Beth Gibbs Interview
First of all, what do you do and why do you do it?
I do many things, but as a stylist I like to express myself through how people wear clothes. It’s a mood and a vibe, especially when I’m styling for editorials and even print and commercials.
I also really love film – where you can tell a story by what a person is wearing and how they are wearing it. I really wish more directors saw the value in costume design. The really great filmmakers do, and I love to collaborate with them. I also produce and art direct creative content for UNION LA and Bephie.
Please tell us a little about your background.
My background is a bit all over the place. I’m from NYC but I moved to Hawaii for a couple of years before going to high school in southern California. I’m also half Jamaican, so I spent a lot of summers over there with my grandparents.
I eventually moved back to NYC for college. I went to Parsons and the New School. I was working on a double major in both Fashion Marketing and Literature & Art, so I had the best of both worlds. They had a lot of great internships and I was able to work for fashion magazines like Elle and the now defunct Mirabella Magazine.
I then got out of fashion for a bit and worked in music, where I met more people like me. I interned at Def Jam and Uptown Entertainment, assisting Sybil Pennix, who was stylist for Lil Kim, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and Total. She created a lot of looks that were really big in mid-late ’90s hip-hop: shiny patent leather suits, high-end brands like Versace, and bright clothes with oversized logos.
Since I didn’t get paid at these internships, I worked at a diner called Jerry’s in SOHO, which is now home to a J-Crew store. Everyone in the neighbourhood would come eat at Jerry’s, and that’s how I met Lisa Cooper, then stylist and downtown cool girl who knew everyone. She was the first black woman I met in that scene.
Across the street from Jerry’s was the Stussy store. There was a cute little Chilean woman working there who wore Bantu knots in her hair to resemble Bjork. I grew up doing that to my hair and would often be made fun of. She had the cutest style – she still does – and she’d often come into the diner to get change for Stussy. We became friends and she introduced me to the Stussy/UNION crew. That’s how I got into the downtown scene, which is what it was called back then.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
I can’t pick just one person. I’ve learned from so many amazing people – my Dad, Russell Simmons, Anne Simmons, Fred Jordan, Mary Ann Fusco, Bianca Jebbia, James Jebbia, Shaniqwa Jarvis, Noah Davis and Chris Gibbs. Chris Gibbs has probably influenced me the most because we have built so many things together and continue to do so. I’ve pushed Chris a lot. He doesn’t really give me credit for that but through me pushing him, I’ve learned to push myself. He’s always been supportive of my growth and he is never threatened by my outspoken nature.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced in fashion?
Oh my god, where do I start! Basically, working in fashion has been really hard. People don’t consider the styling that I do to be fashion. They call it streetwear, which I’ve grown to embrace. I’ve always been more inspired by street fashion – people that don’t come from any means of money but still manage to look so fly!
Black people in fashion have never really been respected, that’s why we rarely talk about fashion brands like FUBU or Tracy Reese. FUBU is too hood and can’t evolve because of fear of losing its audience, which equals money, so there’s the mentality of sticking to what they know. A lot of these brands play it real safe and end up losing authenticity in the fear of becoming too black or too ethnic. Only white designers and artists are able to move in the space outside of themselves and represent other cultures through their lens. There are other designers, like Stella Jean and Martine Rose, who have challenged this stereotype but they both live outside of the US.
As a stylist, how does your approach differ from project to project?
I tend to approach each project by looking for inspiration in the brand’s authenticity. It often depends on how involved I am in the casting and art direction, versus working with a director or photographer’s vision. If I’m just coming in as a stylist, I make the clothes look like something the model or subject would actually wear. I don’t like them to look too styled.
I guess you can say I study the brand’s goal and what they are trying to achieve, but I also study the model to see what they can bring.
You recently started your own label, Bephie. Please tell us more about it.
Bephie started out of a need to create – a need to feel visible. I’ve always had a very unique take on style and it was starting to feel limiting as a stylist. It is a clothing, accessory and lifestyle brand.
