Tell us about yourself.
Stephens, Madison Jayne, b. 1989 in Laguna Hills, CA. My parents and our pioneer ancestors stem from Salt Lake City, UT, where my own family eventually returned after 10+ transient years spent uprooting ourselves from California to Florida to Ohio to Indiana. I always dreamed of escaping Utah’s conservative bubble, and when my sister [Ali Stephens] started modeling during my senior year in high school, it became my ticket to New York, where I currently live, residing in the East Village with my boyfriend [DJ Mike Nouveau]. I’m a writer by passion and a cocktail waitress by paycheck, but to my five siblings I’m just a fashion-obsessed know-it-all who could really use a tan and a haircut.
What is beauty to you and how do you define beauty?
Beauty, to me, is beyond the physical, it’s a unification of the spirit with the outer shell, the harmonization of the soul with the physicality of being, and the awareness of knowing that self and celebrating it regardless of society’s perceived “flaws.” The most beautiful people don’t have a distinct look, nor do they have a distinct aesthetic, they are simply true to themselves. Extending that to image at large, beauty is in the imperfection, and in the celebration of that, of turning it on its head to shift the viewer’s original perception.
At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a writing career, especially after such heavy exposure to the fashion industry, given your sister’s role as a model?
I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life. I was an avid reader as a kid, and thought I’d either be a television journalist or an author, but really I was experiencing a phase idolizing Katie Couric, JK Rowling, and Nancy Drew. In sixth grade I realized I had a knack for words when I [not-so-humble brag alert] routinely dizzied my English class with synonyms in our vocabulary tests, for which I’d receive extra credit and subsequently crush every former score/pray I could remember said words. Then when I was writing essays in middle school, my teachers encouraged me to pursue it as a trade, and seeing as it was just as I’d started picking up Teen Vogue, I signed up for the newspaper staff, and over the course of four years became the fashion writer and the features editor before editor-in-chief. It was always clear to me that that was what would bring me joy and give me purpose. For my background (Utah Mormon), it was unconventional. So then when I was introduced to the fashion world for real, it all carried a lot of significance for me- everyone behind the scenes: those were my celebrities. It just pushed me further, it all inspired me. And of course, I’ve always been a bit lonely and introspective, and I like to think it’s pushed any talent I have for the craft to flourish. When the opportunity to intern for Jane Keltner at Teen Vogue was offered to me, I actually cried in jubilation, and I gained a lot of experience (and published pieces!) at the magazine before realizing that a desk job in the American magazine world is not for me. Online, and writing about topics that I’m passionate about, rather than what advertiser’s dictate, is so much more fulfilling. Also, the salaries are a joke. I’ll probably be addicted to the easy money of a cocktail waitress til I start painting my lipstick outside the lines.
Did you pursue modeling yourself? Why didn’t you continue down that path?
I did, and it was very short-lived. I was very ambitious, but alas, I wasn’t fit for the part. I was told to lose weight around my hips, as a skinny eighteen-year-old runner, and I so wanted to please and be a success that I lost two inches and looked terrible. I don’t even recognize myself from my former test shots. I was then told that my feet were too big, my shoulders too narrow, my height a bit of a stretch, and, my personal favorite, that the uptick of my lips at the edges- a characteristic that makes me look happy and pleasant even when I’m not- was a problem. Needless to say, modeling wasn’t for me. That said, I like to consider myself somewhat of a smart girl and was able to separate my body from who I was as an individual, and so remained unscathed, but very bitter towards that industry. It’s a lot of ugliness disguised under so much glamour. I couldn’t be paid enough money today to schlep to castings like cattle, and then to be judged for my facade, not anymore. I find it humiliating. These days I cringe when strangers tell me “You must model!” and genuinely fancy slapping them upside the head, but I can’t decide if it’s a) because it’s usually while I’m working and hence consider it so rude to assume I’m a D-list model waiting for my “big break” while serving drinks when it’s obviously so much more than that being a no-list writer waiting for my “big break” and schlepping cocktails, or b) because the statement is usually in conjunction with the obvious “you’re so tall” to which, “you’re so short” usually offends and “the sky is blue” usually flies over people’s heads.
