IRIS VAN HERPEN

Iris Van Herpen, Paris, France, 2017

At the intersection of science, art, heritage craft, and fashion lies a singular point, the inimitable and pioneering couturier, Iris Van Herpen. Known for seamlessly blending lazer-cut fabrics, 3-D printing technology, cutting edge fabrics, and haute couture hand-work, Van Herpen’s work is a summation of the old world and the new.

Photography by Maya Fuhr @ The Canvas Agency | Interview by Benjamin Price
All clothing (not including models’ own) Iris Van Herpen Couture

Untitled I, Paris France, 2017

Amid the canals and stone-paved streets of Amsterdam lies a haute couture atelier led by a woman who is equal parts scientist, architect, artist, dancer, and designer. Iris Van Herpen sits at the helm, diving deep into different multi-disciplinary worlds to push fashion design further into the future. She is known as one of the most innovative and pioneering fashion designers in the world. Through her experimentation with different materials and collaborations, Van Herpen has created fantastic, awe-inspiring pieces that have defied previous ideas of what fashion can be.

At first glance, Van Herpen’s iconic designs look like sinuous creatures from mysterious planets, chemical reactions, waterfalls frozen in time, and skins of unknown species – but in reality they are the results of copious research, experimentation, and countless hours of handwork. The fusion of technology and heritage craft work is what makes Van Herpen’s designs so unique. From the initial research stage to the fashion show presentations, every iota of information is explored and disseminated to produce magical worlds that hold a mirror to our own reality of climate change, space travel, and the global stage.

Iris sat down with me, thousands of miles away in her studio, speaking through a computer screen – our conversation punctuated by the atelier cat running across the keyboard. The studio team draped, melted, 3D printed, and slice through materials for the upcoming couture collection in the background. Here is our exclusive interview with Iris Van Herpen and Iris Covet Book.

Guadalupe, Paris, France, 2017

What does a typical day look like in the Iris Van Herpen studios?

It really depends on what we are working on… right now we are working on the new collection. There is a lot of experimenting and creating with new materials. I’m a bit in-between my own space where I do design work, guide the process, and give feedback to the team, then going to meetings with different collaborators for certain projects. The atelier is filled with people with fashion backgrounds and people from other disciplines.

I was going to ask if you have sculptors, plaster specialists, or mold-makers in studio. Traditional fashion labels have a lot of draping and patternmaking, but I was wondering if there are physicists and artists, etc…

I work with people outside of the fashion world a lot such as architects, scientists, or other artists. It is sort of spontaneous. I won’t have them here all the time; it’s a day here and a day there with different disciplines, and sometimes I will go to their studio.

In the past, what has been one of your most fruitful collaborations?

One that is very special to me is my work with Philip Beesley who is an architect and artist from Toronto, and I’ve been working with him for four or five years now. Our process has become very intertwined… like a friendship. He’s always exploring with his team, and we share a lot of the process and experimentation together. If I find a new material, then I’ll send it to him and the other way around. So, it’s really like a collective intelligence there, which is a nice way of sharing. On a much more personal level, I would say that my work with choreographer Benjamin Millepied was special because I come from a dance background. I found huge inspiration in the work he does and the way he works; it was very special to see our worlds coming together.

Looking at your designs, your earlier work specifically, it appears like there is conflict between movement and form. How does your understanding and love of movement and the materiality that you’re using work together?

Well, dance is where I learned how to transform my own body, but also how to use the space around me. In the early years, I was questioning not only how to design for the body, but also discovering the space around it and how it can be transformed. That was like principal research, which I’m still doing, but it became more sentimental along the way – maybe because dance is still part of my work, but it has grown bigger with art, architecture, and even scientific collaboration. I have just expanded my focus, and therefore become more reliant on the materials I use to express the relationship between body and space.

Henry (Film Strip), Paris, France, 2017

Henry, Paris, France, 2017

Speaking of materiality, there’s a material library here in New York City that has every new material that you can think of. Every time a new one is created they send it to the library to be catalogued. Do you use spaces like that to gain inspiration or do you have custom materials that you make?

In the first years of the studio, I would find materials and then use them in my own way. By now, the process is a little bit more personal and elaborative. Mostly we don’t use the material as it is. We either develop a new material, sometimes as the result of a collaboration, or we use existing materials that we then transform into new hybrids. So, a big part of the design process actually depends on the material design. We start developing the techniques and materials and I start draping – where in the beginning I would just shop for the right material and then drape. It’s evolved over time.

I want to now switch gears and talk about the conceptual inspiration of the collection. When you begin researching, what sparks your interest? Is it something small or something more meta such as an intangible theory?

Well, it can be both actually. I’m thinking of [the collection] “Micro” where we explored microscopic structures that I found inspiring. Everything around us, like my own body and materials surrounding me on a micro level. Then there are collections like “Magnetic Motion” which was inspired by the conversations I had with scientists about really big subjects like parallel universes and the whole perception of life, which was a lot more philosophical. Sometimes it’s simply in the material that is next to me, and sometimes it’s a super inspiring theory that changes my way of looking at life.

Growing up, were you very interested in studying nature and science?

Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in a very small little village next to the water. So, nature was really part of my youth; it shaped me. My parents stimulated my interest in the arts, so nature and art together were an integral part of my growing up. I think it’s important to understand, or at least appreciate, how the world works around you and the importance of nature.

How do you see your design reacting to global warming and these heightened more chaotic political spheres?

Well, I think there are two paths in my work: one of them is within the material and technique, and the other is looking at the materials as part of the process of sustainability, but it’s not something I want to communicate. Sustainability has become a PR tool, and I personally find that it is happening too much. For me, it is a natural focus because we want to move forward and still live on this planet in 20 years. I don’t think it should be the central message because it can easily become everything you do, and as an artist or fashion designer, I think a specific environmental issue isn’t a long-term vision. It’s part of the process, but the message that I want to communicate is much bigger than that. I believe that in the long term fashion will change slowly. The materials we use and the way we use them will become better and more sustainable. I hope to help a little bit there, but it’s not something I can do on my own.

Untitled II, Paris France, 2017

Do you think that fashion – because it is one of the top polluting industries in the world – will change in the future? How do you hope consumer relations will change?

I think a very big step in this would be that the whole system becomes more personal again and less globalized. The problem is that most things are made in bulk, and more than half of everything that is being made is not being bought. I believe that the future will be technology that will make the process more personal again because I think through technology there is more direct communication possible between customer and designer. If we go to smaller productions again, we can reduce half of the waste because we’ll start making what people actually need rather than making twice as much. Hopefully we can begin utilizing the materials that can be 100% reused again like with 3-D printing. These are the two big steps that need to be made, and it will take awhile.

Well, speaking of technique and new technology I think that a lot of the interest in your early work was your use of techniques like laser cutting and 3D printing which were not as normalized as they are now. How do you foresee these two worlds of technological futurism and craft heritage melding?

I see the diversity of new techniques and new tools as equal to my hands, and I would not use one over the other: it’s a hybrid between them. For me craftsmanship is as valuable and as important as the newer techniques that I work with. I noticed that by using various techniques we can actually improve the others. Sometimes we want to work on a piece that we simply cannot make by hand, and a 3D printer can inspire the process where we are actually able to make it by hand. So, it’s really interesting how the knowledge from one goes into the other, and I think in the beginning the processes were quite separated. I would work on 3D printed garment, and I would work on a handcrafted garment, but now we have blended the processes. In one dress there can be 3D printing, laser cutting, hand molding, and stitching all in one and no one is able to see the differences anymore; I think that is very beautiful. In the end it is not about the technique behind it anymore, but about the freedom to combine different techniques. I’m able to go into the absolute maximum of intricacy if I’m not limited by one technique because every technique has its possibilities and its limitations.

I think that the future is – I don’t want to say cyborgs – but humans and computer technology coming together to create. You can see that in your fashion shows, which have been very viscerally engaging and surreal. Where does that inspiration come from? Does it come from your concepts? What does this theatrical element add to the show?

It’s really part of my process. I try to translate the energy of the experimentation that I feel from the work into the collection. When I started working on Aeriform I had my collaborators performance in mind, and really working with the empty gravitational aspect of their work, and the way of working that conflict together. So, I work to make those elements the base of designing the garments, while keeping the whole performance alive. Some shows are very minimal in their setting because the inspiration comes from something physical like an artist or work of art, and I want to show people my process and concept. Sometimes the collection comes from a completely different world, and I let the collection be itself.

