Coffee Talk with Gretchen Jones

Okay, so we didn’t speak over coffee, but I did get clothing and jewelry designer Gretchen Jones to let me pick her brain a little.  As a refresher for those of you who haven’t yet had their morning or even afternoon caffeine, Jones is a designer who hails from the Colorado/Oregon regions and also happens to be the winner of Project Runway, Season 8.  She also has a kick-ass design aesthetic, which is derived from nature, a bend towards what I would label a good old-fashioned feminist spirit and a fire in her belly that must be derived from that Southwestern sun.

JM:  Let me begin by saying that I’ve seen every episode of every season of Project Runway and by far, you are one of my favorite designers. I really admired your unwavering confidence and you never, ever apologized for what you believed in. Now, you are designing and selling your own clothing and jewelry line. What do you attribute to your success?

GJ:  To be honest, really honest…I think what has made me ‘successful’ [cough, successful I do not think of as being where I am at.  I’m just getting started and have a LOT to do to be healthy- career wise and personally!] or what I would attribute my recent successes to, would truly be my persevering character.  Somewhere inside of me, a place/thing I could not describe feeds my ambition.  I just do what I do.  I don’t try to be successful, I just keep moving, as though there is no other option for me but to put my next foot forward.

JM:  Right now, as far as I can glean off the Internet, you design clothing, jewelry, run a website, a blog (which is full of amazing photos and art), promote your brand and I’m sure much more. How to you manage everything and do you still fit in Gretchen time?

GJ:  Good question, perhaps I should ask myself that?! I manage everything by taking things day by day [sometimes hour by hour.]  The fact of the matter is I have a lot on my plate and right now, I’m just starting my business and any entrepreneur can tell you, your business takes everything from you.  It’s important for me to understand that the industry has and will continue to change, connecting to your customer/demographic means not just making dresses, but creating a connection.  Creating a world people want to be a part of.  In order for me to successfully accomplish launching a label, I have to juggle all these things, I kind of have no choice.  I am a Creative Director, not just designer.  I have to manage the world according to Gretchen by painting the picture and then delegating out the work.  Trusting those around me and only surrounding myself with those I trust and love.  And…in the end, letting go.  I have to let go in the evenings, let go on the weekends and live the life Gretchen Jones wants to lead, not just the life of the Creative Director.  The world will not stop if I don’t send that last e-mail, or sign off on that last paper…and in the end, my label is about quality of life.  And I should first and foremost lead that, not just preach it!  I do yoga 3 times a week, I walk my dog Lilly early in the morning and at sunset around the park, I ride my bike as often as I can, I try to leave the city on the weekends on little adventures and…I try to surround myself with loving, funny friends who appreciate me as much as I appreciate them. Staying grounded when in this industry, this world is really all about those you share this experience with.

JM:  Do you think there is such a thing as a female design aesthetic and if so, does it affect how you design?

GJ:  Absolutely!  I heard a quote that YSL said to DVF once- “Female designers make clothes, male designers make costumes.”  And I totally agree with that.  I think female designers think about clothing in a different way, they connect to it from the inside out.  I make clothing because I want to give women the power of feeling pretty.  I think women have gotten away from that.  The feeling you get when you put on something that makes you feel feminine and unique, it gives you back your power.  Your day is better, you connect to others more intimately, you stand taller…I think, a female designer understands and taps into that more authentically.

JM: When you create, would you say that you do so from a feminine or alternately, masculine point of view?

GJ:  I think I start with a [my] female perspective, incorporating masculine elements for balance. Feminine = flow/drape/nuance.  Masculine = linear/architectural/tailoring.

JM:  When you design your clothing, do you think of a specific type of woman when doing so?

GJ:  I design for a type of woman sure, but in a broader sense.  I design for the 25-45 year old, the educated woman, the romantic at heart, the organic in nature and nurture, the thoughtful, the individual.  I make identity pieces that are timeless enough to integrate into your wardrobe for years, not months…I design for women who want to look as beautiful as they feel.

JM:  On your website (www.gretchenjonesnyc.com) you state that your inspiration is drawn from “…fashion, art, music, literature, architecture, and nature.” You list that with concerns to your current collection, such artists Kurt Cobain and Frida Kahlo influenced your work. Which writers and/or artists have influenced you in the past?

GJ:  Oh gosh!  I read at least one book at a time while designing each collection, using their words to inform my collections.  Barbara Kingsolver was heavily influential in my early work.  Tom Robbins always reminds me to be clever and satirical, not so serious.  More recently Carlos Castaneda and Jack Kerouac have taken me.

