On fashion and film, with Mary Jo Matsumoto

It is a privilege to have Mary Jo Matsumoto as guest once again on Classiq today. An established fashion designer, with clothing, accessories, jewelry and, most recently, beauty lines, Mary Jo is talented and inspirational, she has a degree in both rhetoric and film, and a passion and an eye for all of the above forms of art. Needless to say that her blog, Trust Your Style, is one of my daily stops online; it always gives me a new perspective on fashion and thoughtful reading material. I had the huge pleasure to have a friendly and fascinating talk on fashion and film with Mary Jo and those of you who have been following my blog for a while can imagine that this has been a much anticipated moment for me.

La Dolce Vita (1960) directed by Federico Fellini

1) You have a degree in film. What inspired you to study film?
I fell in love with Europe when I was in college and went to Italy to study painting. Walking through all the ancient places I realized that painting was the way to affect change in the world during the Renaissance, but film had the ability to mix all the disciplines, music, art, literature, fashion. I came back and started a second major in film.

2) Why the change of direction to fashion? When did you realize you didn’t want to follow up a film career and instead moved on to fashion?
None of my friends could believe when I made the move — I was so invested in film, and during year one and two, they kept saying that they knew I’d be back. But the handbags took off so fast for me in the beginning and I got so much pleasure from making things and getting immediate feedback, ie sales, that I knew that I had no intention of going back. I went from having scripts optioned, but not made, and those “We love you, we’ll call you” meetings to walking into the supermarket and having women squeal and run over to ask me where they could get my handbag.

Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo in À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), directed by Jean-Luc Godard

3) Have you ever considered costume designing? I think the influence of the designers of the Golden Age Hollywood on the fashion world has always been underestimated. A clear example is Adrian, I know he’s your favourite too, and I’m learning very much about him lately, which only makes me appreciate American designers more.
Adrian is such an unsung hero! Too bad he lived before the day of reality shows, because during his lifetime a costume designer/California based designers got little acknowledgment. I really wanted to get into costume designing when I first started designing; it seemed to be a natural fit, but everyone I met in fashion discouraged me and said that only a handful of people got to be a costume designer–according to everything I heard, it was harder to break into than writing and directing. But before I could figure out how to get my foot in the door, three weeks after starting my company, the buyers from Bergdorf Goodman found my line, put my bags in the windows of the NYC store and the catalogue and I never looked back.

4) Are films influencing your work as a designer?
Not much any more, but I think the films I watched when I was an undergrad film student still affect me to this day. UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive had films that weren’t available any place in the US except maybe MOMA in New York. I’d park myself there or go down to this theater that showed European classics and watch 2 or 3 old classics a day. I was a huge Fellini fan back then, and looking back, it’s probably why I favor Italian mid-century over any other version, and those Italian cuts and funky accessories worn with such style will always be a huge influence.

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Paul Belmondo in François Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969); Catherine’s wardrobe was designed by Yves Saint Laurent

5) Is there a film in your opinion that had a defining influence on the world of fashion?
I think there are a lot of films that influence(d) fashion and the answer depends on who you talk to. Immediately I think of Blow Up, it’s just so iconic and designers constantly reference it. Catherine Deneuve movies and YSL are inextricably linked for a lot of people, myself included. I think girls are always trying to dress like their favorite movies, whether it’s an Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe or a more obscure film.  I remember trying to emulate Diane Keaton’s look as a teen, which now that I think about it must’ve seemed kind of strange. Then I fell for the kitten heels in Last Year In Marienbad, followed by the glamorous clothes in La Dolce Vita — films I saw in college when I was 17 and 18 years old. In my early 20s I was smitten with the French New Wave, it’s pretty much the reason I applied to film school and once there I tried to dress like Anna Karina in Une Femme Est Une Femme, lol. Even now, they’re saying the Jason Wu line at Target is inspired by the French New Wave, so it’s definitely had an impact. I think the cool thing about film and fashion is that you can draw from any period depending on how you’re feeling.

6) You live in Los Angeles and you are a fashion designer. Have you dressed any actresses?
No, it was never my goal to do this, I was more caught up with running my business and paying rent than giving stuff away in hopes of having a celeb wear it. I’ve had a few celebs buy my stuff, but more often I’ve gotten calls from stores that a princess or wife of a senator came in and bought my bags — and those kinds of sales make me happy too. Robin Wright Penn was a friend of a friend and ended up carrying my bag the year she accompanied Sean Penn to the Oscars and he won — so there was a clip of the two of them broadcast all over the world and played on Oprah and it was fun to see my bag everywhere. But at the end of the day, I get more pleasure when non famous people love and appreciate and invest in one of my designs. It means much more to me that someone would show their appreciation by taking their hard-earned money and buying one of my designs, if that makes sense.

Jeanne Moreau (top photo) and Monica Vitti in La Notte (1961), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim (1962) by François Truffaut

7) What is your design philosophy and your goal as a fashion designer?
I don’t know why I find this question so daunting, I guess it’s because I’ve evolved a bit as a designer and the things I originally set out to do a decade ago are not as interesting to me now. In the beginning it was enough to create things that were  pretty and hopefully sold so that I could pay my rent. Now I find myself yearning to move  into new areas like shoes and beauty and find so much of fashion lately to be so repetitive that I only want to make things if they add something new to the collective whole. Although going back to handbags, which is where I started, is also a fun new challenge — to see if I can improve on my designs, and make bags that I think are somehow missing but needed in the market place. I have a brand new luxe handbag line launching next month that I’m excited about, as I’ve never done day bags extensively before.

8)Every season there are high-end designer — store chain collaborations. Is it a win-win situation? How can one compete with high street fashion?
I was just talking about that with a friend a few days ago at breakfast! I think it’s really great that smaller fashion houses that aren’t as well known are getting a mass introduction, for example Marni for H&M. Seven years ago when I told people that Marni was my favorite design house, I would get a blank look. Now, thanks to these collaborations everyone from teenage girls on up knows about Marni, Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella, Missoni, etc. I think it’s great for fashion and pop culture in general.

I Vitelloni (1953) by Federico Fellini

9) Do you have a favourite movie?
La Dolce Vita followed by I Vitelloni, which are really Part 2 and Part 1 of the same story: a small town guy heads out to make it big and finds out that the glamorous life doesn’t fulfill him. It’s a universal version of the tragic American dream, and there’s scenes in both those movies that still make me weep. To me, that’s good filmmaking.

10) In an industry channeled on remakes, commercial productions and special effects, do you still find the cinema world fascinating? Is there any trace of art left in it? I, for one, find less and less films able to arouse an interest in me. Although I think that 2011 was a good year.
I never thought I’d be saying this, but I think some of the best current work, at least in terms of writing, is on television. A lot of great screenwriters are working on shows like Californication, ShamelessParenthood and The Good Wife. There are moments in Shameless that have a real indie film feel, but the lighting and costuming for most shows is still very “TV” and cinematically, I still prefer the classics.

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful contribution. My questions could have kept flowing for pages and pages.

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