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Jewelry According to BillyBoy*: An Interview with the Avid Collector of Haute Couture Accessories.


Dallas shop Lou Latimore, ad for BillyBoy* jewelry. Courtesy of BillyBoy*


BillyBoy* has had many loves during his lifetime, thus far. From designing clothing and “artwear”, writing about his muse Schiaparelli, collecting art, sculpture, rare antique and 20th-century dolls and toys to re-designing Barbie for Mattel, which set precedents for the doll. He is also known for amassing an important haute couture fashion collection, the largest privately owned in the world.

BillyBoy* as pictured in New York Magazine, 1984. Image courtesy of BillyBoy*.

BillyBoy* has really nailed exactly what fashion jewelry is all about. His pieces are whimsical, have great scale, reference fashion history and can be found in museums like the Metropolitian Museum of Art Costume Institute, Musée du Louvre, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Kyoto Museum of Art and many others. Since the 1970s he’s been cited in reference books and as of relatively recent like Fashion Jewelry, The Collection of Barbara Berger and the first 1990s edition of Jewelry by Chanel by Patrick Mauriés (nearly everything in the book belonged to him). His work is in important art and jewelry collections worldwide. He has become the “go to” expert for museums and auction houses when they have pieces which require identification.


BillyBoy* as pictured in New York Magazine, 1984. Image courtesy of BillyBoy*.


His significance as a collector and preserver of haute couture accessories and clothing cannot be understated. He started at the age of 14 when he found a Schiaparelli hat with an gilded insect on it at a Parisian flea market. He began collecting early in his life, when haute couture pieces could be found for mere dollars, if one knew what they were looking for…. He is a highly regarded fashion historian with a collection of over 12,000 significant pieces of clothing and accessories chronicling the work of designers such as Dior, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Poiret, Chanel, and of course, his great love Elsa Schiaparelli. These last two designers he met as a child in the mid-1960s prior to their deaths. He also had the pleasure of having known nearly all of the last truly Old School haute couturiers in Paris and Italy such as Pierre Balmain, André Courrèges, Mme Grès, Jacques Griffe and Maryll Lanvin amongst many others. Items from his personal collection have sold at auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillip’s and Artcurial in Paris setting record prices. He has also assisted with dozens of museum exhibits on these subjects. BillyBoy*, in his early 20s already was a certified expert in France at the Union Française des Experts and for decades assisted the commisseur-priseurs like Camard, Millon, Tajan and many others at Hôtel Drouot in the heart of Paris.

Givenchy, Bettina and BillyBoy*. Photograph provided by BillyBoy*.


BillyBoy* Surreal Couture, invitation for the Fashion Show at the Fashion Institute of Technology, (F.I.T.) 1980. Drawing by Amelia Faulkner. Courtesy of BillyBoy*


With his new first book of memoirs called Frocking Life: Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli, published by esteemed Rizzoli Publishers International, which will be out on May, 24th 2016, his fashion endeavors continue. He’s looking forward to many future publications concerning his experiences in the worlds of fashion and art. He is also finishing a series of books specifically about his collections, each book will be organized by theme including Haute Couture Jewelry and Schiaparelli Haute Couture Jewellery.


Givenchy, Bettina and BillyBoy*. Photograph provided by BillyBoy*.

Who is BillyBoy*?

BillyBoy* opened his atelier/showroom in Manhattan on Park Avenue in 1975 creating art work and wearable art style clothing, called “artwear”, which caught the eye of fashion influencers and the press such as Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily.  He soon included accessories and jewelry made under the moniker Surreal Couture. Diana Vreeland and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in America are said to have called him their protégé and Yvonne Deslandres (founder of the Union Française des Arts du Costume … U.F.A.C … in the Musée de Louvre) called him her spiritual son and they took him under their wings. Andy Warhol reportedly called him his muse and “the last Superstar”. He participated in now-iconic exhibitions on this new genre of fashion and art such as Regalia at the Henri Street Settlement in Manhattan in 1980. He was voted Man of the Year In England in the mid-1980s and a Modern Legend by British Vogue in the 1990s, notably for his work as a contemporary artist mixing art with jewelry.



