Ostensibly Beth Ditto – former front-woman of the Gossip, owner of one of the best voices of the last twenty years and full-time actual icon – is in London to chat about the sensory overload of her second fashion collection. Draped over a chaise lounge in a fancy hotel, and sporting one of the pieces from her collection (a billowing dress covered in huge eyelash prints), it can be hard to keep her focused. Unrepeatable things often tumble out of her mouth and she confesses to even talking and laughing in her sleep. “I don't understand how to be introverted,” she laughs in her thick Arkansas accent. “I tried. There are times when I'm talking and I'm like 'I'm still talking!'. I get sick of hearing myself talk.”
To be honest I could listen to Ditto talk all day long. She's wonderful company, constantly coming up with little one liners and side jokes before returning to the subject at hand with pin-sharp wit. A brilliant flash of neon when she and the Gossip arrived with Standing In The Way Of Control back in 2006, Ditto took both the music and fashion worlds by storm. Outside of the Gossip - who split following 2012’s pop-lead A Joyful Noise album - she’s collaborated with everyone from Simian Mobile Disco to Jarvis Cocker to Debbie Harry, while she first dipped her toes in the solo waters in 2011 with her excellent self-titled electropop EP. Next year she’ll release her debut solo album proper, a country-tinged opus that will showcase that ludicrous voice. “It's coming out maybe in April,” she says. “I think it's really good but I don't have the taste that most people have.” To prove her point, she goes on to tell a story about how she literally begged for Heavy Cross - the lead single from the Gossip’s 2009 album, Music For Men - to be kept off the album. It went on to become the most successful internationally produced single of all time in Germany, staying in the top ten for a frankly ridiculous 27 weeks. “It sold more than the Hoff!” she shouts. “More than Thriller! My point was that I tried to leave that song off the record. Never trust an artist to make decisions.” But she’s confident about her solo album, and, you sense finally, her influence musical more generally. “I think [the album] is really good, and different, but still enough of the Gossip stuff. Making the record I realised what a big part of Gossip I was.”
She’s always been confident in her appearance, however, at least since she blazed a trail across the public consciousness. During the Gossip’s heyday, she appeared naked on the cover of NME and LOVE magazines, had a body image advice column with the Guardian and, in 2009, collaborated with high street store Evans on a capsule range for plus-sized women. Earlier this year she launched her own fashion line, under her own name, in order to give women more options outside of scouring secondhand shops (as she had) and trying to make their own clothes (she did that too).
While the first collection was successful, the second line feels more focused, a concept Ditto can sometimes have problems with. “I learned a lot about how to give over control [with this collection],” she says. “I would never want to do something and just put my name on it and think 'that's great'; I always want to be involved. The last one I was overly involved and I didn't really know what I was doing, but this time I had someone there who I trusted from the start.” That someone was her long-term stylist Frederic Baldo (the collection was designed by Charles Jeffrey and shot using non-models by photographer Hannah Moon). “We worked together on it and it looks like someone who knows what they're doing has made it. I'm not a designer but I know what I like.” Does she have any advice for people looking to start their own fashion line? “I would say find someone you trust a lot. Read a lot. Listen to people who know what the fuck they're doing. Learn the business first. We did it the opposite way.”
Ditto is obsessed with words and manipulating their meaning, often re-naming them as she goes along. She places no importance on catch-all fashion buzzwords like 'flattering' (she calls it “flatulence”) or 'slimming' (“slimy”) or 'tailored' (“Taylor Swift”) when it comes to the clothes she wears, and the clothes she wants other women like her to wear. “I like the idea of changing what those words mean and putting them in different contexts. I really love that. I love a word. I think people think flattering means something it doesn't mean – people automatically see it as synonymous with slim.”
Ditto doesn't want the people that wear her clothes to be hidden away, or to wear all black everything because it's deemed flattering; like Ditto herself, the clothes are attention-grabbing, bold and proud. They're also mainly related to make-up, an area Ditto thinks is vital to the way plus-sized women see themselves. “With big girls, and I say this from a queer standpoint, like being a femme, makeup is extremely important to us,” she says, suddenly serious. “A lot of us love makeup because it always fits, so there's a big relationship there. When clothes didn't give you the look that you wanted you could always rely on makeup to tie it together the way you wanted it to.”
Does she think the attitude towards plus-sized women has changed over the last decade? “It's changed a lot. I don't know if the catwalk has changed but the visibility is undeniable in pop culture and in mainstream, high street fashion. It's definitely changed. In America too. I was trying to explain to someone about Evans, when we did the first collection, I wanted to put Miss Piggy on a shirt, and they were afraid of it. They didn't want to give people the wrong idea and now I don't think that would have happened. Back then there was more shame – they were worried people would have thought that Evans was calling women pigs.” Ditto can justifiably feel that she played her part in that changing of people's attitudes. In her own wonderfully idiosyncratic way she presented an alternative and, through her own fashion line, is adamant she'll keep that going. You wouldn't bet against her.