Seated in a small, windowless studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a salon smock draped around her shoulders, Gerlan Marcel is art directing a side pony like it’s her job. She’s getting ready to be photographed alongside her Spring 2012 “Mall Witch” finale piece: a neon-green body-con bustier dress with corset lacing, constructed entirely of “slime.” A hired stylist is doing her best to take cues and plot the length of Marcel’s gradient blonde mane right where she wants it—high enough to create “sprigs,” “tight on the right,” but “slightly lumpy” on the left, “not-so-perfectly perfect”—and, in a last ditch effort, inserts a long, U-shaped pin that miraculously perks the pony. Marcel is, once again, all dimples and levity. “You’ve got all the tricks,” she tssks, tempering any diva-like pretension with a witheringly funny story about how this same look landed her on a popular fashion magazine’s what not to do list. “They called me a ‘grown’ woman and my hair a ‘rat’s nest.’” At 35, Marcel is a decade older than many of her customers, but aside from occasionally referring to friends and acquaintances as “kids,” she seems unfazed by the age divide—like her clothes, her sensibility skews young. For the shoot she’s also chosen an endearingly unfussy ensemble: A T-shirt for the Brooklyn band Light Asylum with an occultish-looking design and a matching denim puffer vest/jeans combo covered in an all-over soft indigo-blue Gerlan Jeans logo pattern from her Fall 2011 “Bless These Jeans” collection. On her feet are pair of drab-colored high-heeled duck boots, an unholy union that would seem ironic if it weren’t such a commitment.
For her “Mall Witch” collection, Marcel conjured an ode to that stylistic darkness particular to adolescents—the brand-obsessed brooding girl with a bad attitude and Manic Panic hair. The women’s clothing played with body-conscious silhouettes—cropped shirts and bra tops, one of which was a cheeky take on the torpedo bra fashioned out of two tiny witch hats. The prints were skulls, X motifs, cartoonish printed (and real!) slime, a pattern made up of hand-drawn yearbook faces scribbled out with “brat” written on the side, a T-shirt that says: Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. Black, pink and neon green predominated, with a full-spectrum of color played out on the models’ heads. “‘Mall Witch’ was about taking those iconic shapes that you see at Hot Topic and then giving them the respect they’ve always deserved. It’s [about] being able to take something that’s kind of a gross idea, and manipulate it into something else.”
Drawing from the rich tradition of jeans brands that dominated popular fashion in the ’80s and ’90s, namely Jean-Paul Gaultier’s diffusion line, Gaultier Jean’s, Guess, and ’80s Benetton and Esprit, Marcel is determined to bring design with a capital D back to mass-market retail, or as she calls it, a diffusion line with none of the diffusion. It’s usually the goal for any serious designer to be well respected on the runway and in the pages of Vogue, but Marcel wants foremost to be popular with people. The production costs for her bespoke prints, denim and jersey basics, however, price her out of reach for most mainstream buyers, so she remains in stockist limbo, her clothes retailing only in hip boutiques like Opening Ceremony. “There seemed to be a lot more design happening on a mass-market level a decade ago,” Marcel says, touching on Esprit’s sophisticated aesthetic that went all the way down to the look of the stores (designed by Memphis founder Ettore Sottsass). “Half the brands [today] are licensed—literally no one is designing them. Somebody prints out 4,000 pages from Style.com and then it gets filtered through a Chinese factory somewhere and made out of Halloween fabric and shipped back to the States.” In this way, Marcel’s decision to root Gerlan Jeans in denim and sportswear is what she believes will enable her to execute her creative vision within the realistic terms of production. “To me, it’s not about rewriting the silhouette,” she says. “It’s more about the sophistication of sportswear. It’s all about mixing wearability with something that’s still designed. A lot of people can’t get their brains around it, they see print and it’s ‘wacky,’ it’s ‘kooky,’ it’s ‘funky,’ but it’s not being wacky for wacky’s sake.”