Interview: Bare-faced chic: Chloe Sevigny
Photography: Terry Richardson
Even before Chloe Sevigny starred in Larry Clark's scandalous teen docu-drama 'Kids', Jay McInerney was eulogising her unique look and way of life over seven pages of the New Yorker. Sounding like Desmond Morris on a fact-finding mission, the onetime cole-fuelled yuppie novelist followed the then 19-year-old Sevigny around various hip shops and New York dives and concluded that she was the 'It' girl. Reminded of this, sitting in a downtown SoHo hotel, the now 21-year-old Sevigny rolls her eyes. 'I didn't like it. I mean, he's the one who started the whole "It" thing, but I don't wanna be called the "It" girl. I don't think people call me that now.'
Actually they do, more than ever. Who could have predicted that 'Kids' would cause such a furore (it was cut for screening over here and Warner cinemas still refused to show it) and launch Sevigny as a new underground star -soon to be seen in cult actor Steve Buscemi's acclaimed directorial debut, 'Trees Lounge'. But the "It" McInerney was talking about had nothing to do with acting; he was referring to the indefinable collision of characteristics that make Sevigny the definition of the cutting edge of now.
Sevigny was noticed first for the eclectic manner in which she throws together thrift shop chic and the cool way she cruises New York's hippest scenes. Stylists spotted her hanging around with skateboarders in Washington Square Park and put her in fashion shoots. The perennially cool Sonic Youth cast her in their video, after which she controversially did the very uncool Lemonheads video. Chloe makes her own rules.
Today, for instance, Sevigny is wearing a fire-engine red coat over a trim tan suit, under which is a shocking-pink satin camisole top decorated with multi-coloured sequins. This ensemble is accessorised with grey woolly tights and, slung over the top of everything is an Arsenal scarf. What's it all about Chloe? She laughs. 'I'm very into a kind of circus look right now,' she fingers a sequinned spaghetti strap. 'This was a little girl's, like, all-in-one for a parade, and I just cut the bottom off so I could wear it.' And the Arsenal scarf? 'Well I was in London and I wanted to buy a football scarf and a friend suggested this one.' She laughs again, a distinctive laugh that turns heads, girlish but alarming, like she's being tickled while suffering a bout of hiccups.
Sevigny laughs a lot at all the crazy stuff that has happened in the few years since she left her home in the Connecticut suburbs and came to New York. She doesn't quite understand other people's fascination with the things that come so naturally to her. Fashion designers are falling over themselves to become associated with Sevigny's look. She's not exactly beautiful -she has a waif-like gait, luminous skin and a sweet, angelic smile that melts hearts -but she's sought after as a model.
She's appeared on catwalks for Belgian deconstructionist designer Martin Margiela and became the face of Miucci Prada's younger line, Miu Miu, for a season. Nino Cerruti even paid her an unspecified sum and flew her and a friend to Milan on Concorde just to sit in the front row of his menswear show. The funny thing is, Sevigny doesn't even wear high fashion. It's a rare day she's wearing more than $20 worth of clothes. 'It seems so absurd, I know. I hate being around fashion, but it was a free trip to Milan. How could I say no. Then I went and nobody, the press or anything, took my picture and I thought: Oh no! He's spent all this money and no one even cares that I'm here!' She clutches her ribs, laughing. 'I felt kind of guilty.'
Since visiting Cannes last year to promote 'Trees Lounge', she has also discovered what it's like to become a target for the tabloids. First, her name was linked with Leonardo DiCaprio, who, by the expression of distaste on Sevigny's face, is an absolutely unthinkable choice of cohort. Then there were the rumours about her and Menswear's Chris Gentry, at which she is also incredulous: 'I met him at the Ministry of Sound and we hung out together that one night, but I haven't even spoken to him since!' In fact, Sevigny shares an apartment in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan with her boyfriend of three years, Harmony Korine, the young skateboarder Larry Clark enlisted to write 'Kids'.
Korine and Sevigny could be the new John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Sevigny has just finished filming 'Gummo', which Korine wrote and directed, and in which she is credited both as star and costume designer. She says it is the first film that has really tested her acting ability. The hyper-realistic style of 'Kids' required Sevigny to be herself, but a few years younger; 'and I had very little to say, so it was all in the eyes'. In the low-key suburban tragedy 'Trees Lounge', she plays a style-conscious teenager (Sevigny took control of her character's costumes) who seduces Buscemi's older loser, who is also her cousin, as he does his rounds in his ice-cream van. With her bullish dad (Danny Baldwin) on the warpath, Sevigny's character high-tails it out of there to better things, leaving her loser lover to take the rap.
