ROCK AND ROLL DESIGNER
Los Angeles-based clothing and accessories designer Michael Schmidt’s work is legendary. Over the years, he’s designed extraordinary and innovative custom pieces for music icons including Tina Turner, Cher, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Dolly Parton, Deborah Harry, Madonna, Grace Jones, and many more. He’s also worked on fantastic collaborations with Jeremy Scott, Versace, and Chrome Hearts. This past fall, Schmidt returned from curating the spectacular Swarovski exhibit in Austria, and more recently designed headpieces for the Alexander McQueen exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum. Michael Schmidt is rock and roll!
Michael, you recently curated the fantastic Swarovski exhibit in Austria. Tell our readers about the project and your involvement.
As a designer in the entertainment realm, I’ve collaborated with Swarovski Crystal on my stage and video ensembles for decades. As it turns out, this legendary company also has a fantastic museum called the Kristallwelten, situated at the base of the Austrian Alps, one of the most glorious places I’ve ever visited. Many years ago Carla Rumler, the museum’s director, envisioned an exhibition dedicated to the company’s contributions to the entertainment industry going back a hundred years. She looked for about a decade to find someone to curate such a showing, and when we met she explained her idea and asked if I would be interested, which of course I was!
I was able to go back through the company’s archives, and those of many of the world’s great entertainers and pull or recreate some of the most iconic moments of popular culture and include them in the exhibition. Michael Jackson’s glove, the Ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, the gown in which Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy – these historic moments were all embellished with Swarovski Crystal and are all included in the exhibit. In addition, I have pieces lent to me by Bob Mackie and Cher, Elton John, Bjork, Dita Von Teese, and many others. I recreated the chandelier dress I originally made for Jeremy Scott and Katy Perry which she wore to the Met Gala in 2019. Simone Biles gave me one of her leotards in which she medaled at the Olympics. All these pieces were made more exciting through the addition of Swarovski Crystal, and make for a dazzling presentation at the museum.
I’d say if Paco Rabanne and Bob Mackie had a love child, it would be Michael Schmidt. You’re known for using materials in your designs that aren’t the norm for clothing or stage wear. Where would you say you get your design inspiration from and how did you get into design?
I was always pretty creative as a kid, out of boredom mostly. When I moved to NYC at 19 I didn’t have a lot of job experience so I made jewelry and clothing out of things I’d find in vintage stores and weird shops on Canal Street. Knowing that I was never going to discover a color or fabric that hadn’t already been widely used, I began to adapt more unusual materials to the body. Being able to create a new fabric or silhouette from wood, metal or plastic was much more challenging and exciting to me, and that’s how I began to distinguish myself as a designer.
You’re from Kansas City originally, but when we met in the early ’90s you were living in New York City. When did you move to New York and how would you describe your early years here?
I first came to New York in 1983 to see Diana Ross’ now-iconic performance in Central Park. I had a friend from high school who had moved to the city to become a model and I stayed with her, sleeping in her bathtub. As it turned out, this Diana Ross concert (in which she famously battled the elements, as a torrential rainstorm moved in) would become not only the greatest performance I’ve ever experienced but also a turning point for me as a young designer. Seeing her command of the crowd under the most terrifying of circumstances (the Governor came out on stage pleading with her to leave so as not to get electrocuted but she refused, concerned about stampeding crowds) was a masterclass in stagecraft and inspired me to want to work with entertainers as the focal point of my work.
You’ve had a very close, personal relationship with Cher over the years. How did the two of you meet?
In the mid-’80s, after I had been making jewelry and clothing a while I found I was fascinated with chainmaille and metal mesh fabrics in general. I had a friend, Jessica, who worked in a store in Soho called Dianne B and they allowed me to display one of my little hand-made chainmaille dresses in the window. One day Cher walked by and saw it and went into the store to inquire who made it in order to have some custom things made, but they wouldn’t tell her so she left! But my angel Jessica ran out of the store after her and handed her my number. I was pretty much living in a squat in those days, but suddenly I found myself invited to Cher’s New York pied-a-terre, where we became fast friends. She would go on to give my work away as gifts to her friends like Tina Turner and Jon Bon Jovi, and that’s how I started working with entertainers.
Your name for many years has also been identified with the notorious gay rock and roll party in New York City in the ’90s, “Squeezebox”, at Don Hill’s. You had so many legendary musicians, like Nina Hagen, Marc Almond, Debbie Harry, as well as drag queens actually singing (not lip-synching) rock songs. How did the concept of the party come about? And were you taken aback that people like Calvin Klein and Steven Meisel would attend – and even JFK Jr.?