Bettina Graziani and BillyBoy* Front row at YSL show. Bettina wearing Surreal Couture plane brooch. BillyBoy* in the 1970s, Surreal Couture.Atelier Rue de la Paix, 1983. Photos courtesy of BillyBoy*



For several years after amassing the world’s largest Barbie doll collection including many hundreds of them uniquely dressed by haute couturiers and alta moda designers, he was a consultant and designer for the first Barbie dolls with a designer’s name on the box, one in which was calledFeeling Groovy Barbie.These Barbies had an emphasis on his costume jewelry, as Barbie wore exact replicas in miniature of those he created for Bettina Graziani. He created an exhibition, now iconic, about these dolls which traveled throughout France and the United States from 1984 until 1988. As the muse to Andy Warhol, he was depicted in a painting as a Barbie doll, the painting being named “Portrait of BillyBoy*”.While this story in itself is an interesting one, today our focus is on Surreal Bijoux, which involves the likes of Diana Vreeland.


After he “retired” and moved to Europe in the late 1970s, his jewelry career really began. He started making and giving away jewelry when, a friend, the iconic 1950s fashion model Bettina Graziani, with whom he had a close relationship, urged him to start selling it. One day while she was having lunch with Gerry Stutz of Henri Bendel’s fame (she was the owner), they decided to call him directly and persuade him to do a show, which he did and it sold out in one hour after opening. Meeting, his soulmate and now husband in life in 1982, Jean Pierre Lestrade (known as Lala) played an important role in the creation of his art as well as the Surreal Couture/ Surreal Bijoux fashion and jewels which followed. They created a non-profit foundation to help artists in Switzerland in 1997, which has an active website. They also created a manifesto based upon an artwork of theirs which took the guise of a doll called Mdvaniiism : www.fondationtanagra.com and www.mdvanii.ch

What do you ask an iconic jewelry designer whose family was close to Salvador Dali, who drew pictures of him as a child and teen, who spent time at Andy Warhol’s factory, had friendships with fascinating people from Andy, William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and Liz Taylor to Sid Vicious, Erté and Alexander McQueen?


The Interview and Jewelry Image Archive:


1. How would you define fashion jewelry? Why did you choose the medium you chose for your jewelry designs, as for the most part they were costume elements? Speak about the Pop art elements and recycled aspects a bit….

BB*: I don’t really think one can define it really because it can be so much. What was considered good fashion jewelry in the past are considered iconic works of art now. Just look at the works of Jean Schlumberger, Alberto and Diego Giacometti, Elsa Triolet, Countess Cis Zoltowska (I knew Jean and Diego and Cis personally, she was a true character!) Lina Baretti, Jean Clément and François Hugo, all who made jewels which now are thought of as art works. There are hundreds and hundreds more in Paris who did the same thing, though lesser known. In time, I hope that people will learn their names and hold them in high esteem. As long as you can use a piece of jewelry, even if not wear it, you can use, in a way, to make you think. When I started in the 1970s many of my pieces intentionally were not really wearable, and I felt that it was fine and good like that. If looking at it can be a good experience, if it made you smile or just think (even if those weren’t always happy thoughts) that was what was important to me…what counted was how someone would relate spatially and cerebrally to it and if it made them either happy or think differently, to see it and feel it, that was my priority.

I always chose to make art work with my stuff, so it could be just about anything. I think I was working in the true definition of Surrealism and Absurdism. At the very beginning, it was not a matter of wearing it, but understanding it as a work of art. I used irony and camp, sarcasm and poetry to express some very deep feelings within myself. I made a necklace of live insects inside a plastic flexible tube, I wore a live lobster tangled in fake pearls, I wore a gilded doll’s house wardrobe (a free standing closet) which opened to reveal a diamond heart as a brooch, which I later gave to Yvonne Deslandres as a birthday gift. I embedded diamonds in trash I found on the street. These things, at least some, eventually evolved into my doing more jewelry for people to wear, than as a thing to contemplate and see exclusively as a work of art. This happened when Bettina Graziani insisted I do something for Bendel’s. It struck my fancy because as I’d worked with them even earlier than that date, in the 70s, I was nostalgic and thought it could be fun. Lala and I used the old-fashioned chalky plâtre de Paris with stones in the Old School manner we had made by the parisian artisans which were still around back then. The joke was that the chalk would rub off on the expensive Norman Norell and Bill Blass suits the clients wore. I found it rather funny. I wanted to make the point, like Elsa Triolet had with her jewels, that anything worthless can be made beautiful and incorporated into something to wear. For my work, I used “recycled” things, like Dinky toys, broken 18th-century porcelain and dried out starfish painted gold, in my mind at the time, they were overlooked things which were poetic.


