It doesn't take much to realise that Julie Verhoeven is in demand. She spans disciplines from fine art through film and children's books to High Street fashion, and has worked with names including John Galliano, Kate Moss and Dazed & Confused. In her Walworth Road, London, studio, her phones ringrepeatedly.
She laughs off my concern with an infectious trill, even though one of the callers might have been the ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon. He's providing the soundscapes for her new show, Ver-boten, Ver-Saatchi, Ver-heaven, at London's Riflemaker gallery. It promises to explore her fractured, claustrophobic psychedelia, with her trademark "savage Lolitas" nestling amid ghostly screens, needlepoint designs and surreal objects.
"It's going to be quite theatrical, like a stage set," she says."I'm sort of doing my variation on the Japanese or Victorian screen, with various odd accessories draped over them, like a three-cup bra and a pair of wings." Why? "I was watching that film A Matter of Life and Death, and there's a moment when people are between Earth and heaven and they're carrying their wings in a bag. I'm copying those wings." And the bra? "Um... I don't know!"
The soundtrack will, she says, be an audio collage from Coxon. "Footsteps, raspberries, folk songs, Chopin... I didn't expect that kind of thing from him. I had the idea of working with Graham because I like his drawings and his music is really urgent. I hope he will upset the feminine side that I bring to the show."
But she's perfectly capable of upsetting things herself. "I'd like people to be a little bit unsettled, so that on first appearance it looks quite attractive, quite acceptable, like a shop window front with nice, pretty feminine things, but I'd like it to feel quite claustrophobic", she says. "And I was looking at Cocteau and the surrealists, so I'm going to have giant hand mirrors. I've gone a bit mad on them because I like the idea of the 'other side' and looking into another world."
Verhoeven's name comes from her Dutch father. Born in 1969, she grew up in Kent ("boring!") and left school at 16 to do a fashion diploma. She applied to Saint Martins, in London, but was turned down and found work with John Galliano. "I was in heaven because it was so fantastic. Equally, though, it was competitive, and you get to see the nasty side of people. I don't think it's that dissimilar from the art world. For the first 18 months I was making his cappuccino, but then I started going to Saint Martins evening classes for fashion drawing. He was really encouraging and I started doing more artwork for him. He is very concerned with research and I'd accompany to him to the library and see how he worked."
She began to work for style magazines, developing her trademark Biba-with-an-edge drawing style. "I can't get away from it as hard as I try, but as I develop them at the moment the drawings are a bit more clumsy and expressive. I think I'm getting more painterly and less considered." Her big break came five years ago when this work attracted the attention of Louis Vuitton's fashion director, Marc Jacobs. He commissioned her to create appliqué patchwork designs for the company's leather bags. "I didn't appreciate at the time how fantastic a commission it was to get because it opened so many doors," she admits.
Having designed record sleeves for Primal Scream and Kate Moss, as well as for Nouvelle Vague, she can't work without music, particularly New Wave. "The louder the better. If it's quiet I get really nervous."
She has been working on a children's book called Cicely Scissors, written by her friend, Adrian Self. "It's about a pair of scissors who doesn't understand why she's a pair when most other things are only one. She gets separated and then she's very unhappy, but she gets put back together and all her friends come round for tea." The drawings are beautiful and intricate, including all kinds of stuff to discover on the fringes - even steaming dog turds. "Children like that kind of thing! But I didn't leave enough space for the text," she laughs.
As she puts her show together she's also working on Indian rugs; a collaboration with Topshop; teaching fashion at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art; and doing paintings on chair-backs at the London restaurant Sketch and an animation for its screens. She's also turned her hand to deckchairs for the Royal Parks.
Can she ever relax? "Sleep actually is my favourite," she claims. "I'm at my happiest now. I feel much more confident in what I'm doing and less accommodating." Which is why she'll be displaying her cluttered psychedelia at Riflemaker. "It might look quite jolly but it'll be a bit rough round the edges. And it's all going to be severely claustrophobic because the space is quite small." And, as visitors wander round, they shouldn't be surprised if they hear a telephone ringing. Or two. Or three...
Ver-boten, Ver-Saatchi, Ver-heaven is at Riflemaker, London W1 (020-7439 0000), 11 September to 11 November. 'Cicely Scissors', by Adrian Self, illustrated by Julie Verhoeven, will be published this autumn by Funny Bones EditionsReuse content