Naughty by Nature: Valerie Steele and Erdem Moralıoğlu on Vulgarity
The FIT Museum director and fashion designer discuss Jeremy Scott, Jean-Paul Gaultier, reality TV, and practically everything in between.
Illustrations by Victor Kerlow
February 06, 2018
The following interview between Surface contributing editor and FIT Museum director Dr. Valerie Steele, Ph.D., and the Montreal-born, London-based fashion designer Erdem Moralıoğlu took place in October 2017 in Steele’s New York City office. For our occasional Dialogue column, Steele joins a leading creative in an intimate conversation (interviews with the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, on happiness, and architect Michael Gabellini, on simplicity, preceded this one). Here, Steele and Moralıoğlu explore a subject near and dear to both of their hearts: vulgarity.
Valerie Steele: What does vulgarity mean to you?
Erdem Moralıoğlu: Vulgar can be something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Vulgarity is something that can intrigue you, that excites you—a very positive thing. It can also be a very negative thing.
Steele: I’m very interested in the idea of vulgarity as something positive or intriguing or attractive. To me, it seems like it’s absolutely negative—low, mean, common, vile, without taste, lacking cultivation.
Moralıoğlu: I remember playing mini-golf as a child. It was this fantastic plastic world that was quintessentially vulgar, but also a thing of beauty and really wonderful.
Moralıoğlu: Well, what’s the difference between vulgarity and kitsch? Or pastiche? Are these both synonyms for vulgarity?
Steele: There’s definitely overlap between kitsch and vulgarity.
Steele: Yes! Camp!
Moralıoğlu: John Waters and Divine—all of that.
Steele: But camp is self-aware. It’s joking that something is so bad it’s good.
Moralıoğlu: Can’t you be vulgar and self-aware? Tallulah Bankhead was vulgar—but just with her language. She looked chic.
Steele: Jeremy Scott is deliberately vulgar. But he’s doing it on purpose, and it’s ironic and amusing. And kitsch. I’m not sure that some of his clients get that. Maybe they just like stuff from McDonald’s.
Moralıoğlu: So vulgarity has something to do with context then?
Steele: I guess so, yes. And the question of self-awareness—I know you were included in the Judith Clark and Adam Phillips show “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” [at the Barbican in London in 2016].
Moralıoğlu: I’m not vulgar. Which is funny that we’re talking about vulgarity, because maybe people would think I’ve never really reflected on whether or not I’m vulgar.
Steele: Ninety percent, if not more, of the items in that Barbican show were things I would never call vulgar: an exquisite Madame Grès, a robe à la française, and on and on. Many of these things seemed like the complete opposite of anything that you would call vulgar, which I guess is what Adam Phillips was trying to play with. Mostly, I was thinking, No, no, this is not vulgar!
Moralıoğlu: I agree with you.
Steele: Adam and Judith made you think about vulgarity, even if they made you disagree with them. One of the things they talked about was imitation—was imitation something intrinsically vulgar? You see what they were getting at: If somebody can’t afford a diamond, they buy a rhinestone. There’s something certainly a little vulgar about that, especially if they’re trying to pass it off. But you couldn’t have anything in fashion without imitation.
Moralıoğlu: Everything has a starting point. It’s impossible to avoid history.
Steele: Even if you wanted to, you’d be incomprehensible.
Moralıoğlu: I was just in Los Angeles, and it got me thinking: Maybe vulgarity has something to do with insincerity. I was staying at Chateau Marmont, and it is full of this faux idea of laid-back bohemian-ness. There’s that very “curated,” self-aware look: ripped denim, large felt hat….
Steele: You’re absolutely right. It’s the idea of staging yourself to pretend to be something better than you are—or cooler than you are.
Moralıoğlu: Like Georgia O’Keeffe, with the big felt hat! [Laughs]
Steele: Right! At least she seemed authentic about it. These L.A. gals are just imitation and so ersatz. Their fake breasts—how expensive! Another thing connected to vulgarity would be excessiveness. Sometimes, excess is fabulous, but….
Moralıoğlu: This is a really great point. Maybe excess is actually a wonderful tonic to this time we live in. It depends on what’s excessive. Too much of anything will eventually make you sick.
Steele: I guess so. Although I’d like to be tested on how excessive some things could get!
Moralıoğlu: True. I was just at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this morning, and I saw painting after painting after painting. That was an excess of wonderful, extraordinary beauty.
Steele: I remember seeing a really beautiful robe à la française in the “Vulgar” exhibition, and it wasn’t remotely excessive, at least for those who wore it. It was normative for the aristocracy to wear that. And then, when John Galliano did it, it was deliberately ironic. His iteration was extreme, yet it seemed to me that neither his nor the original robe was vulgar.
Moralıoğlu: Beauty comes into it, which throws off the whole thing. When something’s beautiful, how can it also be vulgar?
Steele: Assuming vulgar is negative.
Moralıoğlu: Yes, I don’t think it has to be a negative. I think vulgar can be exciting.