Surreal Bijoux cuffs, 1985. Vogue. Archive image courtesy of BillyBoy*


2. You did create a small amount of “fine” jewelry examples that are rare to find today, in both sterling and gold. Do you have any examples in your personal collection? What was the difference for you in terms of working in those mediums versus other materials?

BB* : I did create precious metal and real gemstone jewels (sometimes used zircons which was new at the time) for a while for special people who requested it. They were truly absurd as they were big and uncomfortable, but nice to look at. Lady Gaga would have loved them had she been around at the time. I used white, pink or yellow 24 karat gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Very few exist and I lost contact with most of the owners, some died and some just went off my radar. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. I have one or two pieces myself. I did a whole show of them in the late 70s. Those were Russian Constructivist-inspired. Only some of these were eminently more wearable and pretty.


The Absolut Vodka company, thanks to Andy, asked to do Absolut BillyBoy* in 1987. I was the third artist along with Kenny Scharf to be part of that campaign. Andy was the first with Absolut Warhol and then Keith (Haring). Kenny and I simultaneously were asked at the same time. So, I did a scarf (in a thousand examples) with a drawing of mine, rather cartoon-ish, on it. This was made by the manufacturer who does Hermès and Chanel scarves. Acompanying it were a series of 1000 jewels. The scarf and jewels were given as gifts to “1000 of the most successful and influential  women of the United States” according to the PR the Absolut company had. Many famous ladies I personally knew received a set. Simultaneously the owner, Michel Roux who is now deceased, ordered a series of 20 sterling vermeil, rock crystal and ruby pieces for himself and ten in 24 karat gold.


ABSOLUT BILLYBOY*, brooch in gilt metal with pâte de verre stone, the bottle engraved ABSOLUT and painted gold, ruby cabochon, 1 out of 1000 examples, 1987. Courtesy of BillyBoy*


3.Why did you call your jewelry Surreal Bijoux, explain your experience with Surrealism and it’s importance to you for those readers who know only the basics of your influences?

BB* : I knew many famous Surrealist artists and authors as a child and teen; Bill Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Leonor Fini (who designed the Shocking perfume bottle), Dali, Diego Giacometti and many others. They inspired me and made me love this genre of artwork. I first founded Surreal Couture and then in Paris did Surreal Bijoux, on Rue de la Paix, number 6, right next door to where Schiaparelli started her maison de haute couture (she was at number 4).

I had the luck to have the opportunity to chose this property and then buy that place. I did not start Surreal Bijoux immediately when I moved back to Paris, but not too long after acquiring rue de la Paix Lala and I decided to do it there. In the beginning the president of Christian Dior and his wife were partners but after a month or two I bought them out because they wanted to create a big business with a big commercial vision they had. I did not share this idea for my work, so after a difficult negotiation, I bought them out for more than they paid for their shares. They argued that I was going to be wildly successful and they wanted a compensation for my sudden desire to own the company entirely. So I paid them quite a lot more just to retrieve their shares. I wanted to work exclusively with my partner Lala. He was a well-known singer and had just launched his first single, Jolie Fille D’Alger when we met. You can find it on Youtube.


Image of the original authentic Schiaparelli sketch from 1941 with is now in the U.F.A.C archives at the Louvre. Courtesy of BillyBoy*


4. Why Elsa Schiaparelli? What about her versus any other designer captivated you so deeply?

BB* : Well, that is a very long story which you will be able to read in my upcoming Rizzoli memoirs (May 24th 2016 is the publication date for the moment). I found a hat at the puces de Clignanacourt, and I had a full-blown, full-blast metaphyscial experience. I had met her a number of times as a child and it was only about two or three years she had been gone, back to the world of souls that this odd hat and I found each other. I literally tripped out of my mind into a dimension of absolute love when I physically picked up that hat. It was truly an experience which required a whole book to explain. For me, she is someone I have a soul contract with.


