Yoko Ono, Almost 80, Has a Renaissance

The World Catches Up to Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono at a party for Lady Gaga’s perfume in September.

“THIS is the jacket, and you see, this is the pants,” Yoko Ono was saying. “This is what I wanted to focus on. Accentuate the good bits.”

It was 10:45 a.m. on a recent fall day, and Ms. Ono was sitting in the back of the trendy fashion emporium Opening Ceremony in SoHo, decked out in sunglasses and one of her trademark top hats (Issey Miyake, in case you’re wondering), and showing a reporter a series of sketches she’d submitted to the design team she was working with there.

As it happened, the pants she was focused on had a hole where the crotch normally is, and the good bits to which she was referring ... well, you get the point.

Ms. Ono pointed to another sketch, this time with arrows pointing at the nipples, and directions that read: “holes to put flowers (fresh) in.”

Moments later, an assistant brought over kneepads with eyes drawn on them. Why bother asking what they were designed for? Suffice it to say, Ms. Ono’s target demographic does not appear to be members of the National Football League. wut

The newest celebrity entrant into the design game first had the idea of doing men’s clothing when she fell in love with John Lennon in the 1960s. She adored the way he looked, both dressed and undressed, and was somewhat perturbed by the fact that it was almost always women who were sexually objectified by designers.

“Men were always wanting us to look good and take off everything,” Ms. Ono said. “And we were never able to enjoy men’s sexuality in that way.”

She considered doing something about it then, only to realize that the world was not exactly in sync with her sartorial predilections.

Times, of course, changed. Women went to work in droves. Fashion boundaries blurred. Gay men and lesbians became mainstream. The male body became a Madison Avenue commodity.

And then, as she entered her 70s, Ms. Ono made friends with young fashion types who regarded her not as the woman who broke up the Beatles, but as an elder stateswoman of cool; a reminder of what New York used to be before it was taken over by hedge fund types.

So when she met Humberto Leon, a founder of Opening Ceremony, in Tokyo about three years ago, and told him that she had long dreamed of doing a men’s wear line, he jumped at the chance to work with her.

“She’s always been a radical,” Mr. Leon said. “She pushes boundaries.”

Mr. Leon’s favorite pieces, for the record, are a series of garments with bells hanging off them.

“There’s one that’s a plexi-necklace you wear with two bells attached and it’s placed where your breasts might be,” he said. “And inscribed underneath it says, ‘Ring for your mommy.’ ”

Another is a black leather belt that says “don’t touch me” and has a bell near the bellybutton to ward off those who might be inclined to do just that.

“I think people are going to be really excited by them,” Mr. Leon said.

Ms. Ono with Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, for which she is designing men’s wear.

Are they a little silly? Perhaps. But the collaboration comes at a time when Ms. Ono, who still lives in the Dakota on the Upper West Side, is experiencing a major renaissance on the art and culture scene.

As a visual artist, she has garnered wider appreciation. In June, a retrospective of her work was held at the Serpentine Gallery in London. During the Olympics last summer, she collaborated with Selfridges, the department store in London, on a public art installation, “Imagine Peace,” that culminated with footage of John Lennon singing “Imagine” during the closing ceremony. By September, she was back in New York for a video installation in Times Square in collaboration with the Art Production Fund.

With the husband of a member of a Russian female punk group to whom she gave her Peace Prize.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ono has been all over the news, helping to fight world hunger and bestowing her annual peace prize on Pussy Riot, the female punk group from Russia whose members were convicted of hooliganism in Moscow.

“I know what it means to be hungry,” Ms. Ono told Rolling Stone last week, at a benefit for WhyHunger at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. “In the Second World War, I was a little girl. I was evacuated in my country. We were very hungry. I just don’t want the children to have that experience.”

Yoko Ono, center, in Times Square for a benefit against childhood hunger.

And on Wednesday, the Library of Congress announced that it was releasing dozens of interviews between former Capital Records president Joe Smith and music luminaries, including ones with Ms. Ono where she candidly discussed the split of the Beatles and claimed it was actually Ringo Starr, who initiated the breakup of the group. (Those interviews comes after a recent interview Paul McCartney gave in which he, too, said Ms. Ono had nothing to do with the band’s demise).

Ms. Ono has also become a frequent presence on the social circuit in New York, attending fund-raisers and fashion parties, like the one for the debut of Lady Gaga’s fragrance at the Guggenheim Museum in September.

The petite poly-hyphenate even started a capsule jewelry collection for Swarovski, a collaboration that was celebrated at a Fashion Week party attended by Julianne Moore and Elizabeth Olsen.

Not bad, given that Ms. Ono is just months away from her 80th birthday.

As she tells it, she is simply doing what she’s always done, trying to stay active and make the world a better place. And as her friends tell it, there’s no better time. The unrest in the Middle East, the economic downturn in Europe and the political challenges here at home, they say, have made people more receptive to her simple, unironic message about loving one another and doing your part to bring about social change.

“I think her message of peace is resonant right now,” said Catherine Morris, the curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where Ms. Ono was honored recently. “Her longstanding commitment to political activism gives her credence.”

Doreen Remen, a founder of the Art Production Fund, agreed. “As things get more and more chaotic and we are being pushed to the brink when we have to make a decision and be responsible for our own actions, her work speaks to that,” she said. “It’s a road map.”

Ms. Ono at the Brooklyn Museum, honored by the Center for Feminist Art.

And, as it turns out, Ms. Ono is nowhere near taking a break.

For one, she and her son, Sean Lennon, who is 37, recently started Artists Against Fracking, a group opposed to that method of drilling for natural gas. In typical form, Ms. Ono’s message has an apocalyptic edge.

“Basically, if we don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die,” she said.

For another, Ms. Ono is finishing an album. It will be an eclectic offering, with “blues, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy rock, light rock, all different styles,” Ms. Ono said.

It, too, is a collaboration with her son, which Ms. Ono relished both because she thinks he is an extraordinary talent (“I’m very lucky as a mother because I didn’t know when I impregnated him and he came out in the world that I was getting a good musician for my albums”) and because she saw him as having a vastly superior command of “modern technology.”

With her son, Sean Lennon, center, and Jimmy Fallon on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."

Ms. Ono heard from people who said she shouldn’t work with him, that it’s the worst thing you can do as a parent. But she was undeterred.

“It’s a nice way to meet up with your son,” she said. “Because it’s getting to a point where, after 30, they have their own lives.”

Putting him on the payroll, Ms. Ono seemed to be saying, was a pretty good way to get her phone calls returned. Moreover, at the end of the day, Ms. Ono said, her son always knows who the boss is: “Of course, me. Excuse me?”