The word linear is not in Joann Berman’s vocabulary. Always following her own rhythm and reason, her circuitous trajectory has taken her from punk musician to graphic artist to milliner and fashion designer. Though she plied her trade in other industries, fashion is her true love, and is a jones she just can’t just shake. Like our feline friends, Joann Berman has had nine lives and then some. She always comes back, reinvented and better than before. And her 10-page editorial spread in an upcoming Nuovo Magazine proves it.
In this new incarnation, Joann Berman is out to bring the passion, spontaneity, and jubilation back in to an industry that is sometimes long on hype and short on vision. And if the boogie-down celebration of music and fashion she brought to the Green Shows during New York Fashion Week is any indication of her commitment, I think she might just accomplish her goal.
The Fashion Spot had the unique opportunity to interview this fashion warrior. Enter the zany, but always interesting and stimulating, world of Joann Berman.
tFS: Before you got involved in fashion, you were a part of that whole downtown NYC punk music scene. Could you talk about how the punk scene motivated you, and how you infused that energy into your aesthetic?
Joann Berman: NYC was a different city at that time. Soho and the Lower East Side were not the commercial neighborhoods they are now. It was a vast, barren place that was dangerous; there were a lot of drugs and crime. Either you were a rock and roll artist, a painter, or a working class person who lived in housing projects or the pre-war buildings. I was in several punk bands. Musicians bandied together in groups, and you knew every one from the bands they were in, or from hanging out at clubs like CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City, or the Mud Club. The only funky cool shops were Trash and Vaudeville, and Ian’s, which carried clothes that no one could afford. Everyone was making their own clothes and making clothes for the bands they were in. The clothes were eco-friendly in those days because we couldn’t afford to go to fabricc stores and buy nice materials, or buy new cool clothes. We made do with what we had.
There was no texting or computers, so you had to use your mind in very ingenious ways to create things and make your life the way you wanted it to be. NYC was very dirty and not well taken care of, so you were really on your own. Apartments were cheap – you could work a job three days a week, and do your art on the side.
Now, there is a glutton of NYC designers, but back in the mid-70s, there were maybe 50 designers in NYC and for the most part, we all knew each other. Being a fashion designer was not a popular thing at the time. At the time, the popular thing was to be was a punk rocker or a painter.
The downtown art community, the punk scene and the all-around wackiness of NYC influenced me in ways that are immeasurable. Case in point, I was friendly with Jean-Paul Basquiat because my ex-husband did graffiti art with him, and I often saw Andy Warhol walking down 14th Street. So, all those things influenced me because there was non-stop stimulation.
tFS: How did you segue your love of punk music into fashion?
Joann Berman: Towards the end of the 70s, I started making these interesting, funky hats.
tFS: That sounds like the main character in Tama Jamowitz’ Slaves of New York.
Joann Berman: Exactly. Anyway, I was making very little money and my mom kept bugging me to get a real job and make better money. I started working at this wacky restaurant where downtown characters like Candy Darling worked, and Basquiat, DeNiro, and Scorsese would hang out. My mom suggested I try to get Henri Bendels to carry my hats. I arranged a meeting with a buyer, and I got a friend of mine in Harlem to make some samples. Bendels loved my hats, and the funky cocktail dress I wore to the interview. They put in a big order for all these hats and cocktail dresses. I was beside myself because the order was huge, and I had no inventory. Between me and my sister and friends, we met our timeline for the order.
Those hats ended up in Bendels’ window with Fendi furs, and a week later there was an article on me by Bernadine Morris in the Style section of the NY Times. The article said, “Twenty-five years of Balenciaga and there is Joann Berman … Joann Berman thinks she is student, but she is really a designer.” After that, I sold cocktail dresses and hats to Barney’s and Bloomingdales. I later sold bustiers in Bugatta, which was the first, high-end boutique in Soho. Madonna, Cher, and Bess Midler bought my bustiers there.
tFS: How did you get into urban wear?
Joann Berman: I had finished my studies at St. Martins in London, and came back to NYC. This was during the time when rap music was beginning to be a force in the music industry. I wasn’t totally conscious of it at the time, but it was happening. And since I love music, well, you do the math. [laughter]
555-Soul was this great store on Ludlow Street that made clothes for rock and roll and rap artists. There were these great hats sold there that were worn by Kid n’ Play and other rappers, and that inspired me to get some product out. I had a dream about being in jail that led me to consider how someone could look cool when they just got out of jail. So, I painted jail numbers on the jacket part of a jean jumpsuit, similar to what prisoners wear. Patricia Fields bought them on consignment and they sold like hotcakes. Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs wanted me to make my ‘jail jumpsuit’ for Jodeci, and it just mushroomed after that. Those jumps ended up in the Michael Jackson Jam video, and after the video, the retail store Merry-Go-Round picked up my clothes.
tFS: People don’t necessarily think about Spanish Harlem when it comes to fashion. Explain your fascination with Spanish Harlem – why did you maintain a studio and boutique there for over two decades?
Joann Berman: I have always been interested in Nuyorican culture and Santeria, and those influences pop up in some of my collections. I did a collection that included colorful frocks, which had a Soul Train vibe. I have always believed in mixing cultural influences.
I was walking down 112th Street and saw this big space for rent. It was available at an incredible rate, so I signed the lease and it became Boi Crazy. The space housed my studio and sold my brand, Boi Crazy. Rihanna used to shop there, and other hip- hop artists. We had a decent run, but the store burned down some years ago. I opened a store in Brooklyn a year later but then the recession hit. NYC has changed so much and it is very difficult to sell statement, out-of-the-box garments, which is my aesthetic. But, I soldier on.
tFS: I definitely see all the influences in your clothes from your many life experiences – the London punk vibe, the urban vibe – but lets talk about where you are now?
Joann Berman: I am doing things that are more architectural now, but using lots of texture in the fabric. I have a great pattern maker that translates my rough-hewn garments to a viable production pattern.
tFS: You showed recently during NY Fashion Week at the Green Shows. How did that affiliation come about?
Joann Berman: I was selling at Bowery Bazaar – that was a pop-up shop for Christmas. One of the producers for the Green Shows, Eric Dorfman, liked my clothes and invited me to show at the Green Shows. It was chaotic, but he really pulled it together in the end. It was not pretty, but we won. We danced, we had a great time. [Lots of laughter]
Because of the Green Shows I have been invited to show in Paris in their eco-sustainable garment show. And we have been offered an opportunity to show in L.A.
tFS: Let’s talk about this eco couture look, which a lot designers are tapping into. Why this new venture?
Joann Berman: I am making sustainable clothing but with a couture finish. All the fabrics, finishes, and lining we find from brokers and buyers who specialize in high-end sustainable fabrics. I used to make high-end clothes before I got involved in urban fashion.
tFS: Who is your customer?
Joann Berman: My customer is the ‘It’ girl who is not afraid to show that she is the fiercest thing that walks the planet. She will put on a one piece, flip her hair, and she is not afraid if men are whistling at her.
tFS: How do you keep the momentum going, after all these years?
Joann Berman: I have a great support system, and I still love what I am doing. I don’t have to go to a prime time job and work with people I hate. This is my fashion, my creativity, and my life.
Joann Berman’s Collections can be found in Better Than Jam, Patricia Fields NYC, the eco pop-up store in Grand Central Station and online at smashingdarling.com. For more information on Joann Berman, go to joannberman.com.
Photos courtesy of Joann Berman.