'80s NYC With Madonna & Debbie Harry: Maripol Tells All

Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Maripol could easily be considered the gatekeeper of ’80s club culture. The French-born artist documented goings-on at The Factory, Max’s Kansas City, and The Mudd Club using her Polaroid — not without incident, of course. “My camera would be stolen and I’d get a bit discouraged,” she recalls, mentioning other casualties of New York City’s grit. “It was like my bicycles; whenever my bicycle was stolen, I would stop biking. So, when my Polaroid was stolen, I would stop taking pictures.” (Though, never for long.) And, she had a hand in mode of the moment, first as an accessories designer — ultimately for Fiorucci; then, as the creator Madonna’s Like a Virgin-era look. Here, she discusses chronicling the scene for the soon-to-be-re-released film Downtown 81, the evolution of both fashion and photography, her upcoming clothing collection, and what the future holds.
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Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Self portrait, Tortola, 1978.

Let’s begin with your childhood. You were raised in France…
"I grew up in Brittany, but, before that, I grew up in Africa because my father was posted there, and I think that gave me a sense of a colorful culture. I have three brothers, so my femininity was a bit buried; I was a tomboy because I had to be on the defensive a lot. I grew up in my tree houses — I was always climbing, so nobody would bother me. Though, I remember being 4 or 5 years old, and stealing my mom’s high heels, always taking her clothes and reinventing. And, as early as 10 years old, I covered my school books with drawings of clothing — girls in different outfits for different occasions."

What did you study?
"I went to École des Beaux-Arts, and I studied photography and drawing. When you attend a school that involved, at the beginning, you get to learn a lot. I wonder why I didn’t pursue another path; I could’ve been a painter or a sculptor. At the same time, my mom sent me to pattern-making class, so I knew how to do complete outfits when I was 17. Early on, there were art and fashion in my mind, which, I think to this day are not too far from each other."
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Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Madonna and her dancers, the 15th anniversary of Fiorucci at Studio 54, 1983.

How old were you when you left for New York?
"I was 20. I had fallen in love with a photographer [Edo Bertoglio], who had secured an apartment for us. My parents let me go, and I was really shocked, on one condition: They wanted to meet the guy I was leaving with...

"I remember when I became an American 25 years later, my father looked at my passport — he liberated France with the Americans during World War II — and he was proud that his daughter was American."

Once you got here, what did you do?
"We had this apartment uptown that was also our studio. Back then, I was drawing and making things, but Edo was taking pictures. I didn’t have a camera yet… I got my first Polaroid on Christmas in 1977. I was more Edo’s muse. And then, we met Glenn O’Brien, and I remember Deborah Harry and Chris Stein [of Blondie], and Robert Fripp came to our place in ’78. We became part of the Interview Magazine scene, since Glenn was writing the music column for it…

"I would never find any fashion I liked. I was inspired by what I saw on the street, mainly. Eventually, we moved downtown, but before that, I was picked up by a buyer from Fiorucci, who asked me where I got the earrings I was wearing, which I had just made. I told her I made them, and she said, ‘I want 300 pairs for the stores.’ That’s how it started. Then, Elio Fiorucci, the boss, sent me around the world to design one of the brand’s first accessory and jewelry lines, which is when I started using industrial rubber.

"In between, I worked as an art director at Fiorucci, as well as being a freelance stylist. I met fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, and then Studio 54 opened up, and we designed the clothes for the dancers. Everything was really connected then, and people were doing many things at once. If you were an artist, you were an artist…and I didn’t really know that I was an artist. For me, it was an intellectual concept that was really hard to grasp. I was just living in the moment and doing what I wanted to do, which was called freedom. And, now, I realize that being an artist isn’t easy."
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Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Deborah Harry in Maripol’s loft, 1981.

When did the Polaroids come into play?
"The Polaroid was a tool for my style. If I made something, I would take pictures of it. My boyfriend would go to the lab with the regular camera, and it was difficult because he would lose time and spend money, whereas I had images instantly. And, I would put them away into shoeboxes. I’d take pictures at night to catalog the moments, as well. People tell me that they remember I was the almost the only person with a camera at the club back then… We had a Xerox machine and I would do collages with the Polaroids. I would make a lot of books — compilations of photography, drawings, cutouts, and ideas."

