John Galliano described him as “part painter, part stylist, part pirate”. Julien d’Ys considers himself as a multi-media artist. Hell yes! He’s a stand out creative director, makeup artist, photographer, painter and set designer. As a celebrated hair master he’s been defying convention for over three decades with his creations for the likes of Chanel, Azzedine Alaïa, Balenciaga and Lanvin. Since 1979 he’s been inextricably linked with Comme des Garçons and its founder Rei Kawakubo. Julien d’Ys calls their relationship magical. “She pushes me to go very far.”
Pierrick Le Verge, which is his real name, was born in 1955 in France. From his early beginnings until now, he’s impressed the fashion industry with the most visionary creativity from oiled black wigs, and towering neon yellow bouffants, to candy-floss creations smothered in safety pins. The hair master thinks nothing of it.
Julien d’Ys has always worn his own hair long - except when he was a small boy. “It was cut short and I hated it!” laughs d’Ys. He grew up in Brittany, were he lived until the age of 12. “As a kid I was a bit difficult, I never wanted to be an adult.”
He always loved to create things. At first he wanted to get into architecture, or be a stylist. “Later I decided against it. I had this gift to create, so I started with hair.”
With his long mane, and signature period-style coats, Julien d’Ys looks like he just walked straight out of the Dutch Golden Age. He often feels like he’s a reincarnation from the 17th or 18th century. “I love those times, there was inspiring beauty in everything. The clothes, the architecture, the way people took care of themselves a little bit more. One’s coiffure was of the utmost importance, and people wore incredible wigs, like hats of hair. Think of the extravagant Marie Antoinette. People looked sensational in 17th century Paris! Even in the 20th century, they would go to the Opera all dressed up, and women were obliged to wear wigs. It was like a fairy story, a dream fantasy.”
Ah yes, wigs. D’Ys makes them. No he has never been a wig collector. The only antique wig he owns is a Marie Antoinette style, a gift from the Paris Opéra Garnier. D’Ys used it in 2004 for Madonna’s Re-Invention. With a sky-high coiffure the Queen of Pop was photographed by Steven Meisel, for her World Tour promotional posters.
Since 2005 d’Ys has been creating unique wigs for The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. D’Ys created the most quixotic conceptions for The Model as Muse, and the AngloMania exhibitions.
Julien d’Ys atelier is in Paris in the center of the popular Marais district. When entering the enormous century-old mansion with six-meter high ceilings, you see an office, and a lot of small rooms. The largest room is d’Ys atelier where the magic happens. Curious how it looks, and how d’Ys works? Check the YouTube video made for The Model as Muse exhibition in New York. “When I arrived [at the studio], in downtown New York, it was an empty white space. Within two days I made it my home, like my atelier, with paintings, wigs, sketches, and photos; the space was metamorphosed by my creativity and inspiration. I even transformed my hotel bedroom into d’Ys style. Everywhere I go, it’s like this.”
D’Ys presumes he inherited his eye for beauty from his mother. “She was my inspiration. She had amazing style and was very beautiful. She had people making clothes for her, and hats too; she loved fashion and to look ‘en vogue’. When in the 50s she saw models with short hair, she went to the barbers for a haircut. She always wore her hair short after that.
“The last time I cut the hair of French actress Laetitia Casta, she asked for short hair because she wanted a new look. I showed her a picture of my mother when she was young, and Laetitia wanted the same cut. It was very elegant and not at all masculine.
When I do hair, I look at the face and personality first, and then I know right away what is going to work. A bad coiffure can destroy a person completely, and I am shocked when I see a beautiful woman spoiled by a horrible haircut.”
For a fashion show you look at the clothes, not the person.
“Yes but the way I work for Comme des Garçons, the hair is a reflection of the clothes. Indeed, the hair is an essential component of the creative expression. A show must tell a story and make people dream. Music, hair, models, makeup, lighting, the space; for CDG everything always works together - every element interconnects.”
You like to make people dream. How important is that now and when did you start?
“Now and always! I think I realized this was important when I started working on special beauty shoots with the American photographer Irving Penn. He always brought fantasy and the makeup was very important, as was the hair, the model and the styling. Then I realized we were making a dream picture each time.
When I see pictures from 15 years ago, they’re not at all dated; they’re all still very strong, relevant and timeless. Last week I worked on a fashion story for American Vogue, I used flowers to create a flower woman, and it was beautiful. I just played with flowers like they were hair.”
How would you describe your beauty style?
“I think it’s timeless, I’m a romantic, that’s why I love the 17th century. But I don’t subscribe to a period or a certain time for influence, let alone trends.”
Did you have inspiring ‘hair’ heroes when you started out?
