TV: A Conversation with Darren Criss of Glee

Darren Criss (left) and Chris Colfer (right) as Blaine & Kurt from Glee in Entertainment Weekly.

I know. Poetic & Chic has a long-standing "no celebrity" policy, but when the celebrity in question is a fellow alumni not just of high school (St. Ignatius College Prep), but of grammar school too (Schools of the Sacred Heart), I had to bend the rules.

After a few weeks of missed connections, I finally got a phone call from Darren Criss. "Hi, it's Darren..." he began, "I’ll tell you right now, I’m rather long winded. So, brace yourself for that." Indeed. Our long and insightful conversation covered everything from his new Chicago play Starship, his love of high school theatre, thoughts on one day hosting Saturday Night Live, and the controlled chaos that is the cultural phenomenon called Glee.

So let’s just start with the obvious: You guys were at the Golden Globes last Sunday. (Glee won for best TV series, Musical or Comedy), and today you’re on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. What has this week been like?

It’s funny – I’ve been so inundated with work for this company that I’m a part of in Chicago – our show opens in 3 weeks, so I’ve been supervising that and just putting every atom of my being into it. So all this great stuff is happening that I haven’t properly soaked it in as much as I should.

But it’s been fun – the Golden Globes and the photo shoot and then the magazine coming out today, it’s been my reprieve from all that work, so it’s certainly been a lovely reminder that once Starship is open I have something fun and promising on the other side. I’m very lucky.

Tell me about Starship. Are you starring in it, or are you doing the music?

Yes, I’m writing the music. It’s an idea that I had developed for a while, and the wheels were already heavily turning on it and then I got cast in Glee. So I knew that while I probably couldn’t be in it, I could still write the music and be involved on the creative side. The music for me is almost like me being there in person. I’ve put a lot of my own soul and quirks into the music.

You know, it’s been very hard but it’s been fun and I’m just trying to make it work. I hope we can open it up in 3 weeks – I hope we can pull it off!

I have no doubt it will be successful, especially in Chicago, which is such a great city for that type of theatre.

Which is why we moved the show to Chicago. We came to a crossroads and we were deciding what it was we wanted to be doing with this entity “Starkid” – this brand, this production thing. We figured that if (much further down the line), if there was a television production we figured we would do it after we had our enjoyment in theatre, and the place for theatre is not really LA, so we decided to go back to Chicago. That was literally a month right before all this stuff happened.

So television’s not really your thing, you really want to be back in theatre?

I don’t really think it’s a matter of what my “thing” is; as an actor you’re inherently kind of a mercenary. Glee has certainly opened up the opportunity door a bit as far as maybe having a little more say in what I want to be doing. I’m still in a position where I’m watching things play out. Obviously I’m happy to be on Glee – I love the show, I love working on it, and that show happens to be on TV, but had this opportunity manifested itself into a feature film then I would be doing that. My heart will always be in theatre – I come from theatre. As an actor, there are many joys of the theatre that you just won’t find anywhere else.

Despite the fact that Starkid is a theatre entity, it is something that is completely made from scratch and made with love. It’s something I care a great deal about. So it’s something I’m extremely, personally passionate about and invested in.  But you know, if the door opened up and someone wanted it to be a new Broadway play, I mean..hell yeah. I’d love to be a part of it – that would be tremendous.

We’re very flexible – we’re not so rigidly in the theatre world. If we [Starkid] were approached (and we have been), to develop screenplays then that’s something that we’re very capable of doing. We just like to incubate things in the theatre. That’s the best place to really find a lot of stuff. The work can find its body a lot better.

Are you guys planning to take Starship to New York?

We’re doing the show because we’ve always wanted to do it, and we’ll see what kind of attention we get. You know, if somebody says they want to pick it up for a TV series, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Broadway is certainly an option and we’re open to all things. It could go in a lot of different directions. It was kind of written that way actually. We did plan for it to have some kind of future embodiment.

So you guys started by doing these online videos. I know that a lot of people in the past couple of years have really been discovered that way. Do you think this is a genre that is going to be getting bigger and bigger in terms of talent discovery?

No question. The cool thing about YouTube is that it gives everybody a chance. There’s kind of this “do-it-yourself” mentality now, and if you’ve got it, it’s relatively inexpensive to put something out there on the internet for the world. People’s palettes are changing in a sense that they’re open and really receptive to reality, and to the “realness” of things.

I think people respond to kind of this relate-ability and non-polished quality, which is really cool for me because I was terrified when we had this reaction to A Very Potter Musical. I was really afraid because there’s kind of this unfair finality about the internet. No one thinks about context – it’s just very unfair. I was worried because we put it [A Very Potter Musical] out on the internet just for our friends. When people started watching it, I thought “oh no!” because there was no kind of production quality control, but I think that is why people like it. It’s not polished, there’s not a whole lot of hands in this pot, it’s just a few kids having fun.

