A new exhibition in Dundee celebrates the work of Maripol, a pioneering photographer and stylist. She talks about selfies, hanging out with Madonna and Cher in 1980s New York, and why she still loves Polaroids.
If you’ve never heard of Maripol, you will definitely have seen her work. The stylist, who also counts herself as a photographer, designer and film producer, was responsible for creating Madonna’s look during her bangle-tastic bridesmaid Like a Virgin era. She also influenced the style of Grace Jones, Debbie Harry and Cher, as well as being art director for the Italian fashion brand Fiorucci in the early 1980s.
Now, Dundee Contemporary Arts is showing the first major UK exhibition of her work, from a selection of the thousands of Polaroids that document her life to her fashion designs, including her rubber bracelets and jumpsuits. “It’s a very small-scale retrospective,” the 60-year-old says from her home in New York, where she moved from her native France in the 1970s. After moving downtown with her boyfriend, the photographer Edo Bertoglio (whom she had moved from Paris to be with), the pair found a run-down loft space and started to throw parties and photograph friends there. Maripol would style them with jewellery she had designed herself because she was unable to find anything she liked. These friends included Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, of course, Madonna, whom she met on a night out at Roxy – Madonna had admired her bra.
It sounds blissful, a too-good-to-be-true time when a creative couple could have a studio in the centre of a city and hang out with art stars. How does it make her feel that New York and London, once the creative capitals of the world, are now too expensive for young artists? “I am so glad you’ve brought this up. It makes me mad. Kids today are being pushed further and further from the city – artists are being made to move out of areas they’ve regenerated.”
As someone who has influenced popular culture immensely, but without their own name becoming mainstream, it is clearly a topic close to her heart. So how does she feel now that underground ideas can turn mainstream in a matter of moments? She laughs. “Andy Warhol said that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but with social media, everyone is famous all of the time. Especially on Instagram!” Is she on it? “I resisted for many years,” she sighs, “but my son convinced me to go on it. Then he shouts at me for putting up too many pictures and says that’s for Facebook. But I am not going to let anyone dictate what my life is about.”
Maripol practically invented the selfie, using her Polaroid camera. “I would take Polaroid selfies to express myself: my sorrows, my joys, my sexiness, my love. I didn’t scan them for 30 years. No one ever saw them for that long.” Most recently, her Polaroids have been referenced on the cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, released last year – although Swift used a modern photograph edited to look like a Polaroid. Polaroid film can be hard to find, and although Maripol has her own source, “the colours and the emulsions aren’t the same”.
Does she still take photographs as actively as ever? “In 2000, I did a series of portraits, maybe 160. They have never been shown. All black and white – I called in my address book. Debbie Harry came back, 20 years after the first time I shot her. People gathered in my studio, people who hadn’t seen each other for years. No hair, no makeup, there was just a pile of clothes in case someone needed something.”
She is probably best known for working with Madonna, and some say she discovered her. “She wouldn’t like that! Let’s put it like this: she discovered me,” she laughs. “She would come over when she was doing Desperately Seeking Susan and say she didn’t like the costumes. I would say: ‘You’re a singer! You have to look like you.’ I insisted she keep her jewellery, the crosses and stuff. That’s what she was projecting as an image at that moment.” They stopped working together after her Like A Virgin look.
After a brief bankruptcy spell, she started to work with Cher, who had come to her loft to buy some jewellery. She was the art director on the video for Cher’s 1995 hit, Walking In Memphis. So which discipline does she prefer – jewellery, styling or photography? “That’s such an existential question. I went back to jewellery a few years ago – I like doing things where my intellect meets my hand, something manual. But I love taking Polaroids and I like making films. I made one a few years ago called The Message about Keith Haring – I love going back and interviewing people.”
In the 1980s she produced Downtown 81, documenting the downtown scene, and particularly focusing on Basquiat. It was written by Warhol Factory member and founding editor of Interview magazine Glenn O’Brien, and, due to money issues, was only released in 2001. “It’s becoming a cult film, you know, so many kids want to know about the generations before them. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I wanted to know about the 1960s. The 1960s were important; they brought the TV into everyone’s homes. You had the first music videos, and all these amazing women: Cher, Tina Turner and Diana Ross.”
As someone who has inspired and shaped the creative identity of so many women over the past 30 years, how does she feel about today’s identikit pop stars? “Everything is homogenised,” she complains. “Neighbourhoods, music, styling. Everything is sterilised. That’s not what we had. We didn’t have fancy fashion houses, Chanel didn’t have Karl Lagerfeld, Gucci and Chanel were for rich old women on Madison Avenue. We did with what we had.”