It’s impossible to miss the larger-than-life presence that is Jean “Johnny” Pigozzi. When I first encountered the amiable collector, philanthropist, photographer, clothing designer, not to mention multi-millionaire, his jumbo frame was draped in a bold, almost offensively bright bomber and bookended by two beautiful women. Pigozzi, whose father was the founder of the French carmaker Simca, moves in fabulous circles. Since the age of 14 he’s been chronicling the people and places that make up his weird and wonderful world—for a dyslexic teenager, a nice alternative to keeping a diary.
Never without a point-and-shoot camera, the gentle giant captures candid moments shared with celebrities, artists, designers, gorgeous women, and other millionaires in a way that only an insider could. The sum of this documentation, spanning 20 years, is now on view in the exhibition “Johnny Stop!” at Gagosian gallery, accompanied by a 400-page book, Catalogue Déraisonné (or Lunacy Catalog).
On the day of his book-signing and opening, I caught up with Pigozzi at his West Side apartment—where he was “kidnapped by the [New York] marathon”—to talk about his vibrant clothing line LimoLand, his exhibition, and how he turned his art collection from that of a “dentist from Cincinnati” to the largest private contemporary African art collection in the world…
Your opening and book-signing are tonight. Do you get nervous?
No, I’m not nervous because I went to see all the pictures hanging. They’re straight, the light is okay, and the people at Gagosian know what they’re doing. The weather is okay. Some cataclysm could happen. But it’s too late to be nervous. I should have been nervous five years ago, but now, what could I do?
Your last exhibition at Gagosian was almost 20 years ago. What’s changed in your process of documenting, or the subjects you photograph?
Zero. I take the same thing, the people around me, my life. That has not changed. You know, I started taking pictures when I was 14, and that has not changed. I’m not taking pictures of lions. I’m not taking pictures of wars. I’m not taking fashion pictures. I’m taking the same pictures I always did.
Are they still black-and-white?
Yes, the show is all black-and-white, which doesn’t really exist in life, at least for people. I find it adds a dimension of strangeness.
Do you use a digital or film camera?
I’ve had so many films destroyed at airports that I have succumbed to digital. The quality isn’t as good, but on the other hand when you take a picture with film it’s going to cost you $20 between the printing and the lab, plus the this and the that. With digital, you’re much freer because you can take many more pictures in a much more relaxed way. I have to be modern.
With so much work in your archive, how did you approach editing everything down for the book and exhibition?
Painfully. It’s a long, long process that took about two years. I don’t like to go back. I’m more interested in the future than the past. Obviously there are no future pictures so I have to look at the photographs I’ve already taken, and I don’t like doing that, you know? I was slimmer, my girlfriends were younger, many of my friends have died, but you have to do it.
What made you decide to do video?
It’s actually three different videos that we mixed together into one underwater video of me swimming. It’s the only sport I do. No football, no tennis, no ping pong, no polo. We put it on 25 iPads for the show, and it’s in both black-and-white and color. It’s going to be amazing. I always make little films, but I’ve never shown them. So with Pascal Dangin, the guy from Box who designed my book, we decided it was time to do something. I showed him something 10 days ago, and we came up with this little film.
The press release for your show states that you are “at once insider and outsider.” Can you elaborate?
Outsider because sometimes I take pictures of Hollywood stars, but I’m not part of the Hollywood scene. But on the other hand, I’m not completely not part of that world because I do go to the same parties, and I do travel vaguely in the same circles.
You’re also known as a ladies’ man. Do you think that’s true?
Well, why not? I mean, I like the ladies. And I’m not married, and many of my friends are ladies even if I’m not romantically involved. I’d rather have the company of women than men. They’re nicer to look at and they’re more sensitive. I have a better time. I’m really not the type for a macho boys’ night out. For me to go to a dinner with ten men, they really have to be interesting. When the business day is over, I’d rather hang out with girls than boys.
Do you go out every night?
I don’t go out to clubs and all that because I wake up early. But I go out, sure.
When you were a kid, did you pick out your own clothes?
When I was a kid I was not so interested, but since the age of 15 I’ve been interested in clothes. I used to be like a dandy. I would go buy things with my mother. Then I became a bit lazy. And then because I’m tall and big, I could never find clothes to fit me. So, my good clothes I would have a tailor in London make. And my relaxed clothes would be a mix between Brooks Brothers, Old Navy, Harlem and Bathing Ape. But it’s very difficult. When I go to Japan, where there are all these fun clothes, nothing fits me.
You just opened a store in the Meatpacking for your clothing line LimoLand. Why open your store in New York?
I did the business for two years out of Paris. It was a wholesale business and we didn’t have a store. I really felt we should have a store to explain better what the story is. And I’m very happy with the store because first of all it’s doing well. And secondly, it tells the story to someone like a journalist or somebody from Saks Fifth Avenue who says, “What are you talking about?” It’s better than having a sterile showroom in a hotel or an ugly office building. And I was completely involved in the design of the store. I mean, five months ago I was told we should use a designer. I said, “What the fuck, I’m going to do it myself.” I’ve never done a store before, I can promise you, but I’m happy with the results. If you walk up and down the street, the store is quite different from any other. We used recycled wood and rebar, and every piece of furniture is on wheels so we can reconfigure it and move it around.