JM:  In your collection you use natural fibers, such as organic cotton, wool and wood. Why is it important to you to utilize natural materials?

GJ:  I grew up in the high plain valleys of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  The natural is inherent in how I see beauty.  Craft will always reign supreme.  I like working with these kinds of materials because they have been used for hundreds of years and have a soul.

JM:  For your Fall/Winter 2011 Collection, I read that a song that you listened to throughout the design process influenced you. Is this a common practice for you?

GJ:  Every collection is designed around [and titled after] a song/album that I listen to while designing it.  I like to incorporate both the lyrics/song and the literature I choose to read into my work.  It’s a way of giving you more a piece of me and my own story each season.  They typically have to do with what I am going through personally.  I like to think of it as a way for me to download my pieces with my process, loading it up with the love and labor it took to bring it to you.  After all, my work is my love and meant to be shared.

JM:  How can my readers purchase your clothing and jewelry? By the way, I will be rocking the prairie skirt as soon as I can get my mitts on it.

GJ:  My A/W 11′ collection will be available for purchase late August online at francesmay.com + tobi.com + stevenalan.com.   I too will be rocking the prairie skirt!

JM:  And finally, if you could meet any designer or artist who ever was or is, who would it be?

GJ:  Earlier in the 20th century I would have died to meet Georgia O’Keefe & Frida Kahlo, and if I could have a moment with Christo & Jean Claude I’d pee my pants with excitement!

JM:  Awesome.

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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Post-Modern Mess or Feminist Icon?

The documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose previous joint work includes documentaries on fascism in America and racial injustice.  Though their previous work is heavily steeped in more serious matters of the human condition, this documentary is not so off the beaten path.  It follows Rivers’ life over the span of one year as she turns 75.  We as an audience learn in the extra features footage from the Sundance Film Festival that the hours of filming capture much of Rivers’ life and do not only span from 9 to 5 because Joan’s life/career is not 9 to 5.  Basically, little is left out short of what she does in the bathroom. And what we see in that year is something sitting elbow to elbow with amazing.  When you think of 75, the senior citizen discount, dinner at 5:00 and penny candy may come to mind, which is completely laughable when you are allowed to sit in on Rivers’ life; it gave me a completely new perspective on the possibilities of the 70’s age.  She is fanatical about her work and her main drive is to keep her calendar brimming at the seams with book signings, stand-up comedy acts, her QVC appearances promoting her jewelry line (and yes, I have two pieces from it already), cruise bookings, and the list goes on.  Work is her crack and at times it seems to trump even her family.  In the documentary, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, describes her mother’s career as another member of the family called, “the career.”  This is the main focus of the documentary, but it is punctuated with so much of Joan’s life that we just don’t know about, such as what she looks like without makeup, the close relationship with her grandson, the shaky relationship she has with her manager, and how much she loves feeding bacon to her animals.

Before Rivers, the presence of female comedians on television was virtually nonexistent with the exception of Phyllis Diller.  She began her public career in the 1960s, appearing on TV while performing her stand-up, followed by her appearance in 1965 when she was 28 and first appeared on NBC’s Late Show with Johnny Carson.  There, she became a nightly staple before leaving the show and moved to Fox to host her own show, followed by famously being shunned by both Carson and NBC to this very day (she has since made an appearance where she spread dear departed Edgar’s ashes on the stage).  During her early TV appearances, she closed her stand-up act on television by saying, “I put out” and Rivers recounts the silent reaction from the audience.  She was also the first man or woman to address abortion in front of a live television audience.  Because of talking about sex, abortion and topics of the like that were considered off-limits for women, she was told that she was “going places that a woman shouldn’t go.”  Eschewing this “well-meant” advice, she continued to brand herself with her no holds barred form of comedy.

Now when you think of Joan Rivers, what comes to mind?  If you are the casual or seasoned observer, you probably think of plastic surgery, and it’s difficult not to.  Though it may seem redundant to comment on this, especially since her name, and really her face, are synonymous with plastic surgery, we need to address it.  In this documentary, we are given a golden ticket into Joan’s life and therefore, this documentary cannot be discussed without the surgery’s intimate relationship with age, career, femininity, and the struggle to stay, or at least appear, relevant to the public.