Jon Bon Jovi moved me to Los Angeles in the late ’80s to do a line of Bon Jovi clothing, at the height of the glam-rock scene. I quickly began making clothes for all the big bands of the day, Aerosmith, Skid Row, Iggy Pop, Ozzy Osbourne etc. That was fun for a while until 1991 when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and the entire glam/metal scene instantly imploded. I was missing NYC by then, so I moved back and started looking for something to do. My ex, Patrick, was managing a rock bar called Don Hill’s and asked if I’d like to promote a night. SqueezeBox! was born on April 15, 1994 and quickly became one of the hottest nights in NYC. My friends and I always wanted a rock club with live music that catered to a queer crowd. I knew lots of really talented drag and trans performers who were mostly lip-syncing at the clubs of the time. I wanted to give them a live band and really see what they could do. Eventually, I started bringing in some of my entertainer friends who all enjoyed performing with the queens doing classic rock and punk with the band. In addition to those you mentioned, Joan Jett, Lene Lovich, Boy George, Tura Satana, Marilyn Manson and so many others all guest-performed on our stage. Hedwig and The Angry Inch was born at SqueezeBox! In his stage shows John Waters still calls SqueezeBox! the greatest club in New York history.
We read that you were roommates with Deborah Harry back in the days? Tell us about your friendship. She’s such an icon for millions of people.
My friendship with Debbie is one of my closest and most cherished. We first met when I was sixteen after one of her concerts (my very first) in St. Louis, MO. Then years later when I was living in NY my friend Eric was assisting a photographer duo named Guzman who were shooting the cover of Debbie’s album Rockbird. I had pretty good cheekbones then so he asked if I would sit in on the lighting tests, so I went to the studio, wore her Stephen Sprouse dress, a blond wig styled by Christiaan and had my face painted by the great Linda Mason. They did some Polaroids, and that was that. The next day I was allowed to come back to the shoot, where I met Debbie and Chris and Stephen. What a moment! Debbie gave me her number but it took me months to work up the nerve to call her. I eventually did, and a great friendship blossomed. She’s my favorite artist and as everyone knows, one of the greatest beauties of all time, inside and out. I feel she’s never given enough credit for also being a brilliant songwriter/lyricist. And yes, we lived together and are still super tight.
At some point, you ended up moving back to Los Angeles. What brought about the move?
After SqueezeBox! ended around 2000 I was missing making clothing and working with my hands, so some friends encouraged me to move back to LA. Cher suggested I meet with her friends at the luxury goods firm Chrome Hearts, and that led to a 20-plus-year collaborative relationship. I also slowly started rebuilding my studio and working with entertainers again. Now we do jewelry, clothing and sculptural works. I particularly enjoy our museum work, where we create sculptural headpieces to accompany the display of clothing in an exhibition setting.
Often, when a museum is planning to mount an exhibit featuring clothing, there is a necessary conversation around the mannequins and specifically the head treatments. When LACMA acquired a sizable group of garments by my pal, the great Lee Alexander McQueen, they were determined to do something inventive. The exhibition centers on Lee’s designs and the artistic inspirations behind them, including paintings, tapestries, photographs et cetera from across the ages. They reached out to me to create a series of sculptural works to top off these pieces. We created 15 works in a variety of media, including beading, weaving, 3D printing, metalwork, crystaling, etc. The exhibition has just opened and has proven to be quite a smash, as is befitting Lee’s incredible work. I’m so proud to be a part of it.
It seems like you’ve practically dressed every big superstar/entertainer over the years. But more recently you’ve been designing for many of the younger stars, the next wave of entertainers. Who of this new crop are you excited to make pieces for?
I’ve been getting a kick out of working with a bunch of the new Coachella crowd, like Megan Thee Stallion and 100 Gecs among others. Lil Nas X has fun ideas. There’s always a new crop of exciting talent coming up and we’re here to help them achieve their dreams.
On a final note, I remember seeing Debbie Harry perform at the Supper Club in New York in a full-length custom gown you made from razor blades. I think it was in 1994? There’s nothing more PUNK than that! Do you remember how the concept of the dress came about? And where is the dress now?
In the mid-’70s, Stephen Sprouse made a short black dress for Debbie that had chains and razor blades scattered around the hem. This little dress made a big impact on me, exemplifying the essence of Deb’s sexy punk appeal. Later, together we would occasionally revisit some of her iconic moments, embellishing them in some way. For example, I redid her famous Vultures t-shirt by fully beading its surface. In any case, I was inspired by that little black dress to create a floor-length column gown completely covered in over 3000 double-edged razor blades. That dress went on to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum’s Rock Style exhibition in 1999. Debbie still owns it in her archives.
INTERVIEW & PORTRAITS ALEXANDER THOMPSON