A Chat with Joel Fitzpatrick

A Chat with Joel Fitzpatrick

By Sara Ost
Fashion. Sculpture. Lighting. Architecture. Design. Shoes. Joel Fitzpatrick has done a lot. Dwell recently spoke with Fitzpatrick, a master of design—and design reinvention.

From his name-making turnaround of the stale Hush Puppies brand in the mid-1990s to groundbreaking work with LED design to forays into sustainable fashion, Fitzpatrick exhibits a polymath's creativity across design disciplines. Speaking in his easy native California drawl, Fitzpatrick shared thoughts ranging from the topic of eco-fashion's viability to the current cultural obsession with pop-ups and whether or not brand collaborations have jumped the proverbial shark.

About those Hush Puppies

"It worked on so many levels. I knew in my gut that it was next, and it was a combination of knowing that it was next and taking something that was so American and putting a contemporary twist to it. We had this shift going on in fashion at the time where we had gone through all the old school tennis shoes—the Adidas shell top, the Converse Star—and everyone was looking for all that old dead stock that you couldn't get your hands on. People were taking the Adidas track suits and cutting those up into dresses. There was this whole moment of finding these things and bringing them forward. It was kitsch Americana, blue suede Elvis. We go through these currents where, like with Hush Puppies, people had done the reissuing of various brands so it was time to move on to something else, the casual, the loafer. It was a progression. And it wasn't just about reissuing, it was about making an old brand contemporary. They allowed me to make any color I wanted—a dream come true for a designer."

Reissues done right

"Right now my favorite re-updated brand would be Lightning Bolt. It was sitting there so ripe to be reissued and brought forward. I think they are doing a pretty good job. Boast is cool, too. The logo is a Japanese-looking marijuana maple leaf."

Brand collaborations have always been with us, but the Louis Vuitton Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami collaborations seem to have launched us into hyperdrive.

"Louis Vuitton's bags, all that stuff is totally great. It's kitsch and fun. LV was smart to recognize their own kitsch-meets-chic cachet and they brought a contemporary version of that. I do have to say at this point I feel like everyone is doing a guest designer or collaboration; we're at such a fevered pitch with it today. It used to be so hard to get someone to even think about co-branding or collaboration. It was like moving a mountain back in the '90s. Now everyone and their mother is doing them—look at opening ceremonies, it's a collabfest! Even James Franco is doing collaborations." 

If he could pick anyone, anyone...

"It's about doing it the right way, with good design, and bringing the brand forward. Pierre Cardin, I would love to do a collaboration. His furniture, use of color, there's a brand that has heritage and I feel has not been brought back to its glory. Right now I am also chasing down an old surf brand myself, doing one for old time's sake."

Weighing in on that other cultural phenomenon, the pop-up:

"With my background in lighting, theater, guerrilla theater, and dance—and fashion—I have always been involved in pop-up experiences. I've watched it, and I think we've seen this growth for two major reasons. First, ever since the housing crash and economic bubble bursting, for the first time, landlords were willing to do short-term leases. Before, it was practically impossible to get anyone to give you a short-term lease. That all changed when the bubble burst and it became possible and acceptable to do a pop-up. Second, in the past, you had to prototype it, it was going to take manufacturing overseas, and that meant hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and get a prototype. Now everyone has 3-D printers and you can send out your concept and get a prototype for 100 bucks and use factories that used to only want a million or one hundred thousands units that suddenly are available to do smaller runs."

We're stone cold bored.

"Second, there is a larger social issue—everyone is bored with the Internet. Everyone is bored! Everyone needs something to talk about, an experience, otherwise it's just a two dimensional experience through Facebook, and your phone, and Tumblr, and computer, and you're not going out there and having experiences."

A virtuous loop?

"Brands need to generate experiences so people have something to share, and people are bored because they only live through social media so they seek experiences—so brands and people need each other. On the scale that things are happening with the pop up, it's overexposed, but people need things to blog about and Instagram. The downturn was just gas on the fire. We're constantly craving the new. We want to touch things. After sitting all day at a computer, we crave experiences more than ever before. Just like we crave better food, we crave better experiences, and we want things to be special."