We recently collaborated with No Sesso, making tracksuits, jumpsuits, skirts and dresses out of nylon and a fabric we made with Pierre Davis’ sketches of black women. We presented the collection at the Underground Museum for Black History Month. The reaction to this performance art piece was amazing. The turn out was incredible – all kinds of beautiful people came to support our presentation.
Bephie is unpredictable, but most importantly, Bephie wants to represent the people we don’t normally see in fashion.
What is it that you dislike the most about fashion?
I don’t like the coldness in fashion. It’s old school and I wish fashion truly embraced diversity and weren’t such a business. I know how unrealistic that sounds – it’s all business.
How is the energy in LA these days?
LA is actually really amazing at the moment. It feels more diverse and creative than it’s ever been. I’ve lived in LA for 15 years and I also went to high school here. It’s changed so much. It used to be centred around Hollywood and had a super Midwest vibe. It also used to be very segregated – everyone stayed in their own area and didn’t mix outside of their own culture and class.
Now, LA is known for its great museums and great food. Now, places like the Underground Museum have brought in a very diverse art crowd that never existed before. I believe it was all the New York transplants since Hurricane Sandy, and the fact that streetwear has really blossomed here, that make LA more of a destination for people all over the world. They no longer just come here to see Disneyland and a studio lot.
What is the best thing about living there?
The weather is definitely the best thing – even though global warming is making everything scarier. I also like that you can go out and be social whenever you want, but you can also find retreat when you need it.
And the worst?
The extreme weather, and that you still have to drive everywhere.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’m still very inspired by the activism in fashion – making people think more about who they’re buying clothes from and what kind of materials are being used. I still think we have a long way to go with that. There are so many designers trying to find a way into the industry, that things like materials are not even a factor. People are just trying to be seen in the fashion world and make enough money to stay in it.
I’m also inspired by innovation in fashion through function and design, the same way we think about this for our homes. That will take more money and collaboration between brands – not just for their cool factor but also for survival.
Who is the person or brand you most want to work with?
I would love to work with Martine Rose because she’s a menswear designer who has been able to gain respect in that world, which is not easy. I also love Chitose Abe, who has also worked in the menswear world in Japan. I love how both designers blend masculinity and femininity, and really design clothes for the modern person. I also love the way in which Chitose constantly mixes textures and fabrics. My dream that I will make reality is to collaborate with them both on a stylist and design level.
You mentioned your husband earlier, Chris Gibbs of UNION LA. What kind of influence does he have on your work?
My work with UNION LA and Chris has impacted everything I do. At the same time, I’ve been part of this world for longer than Chris. I think because he’s found success, people think he has created this world for me and I’m lucky to be in it. I love Chris and I admire what he’s been able to do with UNION LA. Even though Mary Ann Fusco ran UNION NYC and Eddie Cruz ran UNION LA up until 2007, you can’t take away what Chris has done for UNION LA. He’s really elevated the store into a brand. I feel very responsible for that in my support and nagging [laughing].
Chris’s great taste, vision to collaborate with bigger brands and ability to curate the store is what has taken it beyond a place that just sells T-shirts, hoodies and hats.
He is a very hard worker and he believes in community and empowering smaller brands. I’ve learned a lot from Chris and he continues to inspire me everyday. We actually inspire each other and that’s why we’ve been able to work together and stay married for over 14 yrs.
Going forward, what are your goals and ambitions?
My goal in the fashion world is to stay in the fashion world – as a stylist and as a creative director for Bephie.
I think it’s super important for me as an African American woman to not only exist in fashion, but to elevate fashion through the lens of a woman who sees everyone – and I mean everyone. You’d be surprised at the creative solutions people-of-colour come up with in the fashion world. I’m not trying to make fashion boring and super political, but I think the more diversity you get from people working behind the scenes in fashion, the more interesting it becomes.