A new type of fashion brand is emerging. It creates new, exciting projects that are as innovative visually as they are conceptually. It doesn’t depend on tired distinctions between different disciplines, and instead that takes its lead from the studio-based practices of the art world. Moving away from the market-focused strategies of the rest of the industry, for example, showing unisex clothes on non-traditional models (yes, actually non-traditional), the end products are not collections, those commodified moments that saturate our image-laden culture before they are even in season, but more like an inspirational starting point that is developed and honed throughout different media over the six months the collection is out.
Eckhaus Latta, founded by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, are the biggest hitters in this new field of designers, a cohort that also includes fellow NYC residents Telfar and Gypsy Sport. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their preference for the non-commercial, they found themselves in fashion after studying art together . “I think it is really natural for us: both of us went to Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied sculpture and Zoe studied textiles,” Mike explains.
When we meet, the pair are in Berlin for a celebration of their work at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, specifically to celebrate their off-kilter fashion film collaborations with Alexa Karolinski. In one, a model in one of the brand’s SS15 pasta shell string tops lies on a concrete pavement, murmuring Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” to herself, and gently feeding pigeons that gather for the breadcrumbs that surround her. Another shows a group of models pureeing vegetables and carefully grooming each other, then sitting down to dinner to eat their liquid meal mostly with their hands – both masterclasses in the unheimlich. It’s a startlingly different direction for fashion films, which are usually more about selling clothing.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
To Eckhaus and Latta, it is only natural that their work should be shown in a gallery – in fact, it’s the fashion world that can seem more alien: “The whole art community has never really felt distant. I think at times the fashion community has been a newer world, even though we have both worked within the fashion industry since graduating, in various capacities,” Mike says. Although, of course, there is a lot of cross-pollination in the art and fashion worlds, big-brand collaborations often take pre-existing structures and use them to make capital gains: the artist gains financially, the design house culturally by association. Eckhaus Latta have been involved with various artistic projects as a brand, such as contributing one-off clothing to a Bjarne Melgaard show and collaborating with Dora Budor on her Venice Biennale work. However, the development of these projects has been vastly different to the traditional fashion-meets-art setup. “For us, it has never been like that!“ Zoe says. “Not saying we have enough street cred, it doesn’t feel like that, but it’s more like we’re more cosy. Way more of our friends are engaged in art and creative things like that than they are in commercial fashion,” Mike adds. “It’s just been a very symbiotic relationship.”
This seems to be typical of Eckhaus Latta’s general approach – taking components of a fashion brand’s marketing language, but using them in an entirely different way. Their fashion shows are also a distant cry from the straight up-and-down runway affairs, with unusual casting and distinctly untraditional approach to the notion of an “event”. Recent shows have involved models destroying brick walls, and choreographer Elle Erdman’s “clump choreography” that asked models to look uncomfortable in their clothes.
The development from one project to the next (there are always different manifestations of each collection) veers away from instant, image-based hype and sticks to how the ideas are best presented. As we speak, they are on their way to Paris for a second presentation of their SS15 collection. Eckhaus explains the reasoning behind this continual redevelopment: “I think it’s nice, that we can re-visit the work in this way, within the pace of designing. We only do two collections a year, but still, it’s a lot, for us, at scale. So, we can approach it again, in a new context in a different city with new bodies involved, and then we will be able to rework it again, as a video.”
Mike and Zoe’s approach to materials also leans towards the sustainable, although they are not fans of the “eco-friendly” tag. “We are not selling these clothes so that people feel like they are saving the world, because that kind of consumerism really disgusts me,” says Zoe. Much of Eckhaus Latta’s collections have been made from “deadstock” material – surplus fabrics left over from pre-consumer wastage. “Working with deadstock materials was initially and still is, really just a financial decision for us, in that this was what was accessible to us,” says Mike. Yet watching Mike and Zoe’s faces light up when they talk about finding bolts of velvet from the forties tucked away in a warehouse, it becomes clear that there is more than finance going into this decision. “Materials have these weird provenances of history and location, and that’s really exciting,” Mike nods. “Something that initially bonded us was this love of materiality, and applying atypical materials to bodies. I think, though, that the more Eckhaus Latta has grown, some of our novel fascinations have dissipated at times, but then at others, they have totally reprised themselves. For us, in using materials, there is also this hunt, which is really kind of sourcing and figuring out what we are going to need.”
THE OPPOSITE OF MARKETING
Having met in college, and worked with various other designers and institutions (Marc Jacobs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Opening Ceremony, Matthew Barney) before starting the label together, they intended to look at fashion in a way that doesn’t rely on traditional market-driven practices. On this topic, as with most, Mike and Zoe are finishing each others’ sentences: “We renounced the idea of market-driven practice because we didn’t want to pigeonhole our consumer, but now we’ve decided to work in the fashion industry,” says Zoe. “And inevitably that’s a market-driven environment,” Mike concludes.
Despite this internal harmony, there are some obvious pitfalls to Mike and Zoe’s approach. For starters, how on earth do you participate in an inherently commercial enterprise while avoiding letting the market affect your work? And are there ways in which “what people want to wear” should be involved in the design process? “Well, making a coat with a proper sleeve that feels comfortable is a market-driven practice! And we are not against that!” Zoe says. “We are slowly getting to know our customer and we like them! We are really honoured that they are wearing our clothes.”
Yet hidden in these statements, there is clearly a question about the ever-present concept of “marketing”, which the duo are vehemently against. Instead of boxing customers in and selling them a concept of what Eckhaus Latta believe they should look like, the pair attempt to draw on the authentic magic of clothing, that feeling of simply having to have something, whether it’s been found through dumpster diving or in a designer shop vitrine. “In this day and age, one of the standard methods of selling is to define the guy or girl that you are making clothes for, so that the customer wants to be him or her. For us, we never respond to clothes in that way. It’s more like: ‘I want to be me, and this helps me be me.’ We do not want a head-to-toe Eckhaus Latta it-girl. I don’t even know what she looks like! It’s way more about an integration into someone’s own paradox,” Zoe explains. “There can be a very serious sides to fashion but it’s also about strengthening the individual, or allowing them to find something which makes them feel better more comfortable in their own skin, at the end of the day,” Mike adds.
Of course, as Sleek points out, this sounds like the aim of all marketing – advertising teams across the world dream this stuff up every day. In fact, many of the brands of the Nineties made this their calling card: United Colours of Benetton and Gap, to name just two. And yet, there is no doubting the sincerity of these two. It does make a difference that these are clothes they design and make in a studio with their own hands, and these strategies for style are created from dedication and passion – traits they both have plenty of.
Text by Josie Thaddeus-Johns
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