It [the internet]’s definitely made the audience. The “fan world” has become a little more democratic. The views speak for themselves and then they get passed around virally. It’s a really interesting time to be involved in the entertainment business.

I think that’s also one of the contributing factors to the popularity of Glee. People are sharing the song parts of the show much more on YouTube, than people that are actually watching it when it airs.

And they’ve been really good about their online media. They’re making things more interactive. Also, because of the internet, because of things like YouTube and Twitter…fan connectivity is a lot easier than it was just a few years ago. People really feel like they’re part of people’s lives. The time was right for something like Glee. The mileage that it’s gotten (via the internet) has always helped.

One number in particular, “Teenage Dream”, I saw today on YouTube has almost 10 million views for that one song. When you watch this song, the chemistry between Kurt and Blaine is so clear which is why I think that song is so compelling. It’s a fantasy moment – Kurt walks in the door and it’s all love, popularity, friendship, acceptance, and in this beautiful room, and the enthusiasm comes across so clearly. How was that scene directed and how many takes did you do for that? I feel like it’s such a beautiful, lighthearted moment, but there’s so much more going on there.

You know it’s funny – and I don’t want to deny you the magic you feel watching that. I can watch something like that objectively, (but obviously I’m a little biased), but in the moment, you don’t think about it, you’re kind of just doing work. What you guys see is not what I see. I see about a million lights, I’m sweating my butt off, it’s completely silent, or maybe the music is playing but you don’t have kids cheering, and you have a bunch of cameras in your face, a lot of people running around, a lot of wires, and you’re just hoping you can hit your marks and you’re singing the right words, you’re trying to stay in the moment as an actor… there’s a lot of things that kind of get in the way of your focus. I’m just trying my best to be present, basically, and try and serve this character.

Sometimes Kurt isn’t even there. Sometimes he’s sitting down, or there’s a camera in front of me - it depends on the shot. It is work. And you do your best to just do your job. And then you hope that as a result of that that there will be this kind of extra x-factor that’s added.

I have to ask you – you went to Stuart Hall, right? Because, I also went to Convent.

Oh, great, so you get it! Can you imagine? Can you imagine being me, showing up to the set and seeing the blazer and seeing the staircase and those rooms? I was like oh my god, how did they know?

The uniform (of Dalton Academy) is very eerily similar. The only thing different is the edging on the blazer.

Exactly. That’s so funny. They have the marble staircase like in the Flood Mansion, especially the interior – the wood, the moldings, are all like Stuart Hall. It’s unbelievable.

Darren Criss (center) & The Warblers on the set of Glee at The Cravens Estate.

So is that a set, or is that a home?

That’s a beautiful home [The Cravens Estate] in Pasadena. The Red Cross owns it and they usually rent it out for weddings. It’s beautiful in there.

So what do you think about this character, Blaine? To me there’s nothing wrong with him. So, when is the dark side going to come out?

Oh yeah, totally. Here’s the thing: there’s no better way to introduce a character in any story than to introduce him as seemingly perfect. Then, that’s where the drama lies: you await the fall of the king. Also, like any great story, you can’t do it overnight. It takes time. I look at a guy like Mad Men’s Don Draper being this kind of classic anti-hero; when you meet him he seems so great, or at least he’s got this exterior, and then you peel back the layers and you see the weakness.

So, not to compare Blaine to Don Draper, but I’ve been excited to see what would happen. You know Ryan (Murphy) has said to me that’s he’s not interested (and I’m not interested either) in Blaine being this kind of knight in shining armor character. As fun as it is, when we meet him and introduce him that way I think that’s not going to do anybody a lick of good. There’s only so much knowledge you can get out of that. I think it will be very important to explore the dark regions. When we meet him, he does immediately admit to this kind of cowardice and to this background – that he did in fact run away from his problems. He certainly has a lot of regrets there, which is the reason why he immediately gravitates towards Kurt. Yeah, I think things are going to start to shake up a little bit with Blaine. The character definitely has a lot of potential to go there.

How does the song selection process happen? Do the cast members have input? Is there a song that you’d like to sing on the show?

I’m still the new guy, but I feel little bit more comfortable now. I used to feel very wary about saying anything. As it gets friendlier, Ryan will ask: “Is there a song you want to do?” I’m like, “you know what man, you’ve given me such incredible songs that beggars can’t be choosers… I’m just happy to be here!...Can I get you coffee? Anything you want…you guys have changed my life…”

I don’t know what the process is - they keep an eye out for things. The cool thing about the songs that I sing with The Warblers is that they get The Beelzebubs from Tufts University to rearrange them, so even if it’s a song that I wasn’t crazy about, which has never happened, they change it up into a very unique vocal arrangement and make it something new and fresh and different anyway. The Beelzebubs have really done a knock-out job with the songs. Dalton is reminiscent of a lot of East Coast, all-male schools where there’s a lot of traditional and rather famous groups in the acapella world. These all-male groups have been around for a very long time in the Ivy League world, The Beelzebubs are one of the oldest. They do all The Warblers songs – that’s their voices on the track.

