State of the Art Fashion: In the Studio with Eckhaus Latta
Photos: Benedict Brink.
Eckhaus Latta is a New York-based fashion label led by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta. You might be tempted to call them “experimental” because they use dead-stock fabrics like velvet upholstery and military surplus blankets, or “nontraditional” because it took them five seasons to embrace a standard runway, or even “eccentric” because they slapped braces on models and sent others down the runway painted blue, but Eckhaus Latta doesn’t subscribe to categories and labels. Since 2011 they’ve been carving out their own space within the fashion industry, making followers of art and fashion alike sit up and take notice as they build and perfect their already impressively cohesive brand. I met up with them in their Chinatown studio to discuss their Autumn/Winter 2014 collection, the trials of navigating the intersection of art and fashion, and their wedding DJ alter egos.
OOO: So, you both went to RISD and have art backgrounds. How did you meet and move into fashion together?
Mike Eckhaus: We met at the end of our time at RISD. We kind of knew each other peripherally for a few years, and then came together, clicked really fast and rapidly started having this conversation about fashion. I think for the both of us, it was the first time we had met a peer who had these similar views on clothing and got each other really riled up and excited about it.
Zoe Latta: We both had been interested in fashion in some capacity our whole lives. But once we got to art school, we were very eager to be in a critical conversation, so we both went on to study fine arts — I studied textiles and Mike studied sculpture — just because the conversation seemed so much more geared around exploration and new forms. It wasn’t until we met that we both started, in our private practices, to make clothing.
ME: Separately, clothing started to appear within our studio work that we were doing at the time. Then conversations started to develop out of that. And what Zoe just mentioned, the “criticality” of being in a studio art program, and how you would process your work, how you would intellectualize it, is still quintessential to how we operate.
OOO: It’s good that you try to utilize that criticality now.
ME: Completely. It’s just in a much less verbalized manner. A lot of how we work has to do with this practice being rooted in a fine art dialogue and constantly remembering this is also a business.
ZL: We’re making commodities. It’s a kind of identity crisis in a way. There’s a fluidity between those two worlds where we are still coming at this with the foundation we explained and are figuring out ways to utilize that thought process within the economy of clothing.
OOO: So, in terms of reconciling commodity and creativity, do you think that further down the line you’ll move away from being less “avant-garde” — I hate that phrase —
ME: We do too. (Laughs)
OOO: (Laughs) — and into a more “wearable” place?
ME: It’s funny because we are often categorized as this “avant-garde” fashion brand. We work together in a very intuitive way, and we always try to shy away from the idea of being categorized. Our clothes are actually very wearable. For the most part, none of the clothes are something you couldn’t pull off the rack and walk down the street in. Something that really drew us to clothing is when you see a garment, and you’re like: Wait a minute. What is that? And how do you approach it? And how does one’s body interact with the object?
ZL: Part of the reason we started this is because we worked for so many different companies where every decision that was made was geared toward telling a customer what they need or want. The design process felt devoid of emotion and intuition and it was more formulaic consumerism.
ME: The way we operate is hyper emotional.
ZL: The clothes are really emotional. It is true that these clothes can be perceived as avant-garde, but we don’t really think of them as weird in any way, and we don’t see them as unconventional in any way. We also very intentionally choose to avoid any conversation where we’re trying to convince someone to buy it.
OOO: Can you talk a little more specifically about your design process?
ME: Our process is based first and foremost in conversations. We chat a lot about everything, and as each season comes up and we start to search for materials, we tend to have a couple of very similar ideas in line. We then start to throw terms at each other and one of us will stare really blankly at the other for a while…
ZL: From then on we just ping pong back and forth, drawing and making things as we go.
OOO: It seems you’re hands on about everything. What about the music in your AW14 show? Did you or Colin Self [the artist who DJ’ed the show] choose that?
ME: We’re friends with Colin, and we came across this mix he made, and it hit that right chord of, “This is the right energy and feeling of this collection.”
OOO: How would you describe AW14 it in your own words? Because you didn’t talk about it in the press release.
ZL: You read the poem, right?
OOO: (Laughs) Yeah.
ZL: We don’t describe the collections. Okay, all of this is coming from this sort of belief that once something has a clear reference, or once this thing is titled, it really takes away from someone’s experience of it. It’s the same way as if you were in a museum looking at a beautiful, abstract painting and it makes you think all these things, then you look over and you read the wall label, and it’s like, “This is a series about being raped,” you know? I think a lot of times to contextualize where something is coming from is very important, but for us, right now, it’s much more of a formal, abstract process. I think that’s why the poem sits really nicely with it, because, as Mike said, this is a very emotional practice, and the poem serves as a kind of explanation of where our hearts and heads were at in making it.
OOO: That’s a good point, especially for clothes, since one’s personal identity is so wedded to what one wears…
ZL: Yeah, in avoidance of: “This is about either an uptown girl or a downtown girl.”
ME: How do you buy into an identity? While creating this last collection, there was a feeling that the customer should have an understanding of him- or herself. This idea comes through in how we cast our shows. We work with agency models, but we also work with various people who strike us. This is clothing for real people, our hope is that people enjoy it and incorporate it into their world.
OOO: Your garments seem genderless to me. Is that intentional or are they pretty much designed for either a male or a female?
ZL: The thing is: in an ideal world it would be genderless, but at the end of the day there are measurements in clothing that have to be addressed. There are forms and standards within this industry. Men and women are mostly different sizes. (Laughs) That’s how it gets gendered. We’ve always had this thing… I realized it while casting this collection, more so than any other, where instead of it being this thing about androgyny, it was more about gender fluidity. It was a kind of casting where it’s like, “Is that a man or a woman? It doesn’t matter, or maybe they’re both.” The clothes kind of did that as well in terms of the grading, and who fit what. It’s not really about trans or cross-dressing at all, ever. We definitely design for male or female forms, but in terms of the way we both dress and the way we see these clothes and end up offering them in sales, for the most part it is genderless.
OOO: What are your favorite looks from the AW14 collection?
ZL: There’s this pink mohair velvet that’s an upholstery fabric, and I love the pieces that came out of it. They really have a life of their own in terms of how they sit on the body. The girl who ended up wearing the little shift dress we made out of it also was put in braces, and she owned it in a way that we didn’t even know about until she did a run-through, and it was so moving.
ME: The knits with the felted striations across them, those I feel are physically so phenomenal, because something you unfortunately don’t get to see on the runway is that the interiors of them are totally crazy, and how the fabric warps on the inside due to the external structure cinching together. There’s this whole other story that isn’t even visible.
OOO: You usually don’t do a traditional runway. Why did you decide to do one this season?
ME: In the past, we’ve presented our collections in various formats.
ZL: This season, we were interested in the challenge of figuring out the simplest way to present a collection and still make it “us.” There’s something so exhilarating about clothes doing the basic human movement of walking so the clothes could just be exactly what they are.
OOO: If you weren’t going to be fashion designers, what would you be? Would you be artists?
ZL: Oh, we think about this all the time. Wedding DJ’s.
OOO: (Laughs) Both of you?
ME: Mmm-hmmm. Together. I’d be DJ JC Penney, and she’s T-T-T-Toddler.
To see more of Eckhaus Latta, you can visit their website here.