Desk Side: Valerie Steele Loves Playing with Clothes

Welcome back to our column, Desk Side! Sorry, PRs, we stole your lingo and in this feature we’ll go to the desks of some of your favorite designers, editors, stylists and assorted industry insiders to see where the magic happens–and then share it with you! This time around, we visited Valerie Steele at her FIT office, where she dished on everything from that time she wore a black leather corset to her neo-punk period. Click through for an enlightening interview and a peek at the cool stuff we saw in her office.
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Welcome back to our column, Desk Side! Sorry, PRs, we stole your lingo and in this feature we’ll go to the desks of some of your favorite designers, editors, stylists and assorted industry insiders to see where the magic happens–and then share it with you! This time around, we visited Valerie Steele at her FIT office, where she dished on everything from that time she wore a black leather corset to her neo-punk period. Click through for an enlightening interview and a peek at the cool stuff we saw in her office.
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Welcome back to our column, Desk Side! Sorry, PRs, we stole your lingo and in this feature we’ll go to the desks of some of your favorite designers, editors, stylists and assorted industry insiders to see where the magic happens–and then share it with you!

We've talked with pink-tressed

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Valerie: Yes, the glass shoes are by an artist called Camille Norment. I saw them in an exhibition in SoHo and I just wanted to buy them, instantly. When I look at them I find it sort of terrifying, because it's all made out of broken shards of glass. But [Camille] said that when men saw it they all went "Oooh, Cinderella!" and when women saw it they went, "Ow ow ow!" They're actually huge, they're not like Cinderella tiny shoes. They would actually be like a size ten or something.

So, speaking of shoes I've noticed lots of shoe books around your office and on your desk with book marks and notes in them. Are you working on something with shoes at the moment? In February 2013 my colleague Colleen Hill and I are going to be co-curating a show called "Shoe Obsession" which will be about extraordinary and extreme 21st century shoes. Nobody's ever done a shoes show quite like this.

Is there one era in history that you've always been obsessed with? In terms of the fashion but also the culture and the people as a whole? Well, when I started studying fashion I was focusing on the late 19th century and I do like the Fin de siècle, the 1880's and 1890's. But I think that ultimately I'm most interested in fashion right now.

What was the last thing you saw that blew your mind or shocked you in fashion?

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What was the last thing you saw that blew your mind or shocked you in fashion? It's a little hard to be shocked by anything, but certainly things amaze me, when I see things which are really beautiful. Like when I look at some of the things by Phoebe Philo for Celine, or by Haider Ackerman or by Rick Owens or those Givenchy shoes in Paris at the couture collection. I love going on Showstudio, because there's always something interesting to see there. It's so creative and I've become more and more obsessed with fashion films. I love the Prada one with the psychiatrist,

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Is there anything you'd never be caught wearing? Never say never!

What's your opinion on fast-fashion? Do you indulge in it or enjoy looking at images or looks that mix things like Zara with high-end designer labels? Well, realistically I think that most people mix things up because they can't afford to buy everything. But in a way it's also a little bit like fast food. I think that on the whole we should be trying to encourage people to make and buy and wear clothes that are thoughtfully designed and lovingly made.

The Ivy League style exhibition is in the works. You attended Yale, do you think that your education and where you went to school influenced your aesthetic? Well, Ivy style is curated by my colleague Patricia, I didn't curate it. I dropped out of high school and lived in this commune and then I went to Dartmouth, which was where Animal House was conceived, and then I went to graduate school at Yale. I certainly didn't dress like an Ivy League person as an undergraduate. I was tottering around on high-heels through the snow and ice and I didn't wear green until decades after I graduated from Dartmouth. And then at Yale I had some kind of neo-punk aesthetic. Last year I finally bought this little puffer parka and my husband laughed and said "Oh finally, you look like a Dartmouth girl!" [laughs]

In your opinion, what are three necessary ingredients to success in the fashion industry and in general? Well, when I'm looking to hire people, I always look for people who work hard and are nice. The third thing for success, I think, is you have to be really passionately committed to what you do. You have to really love what you're doing otherwise, you can certainly find easier things to do.

What's the most exciting part about your job? Ooh, playing with clothes of course! I think the most exciting part is when you're working on an exhibition and you're trying to figure out what you want to put in the exhibition and you're trying to find the clothes that you want. Working on the mise-en-scene, how are you going to present all of the clothes, I think that's exciting. It's also fun because you're not doing it on your own. You're working with another curator or with an exhibition designer, you're working with all kinds of people to try and make the best production that you can. How do you get out of work mode? You're probably always inspired by things but when you want to shut-off, where do you go? What do you do?

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How do you get out of work mode? You're probably always inspired by things but when you want to shut-off, where do you go? What do you do? I like to travel especially to southeast Asia and I like to go to the opera and to dance performances.

Also, I noticed a little drawing in the window of your door? That's a sketch that Rubin Toledo did when I did my show "Love and War: The Weaponized Woman" and so that's his representation of Joan of Arc as a weaponized woman.

And those two corset prints? Well, I worked on corsets for 20 years. I did the show, but I also did a book that I'd spent years working on, and so in the process I collected posters and trade cards and other images of corsets; this is from about 1905 and the one in the outer-office is from the later 20th century.

Have you yourself worn corsets in public to events and things? Oh sure, I mean when I did my corset show I had a custom made corset which was a facsimile of an 1880's corset, but in black leather. I remember some journalist saying, "Doesn't that hurt?" and I'm like, "No no, it's perfectly comfortable, but my high-heels are killing me!"

I'm always reading interviews about actresses fainting on these period movie film sets from wearing such tight corsets. Well, you can faint if it's too tight, there's no question. People did that, on the other hand, speaking as someone who's fainted ever since I was eight years old, I faint at the sight of a hypodermic needle, at the vet .. all kinds of things like that. I've fainted all over the world!

Click through to see more of Steele's treasures.