It’s only recently that I’ll tell him (Ryan Murphy) songs that I think are kind of cool. I’ve told Ryan a song and… I won’t tell you what song it is but there’s a song coming up that I kind of put in as a suggestion. (Whether or not he listened to me, I’m not going to make any claims) …but I remember mentioning the song and now it’s showing up and that’s kind of cool. He’s very open to work things off the cast.

The Hollywood momentum is crazy. Are there any special cameos that you can share?

I have no idea. I don’t know anything until the last minute.

Do they hold back on telling you guys?

No, they’re just busy. Glee is incredibly chaotic, it’s a really hard show to do, I mean you’re shooting like four or five music videos a week. Plus, writing the new ones, casting the new ones, doing production and editing the new ones, and you’re doing 22 a year. You know, they’re not twisting their mustache like “he he he, we’re not going to tell them, it’ll be great”, it’s more like “we’re working as fast as we can and we’ll get it to you when we can.”

Darren Criss by Mitchell McCormack for Interview magazine.

I saw your red carpet interview at the American Music Awards where you mentioned that you wanted Christopher Walken to be on the show?

Yes. That would be mine. I would love Chris Walken to be my kooky uncle or kooky grandfather, I guess, or anybody in Blaine’s family. He’s just one of my favorite people on the planet.

Have you met him?

Oh God, no. I’ve never met Christopher Walken – good lord, I would die. He’s just a legend. He comes from a Vaudeville, practical theatre background. He’s a great dancer, he’s a great singer… God, I’d love to have Chris Walken on the show.

So if you ever got to host Saturday Night Live, would you want it to be as an actor/comedian or as a musician?

I’ve seen JT [Justin Timberlake] pull it off, so I’d like to do both. I don’t know if I’d do it as well as JT, but I’d love to. I’ve been really blessed in a number of ways, but the cool thing about me… It’s a comedy show, it’s a dramatic character or a serious character at least, and people get to see that side of me. But I do come from comedy and theatre, so it’s nice to know that I don’t think I’ll be pigeon-holed in one way or the other…

But yeah, I’d love to do both. Saturday Night Live…that would be…phew!

Do you have any favorite memories of theatre at St Ignatius?

Oh my God, a ton! High school theatre is super-special. That’s when it’s all about fun; all the really wonderful sincerity that can be in theatre is still a learning process. Quite often I’ll go see high school productions of things, or I’ll find out some high school is doing a play and I’ll see it. It kind of reminds me of where I come from and why I’m doing all of this. You know, before contracts and being an adult, really…it’s nice to be in touch with this time in one’s life where it’s about having fun with your friends.

One of my many mantras in life is that I take my work very seriously, however I don’t take myself seriously at all - that was what high school theatre was about. Theatre at SI was super-special because of its really well-rooted tradition, there’s a lot of great theatre traditions that anyone who’s gone through SI will know about. It was really special for me and I’ll always have that connection with my friends at SI who did theatre because it was this little club of crazies.

The cool thing about SI is that once you get into the Ignatian side of it and you get into the Jesuit side of things, and you start delving into the realm of spirituality – tying that into young people and theatre is something really unique & special. I’m careful of my words because I don’t want to make this religious, but just in general, tying in that notion of spirituality interlaced with artistic expression is a really cool thing to be exposed to and a really cool way of evaluating the arts at a really young age. Because for me, I don’t do what I do for myself. I do it for other people. There’s a certain shared experience there (in performance) and that’s what makes things special.

What would you advise to some kid at SI in the theatre group? Or not in the theatre group, but a writer or musician – something that’s otherwise creative. How do they take that next step? SI is a place where a lot is expected of you, obviously to whom much is given much is expected. Going the artistic/bohemian route isn’t necessarily what they always want us to do, and yet you can do it and be successful. But I think there’s a lot of fear inherent in making that choice.

Yeah, as you know, there are no rules. There’s no one path for anybody. I think…I was going to say be true to yourself, but there’s a balance between being true to yourself and being realistic. Knowing your limits. As bohemian & romantic as it sounds – is that who you are? Do you come from a background where that makes sense to you? I think it’s important to keep taking that which is on your plate and utilize it toward what you want to do. Don’t look at what’s on your plate as an obstacle to what you want to do. Going back to the internet, there’s so many different paths now to do so many different things. The important thing is if you’re a writer, an artist, anything is just do it. You can just create.

