Victoria Bartlett"Styling should be about self-expression and independence."
British expat Victoria Bartlett is a pioneer in the field of styling and an auteur within the industry. Building her reputation on her collaborative work with Steven Klein and styling music celebrities like Björk and Madonna, Bartlett eventually returned to design. In 2003, Bartlett launched VPL(Visible Panty Line)- a lingerie apparel line that popularized the innerwear-as-outerwear aesthetic. Bartlett’s work in fashion routinely sets herself apart: a “personal style” that is entirely visionary.
Part I: By Hannelore Knuts
This is gonna record, no?
They’re gonna think you’re in a Latin restaurant.
But we are.
What do you want to start with? When I came to New York?
Yeah, and why?
I came in the ‘80s. A certain wave of people were coming over. It was a whole insurgence of the Brit movement, the New Romantics. I remember my first night out, there was broken glass on the streets and it was as if they were diamond laced; the streets were sparkling. It was straight out of a movie: My dream of New York; and I just fell straight into doing projects.
What kind of projects?
I wanted to design. I came here wanting to do something. I paired off with this guy Jeffrey Costello. We did one collection, BC, for two seasons and then we were bankrupt. We sold in stores in the East Village. I also did a whole printed thing where I did t-shirts with this woman Pinky Black.We did Haile Selassie Chanel t-shirts in multi colors, which we were selling at Michael and Gerlinde Kostiff’s store, The World. They were the guys who did Kinky Gerlinky. But then I got into just doing parties.
With all of your friends?
That’s what New York was about. I’ve always liked the collaborative thing and New York was that from the beginning. People grouped together and would just think up ideas. We would be sitting at David Lachapelle's studio, chatting, bored, and then, "All right, everyone get naked, you’re gonna be blue, you’re gonna be purple…" So we’d all get naked and body painted and then do the photos. A lot of stuff was spontaneous.
Could you make money with that?
No, I didn’t make money really until I met up with Steven Klein. We ended up together and started collaborating. He brought me into the commercial world and I brought him into the underworld. We merged our worlds of interest. He was really into the transsexuals and all that. We’d set up shoots from Wigstock, but we’d move it onto Steven’s roof and he’d have a set designer build a set. We’d all go up there and have a banquet and then he’d shoot. We’d go to like Palladium on Halloween and have someone on an elephant. He’d have an elephant go into a club and we’d shoot. It was about integrating everyone you knew and what happened at night. For me, it was more the liberation of being able to create these scenarios, characters. Like doing film: editorial film art.
That’s the secret of a good picture.
It was also the times. New York was a different place. Now it’s very groomed for tourism. The areas you can go into now weren’t safe. Parts of the Village were really dangerous. Chelsea was just Mega Sex City, with fur and drag queens and hardcore gays. I think for that reason people were afraid of New York and so it was less crowded. It gave people room. It’s never going to come back because the city is groomed for businesses. I think it was just very pure.
How did VPL start?
When VPL started, I didn’t wanna do it as a collection. The first concept was with Mary Frey. We talked about doing a label called Difficult Brown. We wanted to do underwear, but like fast food. She was doing this Slush Puppy stand at the time. We wanted to have a stand and revolving menu, but with underwear and everything packaged like fast food. Very japanese, kind of gimmicky, but that’s where VPL started from. At the same time, I went to Japan and they wanted me to open the first stylist store there. It would have been great. I told him I would only do it if I could do underwear and I designed the store. It was all plexi. I wanted you to have a credit card that you’d need to open doors to get into the drawers. And all the underwear in poster books or in huge photo cubes.
It’s hard to imagine.
I wish I could have done it because I think it could have been amazing, but they had a crash. That’s where it started though. I started thinking about underwear- underwear that was visible outside. I called Jeffrey, said will you do this with me, we’ll do a capsule collection. It’s was all medical and surgical: we wanted it to be dual functional. All the underwear had loops for your key rings and like, anything else you could attach. All the underwear had pockets. You could put your tampons in them. We called them travel panties.
It was actually a really cool concept. You were in the first show.
With the doctors.
Mark did all the photos and Marcelo did the film with that actor Cara Seymour. We literally only had 16 looks. That was it; that’s all we had.
But, you know, it’s underwear...
It was cool because no one was doing it.
And it worked, right? Did you do a second season straight after?
The second season we did a skateboard bowl. I asked this guy Andy Kessler, who passed away a year and a half ago, he was the most infamous old school skateboarder on the East Coast. He built every ramp and skateboard bowl you'd see. I had this raw space, 16,000 square foot space, which Darryl K and I divided. I took 8,000 and she took 8,000. Andy built this 200 foot long ramp that was nude and red in the space. I asked my friend Jill Nichols to paint it, not knowing how long it was [laughter]. She was like, “To this day I could have fucking killed you." She was painting night and day. Then we had these female pro skateboard champions skateboard back and forth. It was so great because we could get people involved. Everyone was excited.
And they all did it…wow.
Were you in that one?
No, the gym- I remember the doctor and then the gym. That was the first time I had ever set foot in a gym.
You asked me, “Do you have a cocktail?” [laughter] What do you do? You do the weights and a cocktail?
That was the only time I've ever had fun in a gym.
That was pretty funny. I guess, I’ve always been into concepts and the theatre of stuff. Did you do the one in the industrial building? We built the frame of a house, like in Dogville. You had to walk through it. We had VPL doormats on either side so you could wipe your feet.
And that evolved into your way of working.
It’s funny, I always swore that that’s not what I wanted to do, but I actually love doing it. I think in life things have a progression and things change because of circumstance. When Kiki came on she formulated a business out of it.
But now you’re going back to styling.
Yeah. I love styling.
Some designers are more stylists than they really are designers. You design stuff, you don’t-
I think it helps having done styling. A lot of designers don’t have a styling background and can’t think up concepts. They only think of clothing. I start with what I want to do, which is more like putting together a photo shoot; It’s almost like working backwards. I start at the finale; that’s where my concept spawns from. The theatre of it has to excite me. You get into the peripheral things and then you do the main clothes and then you have to do the more fundamental things. I can’t do it the other way. When VPL started, it was more like an interactive space for me where you do the designing, but you also bring in an exterior world … For me, it’s always the family. I have that outsource of the family unit.