Style Liaisons: In Conversation With Photographer Yvonne Todd

By Julia Gessler
Geranium by Yvonne Todd (2019). Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery

Yvonne Todd’s wardrobe is a tale of flannel shirts and Victorian-era gowns. As for the eminent photographer’s subjects, with their heavy eyeliner and doll-like lashes, like divas of a demi-monde in the 60s, 80s or today, how they’re dressed is “vastly removed from my everyday world”, says Yvonne.

As one of New Zealand’s foremost image-makers, she describes her photos as a lens through which glamour, the psychological, perversity, aspiration and the ridiculous can be interpreted.

But don’t confuse the art for the artist. “There’s something of a dichotomy between what I wear and the clothing I use in my photographs.”

Describe your personal style.

Utilitarian. I’m comfortable with slightly stern silhouettes, and plain, unadorned, functional clothing. I call my regular attire "suburban mum cosplay" because, ultimately, I am a suburban mum.

It’s a role I’m still adjusting to. I like to blend in, insidiously, and observe the world, comfortably ensconced in brushed fleece trackpants, flannel shirts and long-sleeved cotton tops.

Yvonne Todd in her regular attire, "suburban mum cosplay". Photo / Supplied
Yvonne Todd in her regular attire, "suburban mum cosplay". Photo / Supplied

Who are your favourite designers, and why?

My artwork across the past five years has been inspired by looks of late 1960s: Courreges, Pierre Cardin, Norman Norell, Paco Rabanne, and Rudi Gernreich. I also love Valentino.

On a more practical front, my personal go-to is the Australian label Bassike for well-made everyday staples that I wear most of the time, for years, until they’re tatty and covered in stains and holes. Then they get cut up and turned into cleaning rags. On the occasions that I need to wear something that isn’t quite as casual, I like Marni, for their eccentric colour and prints  which sometimes seem so wrong that they’re totally right.

I’m fortunate that I can express my interest in clothes through my art. My creativity is channelled into designing outfits for my photo shoots. My mum makes most of them for me.

Sometimes I buy vintage clothing to be worn in my photos, but something has to really grab me, to the point of obsession. In the past I’ve bought clothes by Bob Mackie, early Gianni Versace, Comme de Garcons, Ungaro, Norman Norell, and Pierre Cardin, along with Victorian-era gowns.

Tell us the story of your favourite piece of clothing.

A trumpet-sleeve patchwork dress by Francoise. There’s not really a story behind it, but it’s such a great dress, with a splendid miscellany of patches and maroon herringbone topstitching. The patches include gingham and denim, which appeal to me greatly. It’s comfortable, but unexpected and dramatic, and has a sense of humour. A good all-rounder, really.

Another favourite is my wedding dress, a Valentino gown that was as ostentatious as I’ll ever get in my personal life. It even had a train. I’m not a train person, but that didn’t hold me back.

I once went through a stage of buying clothes with a celebrity provenance to use in my images. Some were evening gowns, others were stage costumes. A particular favourite was a Bob Mackie-designed skimpy dance costume worn by Mitzi Gaynor, and a chic cream and black Ungaro Couture ensemble worn by Liza Minnelli in the mid-1970s.

Maudie by Yvonne Todd (2017). Courtesy of McLeavey Gallery
Maudie by Yvonne Todd (2017). Courtesy of McLeavey Gallery

What piece of clothing have you inherited that’s particularly special to you?

My mum had an impressive corporate wardrobe in the 1980s with lots of power jackets. I have one of these in my possession, a Rosaria Hall number in steel-grey watered taffeta. It’s cropped, with diamante buttons, and a slightly playful pie crust frill along the front hem. The jacket always seems ‘current’, somehow, in defiance of its 80s origins. I like to wear it casually with jeans.

I've also incorporated some inherited items into my photos. My portrait Maudie features an evening dress of lime green French lace. Mum originally wore it to one of dad's work functions, the 1973 General Foods annual ball at the Mandalay in Newmarket. I added a green mushroom-shaped cape and a severe wig for the photo.

Another inherited item that's not a piece of clothing, but a remnant, is the intricate Maltese lace that festooned my great grandmother Lillie Davies' Edwardian wedding gown. It was sewn as a trim onto a simple minidress of plush pink upholstery fabric for one of my photographs, Lark. I like that the cream lace is a bit tatty and unraveling in places.

