Jeremy Scott on Barbie, His New Book— and Madonna

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Jeremy Scott never met a pop-culture reference he didn't like. In the decade and a half  he has spent at his self-titled label and, more recently, the year he has spent as creative director at Moschino, Scott has riffed on jukeboxes, SpongeBob SquarePants, game shows, Barbie, Budweiser, and those "Have a Nice Day" bodega shopping bags — and that's just a partial list.

But he doesn't just reference pop culture — he's enamored of the personalities who shape it — like Miley Cyrus, with whom he teamed up on a candy-raver collection for spring 2015. Luckily, the lovefest is mutual: Katy Perry, Madonna, and Nicki Minaj are also fans. A new retrospective book, out this week from Rizzoli, examines some of the through lines in Scott's poppy, one-of-a-kind oeuvre.

Scott was fresh off a Morocco mini-break when he spoke to the Cut about his high-low obsessions, getting compliments from Jean Paul Gaultier, and what Madonna taught him about being a Leo.

Your grandfather made sculptures out of junkyard material, and many of your collections are also about turning detritus into treasure. Why are you attracted to the somewhat-trashy, discarded elements?
I think it’s definitely ingrained in me. Growing up on a farm [in rural Missouri] and seeing my grandmother — she would take the plastic bags that bread comes in and weave those into a rug and braid them into jump ropes. I always grew up watching things transform, and a lot of that was what we would call trash.

As a kid, you were isolated from fashion but still found a way to be involved in it. You would call up salespeople at Bergdorf and Saks and ask them to describe Gaultier items over the phone, and then you would call your friends and plan outfits. What was that like, trying to access this culture that wasn’t as easily available to you as it would be to a kid now? 
I definitely had to try a lot harder, rather than flipping open my Instagram app and looking through things. I definitely had to put a lot of effort into it, that’s for sure. And where I grew up was just not very conducive to high fashion, in any which way, shape, or form. So of course I was finding it at every little point I could, and some of that was through MTV and music videos and musicians wearing things that I recognized and knew to be elements of high fashion that I was familiar with. I was always on the hunt, for sure.

The fact that you were interested in Gaultier specifically — I can see a real parallel with you in the way that he worked with celebrities, and the way that he was a pop-culture figure in his own right. 
[He] made me want to be a designer because he was the only one who made it look like fun. He looked like someone you’d want to hang out with. The other ones all looked like bankers wearing suits. None of them looked like young fun people you’d want to go to a club with. Even at [his final] show, when I went up to congratulate him afterward, he was like, "You’re doing such a wonderful job at Moschino, so proud of you." And it made me, like, a 14-year-old! I was so touched. And I also know for a fact that Franco [Moschino] loved him, and so it was kind of a double whammy. 

I’m interested in the way you work with pop culture, most recently the Moschino collection that was themed around Barbie.
I approach things with so much humor. I’m like, Oh my God, what kind of iPhone case would Barbie have? and then I’m like, Okay, she would have the vanity mirror. Also, just in a way with these phones getting bigger and changing sizes and all that, it was like, “Yeah, okay, here’s a giant-ass iPhone case with a handle, deal with it." A lot of people are like, "How do you put that in your pocket?"

Now there’s the iPhone 6 Plus. That's even bigger. 
That’s [the size of] a piece of toast. Maybe I need to do a toaster as an iPhone case, and that, somehow, is inside it.

You have things that are priced in a relatively approachable way, which maybe a huge fan who can’t afford to buy the runway look can get and can be a part of.
That’s always been really important to me in everything I do. I’m a populist. I’m the people’s designer ... It's important that there are price points that allow people in who maybe don’t have the ability to have higher-ticket items — but they can still have something very emblematic of the collection.

You have very publicized friendships — you did a collaboration with Miley this past season, and she is a friend who wears a lot of your designs. Yet it doesn’t ever feel like you’re leveraging celebrities as a promotional tool in a super-calculated way.
So many of them, I mean even before they were famous, were wearing my clothes because they loved them and that was what resonated with them. I mean, Katy [Perry], she came to me before she even had her first album and told me I was her favorite designer, and she hoped one day I would make her costumes. It’s not calculated, it’s not leveraged, it’s something that is very organic and pure. And I love that these people I feel very inspired by, whose music I listen to and jam out to, feel inspired by me and what I do and want that relationship with me as part of something that’s very crucial to them: their image, the way people view them. I feel very blessed to have such wonderful cheerleaders and champions of my work.