Nothing happens overnight. People think it does. People tell me “you’re an overnight success with Glee”, and I guess that’s so in the public eye. But, I went to college, I did this in high school, I went to conservatory as a kid, I’ve worked a long time as an actor. Yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a process here. It’s important to recognize that when you’re young. Things don’t happen over night. The journey is okay, in fact it’s the best part.

I had a huge dry spell before Glee. I was really struggling. I was going to move to Chicago, I couldn’t get any work as an actor, so I was really going to pursue being a musician. I was an hour away from calling my acting team and saying “we need to take some time off from this”, and I was gonna go that way, so you never know. Be open to all avenues. I’ve always had my goals, but by no means have I had my blinders on, which has made me happy. It’s good to have dreams, but it’s good to not alienate yourself from the endless possibilities. You know, it’s always being gracious and grateful for the things that you do have until it needles its way into the future path of what you do want to do. I’m so glad I went to college; I’m so glad I grew up. (Well, I haven’t really grown up, but on paper I’ve grown up.) There are parts of me that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t finished college. But that was really for me. I enjoy school, I enjoy academia, and it’s something that I think has been really important to my development as a human being and I’ve always been that person that wanted to go back to school and I fully intend on doing that in my later years.

Before I let you go, any insight into the Super Bowl Sunday episode?

Yeah. It’s going to be 1.21 jiggawatts of pure grade-A entertainment. It won’t take you back in time, but it’s just a lot of big, adrenaline-filled entertainment. It’s going to be like an hour-long half time show. Because there’s an audience that may not necessarily watch the show, the first ten minutes of it is like…bonkers. A lot of bells & whistles for sure.

Is that the episode that “Bills Bills Bills” is going to be on?

That’s the one. I love that song. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m excited too…

Hamish Bowles talks Balenciaga & Spain

Opening on March 26th, Mr. Hamish Bowles' new exhibition Balenciaga and Spain brings over 100 pieces of priceless haute couture to the de Young museum. Expanding the retrospective from its showing at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York (that exhibit offered only 50 pieces), the exhibition will highlight the master couturier's work through traditional Spanish themes.

As Mr. Bowles' was in town this week to prepare for the exhibition, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and learn more about the inscrutible designer and Mr. Bowles himself.

Balenciaga, Bolero jacket of burgundy silk velvet and jet passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946.

Collection of Hamish Bowles, photograph by Kerry Komer.

P&C: Allow me to begin by reading you this quote from Francine du Plessix Gray's novel October Blood, which is overall an enteraining satire on Carmel Snow...

"In the center of the living room there sometimes sat Cristobal Balenciaga, Mother’s best friend in Paris, dolorously sipping chamomile tea. Infrequently exposed to clothes other than his own, he mostly came to curse at the vulgarity of the costumes being paraded in Mother’s suite. He was a thin, depressed, nomadic Spaniard with perennial dark glasses and some twelve houses spread over the map of Europe, all of which he hated. He would spend a few days at his hacienda in Seville and leave it, complaining of the noise, go to his chalet in Switzerland to cure his sinuses and sell it the following morning, complaining of the insects. His only passion besides his work was looking for antiques, and he could spend a month piling up Renaissance tables and Persian rugs to furnish a flat in Barcelona which he’d leave after a night because he disliked the Gaudi building across the street. He traveled everywhere with a long-haired dachshund called Zurbarán and carried in his pocket several immaculate linen handkerchiefs with which he wiped the dog’s bottom after each sidewalk performance. When he and my mother greeted each other every summer he would scrutinize her dress with a tragic air, hands on her shoulders, to be sure that she was wearing one of his originals, and then tug at different parts of her collar, sleeves, waistline to show that she was not wearing it properly.”

Is this an accurate description?

Hamish Bowles: (Laughs) Bettina Ballard does describe him as obsessed with antiqueing, piling up antique rugs... yes, that he was constantly working on apartments in Madrid, and then not being able to sleep there because of the noise… It is very true to say that he could not understand the clothes produced by his contemporaries. By extension, couldn’t understand why his friends & clients would choose to wear them.

There is a story in Bettina Ballard['s autobiography In My Fashion] – about an occasion where Balenciaga was accompanying Ballard to an event and she asked him to do up the back of her Dior dress, which had 30 buttons up the back… He kept muttering "Christian est complétement fou!"- "he's completely mad!" So, there are some very funny resonances. But he (Balenciaga) disdained from involving himself in the public side of the house, focusing on the technical, behind the scenes work & producing the clothes themselves… For special friends he would be involved in the fittings.

