Betsy, The Balenciaga Vet Who Went From High Fashion Designing to Creating Music: Exclusive

Betsy
Courtesy of Columbia Records

Betsy

Even before she begins to sing, Betsy is unforgettable: fire engine red nails and a matching red lip, razor sharp cheekbones, platinum blond hair, a great smile, and great style. And then, you hear her – a throaty, husky voice energetically engaging with production blending the contemporary and nostalgic, reminiscent of '90s dance. Her videos are fantastically stylized, and after her recent debut at Paris Fashion Week, it’s easy to tell why.

Betsy honed her creative eye in fashion. She attended the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London (famous graduates include Riccardo Tisci, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney) and went on to work at Balenciaga.  Now, having just gotten back from being on the other side of the catwalk, Billboard got the chance to chat with her about designing and songwriting. You can also hear her latest release, an acoustic version of “Waiting”, exclusively here first.

When did you realize that you wanted to go to fashion school? What sparked that for you?

Well, it’s a funny thing because both music and fashion have always been a part of my DNA. With music, people often ask me, when did you know that that’s what you wanted to do? But for me, it’s just something that I always was going to do and there was no question about it.

With fashion, it started when I was 10 years-old and my mother had this big executive come round for dinner one night. He worked at M&S, which is a popular grocery/department store brand over here [in the U.K], doing all the underwear and clothing. I got so excited because, you know, it’s like having a producer come round or something. It’s like, how am I going to impress this person?  So I hand drew a fake Vogue; my own fashion magazine or catalog. 

That’s the youngest memory I have of knowing that I wanted to be involved in fashion and designing things. My mom kept it and reminded me some time after.

That’s so interesting. At 10 you’re drawing this to show him that you’re interested in what he does.

I remember, very young.  And it was quite design-y.  I wish my mom could take it out the boxes, it was quite…I remember it being quite design-focused, it wasn’t pictures of mermaids or anything [Laughs]. It was pretty hectic for a 10-year-old.

So tell me about studying at Central Saint Martin.

There’s so many different [areas] you can study, from the business of fashion to photography to theater. Even within Womenswear Design, which I went for, there are so many branches that you could go into. But I went and did "pure" Womenswear, with a mind to design for catwalk shows or what have you. You do everything -- print, pattern-cutting, draping, drawing -- so you get a good overlook of everything and are not [too] specialized in one area.

What details of the Womenswear training were the most difficult for you, and which parts were the most fulfilling?

The most difficult part for me was the pattern cutting, because you need to have quite a mathematical brain and a lot of precision. It’s more constricting and calculated, and I’m sure there are people who feel free while doing it because they’re naturally better at it.  But for me, that’s the most difficult thing. Which – if we’re going to compare it to music, I wouldn’t say… [Pauses.] I produce my own music, but I don’t have that precision and that sort of [technical ability] that somebody needs to really produce something. Which is the same with the pattern-cutting in fashion. 

Whereas if you asked me to write a song today or make a dress today, I can get my hands dirty and do it and enjoy it.  Everything I do is sort of a feel, even when I make a dress or write a song -- it’s about feeling it. Which sounds awfully pretentious, but doing what you feel and see is right. And even now, that is the more exciting part of fashion creation; the draping, and the design, because it’s very freeing and it’s all about feel. 

Before we get into your musical career, how and when did you get to Balenciaga? Right after graduation?

No, I didn't graduate. So I had interviewed with Alistair Carr, who was the head designer of Balenciaga, to do an internship for a couple months. At the end of this three-month internship, I came back to London with the view of finishing my degree. But he wanted me to stay, so he phoned me and offered a full time position. So I didn’t finish my degree at that point. I just went straight off to Paris then to work with him and Nicolas [Ghesquière]. Which was quite exciting, as you can imagine [Laughs].

Wow. What was that experience like?