Is there anything you look for when you shop?

If I’m looking for clothes to use in my shoots, I will forensically investigate a number of websites. I need to be overwhelmed with excitement when I see something, rather than thinking, ‘that will do’. It needs to haunt my waking hours and become an obsession. This doesn’t happen very often. There are millions of vintage clothes available online, but my tastes are specific and I never know what I’m looking for until I see it.

For myself, I avoid fast fashion and ignore the cyclic nature of trends. I have no impulse to voraciously consume. Where possible, I try to buy clothes for myself that don’t have a synthetic component.

Geranium by Yvonne Todd (2019). Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery
Geranium by Yvonne Todd (2019). Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery

What influences your fashion sense?

The vagaries and demands of life, and my sense of humour. I’ve always been a bit random in the way I dress, but I’m also well-attuned to the importance of practicality and comfort.

That’s not to say I’ll wear something ridiculous now and then to amuse myself. I have several nutty items that I’m not prepared to jettison anytime soon, like a Tsumori Chisato minidress in grey sweatshirting that’s printed with turquoise and pink seashells and ropes of glittery pearls. And a vintage black wool sweater dress with a huge Disney-esque applique of a foolish-looking Dalmatian dog on the front.

Were you into fashion growing up?

Yes, I've always loved clothes. Rendell's was the centre of my universe for the first ten or so years of my life. I used to have tantrums if mum wouldn't buy me something that I was obsessed with. When I was about 13, I had a subscription to Dolly magazine and studied all the fashion pages in minute detail.

My tastes have always been rather specific. If I couldn’t find something I wanted, I would improvise.  I remember staying up late before a mufti day at Takapuna Grammar, painting a pair of brown sandals pastel yellow to coordinate with my outfit. Throughout the day, bits of paint flaked off the sandals until they were tragically piebald.

Bracchia by Yvonne Todd (2021). Courtesy of McLeavey Gallery
Bracchia by Yvonne Todd (2021). Courtesy of McLeavey Gallery

How has your relationship to fashion changed since your teenage years?

When I was 13, it was trendy to wear hippie clothes and I got around in some of my aunt’s mothballed early ‘70s garb, which consisted of some rather whacked-out looks. I also purchased long muslin skirts and crushed velvet ensembles from Made in the Shade, a hotspot of the Takapuna teenage fashion scene.

I usually went barefoot everywhere or wore a pair of manky white crocheted shoes, which were impractical and uncomfortable, and didn’t stay white for long. After a few wears they went dishwater grey.

At 14, I developed a less slavish approach to dressing and started looking further afield with a more critical eye. I had a couple of Zambesi pieces, which were the height of sophistication; they were from Cachet in Takapuna, a shop that I was almost too intimidated to enter. This was my tasteful phase, but it was short-lived, because I then pivoted to ‘slutty bogan’.

From the ages of 15-17, most of my clothes came from markets: leather skirts, lace-up corsets, a fringed leather jacket and over-the-knee boots. I recently unearthed a hot pink leather miniskirt I used to get around in. There was plenty of slut-shaming and body-shaming going on at the time, but I persevered, unwavering in my vision.

After the 'slutty bogan' era, I left school and had a drab admin job and a raft of personal issues, so the fun went out of clothing for a while. I lost interest and wore an assortment of grim apparel that reflected my sense of desolation.

So yes, my relationship to fashion has changed a lot. I experienced several stylistic shifts as a teenager. I’m much more consistent now, but I still get to unleash myself in my art.

Where do you love to shop?

I don’t really get out and shop for myself that often. The idea of trawling boutiques for hours on end feels like a form of torment. I usually shop online and in small, controlled seasonal bursts.

A place I do enjoy visiting is Shore City, the mall in Takapuna I’ve been going to since I was very young. I find it reassuring, like an old friend. I go to the Farmers store there for socks and sundries.

For my self-designed costumes, I go shopping more frequently to Warwick Fabrics, Spotlight and The Fabric Store. I am inspired by looking at fabric and trims and stuff. Upholstery fabric is my favourite. A lot of the clothes in my shoots are made from curtain or sofa fabric.

I also keep an eye on overseas auction houses for vintage clothing to use in my photos  Kerry Taylor Auctions, Augusta Auctions, and websites like 1st Dibs.

