Circa 1976 image of Billy Boy from his archive.
Let me begin by stating that Frocking Life, BillyBoy*’s new book is worth it’s weight, but if you are faint of heart proceed with caution. His explanation of interacting with his first Schiaparelli acquisition, a hat, crosses over into an almost divine experience. He openly talks about his life’s journey which yes…gasp… involves, dare I say S E X…. However, I promise his emotional and physical partners are always enthralling and lead you down a path that brings to life fashion, art, and culture. His in depth more personal description of Elsa’s journey brings to life more details as well as a clearer path in terms of how she became an icon. Where many historical depictions of Elsa, skim her early failures and successes, through his collection of personal letters and beyond, Billy breaths life into her story. Anyone who has seen his creations, met, or read about BillyBoy* probably understands that this is an individual which one can NOT know well from one interview or meeting. He’s got layers, sometimes too seemly fantastic to comprehendimmediately. It is very similar feeling to glimpsing a multilayered deep chocolate fudge cake, then being told it is from an ancient secret cacao source? I will tell you, after having gotten through a bit of his layers, that I am biased andthis review will be a bit unprofessional (Lucky that I am not a newspaper writer, I guess- but I promise it will be factual not factoidual:) Initially, of course I enjoyed the book, because I want to know more about the designer of Surreal Bijoux-the jewelry I enjoy so much. However; now this has led to insights on someone who has become a friend. Just when I think well let me focus on what I am enthralled with about his work, he throws out things like well you know I used old Gripoix sample stock earrings on many of the dolls?
Marisa and BillyBoy* at the Schiaparelli show, with Go Go Marisa’s mother.
The book is for fans of his creations, but it is also for those who have any interest in fashion, vintage, Schiaparelli, or life really, because he throws very deep and juicy details out throughout the book. His candid life’s experiences seem almost to great to be true, but they are, as you see by connecting the dots to his work, collection, sketches, and photographs all very real. So, if you are doubting how someone can have meet so many amazing iconic people, refer back to my original interview with him which is chalked full of photographs. I enjoyed this book, as it challenges us to look again at it’s subjects were made of and the notion of what fashion and such artists were like before social media and reality TV. It’s the description of icons in their candid older years and tales of some of them in real interactions, that reminds us how life used to be lived and hopefully inspires one to just get a “Frocking Life”. Here, he’s searching for Schiaparelli, whose own life shaped how he saw the world in part. However, as interested as I am in Elsa…I still cannot get passed the steamer trunks full of old couture he collected or his descriptions of hunting vintage pieces in New York and Paris, when they were ripe for picking. His relationship to fashion is enthrallingly realist, yet stepped at the same time in fantasticalness.
Outfit made for Daisy Fellowes 1929-30 by Elsa Schiaparelli, from Frocking Life.
It is in this deep conversation that we get very dear and special glimpses of Elsa’s not so glamorous and inspiring beginnings as well as her personality as seen via his first hand account of speaking with the mentor’s daughter in the 1970s.
He quotes Perrine, daughter of Paul Pioret: “They really appreciated each other’s company, and when my father had financial difficulties, it was Schiaparelli who came to his aid…At one point, he was in deep financial trouble and she’d rally all the designers around to give him help. But not in a humiliating way… she was so elegant and so devoted to him. I know he much appreciated her work…She wore his clothes and he was very pleased by that, he said she wore them to perfection….”(Frocking Life, 173).
BillyBoy* Book Review Interview:
Let’s start with a discussion of our custom made Surreal Bijoux box, which BillyBoy* and LaLa insisted on making for a 1980s surreal mouth necklace and earrings set, that Iwas obsessed with….and well had to have.
*Why was the box so important to competing this set, which was originally done in the 1980s? *Great question! Well, when I started Surreal Couture, as you read in my recent book Frocking Life, Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli,…it was about doing things organically and things which were not necessarily wearable. My only objective was to create artworks which was commentary and reflection about fashion and what fashionability meant. Back then, I used to make the jewels almost as installations, to be used as sculpture… I did boxes, stands, sets, scenarios, and all types of way to complete the work. Quite regularly and each piece I did had some set up ranging from simple to elaborate. When Lala and I were doing Surreal Bijoux on rue de la Paix in Paris, we did that much less, though we did still do it regularly. Lala understood the idea immediately, organically and as if by osmosis. These last years, let’s say this last decade, we decided to go back to our roots, or rather my roots and we decided even to go all the way back to Surreal Couture manifestos I wrote as early as 1972. We focused on doing many of our creative processes and things as I originally saw them, and I may add, we also went back to ideas Lala had as a young artist at roughly the same time I was thinking these things up. …. back then, when someone purchased the necklace from Surreal Bijoux, I wanted it to be the fullest expression of Surreal Couture and Surreal Bijoux combined. We do this now whenever any piece is sold. As you know we studied and worked on your piece for quite a while and I am delighted with the results. It’s funny because Lala says he sees me in the piece and I see him.
