea. But it was a tough blow at the time. A shock, I felt utterly betrayed and abandoned by people I admired and who had been role models when I was growing up. From being acclaimed as the messiah of fashion one season, they now suddenly turned their backs on me.

BOY
What was it that annoyed them?

Jeremy
I think the problem was their own expectations about who I was, and what they wanted me to be. For me the collection was a completely natural development of what I wanted to express, a kind of reaction against the times. The year before, I had created an all-white collection with angels’ wings. This one was gold and not really very provocative at all, there was no nudity, nothing sexual and no hint of any religious symbols. Other fashion designers, such as Alexander McQueen, got away with much more challenging and extreme expressions. But somehow using gold was totally overstepping a boundary at that time. The inspiration was about an alternative 1980s universe. The focus was on gold, luxury and abundance – but with an aggressive, avant-garde outline. The entire collection was asymmetric, even the make-up.

BOY
As I remember, it became a kind of watershed, a collection that broke with ascetic 90s minimalism and pointed the way towards the more bling-loving fashion of the 2000s. A sign that the 90s were over and that the 00s had taken off.

Jeremy
It was obvious that there was a clear division between the generations. The collection appealed to one generation, but not to another. The inspiration from the 80s was too close in time for some of the more established journalists. They clearly didn’t want to go back to where they had just been. At the same time, the collection got huge coverage in the alternative press. All the cool stylists loved it. Isabella Blow lauded it and The Face photographed every single garment.

BOY
Have you got any garments left from the historic gold collection?

Jeremy
Yes, I have an almost complete archive! Even garments from my student days. It’s great, like a kind of visual diary from my life.

BOY
So in other words you have had a lot to go through before the anniversary exhibition that is being put on at the Dallas Contemporary Museum in the spring… Now you have had the opportunity to look back, how would you describe your aesthetic universe?

Jeremy
There is always a certain sense of humour, even though the humour may be dark sometimes. Pop is a word that is often used to describe what I do. I love nostalgia and pop culture. Personally, I think the most unique thing about my designs is the combination of sex appeal and humour. Those are two aspects that are otherwise rarely seen together.

BOY
Your background is not entirely typical for a fashion designer. You grew up on a farm in Missouri. But studied French in high school because you had set your sights on going to Paris and being a part of the fashion world. Where did the interest in fashion come from, and what shaped your aesthetics?

Jeremy
It’s strange. I am an anomaly. Absolutely nothing in my background pointed to the life I now lead. I don’t have a grandmother that dressed in couture or sewed clothes at home. I just had a very strong opinion on how I wanted to dress when I grew up. A love as inexplicable as it is passionate of expressing myself through clothes. I usually say that I had no choice, fashion was what I wanted to do.

BOY
You once said that your motto is “life is too short to wear boring clothes”. Do you still spend a lot of time on your personal style?

Jeremy
Yes, I have a huge wardrobe! I wear what I design myself, and a lot of vintage. Some things get put in storage for periods, but I have learnt that if I’ve once loved a garment, I should keep it. If I get rid of something, I always miss it the second after.

BOY
After some vacillation, you went from Missouri to a design education at the Pratt Institute in New York and then, at the age of 21, moved on to Paris. There you managed against all the odds to create a collection that premièred in 1997. Just a year later, when you had managed to establish yourself despite the gold flop, you suddenly decided on another unexpected move. After aiming for Paris throughout your entire childhood, in 2002 you left the capital of fashion and moved to Los Angeles.

Jeremy
That was to do with both my life and my career. Los Angeles stood for the best of two worlds for me. I was back in America and could live the life I wanted, in the city but close to nature. At the same time, I could continue working with fashion. I wanted to continue to develop as a designer and as a person on my own terms and live life now, not put it off for the future. Also, I had realised that in Paris I would always be an American in Paris. I would never be the new Yves Saint Laurent. You just had to look at Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. It didn’t matter how relevant Lagerfeld’s Chanel was, he always lived in the shadow of Saint Laurent.

BOY
Did it turn out as you had planned?

Jeremy
The move to Los Angeles is the best thing I’ve done since I moved to Paris! And, to be honest, I was once again before my time. This was when Los Angeles was still considered tacky. Since then, half of New York has moved here. It was before Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane settled down here. I could never have predicted how quickly things would develop, but I saw signs early on that made me take the step. With email, a mobile phone and Fedex I could even then work from Los Angeles just as well as from Paris. Today I can run an entire fashion house in Milan from here. The rules and requirements have changed rapidly.