So, I have two different approaches to buying clothes  for myself the shopping is infrequent and rather cursory, and for my photographs, it’s a far more involved and intensive exercise.

"I usually shop online and in small, controlled seasonal bursts," says Yvonne Todd. Photo / Supplied
"I usually shop online and in small, controlled seasonal bursts," says Yvonne Todd. Photo / Supplied

Which cartoon or fictional character’s personal style from a film or book do you relate to and why?

Kath Day-Knight from Kath and Kim for her exuberance and total commitment to her style. Anyone who wears parrot earrings is a winner in my book.

May Day (Grace Jones in A View to a Kill). Formidably chic in Alaia, she stole every scene as a megalomaniac's henchwoman. I can relate to that.

Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally in Worzel Gummidge; something to do with a weird childhood obsession with puppets and dolls.

The Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, on the covers of Sweet Valley High. Pure visual cocaine.

The cast of Dynasty, with a shout-out to Diahann Carroll and Joan Collins, for both nailing 'power bitch extraordinaire' with such aplomb.

Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna and Robert de Niro as Sam 'Ace' Rothstein in Casino. A fabulously outfitted dysfunctional couple.

Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux in 3 Women. Hypnotic.

What compels your creativity?

My imagination, which is persistent and relentless. I keep a visual diary and everything goes in there, to be reviewed and considered at a later date. Ideas can be found everywhere. I also draw on memories, experiences, things I was obsessed with as a child. Clothes are part of that.

How do you choose the clothes you want in your photographs? What does that process look like?

Usually, a photo will begin with a hint or suggestion of an idea  a colour I’d like to use, a texture, or a silhouette. Ideas often stem from visiting fabric shops. I develop ideas by sketching, then refining each subsequent drawing. This is an integral aspect of the development of my finished images.

My drawings address costumes, props, poses, and anything pertinent to the ‘character’ that I’m creating. The idea continues to crystallise as I continue to rework it in my visual diary.

Most of my recent portraiture has involved clothing that I’ve designed and my mum has made. We have a lot of fun bickering about why one of my ‘simple’ designs won’t work. I come in with no idea of the practicalities of pattern-making and the expectation that anything is possible.

Mum enters the discussion as a harried minion, wary of my fabric choices (too thick, too slippery, too flimsy) and apprehensive as she appraises my latest design. Then she sets out to make it happen, using an old but robust Bernina sewing machine that belonged to her mother.

I've also become interested in using non-traditional materials in my costume-making. One of my recent images, Bracchia, features a dress of heavy white Italian lace from The Fabric Store, with forearm sheaths fashioned from silicone muffin trays from The Warehouse.

I've also used packing tape to fashion 'shoes', which are basically just straps of shiny clear tape around the foot (Leopoldina).

Leopoldina by Yvonne Todd (2017). Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery
Leopoldina by Yvonne Todd (2017). Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery

Has photography changed the way you look at fashion?

My formative experiences with fashion photography had a lasting effect on me as an artist. I used to peruse magazines like W and The Face. These showed me the power of narrative and styling. Some of my favourites were Steven Meisel, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Inez and Vinoodh, all producing brilliant, compelling editorial work.

Was there a moment that led you to understand your photographic style and the kinds of portraits you wanted to create?

Not a moment, but when I studied photography, a world opened up to me. The possibilities seemed endless and I began staging increasingly ambitious shoots, organising all the styling and props and locations.

Some of the shoots required numerous looks on several models (I used myself and some friends as the talent) and I would regularly visit op shops  the Salvation Army store on K Rd was a particularly fruitful hunting ground. I became aware that the staging and procuring aspect was a really meaningful part of making an image and it still is.

Do the aesthetics of your photos bleed into aspects of your life or vice versa?

Not really. Sometimes people meet me and seem disappointed and say, "But you’re so normal." I think they’re expecting me to be a manifestation of my photos.

Tell us about your relationship with colour.

I had an epiphany about colour at a wool shop when I was 15. I was staying with my grandma Irene Todd in Algies Bay and she offered to knit me a mohair cardigan. We drove into town  Warkworth, the big smoke  to the wool shop.

Encountering the bundles of yarn, neatly stacked in colour gradients, was so immensely exciting that I exclaimed, "Grandma, I think I want to work with colour!" I felt it. The magic.

A shortened version of this was originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Six

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