“Glitter, tits out, high kicking, fireworks and feathers”: we chat to Lady Gaga’s designer du jour – Jack Irving – about his love of all things theatrical.
Let’s put it this way: Jack Irving doesn’t do things by halves! One minute he’s graduating from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins art school and the next he’s dressing queen of pop Lady Gaga. However, apart from still being a little star-struck, that was just the first sparkling step in his bid for theatrical world domination.
His first collection, Enigma, mixes elements of costume design with semi-couture to create pieces that are both technically and visually stunning. But don’t let the high shine and glitter fool you: Jack Irving also specialises in theatre, live installation and set design… One trick pony he ain’t!
We caught up with the unclassifiable wunderkind in a rare moment of downtime to talk about the inspiration behind his work (perhaps unsurprisingly, he finds himself most inspired when dancing around to loud, techno music) and to see what his future plans are for his self-proclaimed LOL-fest. Step right up…
Looking back to when you were growing up, do you think that the faded glamour of your hometown Blackpool has influenced your work?
I think I’ve got everything to owe to Blackpool. For me – especially growing up – the idea of theatre and show was just glitter, tits out, high kicking, fireworks and feathers… That was it! I didn’t really travel to London much as a kid or anything, so in terms of show and spectacle that was all I really had to go off. Blackpool definitely inspired me, and I just thought ‘I want to be involved in this. This is really cool’. I mean, I got my first ever smoke machine when I was five years old because I wanted to put on my own shows! So I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of putting on a show, and Blackpool’s definitely where that all started for me.
What made you then choose to study Performance Design & Practice at Central Saint Martins rather than opt for a more fashion-focused degree?
Even now I wouldn’t class myself as a Fashion Designer, but then again I wouldn’t say that I’m a Set Designer either, because really I want to be both! When I was about fourteen I worked on my first piece of set design for a local theatre, and that’s kind of what started me off. Then I got to fifteen and I thought that I should do costumes too! So I ended up kind of dabbling in both. I really loved them both, so Central Saint Martins’ course was a way to do them both and be a bit of a jack of all trades! I wouldn’t have even acknowledged my work as wearable fashion until going to Saint Martins, because my costumes are really crazy, but I realised that maybe they could work with pop stars or backing dancers on tours or something.
So you haven’t picked a favourite yet?
I think I go through phases, which I quite like. So I’ll have a month of thinking ‘yeah, I’ll do costumes’ and it’s great, but then I might think ‘I’ve had enough of glitter now!’ and so I’ll move onto set design. In the past year I’ve gone through seven kilos of glitter. It’s everywhere, all the time; I can’t avoid it! Anyway, my main focus for now is on the theatrics of stage performance. I think it would be cool in the future to concentrate more on one thing, but for now I just want to be creative in my work and make a spectacle. Basically I just want to keep being weird!
Could you take us through the inspiration for your first semi-couture collection, Enigma?
My inspiration for Enigma is actually going to be ongoing theme, so I’m going to be continuing and evolving it for my next collection in February as well. But the whole of this collection looks at intergalactic and under-the-sea creatures. I wanted each piece to stand out on its own as well. So there’s the Dichroic Shard corset which is meant to look like an alien goddess. That’s one of my pieces that Lady Gaga wore recently with the small headdress… It took so long to make! The idea I had for it was just of a mermaid just chilling out on Mars: how would she look? So all the scales change colour as you move. Basically the whole collection has an under-the-sea-meets-space vibe. The Enigma Land juxtaposes two worlds that are so far away from us that we can’t fully understand the weird, alien stuff we might encounter there. So it’s imagining the creatures that we might come across if these worlds were thrown together… But imaging them as glitzy, fabulous showgirls as well: dominant, queen-like figures of Enigma Land. So that’s the theme connecting each piece. There’s also my Venus fly trap outfit, which was inspired by these under-the-sea, coral-type creatures which are really weird. They’re actually white and see through, but I thought I’d make my outfit purple and glittery to add a sense of humour! Then there’s the mirrored corset, which – in my graduate show – was worn with this big caged headdress that opens and closes, and it had moving lasers all around it. I really like the interactive element of my outfits.
How did you feel when Lady Gaga stepped out in not one but three of your outfits recently?
I actually knew nothing about it! I know it’s really crazy, but basically this guy who discovered me ages ago is a big fan of Lady Gaga’s: he follows her every move online and knows all of her Little Monsters and everything. He told me that he’d love to see Gaga in my work, and so when one of her fans who was waiting outside her hotel sent him a photo of her that night, he immediately knew that she was wearing my clothes, and it was him who ultimately told me. So I actually found out from a fan sending me a photo as it happened! At first I thought it was a joke and that he’d Photoshopped my hat onto her, but then I saw more photos and realised that they weren’t Photoshopped and that it was definitely her. It was insane. I was actually in Leicester Square at the time and I dropped all my bags and started screaming! It meant so much to me, and I was really happy. I was so overwhelmed that I basically spent the night crying! It felt like a big hoax. But – because of the time difference I’d obviously eventually gone to sleep – then I woke up to all these texts from Jodie Harsh being like ‘wake the f**k up! Gaga’s wearing your dress’! So she’d also worn the Dichroic Shard dress and then twelve hours after that she wore my Sea Urchin Showgirl piece as well. I really wasn’t expecting that! It was just insane. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
So do you still feel like you’re on cloud nine?
Yeah, it still hasn’t sunk in! When you dream of something, I guess you never really expect it to actually happen. Realistically I thought it would take about four collections of costumes before someone like Lady Gaga would actually notice my work, and I was ok with that. So for it to happen with my first one was honestly such a shock. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, I’m getting fan mail!
What can we expect from Jack Irving in the future then?
Well, my next collection is going to focus a bit more on headwear: massive headwear! I’m kind of obsessed with microbes at the moment. I’m intrigued by their shapes, and I’ve got all these books with magnified pictures of mosquitoes and stuff which are quite weird and creepy. So I’m going to explore how these kind of cretinous creatures can be transformed into fabulous drag queen showgirls. There’ll definitely be some more inflatables in there for sure. And I think I want to look at making outfits that have attachable and detachable pieces, so that they can be customised and adapted. I hope that would mean that more people would become interested in my work, because although it’s a bit ridiculous, it isn’t unwearable. You have to be able to walk in it. That’s probably my one boundary! Then I’d also love to work on world tour design as well. I want to look at incorporating my work into set design and create more installation-type things.
So you could become the go-to guy for a whole tour; doing both set design and costume design?
Words: Samantha Southern
Photography: Amberly Valentine
Make-Up & Hair: Roseanna Velin
Model: Taisia Melnyk (Premier)
Creative Director, Costumes & Set Design: Jack Irving