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Jeremy Scott The People's Designer feature by Brad Elterman
Photography Brad Elterman

Jeremy Scott’s American Dream

From getting a fashion school rejection letter to sleeping rough in Paris, a new doc shows how the designer beat the odds to bring his hyperpop vision to the masses – watch an exclusive clip

“My story is the American Dream, a hundred percent,” says Jeremy Scott earnestly, reflecting on his past over the phone from LA. Like the extremes of his work – where high fashion is clashed with the lowbrow, his life story is one of dizzying highs and remarkable lows, of overcoming real adversity to work his way to the top. It’s a journey now detailed in documentary Jeremy Scott: The People’s Designer (directed by Vlad Yudin), which explores the Moschino creative director’s ascension from farm boy to fashion fixture. As opposed to other favoured industry docs that focus solely on a big show (Unzipped, Dior and I, La Ligne Balmain), The People’s Designer is both a portrait of a man during a make or break year of his career (his first at Moschino), and an intimate look at Scott himself. It’s about how he came to be a designer, and how, rather than rejecting his all-American upbringing, he made a name for himself by embracing and elevating it – couture-level craftsmanship meeting his giddy love of Barbiecartoons and fast food. Remember, one man’s trash is another’s treasure – and as the film’s director puts it, “The most important thing to understanding where a person’s going, is showing where he came from.”

Scott’s passage into fashion – an industry often regarded as ruled by elitism – was not an easy one. There was no silver spoon, no internship hooked up through familial connections. “I come from extremely humble beginnings,” he explains. “When I was born, literally, my family was so poor that there was no money to buy food. So the church bought groceries for us – there wasn’t any kind of privilege.” It’s a far cry from the award shows, private jets and A-list friends of his life now, but he credits those early days with giving him the imagination that’s defined his career. “I started with the most nothing, nothing, nothing that you can start with. I feel like that’s important for two reasons,” he surmises. “One, just to say that you can still be a success without having had a head start. Another thing is, I always thought that my creativity is inspired by the fact that I didn’t have a lot – I had to create things in my head. On the farm, I didn’t have traditional toys. A truck would be a rocket ship.”

In The People’s Designer, we see Scott return home to Kansas City, Missouri, his neon patterned clothes a clear contrast against the grey houses of its cookie-cutter suburbia – the kind of street you imagine exists in every town across America. We hear how he cemented his identity as an outsider in the corridors of his high school, where he says he used style both as a way to escape into “a make-believe world” and as a defence against those who he says saw him as an “easy target”; engaging him in either verbal or physical altercations on an almost daily basis. Personal photos demonstrate his outlandish dress sense – like one where he’s wearing his high school graduation gown with a pair of denim hot pants, platform trainers and a bleach blonde Mohican. “I used fashion as my armour,” Scott admits looking back. “I remember at one point, my best friend said, ‘You know, you walk with your chin up. Like up in the air.’ And I didn’t even realise that I had pushed myself so hard to try to not be beat down, that I literally walked with my head cocked up because I had to try to have this aura of ‘Fuck you, I don’t care’. You know, ‘Don’t touch me’. It was kind of how I had to survive.”

 “When I was born, my family was so poor that there was no money to buy food. So the church bought groceries for us – there wasn’t any kind of privilege” – Jeremy Scott

After high school, Scott planned to study fashion in New York, but was rejected by FIT, who said he lacked the required “originality, artistic ability and creativity”. So, he made his own way, taking his portfolio around NYC until he secured a place at Pratt Institute. Uninspired by the brands currently dominating the American fashion industry (this was the mid-90s, an era ruled by Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren) he then headed to Paris, expecting to find an internship – only one never materialised. “It was difficult but beautiful at the same time,” he recalls, “Exhilarating – a happy exhilaration, and then an ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a place to live’ exhilaration.” Although Scott “tried to look at it as an adventure,” he was sometimes forced to sleep on the subway or scavenge for a meal. “There were times when I had no money for food, and had to go through hotels and walk through the hallways and see where people put out food they hadn’t really eaten.” But he didn’t give up – “When I had no place to live and I had no place to sleep, and I did sleep in the Metro, I held steadfast to the fact that I had a dream, a reason why I’m doing this...that it was bigger than this moment.”

