Designing for YSL: Willy van Rooy An Inspirational Career.

Willy Van Rooy personal image archive.

Lou Lou, Willy, and Yves. 1980.

Willy van Rooy has lived a life of travel, art, love, design, and is the face of one of the most popular fashion mannequins ever made. One could write her off as just a top model, but they would be missing the core of who she is- an artist and free spirit. Many things about Willy intrigue me-  her classic magazine covers, her time as a designer and muse in the 80s for Yves Saint Laurent, as well as her own shoe line.  Before gracing the runways of Gaultier and Thierry Mugler among others, she worked with prolific photographers as well as studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Fashion department in Rotterdam.  For more fashion images from her career you can see her instagram account.  As a vintage textile and jewelry lover, her time designing shoes, prints, and accessories for YSL and Karl Lagerfeld appeals to my curiosity. We explored this here together. 

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Willy van Rooy, high school street photograph, rights reserved.

Willy van Rooy:

Q. How did you get into modeling, what was your first big break?

 A. It all happened by itself, photographers would sometimes ask me, just in the street. Really, when I think back to when I was still in High-school, my friend and fashion freak like me, Sophie van Kleef, and I would pose for her friend who wanted to be a photographer. We posed in the dresses we had made. I wish I had those pictures. I had them for a long time, but because I change places and countries quite often, things get lost. 

My first paid modeling job was in 1963, in Japan, where I was stopped in the street by “Arab Edy”, as  the foreigners called him, and he said he had an agency. He asked if I would like to be a model or an actress. He had some young travelers like me and some American girls from the American army base in Tokyo ,for whom he found work in the movies, television, or pictures when they needed a foreigner. Actually, I did quite a lot of work there but that would be another chapter. Back in Holland I did some modeling, but it was not exciting at all. At one point, I decided to take it seriously and made a collection of dresses and jackets. Then I went to Barcelona Spain, where a friend and I made a lot of pictures, which we printed ourselves and made a”model-book”. There in Barcelona I was also working as a model, because a lady came up to me in the street and asked me to be a model in her agency. I did a lot of TV commercials and even a short movie, that now is considered very avant-garde and plays in the film museums. I went back to Holland to prepare for a trip to London because it was there that it was”happening”. Immediately I was accepted as something new and was booked stiff for a long time to come, lots of newspaper articles and interviews, they even made window dolls in my image, so like I said… it went by itself

Q. When did you first begin designing or creating in an artistic way? When did your interest in fashion, modeling, and the arts begin? 

A. Since as far as I can remember. 

When I was about 16, I made my first fashion self portrait. I don’t have that picture either, but one day I will make a drawing. If I really start to think about it- it started much earlier, when I was 10. I had a very nice picture in the newspaper because of a play we did in the orphanage for a 

highly elegant public who were the donators and friends of the directrice who was of Dutch aristocracy, a baroness to be exact. I had directed and done the costumes for the play in which I had given myself the role of the princess and the other kids were gnomes. I never forgot the dress which came from a closet that was always locked. There were all these amazing dresses, capes, and furs which were stowed in big sacks, all from that society lady. When there was a reason to dress up, the big bags came out. The dress I am talking about was a long evening dress of yellow satin silk with big elegant grey and white flowers, cut in a way that hugs the body softly. At the time I did not know if it was silk but I remember the softness, so I guess it must have been. A few years later I directed another Japanese themed play in which I had everybody dressed up and that time the directrice hired a photographer to make pictures of me dressed up. There are many more incidents that led me to be a model, although that is not what I really wanted so I did not really look for it. I thought that as a model you had to be perfect with perfect hair and nails… and I’d rather get my hands dirty in paint or spend my time making clothes or just see what is going on in the world.

