The designer and the artist discuss conformity, irreverence, and personal inspirations -- from Gerhard Richter to Louis XIV.
Jimmy Choo and Tamara Mellon founded Choo’s namesake luxury shoe label in 1996, and although both of them sold their shares and have departed from the brand, Choo’s niece Sandra Choi stayed on, becoming the sole creative director of the brand in 2013. Intent on being a designer, Choi had the opportunity there to learn from the very best, honing her skills under her uncle, whose impeccable shoes were worn by the likes of Princess Diana. She then headed to Central Saint Martins—the alma matter of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney—to briefly study fashion design for one term. Her shoes since have graced the red carpet on A-listers like Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and Natalie Portman.
Over the years, the label has collaborated with a number of artists, including Rob Pruitt, Richard Phillips, and Nan Goldin. In 2014, Jimmy Choo tapped British artist Mat Collishaw—who was part of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement in the late 80s, along with the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—to conceptualize the ad campaign for its Cruise 2015 Vices collection, which was inspired by Choi’s fascination with crystal shards and gems. The designer knew that Collishaw had the ability to manipulate light, and the collaboration resulted in a film and photographs incorporating crystal-like shards similar to those found in the Naica Mines in Mexico, as well as footage featuring rain, traffic, and highrise buildings. Here, the two discuss the relationship between art and fashion, experimentation and style en masse.
Sandra Choi—I travel a lot, and what I’ve noticed is that there are packs of people that dress up like they are armies. Everybody gets their ideas from everybody else, and they all end up wearing a similar look, which ends up being a very cohesive form of dressing up. It’s the idea of a uniform. I found a picture from the 90s: it showed all different types of people, but they all wore black and they all had hats on and they all looked really powerful. It was the multiplying that really spoke to me. I translate that into how people actually take ideas from one another.
Mat Collishaw—Do you think that’s a good thing? Surely it’s quite depressing.
Sandra—It can be depressing, but it also can turn into a powerful thing. When you’re en masse in a line of people, everybody looks the same. Visually, it is quite satisfying.
Mat—Like Vanessa Beecroft’s performances? She touches on that quite effectively.
Sandra—Exactly. You can be half naked and vulnerable, but at the same time it is about strength and power. That thinking led me to military and using the idea of a uniform as a backdrop to the story I created for [Jimmy Choo] Fall/Winter 2016. To soften it up, I threw something else at it into the story; I looked at the turn of the century and the Belle Époque period, which combined well with the opulence of military uniforms and hierarchical decoration of the time. Being in uniform was seen as very grand and a reflection of status. You constantly add, change, twist…
Mat—In the past, they would design the military uniforms so that they would look sexy to the women. Because people didn’t have great clothes at that point, one way of a chap getting that and therefore getting a girl was to join the army. You would look the business when you walked down the street in those shiny boots and chrome accessories; you became sexy through your uniform. Yeah, there [was] a lot of swagger with the uniform.
Sandra—Very showy, very ostentatious, and showing off their ranking.
Mat—Camouflage came along and ruined all that. They had to quit having chromed silver hats with feathers on. It’s not really what you need when you’re trying to hide in a bush, you know what I mean?
Sandra—“War and Peace” was the same thing. You have to wonder with whatever custom thing that they were wearing how they were supposed to move? It was more the weight than anything else. I suppose you can go back to showing off how strong you are, because with all that opulence you’re still able to be the man on the field.
“You need to leave a little bit of room for experimenting, otherwise you’ll never evolve or elevate.”
Mat—Like peacocks with their feathers. They’ve got this crazy plumage that makes them obvious to predators and yet they still survive, therefore their genes are probably quite good ones. But that kind of fashion is much older than art. Art—as I know it in the world I live in—has been around for less than a thousand years. Individuals making artworks even less, more like one hundred years in terms of contemporary art. Whereas fashion has been here for a hundred thousand years, since people started daubing themselves with ochre and putting feathers on their heads or seashells to create ornament. Fashion was there from the very beginning.
Sandra—Yes, yes. It was all about presence and getting noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about Louis XIV…
Mat—And the ostentation?
Sandra—Exactly, and how cleverly he used presence, and how you present yourself as power. That’s incredible.
Mat—Like with the Olympic games—when you have it in Beijing or you have these big military parades in Russia—and they demonstrate their prowess by having thousands of uniformed officers marching and performing the same drill. It is impressive but there is an underlying…
Sandra—It’s impressive and oppressive to someone like us. Mat—Exactly. Which is what was interesting about what Danny Boyle did for the British Olympics. It was just so eccentric and sprawling. You know, one guy over here in a top hat, and another over there in stilts. It was all over the place. One thing it wasn’t was that oppressive militaristic repetition of the same thing over and over again. It was about the individual and ingenuity.
Sandra—Do you think it’s also because we wanted to portray that we are free and we respect culture?
Mat—Yes, absolutely. We’re not going for that huge synchronized swimming, which in the end is a bit facile, right? It is just people working like cogs in a machine.
Sandra—Robotic in some way.
Mat—Merce Cunningham has done some interesting dance pieces based on that—human beings playing cogs. I’m not a big dance fan, but it’s great. It’s from the early 60s or maybe late 50s. Mesmerizing.
Sandra—To be told what to do. Some people are more comfortable in that situation than others.
Mat—Oh yes, absolutely.
Sandra—I can identify with this when concepting new season collections. I need to identify a strong story and a strong visual, so that when I work with my design team I have a succinct message to communicate and they understand the creative journey we need to take. That idea is always there, but then in between the start and the middle of the development, something else can come up as a secondary inspiration. You need to be open to those additional ideas emerging through. Sometimes they’re scary, but you have to go for it and cross your fingers that they all connect and meet in a place that makes sense and strikes a complimentary balance.