Do you ever hang out in the store?
Yeah, it’s both fun and frustrating. It’s fun when people come and buy, but it’s frustrating when people come, walk around, say thank you, and walk out. I want to strangle them. But now when I go in a store and I don’t buy anything, which is 90% of the time, I feel terrible for the poor people who work there. I suffer when I walk down Madison Avenue and I see those big elegant stores and there’s only one shopper inside and I just know the salespeople are biting their nails.
How involved are you in the design process?
I have people who assist me for technical things like attaching sleeves to the body. But I choose 100% of the colors, and I choose all the shapes and the materials. Every little accessory, every little button. A lot of the hoodies and polos are made in Peru, the shirts are made in New York, and the rest is made in China. It’s all very well-made.
You received a lot of press from the Tom Ford comment, when he said, “I don’t want big fat guys like you in my shop.” Have you seen that all over the Internet?
Yes, I’m amazed how it went viral. But it was a funny comment. In reality I was slightly misquoted. Because what I said was I could only buy a handkerchief in his shop, nothing else fits me there. Not the shoes or the shirts, because they don’t make anything in my size. I mean I haven’t stood outside Tom Ford’s shop, but I don’t think a lot of people my age—I’m 58—can really buy anything there if they’re not super slim or, as Tom says, have been on a diet since the age of 13. So the clothes that I’m making at LimoLand are completely different. I’m not making any suits or tuxedos or business attire. I’m doing much more relaxed clothes: sweaters, hoodies, T-shirts, polos, windbreakers, jackets, trousers. But nothing formal. I’m doing clothes for people who create, people in the advertising world, TV and movies, architects, people who don’t have to be dressed like morticians with a black suit and a black tie. More and more people, even lawyers now, don’t seem to be wearing suits. I think that’s the trend. People will wear suits if they have to go to a wedding or a funeral, or they have to be a politician. I feel that in these times, which are not the happiest or easiest of times, you can add a bit of color. And that’s what we have at LimoLand. I mean, I don’t want people to look like clowns. So it’s a little bit of color here, a little bit of color there, not like Cirque de Soleil.
Do you think Tom Ford would ever come in and buy something from your shop?
In disguise. No, but I mean I’ve known Tom for many, many years. He’s a friend and I admire what he’s done. But it’s a completely different market. And thank god. I mean, I couldn’t do what Loro Piana does, what Tom Ford does, what Ralph Lauren does. There are a lot of people out there, so I think there’s space for everybody. It’s like in modern art, there’s Jeff Koons and there’s Andy Warhol. There are a lot of people out there with different tastes. The world is big and wide open.
Would you ever expand the line to include women?
I’d absolutely love to do women’s. Not frou-frou silk dresses and evening gowns. Oscar de la Renta don’t have to worry. But definitely in my next collection and over the next year I’m going to do polos, hoodies, and soft trousers for women. You know I already sell perhaps 10–15% to women in the small sizes. And a lot of women like my shirts, and I think it’s kind of sexy. Like the walk of shame when you leave your boyfriend’s house in the morning you put on his big sweats or his big shirt. I think a lot of women like that look. I tried to buy walkofshame.com but someone already has it.
Let’s talk about your art collection. How did your interest in African art begin?
For a while I had a bad art collection, like a dentist from Cincinnati. The names were right but the pieces were not so great. And I went to see a show in Paris at the Pompidou and there were things from India, Pakistan, South America, Australia, France, America. And then I saw the African art. And for me African art was, you know, the wood masks you see at the Metropolitan. I had no idea there were people making paintings and drawings exactly like they would have done in Brooklyn or Berlin. I saw that and I was completely shocked and amazed. Since I saw the show the day it was closing, I called the museum the next day and I said I would like to buy the pieces. They said I couldn’t buy them because the sponsor has paid for them, but if I could meet the curator. So I met this guy Andre Magnin and I said, “Andre, what are you doing now? I’d like to hire you.” And so we started. Andre went up and down Africa for 21 years (he doesn’t work for me anymore) and we put together this great collection that you can see at www.caacart.com.
You tend to buy artist’s work in bulk…
Yeah, I feel that if you have one piece it doesn’t really show the work of an artist. Like if you saw one Picasso, one Andy Warhol, you would have no idea what the work is. And I tend to buy it over years, so you see how the artist is becoming better or worse. They do get worse sometimes, it happens. For the last three years I’ve built a collection of very young Japanese artists that started because I became friends with [Takashi] Murakami and he invited me to Japan to see something called Gesai. Gesai is a thing he organizes every year where he invites hundreds of kids to come show their work in Tokyo and he then gives a prize. But it’s completely uncurated. I think you pay $100 to get a stand the size of a telephone booth, maybe a bit bigger, and you can find whatever you want. I went there and I saw some amazing things. So I decided to go to all the galleries in Tokyo and I fell in love with what I saw. So now I’m collecting Japanese artists born after 1980.