Q. What do you think was different about modeling then and now? 

A. Don’t get me started, everything is different. First of all in many countries

like Holland or Spain ( and surely many others but I did not witness those) it was considered a job for “light girls” and not respected at all by the ordinary people. Because of London and the fashion of young real people this slowly changed, but of course not like today, today the models are as famous as the movie stars and are idolized. They can earn a lot of money and respect, which is great. In the early sixties you were expected to have a collection of wigs, stockings, gloves, costume jewelry, make up, and hairsprays. I mean it was a whole suitcase full and then you also had to be a makeup artist, a hairdresser and a stylist. The other day I looked at some Vogue pictures and saw that the make up was not perfect at all, so funny, no one notices I guess. On the other hand it was marvelous in the sense that you could create your image and make yourself look like what you felt like, well not always, but you had a hand in it so to speak. The reason for all the wigs and stuff is that mostly they did not want you to be recognized but rather be a different person every time. Now the thing is to be recognized and everything looks so much more natural and they are open to new things.

It was funny for me to see the incredible organization that was going on for the Italian Vogue shoot at the Korean cemetery with Steven Meisel in 2008 in LA. First of all, I got picked up by a beautiful black Mercedes and upon arrival was immediately brought to a delicious breakfast by the best gatherers. There were Trailers with everything one can wish for, tables and tables with accessories and shoes, racks of the most gorgeous outfits, big tents for the photographer and his equipment which include enormous computers so the result is seen immediately and so on and so fort. About 5 make up artists, hairdressers, stylist with a group of assistants. Back then there was an editor, the photographer, an assistant and the model(s). Slowly but very slowly there were hairdressers on the set and even slower the make up artists. For the rest, it is hard work, please don’t think it is all fun and glamour, it is also hard work, specially in my days. If I think of the racks with all the clothes that had to be photographed in one day, planes here and there… yes, it is fun but it is also hard work to be in shape and take care to look beautiful as many people depend on you and there is a lot of money involved. 

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Willy’s style, image courtesy of Willy van Rooy. rights reserved.

Q. What was your favorite fashion moment from the 60s? What was your life like then?

A. Everything seemed possible, there was a certain freedom because of the knowledge that one was not alone, one knew there were many like you who wanted to express themselves and a good way to do so was the way we dressed. Fashion was young, fashion was new, mostly because it got a whole new public as things were more exciting and more affordable then the designer clothes that were around. My favorite moment was when I discovered a shoe store in London, that I saw sort of hidden in the window in the background, gold leather shoes. It turned out they were original Ferragamo shoes from the 40’s. They were a model’s, the sales girl told me- “they did not know what to do with them”. No problem, hallelujah, they were my size and I bought all 6 pairs of them for next to nothing. Vintage was great to combine with the latest and there was lots of it on the fabulous Chelsea market. The modeling at that time was exciting too.

Q. What photographer do you think had the most influence on your career and why?

 A. Definitely Helmut Newton because it was with him that some different style pictures were made. He was getting known and when I came in, it seemed to be the right time. I think the pictures we did together were new and people thought they were exciting. The thing is I was such a nomad and disappeared to Ibiza or India sometimes for a year or more, otherwise we would have made many more pictures together. As he told me once, I was the only model he would ever think to ask to be under contract with him, but I told him that was not necessary because I would always choose to work with him first. In reality maybe is not always true because doing all the editorials is great but you also want to bring home the bacon.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Willy van Rooy walking in a YSL show.

Q. What was your favorite part of working as a model for YSL and how was the transition to designer for you? How exactly did this happen? 

 A. I loved to do the shows or pictures for YSL because I liked his designs, it made you look and feel good even though in real life I was not dressed like that at all. He was a wonderful person and was in the height of his incredible career. The whole atmosphere there was good and exciting and the shows were a party. Now the runway shows are so different too. We were not that many girls, maybe 20 or less and we each had at least 6 or 7 changes. Now I see lots of girls coming on only once. Also, we could walk how we felt best and each model had a style which the people enjoyed I think, now they all walk the same? In that time my husband and I became friends with Anne Marie Muñoz who was a very important person in the history and the House of YSL and and it was through her that I later started to design for YSL. Drawing and designing has always been my thing so when the modeling became less exciting and my shop was closed, I wanted to draw and my husband told Anne Marie one evening when she came for a visit, to have a look at my drawings…so thats how that started…… 
Q. So to quote your blog about the beginning of your career as a designer for YSL,

“It is 1980 and I started drawing a collection of shoes for Yves Saint Laurent and when I had 24 of them I called Anne Marie Muñoz and went to see her at Avenue Marceau, the official “house” of YSL. I had been there often for fittings and private shows so I knew a lot of people there, but this felt different. I was quiet nervous and at the same time excited to show my drawings as I myself really liked them. Good for me Anne Marie did so too and so I got my first check as a free lance designer and it was a good one. I had hoped they would buy at least 6 but they bought all 24 of them!” (Willy van Rooy, blog). 