In fact, it was sort of a nightmare! He shared with Chanel this obsession with the way a sleeve was set. He would sort of torment his tailors – they would have to take sleeves in and out time & time again. Bettina Ballard has a funny story about this suit that she was having made, [it] was so battered & bruised by his constant thing, that she ended up wearing the perfectly made, line for line copy that was made by Ben Zuckerman – one of the very high end 7th Avenue copyists – she wore HIS suit, and Balenciaga never noticed.... He was a fastidious technician.

Cristobal Balenciaga circa 1952, copyright Bettmann/CORBIS images

From your description in the intro, it was more about how reclusive he was; I find that’s so common when you read about Yves Saint Laurent, or Chanel, - these people were sort of crotchety, and known for being in their own bubble of a world. Is that a factor for being a design genius in a way?

I don’t think so. I think a lot of Balenciaga’s contemporaries were extremely… they flourished in social situations. Jacques Fath gave endless parties, Dior even. I certainly think that Chanel in her day was extraordinarily social, and sort of a lynch-pin of a certain kind of artistic society in Paris in the old days. (I mean she did become sort of a crotchety old woman late in life,)… Saint Laurent had his own demons to contend with.

Balenciaga was naturally quite shy. He had an intimate circle of friends, mostly people he was involved with through his work. He just didn’t have time for a mundane life really, or the inclination for it. His great partner in life – D’Attainville, died in 1948, and Balenciaga became sort of increasingly retiring after that.  But I think his focus was just on his work, perfecting & honing his craft.

I loved what you said about how he would use his client’s physical quirks to develop a specific design detail…shortening the sleeves, doing a special collar. Today, when you see designers work on Project Runway for instance, they’re stumped when faced with a "real" body type. Do you think that that is something that can be learned, or did Balenciaga have a natural talent for it? Can you practice at that and learn how to design for your clients in a more specific way, using not the standard stick-figure model?

I think that Balenciaga’s whole apprenticeship and training was as a tailor and then as a dressmaker. In that capacity, his entire working life would have been one-on-one interactions with clients. Day-in, day-out he would be making clothes to fix specific body types, and you know for clients that would each have strong opinions about what their physical assets (and debits) were, and they would conspire together to enhance or minimize those as the case might be. That was his whole training.

When he opened his own couture house in Spain, he would go to Paris to buy the sample garments of the designers whom he admired, and he would bring those back to his couture establishments in San Sebastian and Barcelona and Madrid, and he would adapt those to the needs & demands of his clients. So I think that he’s constantly aware of different body types, and I think that in his collections he was careful to put in things that would suit, that would be adaptable to clients with different needs and looks and body types.

It’s a different world today. He was making – he was doing couture. Each garment that he made was made specifically for a client. So, it’s like made-to-measure.  In ready to wear, it’s not so easy to do that. And I think also body types have changed in a way, but it’s just a different craft; it’s bespoke and ready-to-wear and they’re just worlds apart.

Balenciaga, house photograph of evening ensemble.

Dress of black silk crepe with "chou" wrap of black silk gazar. Winter, 1967. Balenciaga archives.

What do you think about the end of couture? Do you think it will ever disappear? There’s a lot of fear about that today, I know that Chanel has been buying up a lot of the different craft houses like Lesage and opening the schools…Do you think that there will always be a couture market?

I think there will always be clients that want very special pieces and can afford to acquire them. I think that couture, like everything, will mutate. I think there are a lot of younger designers who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be couturiers per se, who’re certainly using couture techniques and maybe a couture approach in their work. And, I certainly think that, now more than ever there’s a real interest in embroidery and embellishment and the possibilities of pleating and all those kinds of techniques that are very very couture-based. I think there are lots of young people who are very keen to learn those crafts. It’s very striking to me, going into couture workrooms now, and going to Lesage and those great couture suppliers and seeing how many young people there are there that really want to learn those crafts, and that might not have been the case a decade or two ago. So that kind of gives one hope for the future.

And I think just the general kind of global engagement and fascination with fashion now that’s come thru the kind of television programs you’ve spoken to – and just the instantaneous dissemination of information through the internet I think has really widened the world of fashion and I think made people more intrigued by all kinds of different areas of fashion. I certainly think haute couture and special pieces are very much a part of that.

Balenciaga. Detail of cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung, black lace and black silk ribbons. Summer, 1966.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Eleanor Christiansen de Guigne Collection. Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

Even with the expense of those kind of details? I remember in the Valentino documentary where he was going through his archive and he found this beautiful piece that had been done by Lesage and he said “You’d have to sell the bank of Italy to make that now”! The expense of it is getting astronomical, it seems.

Yes, it is. But there will always be women who just want that special thing and can afford to pay for it. You know, it’s like a custom sports car, or a rich-person’s toy…or art. So, I think there’s always a place for it, yes.

