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First you find it weird, then you come to love it
The "Ugly Genius" of Julia Heuer’s patterned, pleated world
Welcome to Concorde, a bimonthly edition of Blackbird Spyplane where Erin takes the lead. You could call it a women’s vertical, but the insights, intel and “cute swag information” transcend gender.
Our interviews with such luminaries of the arts & sciences as Jerry Seinfeld, André 3000, Nathan Fielder, Danielle Haim, Phoebe Bridgers, Rashida Jones, Lorde, John Wilson, Ezra Koenig and more — are here.
The full Concorde archive lives here.
Julia Heuer — she’s out of control when it comes to these prints. Few contemporary designers are on her level (Dries? Collina Strada?) when it comes to crafting all-over polychromatic stunners perched beautifully on the border between “luxuriant flyness” and “sublime chaos.” No wonder Björk (below right) rocks her s**t !!
As a lifelong Pattern DJ, I’d be all in on the strength of Julia’s prints alone. But then she ups the d*mn ante with intricately hand-pleated fabrics that she cuts into sculptural, inviting shapes. Her clothes are so airy and springy that wearing them can feel like walking around in your own personal bouncy castle.
Julia’s from Germany, she honed her craft at the Danmarks Designskole in Copenhagen, then worked at the 100-year-old Swiss textile company Jakob Schlaepfer, creating prints for Christian Dior, Comme des Garçons, and Calvin Klein, among others.
She launched her namesake line in 2017, and ever since then she’s been putting out extremely beautiful and irresistibly weird clothes with a small team from her studio in Paris’s 20th.
The other day I (Erin) was stoked to hit her up on the SpyPhone to talk about:
her fantastic fall collection, which drops in full this Thursday
how the best things can disturb you when you first see them
using ancient artisanal methods to create hyper-contemporary designs
how getting over-the-top “dressed up” is the KISS OF DEATH for a fit
And more unbeatable topics!
Concorde: Something I love about your prints is how they always feels slightly “off,” in the sense of surreal. I think it’s because you hand-paint everything first, then digitally manipulate it. Why do you work that way?
Julia Heuer: “Basically to achieve exactly what you described. The way I approach print designs is to try to stay away from a too-digital, too-clean, too-unliving pattern. I want to give it this richness that I can only achieve by starting with analog ways of painting.
“I do all the prints by myself — they could start as a watercolor, as stains flung from brushes, or spray-paint on leaves and flowers. Then I scan or photograph them and work the prints digitally. It’s like a big collage, or like doing a second painting, but this time with hundreds of layers in Photoshop, changing the colors and playing around with layers — adding a little bit here, taking a bit there, until you feel it’s come to life.”
Concorde: Besides your prints, your name has become synonymous with pleats. The label people associate most with pleats, of course, is Issey Miyake. But whereas they use heat-press technology for their plissé pieces, you use a labor-intensive, traditional process called arashi shibori, which is where you bind fabric with string by hand and roll it around tubes, then heat it. Why such an old-school technique?
Julia Heuer: “I was introduced to that technique at design school, and felt drawn to the very three-dimensional relationship it allows you to have with textiles, since usually it’s flat. I was always interested in going into a sculptural or costume direction with textiles, and I enjoyed the way that, using so little means — all you need is an oven and a tube, really — I could create these effects myself.”
Concorde: Your clothes can be really voluminous. There’s oversized tubular sleeves, fluttery asymmetric hems that trail along like seaweed, dresses that mushroom around the hips like hoop-skirts… How do you make — and exert control over — such crazy shapes?
Julie Heuer: “Those big skirts and sleeves and flared pants are all shapes that are specific to the shibori process: The fabric changes its shape permanently in the heat setting, while it’s rolled around the tube, so it also has this really round dimension to it. That’s very different from a flat pleat that you create in a machine, which would have a fold if you bent it too much, but the shibori pleat has a soft curve when it’s bent. This is how we create those voluptuous sleeves, or the skirts with that round, sculptural aspect.”
Concorde: The thing is, your clothes are surprisingly rockable, too. Like, I love seeing your pieces styled with low-key, everyday-type shoes, like Mizuno Wave Riders (below right), or plastic clogs (below center). It helps emphasize how these seemingly precious, “special-occasion” pieces can feel grounded, almost like activewear. Is that how you wear your designs?