Jeffrey [Deitch, who wrote the book's introduction] talks about a show that he did with you in 2003 at his gallery, Deitch Projects, called "Sexybition." It was very controversial, and certain outlets didn’t cover you for a while as a result. Was that a turning point in your career? 
It was inspired by peep shows, so it was definitely sexual in tone, but it wasn’t, in my opinion, lewd. There were people like Steven Klein who said, That was the best show ever, and then there were people who were very freaked out and felt it was too much like porno. That’s the thing when you do risky art, there’s always going to be those kinds of repercussions. I would think that people would be a little bit more open — especially when fashion magazines constantly show naked women.

You win some and you lose some. I think one thing I’ve learned over the years is just that you’re not going to ever please everyone, and the most important person to please is yourself. I try to keep that in perspective, and I think even now at times people are giving me so many wonderful accolades for my work at Moschino, and everything else that I’m doing, that I’m still the same person that did "Sexybition."

You're famous for your witty slogans, like “I don’t speak Italian but I do speak Moschino." Has wordplay always appealed to you?
I think it’s just kind of a natural part of the way I speak, so it just kind of comes out without me even trying. Sometimes I’m thoughtful enough to write one down and jot down to remember to make it a shirt, but sometimes it’s just gone in the wind. Or maybe it just gets to be a tweet.

One thing that I noticed was the way you take things that are not necessarily part of fashion and you make them fashion. People made that point a lot about the fast-food collection, but you also have these literal chandelier earrings that are tiny chandeliers. You have dresses that look like jukeboxes, you have a bra made out of a tube sock.  Do you see everyday items and think, What if that were on the runway
The chandelier earrings kind of came from the term, and then I was like, "But what about chandelier earrings?" So, a lot of the time it’s just a bit of play on words. The tube sock, I don’t know, I know I’d had that idea for a long time so I’m happy to bring it to life, to finally have a collection that it made sense in. I don’t really dissect too much when ideas come — they just kind of pop into my head, I just take them and run. I’ve always loved things that are [either] teeny-tiny or ginormous. Like, a giant toothbrush: I always find humorous. I love all these things where proportions have been changed and altered.

Photo: Courtesy of Rizzoli

You have a signed photo of you and Vanna White on the Wheel of Fortune set in the book. What’s the story behind that?
They reached out to me and were like, “We saw you did a show inspired by game shows; we would love for you to dress Vanna for a week.” So, I flew from Paris with a wardrobe for Vanna and I dressed her for a week’s taping of Wheel of Fortune. They had me come on and Pat Sajak’s like — I think it was the New Year’s Eve episode. It wasn’t New Year’s Eve in reality, so that’s why I’m being vague about it, we taped it in like November or October. And they were like, “If you’ve seen all the wonderful things Vanna’s been wearing all week, they’re by Jeremy Scott — and he happens to be right here! Come on out!” I came out and spoke to them on the show. I love that kind of stuff because it’s like the Warholian moment of things that aren’t supposed to be together, like high culture and low culture, mass culture and very refined culture, mixing together. I’m a big proponent of that, the two worlds colliding.

In the acknowledgments of this book, you thank Madonna for teaching you about being a Leo. What did she teach you?
She very astutely pointed out, when she realized that I was a Leo as she is, that we have a hard time asking for people's help. Even in the most small way, it's very difficult. She helped me get better about it, because I didn't realize how bad I was about asking for people to help in any kind of way, because I guess we're fiercely independent and feel like we have to do things on our own or whatever. But I've been better about realizing that it's fine, I'm human, I can ask for people's help, and it's not a bad thing. So she definitely helped, and I'll remember it all the time. There will be things where I'll be all clammed up inside, and it's like, It's okay, you can ask.

Yeah, remember what Madonna taught you.
Exactly.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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