Chen Chen, Paris France, 2017

You have worked with Bjork, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Tilda Swinton; do you feel the context of your work changes with the visibility and the popularity of these artists?

Well, I guess it connects to different people. They are very specific identities. They all created their own worlds, their own system, and fan bases. The body itself is my source of integration, and these people bringing it into their own world and their own vision creates a new perspective of my work. I think it’s very important because I don’t want my work to be this very controlled and linear thing.

In reference to the “worlds” that you design into, do you often build worlds in your mind when designing?

Not really to be honest. My interest is in the here-and-now because the inspirations that’s translated into my work comes from architecture, art, or things that I see around me. To me, the world we live in is actually so fascinating and it has so many sides. So, I want to look at different perspectives. Some people think I’m inspired by science fiction, but I think the world we live in is magical. It’s really more like zooming in and zooming out – focused on where I am at this point.

Magical and terrifying all at once.

Yeah, yeah, it has everything in it.

In the past you have referenced your work as “New Couture”, what does that mean to you?

It’s a place where innovation is possible. It’s a place where craftsmanship is possible. To me, it’s a place that has real humanity and personality in the work, and it has its place in the digital age and in the digital transformation that we are going through. To me, it’s really about finding the relationship between the world we come from and the world we’re going to. We have to learn how to use all of these great tools in combination with our humanity. I think those tools can be used to create art and beauty, not just functional technology to make our lives quicker and easier.

That’s beautiful. I think that we are at crossroads of so much negativity in politics and in nature, but the world also has a lot of positivity and beauty. What do you want to say to the world as a designer, as an artist?

I think fashion is not only a form of art, but also a place of innovation and progress. I think it is important that we we start collaborating with science and art because all of these disciplines have to change. If we talk about sustainability and moving forward, design is needed everywhere, and I don’t think we’re making progress if we keep on only focusing on one method of thinking. I think disciplines have to cross over to create a collective intelligence to direct the sustainability of design. We’re never going do it on our own. I think that one of the bigger messages behind my work is that the power of collaboration will affect future change.

Francesca, Paris, France, 2017

Makeup by Jay Kwan | Special Thanks to Fanny Moal @ Karla Otto Paris
For more information visit irisvanherpen.com

CALVIN KLEIN

A legend, an icon, and an American champion of minimalism; Calvin Klein tells all to renowned writer George Wayne about his rise from growing up in the Bronx to becoming an international brand.


Interview by George Wayne | All Images Courtesy of KCD Worldwide and Rizzoli
© Steven Klein

He was born Calvin Richard Klein, a Hungarian-Jewish spawn out of the Bronx, New York in the 1940’s. This, the very same Calvin Klein, who was also the college dropout, after failing to graduate from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. And whose father owned a grocery store in Harlem and gave him that first $10,000 loan in 1968 to start his forever iconic fashion brand – Calvin Klein.

The fact that this All-American icon long sold his fashion business more than 14 years ago and no longer has any involvement with the brand Calvin Klein whatsoever is all in-consequential. For he still remains, to this day, that legendary force majeure! The real Calvin Klein remains that indispensable, and unequivocal – and undeniable master of our popular culture, and hence our zeitgeist!!

The debut of his coffee-table photo book CALVIN KLEIN this September will be an immediate collectible and the closest thing this notorious perfectionist and privacy obsessed legend will be willing to parse as a quasi-memoir or autobiography. As such it was very much a special and joyous moment for this particular arbiter to now be able to declare that the tête-à-tête that follows with Calvin Klein is a seminal moment. It was sheer master-class and brimming with CK revelations galore!

Calvin was breezy and open with the absolute funniest and most priceless anecdotes…and so without further ado…Here’s the man who has done it ALL, Calvin Klein.

Volume One, Rebellious, cover image of Kate Moss, 1993, ©David Sims ; Volume Two,

Calvin dearest. I suppose the first and most obvious query here would be WTF took so long?! I am sure this idea of a coffee table book legacy from the icon that is the real Calvin Klein has been germinating for decades. So why only now?

Well, I’ve thought about it on and off, as you said. Not for decades, but I thought about it after I sold the company and after I stopped contributing to the company, because I did that for a number of years. Then I took on projects that seemed to me more important at the time. I worked with the Harlem Village Academy. That’s a group of charter schools in Harlem. I did a lot of work giving them an image, setting up website, uniforms, doing all kinds of things, and that took a couple of years to do. I also was working on my New York apartment, which took four years to complete.

Right, right…

When I worked – I worked 24/7, and I was thrilled to do it because I loved the work. Quite frankly, doing this interview with you is exactly what I would have done if I was coming out with a new fragrance or a new product line, and it’s my way of communicating to people what we’ve created and why. And also, working with the most creative people I could find – photographers, art directors, models, stylists, to do something that explains what I was trying to communicate…the product, but also do it in a very creative, fun, exciting, and sometimes, often, provocative way.

There is no question that this new Calvin Klein coffee table book is destined to be an instant collectible! And it it so Calvin! The spare, white cover and the simple unassuming typeface. Was Calvin hands off with the design, and more importantly the images that made the final cut? Was it all left up to your longtime Creative Director Fabien Baron? We all know Calvin is the ultimate control freak so this is hardly the most profound question!

George, let me start from the beginning. Anna Wintour and Kelly Klein, my ex-wife, whom worked with me on the book a great deal, as she had worked with me on editing the original images that we did from the ‘70s on. They both convinced me I have to do this. The reason I felt I had to do it is because I speak a great deal at universities. Cambridge was one that I had a very good experience with this year, Oxford in the UK, I’ve spoken to the Architectural School at Harvard and the Business School at Harvard. I’ve touched on so many different areas from fashion design, to beauty products, to the world of jeans where we did so many different things, in addition to advertising and marketing, package design…and saying something through words, as well as visuals that would be exciting. What I realized, going to universities, is that the people I’m speaking to, they know the name. The name became world-renowned before the internet even existed, but they don’t always know exactly what I do because they weren’t born. I’m speaking to 20 year olds, and I’m also speaking to businessmen who want to be global. Which was another thing we managed to do before the internet! This book is really the story of my life.

And I love it!

I wrote introductions to each section and I ended with the section that has stories, which has photos, and why we did the photo, how it went, and all that influence it had on our pop culture.

What I really loved seeing were the gorgeous, sexy images of the younger Calvin Klein interspersed throughout the book. Because for this arbiter those images, to me, truly defined exactly what you were always trying to do with your campaigns throughout those many decades. Those images of you truly defined The Calvin Klein DNA. That summed it all for me.

Thank you. I spent over a year just going through 40,000 images in my archives. And then I narrowed it down to…I don’t know…500, 600 that I then sent to Fabian Baron and said, “These are the images that I feel are important to say what I want to say.” Fabien Baron is a genius that I’ve worked with for years. He said, “You know, I see the different side of Calvin.” He said, “There’s that minimalist side that runs throughout the collection. It is so pure, and sensual, and sexy, but in a very subtle way.” And then he said. “Then there’s the provocative and controversial side,” he said, “where we would do things like…it started with Brooke Shields, you know, ‘Nothing comes between me and my Calvin’s.’”

Hello! And that is where Calvin Klein as the agent provocateur all began! It was that legendary…did I say legendary and forever iconic campaign of yours With the prepubescent Brooke Shields and nothing coming between her and her Calvins. Recall those early days for GW…

The news media picked it up around the world. There was so much publicity over the fact that we provoke people and used a very young-looking Brooke Shields to portray different roles. A lot of people thought it was brilliant and funny, and other people were truly offended. I never set out to create controversy, I promise you.

© Mario Sorrenti, Natalia Vodianova, St. Barts, 2003

Unlike today when creating viral internet controversy to achieve fame and fortune is the typical modus operandi. Calvin – you did all this before there was YouTube! You, in fact, presaged all that and, in fact, set the template for what is now the norm here in the 21st Century!

I just wanted to do the best work I can do and make it exciting…and, yes, there is that side of me that loves to party – years ago during the Studio 54 years. There is that side of me that appeals to eroticism, but most importantly, is the side of me that’s more minimalist, because that comes through in my homes, in my selection of how I live – furniture – how I arrange flowers, for how I design clothes. That minimalist aesthetic was always really important, and from that, then I wanted to tell the story of what I was trying to say in designing these things, and that’s where the campaigns came in. That’s where my collaboration with Bruce Weber began.