'Gummo' called for something more: 'That was my first time really acting for sure. I mean I totally took on a different appearance; you won't even recognise me. Harmony made me pack away all my clothes and all my music and I had to, like, live with the people where we were filming.'
'Gummo' sounds like it will make 'Kids' look like a made-for-TV-movie. It's set in a poor suburb just outside Nashville and it was shot in real white-trash homes; Korine and his cameraman were frequently chased out of places by angry fathers with shotguns who suspected them of making kiddie porn to sell via the Internet. 'You haven't seen people as poor as this on film in America for a long time,' says Sevigny. 'There was garbage piled this high and bugs everywhere. The crew were so worried about the bugs and everything that they wore white asbestos suits.' She fumbles in her wallet and takes out a photo. A woman with hair and eyebrows bleached to a white fuzz, wearing a baggy white T-shirt and cut-off, naffy distressed jeans is standing in a front yard with a man wearing only a beer belly and jeans. Wow. It's Sevigny and co-star Max Perlich. 'I went for a sort of late-'80s, heavy metal, middle-American look,' she says of her first attempt at costume design. 'I didn't want it to look any bit fashionable. Like "Trainspotting" to me looked like a fashion shoot. I wanted it to look authentic.'
Ask Sevigny to tell you what the film's about and you get an insight into the impenetrable semiology of Korine and Sevigny's world. For a start it's called 'Gummo', but it has absolutely nothing to do with the fifth Marx brother of the same name who dropped out of the group to sell lingerie, and with whom Korine is known to be fascinated. The film is a patchwork of stories in which some delinquent boys who kill cats overlap with Sevigny's teenage character and her cat-loving little sisters. So why 'Gummo'? 'Does the title have to tie in?' queries Sevigny, wrinkling her strange, flat nose. 'I mean the movie's kind of oddball-ish too. It doesn't really go anywhere...' Seeing my quizzical expression she adds, 'Harmony just really likes the name Gummo.'
Clues to Sevigny's uncontrived originality are probably to be found in her background. Her father is a distant descendant of the French lady of letters the Marquise de Sevigne (1626-96), known for her unaffected elegance of style, and her mother encouraged Chloe to dress up when she was a child: 'I used to act out all these different ladies in different outfits.' The quirkiness obviously runs in the family; her older brother is currently at art college working towards a career on the Wall Street Commodities Exchange! Sevigny's strangeness and her acute discernment has made it different for her to find people she identifies with, whether at school or in New York. Some people behave differently towards her since her profile has risen, 'but they're just acquaintances. I only have a few really close friends, and they're the only people that really matter to me.'
Ironically, if anything threatens Sevigny's charmed ascendance it is success, which could turn her look into a marketable commodity -designers already rip off 'Sevigny-ish' outfits- and compromise her exacting standards. She's already too big for Manhattan: 'Like, the other day,' she says, 'I was in the street and I ran into this woman I used to work for on a magazine and she was, "Oh, I'll have to report to my friends what you're wearing." I said, 'Oh no! God! Shut up. Why?"'
If London needed any endorsement of its current status as the world's hippest city, it's that Sevigny would love to move here. 'London's my favourite, and British boys are my favourite too,' she enthuses. She's been three of four times, the first time just sitting on the top deck of the tour buses seeing the sights, the second she got drunk with a skateboarder friend sitting on the lions in Trafalgar Square, the third time she appeared on 'Hotel Babylon'. 'It was at the time of "Kids" and I wanted to go to London so bad I said, "I don't care, I'll go on any show, do any press, just get me there." And they're like, "All right, you asked for it."'
Most of all, though, Sevigny loves the vastness of London and the anonymity it affords; her only rule in life is to keep everything about herself subtle to the point inscrutability. There used to be a term for it, 'down low', but since R Kelly put it in a song, Sevigny doesn't use it any more. So far, she has stuck to her principles -neither 'Trees Lounge' nor 'Gummo' will make her a household name, and she is driving her new LA agent berserk by hounding her for work and then turning everything down. 'They send me scripts all the time and I read them, but I don't like anything.' Can she stay cool and be so hot? Sevigny's passive features assume a dreamy expression. 'I try not to say too much about myself in the press,' she says. 'I mean why should these people who read magazines know that much about me... "Be mysterious," my mum always said. But I don't know, I'm not really famous yet, so I haven't really thought about it.'
'Trees Lounge' is showing at the London Film Festival in November and will open in the West End early next year.