The Future of Performance Wear Is In the Hands of The Blonds

When Beyoncé stepped on stage in a bodysuit back in 2014, her entire was encrusted in jewels, complete with 3D nipples. Here, before tens of thousands of fans and internet of onlookers was an artist who had never been so bold as to bare her body in such a way. “Everybody just flipped out because it looked too real,” recounts designer David Blond, both star-struck and bewildered at the momentous public response to his work. “They literally thought she was out there buck naked.” But David and his partner, Phillipe Blond, who have studded and beaded their way to the inner circles of music royalty, are used to such provocative attire.

It was 2000 when the duo met, finding solace in their shared love for music, fashion, and nightlife. David, who had built his career in visual merchandising, was ready for a shift, and there before him was Phillipe, a young man hungry to build a fashion empire. Success was quick for the young designers, eventually landing retail space for their work in Hotel Venus back in 2006, owned by renowned Sex and the City stylist Patricia Fields. 

But it wasn’t until later that year, when Beyoncé’s team knocked on their door for the first time, that The Blonds knew they were on to something. “Beyoncé wearing the first corset that we ever made in her ‘Upgrade U’ video, that really is what set it off, for sure,” David says, reminiscing on the opportunity. Dripping in gold, metallic fabric and oversized diamonds, it’s the first full look you see in the video, setting an opulent tone.

Now, as The Blonds continue their legacy of custom performance wear, documented in their upcoming book, The Blonds: Glamour, Fashion, Fantasy, and set to publish in September, we catch up with David, reflecting on the duo’s work with artists like Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Madonna, and project the future of performance style.

What was the process like when you and Phillipe first met and you decided to build this brand together?

Well, it’s interesting because I had already developed a career in visual merchandising and interior design in the retail space. And then when I met Phillipe in 2000, it was something that he was already doing and it’s something I’d always had in the back of my mind. I took a year off to assist him with his own line; Philippe was still interning and making stuff for himself and his friends. And then once we got together, we were going out and doing the same thing.

We were bleaching our hair blonde and we had this whole concept of, ‘Why can’t anyone be Marilyn? Why can’t anyone be Marlene Dietrich?’ These goddesses in the old Hollywood movies that we love so much. We just wanted to give a touch of glamor to anybody and everybody that wanted to be involved in it and that’s kind of what the premise [of the brand] was from the beginning.

A lot of your work has been predominantly with musicians. Do you have a particular draw to working with them, or that’s where you find the most creativity happening when it comes to your clients?

It’s all those things. I feel like music is the base from which we draw our inspiration. And then everything else is sort of… I don’t want to say sidebar, but there are other components to the DNA of the brand: old Hollywood, art, animation. But music is at the center of it.       

I think that was the area where we were most able to express ourselves at that time. No one was doing what we were doing, and the only people that would wear that sort of thing were musicians. Now it’s sort of developed into this thing where I have clients that will call and want something stage-worthy for a luncheon that’s themed. It’s interesting to me to see how this is merged with the everyday. This is something that, which was strangely our goal to begin with, was to bring this idea of the high-level glamor and costume to the everyday person.

What is the difference between designing something for the runway versus when you’re working with an artist and they have to perform in it? 

Well, there are two completely different ways to approach it. If it’s something that’s more wearable or costume for the day, let’s say, then we wouldn’t have to put in any of the tough construction. It could be a lot more delicate in terms of embroideries and embellishments. And if we were translating something from the stage to something that would be more wearable for a client, let’s say some sort of special occasion whether it’s prom or wedding, Bar Mitzva, we’ve run the gamut in terms of the special occasion dressing for various civilian clients. That’s what I call them.

But for performance, there’s a big conversation that happens around each individual performer’s wants needs and preferences in terms of how they want to look. And it’s usually very detailed and something that ends up being fleshed out during multiple fittings. Then the timeframe, again it just depends on how complicated the pieces are.

When we first started out, we prided ourselves on how quickly we could turn things around and that was sort of why people started coming to us on a regular basis. Because things pop up and they need something amazing and we would drive ourselves crazy. Now we don’t have that luxury anymore so we need a little bit more time, typically four to six weeks on average.

If it’s something that’s meant to last throughout a tour or if there are duplicates or if we have to rework it, and if there’s a complex embroidery or beading involved, then that can take up to 12 weeks. Even six months in some cases.

Do you still have artists that will ask for things like, “Hey, we need this in a 24 hour turnaround?”

Yes, it happened today. They still come. One stylist today, I got 12 text messages, like, “Babe, I need this now, I need it.” And I’m just like, “I hate to say it…” And I never like to turn anything down but sometimes that’s what you have to do. 

Has a musician ever approached you that you just couldn’t turn down, even though you might have been thinking, “I don’t have the time for this. What the hell are we going to do?”

Well, that would be Madonna.

Understandable.

Yeah. I think we’ve gone through a few of those with her because she is a perfectionist and we sort of are the same way. But yeah, we’ve gotten a few last-minute calls that again, is something we could not turn down. She’s probably the only person, her and I’d say, Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez. You know what I mean? Those are the clients that we would not be able to say no to, obviously.

Madonna (“Living for Love” Music Video)

Director: J.A.C.K (Julien Choquart and Camille Hirigoyen)

Going through a few looks, starting with Lady Gaga in the “Paparazzi” music video, which was huge for her as an artist. It kind of put her on a larger map outside of her original audience. Of course, your designs are in that. What was that like?

It’s interesting because she came up in New York and it’s been wonderful to watch her career blossom and explode as it has. Because we had a lot of friends in common and that’s how that relationship sort of started. Then, to be a part of when she decided to shift more into this high-octane, costume-driven, fashion-oriented world, was great to be a part of that.