Yes, thats what happened and after that I designed lots of perfume and powder boxes, jewelry and umbrellas, tee shirts, bathing suits and lots of hand bags and shoes. It was great fun, I had a lot of pleasure drawing them and what they at Yves Saint Laurent liked about it was that if I designed T shirts or bathing suits, I would draw the jewels and belts as well, just because I liked it. 

Q. What pieces did you design for YSL and Karl Lagerfeld? About how many jewelry designs would you estimate? Do you have any examples of these you saved or images? 

A. Like I said, for YSL I designed all kind of things and for Karl Lagerfeld mostly prints, something I like to do very much. I did design prints for YSL too and some jewelry for Lagerfeld as well. The thing is that at that time it was not so easy to make copies in color and so on and often you forgot or did not care in the end. I do have photocopies of a lot of it but in black and white. 

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

WWD cover with her prints for Lagerfeld. 1980.

These days one would just do it with the Iphone and gets a great copy. In the end they actually used little of the original designs I made for them because it is more a inspiration for the accessories, I would sometimes see a glimpse of it in some jewelry or especially the shoes. I don’t really know what they were selling and weren’t so I don’t really know if they made up the umbrellas or handbags that I had designed. Everything was kept though for later times or whatever. The prints for Lagerfeld were different because he really used them and when I saw the show and all the girls coming out in silks and satins with the prints I designed, that was really something else. I have some newspaper cuttings of the Karl Lagerfeld prints in the WWD but to be honest I did not check it out very well, once sold, something new is coming and that was it.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Willy’s original jewelry and accessories sketches for YSL. 

Q. On your blog you displayed some original sketches from YSL- how many do you have in your possession? 

A. At a point when they were selling the YSL label Anne Marie called me and gave me back some of my original drawings because, as she said” Monsieur St Laurent had liked those very much and you should have them, maybe one day you can do something with them”. So, yes, I have about 20 originals drawings I did for them.

Q. Many vintage lovers adore Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche collection- do you have a favorite piece you modeled?  

 A.Yes, me too I love most vintage YSL but the Russian inspired collection was really one of my favorites and I have one of this lovely Russian suede hats with fur, red and Black which is an original, used in the show… other pieces of designers I had I gave to my sisters because I really only wear what I feel best in. The only vintage clothes I wear are also my own.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Saint Laurent ad, Eric Boman.  

Q. You are sort of synonymous with YSL- so many fashion ads…. They are often used when researching vintage designs.  Do you have a favorite campaign? 

 A. Mostly everything I did for YSL I liked, but the pictures I did with Eric Boman for them I think I like best and the series with the green fur coat by Hans Feurer for the French Elle, all very 30’s-40’s inspired, which is a fashion period I like very much and I love the picture the master himself signed for me with a wonderful text which was handwritten…. ah, the elegance

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Q. How did you meet your husband?

A. My husband and I met on a photo shoot with Helmut Newton for the English magazine The Observer. I was booked for 3 weeks with Helmut for different jobs in Marrakech, Morocco, some publicity’s, Elegance and 3 series for the Observer. One day he saw 2 very interesting looking young men in the street with an Afghan dog ( they looked foreign and were actually Spanish) and he later thought about it and send some people to find them and ask them to be in the pictures he was going to make the next day. I already had seen them as well in the Marrakech souk, you could not miss them, and to make a long story short, we fell in love right there the morning they showed up for the shoot. I was waiting in the bus doing my make-up and there they were and I only remember seeing Salvador. Now he was sitting beside me in the car and the moment he offered me his pipe of kiv and we looked at each other… Later we were posing together so we have this wonderful pictures by Newton from the day we really met. The next day the whole crew was leaving for London but I stayed in Marrakech to the chagrin of Helmut who had booked me already for weeks ahead.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Irving Penn. Vogue image of Willy’s shoe

Q. In the 1980s you designed a quite successful shoe line under your own name, worn by famous women and fashion lovers. Why shoes?