What do you find is most distinct about fashion journalism versus more standard journalism? Do the writing rules change?
Yes, the writing rules are loose and informal, particularly online. Standard journalism is, to me, a bore, unless it’s investigative and allows the reader to figuratively pull out the magnifying glass and detective cap. But it’s often frowned upon to show any predilection for this or that, whereas with fashion, particularly now, with online media, it’s a boon to have a voice. For American fashion print, of course, it’s a bit tough. You have to sterilize things a bit, tone them down, make the topics and writing palatable for the commercialized masses. It’s all very uniform. The great fashion journalists defy this to an extent, but they have so many people to answer to that it often leaves things stale. I can’t remember the last amazing fashion piece I’ve read that really shook things up and caused a stir. But does anyone read those magazines anymore? Every issue is the same. Viva la revolution. (How’s my grammar? I’ve never been one for conformity, or French class.)
What are your thoughts on the John Galliano scandal that surfaced in the past years?
John Galliano is a great talent, a really spectacular designer in that he crafts a whole world in which his designs alone seem to inhabit. He made some nasty mistakes, and I think it will take time for the wounds he opened to really heal. I’m all for repentance and forgiveness- see: my background- but I’m also not particularly sympathetic with anyone that spews hate for someone because of their gender, race, sexuality, or religion- drunk or not. There is no excuse. What he said was despicable, and it will never be forgotten, but people learn and grow and evolve, and I like to hope that he’s come to find some sort of light in his life that can restore him to an apt position within the industry.
With a sister that’s a full-time model and as one with a foot in the industry, how has your perception of beauty evolved over the past years? Has it remained fairly stagnant or were there moments that have slowly transformed how you perceive beauty?
My perception of beauty is a constant evolution. As my style has matured, and I’d like to hope advanced, beauty has followed. It’s something that is very personal, and as such, begins internally. Six years ago I really envied Daria Werbowy and Sasha Pivovarova, i.e. girls who don’t share anything in common with me, visually or otherwise, and I was obsessed with this louche, sexy, rock n roll look- probably because it was the antithesis of my reality, and then a few years ago I dated a man who encouraged me to find the beauty in imperfection, and that completely changed my perception of things, particularly within myself. Instead of hiding my shortcomings, I chose to embrace them as aspects of my individuality. After discovering Comme des Garcons, I felt like I finally realized my style identity and accepted myself for me, including all my visual quirks, and stopped trying to be someone I simply was not, and started to really appreciate others for the traits that, likewise, make them unique, seeing that as true, raw beauty, rather than the packaged ideal that pop culture pushes upon us. Fashion pushes this chameleon idea of beauty, of changing who you are every season, every day, when ultimately, why would anyone want their style to be “of the moment” when it could be eternal? Did I just almost quote Coco Chanel? Please scratch that.
What were the biggest adjustments you’ve made regarding your shift from Salt Lake City to New York?
Ditching meatloaf and [Mormon delicacy] “funeral potatoes” for Juice Press and ramen: my greatest obstacles to overcome, which I have now fully embraced along with public transportation – I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 19 anyway – vermin, the art of the hustle, cats, and pork buns. I love NY!
You’re a fan of Comme Des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. What is it about these Japanese brands that have rendered you a loyal customer and supporter?