It is of course a very costly thing to do. Despite the cost of these garments, it’s a major loss-leader for any house. I think there are new ways of doing embroidery. I think there are incredible embroideries coming out of India that will change some of the pricing levels of that particular craft. And China, and so on. There are all kinds of approaches. And the wonderful thing about fashion is that it constantly mutates and reinvents itself – that’s the point of it. I think an approach to couture is something that will change like that too.

With that in mind, I was thinking about what you said about how long the shows were for Balenciaga. There were 200 models and they would take about 2 hours. Whereas today, there’s a maximum (usually in ready-to-wear only) but a maximum of 35 – 40 looks, they’re on and off the runway in 15 or 20 minutes, and then the line gets edited further before it ever goes to market. So, what do you think about that? Is there room for these designers to create and develop given the constraints of the season?

You have to think that in a Balenciaga show like that he’s basically showing his collection, his pre-collection, he’s showing everything that would be today in a designer’s showroom. It would be the options for the buyers that exist in the showroom off the runway, but he’s just showing the entire collection.

It’s so funny watching the videos of some of those shows, which luckily exist from the 1960s – I think 1960 – 1968, because clients get up in the middle of a show. You know, they have a hair appointment or a lunch at the Plaza D’Athénée, they leave and then sometimes come back…you know, for evening dresses or something. Or they’re just there because they need a coat or something, so they don’t need to stay for the cocktail dresses. It’s really funny – they sort of come & go. But you know there was no music. It was very austere, certainly couldn’t take photographs, you couldn’t sketch. You could just write down the number of the dress the mannequin was holding in her hand.

Gruau for Balenciaga, 1949.

I was thinking about the sketching and fashion illustration…I’m a big fan of Gruau, and he did a lot of wonderful images of Balenciaga; I feel like fashion illustration is something you don’t really see any more. It’s still taught, and it’s something that people dabble in, but it’s not really the art form used the way it was 50 years ago - as a commercial art form. Everything is photography-based now. So do you think that could ever come back – the fashion illustration?

Ah…I think it’s unlikely myself. I think great fashion illustrators will emerge and hopefully their work will be showcased in an appropriate way. I think that in the 20s & 30s often a detailed line drawing was a much more exact and precise way of describing an outfit than a photograph that might have had indeterminate reproduction in a magazine. So, informationally it had a different weight. We just live in a different world. I love illustration, fashion illustration myself – I’m very excited to see it.

I come out of the luxury fashion world, and I wondered what you think of this new world of the corporate fashion of LVMH and PPR group, and would a brand like Balenciaga have survived that?

Well, Balenciaga always resisted any kind of licensing agreement. Where Dior, Balmain, Jacques Fath all had licensees in America doing sort of high-end American ready-to-wear lines, he refused ever to do that. He refused any kind of endorsement. But still, his business was run along remarkably sound lines, so he just didn’t feel the need to do it. So I can’t imagine that he would want to be involved in the kind of corporate structures that now exisit, but he certainly had a very keen business sense and his business was very very well run and very profitable.

He had a hard-scrabble background, he was very pragmatic in the way he set up his companies. You know, clearly careful and scrupulous with money, to where it managed the way his businesses were run. He had business partners early on. The histories of those relationships are not that well documented…

Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard", 1963

I was recently watching The Pink Panther, and I found out that Yves Saint Laurent did the costumes for the principal characters.

Only for Claudia Cardinale. I think Givenchy did Capucine, and Saint Laurent did Claudia Cardinale...

I was wondering if Balenciaga he had ever received movie offers? Because you’d think he would be ripe for partnering with Luis Bunuel, or …

He did the costumes for Arletty in a 40s movie called Boléro, and...a couple of his actress-clients wore his clothes in their movies rather than him actually costuming them. It just wasn’t something it seems to have interested him. It was something Dior and Balmain did, Jacques Fath did, Chanel did. I think he just wasn’t interested, really.

So, what film do you go back to over & over for inspiration that you find interesting each time?

The Leopard – I love The Leopard. As sort of fashion movies, I really like The Red Shoes – it has great costuming. L’Année Dernière à Marienbad… I could always watch The Women...

Do you have more film projects yourself coming up? I know you were in Marie Antoinette, and Gossip Girl most recently…

And Wall Street 2… I don’t have any plans, but it’s always fun to be asked.

Do you ever think about writing or directing?

That would be intriguing, yes. Both of those options would be intriguing, yes.

And what about Oscars? Do you watch them, at home, or do you go?

I certainly watched the Golden Globes, I was much engaged. I’ve never been no, but I enjoy watching them.

What about the Royal Wedding coming up in April? Any thoughts on Kate Middleton? Are you a fan…?

I think she’s played it all very well, indeed. She’s stayed inscrutable which is a great challenge this day and age.

Do you think she’ll go with the Emmanuel’s?

