That Victoria Bartlett decided to name her conceptual line of body-focused clothing. VPL says a lot about her and her brand. - and yes, it stands for what you think it does, 20-plus years in New York have done nothing to diminish this Brit's cheeky sense of irreverence. While there's a cerebral drive behind VPL (Bartlett is a deep arts lover), she approaches her work with the same lightness she portrays in person; giggling and taking you into her confidence, you get the impression she'd be a blast on a night out.
Having started out as part of the first wave of celebrity stylists - Stephen Klein was a long-term collaborator - Bartlett launched VPL in 2003. The line of graphic cloth. ing with an athletic spin appealed to the same strong, independent women Bartlett so admires. Underwear has always been central to the VPL oeuvre, but Bartlett eschewed hyper-sexualized, ultra-girlish garments for something more architectural, directional and, ultimately, powerful. Now she is distilling her aesthetic and reinvigorating the staid world of workout gear by evolving VPL into activewear territory. Thanks to her singular vision and sharp sartorial vocabulary, the results are energetic, graphic and sexy - just mot as you know it.
Laura: Let’s start at the beginning – were you always interested in fashion?
Victoria: Growing up in London, you’re immersed in it, so I was very much into certain styles and genres in my teenage years. I actually started at art school and went into fine art. Then while I was there I fell in love with this guy who was going into fashion, so I decided, ‘OK I’m going to change’. I didn’t completely convert but went into textiles. He was very much involved with the Bodymap lot. All the shows from that time were amazing, they were really left field. I think that really influenced me.
How did you make the leap to becoming a stylist?
I worked with a couturier in London and also with some young designers. When I moved to New York there was this surge of Brits coming here. I fell in love with the city and decided to stay. I ended up doing a line with this designer Jeffrey Costello - who then actually started VPL with me – [but] we failed because we were so young we didn’t know what we were doing! We didn’t have a business model. Then I got into fashion illustration, then I ended up styling, which was very different then because it was a newer thing.
Now it’s totally oversubscribed.
I think the whole industry is over-saturated. It was easier to be directional then, and so when I got into styling I did a lot of musical styling. I partnered up with Stephen Klein and started working a lot with him. I ended up at Allure as the fashion editor [but] hated working in an office. I was working with [fash- ion editor] Polly Mellen though, who I love. She’s the last of that generation of women, who were so independent. She supported young designers, big designers, she passionately believed in fashion and she was hardcore.
When I left Allure I went to Interview and set up the fashion department. It was great, at that time Wolfgang Tillmans was shooting, Juergen Teller, Bruce Weber, Mark Borthwick, a really exciting group of people. It was a really inspiring time; you could do anything with fashion. You weren’t given a list of advertisers, now it’s a bit like doing advertorials! It was freestyle, you knew what you wanted to do and you did it however you wanted, wherever you wanted.
Why when everything was going well did you change direction to design?
Stephen [Klein] always said to me ‘You’d be really good in films because you look at the whole concept, not just the clothing’. The thing with styling is you never own it. In a funny way, you’re kind of a schlepper and get the blame for everything. If you ask any stylist they’ll tell you that!
And carry a lot of bags.
Yep! A lot of bags, a lot of responsibility. I love styling and I love the idea of creating these stories, but I wanted to go back into creating something and had this idea to do a concept-driven capsule collection that bridged the gap between lingerie and sportswear. It wasn’t about satin, wires, and lace - lingerie that’s behind closed doors – it was the opposite, going back to the 1920s and ’50s when bras were more structured and almost slightly masculine. It was sexy in a non-‘T and A’ way. I’m really into the Bauhaus so I had this whole industrial element with the color blocking. I wanted to liberate women [by giving them] things you could wear like wearing jewelry, layering it and styling your outfit in different ways.
Recently VPL has evolved into this more activewear position.
I’ve always referenced dance, always referenced the body. I did all those shows that had active components, a skateboard show, a gym show. So we did the same thing that I did in the beginning, which is noticing a missing component and creating a new platform. You’ve got fashion, and you’ve got active and people were doing ‘active fashion’ but no one had done ‘fashion active’ - taking fashion back to its origins but converting them into performance fabrics. I was fascinated by all these fabrications. It was the challenge of experimenting with these new fabrics, but coming back to my roots and keeping the DNA that I’d created. [VPL] had grown into a bigger demon so refocusing was the most inspiring thing.
So would you put VPL in an activewear bracket or is it more multifaceted?
This is taking fashion and translating it into the active fabrics. For me, it’s a hybrid and has this double shelf life. There’s this new lifestyle where everyone’s fit and really fashionable. You can wear it to work out or to go out, it’s meant to travel.
