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Val Garland on Storytelling with the Dame of Disruption

Make-up magician Val Garland looks back over a decade of working with impresarios Westwood and Kronthaler, not to mention an almost life-long obsession with the original punk's clothes

InterviewSophie Bew

Val Garland is responsible for an endless number of iconic beauty looks that have infiltrated the visual culture of this century. An eminent creative, Garland lets her wildest imagination run free when working with her long-time collaborators Sam McKnight, Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of pioneers Westwood and Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key collaborators. This interview with Val Garland is one of a series of discussions outlining the curious and colourful world of Westwood.

AnOther Magazine: I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about how your relationship with Vivienne and Andreas began?

Val Garland: Well I think I started working with them back in 2006, I think they were already working with Sam McKnight. I just got the option and off I went to work with them. The first time I worked with Vivienne and Andreas, I don’t think they liked what I did.

AM: Oh really? Why’s that?

VG: Well because I hadn’t worked with them before and I came in as a make-up artist and we had the discussion about what we were going to do and so I went ahead and did the make-up to whatever the brief was and just before the show Vivienne came along and went, “Oh no, no, no that’s far too perfect, no, no, no,” and kind of rubbed lots of the make-up off. She left it a bit mucky and I didn’t think I’d get booked again, I thought “Well she obviously didn’t like what I did, probably because it was too normal, it was too ‘make-up-y’, it was too nice.” So the next time I got to work with her and Andreas, I thought, “Right, I’m going to have a different approach, I’m going to be a lot more childlike and a lot more painterly, in fact I’m just going to do it a lot rougher,” and so that’s what I did and she loved it! And it worked! You know I always walk into a Westwood fitting and think that if it’s wrong, then it’s probably right, if it looks like, “Oh I don’t know if that’s going to work”, then it’s probably the right thing to do and that’s how I do it. I think that because we have worked together for such a long time, with Sam McKnight as well, we all know each other and we bounce off each other.

AM: Were you a bit horrified on that first occasion? Or did you take it with a pinch of salt?

VG: On that first occasion, yes I think I was a bit horrified, but that was fine. Then there was another time when Vivienne wanted all the boys and girls to feel like they were at a festival. They had all come together from different parts of life to be at this gathering, this festival and so we had lots of different characters and on one of the girls – she looked very pretty, sort of secretary, a bit slutty – I got one of my artists to write above her eyebrows in metallic, “posh totty” because she was sort of a little sexy secretary.  Then when we came to the line-up, Vivienne and Andreas were going along and looking at things and Vivienne got to the girl with the “posh totty” eyebrows and just smudged it off again and I mean it still looked good in this sort of rainbow, colourful smudge, and I thought, “Well if that’s what Vivienne wants, that’s what Vivienne wants.” Then it was funny because the next season I went to work with her, she took me aside and went, “Oh I’m ever so sorry Val, that I rubbed your makeup off at the last show”, I said “Oh it doesn’t matter it’s only make-up, it looked great anyway” and she said “But I didn’t understand what it said, I didn’t know what ‘posh totty’ was”.

“They’ve both got their individuality but they’re a unit and she will refer to him as he will to her and they look to each other for acknowledgement” – Val Garland

AM: Do you think if she had understood she would have left it there?

VG: I don’t know, at the end of the day it’s about what your designers want. It’s funny because in recent shows, Andreas has said “I want no make-up-make-up, I want no make-up” and I’m like “OK, fine” and that’s what we do and it comes to the rehearsal and Andreas will lean across and go “Do you think she needs make-up? Do you think she needs some gesture?” and I’ll be like, “Right, OK.” But I’ve got such a great team that we always make a quick scramble to get it together before the show actually starts.

AM: Has working in that way inspired any of your other work? Do you work like that with many other people or is it just with Vivienne and Andreas that you have that?

VG: No that is with Vivienne, that’s how you work with Vivienne and Andreas but my work is kind of like that anyway. I do like to do make-up in the moment and be very spontaneous, so that seems to work for me.

AM: How do you view her tenure as a fashion designer? Do you have any way to describe her?

VG: I think she is a very important person, in fashion. Her knowledge, her history of everything to do with art, history, fashion, textiles, fabrics, patterns, whatever, is unsurpassable. And I think she’s often referenced, if not indeed copied, by a lot of people. I see it in other designers and I think, “Oh that looks like a bit of old Westwood”.

AM: Do you have any way of describing the work you have done with her? Are there any words or references you would use?

VG: Childlike; bonkers. I think those two would probably describe it best. It’s always a bit painterly, there’s always a gesture, it always feels like they could’ve done it themselves really. It always feels like kids in their mum’s dressing room playing with her lipstick. We have fun with it, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

AM: Being such a fashion veteran as she is, it’s interesting that childlike is one of the words used to describe her, maybe that has something to do with her longevity, what do you think?

VG: Yes I agree with that statement, because I think it always keeps it young and it always keeps it very interesting. I think because she doesn’t take herself too seriously, I think that’s why she’s constantly being looked at by new generations of fashion people, fashionistas, other designers, what have you...

AM: And do you think not taking yourself too seriously leaves you that space to create?

