It's about time the rock star Beth Ditto started a clothing line. A self-identifying “fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas" who's been altering her own clothes and preaching body positivity for decades, there’s hardly anyone more suited to changing plus-size fashion and the way the industry looks at body size. Fresh from starring in and possibly stealing the Marc Jacobs spring show, where the former Gossip frontwoman strutted down the Ziegfeld Theater looking like Mae West, the 34-year-old is rolling out an 11-piece collection today in sizes 14-28, available on her website and at Selfridges in London. Before heading to New York for its debut, she took a break to talk about what it was like thrifting during the Riot Grrrl years, leaving her band the Gossip, and adding designer to her long list of jobs. She did it all, of course, in that signature Southern twang.
You’ve gotten more into fashion recently, but how did it all start for you? What was it like shopping and finding clothes growing up in Arkansas?
As a kid – and there were so many kids [in my family] – we didn’t have a lot of money at all, if any. I’ve always been chubby my whole life, and my mom was constantly having to sew things for me. My granny made a lot of my clothes when I was little, like my little Christmas pageant dresses. When I was 11, I had to go to church wearing a maternity dress. I will still go into maternity shamelessly, but it’s the fact that I don't have to resort to it, but that I am able to find it, that makes such a difference.
I’m sure making your own clothes, though, was pretty common once you got into the Riot Grrrl scene on the West coast.
Right, we always thrifted – it was a very common occurrence in my household to get clothes from my mom’s coworkers’ kids who had outgrown them. Tons of stuff that was hella outdated, which you’d have to update somehow. We were miracle workers like that, really resourceful. But punk opened my mind to a whole different thing, which was letting go of shame and embracing the inner part of you that’s expressive and crazy. Just doing all the things that you already saw in your head, but you might not have felt comfortable doing.
Do you still thrift now that you’ve fallen in with some pretty notable designers?
Oh yeah. I’m not the kind of person to wear something fancy at my house during the day. I still have that mentality: 'Those are your church clothes, don’t wear that.' But I will shop anywhere, like a-ny-where. You just have to be open when you don’t have the luxury of walking into any store. There are stores that are my favorites, but I can’t wear any of it. Being older now, you realize idealism by itself isn’t enough, basically. So that made me come around to this line: I was like, 'There’s no better time than now.' If you want it to be done for you, you’re gonna wait forever. So do it yourself.
You’d worked on clothing lines before this, right?
I did two capsule collections and it was great. I’m glad that we did it in England because I feel like there’s more freedom, but there were still limitations and fears. You can be fat positive, but there’s so much fear around that word. With this line, I can be like,'These are clothes for fat people,' and feel good about saying it. We’re repurposing the language, really, putting it in a different context and making it current – we're trying to take away all these words that people have used to try to hurt me for years. We're just saying, 'Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that.' You know — oh you know, girl.
What else has been different with producing your own line?
It’s really crazy how much work goes into making things independently. Luckily I work with such a great team, and because of that we didn’t have to compromise on anything, like on making it in America, except for budget. But I’m not trying to be a hypocrite – I definitely shop in the mall and wear all kinds of shit. Hell, I was wearing a sweater from Walmart yesterday. Where else am I gonna get my pajamas, you know? Get out of here. But there are not really a lot of options if you do want to buy something that you can actually invest in – to buy one thing you can rely on in instead of 20 pairs of the same thing that are gonna get ruined. That’s the goal, and that’s been really inspiring for me.
Are you going to keep up with it?
As long as we can afford it, we’ll do it every season. We’re not going to make money or everything, so it’s all just out of love. I’m excited about the bubble jumpsuit the most – it’s a full-on bubble and it’s ah-mazing. It’s silver lamé. You can embrace your Studio 54, your David Bowie side, your Missy Elliott circa 1999 can come out – it’s great and I love it so much. I’d love to do a fashion show someday, too.
Speaking of which, what was it like to walk in the Marc Jacobs show last fall?
It was really fun, and funny. I really got to see behind the scenes, and that’s a crazy, crazy machine, I’ll tell you that. Glitter, lace, prints everywhere, people running around, people sewing beads on things silently in a circle, sewing machines all the time. It was a factory. It was a spectacle, and it really made you respect and appreciate the things that go into a show. Walking in it was funny – it was hard to take myself seriously anyway, but it was especially hard then, because the models walk really fast and I have really short legs so I was busting ass. And also being like, 'Don’t sweat, don’t sweat, don’t sweat.' Do these people not sweat? Fashion shows are notoriously so hot – I mean Karl Lagerfeld, that’s why he always had that fan. Add that to some cardio and you’re dripping, and trying to catch up to all these long-legged people. Then I’d catch up and be like, 'Don’t you laugh, because I could feel myself just chugging it, like a freight train.' Now I always tease my wife, like, 'You can add ‘model’ to the list.' Model, actress…
You've even written a book! Do you have anything else coming up soon, too?
I have a solo album coming out this year, with any luck. It took two years just to write it all, because I left Gossip. Just finding other people to make music with is like speed-dating. The goal is to not make a Gossip record with different people – it’s about making the album that I wanted to make. That’s been hard, too, to focus on yourself when you’ve been doing it with three other people for 16 years and all the sudden it’s like, 'Oh, it’s just me.' It feels almost a little self-absorbed, so it’s hard to get over that. It takes time, though – it’s like a divorce. But we ended on a high note.