Tell me about that. Tell me about that time, because Bruce Weber was so much a part of the pedigree and heritage of the house of Calvin Klein.

I always had this affection and passion for photography. It seemed normal to me that if I’m creating the product, whether it’s fragrance or fashion, that I would know who the right photographer is to communicate that message, who the model is and where the photoshoot should be done. I would be on the phone with Bruce Weber three, four, five times a day and we would be discussing every aspect of the upcoming shoot, but it always started from one question, and that was “what is the meaning of this product?” He would say, “Calvin, what are you trying to say?” And from that threw us into trying to do something new, exciting, and interesting. We pushed the envelope, for sure, but I didn’t set out to push the envelope. In fact, when you work with very creative people, it’s a natural process. I was always willing to take risks.

Well, that’s for sure! (Laughter). Calvin, you said in the introduction to the book… “I’m a non-conformist by nature.” How old were you as a kid in the Bronx and first realizing that you were nonconformist by nature?

I was born in the Bronx. It’s part of New York, of course. From the age of six, seven, I was drawing and sketching. My grandmother worked for a designer as a dressmaker. My mother knew how to draw and sketch, and she had a passion for clothes. There’s even a photograph in the book of my mother, father, and myself – and I’m wearing leggings…leather leggings with a tweed jacket or something! My mother…her life was about fashion, and a particular kind. That’s where I got this minimalist thing. She was very sophisticated and very tailored. In this photograph that’s in the book, she’s wearing a Persian lamb coat, she’s wearing pants, and flat shoes.

So you came from that?

And this was in the 1940s!

What I am saying, is that your basic style element came from growing up with two obvious ‘’Fashion Bessies’’– Calvin!. Every pun intended…it was clearly in your genes!

That’s very funny. The truth is now I can explain that to people because no one… When we did imaging or product development, you end up with what you end up with, and you hope people like it as much as I did, but they don’t know what the vision was. They don’t know where it came from, and my childhood. They don’t know the story of my life. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but we would always talk about what we were creating and what was new and different. Rather than…this is a boy who was influenced at a very early age by his grandmother and his mother.

‘’New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the most exciting city in the world,’’ you also say in the book…

Yes.

But what are your thoughts of the city that made you an international icon here and now in the 21st Century? For GW – Calvin Klein is the quintessential New York City icon!

I’m a true New Yorker. I was born in New York. I went to schools – at Art and Design High School, the Fashion Institute of Technology for college – everything that I did, I was influenced by my surroundings. New York, whether it was the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was such an exciting period. It was like Paris in the 1930s. Berlin was another city. New York had it, I think, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but New York still has it. It’s still a center, magnet for creativity. That’s, today, it’s no different. Often I’m asked if, with the internet and all the changes of technology, could I have done what I did today. I truly believe that I could, because those things are all tools to make you more creative and to reach out to the world more easily, but in the end it’s about the product, it’s about finding something that people didn’t know they needed, but they do. Once they see it, then they know they would like to have it. It’s the combination of everything that I enjoyed being a part of. There wasn’t anything that ever had my name on it that I didn’t see, approve, or change, or help create from the very beginning, the middle, and the end…always.

 © Bruce Weber, Tom Hintnaus, Santorini, 1982

Wow! Well said CK! I will tell you this…I will always remember the first time, as a boy growing up in Jamaica and seeing for the first time in my young life a copy of Gentleman’s Quarterly [GQ] and seeing one of my first Calvin Klein underwear campaigns and being immediately aroused! And not understanding what it all meant. This young fifteen-year old boy in the bush in the West Indies. That ad I will never forget and was so happy to see it in the book.

That’s Tom Hintnaus. Let me tell you how it happened. I was driving along Sunset Boulevard and all of a sudden I see this young guy running on Sunset Boulevard. I stop my car, I jump out, and I say, “Hello. My name is Calvin Klein.” I said, “I’m in the fashion business.” I said, “Have you ever modeled?” He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “No, I’m a triathlete.”

Pole vaulter…he did everything…swimmer, he was captain of the water polo team at Pepperdine. This guy was fantastic. I said, “I’m doing a shoot with Bruce Weber about a lot of new products that we’re doing. We’re going to do it in Greece, an island called Santorini.” I said, “Would you like to go?” He said, “Yeah, sure!” I, then, sent Bruce a picture a Tom. I said to Bruce, “I’m insane over this young man. He’s gorgeous and he’s an athlete…everything healthy, and he’s a good kid.” You could just tell. Fast forward…we’re in Santorini and we’re shooting Tom in our underwear which was really like the launch of the men’s underwear. Bruce places him against this architecture, a part of the house, that looked like a gigantic phallic symbol. Bruce and I look at each other, because we both knew what we had. Then, of course, he took the pictures. Those days the bus stop shelters had just started in New York. I get a call from the city because I placed hundreds of bus stop shelters. So the posters are placed behind glass and the city called and they said, “Mr. Klein, we want you to know your bus stop shelters are being broken. The people are breaking the glass and stealing the posters.” I said, “How much does that cost for each bus stop shelter?” They said, “Ooh, about $500.” I said, “It’s okay. Let them break whatever they want and we’ll pay for it!”

Calvin! This is genius anecdote that has never been told. GW will never forget this priceless anecdote! I looked through the book. Of course, I studied every image, and this image in particular is so timeless. And, so personal to my discovering and discerning and first grasping my own sexuality. It is all so Amazing!

Thank you George! It means so much to hear that coming from you and I mean that.

And then of course the era of Kate!

I’ll tell you the story of Kate Moss. I went to Paris to see some fashion shows because in New York, the Council of Fashion Designers, we were thinking of creating a venue where a lot of us could show in this one place. I wanted to see how it works in Paris. I was always looking for models and I was always finding new ones. Liz Tilberis, Anna Wintour and all the editors would call me, “Have you seen anyone? Who do you like?” When I went to Paris, I suddenly started to see young women, models, that I was working with that I thought were so special, but, in fact, they were doing every other show in Paris. I thought, “Well, if I were the buyer or the press, I wouldn’t be so excited about seeing them because you see them everywhere. Instead, I decided to find a different look. I didn’t want these girls – and then they were called supermodels – who had big bosoms. They augment their bodies. They used artificial implants and things. They were doing crazy things to their bodies. I found that offensive. I found it really unattractive, unhealthy, and a bad message to send. Let me tell you, the girls who had their boobs done – I couldn’t fit them into anything because they were sticking out in places that didn’t fit my design. I came up with this idea…this is that many years ago, in the early ‘80s? There was this French actress, Vanessa Paradis. I thought, “You know, she’s got a look that’s totally different than what I see out there. To me she’s a little androgynous. She’s got a boyish kind of figure, but there’s something so beautiful and so sensual about her.” It turned out she was working on a film; I couldn’t get her. I was discussing this with Patrick Demarchelier. A week or two after we talked about Vanessa Paradis and this body type that I was mad for, he calls me and he said, “Calvin,” he says, “I think someone just came into my studio that I think you should see.” He said, “I think this is what you’re looking for.” – Kate Moss. She comes to my studio and shows me photographs that Mario Sorrenti took of her, who was her boyfriend at the time. I was, at that time, trying to reinvent Obsession, the fragrance, because the sales were slipping, and the fragrance company said I have to do something. I said, “Do what?” They said, “Come up with a new idea.” I have to take it, I have to completely update it, and I looked at the photographs and I said, “You know,” I said, “I’d like to meet your boyfriend who took these pictures,” because to me they said “obsession”. He was obsessed, in a very good way, with her. Sure enough he comes up, I see him a day or two later, and he shows me more. These are supposed to be the personal pictures that no one is supposed to see, and they’re showing them to me. I said, “Have you done much with photography?” He said, “Nothing,” he says, “I’m not a photographer.” He said, “I never took a picture for anybody. I just took these of Kate.” I said, “Well, I tell you what,” I said, “We will show you what you need to know. I want you to go to an island with her and just photograph her and then film her. We will show you how to do a commercial for TV and print.” He related this story to me, which I had forgotten, about four or five weeks ago at dinner. He said, “You started my career.” He says, “I was never a photographer,” but I sensed something in him, and in the two of them. The advertising was fantastic. It was really hot. It was sexy. It was really kind of great, and the sales went through the roof after that.  