I was dissatisfied with mainstream fashion when I discovered Comme and Yohji. I was considering ditching fashion altogether to become a Transcendental Meditation teacher like my father. That aspect of my life has made me very aware of seeking a higher consciousness, and of seeking after disciplines which encourage that transcendence. Comme and Yohji clicked so easily with that aspect of my being that my relationship with the clothes appeared almost a spiritual connection. That clothes can elevate you to a new plane of intellect, transporting you to another dimension, was something that Japanese brands introduced into my world. I’m also probably secretly an elitist, which would account for why I like that it’s not easily stomached by so-called “fashionistas.” It’s a little startling, and requires maturation of the intellect and of aesthetic to participate in and fully appreciate. I feel like I’m carrying a little secret with me when I’m wearing something Japanese and subversive, and because the aesthetics are clever and playful, it coincides with my disposition. It’s lighthearted, and [obviously] easy to poke fun at. That said, if the mailman doesn’t get what I’m wearing, I know I’m dressed appropriately.
Specifically, when did Junya Watanabe come onto your radar? What keeps you a loyal supporter of the designer?
Junya came onto my radar at the same time that Comme did, at least into my closet. I feel like Junya is usually a bit easier to wear than Comme, and subsequently dates itself in a way that Comme cannot. Example: I have a 20-30 year old CdG skirt that could be from any collection over said period of time, and a Junya parachute skirt that’s bizarre and amazing and timeless – except for the embroidered butterflies signifying that it could only have been dreamt up in 2002.
Have you been to Tokyo yet?
Mike and I are planning our first trip to Tokyo in October . We’re dreaming about subway ramen and secret shops with mysterious troves of Paul Harnden that we can rescue from the depths of their stock rooms. We’re planning to take advantage of the significantly cheaper Comme and Yohji and to completely drain our bank accounts, and as a reformed photobooth addict I will log quite a bit of time in the purikuras. If we can find a bathhouse that will allow a tattooed New Yorker as yet unaffiliated with the Japanese mafia, then we’re also planning to visit the onsens between day trips to Kyoto and Osaka. I imagine we’ll be frantic shopping psychos cat-napping from the kitty cafes, stuffing our faces with all manner of pork belly and sashimi (should we learn to like fish pre-trip), but namely ramen. Did I mention how excited we are about the ramen?
You wrote extensively on the topic of misogyny and women who dress for themselves. Who are some men and women who you believe embody this philosophy and truly are individuals?
Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, Patti Smith, Franca Sozzani, Yayoi Kusama, Yohji Yamamoto, Ann Demeulemeester, Paul Harnden, Elena Dawson, Raf Simons, my boyfriend and his besties, the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas, Suzanne Golden, the post-war German “New Woman.”
What inspired you to start your blog?
Frankly, discontentment with the state of the blogosphere. Nothing resonated with me, I didn’t feel like my aesthetic and my voice were adequately represented, and as I had just started buying all this kooky avant-garde regalia, my boyfriend suggested I get in the game. Naturally I refused, but the idea nagged at me, and from my initial conceptualization of the site to the living, breathing product, I spent several months ruminating over details with my web designer, programmer, and a graphic designer. It’s really a personal platform to share my musings and this underrepresented point of view, one that deserves a greater presence and an online ally, hence, here I am! It’s also successfully kept me off the streets. Just kidding, but really, particularly during no-shadow time.
You love making collages for your posts – when did you begin this? What are the layered images compiled – are they randomly selected or is there more thought behind the images?
I started making collages in high school, both for my own bedroom decor and for school projects. Every collage on the website tells a story, some more random than others, but if just one person understands the nuances within the more special visuals then it makes the hours I can often spend on their research worth the while. [Note: I taught myself Photoshop so I’m a bit… slow.]
Given your English major, you must have a flowing list of favorite writers and books? Who and what continue to inspire you today?
I actually studied Art History, but didn’t finish school as I have a lot of beef with the American system for higher education, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the debt I would continue to accrue and would carry with me for the rest of my life- but that’s an argument for another day. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, and Charles Bukowski completely revolutionized my worldview, and opened up to me the beauties in imperfection and the sanctity of attuning your eye in such a way as to appreciate perceived flaws and defects. Lately I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s The White Album. I suppose I’m something of a diary voyeur? Don’t answer that.
