Karen O Unzipped–Christian Joy On Dressing Rock Royalty

Karen O at Coachella 2013

Karen O Unzipped: Christian Joy On Dressing Rock Royalty

It can’t be easy to dress an onstage style icon, but costume designer Christian Joy—who’s been creating killer (and often eccentric) costumes for Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O since 2001—has got it down pat. For Karen’s performance at the first weekend of this year’s Coachella festival, Joy outfitted the singer with a lacquer-shiny cape, one studded glove, and a matching papal headpiece (above). Here, talks to the designer about what it takes to dress a rock goddess.
—Alison Baenen

Tell me about Karen’s outfit. Was that created especially for Coachella?
Yes, the costume I made for Coachella was specifically designed for it. In the beginning, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were meant to go on towards sunset, so all of the fabrics were chosen to reflect the sun and really glow against the desert sky. The cape and headpiece were meant to be a little “pope,” to go with the song “Sacrilege.”

What do you have to consider when picking out costumes for the stage?
The two main things I always think about when creating Karen’s costumes are color and movement. I think it’s important not only for Karen to be able to move easily but also what kind of movement can be created. I always love a dramatic cape for that reason. Color is also always important. I hardly ever use black unless it’s highly contrasted. I think color gives the performer a lot of energy, and it makes the crowd feel excited and happy. As far as shiny goes, it can never be too shiny!

Which designers does Karen gravitate toward?
I make all of her stage costumes, but offstage she generally goes for vintage.

How does her onstage style differ from her offstage look?
Her offstage style is more laid-back. Lots of jeans, T-shirts, and vintage polyester button-downs.

Is there anything Karen really hates, clothing-wise?

How do you and she decide what she’ll wear to each show? What’s the process like?
We’ll usually discuss new ideas with the release of each record. With It’s Blitz!, she specifically asked for a studded-leather jacket, and for Mosquito she asked for suits. Other than that, we may discuss whether it’s a club or a festival show, the kind of lighting, stuff like that. The greatest thing about working with Karen is that she almost entirely lets me do what I want, which is an amazing amount of trust to put into someone. For Coachella, she didn’t really know what her costume was going to look like until I dropped it off a few days before the show.

Have there ever been any crazy costume mishaps?
Oh, yes. When she was on tour at one point—this was around Fever To Tell—I had made this strapless dress that was only held up with a piece of elastic around her chest. When she leaned backward over the monitor, her boobs popped out! No more strapless dresses after that.