Steele: It’s like bad taste, which is sort of a synonym for vulgarity. Diana Vreeland famously said, “Bad taste is better than no taste at all.” Too much good taste is sort of nauseating.
Moralıoğlu: It’s true. Even if you think about someone like Yves Saint Laurent, toeing that very fine line—some of the things he did at the time probably would have been considered quite vulgar or in bad taste. Even the trouser probably was considered vulgar because of the midsection he exposed. How funny, though, that this man who is a total legend—who is equated to chicness and Parisian-ness—would be someone who was absolutely playing with this line between good and bad taste.
Steele: Especially, of course, with the 1971 collection. Everyone screamed and said it was vulgar and monstrous and ugly and horrible.
Moralıoğlu: The wonderful reviews! The terrible reviews! [Laughs]
Steele: It was a great show. Anyway, I guess you’ve kind of proved that sometimes something can be totally perceived as vulgar one moment and then later perceived as fabulous and beautiful.
Moralıoğlu: Absolutely. Time can dull one’s sense of vulgarity. This point is interesting when you think about the ’90s and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Steele: Yes. Gaultier was really—
Steele: Everyone always talks about how Gaultier was transgressive because he mixed up sex and gender. I think he was much more transgressive because he mixed up good taste and bad taste. And all these supposed lower-class things—these horrible tropes like pictures of an Eiffel Tower on your dress. He would make cheap tourist stuff fabulous.
Moralıoğlu: Has your “Pink” exhibition happened yet?
Steele: Not until next year. [Editor’s note: The show, titled “Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color,” will be on view from Sept. 7, 2018, to Jan. 5, 2019.] Please think about if you have some fabulous pink things—it sounds so obscene saying it that way. [Laughs]
Moralıoğlu: I’ll send them your way! [Laughs]
Steele: It’s going to be a history of three-hundred years of pink. Some of it will be very vulgar, absolutely. Some of it, sort of cheap. I want to get lots of little pink toys and girl stuff.
Moralıoğlu: Very few colors imply something that’s both sexual and childlike. Pink is one of them. It’s two extremes. Pink implies something that’s infantilizing, but it also implies the boudoir.
Steele: It’s interesting to me that the color is so divisive.
Moralıoğlu: I love pink.
Steele: Me, too. But I ask myself, “Would I really wear a pink dress?” I’m not sure. What else could we talk about that’s vulgar? Here’s one! Maybe vulgarity is stuff that’s too popular and appeals not just to connoisseurs, but to everyone. Now that you’re doing this collection with H&M [which was released in November 2017], rather than just for your elite connoisseur fashion market, do you risk becoming too popular?
Moralıoğlu: There were aspects of this collection where I reacted against that idea very much. I designed the collection to disrupt the idea of what accessibility means. Specifically, I was pushing which mills we worked with. I think there’s something so fascinating about the idea of approaching a wider audience, but I was determined that it was something done in a chic way. I found myself thinking about doing a ball gown with like a hoodie over it. That kind of juxtaposition could be perceived as … is vulgar the right word?
Steele: I don’t think so.
Moralıoğlu: Same. It’s not the right word for mixing the formal and the informal. A hoodie can be beautiful.
Steele: We’ve been seeing this kind of mixing since the eighties and nineties. I don’t think a beautiful hoodie—or even an ordinary hoodie—is vulgar. Someone recently said to me at Paola Antonelli’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern” exhibition at the MoMA: “Oh, they have a hoodie in the show. A hoodie doesn’t belong in a museum of art!” I disagreed. I have no problem with a hoodie. Why not have a hoodie? It’s a classic fashion item.
Moralıoğlu: I found working with H&M a fascinating exercise because, up until now, my world has been very selective. Suddenly, with this, my clothing was available in hundreds of countries I’ve never been to, let alone that know what I do. [Looks over at Steele’s wall of books in her office] I’m so intrigued by all of your books. I find it really distracting to be here. Halston and Warhol—I don’t have that. That Diana Vreeland book! Immoderate Style! What’s “immoderate style”?
Steele: I guess it’s excessive, isn’t it?
Moralıoğlu: [Laughs] I suffer from the same disease as you. Compulsive book buying.
Steele: I collect books by Octave Uzanne, a journalist who wrote about fashion in the late nineteenth century. He did this teeny book about eighteenth-century hairstyles. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I went to the Yale library—they were supposed to have it. Gone. Went to the Lipperheide Bibliotech in Berlin—they had it listed. Gone. The librarian freaked out when I told her it had been stolen. Then I found it online, at a bookstore in Texas. Everybody was stealing it from libraries around the world! It was a vulgar little book because it was cheap. Poor Uzanne. His whole aim was to make really beautiful, deluxe books, and then some of the time, when he was running out of money, he turned out these cheap-o books. The drawings in it are kind of mediocre. It doesn’t have beautiful full-color prints by famous artists of the period—which he typically had in his books.
