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New York Doll
Lady Gaga's background in performance art has taken her from East Village club nights to international lady of pop, pushing her own brand of fashion in a way only Madonna has done before. She's savvy, energetic and brimming with ideas, but as Marina Crook discovers, she's also gracious and touchingly polite.
JOANNE STEFANI GERMANOTTA (LADY GAGA to you and me and her mum who calls her simply Gaga) is the world's new fashion icon. Grazia magazine called her their 'Style Crush' and the 'Face of 2009', and her anarchic outfits have captured more paparazzi attention than Agyness Deyn of late.
So how would she describe her style?
'In an abstract way I could say it was very New York, graphic, avant-garde…' she ponders. 'My look is art. It's meant to be walking art all the time. Even if I'm in something casual the imagery is supposed to be powerful.'
On the day we meet, Lady Gaga's album The Fame has just gone straight to number three, Just Dance is number one in the UK and US, and single Poker Face has just topped the Australian charts for seven weeks.
She steps into the studio along with an entourage of just two. 'Hi. I'm Gaga!' says the petite New Yorker shaking my hand in an old-fashioned way. With chaotic blonde hair, a black Rodnik dress slashed to the waist revealing her bra, and Versace shades the size of a small country, it's an unnecessary introduction – but a pleasant one. Despite her whirlwind success she's not too big for her boots – or her rip-off Valentino heels, which at £70 a pop were a bargain.
After wandering through the studio we arrive at our stylist's area, complete with rails dripping in Gaga's favourite labels, where I discover her enthusiasm is as winning as her courtesy. 'Oh my God!' she gasps making a beeline for a blue Bernard Chandran angular dress, 'I was looking at this exact one online yesterday! Do they do it in black?' Gaga explains that it's rare for her to get so animated about a dress. 'And I'm almost never impressed by a singular piece. For me it's about the whole look, the art. I don't wear something just because it's "pretty"!'
She goes on to explain that her excitement around this particular designer piece is the shape, and shape's a word that comes up often when you're talking to Gaga, whether she's discussing pop art by Spencer Tunick, who creates images by photographing groups of naked people, or when referencing her music idols. 'It's what people remember about icons,' she says. ' When I think of David Bowie I imagine a specific shape – his hair from Ziggy Stardust. With Grace Jones, I see a shape for her. It's about creating these kinds of shapes for my own work and balancing every outfit like it's a painting. And this is who I am, a performance artist from Rivington Street.'
It was on this corner of New York City on the Lower East Side, crammed with galleries, achingly cool clubs and legendary house parties, that Gaga ran to (from her uptown family home across Manhattan) to find her future. She spent her late teens here perfecting her edgy look, dancing burlesque, making performance art and, on occasion, partying on drugs – a lifestyle that's now behind her. Her current vice is a glass of good red wine.
'The imagery in the show, the music, everything, it's the story of our time,' she says. 'This subculture of people in New York, who live and die for music, art and club culture. It's not a gimmick.'
We put our interview on hold while hair and make-up artistry takes over. As her hair extensions are removed, she yells, 'You're getting my real hair today – that's exciting!' During eye make-up application, she spots a member of her team and starts talking about plans for her new US tour, and whenever she's in 'work mode', she's animated, ideas pouring from her mouth at a terrifying speed.
THIS IS HOW LADY GAGA WORKS, collaborating with her management and, of course, the Haus of Gaga, her Andy Warhol-style collective who create those outfits.
'They are so talented!' she gasps when I quiz her about 'the Haus'. 'It's like when we came up with the origami dress, which was inspired by a Mugler dress I'd liked. I'd been thinking, "What would this dress look like if it'd had sex with a Perfecto Motorcycle jacket?" And the Haus created it! They make things exquisitely.'
The Haus sound amazing. I'd like the Haus in my house, so ask if there are plans to sell their designs. 'I like it small, collaborative,' says Gaga vaguely. 'But it's not about being more rich and famous, it's about being truthful.'
It's clear she knows her stuff when it comes to fashion and art, and Gaga believes her lust for knowledge is grounded in her schooling. 'Everyone knows I went to high school with Paris and Nicky Hilton. What they don't know is that it was a good school. As an Italian-American woman who's only the second in her generation to go to college I'm proud of my education.'
It was in those days, aged 13, that Gaga really started to get into fashion. 'I wore acid wash jeans, tank-tops, sneakers… kind of 1950s, kind of clubby,' she says. 'But I'd mix it up, some days I'd be in fishnets with bright red lips.' I guess that she's always had the potential to shock.
