When the worlds of fashion and art collide, the result is inevitably inspiring – especially when it involves the combined talents of London-based designer Richard Nicoll and his radical muse, the iconic British punk artist, Linder Sterling. While the duo may stem from differing disciplines, backgrounds and even decades – Sterling rising to fame in late 70s Britain, Australian-born Nicoll of contemporary London – they have found a meeting ground somewhere between their dual practices, merging industry and art to galvanise and share ideas.
Renowned for her subversive, irreverent collages (one being the famed Buzzcocks album cover, ‘Orgasm Addict’, of 1977), Sterling is currently focusing on performance art, an example of which is this year’s acclaimed thirteen-hour piece, ‘The Dark Town Cake Walk’, costumed by Nicoll. The performance, in true collaborative spirit, was also captured on video by Sterling’s friend, the luminary fashion photographer, Tim Walker – marking his first foray into film (a short edit viewable exclusively on W).
Beginning humbly with textile prints for Nicoll’s AW09 collection, Sterling and Nicoll, who as well as designing his signature line is also Creative Director at French fashion house Cerruti, have gone on to collaborate on one another’s work, in countless ways, since. The fashion designer known for his precise, optimistic aesthetic, and artist beloved for her ground-breaking work and renegade spirit take five minutes out to talk collaboration, cross-pollination and inspiring each other with W Magazine.com.
Your multi-faceted art practice has segued neatly into music and performance – how, and why, did you get involved with fashion also?
Linder Sterling: In the early eighties, I used music and performance as part of my practice, but I never had the good fortune to meet a fashion designer. Everything was very D.I.Y in England then, and we were all quite poor. I made myself a meat dress when I sang at the Hacienda club in Manchester in 1982. It was a form of protest – the club was exquisitely designed but still showed porn films and sold hamburgers. They had a blind spot that I wanted to highlight. It’s interesting that Lady Gaga has repeated this act recently without acknowledging any former lineage of dissent. When Richard Nicoll and I met a few years ago, it was a marriage made in heaven. My work has been described as making the explicit implicit, Richard took this one stage further and made it available to women worldwide. This is the failure of art – to fetishise the singular object.
You are renowned for your collage pieces – how would you describe your process and what you are aiming to communicate through your work?
Sterling: Je suis une collagiste! I take the principles of collage and apply them equally to film, a dress, a performance work – even to my own life at times. Sometimes all the elements are glued down tight – as with my works on paper, and at other times, as with performance, the elements of the collage are granted their own agency and they find their own place within the overall composition. This means that a ballet dancer, a trumpet player, a Lindyhopper or beauty queen can all decide their own position and trajectory within the greater whole. Collage is almost a philosophy now, a way of seeing. Life is haphazard and can either be viewed as one huge cosmic collage, or as a chaotic mass – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
You seem to be involved mostly in performance art now – why has this taken precedence over other forms?
Sterling: I continue to create collages in various media, it’s a practice that stretches over four decades and has yet to stop. This year I created the thirteen-hour improvisation, ‘The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME’. The title itself is a collage and deliberately unwieldy. I asked Richard if he would design the costumes for the dancers involved and also to create some of the costumes within the performance area. Richard agreed, and his tailor became as much a star as the dancers and musicians. The sewing machine and scissors were amplified so that the manufacturing process could be clearly heard. I love demystifying production as much as I love mystifying it.
You and Richard collaborate on fashion that verges on art, and art with a fashion sensibility – what is it, do you think, that has drawn the two of you together?
Sterling: Richard and I share a curiosity about the refinement of provocation. Generationally, in the late 1970s, I used shock tactics in my dress and creativity, but far away from the rarefied milieu of a gallery or catwalk. I think that to have had that experience when young leaves one with a sensitivity to true radicalism. It’s often not to be found by those who hijack the cultural spotlight, or those who scream and shout. In the 21st Century, radicalism has to have a certain stealth quality about it to survive, otherwise it’s thrown up in headlines and thrown out two weeks later.
What have been some of your recent collaborations – and any forthcoming?
Sterling: I recently made a short film, ‘Forgetful Green’, and it’s the ultimate dream of a collaboration. All of my favourite people were involved –Tim Walker used a movie camera for the first time ever, Richard Nicoll designed the costumes, Stuart McCallum from The Cinematic Orchestra made the soundtrack and one of my oldest friends, Debbie Dannell, designed the hair and makeup. Debbie has quiffed Morrissey, backcombed Dusty Springfield and has groomed pop stars in dressing rooms from Dusseldorf to Detroit. We made ‘Forgetful Green’ in an English rose garden under the midday sun, a peculiar solar eclipse was taking place, I think this gives the film its very otherworldly air. I’m currently considering bringing a twenty-four-hour version of ‘The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME’ to New York – Richard could create endless costumes then!