That speaks to the modern woman because we are multi-faceted. I have my own aesthetic, but still, have to dress for different occasions.
That for me was always the challenge, it was always about the modern woman and I always referenced it even when I started VPL. To me, it was about liberating women and the idea that we are individual and we don’t need to be told what to wear. I guess being a stylist brought in the idea of having these components that you can style up in different ways. So for Pre-Fall, I did polar fleece tuxedo sweatpants that you can wear them in the evening or work out in – it’s that modern concept.
Who is the VPL woman?
I’ve always had someone like Tilda [Swinton] in mind, who’s strong, really independent, and fit, but I hate totally categorizing one person. Now I'm working with a lot of dancers. It’s good to have a broad spectrum of women.
How would you like women to feel when they wear the brand?
I want them to feel liberated. There’s a freedom, it’s about feeling independent and looking individual. You can play around with it.
Let’s talk about the name VPL. Is that British sense of humor still important to you?
Yeah! I’ve always thought, having been in fashion so long, people take it too seriously. I think with anything, you have to be able to have a laugh; you have to be light about it in some way. When people get lost and start taking themselves too seriously, there’s a danger zone. There’s something liberating about finding something light and I think to do it in a name is a clever way.
It’s very British to be able to poke fun at yourself! Part of what is central to the brand is bringing what’s underneath to the outside, and yet, you distinctly eschew those typical ideas of ‘sexy’. You said earlier ‘I don’t do ‘T and A’ and Simon Doonan described the first collection as ‘anti-boudoir’. So I wondered what is sexy to you?
For a while, women got cornered into this concept of what’s sexy. It was a very male point of view of what’s sexy; you have to wear satin, you have to wear lace. I wanted to break the cliché. A woman can feel sexy without it having to be a really low plunge
I also think a woman’s back is one of the sexiest parts of the body, back openings and back details have always been important. It’s an interesting way to redefine what sexy is. To me the ’20s and ’60s were the most modern, radical times in history – there was this ambiguity with sexuality. For me, those moments in history were very relevant for women and I’ve always been very inspired by that. Burning bras in the ’60s inspired the biker-tank, which is you can wear without a bra.
Are there pieces that you consistently return to yourself?
The bras, which I’ve done for years. I’ve got one on today actually. People say it reminds them of a ’20s gym bra. It’s a consistent seller and I think it’s nice to have something that becomes your DNA. I’m not a person who believes in doing trends every season. People like Margiela and Helmut really defined their DNA and kept at it; for me that’s a really integral part of design, not always having to do a whole new thing. There’s more of a challenge in staying within the DNA and doing variations, morphing it and playing with it. That’s why I love a lot of our core pieces.
How would you like the aesthetic to be described?
It’s very consistent; we have a very strong brand DNA. I think if you hold up a VPL bra you can recognize it. We’ve been copied a lot. I guess it’s flattering as well as annoying! When we went into performance-wear we spoke with this guy in Portland who’s done a lot of activewear and he said, ‘It’s really good to have someone like you doing this because your dialogue is already there. You hold up pieces from most active brands and you can’t tell the difference, except for the logos.’
Collaboration seems important to you. What would be your dream collaboration?
I believe in that whole Bauhaus concept of people working together and collaborating to make a bigger picture, point or statement. The ’90s was a very ‘me’ generation. I don’t think that needing to control something betters a brand. Sharing, collaborating, you see it more in the art world; it’s only in the last few years that the fashion world’s become more about collaborating. I’ve always collaborated, with jewelry designers, artists, with LD Tuttle on shoes.
Who’d be my ideal? Probably an artist. I’d love to do something with Nike too because I think they’re really smart at putting those collaborative settings together. And I’ve always wanted to do something with Hanes, the most classic underwear company who’ve really only conquered men’s.
Living life at the pace you do, how do you stay sane? And nice – you seem very nice!
I never understand the whole thing that celebrity, or notoriety, should change you. I think that all comes down to insecurities when people become another person. I also need to not only be with people in fashion. A lot of my friends are in the art world and I’ve done a lot of collaborations with artists. Those things are my passion and keep me really alive. I need those.
Photographer: Ben Lamberty
Stylist: Romina Herrera Malatesta
Hair: Cecilia Romero Using Rene Furterer
Makeup: Maki H. @ Wall Group
Stylist Assistants: Carolyn Brennan & Samantha Rex
Hair Assistant: Stanley De Vaughn
Makeup Assistants: Kohey Domoto
Producer: Chelsea Maloney @ See Management
Models: Lena Sparrow & Alessiya Merzlova @ Supreme, Anastasia Kolganova & Maria Flavia @ Next
Casting: Jorge Morales @ Worldwide
all clothing in this portfolio: VPL A/W 2014