He is very gifted with so much that we do. We have a funny expression about our osmosis. I once said that “I am the genius and Lala is the one with talent” as a joke but he repeats it since 30 years or more by this point. I know someone could be mean and throw this joke back at me for having said it publicly, but it’s true. Lala has an incredible understanding of what I really need to say in my work and I believe I have a total understanding of his needs as co-author of the works we do together, our work is alchemistic and follows all Wiccan, if you will, “protocol”. It expresses completely my Wiccan origins, my belief in love spells which my mother taught me…and it is a tangible object which is the metaphysical existence of the soul contract I have with Lala. As I feel our work is not that easy to understand and perhaps some people possibly don’t understand us, I have to work harder to allow the work to be as organic as possible but the nomenclature must be clear. I want the work to let people know who I am and who my soulmate Lala and I are.
*I love the blue lip painting, Why blue? AH! As I may have mentioned to you when we’ve chatted, colour is an important part of Wiccan energy and like things such as feng shui and other various affirmative rituals in the world, colour is of great importance in our lives. Since I was a child, I had to sleep in a violet room, with pink incorporated with gold. I have maintained this all my life, so far. Violet is the furthest on the spectrum of the rainbow and blue is right behind, which can symbolise sky, water and earthly delights. The blue was essential for this piece as it was to surround the pieces inside…and protect it. As a double Pisces, water is my element and this box is a way of protecting it’s Wiccan powers and the energy Lala and I put in your hands, so-to-speak. We entrust you with our work and it comes along with it’s own magick spell.
*What was the original inspiration for the lip necklace? There were several, clearly one is Schiaparelli and Man Ray. But also it represents sensuality and life, fertility. At the time I was very much into the leitmotivs of the Dadaists and the Surrealists but they have a Wiccan significance as well. In the Bible it signifies various things notably doctrine. The mouth also is the center of many of the fundamental aspects of our humanity. Lips can mean consumption, breath, romance and speech (as in any kind of doctrine). It is communication, interaction, almost a door to the soul. As the mouth of a river, it assumes the meaning of a door, a gate or an entrance which can lead to another realm of existence. Andy Warhol even named a blue after me called Billy Boy* Blue and some silly déclassé society woman named her race horse Billy Boy Blue after me. Blue is one of my colours aside from those I mentioned. One other thing, rather hard to explain but poignant is my Wiccan mother’s views on the existence of life on earth and my role in her life. When we did the small painting on canvas incrusted into the box, we distinctly were recalling some very personal things my mother spoke to me about regarding her views about non-earthly space travel vehicles. These things my mother told me have been always a subject of discussion between Lala and I. They range from ridiculous to serious discussions and the idea of this spaceship is represented by the blue lips.
Book: *The text is very candid and really helps one to understand many motivations behind your work is this why you choose this subject? You could have focused on your collection or jewelry, you had done a book already on the dolls? As you already know, Rizzoli really wanted a memoir of myself because the huge manuscript they bought after reading it, they’d decided it was too academic and that, for a publisher is a fancy way to say fewer people would like to buy and read it. The original manuscript, while I tell anecdotes, was literally every single thing of every single year I had uncovered about Schiaparelli and I had detailed outfit by outfit descriptions for each collection she ever did as well as every license and every anecdote and document I had. Rizzoli felt the fact I knew and still know many people in a diverse array of milieu and some of whom were highly identifiable and in our current zeitgeist, they wanted my story mixed in. So, I did it though I was a bit disappointed to do so. It was difficult only in that I had not anticipated doing a whole new book and I had exceptionally many important life things to deal with including my mum’s suicide. So, though it was written through a ring of fire, the result is what it is…though hybrid, I think it makes sense when you read it. I cannot be objective. I was battling endlessly with copy editors and in total, I think there were five. They really did not know, in my opinion, what they were doing or even reading and it slowed the process down. If they had their way, I am convinced there would not be much reference to my spiritual and metaphysical journey…which is ironic as it is the singularly only thing which counted for me. The very first time I spoke to the publisher of Rizzoli, the first thing I told him was my metaphysical journey was the most important thing I wanted in the book and asked him if this would be an issue to which he replied “no”. Nonetheless, it was and I had to really battle with quite frustratingly unenlightened copy editors. Listing my own pieces would not have been an option as I already had plans for other books to deal with the various collections on academic levels, and these will come out, hopefully, on a more regular basis now that this “BillyBoy* 101” is out.