© Mario Sorrenti, Kate Moss, Jost Van Dyke, 1993

That truly defines – Obsession. Here he was – a young man in love with a young woman – and it so happens that certain new body type. You wanted to reinvent the wheel. You wanted to start to bring a whole new feeling to the model aesthete – you, ever the revolutionary visionary – flipped the script on the ‘’Glamazon’’ supermodel and took the world into a whole new direction! It is something you managed to do decade, after decade, after decade, Calvin! It is just amazing!

That’s also why I put an image…as I paginated the book… One of the things I said to Fabian is, “I’d like to show on one page, on the left side, maybe it’s from the 1970s, and on the right side of the page, it’s from 2000.” It’s to show that the vision was consistent, and yet it changed all the time. We always had to come up with new ideas, but there was the vision of mine – it’s what I saw, what I was able to see, and create through working with great photographer. Richard [Dick] Avedon…I had a blast working with Dick. My God, he was so much fun. I used to go to his studio every night…when we were doing the Brooke Shields’ “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins. ” campaign. When we did that that was the first controversial thing that I ever did. I didn’t think it would create any controversy. I thought it was fun, it was amusing. June Arbus, who was Diane Arbus’ daughter, wrote the copy. Every night I’d be up at Dick’s studio, and he was on the floor acting like Brooke Shields.

Lawd have mercy…! (Hysterical laughter)

I swear. Dick was Just like Brooke with the mimic speaking, and he was saying the words that Brooke would say. Then he would go through the gestures of his arms, his body. We had a blast!

Calvin this is beyond thunder-dome! I have not laughed this hard in a long, long time!

And then we did like ten commercials for the Eternity fragrance campaign. I said to the fragrance company, I said, “Look, we have to do 10, because I don’t care about the cost. You figure it out, but I need to do nine more in addition to the one we just did. They said okay. Honestly, they were afraid of me, because I had some difficulty with the fragrance company…it was the company I owned and then sold to a public company and took licensing royalties, but I did all the creation, all the product design, the scents, the advertising. I did everything except warehouse and distribution. But again, with the Brooke, when I started to show the campaign to people, they were laughing, they thought they were great, but we got thrown off the air within days. We didn’t set out to create controversy to get publicity, we just wanted to do something that was amusing, clever, and kind of sexy. But because she was so young and she was saying things like, “What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” meaning she’s not wearing any underwear. People went crazy. That was the beginning of me getting this reputation for being provocative and controversial, which I had to defend all those years, because people would think I set out to do that, but I never did.

But then, of course, after all that…all that early controversy from the get go. The question became…what will Calvin do next? How could Calvin Klein possibly top this?!

Always. Always. That was always the problem. But I looked at is as a challenge. The truth is it’s those challenges that excited me. My real obsession was perfectionism. That was my true obsession. I wanted everything that we did to be perfect. Well, rarely is anything perfect, and it’s just in one’s mind. I was always trying to make things better than the last thing we did, rather than sit back and say, “Isn’t it wonderful how well we’re doing, and we’re successful?” I never thought that way.

I will ALWAYS consider it’s one of the greatest moments of my life being asked to be in the first CK One TV commercials.

I know! I loved that!

Steven [Meisel] and Fabien [Baron] tossed GW into those commercials at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City with Kate Moss and Joe D’Alessandro and Lady Bunny—such a motley crew and totally unforgettable!

We had Alex [Gonzalez] and Raul [Martinez] working on it, too! What happened is I wanted Fabian, and Steven wanted Alex and Raul, so I said, “You know what?” I said, “Let’s take the whole bunch of them. I don’t care,” because the truth is I knew what I wanted and I needed them to help me facilitate it. Steven, and Alex and Raul presented this idea for the campaign. Which one we talking about…Eternity or CK One? CK One, yes?

Yeah, CK One.

They showed me an example of, at a rock concert, the mosh pit, and this girl wearing jeans in the mosh pit, and all of this and that. I was thinking, without being insulting, what do I say to them, because I did this 10 years ago with Bruce Weber and I wasn’t about to repeat it. I’m looking around the room – we were in Steven’s studio – really thinking of what do I say to these people? Sure enough, I focused on a couple of images on the wall that had a pink shag rug, knotty pine walls, and a young boy and a young girl in their underwear. Even though we were doing CK One, I looked at that and I said, “Mmm, this is, already, pushing the envelope, because it looks like porn.” I said to everyone, “You know, the mosh pits a great idea.” I said, “Congratulations.” But look at these two images on the wall.” I said, “What about putting cut-off jeans on the boy and putting a short little jean denim skirt on her, and maybe in her bra.” Steven looked at me and he said, “You would do that?” I said, “Yes!” That became the campaign that created a lot of controversy, especially the commercials. But I need to tell you the story with another CK One print campaign. You know the one with all the models lined up next to each other? I was working with Dick [Richard Avedon] also, at the same time. I went to Dick’s studio because we were working on something else and Dick started screaming at me; he said, “How could you! How could you let Steven Meisel copy, rip me off of what work that I did at the factory at Andy Warhol?” He said, “And you let it happen.” I said, “Why don’t you relax?” I said to him, “Relax.” I said, “You should be thrilled that he looks at you as this icon.” I said, “He’s imitating in his own way. He’s inspired by what you’ve done. It’s not really a copy,” I said, “but it’s an homage to you.” and Dick replied “No, I wanted the work. I should have gotten the work,” he said to me. He was a riot. I loved him.

It was epic! And I will always remember Kate Moss, who was always late, And kept us waiting on set for two hours over those three days before she would show up! But she got the job done.

That casting was brilliant. We had people casting all over the world. I would use people from model agencies once in a while, but, really, hardly ever.

© Patrick Demarchelier, Kristen McMenamy, 1993

Was marketing research and all that integral to your campaigns and product launches?

I would always create the product first. We would do market studies with fragrances, for instance, to see what was trending. Was it a sexy fragrance that was going to be the next big trend? Was it a romantic fragrance, like Eternity, which was floral? We did research especially in the world of fragrance, because there you’re selling an idea. You look at it – it’s just liquid, and a bottle – but the scent has to be what people will want. My role was to apply it to my life. If it was

Obsession, it was about me at Studio 54 being obsessed with partying and doing things that I shouldn’t have been doing. If it was Eternity, it became about life continuing on to children and grandchildren. No one sold perfume with children. It used to be, when I started in the fragrance world, a typical fragrance advertising would be a young, pretty thing, walking through fields meadows someplace by herself. I used to think, “I don’t know if that’s why people would buy fragrance, to walk by themselves in a field of daisies?” No. I said, “It has to do with attracting a man,” so I always did men and women in the advertising for all fragrances. The campaign, whether it’s been choosing the name of the fragrance, or choosing the photographer, or the model, it really came from me. Maybe I was given this gift when I was born, of knowing how to do these things. Often I would get an emotional reaction. When I edit film – and Bruce Weber shot more film than anyone, ever – I would edit thousands of pictures. In working with people like Bruce, what would happen as I’m editing, I get an emotional reaction. My heart would start beating faster.

That was the key – the emotional reaction?

Yes. Totally.

Of all the talent you’ve worked with, which of them will always have a special place in your heart, Calvin?

You know, no one’s ever asked me that before. Which one…it’s hard to say one person. I’ve worked with just really brilliant people…I mean, I worked with Irving Penn! Let me tell you, my discussions with Penn were most memorable because he was so tough and people were terrified of him. The magazine editors, the people who did the shoots, they were so nervous around him. I didn’t intimidate so easily. I found him to be just a brilliant, brilliant photographer and I took such joy in working with him and listening to him. He was an artist. He and I sat in my studio and I would go to introduce the first perfume we did and the cosmetics that went along with it, in this red Bakelite packaging. I showed him the product – the makeup container and all the different things we were doing – and it was all in a beautiful shade of red. He said to me, “These are really something.” He said, “No one uses Bakelite anymore. They use cheap plastic.” Bakelite was something from the ‘30s and ‘40s, but it had a quality to it. You felt it. You knew that there was something special about those packages. He, then, sat next to me and he started to draw. He drew what the ad would be. He was just genius, as was Dick Avedon, in his way…genius, and Bruce Weber, to this day is still brilliant. How does one say one is better than another? They’re all different, but they’re all great.

