Sylvia Heisel designs classics. Clothes that can be worn every which way, everywhere, for years. Friends tell me they keep her things in the front of the closet to grab at will, with forethought or in a panic, and mix her silks from the past decade with relative impunity. The painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe met with Sylvia Heisel in her new studio in Lower Manhattan.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe What’s the silk-screen stuff?
Sylvia Heisel Celtic medieval symbols we found and thought were really beautiful.
JGR Where did you find the symbols?
SH Out of a book.
JGR Is the symbol responsive to the silk material or were you working with that silk and looking for something to print on it?
SH We wanted prints but nothing out there is interesting: we found nothing we liked. So we just started looking around at whatever. What wound up being really beautiful were all these old woodcuts. It was completely a visual judgement unconnected to what they symbolized. We use different colored base fabrics and all the printing is going to be black so what’s real graphic works.
JGR Have you always used fashion in this way—where anything that just happens to be fabulous out there in the world, in art history, can end up on someone’s back?
SH My view of fashion is that it reflects the present as opposed to anything historical. Fashion is how we see ourselves exactly, now. What’s great is that six months from now you could look at something and say, “God, that looks so bad.” It looks dated already. It’s completely transient. That also makes it real shallow.
JGR It makes it fast-moving. Could one say, what are the things that you don’t like in fashion and would they always be the same things?
SH Physically, in terms of how things feel to wear there are. There aren’t things visually. It does change in terms of fit. It doesn’t change in terms of textures. What’s soft is always soft.
JGR So shape can change but the material essentially is a transcendent property—it’s always the same?
SH In a purely how-does-it-feel-to-touch-it way it is. The fit changes. People’s bodies haven’t changed but women’s clothes especially can completely distort…
JGR Yeah, we keep re-inventing the woman’s body.
SH But we keep being women to re-invent it. It feels good to wear things that are really tight sometimes and really uncomfortable…
JGR There’s some difference here between making clothes and then what you actually get to do with clothes…
SH There’s a difference between what sells and what you put on a runway. It’s the difference between what we need to do in our everyday lives, riding the subway, working…and what we wear if we can wear whatever we want, if we’re in a position to. When you go and buy clothes half of it is what’s real, what fits you, what you can afford; and half of it is your fantasy of yourself.
JGR So it’s a question of how much rock ‘n’ roll can you get into daily life?
SH It depends on who you are as to how far you’re willing to go. Hopefully, as a designer you wind up with customers who are really willing…
JGR To go all the way…
SH …to go all the way. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.
JGR How unconservative is unconservative when it comes to Sylvia Heisel’s view of representing our culture through those clothes and that body?
SH How un-conservative? I love people who dress with some point of view. Someone who’s saying something with how they look. If they do it right. Someone who walks down the street and everybody looks at them, that’s great. I don’t think it’s a matter of conservative or not conservative.
JGR Does that mean that your non-runway clothes, reflect the runway in some milder way? Again, the question is how much attention do I want to attract to myself?
SH It’s how do you feel that day. Sometimes you want to walk out the door and look like everybody else and sometimes you want to walk out your door and look completely different. Most people worry too much about what other people think when they buy clothes.
JGR There’s this range, which you can presumably articulate here, from something that will blend into the crowd to something which is closer to the runway ensemble which itself is eye-dazzling and will only attract attention?
SH The inspiration doesn’t have to come from the designer.
JGR How you make clothes in such a way that the inspiration doesn’t necessarily have to come from the designer—when it comes to wearing them?
SH When you walk into a store you’re buying a piece of clothing.
JGR A bit of this and a bit of that.
SH You’re buying what looks good to you. The bottom line is you put your money out for it.
JGR This is a commitment…
SH It definitely doesn’t come from the designer. The designers are there providing the general inspiration for it.
JGR So you make these props and then the body dresses itself up in its version of history for that day using these signs which are very up-to-date combinations of the props that you provide? You give them the simple signs, the customer turns them into complex and specific symbols.
SH You’re a successful designer because people walk into a store and choose your garment. They’re choosing it based on what looks right to them. So, you’re identifying whatever is going on in their heads about how they want to look and how they want to feel and turning it into an actual garment. That’s what you’re doing for a living.
JGR When you design, what garment do you start with?
SH I usually start with slip dresses. Right now, pieces that are based on lingerie.
JGR Start close to the body. Start from the inside.
