When Chicago-born singer/soulstress Jody Watley embarked on a solo career back in 1987, it didn’t take a genius to figure out she was going to be a trailblazer. At the height of MTV video pandemonium, Watley always stood apart from the schmaltz, fusing high-end chic with a tres cool street style. Her look has always matched her musical mandate perfectly (especially on her sophomore disc, 1989’s Larger Than Life), mixing the sophistication of a cutting edge pop studio with the underground sounds of the many trend-making nightclubs she frequented. Besides the fact that she went on to sell over 20 million albums and won a Grammy of her own, she also was responsible for bringing cultural phenomenas like Vogueing to the limelight (she featured Vogueing in the video to her hit “Friends”—a decade before Madonna “discovered” the dance).
Luckily for the stylish set, Watley has stayed consistently on top of her game through the years mixing ready-to-wear and haute couture fashion sensibilities into almost every project she touches. Although much of her look and sound has changed in the past two decades, Watley has been able to traverse a number of musical genres (house, R&B, jazz and electro to name a few) with an ease and elegance that never seems forced or unsuitable. Her latest album, appropriately titled The Makeover, is a testament to the majestic empire she’s built for herself. The disc’s current single—a remarkable cover of Chic’s disco track “I Want Your Love”—just finished topping the Billboard dance charts this summer and has given Watley a bonafide clubland classic. To celebrate yet another return to the charts, Flare asked the divine Ms. W a few questions about her past, present and incredibly chic future.
Flare: Covering Chic’s “I Want Your Love” was a terrific idea. What is it about the disco band that made you such a fan?
JW: I was blown away by the international cosmopolitan flare they had. They wore Charles Jordan shoes and clothes by Halston. They had one of the best intros I’ve ever seen in concert. It was simple but great. The girls sashayed on stage with Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson. The guys had on the best suits and shoes ever. The girls were wearing outfits by designer Norman Kamali and had clutch bags. As they walked out, they set their clutch bags down and that’s when the music started. It was great. It wasn’t like razzle-dazzle, it just exuded the phrase, “let’s go to work!” I loved it.
Flare: When you first started your solo career did you feel pressure to look a certain way for the sake of sales?
JW: The record company always wanted me to look more street. I would always say, “what does that mean?” For me, “street” should mean a reflection of who you really are. If I look back on it, I think they wanted something that was probably safer, and what some people would typically expect from a black singer. I don’t want to use the word ghetto, because it has negative connotations, but you get the gist.
Flare: So they were actually trying to make you less stylish?
JW: In a sense. When I did the video for “Looking for a New Love”—which was filmed in London—there are some scenes where I have these really oversized jeans, Phillip Tracy top hat and some Issey Miyake on. They could not understand it. Nobody was looking like that. Most of the time record companies want you to look like everybody else, I went against all that.
Flare: Few musical artists nowadays actually style themselves and take control of their images. Do you think they lose their personality in someone else’s vision?
JW: I think so. Some people will wear things well and others will look like the garment is really wearing them. I think that’s the difference. Style is something that cannot be taught. It’s a natural, innate state of being. I see artists that probably have millions of dollars, and could probably have designers just giving them the best of the best, but they always look wrong!