Never mind that he creates the most wonderfully bizarre jewelry on the planet, or that he has been couturier to a minuscule portion of New York’s minuscule avant-garde, or even that he can persuade the world’s finest designers to whip up originals—free—for his Barbie dolls: In some ways Billy Boy is his own most remarkable creation. A Staten Island précieux now living in Paris, he has elevated idiosyncracy to an art. Draping himself in the clothes (and the aesthetics) of the ’60s and 70s, he amuses his fans with pronouncements like “I’m a product of the Flintstones and the Jetsons.”
Indeed, had Pebbles Flintstone and Elroy Jetson taken acid and mingled genes, their progeny might have looked something like this born-blond six-footer. His closets are a Day-Glo fantasy: minis, fishnet tops, Peter Max pantsuits and brocade shorts, all worn with exponential flair. Sunglasses are de rigueur for Billy; so are black fingernail polish and masses of his own jewelry, which sells well in Paris and New York. His hair could be platinum or pink or simply teased into a crest; wigs, he asserts, are very important.
Not that Billy’s life is merely an ode to excess. At 25, he has dedicated himself to preserving and promoting the art of fashion, and he has collected more than 10,000 designer outfits (many of which are in storage in New York and London) for men and women. In his ragingly eclectic Paris apartment are six steamer trunks full of Chanels, Diors, Lanvins, Patous and Cardins; the living room is a virtual shrine to Elsa Schiaparelli, an influential designer in the ’30s, whose portrait hangs on one lavender wall. Last year Billy organized an exhibition of his Schiaparelli memorabilia, including a Dali-designed telephone handbag, an eye-shaped brooch and one of Elsa’s own trompe I’oeil sweaters.
Billy’s devotion to Barbie is similarly profound. A doll collector since the age of 14, he has amassed about 10,000 Barbies and, for balance, about 3,000 Kens. His most ambitious—and, some would say, surreal—project to date is a major Barbie fashion show which was mounted in two train cars that toured France this past summer. The collection—which is coming to the U.S. in February—features 600 Barbies, many dressed in custom outfits from 70 top designers. At Billy Boy’s behest, Pierre Cardin, Hermès, Jacqueline de Ribes and Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others, worked in miniature to expand Barbie’s famous wardrobe. Yves Saint Laurent did a mini-retrospective of his own designs for lucky Barbie; Thierry Mugler put her in a black velvet culotte suit studded with rhinestones, and Frédéric Castet (who designs furs for Dior) created a red mink coat and matching hat. Although knitwear designer Sonia Rykiel orginally resisted the project (“I hated dolls,” Rykiel reports), she eventually caught the spirit. Three days before the show’s May opening, a chauffeur arrived at Billy Boy’s door with three Barbie-size Rykiels.
While the French affiliate of Mattel put up the money for the extravaganza, it was Billy Boy who did the year’s worth of production work. Besides recruiting the designing talent, he created a Billy Boy Barbie; clad in a body-hugging black dress and Billy-style baubles, she was recently added to Mattel’s Barbie line in Europe. “I worked until my fingernail polish cracked, and that’s horrid,” he pronounces with a shudder.
Still, Billy has never been short on creative energy. With a team of five assistants (including male apartment mate Lala Lestrade, 30) he works in his studio on chic Rue de la Paix to turn out his signature “constructivist” jewelry. Made of hand-painted cast plastic and papier-mâché, his latest oversize designs include earrings shaped like vampire bats, a bird-head brooch, a ram-headed dragon dripping pearls; and emerald-covered turnips. In America, the pieces sell for $40 to $200 in Henri Bendel. “I can’t keep up with the orders,” Billy claims. When not collecting, designing or organizing shows, he is working on a book that he describes as a “personalized sociological study of Barbie.” (He credits Jacqueline Onassis with encouraging him to do the book, which is scheduled for release next year.)
And like all performance artists, Billy expends much of his energy creating his own persona. His past is swathed in gauze. “I never speak about my parents and family—they’re behind me,” he says—though the family name is not Boy. Billy allows that he was adopted by a wealthy Staten Island couple, doted on by private tutors and sent as a boy on chaperoned trips to Asia, Israel and Europe. “I was one of those loners,” he says. “I lived in a world of fantasy and toys. My parents gave me absolutely everything a child could possibly want.”
By the time Billy left home, he had already become a connoisseur of designer clothes and dolls. “I have a collector mentality,” he says. In the late ’70s he began making jewelry and his “Surreal Couture,” including a gown made from fabric imprinted with newspaper stories about himself. He moved to Paris in 1982, and the city embraced him. Now, says designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, “He’s a good character for France. Very few designers have kept their collections together. Billy Boy will do that for them, and so he’s very important.”
And while the fabulous Billy may seem a little too fabulous to some, he has a cadre of defenders—including Bettina Graziani, a ’50s-era model (and the alleged inspiration for the Billy Boy Barbie), who introduced him to the Paris fashion establishment. “He’s got guts and he’s genuine,” she says. “If he wasn’t intelligent, he’d be a decoration like lots of others. But he pulls the poetry out of things.”
For his part, Billy is the first to point out the irony in his shtick. “I’m a very serious person behind the facade of black fingernails, jewelry and designer clothes,” he reports. “I’m not as eccentric as you’d think.” How, then, would Billy describe himself? “I’m completely yabba-dabba-doo,” he says. And seriously, who can question his judgment?