Mat—Absolutely, you have to be ready for accidents to occur and things that you can’t predict. Generally, you’re only capable of projecting so much into the future and coming up with ideas that are so good. Accidents are limitless in what they can throw up, so you have to be open to those things occurring. It’s not until you start faffing around with leather or ink or polyester that the fusion can happen. Those accidents can become something.
Sandra—As an artist or as a designer, you need to leave a little bit of room for experimenting, otherwise you’ll never evolve or elevate; never discover; never cross that line. At the beginning it’s raw, but give it time. Look at fashion right now; somehow, sometimes what can be initially perceived as ugly evolves to become powerful. Fashion itself doesn’t always have to be beautiful and perfect.
Mat—I’ve seen many things happen in my lifetime where, when first seeing it, I thought, “God, how ugly,” and within about 10 years it’s become a staple and everybody is wearing it. That’s kind of what fashion is about: making you see things in a different way and appreciate them.
Sandra—Age changes everything too. [Laughs.] Should I not touch on that subject? We’re from the same era! Your fashion sense has changed as you’ve evolved?
“One of my favorite artists is Gerhard Richter. His pieces that look accidental, I’m sure, are somehow planned.”
Mat—I don’t really do fashion in terms of my own style… I’m fashion blind and colorblind.
Sandra—You’re an artist and yet you’re colorblind, how does it work?
Mat—Well, generally I don’t squirt pigment out of a tube, so I’m never really in that position where I have to…
Sandra—But even to get the right shade of transparency or the lighting right, how does it work? You call a friend!
Mat—Exactly. Sometimes I don’t, sometimes I’m just working on things that involve me squashing lots of butterflies and then manipulating them on a computer until I print them. At some point I’ve got about three million colors in there, and I take about two and a half million colors out until it gets to a point where all the colors for me appear to balance. I have no idea what is green, blue, or red. The whole process is about throwing everything into the pot and then removing the things that I think get in the way of the image working. When I think there is harmony—when it’s interesting, it’s dynamic and colorful, but isn’t overdoing it with the color—that’s when I know it’s finished.
Sandra—People who know me know that I always describe a color called “donkey.”
Mat—Gray with a bit of white flecks?
Sandra—No! It’s a browny gray, but I call it donkey. It’s very specific to me. Like you, you’re very specific about your artwork because you see what you see. One of my favorite artists is Gerhard Richter. His pieces that look accidental, I’m sure, are somehow planned. The things he does at that monumental scale just grab my attention. Of course, when you put various different colors together, you can predict what color is going to come out, but then there is the accidental part, which I love.
Mat—Yeah. He’s an interesting example, because he’s kind of known as being an abstract painter.
Sandra—But also very traditional.
Mat—Absolutely, and I don’t think his seemingly abstract paintings are abstract in the way that we look at them, because I think they relate to things that we are familiar with seeing and that he’s not depicting them literally. I think when lying in the park—looking up through the branches of the trees, through the leaves, and above that is the sky with clouds moving along—you move your head from left to right, things move around a little bit, and you get a sense of parallax. Things closer to you move more quickly, and you get this depth through these shapes that you’re looking at. I think he’s doing something similar. He sets parameters and within those parameters accidents can happen and the effects of those accidents are something similar to what we experience when we use our eyes looking at the real world. It’s not total abstraction, he’s using certain clues that our brain gets from our eyes when we look at the real world.
Sandra—The thing about art is it’s so instant because it’s just for your eyes and it doesn’t need to be functional. It just needs to please a certain individual. Going back to fashion, yes, of course you need to have that hook to attract. You need to feel the sensation. At the same time, there is a difference between creating something that looks amazing and something that will suit an individual.
Mat—Do you think that’s the same as selling a painting? For example, seeing a painting displayed in a huge apartment in Los Angeles designed by Mies van der Rohe, and then buying it. You get it home, and put it on your wall and think, “Uhh…this is not the same.” There are some galleries that use a trick where they darken the room and then flag a light, which they shine onto a painting so that it pops more than it will in the real world.
Sandra—What actually happens when you purchase a piece of art that you love and you take it into your own space—some people have galleries and some people have their own home to feature their purchase—and it doesn’t fit? Can they return it and get their money back?
Mat—There is a great story about Peggy Guggenheim when she bought a very long, horizontal painting by Jackson Pollock. Something like 20 feet long or something. They got it into the place where she wanted it in her apartment, and it was about six inches too long. She was like, “What are we going to do? It doesn’t fit, it’s too long,” and Marcel Duchamp, who was there, suggested that they get a pair of scissors and cut seven inches off the painting and hang it like that.
Sandra—Did they call Jackson Pollock?
Mat—“So Marcel is suggesting that we…”
Mat—I think Jackson was dead by that point, so Marcel was free to have a little irreverent humor. Marcel was not the type to enjoy Jackson’s pompous seriousness, and this primordial male, ripping art from his gut type of thing. What you are talking about is more to do with something working within its environment, rather than a piece fitting in a space visually.
Sandra—I don’t know about you, but my husband certainly does that. He will go out and say, “This is really nice, that is really nice,” and I joke with him, saying that if he bought everything he thought was really nice, we would own a football pitch. It’s impossible. I’m so pleased we can’t buy that much stuff. Is buying something that you really love but don’t have a place for it…?
Mat—I was just hanging artworks the moment before I came out. I was going around the house with a Jean Cocteau drawing trying to find a place for it.
Sandra—It needs to suit a certain pairing. Mat—Absolutely, there is a right place for every work.
This conversation was featured in Document’s Fall/Winter 2016 issue.