When did you first exhibit them?
"The first show was Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave for PS1 in 1981. We had a whole room, Edo and I, and I had a wall of Polaroids. People were kind of jealous, asking, ‘Why are they getting their own room?’ And you would see Nan Goldin, for example, being squeezed into a corner. It was one of Jean-Michel [Basquiat]’s first shows, too. But, I was aware early on that showing my Polaroids was not a good idea because they were going to get damaged, and I think that’s why my collection survived — because I didn’t take them around and I started to archive them carefully."
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Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Grace Jones, 1983.

In the early ’80s, you fell in with Grace Jones and Madonna.
"I met Grace before Madonna — she wore my rubber bracelets on her feet for Jungle Fever by Jean-Paul Goude. I was stylist for him for more than a year and I also posed for him. When we moved downtown, we opened up our [new] loft with a huge party. I remember Lou Reed couldn’t get out because of the crowd and the cops came to shut it down… At some point, I realized we should do a movie about the whole downtown scene. And, I told my boss, Elio, about it and he said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea! Facciamo, facciamo!' I wrote the first synopsis, and he found the money for us. Glenn wrote the script and Edo directed the movie. It became Downtown 81 [starring Jean-Michel Basquiat]. It’s being re-released on Blu-ray. With the high definition, there’s now a lot of great detail in that film.

"About Madonna…one night, at the Roxy, Fab 5 Freddy was going to perform and he asked me to find some cute girls to join him. I spotted Madonna — I knew who she was. And, there’s actually an interview in which Madonna says, ‘I met this girl at the Roxy who asked me if I was wearing a nice bra because she wanted me to take my top off to dance on stage and I thought she was completely out of her mind.’ That’s how we struck a friendship; we were inseparable after that for quite a few years. She said that I covered her ‘like a Christmas tree in jewelry,’ for her first album, Madonna, and I created the outfit for and styled the Like a Virgin cover, shot by Steven Meisel. When I met her, I was already doing rubber bangles and crosses. It was natural that somebody like her came into my life: Her name is Madonna, we were raised Catholic, and we were both rebels. We just hit it off."
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Illustration: Copyright Maripol.c
Drawings: Punks, 1980.

You soon opened a shop, Maripolitan.
"To run a wholesale business out of my downtown loft was difficult because the landlords were already trying to push out the artists by shutting off the elevator, and I was on the ninth floor. So I opened my own store on Lafayette and Bleecker. That was in ’84. The area wasn’t gentrified as it is now and I could see people selling crack. It wasn’t exactly a point of retail, and I ran it more as a gallery than as a store. But, I wasn’t backed financially, so when business grew bigger, it was hard to stay afloat and at that point, everybody was copying my rubber jewelry, so I closed in 1987."

How do you think fashion has changed over the years?
"I recently watched three documentaries on French TV on ’80s fashion, ’90s fashion, and the fashion now. It showed when the bad boys like [Thierry] Mugler, [Jean Paul] Gaultier, and [Claude] Montana came in and provoked the fashion establishment. And later, the LVMH group developed opposite the Pinault group as competitors — all of these big companies started to hire designers to revamp old couture houses. And, in the documentary they show the excess that takes away great talent…Alexander McQueen, John Galliano.

"On the other hand, there were the Belgian designers, like Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela who were independent and created this anti-fashion movement, as did Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto simultaneously. I think now we are seeing the age of competition, maybe? The fashion statements are made more at the shows than with the clothes. Nothing is necessarily new, but it’s about the craftsmanship. Some of it is really well-made. In my case, I never pretended to be a fashion designer. I just did my jewelry because I believed they were wearable sculptures. And, I did my clothes. I have a new line of clothing with Each x Other for fall and winter that will be delivered to my own pop-ups in Milan’s Corso Como and Au Pont Rouge in St. Petersburg. My latest collection for my jewelry line, Atomic Glamour, will be there, too."
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Photo: Copyright Maripol.
Maripol as Marilyn, 1979.

How do you think photography has evolved?
"Everybody can be a photographer now, even though you need some techniques, for sure. I don’t consider myself a photographer; I’m a Polaroid artist. But, I do take pictures, too, with my Leica… My work has never changed. I’ve always done fashion, and I’ve always done photography and films, and I’ve always done books. Because of that, maybe I did miss an opportunity to have major [museum] shows. Eventually, I want my Polaroid collection to be in a museum. I don’t know which museum is going to want me!"

What’s next for you?
"I have a lot of ideas for art, but, art being archiving my work at the same time…you know, À la recherche du temps perdu — a Proust situation. Something very surreal, going back into what my work is and putting it into different situations. It’s hard to describe, but I’m taking advantage of the summertime in my country house in France to do that. Otherwise, it’s whatever pops up into my mind."
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