Do you see a book in your future?
If my essays were valuable to anyone aside from me and my mother, then compiling them Joan Didion style, along with even more personal journals, would be a dream! Alas, that day may never come, so until then, I’ll continue entertaining/horrifying my gene pool and the other kind souls who keep reading my hyperbolic blog anecdotes.
As a New Yorker, where are your favorite places to be about?
Union Square Cafe is my favorite go-to date night restaurant- it’s a real gem and I always go for the Bibb and Gruyere Salad, some sort of pork dish (the current braised pork shoulder could be my last supper), and one of their stellar desserts. The menu rotates daily, and regardless of the season, it’s like my comfort culinary heaven. I’m also a super purveyor of Frank Prisinzano’s Sauce on the Lower East Side- burrata is flown in fresh from Italy every Thursday, and I always get the cencione with meatballs, then panna cotta for dessert. I love Amorino for flower-petaled gelato, Ippudo for ramen-induced gluttony and testing my patience, and Eleven Madison Park when you need to impress someone with three Michelin stars and sixteen courses and/or have $500 burning a hole in your pocket. I work in a bar at the Soho Grand Hotel, where my boyfriend also DJs, but seeing as neither of us drinks, I’m not usually clocking time at other watering holes, so when I do go out it’s usually to cut a rug at Le Baron or whatever pop-up club Travis Bass currently has up his sleeve. I also like Boho Karaoke for embarrassing myself with my original rendition of “OMG,” by Usher. As far as boutiques, nothing else in New York checks all my boxes like IF in Soho. They don’t carry anything conventionally attractive- it’s all weird, all Comme, Yohji, Demeulemeester, Paul Harnden, Elena Dawson, Dries, Guidi, random designers I’ve never heard of – it’s really a beautiful store. I’m also a massive Tokio 7 fan- I don’t even bother with other consignment stores. I go in once or twice a week to comb for new arrivals, and they know me and my shopping habits well enough to point me towards apt pieces.
What songs are on your personal playlist?
I Am a God / Kanye West, God
Dancing Barefoot / Patti Smith
#1 Crush / Garbage
Dreams / Cranberries
Backseat Freestyle / Kendrick Lamar
Talk Show Host / Radiohead
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) / Arcade Fire
Caring is Creepy / The Shins
03 Bonnie & Clyde / Jay Z and Beyonce
Phone Sex / Grimes
Young and Beautiful / Lana Del Rey
Everybody Wants to Rule the World / Tears for Fears
Don’t Speak / No Doubt
Say My Name / Destiny’s Child
Smells Like Teen Spirit / Patti Smith
What’s the Difference / Dr. Dre
How Soon is Now / the Smiths
Like a Boy / Ciara
Wicked Game / Chris Isaak
Obedear / Purity Ring
Sutphin Boulevard / Blood Orange
Gold Digger / Kanye West
F**kin’ Problems / A$AP Rocky, Drake, 2Chainz, Kendrick Lamar
Lover’s Spit / Broken Social Scene
Strangers in the Wind / Cut Copy
No Church in the Wild / Kanye West, Jay Z, Frank Ocean
Bonnie and Clyde / Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg
Ready to Start / Arcade Fire
Pyramids / Frank Ocean
Clique / Kanye West, Jay Z, Big Sean
When I’m Small / Phantogram
Amerigo / Patti Smith
Don’t Worry Baby / Beach Boys
Take Care / Drake and Rihanna
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1. I’ve practiced Transcendental Meditation (the noted David Lynch/Beatles strain of the technique) since I was 8, and my father’s been a teacher of the practice for over 40 years.
2. I’m 6’2” and extremely afraid of heights.
3. “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire is my personal go-to song for auto-joy. It makes me so irrationally, inexplicably happy. Is that weird?
For more of Madison’s work, check out her blog.