And I feel like she is one of the best people in terms of bringing about all this change in fashion, she’s definitely had her own hand in it. And I think she made other artists really up their costume game as well. So we definitely benefited from that.

What are those discussions like now versus then? Because like you said, she has upped the costume game tremendously.

I think with any artist, what we start with is any kind of mood board. They can give us a number of descriptors, color, hardware, anything and everything that we can get. The music. Whatever it is that they can give us to get inspiration from. We’ll take that into consideration and try to add all of that in there and weave it into the piece in one way or another, whether it’s subtle or whether it’s literal. For example, Gaga’s moment in Paparazzi, she was in chains because she was getting locked up. 

Did you get a lot of buzz after that? This was also, I believe, a year after you had officially established your brand, maybe two years after the Beyoncé ‘Upgrade U’ music video where you had your debut.

It’s hard to say because I don’t ever really feel like you’re established in this industry. Going into this, you always have to understand that it’s a roller coaster and you have high points and you’re going to have low points. And that’s what I try to tell people: there really is never security when you’re working in a field like this, where there is intense competition. As of late, larger brands are now getting back into this as well. So when they do it, it’s a different story because typically they just do everything for the artist and there’s a trade-off there, as opposed to being a paid gig. 

The next artist I’d like you to talk about is Nicki Minaj, specifically her “Moment 4 Life” music video. Nicki went from being this predominantly really hard, tough woman to showing a bit more softness, as represented by this flowing teal gown, which you designed. What was creating that piece like, and what was it like working with her, especially during this shift in her music?

What was beautiful about that moment was the song itself, what it was about, how she was softening things. She really just wanted to look like a princess and feel like Cinderella for the video. But then put her spin on it, her as the Fairy Godmother, which was hilarious. She’s got an amazing sense of humor. That all came together really fabulously at the end.

Circling back to Beyoncé, what was your reaction after getting that call saying, “Beyoncé is interested in doing something with you.” How does that collaboration work with someone at that level? Because this was also your first piece for a big artist.

Well, it works many different ways with different artists. In this instance, her stylist came to a showroom that we were in and saw one of the pieces we had done and then relayed to them what the creative was for the video. Obviously, when we heard about it, we were ecstatic. Once we got to see it, we were crying, but it was pretty major and really an amazing experience. We worked with Ty Hunter, who was her stylist at the time and have worked with him for many, many years.

Now for The Carter World Tour, she’s wearing this bodysuit that is all rhinestone. What led you to that idea, and how do you convince an artist who has strong ownership over their brand, to get them into something like that?

This particular moment happened after a much longer discussion because we started off with this concept: we were trying to make her into this really elevated, elegant vibe where she was just barely covered, and then give the illusion that she was naked underneath the feathers. So we did something that was very soft with a lot of pinks and just shading. It was all nudes and feathers, and then all the feather dancers did their number around her.

But that was, I guess, too subtle. She wanted to go for a much larger impact. She wanted to give the illusion that she was completely nude but didn’t exactly know how to execute it. So we came back with this idea of having the dancers be sort of peek-a-boo, having them be half nude and then her being almost fully nude, in a way. But again, completely covered from the neck to the wrist.

And then as the conversation went on, it was decided that we were going to make this super-realistic, but how do we do that in an artful way? So we started looking at [the work of painter] Tamara de Lempicka. We sort of took that then mocked that up in a sketch. We did an initial fitting for the base suit and Phillipe actually painted on her body while she was wearing it to make sure everything was perfectly in place.

He painted the entire suit while it was on her so we would have a guide when we were doing the beading and embroidery. Then she had her first moment when she wore it and it shocked audiences to the point that everybody just flipped out because it looked too real, I guess.

They literally thought she was out there buck naked, so it was crazy. Then we did the duplicates after that, we toned down the shades quite a bit. It still had the nipple detail. It still had all the shading and everything, and I think the sleeves ended up getting hacked off at one point, and then a keyhole went in. It went through some craziness but they still have those pieces in the archive.

You and Phillipe have shaped the visual legacy of fashion for the last decade and a half. What is the future of your work and the future of musician’s style look like for you?

I’m really happy and inspired thinking about the future because I feel like there are so many people out there and so many artists in so many markets. It’s one thing that people always forget because predominantly they pay attention to two U.S. artists when we work with artists all over the world.

And I think it’s amazing that everyone has someone that they can look up to right now. I’m happy to see that we’ve gotten to a point where any child can look up and have a role model, can have that same thing that I had when I was a kid in front of the television watching Wonder Woman.

It’s interesting, a lot of people don’t know that Linda Carter’s Mexican, so she’s a Latina. Those types of things to me, resonate and I feel like it’s amazing to finally see that coming to fruition and happening.

And again, I think there are artists that aren’t going to want to wear our stuff. But there is a multitude of artists, especially men now. I think that’s super exciting, that the guys are getting in on it. We originally worked with Adam Lambert a lot because he’s Glam-bert.

He’s a great example of male performance wear. Do you have artists that you’re excited to work with in the future?

Yeah. We love what Lil Nas X is doing. We’re currently working on a project with Janet Jackson, who’s been someone we’ve idolized forever. And again, is someone we wanted to work with from the beginning.

It’s interesting to see men dip their toes into more of that world of being over the top. What about others? Are there other men that you are thinking “We’re going to get them and it’s going to be major?” 

I feel like Harry Styles is getting to that point. As you mentioned before, I think he is really great with his experimentation, and the way that he’s developing as an artist, I think is really amazing. So I feel like our paths will meet one day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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