At the end of the day, Calvin worked with all the greats because he was great himself.There was, obviously, a time when anybody who was anyone wanted to work with you…

Oh, I didn’t ever think that way, or even was aware. I’m becoming more aware of this now that I’m talking to you and you’re asking me questions. It’s different now than it was, and I’m learning what people thought about me. When I was working on the book, I thought, “Is anyone going to really be interested in this, other than Kelly [Klein] and Anna Wintour?” I didn’t know. I always tell students this, “If you’re insecure, act as if you’re very confident, because you’re never going to get anywhere if you show insecurity.” We all feel insecure. That’s a normal human emotion, but you have to convince people of what you believe in and chances are if you believe in something, it’s probably a good thing. You just have to convince others through your own confidence. I was just lucky with so many things, that I instinctively knew what model, what photographer.

You hit the nail on the head right there, Calvin – instinct. The gut instinct that you possess.

You’re right. It is gut instinct. That’s exactly what it is.

And it is still has no equal! It is one of a kind. That’s deft instinctual touch to titillate popular culture is just the most incredible gift! It is something that you have to be born with. It is something that’s part of your core, and it served you well…very, very well!

Oh, my God. George, that is so sweet. That’s so adorable. You made my day! (Laughter)

(Laughter) And you have made mine Calvin Klein! Thank you!  

Thank you George! This was so nice, I really enjoyed it!

© Peter Lindbergh – Courtesy of Peter Lindberg, Paris /Gagosian Gallery

George Wayne is an Associate Editor at Interview and the first Contributing Editor at Allure magazine, George is best known for his GW Q&A’s, which twenty-two years later remain the must-read column in Vanity Fair. His beat remains celebrity culture and the whirly world of fashion, music and style.  ‡

DAO-YI CHOW AND MAXWELL OSBORNE OF PUBLIC SCHOOL NYC

Born and bred purveyors of New York cool, Public School are surpassing their own successes by delivering their signature synergy of street and substance to their women’s collections.

Photography by Bon Duke | Styling by Kate Carnegie | Featuring Models Ana Christina @ New York Models, Sahara Lin @ Elite Models, Jordan Legessa @ Heroes | Interview by Alan Bindler
All Clothing by Public School NYC

Luxury Streetwear. To an outsider, it can seem an oxymoron of sorts. The history of streetwear is long and storied, the specifics of which are hotly debated in the comments sections of 21st century cultural hubs like Complex and Hypebeast. Born out of surf and skate culture of the late 1970s and infused with urban wear aesthetics of the 1990s, luxury streetwear combines these influences with the timeless quality and craftsmanship one would expect from European maisons. Founded in 2008 and relaunched in 2012, Public School has been evolving the genre to great accolades for nearly a decade, defining what is cool and coveted by a rising generation of luxury consumers. Originally a men’s label, designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne launched their women’s line in Fall 2014, marking a seamless transition for the go-to brand of born-and-bred New York cool. 2017 is a benchmark year for Public School, with the volume of their women’s business about to surpass the men’s. Here, Iris Covet Book chats with the duo about designing for women, why luxury streetwear is so relevant now, and the new definition of luxury.

I understand that this year the women’s business is surpassing the men’s business. Do you think that’s going to affect how you show the brand in the future and the overall brand story?

Maxwell Osborne: I think in the longer term, for us, yeah, women’s business is growing and it has turned into a bigger business than our men’s business, which we kind of knew would happen going into it, and I think we just change with the times and really figure out what’s best with us in terms of how you show and release products. And I think that’s also just a sign of where we are in general in the marketplace and how women and men shop, and how our retailers buy the products. So it’s not surprising that our women’s business is bigger than our men’s business. I think we’ll always be known as a menswear brand first and foremost, but it’s actually also refreshing to have the women’s business grow at the pace it’s been growing.

Can you speak a little bit more about this and your vision for who your female customer is?

MO: Actually, it’s evolving. Our women’s business is still so new, so we’re still learning more information about our Public School Girl. We’re finding out now it’s actually Public School Women as well. They blend, and now we’re learning that Public School is not just a girl line, it’s also a woman’s line, maybe even more so than we thought. So we’re continually learning about our own brand through the people that wear it and buy it. Right now our lines have been blurred in terms of who the girl is. It’s really just this girl who’s transformed into a woman. It’s great to watch.

That’s exciting. It’s almost as if your customer is growing with you.

MO: Yeah, basically. They’re maturing with us, for sure. Do you have any specific muses? MO: I think we have a lot of different ideas of who this woman is – there’s not just one specific girl, but it’s the girl on the go, the girl who lives in a metropolitan city, who knows what’s up and goes from work to drinks, or work to dinner to an art gallery to a party and never really has to change. She’s comfortable in her own skin. Obviously all very cliché, but that’s exactly who we design for in terms of being a New Yorker or being in Tokyo or another big city. Just a girl that’s on the move and very comfortable in what she does. She’s not just one girl. It’s the girl of many faces.

What are some things you find yourself thinking about when you’re designing for women that you didn’t think about when you were designing exclusively for men?

MO: The idea of ease and femininity is something that we never really thought about for men. We’ve kind of softened that up because a lot of women just want to be feminine. And it’s like, what’s the reason you’re buying a Public School women’s dress? We’re not floral and ruffles all the time. We’re different than that. So what’s our take on that? I think that’s the challenge we always have. A good challenge in designing for women, for our customers, is what’s that line of femininity which also makes it very Public School. So we’re always challenging ourselves and figuring out that piece.

In today’s market, department stores, even luxury ones, are full of sale racks. When you go to an industry trade show, it’s a sea of booths for small labels that no one may ever hear of; It can be kind of easy to get discouraged from a designer’s perspective. Do you ever feel that? That there’s just so much out there, and how do you find that voice?

MO: Yeah, we do feel like that. To be a designer and also be conscious of what’s going on, and knowing that nobody really needs to produce another piece of clothing in this world because we have enough to survive. But at the same time you can’t say that because it’s what you do and it’s what you love. It’s refreshing when you see a brand that has a clear voice and understanding of who they are, as opposed to a bunch of brands that are just doing the same thing and fighting for the same thing. I think that gets a little frustrating. Not discouraging, but more frustrating. As an artist, you want to see other people get excited and inspired. It’s exciting when you see a brand that has its own voice, its own creativity, and its own lane.

Public School is a luxury brand, influenced by a streetwear aesthetic. Some would call that ironic, as there are certain socioeconomic factors that come into play there. Also, when a brand is streetwear influenced, there’s a certain authenticity and exclusivity that contributes to the price point, as well as the quality. How do you balance that, and do you have any thoughts on the irony of having to appeal to a “cool” consumer, but also a consumer that can spend a certain amount of money on products of this quality?

MO: The quality and fabrication help dictate those prices, so showing a baseball cap, but in a different fabric, automatically takes it to a designer price because you used designer fabric. We’ve always tried to blend what we love, like the streets and the highs and the lows — for sure. That’s what we always want to do. We just try to blend those pieces in and own our lane. It’s not just street, it’s not just high fashion or designer. It’s just a mosh pit of it all, all in one. And look at the market place – I’m trying to think of any street brands that are like, really street, but offer high-end pricing without the quality matching. Usually it’s just inspired by the street but still very much luxury. You can say that for Vetements, especially; these ideas of street pieces but done in a not-so-street way. It’s not just a basic French terry, there’s always more elements to it, so it makes sense to me, it warrants that. I don’t think of it as streetwear at luxury pricing for no reason. There is a reason for it.

Dao-Yi Chow: There’s perceived value and there’s inherent value. From a streetwear standpoint, I think brands that have been able to take the perceived value, and take the product up to a luxury price point, I think that’s been the magic or allure of what those brands do. But what we do, it’s inherent value; from the fabrications, from where we’re making the clothes, from the trim that we’re developing… there’s tangible reasons why the things cost what they do. I think that there’s a distinction between those two. You have brands or designers who are able to charge more money for goods and position it from a luxury standpoint based on a perceived value, and whether the actual clothes do or do not merit the price points – it’s not my place to say. For the most part, we try to price everything based on what they cost us.

Luxury and designer clothing used to be reserved for a certain segment of the population, and obviously from an economic standpoint it still is, but this explosion, for lack of a better word, of luxury streetwear, what is that telling us about society? How is that a reflection of the changing face of the luxury consumer?

DC: I think it’s sort of a breakdown of barriers, judgement, and people – streetwear is streetwear because it’s what’s happening now. That’s what streetwear has been – what is happening on the street right now. How do we address it, and how do we take that messaging culturally and turn that into something you wear on your body? And so I think that there’s a breakdown of what people think is important now. What used to be important is no longer important, and so in a lot of ways the barriers are down and people can just sort of be who they are and not feel like they have to pretend.