BillyBoy*, Dallas. photo by Ivy Ney. Courtesy of the designer. Rights reserved.

5. How did she influence your jewelry? What are some other designers that have captivated your imagination?

BB* : It’s not that easy to explain, but having seen so much of the early Jean Clément and Roger Jean-Pierre jewels, they had a chunkiness and a hand-made look and feel which I found enthralling. I liked the contrast of the brutalistic fastenings and the way her jewels were juxtaposed against the luxurious and refined materials. I also had a huge fascination for the odd colours and peculiar contrasts.

I have had many friends and acquaintances who were jewel designers like Kenny Lane as well as artist and jewelry-maker Andrew Logan…. I met and befriended in varied degrees, nearly all the others from generations past like Mme Gripoix whom I knew since 1973 and Roger Scemama to Robert Goossens and I am sure they influenced me in some way or another. I love the hand-made aspect of costume jewels. One of the greatest kinds of luck I had was to be able to know, befriend and work with the very last remaining old school artisans who were by then near the age of retirement, but still active. I knew Mme Gripoix, Scemama, Cis, and Desrues and worked with them all. I worked with Lukés who did some of the first Chanel jewelry, and the company Janvier who did Chanel’s chains and when I designed chains it was these artisans who made them for me. I worked with Gripoix and others in the field of pâte de verre and emaille and all the stones Lala and I designed were made by artisans who were established over a hundred years by that time. Apart from these stones and elements made just for my own jewels I had access to old stock and used wonderful beads, stones and strass from these now iconic names. Swaroski at the time was a name nobody except those in the business knew. I still have hundreds and hundreds of exquisitely wrapped stones by them in colours made just for me. When I first started and throughout my career in Paris, I had this amazing privilege to be part of this old school community. They were my friends and fellow artisans who contributed to my success. It was a pretty closed community, but once in it you could consider yourself there for life. It was very rewarding and very satisfying to work this way. Now that it is gone, and I see how branded jewels are made, nearly everything is made in China, the Orient and India, I miss it and have a little nostalgia for it. Some of the French ones were bought by Chanel and industrialized. It also makes seeing all the horrible errors in descriptions I see today, in the world of collecting European costume jewelry that much more annoying… I often I read completely incorrect evaluations and descriptions. I almost feel it’s my duty to pass on the real information I have and the experiences I have had. To summarize it I could say, not every Gripoix jewel was for Chanel, not every quirky piece of pre-war French figural jewelery was by Schiaparelli. Besides, most of these jewels were designed and made outside the haute couture house itself and was actually designed and made by others. Jean Clément for example was an unsung hero up until these last two or three years and still mostly nobody knows about him. Though only of late, I see his name bandied about and incorrectly attributed to others who worked in a similiar vain, such as the company Doliet and Création Art et Décor.They made things which resemble Clément and we are years away from dealers understanding the differences.

6. How important was Diana Vreeland to the trajectory your work took?

BB* : I was her protégé. I cannot underestimate how much she helped me and her devotion to me and getting my work “out there”, as she’d say. She did so much for me and opened so many doors for so many things. She shared her experiences and her knowledge and she introduced me to friends of hers who later became friends of mine. She taught me the word pizzaz and her ideas on what real chic was. She told me that I had a natural and instinctive sense of chic and she found it very amusing since I was so young.This meant a lot to me as I was always so aware of my strange alien type features and body. Her encouragement helped me get over my doubt about my own skinny awkward looks.

Naturally, I also was deeply flattered and honored. She was truly one-of-a-kind. I am not sure people know to which extent she was unique. I know she is greatly admired and respected and iconic now, but there seems not to be anyone like her with that amazing generosity she had and that vibrant love affair with life she had. When branding came in in the 1990s and real haute couture died when Yves Saint Laurent passed away, people as brilliant as Mrs Vreeland stopped becoming renewed into the world, or so it seemed to me. I think this kind of magic will come back, but perhaps not soon. Isabella Blow was one of them but her tragic demise made her stay here on earth brief.

7. While I’m on the subject please indulge us on Diana Vreeland’s jewelry collection-did you ever see it? Do you own any pieces belonging to her? What was her taste in jewelry like? Did she have a piece she wore most that you noticed?