No. I can’t imagine she would want to associate herself that closely with her late future mother in law. You know, it will be interesting to see. I think she’s made very sensible choices so far. So it will be intriguing. I wait with breath baited.

As we close, what do you recommend for any kind of a young designer, or even a writer, who writes about fashion & culture and things like that…What’s a good way to develop your visual sense, or your aesthetic sense? What’s a good way to gain exposure?

I think it’s just sort of saturating yourself in what’s going on in contemporary culture and going to museums and art galleries, and going to the theatre if you can, and certainly going to the cinema. I think it’s just being open to all kinds of cultural influences and zeitgeist – that’s how the zeitgeist is created. So, just being sensitive to that.

Balenciaga. Suit of mustard yellow linen; Summer, 1950. Collection of Hamish Bowles.

Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

And what was your first exposure to Balenciaga?

My first exposure, well, I was aware of him, and then the first piece I bought for my collection I was about 11 or 12 I think, was an early 60s Balenciaga suit at a charity sale. And, at the same sale there was a bolero – it was for a ballet company. A bolero had been donated by Margot Fonteyn, the great prima ballerina, and it was auctioned and sold for 60 pounds which was far more; it was 120 weeks worth of pocket money – so I couldn’t afford that.

But, incredibly enough, about 5 or 6 years ago I went to a vintage store in Los Angeles and found the same – I found the jacket there, and it’s going to be in the exhibition. It’s a wonderful matador-inspired bolero and a detail of the embroidery is the dust-jacket for the catalog. So you’re going to see it in all its glory!

Balenciaga and Spainopens at the de Young museum on March 26th.

Derek Lam Talks Chicken...No, Really!

Derek Lam, image from Teen VogueDid you know that Derek Lam and I went to the same high school? Yes, it's true. A few years apart, but the same school. St. Ignatius College Preparatory launched both of us on paths of creativity, fame, and stardom. (Okay, clearly one more than the other, but you get it.) So when the St. Ignatius alumni magazine Genesis asked me to interview Derek Lam for an upcoming issue, you can imagine that I got a little starstruck at this idea. Like...would he even talk to me? Well, he did.

How did I do it? I emailed someone and asked very very very nicely, and kept following-up. You know that adage about the squeaky wheel? It works. But be sure to squeak very softly and sweetly. Then, a lovely PR person will email you with the message that you get 20 minutes TODAY at 5PM Eastern.

And that, boys and girls, is all there is to it. Like Conan O'Brien said: "If you work really really hard and you're kind to people, amazing things will happen." Actually, it probably came together because Derek Lam is just a genuinely sweet person, full of fun, ideas, a love of fashion, fashion people, and his hometown of San Francisco. I send a thousand thanks to everyone at Derek Lam, and my good friend Jill Lynch for thinking of the whole project in the first place!

Published here with permission from Genesis magazine.


Derek Lam Fall 2010, from Style.comPart of your development began in your grandparents’ garment factory here in San Francisco. Was it understood that you would enter the family business from the get-go, or did your family try to encourage you into other directions?

I was only about 5 – I was a child. So there was no opinion about that. I just liked the familial atmosphere of the place. I knew it was great to be in a place surrounded by relatives working together. It was very comforting.

So when did you really begin to learn about garment construction?

When I went to Parsons.

Did you go to Parsons right from SI?

I went to Boston College for a year and a half and then transferred to Parsons.

High school is usually a time best forgotten for most of us (myself included.) But, is there something about your years at SI that you think helped to shape who you are today? Was there an experience there that really helped to shape your creative side, or was there an activity you were a part of that helped move you in the design direction?

There were two classes. The first was what was then called “Social Studies” – about people, what makes them do what they do, culture, defining who you are, with analysis and history. The second were my art classes. I had one teacher – Ms. Wolf? – Yes, Katie Wolf, she’s still there. – She is? Wow that’s amazing. I loved her classes. The last time I came home, my Mom asked me if I wanted my SI yearbook and I started flipping through it; I was like “I remember this person, and this person…”

I also really loved my English classes. They gave me a great love of literature and writing, and all of that contributes to the arts. (Notice I didn’t say science?)

I enjoyed the experience there because while SI is very academically motivated, they’re very good about educating “the whole person”.

Tod's Shade Bag, designed by Derek Lam, image from BagSnobIf there are high school students at St. Ignatius, or anywhere, who are interested in fashion design, what suggestions do you have for them? Is there anything they can do at a young age to help cultivate their eye for design? Or anything they can do to get into the practice of design?

I’m not sure how you could cultivate it - I didn’t know what a fashion designer was at that age. I went to Parsons in New York City to study art. I had a curiosity about art and culture which then led me to fashion design.

Being in a place like San Francisco, there’s so much culture that gives people curiosity, the city reveals culture everywhere, which is all a part of art and design.