So there’s not a specific mold for the luxury consumer anymore?

DC: Yeah, I think that’s also from a consumer standpoint, that people are not like, “oh, it’s from this European house and it costs $2,000 and that means that it’s luxury.” Luxury has opened up. The definition of what luxury is has broadened.

There’s a lot of conversation now in fashion press with regards to sustainability and technology. Beyond recycled textiles, what’s the future of fashion as you guys see it with regards to these topics? How do you see the industry evolving, and how are you addressing it in your own work?

DC: The fashion industry in general needs to figure out how to affect its carbon imprint on the world. We were actually in Copenhagen at a summit on fashion sustainability. So for us, it needs to start with being responsible, and not just being responsible in the things we do and create but being responsible for what we imagine, think about, and ideate. Nothing is being created without the thought or the intent, so the intent needs to come from a sustainable place, and we try to work with as few factories as possible. We try to have visibility and clarity on where the products that we’re using are coming from, but ultimately we are not 100% guaranteed. We’re also in a business that makes things we really don’t need. That’s tough to say as a designer, as a person who has a career in fashion. What we do is not very sustainable at all. I think we’re trying to think about it more and affect it in ways where we’re looking at the life cycles of garments that we create and the materials they come from. In a couple of upcoming collaborations, that is sort of the main idea and the main rallying point that we’re trying to get behind. So I think in general, our thought process needs to be sustainable, the ideas need to be sustainable, and then subsequently what we produce and create off of those ideas will be more sustainable. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t say that we are torch bearers.

Speaking of collaborations, you’ve collaborated with a wide array of brands including Tumi, J. Crew, Oliver Peoples, Fitbit, Jordan – could you explain how collaborations really work and why you’re so drawn to doing them?

MO: You know, collaborations are obviously the meeting point in the middle of the two brands. Each brand shares in the other’s aesthetic, but for us when we do these collaborations we’re really just working with the best in what they do that actually fit our lifestyle outside of what we do. So, to work with Tumi, it’s easy because we travel so much, designing luggage was easy for us. It’s like, what do we want from our luggage? And we obviously pick and choose which ones are best for us and the brand. We grew up wearing Jordans. We travel all the time. I wear glasses all the time. So it comes from a true place. It’s not like we’re pulling them out of a hat just to do them. It’s actually coming from things that we’re going to use, and that’s how we design it. It’s how we’re going to use it. We’re not doing it for anybody else, really.

You have a collaboration with Moët that’s coming out also. Can you tell me a little bit more about that.

MO: We’re going to be drinking a lot. (laughs) I guess that’s a start, right? There’s the reason for that one.

DC: Moët is sort of a culmination of this idea of celebration for us, having moments to be able to celebrate and share with other people. And that process actually was really cool because we were able to travel out to Epernay where the wine and the champagne are made. And how the Maison treats it as such an artform. It was eye-opening to see that entire process and see how important that process is to the brand. That was one of the perks of being able to collab with a brand like Moët, which has hundreds and hundreds of years of experience and history.

You’ve been outspoken with regards to your support of Black Lives Matter, and your Fall runway show included caps printed with the slogan “Make America New York.” How important are political movements to fashion, both as an industry and also in direct relation to the clothes that we wear? And does one sort of inform the other?

MO: What’s going on in the current climate of the world is very much where we draw inspiration from. What’s going on right now is what we’re thinking about when designing those collections. We are aware of whatever is going on in the world, in our culture and that’s what we try to put on the runway. So, if it’s about politics then it’s about politics. Black Lives Matter, for me, was the moment when I was just really frustrated. I definitely could have been way more outspoken. It’s cool to have a voice and for it to be listened to for a second. For the runway when we did “Make America New York”– what’s great about New York is that it’s a city that is a melting pot and you can’t hide that fact.

You have a call to action that you label WNL, which has multiple meanings; Where New York Lives, We Need Leaders… Can you explain a little bit more about this?

MO: WNL just sort of started out as an internal mantra, and when we say call to action it’s not really a call to action to anyone else other than ourselves. Originally, it was just highlighting and focusing on friends of ours who we felt were leaders in their particular industry, from a creative standpoint. It’s slowly morphed into more than just a platform where, especially now in this climate, we can express and demonstrate whatever our feelings of activism are and align with other groups and organizations who feel similarly. It’s not meant to be a preachy thing at all and hopefully it doesn’t come off that way. But it’s a reminder to ourselves that we need to do something bigger than clothes or making money. I think it’s a helpful reminder for us to be able to focus on our career, while simultaneously focusing on helping each other or helping people who don’t have as much, or helping people to give a voice to those who might not have one.

And is there any specific charity or philanthropic initiative that you guys are currently working on or actively working on with Public School, as far as that’s concerned?

DC: We work with several organizations. There’s an organization that I’m a board member of that’s called Apex for Youth. It’s the largest Asian American mentoring program here in the states that provides mentorship and college preparation for children of all ethnicities, but focused on Asian Americans that live below the poverty line. We also work with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and we are planning to partner with the ACLU. We donated the proceeds from the sales of our runway show hats to the ACLU. We’re trying to stay active.

   For more information about Public School, please visit PublicSchoolNYC.com – Makeup/Grooming by Laura Stiassni using Sisley @The Wall Group, Hair by Lizzie Arneson @ BRIDGE using Oribe. Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Photographer’s 1st Assistant Mariah Postlethwaite, 2nd Assistant Tom McKiver, Photo Intern Jeremy Hall, BTS DP/Digital Manager Casey Showalter, Senior Digital Tech Nick Korompilas, Production by XTheStudio. Special Thanks to Pier59 Studios.

LEE DANIELS

Star of His Own Empire: Behind the scenes, Lee Daniels is protagonist of his own story and reinventing the Great American Musical along the way.

Photography by Diego Uchitel @ Jones Management | Styling by Rafael Linares @ Art Department | Interview by Alan Bindler

Suit and Shirt by Ron Tomson

West Side Story. Hair. Rent. Hamilton. Musicals have always reflected the times we live in. Passing on specific narratives as told by the people who have lived them is crucial to a society’s fabric, an entertaining amalgam of “real facts,” song and dance that often packs more truth than a public school history textbook. In this current Golden Age of Television, various portrayals of our society are being played out on screen to dizzying and oftentimes brutally honest effect. No one is synergizing these two factors better than Lee Daniels – the Academy Award nominated director and producer of Precious, Monster’s Ball, and The Paperboy, amongst others.

Empire, now in it’s fourth season and Star, in its second, are the hit television shows written and created by Daniels to confront the same topics splashed across newspaper headlines daily – sexual assault, racism, class divide – and are revolutionizing the industry with their interweaving of original music, fashion, and celebrity; using these as a backdrop to the gritty storylines that are holding a mirror up to the changing demographics of America.

Born in Philadelphia, his grandmother was a huge influence. In previous interviews, he has fondly described her as “a crooked politician“ and “gangster” who helped get the African- American community to vote at local levels in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. After the death of Daniels’ father, a policeman who beat him for being gay, his mother sent him to an upscale, white suburban high school, knowing he “couldn’t survive selling drugs.” A fund assembled by the Philadelphia police force had provided him with enough money for his first year and a half of college, and as an act of filial piety, Daniels found himself a girlfriend. The money ran out, and not wanting him to turn to the streets, she gave him seven dollars and a bus ticket to LA.

Living in the back of a church, he started working with the theatre program there to earn his keep. At the same time, he got a job as the receptionist for a nursing agency, a fact he attributed to using the “white voice” he learned in high school. Soon after, he went out on his own, founding his own agency and taking some of the nurses with him. At the height of the AIDS crisis, when other agencies were too scared to allow their nurses to work with HIV+ patients, Daniels’ became the first agency under AIDS Project LA. It made him a lot of money. That, united with a chance encounter with a connected Hollywood client, lead Daniels to sell his agency for “a couple of million.” His career in entertainment was born, starting with a PA job on the set of Prince’s Purple Rain and later moving up the ladder to Head of Minority Talent for Warner Bros.

Casting directing lead to managing, but when he got “tired of telling [African- American] actors that there weren’t any jobs for them,” Daniels transitioned into producing, hustling up the money to make Monster’s Ball, which garnered Halle Berry her history-making Best Actress Academy Award. Mining his own captivating life story, the goal in his work is to give the voiceless a voice, and to make viewers look at people that they normally wouldn’t.