Foodie Nation

"Still, by far, the hottest trend is food, even more than the pop-up. Food pop-ups, gourmet food, food trucks. The only thing starting to beat that trend is living small."

Living small: A reaction to the McMansion?

"I live in a house that's only 13 feet wide. I have a little boat. My fascination with small spaces comes from my fascination with boats as a New Yorker. I have a miniature little brownstone in the West Village."

A need for green?

"No. Maybe in my old age that [consumers expecting green] could come. We have social responsibility fatigue. You can't launch a product because it's green or conscious, in fact it becomes a hindrance sometimes."

LED cred

" I love to design green and I love LED technology. I was involved: I built the first all-LED commercial space in the world; I think back then it was me and the space shuttle."

LED design

"I've come back to being super excited about LED and that's why I'm doing all this experiential experimental design—art one minute, store another minute, party another minute. Right now I'm doing weird video mapping—that's how you can create these larger environments. I'm trying to push the boundaries of video and LED and make it livable. How do you use and make this stuff to create a more intimate relationship with video? I think it took 15 years for it to become sexy, with warm temperatures, with beautiful oranges and pinks. Suddenly in the last four to six months things that were $150 a bulb have dropped to $32 and are amazing in quality and you can buy them at Home Depot. The revolution of the LED is finally here."


"Still, when it comes to design and green to me it's always gotta be a better product. The towels I designed—the cotton is amazing, they look great. They're great objects and that's what it comes down to. I designed them like I would design a piece of fashion. I'm not trying to sell it because it's organic; I'm trying to sell it because in my opinion it's a great, simple design. That's the important thing. To make sure you are making good design."

From a fashion guy: Eco fashion isn't where we'll make sustainability progress.

"If you're in fashion it's the most serious thing in the world. So for young designers, take my advice, if you want to be in fashion it has got to be your end all be all. At the end of the day, fashion is not that serious. In the larger picture of life it just isn't. Everyone in fashion wants to be in art. Everyone wants to be thought of as an artist, as the next level, and, I think you have to have a sense of humor about it.

The larger opportunity is in furnishing and homes and that is the bigger use of our energy. There are crazy statistics on how much power and electricity we waste. That is the low-lying fruit for us to become a more sustainable society: just updating our building codes and power supply and windows would go so far. I've built what I think is the greenest brownstone in NYC for a celebrity [undisclosed].

Everyone had a green project at the time but couldn't get funding. Mine was geothermal with reclaimed woods. I got the wood myself from a collapsed barn in Vermont.

In other words…

"It has to be more than just low-VOC paint."

All about architecture

"I'm building a big artisan residency in the Hamptons right now. Six bedrooms, three studios. It'll be done in the next three to four weeks. It's super minimalist, all plywood and stainless steel. The house is supposed to feel like a canvas."

A few of Joel's favorite things

"I love Helm boots out of Austin.

Surface to Air—I love their store in New York. One of the fresher designs as far as space goes.

I like the Benetton pop up they just did but then that's because it looks like the pop up I just did [laughs]."

The current design ethos

"It's all about things that have attitude and a statement, that's where we are right now. I feel like I'm getting out of high school again. 20 years later, this punk feeling is what's emerging. Punk is the biggest trend coming right now. Trend is such a bad word, but I mean it as a mindset, as a shift in consciousness where we are moving towards. Back in the day, I used to get compared to trend forecasters but it's just about being a tastemaker. I've been chasing down all these punk things from '85. Think about that moment: All of a sudden you could die from sex, and cocaine was addictive. The world is changing and there is so much punk attitude—look at Pussy Riot in Russia. Everything needs to be said with attitude and expressed like you mean it. Just keep channeling that."

Last word

"Because that's what good design is about: Saying things and meaning it."


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