Conceptual collaborations between pop stars and fashion designers
are nothing new. Throughout the ’70s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm
McLaren dressed the Sex Pistols in bondage gear; Mr. Fish put David Bowie
in dresses; and Stephen Sprouse photographed the pixels on his TV screen,
printed them on fabric, sized it to Debbie Harry, and created an Op-art
evening gown now known as the “Heart of Glass Dress.”
For Yeah Yeah Yeah’s singer Karen O, the magic that happens when
fashion, art and music collide can be traced back to a shredded black prom
dress doused in fake blood. The dress was called “Teenager Car Crash,” and
its creator was the self-taught Brooklyn-based designer Christian Joy.
Christian and Karen joined forces nearly a decade ago, at a time when
both artists were little-known outside of the downtown scene. Since that
time there have been skeleton costumes that leaked guts, dresses inspired
by shrimp cocktail, and a giant lung that pranced around on stage during
Karen O’s psycho opera, “Stop the Virgens.”
Outside of her tenure as the official designer for Karen O, Christian’s
ingenuity to turn wardrobes into works of art is equally impressive. She
created a series of costumes based on Where the Wild Things Are for Spike
Jonze’s gallery opening in Los Angeles, and has exhibited her work at a
number of high-profile cultural institutions, including the Victoria and
Albert Museum in London. Working from the Greenpoint home studio
she shares with her husband, Jason Grisell of the synth pop band Bubbles,
Christian continues to turn out one-of-a-kind designs that blur the boundary
between fashion and art.
Marc Santo: How did you get your start?
Christian Joy: I’m from Iowa and moved to New York City a few times, but was never able to get anything going. I left to travel around and had this feeling that if I came back something amazing would happen. I took a job at Antique Boutique and kept thinking to myself that I could make most of the clothes that were coming in, and that got me into fashion design. I eventually took another job at Daryl K and met Karen O. She came in and I had some dresses she liked, so she asked me to make her one. I didn’t know how to sew, so I’d staple things together and cover up the mistakes with paint and all sorts of junk. She wore the dress for her show at The Cooler, and as the band got bigger I’d have to make her a new outfit every time she did a show or interview.
Marc: Your early work had a humorous aesthetic that seems influenced by B-movies and horror flicks. What inspires you?
Christian: I’m really into the absurd and I try to incorporate humor into everything I do. David Bowie is a big influence because I can’t tell if he’s a person or an alien. So anybody with a personality like that is really influential. I love John Waters’ movies too, because his characters are so bizarre and strange. It’s always been a dream of mine to make costumes for one of his movies.
Marc: You made a stuffed, gold lobster claw for Karen O’s psycho opera that reminded me of the lobster in John Waters’ film, “Multiple Maniacs.”
Christian: You mean that giant lobster that rapes Devine? I love that movie! I was working with K.K. Barrett, who was Spike Jonze’s production designer on that project, and he has very specific ideas on how things should look. That forced me to step away from what I was used to. Before that I just made clothes for Karen that were designed to look good in photographs, but these had to work over and over. In the past couple years I learned how to sew, so I went from deconstructing clothes to actually knowing how to make them. Everything now is streamlined and really well-made.
Marc: You flip-flop between fashion and costume design. Do you identify with one more than the other?
Christian: I don’t like the fashion industry, so I try to stay away from it. I don’t play by the rules that most designers have to play by to be successful, and there’s not enough room for massive amounts of creativity. I’m not saying, “Whoa, I’m so creative,” but in fashion you have to make things sellable and think about if somebody is going to wake up in the morning and put your clothes on. It works for Comme des Garçons, because they’re able to balance their tamer sellable pieces against their crazier ones, but I’m not interested in making the non-crazy pieces. I’m interested in the art end of things.
Marc: Is that why you stay independent?
Christian: No. I’m independent because I’m a control freak. I’m not good at working for other people because I’m not interested in following their rules and I don’t want anybody else to have their name on something I made. I just want to be able to create things that have lasting impressions on people as opposed to things that people wear for a bit and then get rid of.
Marc: I’ve always seen a lot of Leigh Bowery in your work. Were the Blitz Kids an influence on you?
Christian: I didn’t know about that scene until recently, but I do like it. I was more inspired by the American ’80s and punk rock. My brother is seven years older, and I remember as kids, he always dressed in crazy outfits that made him look like he was in the Thompson Twins. It seemed like everyone went for it back then.
Marc: What’s going on in fashion now?
Christian: Everything is very ’90s. My interns are always coming over with platform sneakers and grungy riot girl looks. I’m around 20-year olds all day because they work with me, and they come in with these great outfits that deconstruct all these old-school scenes. It’s fun to see people take old things and put them back together to get these really off-the-wall looks. The one thing I really love about fashion is that people create their own style, and the weirder it is the better.