That was incredible. I mean, that was where I learned my craft. Nicolas was the creative director, Alistair Carr was his second in line; the head designer. And then I was Alistair’s design assistant. Day-to-day, dealing with the show, trying to create the ultimate luxury product that is steeped in history while still trying to prove yourself as a designer. So much detail goes into every little thing, everything, down to the stitching on a cuff, the fabric, every last tiny little inch is discussed, trialed, chosen, developed – everything is really refined.  There’s no just throwing on a jacket or saying, “Oh that’s okay” or “Oh, that will do.”  Nothing will ever do. Right up until the last minute when it goes down the catwalk. It’s all about perfection. 

Every time people ask me about my experience at Uni and working at Balenciaga... you know, university is a wonderful place where you can kind of find yourself. But you don’t really learn what it is to work as a designer until you’re doing it. That’s when you really learn. And really, it was incredibly hard. That pressure was extreme, but it was incredible. It has helped me massively with my musical career. It’s given me an insight into that world of fame and glamour and high-pressure, everything that fashion and music has to offer. It was mental. Really exciting, and mental, all at the same time.

And to come from that type of environment, to making music -- how did Balenciaga influence your artistry?

For me, the freer side of music is the writing, creating and composing, like draping. But, you know, I am a perfectionist and I am striving to be the best I can be, to write the best song I can ever write, to produce the best artwork. And when it comes to doing one of my videos, or putting together my shoot for press shots, I made sure to use an incredible fashion photographer, stylist, the makeup artist, all of it is top notch. All of these details matter because I’m trying to produce a luxury product. And I suppose as Balenciaga strives to do, I want my audience and my fans to have the best. I can’t do anything half-heartedly; down to pictures on Instagram or posts on Twitter. 

I don’t feel I would have been as well-equipped for what I’m doing now had I not had that experience. I don’t think that I would have had the skills to convey, perhaps, my artistic direction and what I want everything to look like. Building a dress and building a song, in my mind, are relatively similar. When creating a dress, I research, I experiment, I pick out the bits from one dress and put it together on a newer dress... building off something until it comes to a final conclusion. Which is exactly how I approach songwriting. You obviously research everything that you love and then you get inspired and then you sit down and sort of sculpt this piece of music. 

For me it’s very visual – I see all the notes as colors or squiggles. It's all very similar in my brain, songwriting and making a dress.

And as you’ve been developing, taking what you’ve learned at CSM and Balenciaga, you go back to Paris for fashion week as a musician. What was that like?

That was funny. The Chanel show was so familiar to me, obviously, because it was a world I had known and almost forgotten, but then I was there again. Mario Testino in front of me, then next to him was Lara Stone. Two seats down from me on the right was Karl Lagerfeld, then Pharrell, and Nicholas Jonas. It was only 35 people, and they were all the top people in music and fashion. I had two outfit changes; Chanel sent me four outfits, two bags, a box full of jewelry and another box full of dresses.

Even though I was there as a musician, I didn't feel out of place. It's something my mother’s built into me; I never feel out of place anywhere, somehow. Except for when you’re in a room full of doctors and they’re talking about surgery. And you paint pictures or make music. I’ve been in those types of situations and it is funny because they’re quite cliquey – doctors are cliquey!

So what do you have coming up?

Well, Paris was great, because it kind of ticked the boxes of where I’ve been wanting to go, and now I feel like I’m making big steps to where I want to be as an artist. It helped me reevaluate, that perhaps one day I will be more involved in the fashion stuff again. 

But in the meantime, I’m finishing off the album and about to go on tour here in the UK.  My first headline tour with my all-girl band, who is always looking very stylish. We've got a few things like festivals and TV dates coming up, and I’m not getting much sleep and I’m feeling a little bit more ropey [Laughs]. But it’s good.

What do you hope people gain from your music?

My biggest ambition is to write that classic song that lasts forever.  And to have that piece of artwork that is iconic that lasts forever. That people reference and look back on.  That’s where my benchmark is. I’m about making iconic work like Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, David Bowie. They haven’t just written an amazing song; they’ve created beautiful artwork, toyed with their image and always keep you engaged. So I suppose you’ve got to have that level of intensity and precision and pride to do it. 

Listen to the premiere of "Waiting (Acoustic)" below. 

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