Julia Heuer: “I’m going to answer that by talking about a friend, the Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu.”
Concorde: O h*ll yeah, she is mad cool.
Julia Heuer: “We met in Denmark at design school, and I was so inspired by her style and how she wore clothes: She was the first person I knew who was really wearing designer pieces, but not in a fancy way. It was new to me that someone would wear a Vivienne Westwood shoe on a Thursday afternoon. I really loved that about her, she wouldn’t care, she would just wear whatever thing she wanted to wear in that moment, and so casually that it always looked right.
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“She never looked weirdly dressed up, or over-the-top, because she made it look so effortless. That’s how I’d like to describe our clothes. You can wear these garments that are kind of precious, and they are special, but at the same time they’re made to be worn and not put in the closet waiting for the right special event. It’s a comfortable kind of easy-going piece, meant to be worn on a daily basis, even if it’s also extravagant in a way.”
Concorde: Totally — I never want to be the most dressed-up person. I think it’s cool to undercut something that feels a bit fancy with something more casual. Speaking of which: Your new fall collection is called “Corporate Cabana.” There are some beautiful gradients that look like the kind of hallucinatory drink you might get at a tropical resort.
Julie Heuer: “We had a weird wish to explore a ‘business aspect’ to our clothes this season, but, yeah, the gradients had this resort, sunset, island feeling — so we wound up trying to pair a more tailored idea of a ‘Julia Heuer corporate look’ with a beach vibe.
“We work very intuitively. We’re not coming up with a concept, like, ‘Hey, let’s do ‘80s girl in the countryside.’ We’re more driven by prints and the vibes that the prints are giving, and then we design towards the prints.”
Concorde: You’ve worked with several people I really like — including the jewelry designer Arielle de Pinto on prints and the accessories designer Mathilde Hiron on that great loomed-rubber bag, dripping in charms (above), you put out for Fall 2021. How did those collaborations come about?
Julia Heuer: “Funnily, the first time I ever saw an Arielle de Pinto piece, my friend was wearing it, and I found it a bit weird. I think that, with a lot of good things, you actually find it weird first and then you come to love it more and more. You come to see the genius of it. That’s what happened for me with Arielle. Her work has this textile, crafty, slutty-mermaid vibe that we matched on.”
Concorde: Peace to slutty mermaids. And you just described a phenomenon we’ve written about at the newsletter, which we call “Ugly Genius”: When you’re confronted with something that repels you, or gives you a weird feeling in your stomach, that reaction is worth examining. Because it might be a sign of something truly genius that’s challenging, and shifting, your perspective and taste.
Julia Heuer: “That’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve with my work. That is the best that can happen. I can’t say this for every single piece I make, but the overall idea behind my work is that it’s not there to just be beautiful, it’s there to be a bit disturbing. The more you look at it, you’re like, This is intriguing. Those are the longest-lasting pieces, because there’s no ‘hype’ effect to your relationship with it — it’s more slow-growing.
“It’s the same with boyfriends! It’s not the guys who are a hit in the first second and you’re infatuated with them because of looks or something. It’s the ones that grow on you that are the good ones.”
Concorde: That connects to my last question: I asked you to share a cherished possession, and you chose a wild ceramic bowl by Kris Lemsalu (above right) that has some fantastic ugly-genius energy to it — it’s extremely tactile, with this mishmash of textures and objects and biological forms, like breasts, Romanesco and bubble wrap?? Tell me more.
Julia Heuer: “It’s a bowl, but it’s not a bowl. It’s an object that’s just there, being itself, and looking kind of over-the-top and weird. It collects a lot of elements that I know from Kris and her work, and the way she combines these elements and colors gives it this awkward life. It feels similar to my prints, in a way.”
Concorde: You mentioned meeting Kris at school earlier, and since then you’ve worked with her on these sometimes-funny, sometimes-haunting lookbook images (above).
Julia Heuer: “When I met Kris she became my muse. I kind of got obsessed with her. Her approach to beauty is what intrigued me — she’d find this little twist into something, not just like an easy access point but, again, something you had to learn to understand and that was a little bit repulsive, but then you think about it and go, wow this is really cool.
“We spent a lot of time together, and she was a big motor behind this brand. She encouraged me to follow up on my own work and inspired me to feel free about creating what I think is right — not trying to please, not trying to do it as others would do and I ‘should’ do, but following my own aesthetics.”
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