Scott’s rugged individualism prevailed, and somehow he managed to start his own label. He went from showing his first collection in a bar to becoming the city’s resident American enfant terrible, armed with a DIY determination to upset the the establishment. Almost two decades later, his own brand, still independent, now riffs off references including the Simpsons, acid trip psychedelia and American sports culture, while wildly popular collaborations with adidas have seen his sneakers sprout wings, tails and teddybear heads. And then there’s his work at Moschino, which so far has poked fun at fashion by glorifying the mundane ephemera of the USA, transforming cultural signifiers of consumption like the golden arches of McDonald’s into designer motifs. It’s clear that Scott’s clothes are not for shrinking violets or the approval of black-clad fashion mavens (the Jeremy Scott woman does not take herself too seriously – she’s wearing a Spongebob puffa jacket) and in an industry obsessed with good taste, he’s certainly not to everyone’s. He is, however, the only designer Karl Lagerfeld said “could follow him at Chanel.” 

That Scott was divisive was never more apparent than after his Moschino debut. For some, it missed the mark: too obvious, too crude, or too kitsch, despite the house’s own history of thumbing its nose at the fashion system (Franco Moschino famously satirised his own industry, publishing campaigns that simply declared, “This is an advertisement!”). But with Scott, you get the that impression he doesn’t let a bad review get to him; he knows himself enough not to bow to the wills of critics, and thinks it’s important to “not let other people determine for you what’s right and what’s acceptable, or what they deem appropriate.” Director Yudin puts it this way: “He never compromised anything for anyone. He could have easily changed certain things to meet critics’ standards, but he never did. It’s what’s made him so successful, what made people gravitate towards him. He’s a rebel and people want to support him more because of that.” While Vanessa Friedman yesterday questioned whether “Jeremy Scott (is) the Donald Trump of American fashion”, pointing to his extreme sensibilities and challenges to the status quo, perhaps a more apt comparison is to Warhol – he’s a pop artist, someone who takes joy in disrupting the institutional.

“It’s what’s made him so successful. He’s a rebel and people want to support him more because of that” – Vlad Yudin, director

And then there’s his pack of Superstars. While fashion has often shied away from celebrity culture, seeing paparazzi-fodder A-listers as the antithesis of their sealed off world of luxury, Scott has embraced it wholeheartedly. His celebrity gang is made up of influencers who need no introduction – Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Katy Perry, CL and A$AP Rocky are just a few of the film’s cameos, the entry points into the world of his fashion for many. Scott is a popularist: what matters to him about a collection is that people wear and engage with his clothes, rather than winning a sparkling review from Cathy Horyn. “My goal in my work and my whole life is to hopefully touch people, to communicate with people, to inspire people,” he says. “That’s probably another reason I agreed to say yes to the film – it’s another way for me to communicate my story, outside of just a runway show or an ad campaign. I wanted to be able to convey a stronger message.”

Whether it’s through designing Katy Perry’s Super Bowl outfits (what’s a bigger stage on which to showcase your fashion than one that comes with an audience of over one hundred million people?) or selling $70 iPhone cases alongside $700 sweatshirts, Scott, perhaps more than any other designer, recognises the importance of accessibility. You only have to look at the slogan adorning his jumpers, t-shirts and bags – ‘Moschino: over 20 billion served’ – to realise that his fashion is not for a select few: it has mass-appeal. And with Scott ditching the six month waiting period to make some items available to purchase straight from the runway, even the most middle of Middle America can buy into his brand through the drive thru of the internet. 

In all, Scott comes across as more measured than Isaac Mizrahi (Unzipped), more reach-out-and-touchable than Raf Simons (Dior and I). He declares himself “an icon” and “delusional” almost in the same breath, and chases cows across a field in a Chanel t-shirt and a pair of dungarees. Ultimately, his message is as American as his hometown – one of self-determination, self-belief, and a whole lot of hard work. “You don’t have to be born wealthy and have an aristocratic last name or have connections or all these things,” he says. “If you have a dream you can believe in something and work hard and struggle and fight for it, and still have a chance to succeed.” Whatever you think of his work, Scott’s certainly living his dream. You have to respect him for that. 

Jeremy Scott: The People’s Designer is out September 18th