“Not really. But I always liked ancient mythology; the Egyptian Empire, and Marie Antoinette. I’ve always loved the 40s woman, the style was beautiful. There was French woman called Cléo de Mérode, she was the muse of all the sculptors and painters, on pictures she looks beautiful with long dark curly hair. But special heroes? No, I love people with a strong character.”
What do you think of today’s universal glamour look?
“I like it when women are very feminine. But the trend for hair right now is like ‘no style’, it’s just natural! The look is very long and shaggy hair; it’s like the woman I created for Peter Lindbergh 20 years ago when we were shooting all the supermodels.
Where makeup is concerned, it’s often too much; too much warpaint. It seems to be a trend for many young girls to wear too much makeup, wanting to look like a Kardashian, especially in America.”
Do you like what has been happening on the catwalks over the last ten, twenty years?
“I don’t think so… everything is very fast and commercial. All the models look the same! The clothes too! The shows move so fast and all the girls go boom, boom, boom. Luckily some designers differ; Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, and Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld always work with a concept for their shows. The reason I like working with them is because they want something special.”
What’s the magic that keeps you going back to CDG each time?
“She [Rei Kawakubo] trusts me so much and she likes the way I work, so that’s why I’ve been doing all the makeup and hair for years. I think the collaboration between us is very magical. It’s always interesting because she pushes me, to the edge and beyond. It’s quite ceremonial too when I work with her, and the team from Japan is super professional. I create the drawings, and then I have to bring them to life!”
Do you feel a pressure then?
“A little bit, but I prefer working with deadlines. If something is slow, I don’t like it. For example I recently did a photography story with Michèle Lamy for Odda magazine. We started at 11am and finished at 4.30pm. In that short time we did 8 looks! I know exactly what I like and that’s why it goes boom boom boom.”
Besides Comme des Garçons you rarely do fashion shows.
“Last year I did a Lanvin campaign and show. At Lanvin they like my creativity a lot, and what I did was perfect for the show, and it worked with the collection. But it is difficult to do other shows because it’s so good with CDG. Also, working with others takes too much time and energy. And, I need to be connected with the people I work with. I like Albert Elbaz a lot, but we don’t have the same kind of connection I have with Rei Kawakubo.”
You used to work a lot with John Galliano who once described you as, “part painter, part stylist and part pirate”… What about that pirate part?
“I think it’s my blood… pirate blood from Brittany. I am a little rebellious, and I think I have some pirate or Viking in my blood. I’ve always liked the idea of being a pirate because my grandfather was a fisherman and sold lobsters to Africa, yes it’s in my blood.”
Isn’t it a pity you don’t work with John Galliano anymore?
“It is a shame I don’t work with Galliano anymore. I love to share my ideas with him but now… I don’t know. No. I don’t want to ask him, I don’t like asking people. If they want me, they want me, and they will come to me.”
When Grace Coddington called and asked you to do a shoot with Kendall Jenner for American Vogue you did it!
“I was shocked at first, but yes I did it! I don’t much like the Kardashians reality show of their everyday life, although I admit I’ve never watched it! Grace really wanted me to do the pictures with her; she was really pushing. I did a very 1920s Chanel style shoot at Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment. By the way I like Karl Lagerfeld a lot, he is very much like my grandfather. That’s why I was very gracious.”
What is your project at the moment?
“I just photographed Michèle Lamy for Odda, an independent fashion magazine, she and I are like two crazy artists. The images are exceptionally strong. I call the way I work punk classicism: it’s very traditional and very Dada. For this story I wasn’t just the photographer - I did everything: styling, hair and the makeup. Now I’m working on the layout and compiling the pictures.”
Do you want to do more photography?
“Yes, I do like to create images, and play with color, it’s like photographic painting and fascinating. However, I don’t like the technique, or the camera, but I’m getting used to it. I don’t want to be called a photographer because it is only one part of what I do. I am more artistic. But all my life I’ve worked with photographers and now, what I see, I can do. Recently I’ve done about four stories, for Love Magazine among others.”
I love your sketchbooks, you must have a lot?
“Yes, hundreds! I started sketching in books in the 80s. In the beginning they were very small, but in the 90s I started using a bigger format and now they are all like that. I have so many! I want to publish them! It’s one of my future projects because it would be very interesting [for the public] as I have so many images from the shows I’ve done.”
What would stop you doing hair?
“I will never stop working with hair! I just want to work with people I love, and I’m so good with hair and the creativity of hair so I don’t think I will ever stop, but I have started with photography. I have a lot of plans, there’s a good energy right now! I feel I’ve changed over the last months. For some reason, I want to interact more now, and get involved in more art projects… sometimes I’m too much of recluse.”