A chat with the unstoppable artist on guinea pig haircuts, being Howard Tangye’s groupie and the beauty of failure.
Julie Verhoeven needs no introduction. The inimitable fashion illustrator/designer turned artist is instantly recognisable and sometimes we CSM students are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her as she scurries in and out of college on the days she comes in to teach on the MA Fashion course.
Verhoeven started working in John Galliano’s studio at the age of just 18, moving from department to department and “learning just about everything.” Her forceful career has included the heights of fashion illustration, designing for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Versace, Martine Sitbon, Peter Jensen and M.A.C, producing moving images, creating murals and being exhibited all over the world. Nowadays Verhoeven is slowly moving away from fashion and focusing more on her art. Why?
“Hmm… I got a bit bored with the sort of repetitive cycles and how it all has to be done in a certain way. It was getting more and more unpleasant. I wasn’t getting creative satisfaction, really. I just wanted to be a bit more stupid. With fashion you still have to sell it at the end of the day. You’ve got to put a human form in it, which is where it becomes problematic for me.”
Verhoeven’s happy orgies of colour, texture and print transform the most mundane objects into little wonders. Her videos, illustrations and installations are a vibrant explosion of boobs, bums and other body parts set to the music of 10CC and Don McLean. Her studio is filled with paraphernalia including painted mannequin legs, a book entitled “What is a husband?”, and heaps and heaps of visual research. There’s something so playful and yet intuitively confident to all of it – does she ever face the fear of failure?
“Ehm, no… I quite like failing, actually. Because then you’ve got to do more fighting, haven’t you?
Is that better?
“Oh, definitely. You’ve got to exert yourself to be accepted. Isn’t that what failure is about? People kind of push you away because you fail. I’ve got so many frustrations in my work that make me want to change. I want the aesthetic to change, that’s why I try to work as hard as I can for it to move quicker.”
It might also be one of the reasons she becomes so frustrated when people associate her with cutesy and fairy tale-like stuff. “Yeah, the dolly dolls… I’m so bored of that now. And fashion illustration, I find it really outmoded. It kind of annoys me that there are degree courses in it. I mean, what are these people going to do? There’s such a minimal amount of work… I didn’t want to be a fashion illustrator for years. And I certainly don’t now.”
Even though you did fashion illustration for quite a while…
“Yeah, and then I wanted to be a designer… And then I did that, and then I wanted to be an artist, so I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Astronaut? Lost in space…”
Something that seems to change just as often as your work is your appearance – and your hair in particular. What’s it inspired by?
“It can look like quite a few things… The other day my friend Shona (Heath) told me it reminds her of the guinea pig I used to have, Dave. And now I totally get it! I kept looking at myself and seeing a dog, thinking “what dog is this?” But it’s not a dog, it’s a rodent, a guinea pig.”
But there are some constants. Something she still does – and has been doing since 1996 – is teaching on CSM’s MA Fashion. And that’s quite ironic: Verhoeven didn’t get accepted onto the BA when she applied as a teen. Does that feel like a sort of victory? “Well, I totally understand why they didn’t take me, and they were probably right. At that moment I was 18, and I had the most absurd outfit on; I was wearing fun fur leopard pedal pushers, a silver lurex quilted top with fun fur panels, and a polar bear hat. And I barely spoke in the interview… It was quite tragic, really. So yeah, I didn’t get in… But you know, thank god. I would never have gone to Galliano’s if I’d gotten in. And that was my training.”
There was one person who fought her corner big time when she didn’t get into college: Howard Tangye. His illustration class was the start of a long-standing friendship. “I was like a proper groupie, and that went on for several years… And then he started to accept me; I wasn’t going to go away…” she laughs, “He’s such a sort of force, isn’t he? He’s so powerful in such a quiet way. I always feel better when I’ve spoken to Howard, you know what I mean?”
I wonder who else has influenced her, apart from Tangye.
“I like anybody who I sort of respect; any artist that keeps on working. That’s what inspires me. Jeff Koons is very of the moment, but for me it’s the fact that he’s made such a forceful career; it’s insane! Respect, seriously. No, I’m more run by death, really.”
“Yeah, that every day is passing… I have got this vision that I’m going to get run over.”
By a car?
“Uhm… a bus! I’m a really dizzy road crosser. Now I’m super careful, but I’ll think “Man, I think I might get motored down by a bus.” So yeah, that’s my force forward. Dodge the buses and keep on going.”
Is that the advice you’d give to students?
“Perseverance, yeah. Definitely. You have to be in it for the long term, that’s for sure. Or maybe not, you can be a flash in the pan, I suppose. That’s quite attractive too – a one-hit wonder.”
Appropriately enough, in the background to our conversation a song called “Get Better” is playing on the radio. It seems to define Verhoeven well. She is always moving and improving, pushing herself and her work forward, quenching her thirst for newness. She might be moving away from fashion, yet fashion’s high-speed process of renewal seems to be an integral part of who she is. Verhoeven isn’t going anywhere but forward, dodging the buses, embracing failure and constantly getting better.
Photography by Dexter Lander