New York’s Best Fashion Designers Are Descendants of This ’90s Art Collective
GARAGE captures how the work of new visionaries like Eckhaus Latta and Lou Dallas are carrying on the art-house spirit of ’90s art collective Bernadette Corporation.
Bernadette Corporation with Dietmar Busse. “H.O.E. (Bones), 1997/2014.” Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
Eckhaus Latta designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta didn’t study fashion at Parsons, but art at RISD. Since founding their brand in 2011, they’ve opted for unexpected models like gallerist Bridget Donahue and painter Alex Chaves; their work has appeared in the pages of Artforum and the halls of MoMA PS1 and MOCA in Los Angeles. And this August, Eckhaus Latta: Possessed will be the Whitney Museum’s first fashion exhibition since 1997.
Though industry crossover and a D.I.Y. attitude have helped make Eckhaus Latta an adored anomaly in today’s fashion world, these attributes actually echo the anti-fashion brands of pre-internet downtown mythology. This spirit, emblematized by the likes of Bernadette Corporation—BC to its acolytes—has come to characterize a new community of post-internet New York labels, such as Lou Dallas and Gauntlett Cheng, whose delightfully strange garments push disciplinary boundaries and reconsider what constitutes (salable) clothing.
The now-storied creative collective and experimental platform started in 1994, in a nightclub on 47th Street. BC’s founders—Bernadette Van-Huy, Thuy Pham, and Seth Shapiro, with many others signing on shortly after, including Sonny Pak and Antek Walczak—were all young and all friends, but most had no professional training directly related to what BC would do or become. They called themselves a corporation; few monikers could have been less accurate or definitive. Intermittently, over the next two decades, the group worked in nightlife, fashion, film, literature, and art. They exhibited in art galleries and were covered by international press. From 1995 to 1998, they produced five seasons of women’s ready-to-wear, with Pham as the designer and Van-Huy as the stylist.
BC’s “looks” included sports brands, corporate logos, and knockoffs, prophesying the expansion of sportswear styles from Foot Locker and Eastbay to the runway. (They did not produce enough of their own clothes for the first two shows and had to supplement their collections with other brands.) Often described as conceptual and postmodern, their willfully irreverent content sourcing and cross-contamination also foreshadowed present-day concerns about identity politics and appropriation. They borrowed without hesitation from vernacular, culturally specific aesthetics: from Nuyorican girls with darkly stained lips and heavy gold nameplates; and from ultra-sexualized bimbos who wore their hair in massive platinum bouffants. Fall 1997’s Hell on Earth collection (the sequel to spring’s Streetgangs and Corporations) was imagined as an intercompany culture war waged between two rival gangs.
Some models wore Michael Jackson–esque Victorian suiting complete with white gloves and vampiric makeup; others donned swishy tracksuits, cornrows, figaro chains, and clan-specific gear contrasting Chinese characters with slogans like l.e.s. n.y.c. and laid back and low-key for life.
The collective recognized that mixing “high” and “low”—so often applauded as subversive—unwittingly elucidates the ways in which societies value some bodies more than others and reinforces Eurocentric conventions for respectability and worth. Rather than absorb and obscure their references, they sometimes cited sources very precisely: take the editorials “Mi Vida Loca: Boriqua Girls of the Bronx,” for i-D in 1995, and “Brooklyn Queens,” for Trace in 1997.
“If you can reach every American home the way Brad Pitt can, that’s real success.”
BC’s beginnings coincided with the increasingly xenophobic immigration debates of the mid ’90s. The muddying of authenticity and hierarchy tangible in much of their work evinced the founders’ own diasporic identities. They didn’t hesitate to scrutinize specifically American cultural constructions about ethnicity, assimilation, and class, resulting in caustic caricatures of globalization and the American dream. “My parents were always telling me that our family is really bourgeois, telling stories of what life used to be in Vietnam,” Pham recalled in a 2001 interview. “But then, there’s the reality of living in America. That conflict is always there in our work.”