I know that film has inspired your collections in the past, such as In the Mood for Love in 2004, and Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud in the Fall of 2009. One of my efforts here in San Francisco is organizing a bi-monthly film screening called Style Cinema SF. We screen fashion films, or films that have some sort of a strong aesthetic. Do you have other favorite films that you return to again and again for inspiration?

Barry Lyndon – that’s amazing…The Shining…I love Chinatown. For me it’s about the cinematic quality, the story told with costume and atmosphere. I like to think of my collection as a movie with no parts. I want to create mood, desire, and fantasy - that same cinematic quality, and also prompt people to think “I can have that in my life as well.”

I also know that a lot of your collections are influenced by place; I wondered if you had a San Francisco collection cooking in your brain somewhere. And, what era of San Francisco history really speaks to you?

That’s an interesting question because my collection for Fall [2010] I called “The Myth of the West”. I was thinking about the people who settled in San Francisco, who created a European city in the wilderness of the West. They were from the East, bringing their culture, values, etc., and created the mythology of “The West”. Cowboys, gold mining – our western legends. It’s clearly not an eastern, pilgrim culture in that setting.

I know that you worked for Michael Kors for years and you both are the capital-S in American sportswear. How do you see sportswear responding to the times right now? Is there still a place for luxury in American sportswear?

That’s interesting because a lot of Europeans say “why do you call it “American Sportswear?” because to them sportswear is what we would call “activewear”. Sportswear is made up of items that are easy to mix, and yes, have a basis in sports. (Riding, hunting, etc.) When you explain that there’s suiting, sportswear, and evening, then the Europeans begin to understand what it is. For me, it’s the most valid point of view on how to dress. Ultimately it’s the consumer who makes it work for them – how they use it in their wardrobes.

How do you incorporate the luxury? Is it in a design detail, the material, the fabrication…?

Yes, all of those things. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate luxury into items. I love to incorporate hand-work into pieces. I love working with modern mills - those who make bonded, technical fabrics. But I also love working with the couture mills. For me, luxury is a new point of view with a taste of the past.

Derek Lam Fall 2010 from Style.comName one garment that you will never get tired of designing/interpreting.

Trench coats – I do a trench coat every season. They’re sexy, mysterious, and in New York, or I guess San Francisco too - you can throw on a coat and you’re dressed.

How do you define or compare the “Derek Lam girl” and the “Tod’s girl”? Are they the same person or is it a different personality, a different style?

Derek Lam is personal, it’s what I want to say – a dialogue with my customer. For Tod’s, it’s thinking about their brand. Tod’s is modern classic with Italian flare and a modern “pep”. I suppose the customer for both is looking for my signature. How is Derek interpreting something, what is perspective is Derek offering? (By the way, I’m saying this as one of my customers, I’m not talking about myself in the third person.) I design for both brands but filtered from within my own point of view.

Do you feel the pressure to create a popular “It” bag every season, such as a YSL Muse or Balenciaga Le Dix?

No…no, that’s a lot of marketing. Every season is a fresh start. I’m trying to determine what intrigues, what’s desirable to the customer. I think about what’s missing in their wardrobe. This is much more important than any commercial endeavor.

Plus, there’s really no science to it.

No there isn’t, or, that’s not my role. There probably is a science to it, but it’s someone in marketing who determines that.

Derek Lam & Vanessa Getty at Foreign Cinema, from 7x7I read in Women’s Wear Daily last fall that when you came to San Francisco for a visit, you asked your Mom to cook up some abalone with shitake mushrooms. What are some of your other favorite San Francisco flavors? Which places or neighborhoods do you always love to visit when you come here?

I ask my Mom for a “usual” home meal – whatever we would usually eat at home. So, while I really don’t have a specific request, I just leave it up to her. I love to visit the Ferry Building; I’ll go down there and have some oysters or just walk around. I love to see what’s going on down there.

The last time I came to San Francisco Vanessa Getty hosted a party for me at something Cinema?Foreign Cinema, yes, it’s one of my favorites.I had never been there and it was great. When I visit, I’m kind of like a tourist, rediscovering the city I grew up in. I also like the place that has California cuisine – up on Market Street and I can’t think of the name. Zuni?  Yes, the Zuni Café. They have the best chicken! Yes, the chicken with croutons? Yes! Their food is so good! It’s always my first lunch or first dinner when I arrive in San Francisco.

The next time you visit you should try NOPA – it was founded by some of the people from Zuni. What’s it called? NOPA – N O P A – their roast chicken is amazing too. Where is it? It’s at Hayes & Divisadero. Oh – it’s close to Zuni, sort of. Yes, Hayes Valley-ish. Their chicken is divine – I sort of embarrass myself I enjoy it so much. That’s how Zuni is for me!...