SH With this collection I started from the inside. As if you have a really great slip that could be a dress or just a slip and start building on top of that, put a jacket over it or a shirt or pull a pair of pants on and start layering. There have been other collections where I’ve started with the opposite, a huge coat.
JGR I like the idea that in the spring you’d start close to the body and in the winter you’d start with a coat. Start on the outside when it’s cold, start on the inside when it’s warm.
SH You think about it differently. When you think about spring clothes you think about things that are bare.
SH Exposure and especially with the evening wear, being sexy.
JGR Does that ever change, what sexy is?
SH Completely. Every 15 minutes. Look at pornography.
JGR Like now, is it going to be more androgynous, less androgynous, differently androgynous, anti-androgynous? I’m asking, during the time you’ve been on the job, 1980–1990, has it changed?
SH Yeah. All these models getting their tits changed. I’m trying to place 1980. That was sort of the end of the disco. It is certainly more conservative now. We’ve got Ivana Trump. Hopefully coming out of it.
JGR So sexy happens despite this conservativism or as a sexy conservativism.
SH As a sexy conservativism.
JGR So you have the cute Nazi look.
SH You have all these over-dressed, over-made-up women in evening gowns.
JGR That shit again. The ’50s again. So you work against that, and your customers are against that.
SH That’s not my market.
JGR What’s counter-sexy like? How’s that changed?
SH It’s very casual, very sportswear. I’m feeling now like it’s almost too much sportswear. We all wanted to be really dressed-down in reaction to conservatism. Our lives are like that. Younger women grew up wearing sportswear and not wearing anything that was fitted or uncomfortable and that can get pretty boring. Sometimes high-heeled shoes that are miserably uncomfortable are really hot.
JGR I love this idea of the necessity of discomfort. So you think maybe these young women who actually always wore comfortable clothes need to rediscover and play with the constraint possibility. Transgression through artificiality.
SH Yeah, it got too simple…
JGR Too healthy.
SH A little too intellectualized and nice and rational that way. Boring.
JGR It makes too much sense. So, in a way there is this funny idea or this truth, depending on what kind of language you want to use. There is, over there, the Trump, fascist ruling class resurrecting the clothing of the 1950s, essentially this very staid, ugly shit which exhibits wealth, expensive materials, lots of jewelry…And then over here there are people who have you and obviously others as their designers who are actually making fashion—remaking the world, inventing the world in terms of playing with exactly this shit that these other people wear in a way which is amusing and sexy and casual. Does that relate to the fact that these colors you’ve chosen for next spring, for example, are slightly weird colors: neither earth colors nor ultra-artificial colors. Secondary colors which, in some sense, we haven’t quite seen lately.
SH That’s probably quite true. I was aiming at colors that weren’t bright and weren’t exactly earth tones that would fall somewhere else. I started out wanting colors that looked like natural plant dyes and colors you’d see at the beach. It didn’t develop that way. I wound up with lots of cream and gray and lots of different olives, greens, and aquas. Weird greens, somehow. Designing, I try and not think. You try to analyze it as little as possible. But that is true. We’re also rediscovering all this ’60s hippie stuff that looks really great again and more funky ethnic and mystical stuff.
JGR So we look forward to even more extreme combinations, like high-heeled shoes and Indian rugs?
SH The ’80s were so goddamn rational. Hopefully we’re going to get a little bit more play, everything got real serious.
JGR Reagan and AIDS.
SH We all got real heavy and the world still is. It’s worse than ever. But you just can’t take being serious about it anymore. We’ve had enough of sitting around being depressed about it, trying to handle it rationally. Now we’re panicking: we’re gonna have fun.
JGR Maybe, obviously, I’ve had enough of being serious but this, relates in some way to this costumer of yours. This person who plays with her clothes, plays with herself as a presentation of some idea, plays with the idea of difference, how similar, how different, how different from this thing that’s already different, which is again like the colors. It’s there, and then it’s off somewhere else. She’s not going to look like the runway model, but she’s going to use that look to look like something new. It is a very serious kind of play.
SH You’re playing with your own image, exposing yourself. How you look is the first thing people see. Before you get to open your mouth you’ve already presented a lot about yourself.
JGR Oh, every single thing, speech is totally superfluous in the sense that it’s only superficial people who don’t judge by appearances.
SH So in that way it’s always real serious.
JGR I just like this idea as I hear it unfold—a whole attitude to fashion, a way of making it, a way of wearing it, a way of thinking about what it’s for which plays this endless game: it’s not here; it’s there; it’s somewhere else.