Willie Norris Wants You to Know "With Practice You Can Learn to Say Anything"
The designer chats with Charlene Incarnate, who inspired his collaboration with Helmut Lang.
Charlene Incarnate photographed by Blew Velvet
New York-based designer Willie Norris understands the power of language. He launched his label with instantly iconic t-shirts that bore slogans like PROMOTE HOMOSEXUALITY and WHAT EXACTLY IS HOMOSEXUALITY AND WHAT CAUSES IT? So it's not surprising that when Helmut Lang approached him for a collaboration of repurposed jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies, Norris was once again drawn to slogans. The resulting collection is perfectly (brilliantly?) called Helmut Language.
The inspiration for this collection, though, came from an unlikely source: a year-old tweet by the performer and writer Charlene Incarnate, which Norris saw right after his show and was a catalyst for him to re-examine his approach to his work.
"[Char's tweet] encouraged me to kind of build a manifesto for myself," he tells GARAGE, "I would set myself and my brand up as a vehicle for queer community, with clothing being my medium." The collection's messages are evergreen, but they're also deeply timely in light of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing anti-racism education efforts that have come to the forefront of so many conversations—with practice you can say anything.
We're excited to debut a series of images of Charlene in Helmut Language, photographed by Blew Velvet in Tennessee where they're currently residing. It made sense, then, to have the two of them in conversation about language, community, and creating a connection.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Willie Norris: The first time I saw Charlene perform was at her show "Body Ache" at the now defunct TNT bar. I believe the first time we ever formally "met" (btw, every faggot wants Charlene to remember their name) was after she had just starred in a shadow cast screening of Chicago—a live lip-sync of the movie, basically—starring as Roxie Hart AND Velma Kelly. I approached her and asked if she'd be interested in hosting a party for me and my best friend's 10-year friendship anniversary, which she did... Char is not only an incredible performer but she is also excellent on the mic, and deeply professional when the time demands it.
We've worked together on many different occasions now; she walked in RUNWAY 1 for me, and posed for what is one of my favorite pics of my career so far (by Lia Clay Miller).
Charlene Incarnate: Oh my goddess Willie!!! My first memories were when Willie approached me at the deep end about doing his and Sarah's 10-year anniversary. I get asked to do private parties like that frequently, but they rarely pop off like that one did at The Deep End. That night I could sense that Willie was one of those people who materializes community around themselves. Since then I've been his friend and charlatan fashion model.
WN: TBH, charlatan models are the only ones I'm interested casting!
CI: Willie started this line on reclaimed sporting good T-shirts and sold them at bars, so to see it catch fire like this is an inspirational testament to work ethic and the Infectious quality of queer propaganda.
WI: It's funny, I really only saw that tweet once but it stuck with me. I remember I saw it right after my show last year [and] I was exhausted from having done quite literally everything, [from] garment design and development, [to] show production, casting and styling, press; all while having a very full-time job.
I was and am SO happy I did it, but I found myself unconsciously trying to [fit in to the fashion system]; convincing myself I had to find the hottest retailers ASAP or my moment would be gone, that I had to do [a show] every six months in order to be considered valid, that I had to produce a full collection on my own dime and that any personal debt I got myself into would be worth it for the press. Anyway, after the show, I [kept saying], “I don’t have the words to explain how I'm feeling" when people would ask me how I was post-show. I saw Char's tweet and knew that my response was lazy and untrue. I just had to put some work in to find them.
CI: That's the thing, many of us default into that mindset: that our feelings can't be expressed by words, as though to say our feelings are beyond understanding or empathy. It's a very insular way of thinking, but the human experience is more communal than that. We're all trapped in our bodies looking out from a peephole. We can relate to each other because we're all crawling around the same rock! But we ONLY have images and language as ways to relate what were experience to one another. And we must! At least, that's what we’re attempting as artists. We aren't saying "you can't know what I'm experiencing," we're trying to make that connection. It resonates deeply with queerness, the desire to connect. It explains why so many great artists are queer.
WN: I think action paralysis is a real sinister bitch and it's an especially prevalent phenom right now. You must pull the chaos stewing in your brain right now into something that can be understood by someone else, and the quickest, most efficient way to do this is with language. No way we are going to ever eradicate racism (which I understand to be the long term goal) if we keep convincing ourselves "our feelings are beyond understanding or empathy."
CI: I don't really feel temporally about this shit, though. Remember, the tweet we're discussing is a thought I was chewing on last summer. I think there's a widespread deficiency in effective communication and accountability for our words, but both are especially pertinent to marginalized peoples. Not only are we organizing massive amounts of thought and swaying public opinion currently, we are seeing voices being given to those who have been silenced for so long. What words have they chosen? I hear "abolish" and "defund" for the first time really spoken by massive amounts of people, and that excites me.