BB* : Of course I saw it, she showed me everything, as I was so curious to see the real thing! I was like a slightly mad little puppy bouncing around and wagging my tail at all the beautiful things she’d show me and telling me their stories, I was in rapture. The real deal of what was what and who was who was mesmerizing. She gave me a number of things I cherish like a pair of Schiaparelli Schlumberger-made baby frog women’s cufflinks which are as big as the real thing and I also bought some of her things, notably the authentic Chanel Fulco di Verdura cuffs when she had her sale at Sotheby’s in the 80s. She had the real deal and the copies by Lane, which I did not buy.

She was into the dramatic, the pieces which had some reference, like Saint Laurent pieces from the Russia-inspired collection or the China-inspired collection. She wore a big thing, some sort of animal tusk (it looked like a wild boar’s curved tusk) as a pendant which she wore long or short by inserting it through the end and making a choker which had the tusk dangle on the side and she wore a wide variety of cuffs, notably Indian-style ones in I think bone, which looked like ivory. She wore them with grace and cuffs are not that easy to wear and she wore great YSL chain belts. Like when one has long manicured nails and you use your fingers more stylistically, wearing cuffs make you use your hands in a very elegant and different way. Diana has wonderfully expressive hands, always manicured with bright red polish.

She also liked heavy, dramatic and unusual chain necklaces. They looked Etruscan or ancient and though they had a great simplicity had drama as well. She wore a lot of my jewelry and in the sale of her jewels there were one or two pieces of mine. I think she kept some for herself and later gave many pieces to her family.

When I first met her in the late 1960s, I was still a child, but I vividly recall she still wore turbans or wraps around her hair with antique military medallion brooches pinned to the top; sometimes one, sometimes two. She wore great old Chanel pieces and a lot of Kenneth J. Lane who made special pieces for her too, as I would later on. Kenneth Lane did great copies of other designers and as I mentioned earlier, she had “Verdura” style cuffs reproduced by him.


The only person I know still alive, whom I do not know personally is of course Mrs. Iris Apfel. Those I do know are wonderful people like Barbara Berger who wears jewels too with a Vreeland touch. I haven’t of yet met a young person with the exception of my friends the stylist Catherine Baba who truly knows about how to wear jewels and clothes. She is almost a time traveller from the past as the use of drama and flair with fashion is inately in her. The other person is Monsieur Laurent Mercier a.k.a Dragoness Lola Von Flame, who is my “drag daughter”. She totally get’s it too. I invented the word Dragoness (a mix between a dragon and a Countess) for my late friend Maxime de la Falaise and Lola needed a title so I said she should be a Dragoness as well as if she did not accept the title, the era of Dragonesses will have died out, like dinosaurs. I am sure other chic woman and even men still exist who wear jewels like Diana but I’d have to sit down and think for a while to come up with whom. I think anonymous, unknown ladies (and perhaps some men) are still out there with that special understanding of jewelry, but they are a dying breed.


Catherine Baba photographed in items from the collection of BillyBoy* – the white dress is haute couture Schiaparelli and once belonged to Marlene Dietrich. A gift from her to BillyBoy* Photo courtesy of BillyBoy*



8. For the BillyBoy* jewelry collectors? What do you see as your most iconic and important themes or pieces?

BB* : That’s hard to say. I have never really thought in such terms, but I think it’d really be dependent on what kind of collector you are talking about and what that someone would want to do with the pieces by Surreal Couture or Surreal Bijoux they may have or collect. It is what matters to the collector in their life that would define the answer to your second question. I know some people tend to really gravitate towards those huge pieces I did as art works and which are probably the most eccentric. When they come up for sale in auctions, notably in Europe, they sell really well. I know museums have been buying them too. These pieces, the collectors I know display or wear them rarely and like them, – I suppose, for the concept and the contrasting ideas in them, the way art works should be appreciated as. For example a wonderful collector of my work lives in Hamburg, Germany, her name is Christiane and she has truly some of the most remarkable pieces I have done, some we custom designed and made just for her. She inspired me many times. It’s a very exciting type of relationship; the kind between myself, artist and herself, devoted collector. She has what I could say are the best of the best of my work. Her collection has the most lavish surrealist pieces I’ve done and just for her. She has not just one piece but the whole parure: necklace, pendant, earrings, a pair of bracelets and several brooches all with the same theme and all matching.