VG: I think the thing about Vivienne is that she is super intelligent and very emotional – she’s got more important things to be emotional about now than mere fashion. She’s a huge campaigner and that’s what really lights her fire these days. I think she can use her vehicle of fashion to help get that message out more.

“You can obviously see they have great admiration for each other and indeed love. It’s a great combo to be around” – Val Garland

AM: And what about Andreas? What’s your impression of him?

VG: Oh he’s fabulous: he’s gorgeous, he’s naughty, he has a great sense of humour. Naughty and passionate – those are the two words I’d use to describe Andreas, because he’s passionate about what he believes in, he’s passionate about what he’s creating and he’s very excited about what he’s creating now for the label. And I think that shows in the clothes.

AM: How do they work as a couple in practice?

VG: I’d say it’s almost like it’s one person. They’ve both got their individuality but they’re a unit and she will refer to him as he will to her and they look to each other for acknowledgement. It’s very lovely. You can obviously see they have great admiration for each other and indeed love. It’s a great combo to be around.

AM: Their historic references situate them in their own time frame, it’s outside of everyone else’s, do you enjoy working like that?

VG: Well I think anything that gives you more of a hook of the story, it gives you more of an idea of the woman or man that they’re feeling this season. They are both great storytellers and it’s quite funny because she will have her story and he will have his inspiration behind that collection and then Sam will listen to that, I will listen to that, and I will go off and make my own story that complements their story. Then I will interpret it to my make-up artists. We’re all storytellers. We’ve got to have a story that makes us go “Oh, OK, now I get it, I get it: I get who the woman is”.

“We’re all storytellers. We’ve got to have a story that makes us go ‘Oh, OK, now I get it, I get it: I get who the woman is’” – Val Garland

AM: Is there a particular woman that comes to mind? Can you describe her or is it fairly free-flowing?

VG: I think it’s a total free-for-all and you can see that, Vivienne and Andreas want to appeal to every woman and every man and you can see that in the characters that come to the show: long, tall, short, fat, skinny, young, old, there’s a Westwood garment there for everyone. I think the Vivienne Westwood person is eclectic. Who is that person? It’s a magpie. It’s a magpie!

AM: Do you think it’s quite universal then? There’s something there for everyone?

VG: Yes I do, and because Vivienne has always had diversity on her catwalk and has always looked at different people and tribes. So it is a global person that she’s wanting, and he’s wanting, to dress.

AM: Do you have any favourite collections? Or any favourite moments, that really stand out in your history with her?

VG: Well I know that Vivienne’s favourite show is the show that we call ‘Horses’ [Vivienne Westwood Gold A/W11]. It was one of those times when make-up wasn’t childlike at all, it was quite dark. I can remember going into the fitting and I went up to Vivienne and said “So right, what are we? Who’s our woman? Who’s our man? Who’s our character for this collection?” And Vivienne just looked at me and said, “Horses”.

AM: Where did that come from do you think?

VG: “Horses”, she just said, “horses” and I waited, and waited, and waited, and not another word was uttered and off she went. So I went back to my team and I’m like “She just said horses” and I’m like “OK, let’s get up some images of horses, let’s look at the markings, let’s look at their pelts, let’s look at the colouration on their fur,” and so I said “OK, that’s what we’re going to do: we are only going to use one colour, it’s going to be black, all the makeup is going to be black and it’s going to be kind of a zebra – which is a form of horse. A zebra sort of marking and we’re just going to do different facial markings.” And it was quite dark and when it came to the rehearsal I was like “Oh my God”, they’re both going to say, “Val you’ve gone too far”. I mean there was one of our models that one of our make-up artists had done and she just had this big black hole where her mouth was, or had been, and it looked like she had been eating coal and they loved it! So what I like about working with the two of them is, it’s always a tangent, it’s always a cross-reference of inspiration, opposites always attract. Nothing should go together and somehow or other, it all gets mixed up in a washing machine and comes out as a cohesive thought, it all seems to be like, “Right OK, that works”.

“Vivienne and Andreas want to appeal to every woman and every man and you can see that in the characters that come to the show: long, tall, short, fat, skinny, young, old, there’s a Westwood garment there for everyone. I think the Vivienne Westwood person is eclectic. Who is that person? It’s a magpie” – Val Garland

AM: I wonder why we all like that so much, can you put your finger on it?

VG: I think it’s because we live in such a constrained, contrived, politically correct, balanced world, that it’s just nice to let off a bit of steam.

AM: What do you think will be their legacy?

VG: I always think of Vivienne as the dame of disruption, right from the word go. I mean I wore Vivienne Westwood long before I’d ever met her or ever did a show. I used to live in Australia and I used to call World’s End and get them to send me a box of clothes and they would, and I’d send a cheque in the post. It was just such a trusting sort of thing.

AM: Was that just your mindset? You bought into it essentially and handed over a cheque? Amazing.

VG: Yeah you get a box of clothes and it’s fantastic.

AM: And you didn’t tell them what you wanted?

VG: No, they would just send something from the latest collection, a big box, quite a few outfits and whatever I didn’t want I’d sell to my friends and we’d send the cheque back.

AM: It must have been quite exciting when you started working with her then?

VG: Oh it was amazing. I’ve always been a fan.

This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.