illustrator sue tilley discusses her fendi collaboration

As she recovers from the shock of seeing her work on Fendi’s spring/summer 18 catwalk, the inimitable muse, model, author, and artist reminds us of the importance of making the most out of everything life offers.

by Steve Salter
28 June 2017, 4:30pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK. 

"Oh, I thought he was drunk," Sue Tilley recalls with a laugh as she describes her reaction to Julian Ganio, Fendi's menswear stylist and her long-term friend, first mentioning the idea of collaborating with the Italian house. "I thought, why on earth would Fendi want to work with me?" While her 9-5 reality revolved around Jobcenter management, she partied with best-friend Leigh Bowery and became a Lucian Freud muse — she was immortalized in the artist's 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which sold for $22 million in 2008 — before writing Leigh Bowery's biography and becoming an artist in her own right. Why indeed.

"Sue's a beautiful old friend of mine," Julian explains, "and it's natural for Silvia [Venturini Fendi the Creative Director of Fendi menswear] and myself to want to work with artist friends and people we love, admire, and respect." Following Fendi's recent collaborations with the John Booth, it was great to see another of London's colorful characters brighten up Milan. "Silvia loved Sue's work instantly as well as her history, her life, and stories," Julian adds. "Sue has had this incredible life," Silvia noted backstage post-show. "She worked for many years in the Charing Cross Jobcenter, but at the same time she was having a wild life."

It was this reality between office mundanity and weekend opportunity that echoed throughout Fendi spring/summer 18, as it did at Balenciaga's parklife dads, Xander Zhou's extraterrestrial corporation, Martine Rose's gorpcore, and Vetements' Zurich-cast posing locals. "Fendi Friday! Fendi Fri-yay," screamed the show notes. The collection embodied that joyous weekend feeling together with a twist of executive realness, and Big Sue's artwork was everywhere. By placing her lens over the humdrum, she sprinkled a sense of fun over a selection of day-to-day objects that we take for granted.

"Julian gave me a rough idea of what Fendi wanted me to draw and I went ahead," Sue explains. "It was all very easy, I drew the object, sent it over, and then they suggested a few changes, I made them and sent it back. It was all done with me taking a photo of the drawing on my iPhone and then sending it over on Facebook Messenger." Now, this would ordinarily seem quite an odd medium to use when collaborating with a 100 year old luxury house, but for a self-confessed Facebook addict like Sue — "it's great knowing what everyone is up to" — we wouldn't expect anything else. "It made me laugh that here I was drawing in my spare room surrounded by boxes as I'd just moved and I was sending my work to one of the most prestigious Italian fashion houses," she adds with another laugh. Sue might as well have provided this self-portrait because it couldn't have been more Fendi spring/summer 18. As she still recovers from the shock of seeing her work on Fendi's catwalk, Big Sue shares her iPhone snapped originals and reminds us of the importance of saying yes to offers.

From trunks to shoes to earrings, your artworks are everywhere in this collection. Did you know that your work would be featured so prominently?
I had no idea. I arrived at Fendi on Saturday morning and was amazed by how much there was, but over the next couple of days more and more stuff kept appearing… keyrings, trainers, pajamas, jumpers, jeans...

How did it feel seeing your work on Milan's catwalk?
It was great, but it was so quick. I couldn't see everything but I've been studying the photos. I think I might rush up to the first person I see wearing one of my designs, but they won't be available until next January so it won't happen yet.

If people take one thing away from the collaboration, what would you like it to be and why?
I'd like them to think that I'm more than just the girl who worked in the Jobcenter — mind you I think that they know that already. I'd love to work with Fendi some more as they are so lovely. I'd also love to be offered some more collaborations. I love not knowing what's waiting 'round the corner. I've never had a career plan or chased any jobs, but it's all worked out very well for me.

Did Silvia discuss your past with you at all?
I think she was more interested in my life at the Jobcenter rather than my wild clubbing behavior. She was particularly interested in the sad moments I had to deal with. I told her about the government legislation that came in just before I left, where foreign nationals had their benefits stopped after a few months, so they were left with nothing. It was heartbreaking having grown men sob at your desk but there was nothing that you could do to help as your hands were tied. It got so strict, I was ecstatic to take redundancy.

What advice would you give anyone working a 9-5 reality that daydreams of something more magical for themselves?
Keep yourself open to options, but don't just give up your job just because you think you should be doing something different. I was lucky as I got quite a lot of holiday at the Jobcenter, so was able to do other work in evening and on days off. But the job taught me lots of things and it now means that I've got a pension so I'm free to do what I like.

We've read a few interviews in which you discuss the power of saying "yes" to things. Aside from this Fendi collaboration, when was the last time you said yes and something great happened?
Well I'm making my TV presenting debut next month on The Art Show. The director Mike Christie asked me if I'd like to go to New York to interview some artists. Mind you, I'd have been a fool to say "No." 

What advice would you give to people that struggle to say yes?
I'd tell people to face their fears and to take a risk as if you don't do it you'll never know if you like doing it or not but you say "No" you'll never know what you could have achieved. It's better to do something and not like it rather than not doing it all. At the very least, it's an experience. 

Read: On the last day of spring/summer 18 men's shows in Milan, Fendi came up with a new dress code for the millennials about to rule the job market.


Text Steve Salter
Artwork Sue Tilley
Catwalk Images Mitchell Sams

sue tilley
fendi spring/summer 18