Despite Rivers’ strides in comedy, paving the way for such comedians as Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Sommore and even less known but equally noteworthy comedians Elvira Kurt and Poppy Champlin, the real issue that piques the public’s interest is Joan’s plastic surgery. In the Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers, the brunt of the jokes throughout the evening are at the expense of Joan’s face.  I also recently saw an episode of VH1’s TV show, Mob Wives, where one of the cast members comments on another woman’s chemical peel and compares her to looking like Rivers.  From ages 28 to 75, Joan has worked in show business.  She promotes herself,  writes her own jokes, is constantly on the move and literally never turns down work (she even comically offers to do a diaper commercial).  To what end?  All of these efforts are glossed over and the spotlight is shone on her surgeries.  She doesn’t want to retire because she loves this public life and she knows that she needs to make money in order to live the lifestyle that she chooses.  So what is she fighting against?  The main obstacle that she faces, as she puts it, is “it’s a youth [obsessed] society and nobody wants you.”  She’s caught in a catch-22–look young so that the public will still find you attractive and therefore hire-able/get plastic surgery in order to look young and society “[sees you] as a plastic surgery freak.”  She gets plastic surgery so that she will seem relevant, and then she is ostracized for what is expected of her because the public does not want to look at an old woman.

One side of the plastic surgery argument is that what Joan has transformed herself into is detrimental to women and that her decision to have plastic surgery is one big post-modern mess; she can change herself into whoever or whatever she wants.  She has changed herself, as much as she can, into the idealization of the Westernized woman with perfected Westernized features: skinny, blonde and straight hair, full lips, young-looking, thin nose, smooth and flawless skin.  Joan hangs onto the facade of youth, and the cosmetically altered younger version of herself is one that conforms to the epitome of what every woman in the world hopes to achieve.  The act of transforming yourself through surgery into an idealization of “perfect” could be seen as damaging and also a setback for women.  Plastic surgery is being used to make women look the same, and this “same” is a perpetuation of what is viewed as normative, and any woman who looks different from this is, whether by choice or otherwise, is “other.”

On the other hand, getting plastic surgery makes Rivers feel good, and this is where it comes down to the topic of choice.  Joan is pro-choice; she chooses plastic surgery.  Whether or not you are pro or anti-plastic surgery is not the issue here.  We can again definitely argue post-modern feminist theory here, but I offer another idea.  Please allow a tangent and let’s take the topic that first put Rivers on the forefront of subversiveness-abortion.  No one is pro-abortion and having worked an abortion clinic for two years, I feel that I can say that with some modicum of authority.  And I know, this debate has been beat up, teased, slapped down and pushed around, but if you are pro-choice, it means that you are pro the decision for a woman to have authority over her own body.  If you are an anti-choice man or woman, then you think that other women aren’t smart enough to make informed decisions about their own bodies.  It’s really quite simple.  So let’s apply this theory to plastic surgery.  It is a choice, and whether or not you approve of going under the Botox Cosmetic needle, the backbone of many feminisms is to support autonomy and let women do whatever the hell they want to do with their bodies.  Still with me?

I wonder if it is the plastic surgery that causes people to criticize Joan, or if criticism of her choices is really a front for what she’s been dealing with from day one?  She is loud, vulgar, considers no topic off limits, and doesn’t rely on a husband to financially support her.  These are all threats to the patriarchal dynamic of show business, which Rivers still claims is very much a boys’ club.  I cringe slightly at constantly comparing men and women, but in the media, men can be crude, unattractive, overweight, and even pass gas on screen, but We (with a big “W”) accept it and further, support its perpetuation.  To support my case, look at John Candy. He was overweight and one could even say less than attractive and yet he was always the love interest in his films (Uncle Buck, Delirious).  Let’s insert a woman here; when have you recently seen an unattractive or overweight women portrayed as a sex symbol (by unattractive and overweight I mean larger than a size 0-2 and has a nose that is wider than a number 2 pencil)?  Seriously, think about it.  Look at Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. When I saw it in the theatre, the audience gasped and whispered, “gross” and laughed at seeing her large and sagging breasts.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love John Candy, but this type of double-standard is indicative of what women must choose to either conform to or fight against, with the possibility of stunting their careers.  Rivers acknowledges this dynamic and chooses to participate in by looking the part, and yet at the same time by being a woman of power, she subverts her feminine look with her career and her voice.

It’s safe to say that anyone can deduce what my argument is regarding Rivers; I do think she is a feminist icon and she’s at the top of my list.  I also think it is safe to say that the issues of plastic surgery, masculinity and femininity in comedy, gender roles, youth, and aging are fluid subjects of which I have barely scratched the surface.  Whether you consider yourself a feminist and hate plastic surgery, would never call yourself a feminist and think John Candy is hot, or aren’t sure but think Joan Rivers is hot, your argument is valid and needs to be brought into the dialogue.  Joan began teaching us this in the early sixties and plastic surgery or not, we still need to give her props and assert our own choices through whatever vehicle we deem fit.