They maintained that by participating in fashion’s rituals and platforms, they were hijacking its messages and critiquing its structures. The 1996 parody promotional film The BC Corporate Story declared: “Makin’ clothes, man. There’s a lot to it. Reproducing unique concepts for mass use, offering conspicuousness and distinctiveness, for the purpose of integration and acceptance. And the grafting of parasitical significations onto anything. Anything at all.” These prescient commentaries anticipated the unthinkable vastness and scale of corporate capitalism, with its contingent cultures of consumption, and the dependence of fashion in particular on exploitation, appropriation, and erasure. But can you ever beat the system at its own game?
In 1998, BC stopped making clothes; its members were much more concerned with getting their ideas across than with any one mode of address. They moved on to other things: first, a magazine, called Made in USA, that juxtaposed antiquarian art criticism with fashion pictures, formatted in layouts pinched from other publications; and then, to one of their best-known works, the 2005 novel Reena Spaulings, which told the story of a museum guard-turned-supermodel whose name now graces a Chinatown gallery run by later member John Kelsey. But BC’s legacy lives on in the emergent fashion designers and labels who prioritize critical conceptual practices and interindustry shape-shifting. Many have art-world connections. Some even narrativize their work as art pretending to be fashion, with a wink and a smile.
Eckhaus Latta certainly helped pave the way for groups of like-minded peers to conceive of alternates to the general direction of fashion with a capital “F.” Among this mini-network are the aforementioned Lou Dallas (founder Raffaella Hanley attended RISD with Eckhaus and Latta) and Gauntlett Cheng (founders Esther Gauntlett and Jenny Cheng met while interning at Eckhaus Latta), as well as Vaquera (two of its founders, David Moses and Claire Sully, were also Eckhaus Latta interns) and AREA (founded by Parsons classmates Piotrek Panszczyk and Beckett Fogg). Perhaps most directly carrying on the BC legacy is “reformist” label Women’s History Museum, founded by N.Y.U. schoolmates Amanda McGowan and Mattie Rivkah Barringer. The brand masquerades as an arts institution and exhibited its highly eccentric, homemade creations at Gavin Brown’s Lower East Side location earlier this year. These labels rely on community, collaboration, and multidisciplinary social networks for everything from spaces for shows to models to walk in them. All of this comes with a dose of quixotic humor and ’90s anti-corporate criticality—and a characteristically millennial lack of concern for credentials.
Like BC, the young brands in question are suspicious of authorship and sensitive to framing and context. They destabilize industry categories and platforms. They repurpose subjects and materials. CFDA-nominee Vaquera describes its fashion as “fan fiction” built around “invented characters.” Its spring/summer 2018 show, Identity Crisis, sampled a plethora of early 2000s teen costumery, from Hot Topic–worthy shredded tees and wallet chains to imaginary surf club merch once ubiquitous at Hollister and Aéropostale. Previous collections referenced the fraternal fantasies of Bruce Weber’s Abercrombie and the iconic American jeweler Tiffany & Co. Eckhaus Latta’s spring 2017 campaign, photographed by Heji Shin, pictured real-life couples having sex, in a brashly self-aware twist on the commercial truism “sex sells.”
When asked, in a 2001 interview, if she thought BC’s project would “get watered down when it’s marketed as a style,” Van-Huy replied, “No…if you can reach every American home the way Brad Pitt can, that’s real success.” But BC was never commercially successful. The brand never signified anything in particular or possessed any cohesive DNA, to borrow the parlance of contemporary marketing strategists. Perhaps one of the more radical and surprising elements of its philosophy was the hunger to infiltrate the ever-elusive mainstream. But while BC remained niche, today’s brands are finding big audiences, thanks in part to social media’s ability to assemble communities and circulate content. In 2017, Eckhaus Latta’s sales doubled, and international department store Nordstrom became one of its stockists. It’s easy to critique the mainstream, but what about becoming it? Like BC, maybe Eckhaus Latta’s real subversion is its desire to succeed.