There’s a link between vulgarity and money. The class thing is central to it. People talk about nouveau riche people being vulgar. But if you’re someone from an old rich family, you’re not supposed to be vulgar by virtue of your heritage. If you have your wooden yacht and your old top-siders and your nice old house on Marblehead, that’s not vulgar. But if you have a McMansion on Long Island and you’re wearing a Gucci bathing suit, then that’s vulgar. The classic new money, old money debate: Where would fashion be, though, without new money? Nowhere.
Moralıoğlu: Exactly. Not to talk about my own experience, but I find that having a store in London is so interesting. When I started, twelve years ago, I thought I had a very clear idea of who my woman was, where she was from, where she shopped, all of these things. Turns out, I absolutely didn’t. Every day is someone completely different. I suppose maybe that’s more of a reflection of London, but this idea of old versus new, where they’re from—I don’t think any of that means anything now.
Steele: It’s all mixed up because in a global world we can’t really read the signals. If you showed me two good-looking young Indian guys, could I really tell their class background? Probably not. This makes me think back to the first time I went to China, in ’78, just two years after Mao died. It was all uniforms and bicycles. Then, a year or two later, in ’79 or ’80, fashion was starting to come in, and I saw these young guys wearing their sunglasses with the label still stuck over the glass—to show off the label. It was the price sticker. This was actually wonderful to see them doing this. It was vulgar, but it was fabulous.
Moralıoğlu: The first time I ever had my collection photographed was for an editorial in a Sunday supplement in London. The stylist took this rather Victorian top I’d done, with buttons all the way down the back, and she put it on the model backwards, turning it into something quite….
Steele: Vulgar. [Laughs]
Moralıoğlu: And louche. It was a literal turn.
Steele: Yes. Sexing this up, radically. That’s rather wonderful. I remember seeing a private collection of underwear in Moscow that was absolutely extraordinary. As you can imagine, under the Czarist period, it was beautiful. Then, under the Communist period, it was terrible. The collection included Gulag underwear! I saw silk underwear for men with a hammer and sickle embroidered on it. Then in a German museum I saw men’s silk underwear with a swastika embroidered on it. The saddest, most pathetic thing I saw in the Moscow collection was East German ladies lingerie that some communist official had bought for his mistress. It was so cheap and tacky and horrible, but it was so much better than the Soviet stuff. He brought this awful thing over, but she must have been so thrilled to have gotten something so sexy. Even if everything about it was wrong, it was better than the homegrown stuff.
The more democratic a society is—and the more mass culture there is—the more vulgar fashion is going to be, I think. If you have a small group of elite tastemakers who are controlling it, it may be boring and constrictive but it tends to be elegant. The seventies was the decade that taste forgot, because everyone was deciding for themselves what they wanted to wear.
Moralıoğlu: To me, what really is vulgar is the idea of homogenous media—that everyone watches the same TV show, talks in the same way, aspires to be one type of thing. Vulgarity, in its truest sense, is something that’s gross and limiting more than anything. Actually, maybe that’s it. Where we are at right now—when you turn on the TV and see a “reality” situation. To me, that feels vulgar, where you see people mimicking something. If something is already vulgar and then someone is further mimicking it, it becomes almost menacing.
Steele: Yes, reality TV and certain reality TV stars who become powerful—that’s vulgar. It’s dangerous to the point where you start to wonder: Maybe bad taste isn’t just aesthetically bad, it’s also morally bad. Reality shows actually make people worse. The more people watch them and copy the people in them, the more the worst of us comes out.
Moralıoğlu: If vulgarity is purely a visual thing, can morals come into it? I don’t know.
Steele: Well, vulgarity is always going to be about context and interpretation. I guess you can’t say that any individual object, per se, in and of itself, is vulgar. But why it’s made, who wears it, when, why, all that context would make it so.
Moralıoğlu: Vulgarity’s just a part of life. Where there’s beauty, inevitably, there’s some something that’s ugly. You have to have ugly in order to have beauty.
Steele: But maybe it’s only in human life, because I can’t think of any vulgarity in the plant or animal kingdom.
Moralıoğlu: A monkey might not like the smell of another monkey. That’s rejection. And maybe that rejection has something to do with a monkey’s interpretation of vulgarity.
Steele: Rejection is often because the other one is ugly: “No, sorry, you’re not sexy enough for my shirt.” So in that sense it could be vulgar.
Moralıoğlu: But we’re using the word widely.
Steele: We’re misusing it at this point. [Laughs]
Moralıoğlu: We’re throwing the net wide into the animal kingdom. But I’m sure the average monkey has moments of feeling what vulgarity is.
Steele: I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, since we share so many of our genes with monkeys. That they must have some of that aesthetic sensibility, too.
Moralıoğlu: Never underestimate a monkey. [Laughs]
Steele: We’ve now decided that we can make a word mean whatever we want it to mean. Vulgarity is an angry monkey—a pissed-off monkey. [Laughs]
Moralıoğlu: We’re ending this conversation on an angry monkey? I’m picturing him now, our angry monkey, in a pink dress. With a hoodie!