Do you see fashion as a form of art?
Sterling: On a good day, I see lots of things as art and fashion is one of them. Having worked with Richard, and seen the conceptual and creative development that goes into every collection, how can this not be art? Most artists would be floored after the first month. One of the Richard Nicoll and Linder collage dresses hangs on my studio wall, it catches the slightest breeze and rearranges itself every day. The dress is beyond the static state of the picture frame and its continuous reconfiguration delights the eye.
I’m about to take my first break in twelve months, although my gallery, Stuart Shave/Modern Art, will be showing a new series of works on paper at Art Basel Miami Beach this December.
You are known for a (subtly) conceptual approach, and teaming up with Linder Sterling on a series of collections –and some of her performance pieces – has further pushed this point. How would you describe your relationship as a fashion designer with art?
Richard Nicoll: It’s funny, while others might, I’ve never seen myself as a conceptualist as I feel like I always begin the design process of my collections from a very rational, pragmatic standpoint. I have a really close group of friends (Linder being one of them) that work across numerous creative disciplines, both in commercial, and purely artistic fields. More and more there is cross over, and I think we really do inspire one another. Linder sent me a beautiful email after my last show saying that my work had ‘inspired her to create’. A comment like that about my work, from an artist like Linder, is about as good as it gets in terms of artist / designer collaboration.
I’m quite a social person, and in the same way a conversation inspires new ways of thinking – creative collaborations open the door to new fresh ideas. It’s an opportunity to be challenged, and to look at things in a less obvious way. It’s easy to get stuck in one mindset, and there is such value in collaboration and the loss of ego in creating with other people. Right now it feels like a time for a real cross-pollination of disciplines, and for the freedom of ideas this allows. Working with Linder since AW09 has been amazing and changed my mindset completely. Designing alongside her, it can feel like I am channelling her vision. I respect her identity and legacy, and I respect her vision…
Why have you been particularly inspired by Linder’s vision, and how did you meet her?
Nicoll: It came about through a mutual friend – Linder was being shot for Vogue and our friend suggested she might like to borrow some pieces from my archive. The whole meeting felt really serendipitous, and I think Linder and I both felt that it was inevitable that we would start working together. As a collage artist she applies this ethos across so many disciplines (traditional cut and paste collage, performance art, music, film) which in itself is inspiring. There is a lot of synchronicity within our respective creative approaches, and in particular how we portray women and a sense of strong female identity.
What was your most recent collaboration with Linder?
Nicoll: For SS11, we collaborated on a capsule collection of printed garments (signature shapes for me – silk t-dress and separates) using the rights to old Cerruti campaign images that Paolo Roversi shot many years ago, and that Linder then collaged for my own Richard Nicoll label which felt post-modern and right. I also worked on the costumes for ‘Forgetful Green’, the film that Tim Walker shot as a time capsule and synopsis of Linder’s 13 hour-long performance of ‘The Dark Town Cake Walk’.
We are currently in talks about developing a perfume together, and are working on limited edition mens t-shirts and boiler suits featuring a series of gay/neo romantic collages that Linder made. We are doing this for a charity pop-up store to raise money for the art fund initiative, House of Voltaire. I honestly feel as though our friendship and creative partnership will be life-long – recently Linder has been talking about collaborating on a ballet, which would be fantastic.
Do you see fashion as a form of art?
Nicoll: There are aspects of fashion that don’t merit being called art, but can fashion be art? Absolutely. I feel as though each of my collections reference the ones that have come before to a certain extent – the latest one picks up where the last left off. There is always a nascent idea, or a concept that I feel needs further exploration and elaboration after a show, and that in itself becomes the momentum to begin the creative process on the new collection. I love defining who the female character is every season, she changes with my mood and instinct, but always remains consistent on a certain level.
I love the discipline of balancing commerce and creativity that fashion insists on, but also I have had great pleasure in working with absolute freedom on projects for Linder like the film costumes. I guess fashion is a commercial art form.
How are you enjoying your role as Creative Director at Cerruti? Are you still traveling back and forth between London and Paris – is that inspiring or exhausting?
Nicoll: I love the change in geography and atmosphere, and I love the discipline of creating two distinctly different collections each season without cross-pollination (I feel I succeeded for SS11). I spend so much time in my studio in London that small things like a few hours on the Eurostar with no distractions is actually a welcome break. The clothing I create for Cerruti is different from my own label in that I’m working with a brand that has a very specific heritage, and anything I create needs to nod to the house values while also moving the brand forward in a different, more progressive direction.
My personal work is more esoteric than the work I do for Cerruti, which is pragmatic in its realisation of a beautiful product. My label represents a product belonging to an idiosyncratic character, who is close to my own personality.