Beautiful, disturbing, hilarious, extraordinary, Julie Verhoeven’s unique visions straddle the rarefied worlds of fashion and high art, yet evade categorisation. The neon-haired introvert meets Wylde briefly and gives us her views on collaboration, misogyny and… hairy nipples!

Interview by Luke Singleton

Portrait by Annie Collinge

Portrait by Annie Collinge

The psychedelic mind of Kent-born artist Julie Verhoeven thrives in seclusion; watching fashion’s racket from the shaded sidelines.

This is refreshingly offbeat, given her illustrious career, which spans three decades; and has seen her designs displayed in galleries, museums and fashion emporia across the globe. It is hard not to be full of questions for the woman who once said: “For the moment, I am doing artist/designer – but I would like to be regarded as an artist, eventually.” Contrary to this refreshing modesty, she is one of only a handful of current artists masterful enough to marry the two competing kingdoms of fine art and fashion commerce. Her renowned collaboration with Marc Jacobs at Vuitton sold like hot cakes amongst fashion-cult devotees. 

Sundae  ,     2013

Sundae, 2013

She reunited with Jacobs this year for his “pop-up” atBergdorf Goodman, with his namesake label this time, Verhoeven overseeing the art direction of its visual merchandising. Her own fashion line, Gibo, was a hit in New York in the early 2000s. There have been other successful partnerships too, with Donatella at Versace and Stuart Vevers at Mulberry, Peter Jensen and a long-standing creative friendship with John Galliano. 

The V&A holds over 100 Verhoeven drawings and graphic illustrations in its archives. Her work has hung in London’s ICA and the Hayward Gallery, and she has had solo exhibitions in New York, Berne and Zurich. In 2015, she was the subject of the Sky Arts documentary The Art of the Joy of Sex, all of which belies the fact that, for the most part, Verhoeven is a reclusive creature. Her introspective persona is more diplomatic in person, preferring not to linger too much on industry gossip or flighty compliments from fans (like me).  

Snowoman  ,     2013

Snowoman, 2013

My 10 allotted minutes with her are spent in the London store Liberty, quietly admiring the displays of ceramic miniatures and ornamental kitchenware in the sale. As I follow her gaze across rows of reduced items, she spots something she loves: “What a lovely set of jugs!” and I am thrown by the double entendre. It is within this context, somewhere between the farcical and the rudimentary, that her ideas begin. Colliding momentarily with her universe, I find her to be ever ready with an anecdote to hand, and the odd ad-lib quip.

Wylde: What were your early experiences of peers, friends and collaborators within the industry?  Did you support and influence each other?

Julie Verhoeven: Artist and educator Howard Tangye was a huge influence on me, as were the people I met at his drawing classes, in and around Saint Martins in the late Eighties. Obviously, John Galliano, too, was a huge influence, as was Jasper Conran, who was my landlord at this time – his bohemian, flamboyant world and extensive family and friends.

 What were the Eighties and Nineties nightclub scenes of London and New York like?

I don’t really know, to be honest! I’ve never been a nightclubber to any great extent and during that period I was annoyingly shy. I was more of a house-party kinda girl, or a school disco.

Desdemona  ,     2013

Desdemona, 2013

Do you prefer creative collaborations or flying solo?

I think I flourish in collaborations because the nervous energy takes hold. The fear of disappointing my collaborator is always a presence in my head. Having said that, once the collaboration is over, I’m quite fickle and it’s promptly shelved, without sentiment, which allows more space for potential new pursuits.

You are perfectly suited to the rebellious, non-conformist sentiment happening in fashion right now. I see your template in the creative direction at Gucci, for example. Of all the designer collaborations you have worked on, which was your favourite?

Sadly, I didn’t do the Gucci collaboration – I would have loved to! As far as being a square peg in a round hole, in a world of glamour and excess, I totally loved collaborating with Versace.  It felt fabulously abstract and wonderfully absurd. I’m a big fan of Donatella.

Comfort & Joy   (video still)     ,     2015

Comfort & Joy (video still) , 2015

What is your perception of the fashion industry, currently?

It is brutally fast, voracious and has become a silly, passive corporate slave to the big buck. The fashion merry-go-round needs to go to the knackers yard. Let’s have a new calendar and a new way of presenting fashion. Less greed!

Which labels and designers do you admire or wear?

I admire and respect all designers who remain in business, without exception! I wear predominantly vintage Marimekko, Peter Jensen, Warehouse, Matty Bovan and lots of Rottingdean Bazaar.

Where now can we find one of your incredible Gibo dresses?

I think they are in landfill somewhere in the Tuscan hills!

Woman of a Certain Age  ,     2008

Woman of a Certain Age, 2008

As a singular artist you can be quite provocative. Working in fashion, do you have complete liberty to choose your own direction, even with the big brands?

I think in order for collaborations with big brands to work, there has to be a level of trust and freedom from the outset. Having said that, I’m mindful not to be annoyingly juvenile and smother my art in hairy nipples, much as I would love to.

What experiences from your own life have encouraged your process?

The foremost experiences that have affected my work have been death, divorce, repression, etiquette and ageing. Every experience is digested and applied; there are no edit, control or mute buttons.

After finishing a project, do you feel the need to recalibrate emotionally?

I don’t think about it in any depth, actually. I just react as I see fit at the time and for my wellbeing. Always better out than in. Again, I try not to look back and cringe.

Fairy  ,     2010

Fairy, 2010

Have you experienced misogyny, or any other forms of prejudice yourself?

As bleak as it sounds, I don’t think we will ever not live in a misogynistic culture, certainly not in my lifetime. There are improvements, but it’s a slow burner through the generations. Prejudice and fear are constant, as people are fearful of things that look or sound different. That’s never gonna change. I cosset myself in my neighbourhood, where there is a greater tolerance, because it is multicultural and a bit bonkers.

Are the fashion and art worlds bourgeois communities? Or are they places where liberal attitudes reign?

I feel a bit removed from fashion currently. But it is an industry that is fabulously liberal, non-judgmental and egalitarian. The art world has been a bigger surprise to me. It is moneyed and hierarchical. Despite outwardly projecting the notion of anything goes, it is hugely conservative, filled with unspoken rules and regulations. Challenging!  

The past couple of years have seen huge shifts in societies across the world. Are there any positive changes in freedom of expression that you can see in today’s creative industries?

As hideous and frightening as things have become of late, I am excited to be alive in this period to experience this shift. The establishment is beyond comprehension, and beyond honouring to any degree; so, surely anything and everything goes!

Barefoot On home Turf  (detail) 2013

Barefoot On home Turf (detail) 2013

Tell us a secret, Julie…

Secrets are overrated! 

All images © Julie Verhoeven