A little charisma goes a long way, even in our two-dimensional Insta Age. Just ask Justin Vivian Bond, who has been offering up their own brand of campy drama since launching their career as a performer and artist in the ’80s. Bond, who got their start in San Francisco and now lives in New York state, has done it all, from installation art to watercolors to Broadway, earning a Tony nomination along the way. Now, they host semi-regular cabaret shows across the United States and Europe.
For those unlucky enough to live outside the radius of a major city, Bond has a new project with JW Anderson, advertising the label’s new Keyts bag. (The name is a play not only on the key lock mechanism but also the poet John Keats.) In a series of short films, they star as “Sandie Stone” alongside friend Jill Pangallo as “Joyce Nawman,” hawking designer Jonathan Anderson’s latest bag in a style familiar to anyone who has spent time watching any home shopping channel.
“I did all the research and studied and learned the hand gestures and how they used their fingertips and nails and everything, which was so fun for me. It’s sort of like an obsessive kind of presentation. It was like learning a new art form, like how people trim those little bonsai trees or something,” says Bond over the phone. “It was so fun for me.”
How did you first encounter Jonathan’s work?
I was doing my M.A. at Central Saint Martin’s in London when he was doing his fashion degree. I was doing performances also when I was there, so he used to make things for me for my shows when he was a student. So, that’s when we first met, before he even got started in the business. I’ve been wearing his clothes since before he even had a brand.
What kind of things would he make for you for your performances?
He made me this amazing knit hat with these black feathers. It was so gorgeous. I wore that for a lot of shows, actually. It was mostly accessories and things like that. We sort of just stayed in touch and I followed him as his career developed. Last year, he did this amazing, these T-shirts that were inspired by David Wojnarowicz, and we got back in touch when he sent me one. Then we were both in San Francisco last fall, and we talked about how we’d wanted to do something together for a long time. He came up with this great idea of this take on the home shopping idea. We sort of took it from there—and I get to talk about those great purses, which I love.
Was HSN or QVC something that you were into growing up or have gotten into in your free time?
Well, I wasn’t really so into it, but I was into certain people on it. I loved Joan Rivers, so I’d watch her. Or if Liza [Minnelli] was on it. I’m friends with Isaac Mizrahi, so I would watch people that I knew do their thing on there, just because I thought it was fun to see them do that. I was into watching what celebrities did on there more than the actual, than shopping there or whatever.
Now, my friend Jill [Pangallo], I knew she was obsessed with the home shopping ladies and their style. I immediately called her and said, “Would you want to do this with me?” because I knew she would ground it in the reality of home shopping network because she’s obsessed. When we were like, “Who should we get as the model?” She said, “Let’s see if we can get a real Home Shopping Network person.” And so we did.
So that’s a real model from HSN?
Yes. She’s great. She was so nice and fun. She knew exactly how to just sort of tweak it a little bit. She was great.
Did you get any insight into HSN from your friends like Isaac or other people that had been on the network?
Well I just heard them talk about how much money they made! [laughs] Which I’m happy for them about. But, no, I didn’t really talk to Isaac about it after I decided to do it . . . . I think he really enjoys it. Because he’s a very high energy person, and I think it’s just fun. It was fun when we did it.
It’s interesting how the home shopping paradigm was not just about shopping, but really was an introduction to “mainstream” America for so many celebrities and fashion personalities. If you didn’t have MTV and you weren’t watching House of Style, you could be watching Joan Rivers on QVC.
Right. And she was bringing things that people didn’t really know about to them. It was a sort of precursor to all those retail places like Zara and all of that stuff where the designers did capsule collections for mainstream brands. Don’t you think that was kind of how it got started?
Very much so. In that video that I saw, there’s a little joke about a tiny bottle of vodka in your purse. What do you keep in your actual bag?
Let me see. I’ve got it over here. I keep a wallet, a lipstick, let me come down into my kitchen to look in my bag and see what’s actually in there right now. I’ve got my lipstick, my wallet, and my gentle monster sunglasses from Tilda Swinton, Kleenex, Altoids, a lighter, THC, and lip gloss and a pen, and a comb.
Just the essentials.
And a check from a gig I did last week, but I’m not going to tell you what the amount is.
Obviously you’ve been working as an artist for quite some time, but I think a younger generation might not be as familiar with your work. Do you feel like through fashion collaborations or projects like this, you’re expanding your own reach? Or trying something new with your art?
I do cabaret performances—and that’s sort of a small world, really—but I have a great time in New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco. Outside of that, a lot of people don’t know who I am, which is fine because I still make a living. This is fun for me because when people think of my cabaret stuff, they think of my singing. But part of what the audience loves about my show is that I am a pretty good comedian in between the songs. I like doing this because it’s an opportunity to just do my comedy and improv. In that way, it would be nice to broaden my audience just as far as just letting them see what I do.
I think because I sort of came out more directly as transgender about seven years ago, I really started to think more in terms of how I dress as my body changed. So it has made it more fun to wear clothes and to be more confident in women’s fashion and also in gender-fluid and nonbinary fashion. I like the way that my silhouette transformed, and so I enjoy fashion more, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to go and perform at parties and to be invited to a lot of different events and be a part of them. It is really a nice thing as an artist and as a performer to be presented as part of whatever turns that designer on. It’s kind of really great. It’s so flattering, especially when it’s people whose work you admire so much.
I like my friends’ stuff. I have done a lot of performances at Rachel Comey’s shows, and I just love her clothes. I wore one of her dresses in my show that I just finished. I like clothes that I feel like myself in, and that means that I don’t feel like I’m trying to force myself into any sort of uncomfortable situation that wears me. I feel really great in Jonathan’s clothes because they have this classic edge to them, but they’re not quite traditional in the way that they’re made and the silhouettes complement the way that my body works. I wear mostly Jonathan and Maria Cornejo and Rachel Comey, because they’re my friends, and I trust them, and I feel at home in their clothes.
Yes, I really noticed a huge difference in the last 10 years. When I go to shows, the people that are walking in the show and the clothes are so much more representative of different kinds of people. I think it’s great. And I know that there are certain brands in New York that are nonbinary or non-gendered clothing, and I think that it’s actually liberating for everyone. I think it’s actually turning out to be a really wonderful beneficial thing for people who are cisgendered women that have felt trapped in a certain look that they just didn’t feel expressed themselves fully.
By opening everything up because of awareness of the trans and nonbinary community, I think it’s actually really doing wonderful things for the rest of the world, as well. I think it’s a great thing and I think it’s inspiring designers, and it’s exciting to see them be inspired in that way. And I think it’s freeing up their creativity, as well. So I think it’s a really exciting development and it’s beautiful to watch, and especially as someone who grew up where it was so divided and everything was so specifically gendered and how much grief you would get if you crossed those lines. It’s a really beautiful thing to see.
You don’t realize the codes that you tacitly conform to until you’re given the option to be freed from them sometimes.
Right. And how exciting it feels to be free in that way. I think once people experience [another option], they’re like, “Oh, my God, what was I so hung up about?”