A. It was the only thing I could not make myself and shoes had always fascinated me as I had designed some shoes for YSL. Sometimes I had my shoes made up after my own design, there was a good shoemaker I knew in Milan, Italy, and later in Spain. The marvelous boots one could have made up, the best shoemaker of those was in Marbella, now it is not what it used to be 40 years ago either. The thing is that in 1980 I was in Spain and Spain is a shoe manufacturer country which was an interesting fact to explore. Shoes on my mind because one day when I was bringing my drawings to the YSL house, I met up with the man who was responsible for the production of the YSL shoe line and he told me I had an extra ordinary feeling for shoes. It is not only the design but the balance and the comfort and soon. He gave me a few incredible wooden shoe forms and some courage to start my own shoe line if the opportunity appeared. It did and in 1982 I had produced my first shoe collection in Elda,Alicante, Spain.

Q.How many collections did you design and what inspired your favorite pair?

A. About 2 collections a year for 10 years. Many of my shoes and boots were inspired by the wonderful brocades still available in the area which they used in their yearly festival costumes. It was also tricky because some of it was hand woven in could take months to produce. It is hard to say which is my favorite but some models I sold over and over again for many years… they also happened to be my favorites.

Q. In what way was the Tunic Unique indicative of the era, what was it’s impact on your career? 

A. well, everything comes together. Because of my career as a model I knew many people and many knew me. I got a lot of help from Karl Lagerfeld who bought them for all his friends and everybody who worked at YSL including Lou Lou and Dear Anna Piaggi and all the models I knew, it was a blast and I got a lot of publicity.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Celebrities wearing and press about her Tunic Unique.

Q. What other fashion houses have you designed for?

 A. In the 90’s I lived in Madrid and designed for the Spanish designer Juanjo Rochefort who had a lot of celebrity clients and I designed mostly evening dresses for him. It was a lot of fun.

Q. On your instagram account I see quite a bit of wonderful images from your career and related to your husband and children? How has and does your family and especially your husband continue to inspire you?

 A. Thats the point, they never stop to inspire me, my family is most important to me, probably because that is something I have not known and my husband always surprises me with the art he makes and that is very inspiring. We are very lucky like that, to have our art and have each other. Not that these things come bythemselves, you have to work at it.

Q. Do you wear vintage? What is the oldest item in your wardrobe? Do you have a collection of your shoes? 

 A. No, I don’t wear vintage except my own and the oldest piece, my faux fur coat, is 26 years old (not that vintage really?) I do buy vintage sometimes because I am full of admiration for the workmanship but really I think that young people look great in it combined with the latest accessories. Or I love and wear the vintage jewelry, that looks always good and again, it is the artistry that went into it that mostly enchant me. Dressing vintage for me now would look like I never left it.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

One of Willy’s latest jewelry illustrations. rights reserved.

Q. You design jewelry today and have your own shop- how would you describe your aesthetic? 

 A. I do sporadically design and make up a piece of jewelry or bags and sell it in my online Etsy shop but to tell you the truth it is too much work, I always want to make it very special and it does not pay in that way so I only do it when I really feel like it and then mostly give it away. What I do enjoy a lot is drawing them, that makes me really happy.

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Necklace currently available in Willy’s shop

Image Provided by Willy Van Rooy.

Leather and vintage component necklace, created by Willy.

Q. What other projects are your working on? 

A. Right now I am working on a book of my illustrations and if possible would like to make a book of my shoes and all the adventures that went with it. Also a book about the wonderful work of my husband… We just released the new SHOP, I have been working on with my son and daughter, which is very important. It contains designs and product made by the Willy van Rooy label. We have ambitious plans….so much to do. Yet we have to take care to take the time to look at the clouds and the beauty around us, so I am going step by step and every day is a new day.

Love and Peace

After conducting this interview, I am in even more awe of Willy’s life and passion for it! If you are also more enamored, please check out these links for more Willy van Rooy!

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