BOY
Most things seem to have gone your way when it comes to developments in the fashion industry. From the decentralisation of power from Paris to the internet making information available and the arrival of celebrities on the fashion scene.

Jeremy
It’s an enormous difference, above all there are so many more channels now – and voices. Opinions have flooded the market. The internet is really a gift to fashion! You were there when I first began showing in Paris and will remember that very little information came out from the shows in those days. If you weren’t there in person, you would at best see one or two pictures in the newspapers the day after. That was it. You had to rely on the opinions of others, and there were just a few voices that were heard and got a very large reach. When it comes to the importance of celebrities for the fashion world, it’s not a new phenomenon but it has become far more important today. They are a kind of megaphone to the world! I love being a part of the pop culture that communicates with a wide audience, not just a fashion clique. I like to create stage costumes for strong personalities, like musicians and actors. I’ve been around for a while now, so a lot of celebrities have grown up with me. Katy Perry came up to me before she had even released a record and said that I was her favourite designer. That she hoped I would dress her one day. A couple of years ago, I dressed her for the most seen halftime entertainment in Super Bowl history.

BOY
Do you think everything in the fashion world has changed for the better during this time?

Jeremy
No, no, no. The saddest thing is that personal expression has disappeared. You can’t always see which designer is behind which garment today. Individual identity was much more important in the past. You had to stand out by creating your own world. Today, the commercial forces have taken over. In Paris, there are in essence just two brands that own all the fashion houses, everything is sewn up in the same factories using the same fabrics. I’m old school in that way, I always try to be individual and non-mixable!

BOY
Tell me about Moschino, how did you end up there? A fashion house founded 1983 in Milan by Franco Moschino (1950-1994) that became known for its colourful, eccentric and humorous designs.

Jeremy
I had turned down other houses in the past. I didn’t want to jeopardise my own brand, or sacrifice my name for someone else’s. But this was the right timing. I had a solid base for my own brand in place, and had also worked with Adidas for many years and knew what it meant to design on a global level. I didn’t need to take the assignment for the money. I did it because I wanted to. Franco Moschino is a designer I grew up with, who has meant a lot to me. I agreed to be creative director because I felt that I was entirely the right person for the job, and that there was no-one else who could do it better. I wanted to do Franco Moschino justice. It felt like a duty.

BOY
How have you gone about the job?

Jeremy
So far, I’ve worked totally intuitively. Much of what I’ve done I’ve later discovered that Franco also did. For example, the Barbie doll that was the inspiration for my 2015 spring collection was in one of his first campaigns. I see my own brand and Moschino as two different railway tracks going through the same station that then go on to different destinations. There are similarities, but also differences. I always try to be completely genuine in what I do, whether it is Moschino or Jeremy Scott.

BOY
Tell me about this springs critically acclaimed Moschino collection, which is inspired by paper dolls – complete with paper tabs around the silhouettes.

Jeremy
It’s one of the collections I am most proud of in my career so far. For me, it stands for the essence of fashion. It’s so sophisticated. Most of the garments are completely flat with illustrated forms. There is so much work in this collection, just the number of work hours… I am so fortunate! I’ve had the opportunity to implement ideas with the help of the team in Milan that I would never have been able to do on my own. I’m really having the time of my life at Moschino.

BOY
It shows! Talking of a good team. In the magnificent tome “Jeremy Scott” (Rizzoli) from 2014, where you go through all of your collections so far, there’s a quote that made me curious. You say that “sometimes a dream is big enough to hold two people. Thanks for sharing my dream, Pablo”. Who’s that?

Jeremy
Pablo Olea and I have been cohorts since schooldays. He studied art and I fashion. He has been with me since the very first show in Paris. First he helped me as a friend. Today he is head of global communications for both Moschino and Jeremy Scott. I’m eternally grateful that he has been by my side throughout this time.

BOY
What a privilege!

Before we hang up and say goodbye after what for me had been an unexpectedly long and open-hearted conversation, we agree that Jeremy Scott will get in touch next time he is in Sweden. It turns out that he has already been here on a couple of occasions and thinks that Stockholm is like something out of a fairy tale – “dark, snowy and magical”. Next time he wants to come here in the summer when it’s light all the time. But before that can happen, he has a growing queue of megastars to look after, designing work and men’s and ladies’ collections to present in both Los Angeles and Milan, as well as an anniversary exhibition that demands attention. Full speed ahead, as always! You can think what you want about Jeremy Scott’s unconventional style and methods, but it’s hard not to be impressed by what this man has achieved on the fashion scene over the last twenty years. A colourful victory parade like no other – completely outside the box.

Interviewed by Susanna Strömquist