'I do have a bit of a rock and roll heart even though I'm a pop artist,' explains Gaga. 'But I'm a different kind of punk. I like clean, sophisticated lines and detail, which is why I love Chanel and Versace!' When she talks labels, her eyes light up and she chats with fervour about her other favourites, Maison Martin Margiela, Thierry Mugler, Gareth Pugh… 'He's amazing – so graphic, but it's not costume you know?'
I tell her that I'm very impressed by the impact her style has made so far. Is she worried about fashion me-toos? Before she answers Gaga is keen to dispel one news story that suggested Christina Aguilera 'may have borrowed her style'. 'I happen to not think she did anything,' she says firmly. But does she see her influence in some quarters? 'If people are inspired by my looks, then I love that I'm affecting culture,' she says. But I do think that whatever your influence you have to be careful to execute properly. If you go for big lines like Klaus Nomi shoulder pads, (Nomi was a 70s performance artist and Bowie collaborator) be careful how you use them. It's got to look like fashion and translate to 2009. Otherwise it'll look like Robocop!'
A pair of feathery Shu Uemura eye lashes complete Gaga's look and she's ready to change for her shoot.
Her first outfit is a Margiela black tux jacket, with ASOS gold and black hot pants and Archie Eyebrows shoes. She comfortably starts to strip, then realizes her proximity to a window and shuffles over. 'It's funny,' she says, 'I used to change without thinking and my manager reminded me to take more care – especially in Britain with your paparazzi.'
Within seconds she's dressed, in front of the camera and making her own graphic shapes. She's a joy to shoot. She cracks jokes, her energy is boundless despite being mid-tour, and she looks great in everything – including the Chandran blue dress she previously coveted.
With each outfit she considers the detail. Just before our photographer starts snapping one look she gasps, 'Wait I need that nail!' and sprints off to retrieve a gold box. Inside there are sets of intricately designed false nails embellished with details like tiny metallic roses. 'They're all made for me by this crazy Brooklyn Japanese chick,' she says selecting one tiny pink nail with an even tinier black bow. 'The bows are very Chanel!' she smiles extending her middle finger to have it applied. 'Karl Lagerfeld would like these nails…'
Between shots I ask about style idols, which makes Gaga laugh out loud. 'Isn't it obvious from the tan and the hair?' she says. 'Donatella! She's beautiful, Italian with impeccable taste.' Which bring me to my next question. Talking of Italian-American blondes, what does she think of the comparison being made of her to Madonna?
'Well, you can't be mad at that,' she laughs. 'She's one of the strongest blonde females ever – her, Debbie Harry and Marilyn. But I don't know if she's heard it.'
Throughout the shoot I'm impressed by Gaga's confidence, how she contorts into shapes without prompting, pulling often provocative poses. But when the shoot is over and she heads to the Mac screen to get a glimpse of the photographers taken, I see a vulnerable side.
AT ONE SET OF CLOSE-UP SHOTS, she sighs and quietly says, 'I like these ones… I look pretty.' It's as if she's surprised and it's somehow touching.
The next time I see Gaga she's bursting onto stage, the support act on the Pussycat Dolls tour. She starts singing then shouts, 'Everybody get up!' And you know what, we do! Maybe it's the elctro poppy bass, or her visual show. Or maybe it's the power of Gaga.
She has a huge presence and one of those forceful only-from-America voices. She runs around the stage stopping to writhe with her dancers – three sexy lads with torsos so tight you could bounce beans off them.
Between the infectious tunes she brings in another element in the shape of 'Crevettes', her art films based on Andy Warhol's work (she stars under the pseudo-name Candy Warhol). During our interview she'd told me how excited she was about showing them, and plans to attempt more, hopefully with guidance from her friend, legendary New York artist David LaChapelle. I enjoy the films. They're sophisticated and at times dark but they're an effective contrast to her upbeat stage show.
The Just Dance intro kicks in, but I'm too busy marvelling at her latest outfit to start moving. It includes silver breastplates that she's had moulded from a body cast, very Grace Jones, very her, very impressive.
Her fans are going Gaga, and I'm reminded of something she's said to me about what she's hoping to achieve: 'What I'd like people to know is that as fabulous as I may look in a magazine, it's who I am. This isn't a ploy for people's attention… this is me. And I'm so lucky to be here!'
And for fashion addicts with a desire for inspiration, we're lucky to have her.
Lady Gaga's single Poker Face is out 13 April