“I’ll give you and feed you a political agenda, but with music, or with a sexy girl or a sexy boy or with some fashion. You will find yourself drawn and sucked into my world regardless of how you feel about me, through what you’re seeing and the audacity of it. Audacious is what it is that I try to be. Not shocking, but just showing shit to people that they don’t always get a chance to see, that other people are afraid to show…”, Daniels says. He is a truth teller, shit-talker, and skilled auteur, telling intimate stories that haven’t received such wide exposure until now.

Passionate as he is in bringing personal narratives to the screen, Daniels is also involved in several charities and nonprofit organizations. His work with the African American AIDS Institute (which is in danger of losing their funding) is a direct result of having lost most of his friends to the epidemic. “That I don’t have [HIV] is a miracle from God and I don’t know how I didn’t get it or haven’t gotten it… and I know that my work as an artist, my obligation isn’t just to my art and my craft but to my people,” he tells me candidly. This humility is also summoned when discussing his work with The Ghetto Film School, an award winning nonprofit that helps young filmmakers, which Daniels helped co-found with David O. Russell. They both still sit on the Board of Directors. “Because I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have the luxury… I learned how to hold a camera by watching people as I produced films. To me this is not my gift. I don’t own it. I don’t own my art. My art is to pass on. My job in life is to pass it on to someone that will be far more talented than I. And so for me, the Ghetto Film School represents who it is that I am and what I have to do. It is my obligation to pass whatever gift that God has given me to others who haven’t been fortunate enough (to be able to) afford to go to film school.”

Speaking to him over the phone while he was in France for the Cannes Lions festival, I sense two things: one, that Mr. Daniels is extremely candid, as much so as his work; and two, that what Mr. Daniels doesn’t say is as important as what he does. He’s warm and spirited, with our conversation splitting off into tangents as numerous as his subplots. Here, we discuss embracing the grey areas of life, mortality, binge-watching… and a possible John Waters collaboration? With Lee Daniels, the element of surprise is as guaranteed as the controversy he brings to the screen.

There are times when I’m watching Star, specifically when they break into fantasy sequence musical numbers, that I really feel like I’m watching the 21st century incarnation of “The Great American Musical” … and yet this is about a very specific demographic. I pose this question in relation with a recent comment you made about wanting to be referred to as a “director” instead of a “Black director”, or a “creator” instead of a “Black creator”. Could you speak on how coming from a place of personal authenticity can translate to all people being able to relate, on a mass scale?

Yeah… it’s crazy… and this is what’s really frightening… It’s not the overt racists, that clearly one can see is racist, or clearly one can see is a gay basher… people with white masks, or people that don’t have a problem calling someone a nigger or a faggot… I’d rather see that, than those who truly don’t understand that they’re racist or homophobic. Those who really believe that they’re liberal and embracing of “the other,” and yet still take offense to my work. And ones that are in power that don’t see the problem. So for me, I’m the first to call someone out on that. That type there is the one that is scary, and I get in trouble with those people.

So in a way it’s almost as if your work is holding up a mirror to those that think they’re “woke…”

Yeah, because a lot of them ain’t woke!

You’re known for telling stories, and for giving a voice to controversial topics that haven’t been shared on the scale in which you’re sharing them. Do you ever feel you’re not giving enough time to one topic because there’s more emphasis placed on another?

Oh my God, I always feel like I’m rushing through a story, and I’m not giving enough time to a topic. There are so many subjects and atrocities to cover in America, and in our culture today. In film I can do it, in television I can’t. With Empire, it’s clearly about the kids in the empire. With Star, it’s about three girls struggling; but in the backdrop of that, we’re trying to tell stories that are politically important. That are important to what Americans need to see. Social topics are important. It’s hard to weave everything in.

How many other voices, particularly voices with power, and how many other opinions affect which stories you give priority to?

They sort of let me do my thing now. Which is the reason why I got into television from the very beginning. Danny Strong and I did Empire together and we had a very strong political agenda that was served. With Star I have a political agenda as well. When I am making the network uncomfortable, I know I’m doing my job. When Cookie descended from a cage in a gorilla suit from Central Park in the second season, beating her chest, and she rips off her outfit, and it’s Cookie dressed in Gucci couture and diamonds, saying that she felt like an animal in a cage because that’s how they’re treating us. The network freaked out! But that’s what I was feeling at the moment. I felt like my son, Taraji’s son, Terrence’s son, they were all Black men that were being targeted by the law at that time, so I wrote about it; I felt like we were all people in cages. But guess what? When she pulled off that gorilla suit, homegirl was in Gucci, head to toe, bejeweled in diamonds! I still laugh about Taraji screaming about getting into that monkey suit! But she did it because there’s no actor like her.

On that same subject, there’s a line in an episode of Star, the one with the Black Lives Matter protest, where Queen Latifah’s character says “You win by speaking the truth.” Your narrative, the specific narratives of the stories you tell are your truth. However, at a certain point that a creative achieves a certain level of fame – becomes mainstream, if you will – their narrative and their perspective sort of become “the narrative.” Are you worried about that at all with your work?

It’s terrifying because I didn’t realize that… you don’t know that you’re famous until you say something and it is completely taken out of context, and your kids are coming up to you and saying “why are they saying this ?”. And then there’s negative feedback from your own people. That’s really painful because you then realize you have an obligation to be politically correct in your agenda. And I’m not politically correct AT ALL. It can get me in trouble with my own people sometimes. And that’s inclusive of gays, I can get in trouble with the gay situation, I can get in trouble with the black situation, and you know… I’m sort of a loose cannon in that regard. It can get me sued. I’ve learned over the years to edit myself. And I don’t like editing myself. I’ve learned that some people just can’t handle too much of the truth. So I can only give them a little bit of the truth at a time. You’ve received criticism of topics you cover being “too left leaning” “too gay” etc… and these come from both sides of political and racial divides, different communities… Because I’m not going to sugarcoat a topic. I’m going to tell the truth from my perspective. Racism is not black or white. Homophobia is not black or white. There are grey areas that are there. Unless you take a specific stand on it that is pro or con, you get eggs thrown at you. So I’m very clear that there is a grey area. Because I embrace that grey area, I am criticized. I’ve learned to accept that, and it is what it is. There’s this one quote in which you reference your grandmother. You said you learned from her that “people aren’t good or bad, we all try to wake up in the morning to be the best person that we can be but we end up falling on our asses. No one is perfect. So my work has really been that grey area that we all are — that murky area that we all live in.

Is there anything else about that grey area that you can speak on?

Yeah (long pause). I know what I can talk about. I can talk about the grey area of parenting. I have two 21-year old kids, and oftentimes I feel like I have let them down as a parent. I’m constantly reminded that there’s no such thing as a great parent. You can only be the best parent that you can be. You see kids today, and this represents the millennial, and there’s a sense of entitlement that comes to these kids. Like “you owe me, give me, I’m here to take.” And there’s no work ethic there. I have wanted everything for my children that I did not have. And then you realize “Oh my god what have I done? I’ve created monsters,” not monsters but you know, like, entitled kids that are used to certain things. How will they be able to survive in the streets if I were to die tomorrow, you know, how will they survive? Not from a monetary standpoint, but how will they have the skillset to interact with people? So, now I find that I have to reteach things. My son didn’t know about racism at all until very recently. I had protected him from that by putting him in the schools that he went to. So now he sees it and he’s looking at me like, “why didn’t you talk to me about this?” Again, it goes into the grey area of life. I know that I’m not perfect but striving for perfection.

You’ve mentioned that before – how you have raised your own kids in this bubble where they had not known what it was like as far as what the real world had to bring; do you think that sort of affected how you tell stories, and if you were to make another Precious, now that your kids are older, how does that affect how you dive into these tough topics?

The most potent storytelling comes from a place of where I’m at right now in the moment. Empire came at a place where I was in that moment. It was important for me to tell that story because I needed to tell my family’s story at that moment. Star came at a time when I had to tell that story, and I’m still telling that story because I’m in that moment now. I’m not the guy that I was when I shot Precious. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I also have to tell a story that is important to me. It’s not going to resonate as true unless it’s in me right now. I’m in another part of my life where I’m realizing that mortality is real and that my next breath is not promised. So that area of storytelling is important to me because that’s how I’m feeling right now. Mortality, and telling stories about what have I contributed, what is my contribution, what have I laid out, what have I given back to the world in some way? That’s where I’m at right now.