*Where did your name come from, you’ve hinted you did not give it to yourself…Is it somehow related to your real family? You don’t have to give details but we must know how such a great calling card was attributed to you My real name is Billy and my surname Boy. I certainly did not give it to myself as it’s not the kind of conspicuous name I’d want though I am proud and happy to have it now as an adult. The surname Boy originates in Berwickshire many hundreds of years ago. There was an Earl of Berwickshire (in some way related to my families) who was surnamed Boy. My real family who were purely Austrian and my adopted family who were purely Russian were linked and knew each other for literally many generations. So, with the English name Boy, through this British link, I guess it all got put together and I was thusly named, so vôila, … my adopted family did not follow through on the name agreed upon with my real family which was long and stodgy and decided this was the best solution. That’s what was always told to me…as vague as it is. I had severe issues with my family about my adoption and had many years of suffering and temper tantrums to find out more and even on the eve of my mum’s suicide she refused to tell me one single thing more about it. She always maintained that it’s best I not know about “all of that” as she’d say. So, I finally accept that as gospel and not longer suffer in that regard. The eve of her death I told my mum I forgave her all and everything and hope she forgave me and we were very happy at letting go of all old issues. I had no idea she’d kill herself, so I feel blessed this occurred before that finality. I found great peace, even after her death, knowing we’d arrived at a mutual agreement on my origins and all the issues of the many years where it was unbearable for us both.
*You were not born in the US, but I do feel you really grew up very touched by the culture until you left in your teens- so I kind of want to claim you as one of us. How important was your time in New York to your identity? Hahaha, sure! I am fine with that, you can claim me as one of your own. I’m touched and flattered. Thank you. I am Swiss though as you know. And I may add very proud of my Swiss nationality. I cannot imagine life being any other nationality. Did you keep the collection you sent over in the LV steamer trunks, do you still have most of it? Yes, I have essentially everything still, though now it’s grown to unreal dimensions. I had to buy a factory to house it. I will one day de-acquisition and finally sell it privately to major museums whom already solicited me for a variety of different things in the collections. I don’t want my family to have to deal with it and certainly not my son, he’d be lost in it. As much as he lovesit, it’s not his nature to keep and store and take care of so many ephemeral and fragile things.
Reading about the time in New York I started to dream about going to one of those packed apartments..How many were there full of vintage couture clothing? Did you leave an storage lockers or apartments by chance so I can just take over:) Those trunks held masterpieces that rival the best of the best but they also had Bugs Bunny dolls and Eve Plumb memorabilia. Those trunks held everything which had meaning for me, so a lot of art, jewellery, haute couture, Pop culture…in my book I mention things I traveled to the Chelsea Hotel with….so you can get a good idea of what they held in them. Unfortunately for you, dear …there are no longer any empty apartments filled with my stuff. I finally got my life together and it’s better organised now. Those trunks were transformed into works of art which have been shown in various shows around the world.
I was very impressed by your descriptions and Schiaparelli’s life from a more detailed stance, which gave me a sense of who she was emotionally. To speak to this, you mention her letters….Do you have an extensive collection of first hand historic documents concerning her or her own letters? Oh yes, I am an avid documentarist. I have literally thousands of documents, letters, photos, all sorts of personal things. Go Go Schiaparelli gave me things from her mother, like Le Roi Soleil flacon designed by Dali, some jewellery which Schiap owned and wore (though did not design or have anything to do with it’s creation), her initials entwined in silver dating to maybe 1900 or so, something she wore as a young girl and later, a few things, costume jewellery in bakelite with her initials, which were hers as an adult. These pieces are not valuable unto themselves, they are not fine jewellery, but to me they are priceless. You know, I have saved every single letter, card, invitation I’ve ever received, it’s hundreds and hundreds of archival boxes and books of documents. I have collected letters from the most famous people in the world, to completely unknown people whom I had experiences with, or loved. Seeing it now, a number of these people in fashion and the arts can sort of be, to an extent, summed up and you get an idea of their work or life incredibly well. As for my collecting documentation, it’s a fascinating experience and is very thought-provoking. It has always given me helpful insight into things I was not able to fully comprehend. It adds so much dimension to a story and to the history. I guess you can see the humanity of iconic people (and even events) through the remaining letters, documents, photos and even things they owned or were made at the same time. What I don’t like, which happens occasionally, is the way someone implies the reason why I am (and others) can be so passioned by collecting documentation is linked to something fetish-y. I preserve these things, not stroke them delicately at night. Apart from this one slightly annoying thing, all of these elements are always very interesting for me. I was fortunate to be invited to some extraordinary events, and shows, fashion défilé etc and as an ensemble when I see it now it seems almost to summarise some of the mondaine events, but also some of the most outside the box underground culture that existed during 1970s up until now. I think about doing something creative with it all …like books. I will show it on my Youtube series no doubt. It’s called Spinach is Fashion and will debut in the late spring and it is going to be a show and tell of all kinds of cultural and lifestyle-related things. I wanted it laid back, casual and friendly. I hope it’ll be perceived as such.
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