Trench Coat by Saint Laurent, Shirt and Jeans by Gucci, Sunglasses by Tom Ford

Speaking of mortality, you’re directing a new version of Terms of Endearment; you recently revealed that your remake of Terms of Endearment would deal with the intersectional issues of race and sexuality, specifically that Flap would contract HIV through homosexual sex and infect his wife. In response, critics and fans alike are saying things like “Wait, don’t mess with this classic” and “Far more people died of cancer than HIV!” Why do you think people have reacted this way?

People can say whatever they’d like to say. I say, BYE, haters! I have a story to tell. See y’all in the theaters! I don’t have time for people’s opinions. If I go with people’s opinions, then I’m not making Monster’s Ball, and I’m not making Precious, and I’m not making The Butler, and I’m not making Empire, and I’m not making Star, I’m doing what people want me to do. So, BYE people! I’ll see you in the theaters. And then they go see the movie and are like, (mockingly) “Oh, ok I get it.” …NEXT!

So basically you’re saying “Wait for it to come out, then come at me…”

Then come at me with all of your armor and spears… and you will anyway, so whatever.

In an interview with Elvis Duran, your protegé and an amazing actor, Gabourey Sidibe said what I think is going to be one of the most iconic quotes of her career. Speaking on the topic of self-confidence, she said that self-confidence is something that she has to remember to reapply to herself during the day, like lipstick. Could you speak to that a little bit? You’re a very confident guy…

I am not confident. It’s all a facade. It’s masked. As hard as I try to go for the truth in everything that I do, the only thing that’s untruthful about me, which is fascinating, is my confidence. My confidence is forced. And it’s exactly what Gabourey Sidibe says. That I have to constantly remind myself that I am worthy of being on this phone with you talking about ME. Because I don’t think that I… deep down somewhere there is an insecure boy that feels very much that he isn’t qualified to be on the phone. And I have no problems sharing that with the world, that the exterior masks a very scarred and insecure man, who has learned to love himself.

I want to follow up with you on a question that was raised during your SXSW keynote – I believe the question was something along the lines of how you feel the visual elements of storytelling are changing in this era of binge watching and mobile viewing platforms… at the time you didn’t have an answer. Have you thought about it since?

Well, let me tell you. I can talk about that now because I am now binge watching, and I’m always a little bit behind the eight ball because I’m always working. When I took a little break I started binge watching and now I’m obsessed!

(laughs) So tell me what you’re binge watching!

Well I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m obsessed with The Crown, like borderline crazy level. And right before that I binge watched The Handmaid’s Tale – obsessed with it! I can’t get enough of it! And right before that I binge watched The Night Of – oh my god! Just like obsessed with it, can’t get enough of it, and right after that I binge watched Feud. So I’m ready to talk about binge watching. I’ve never binge watched before until then.

Even your own work – Empire, Star…

I don’t see my work… I don’t binge watch my work, I cringe watch my work! how’s that? (Laughs)

But a lot of people are binge watching your work as it’s available on platforms like Hulu, so now that you are binge watching, could you speak on how that’s inspiring you to tell stories or how that may affect how you tell stories?

What I have learned now through binge watching is that these stories have to be ON. I can’t just drop the ball on a subject matter or topic that I’ve sort of grazed upon in one episode. So I’ve got to make sure that they land. Because I see the mistakes even with my favorite television shows that I binge watch and I would like to make sure that I don’t make the same ones. And I understand now the importance of binge watching, and I have a new appreciation of it.

Are there stories or products that you were holding on to and didn’t know quite what to do with and now that you are a part of this binge watching culture, you maybe see better opportunity to tell those stories?

Yeah, it’s hard though. Because you’re dealing with celebrities’ schedules that are on the show, along with production schedules, and then the notes from the studio. It’s a puzzle, it’s a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a miracle really, that any great television is made. I really don’t know how it’s done. Through a wing and a prayer! Because that’s how we did Star last year, and it will be just as difficult this year in making sure that we tell this story. Because we’re dealing with schedules. People’s schedules really screw it up! (laughs)

Other than your life stories and experiences, you’ve mentioned before that your influences vary widely. The first book you read, which had a huge influence on your entrée into the entertainment world, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. You’ve also said you and Mariah Carey call each other Cotton and Kitten based on an old John Waters movie [Pink Flamingos]…

(Laughs) Do you know John Waters’ films? I mean, how great is he? Astounding. I would love to see John Waters do something for Netflix or another streaming site, I mean what would that look like? He better figure it out! As a matter of fact I’m gonna call him when I get back from Cannes to make sure that his ass is behind the camera again because so many are influenced by his work. He is such an underrated trailblazer, at least in my eyes. He is everything! So yeah, Kitten and Cotton come to the rescue.

Do you think that we would ever get a Lee Daniels / John Waters collaboration?

I would kill for that! But here’s the thing. As we get older, we become more politically correct. I know I do, and I think John did and I think it’s just that a part of age is being old. I don’t know that I would have the courage to do Precious now, if that makes any sense at all. I know how it is out there. And youth… you know the naiveté that you have when you’re young and not afraid to be criticized, and then that level of fame that comes with that. I may hang up the phone with you now and say “Wow, this is almost like a therapy session, where I might say ‘well maybe I will do something like Precious just to shock people.’” Because one expects you to go on and on, to bigger and better things. My first movie we made for two cents and it garnered Halle Berry the first Black woman to have an Academy Award, and that came from a place of utter fearlessness and not caring and not giving two F’s what anyone had to say about a subject matter that everyone in Hollywood passed on.

In 2015 you were on a drama showrunner roundtable panel where you said “I hate white people writing for Black people; it’s so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices. Yes, it’s all about reverse racism!” and asked the other show creators if they had African-American people in their writer’s rooms. Another notable creator, Ava Duvernay, is known for selecting female directors for her show Queen Sugar. For this and the upcoming film A Wrinkle In Time, she even sent notice to the heads of each department not to submit a homogenous list of hires unless they could prove they had considered others. How do you feel about this approach to hiring crew and building a team? Could you speak more on this, especially with direct relation to the stories that you’re telling?

I can’t speak for Ms. Duvernay, I don’t know her. But I can speak for myself in that… I have to be frank with you. Again, it’s a grey area. Not to retract the comment, but if I could think about it again… there are people that aren’t of color that can write for people of color. But to a bigger picture so many people of color weren’t being hired to write for themselves. So, I can’t isolate to say that there aren’t those exceptions. That’s like saying that I can’t write for a white man, when I have; you know what I mean? A hundred percent. I think what a lot of people would say to that is that there’s enough white men writing for white men, so that’s why this is important; that we make sure we have enough people of color in the writing room… Yeah but I think that I make it a point to make sure that my world around me reflects the environment that I have grown up in and that I’m trying to articulate on the screen. So yeah, I believe strongly in hiring who’s right for the job. It’s tricky. I think I’m gonna be politically correct on that subject and shut up. Let me shut up on that comment. (laughing) How about that!

Going from one politically sensitive subject to another, last year was a huge year for entertainment depicting stories about people of color and featuring POC with Moonlight, Hamilton, etc. It was also the year our administration completely changed. Do you think these are related and how does one inform the other?

Yes. I think Trump is a reflection of who we are today and who we have become. Just as Obama was a reflection of where we were when he was in office. I think Trump is our karma, just as Obama was our karma.

Would you almost consider that as a backlash of sorts? You know, all of a sudden people of color have these voices… and now this happens. Do you think these stories that are being told and released on such a mass scale are causing this kind of backlash and uproar?

I think that we had our first Black president; and Empire was created, that changed the landscape of television. I think my mother needed a reality check. And I needed a reality check. America made sure that we got that reality check by putting Mr. Trump in office. So how does that now affect the narratives that you’re exposing or the stories that you’re telling? I have to respond accordingly now, don’t I? ‡ Suit and Shirt by Ron Tomson, Watch by Rolex

Grooming by Jhizet @ Forward Artists, Art Direction by Louis Liu, Editor Marc Sifuentes, Photographer’s 1st Assistant Jordan Jennings, 2nd Assistant: Luc Richard Elle, Production by XTheStudio, Special Thanks to Chantal Artur and Brooke Blumberg from Sunshine Sachs.