There’s a word the mainstream fashion world uses for most of the designers Avena Gallagher works with, from Telfar to Eckhaus Latta, Maryam Nassir Zadeh to Vaquera: emerging. “Even though some of these ‘emerging designers’” — and here she throws up air quotes — “I’ve been working with for a long time and they kind of emerged already.” We’re sitting at a picnic table in the new Bushwick warehouse office she shares with Telfar, one of the brands she’s talking about. “They’re still ‘emerging’ to the wider audience, I guess,” she says, adding those air quotes again.
Avena’s name doesn’t often get tossed around with Telfar’s, Eckhaus’s, or Latta’s, but she’s been with them since the beginning, when they met while out partying around the city. But make no mistake, their success is in no small part thanks to her styling and design sensibilities. Her eye for what’s next. Avena Gallagher is the thread that connects much of what’s interesting in New York’s fashion world. She's the city’s unofficial arbiter of cool, and two outfits she styled are in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Here, in a rare interview, she talks about what’s become of New York’s fashion scene since 9/11, where the fashion and art worlds intersect, and how to make interesting new work that’s not at all nostalgic.
So what do you do for Telfar and Eckhaus Latta as a stylist and consultant? What does that actually look like?
You have to keep spinning so many different plates as a designer. You can’t stop. So if you’re busy keeping all of these little plates spinning, it really doesn’t offer you a lot of time to pull back and find a broader vantage point. I come in with fresh eyes and a slightly more outside experience of the things they’re making. We have conversations about how to hone in the collection before we’re even at the styling stage. And then, of course, there’s lots of conversations about styling, casting, beauty, staging of the show, music, how we want the clothes to live together, how we want them to interact with each other, how they should end up looking in a nutshell.
It’s interesting that you work with those two brands, which I think a lot of people associate as similar and in the same circle within the fashion world, but not necessarily having overlapping people.
I think they’re extremely different, but similar in that they like they’re representative of New York fashion or New York emerging fashion. There’s a scene in New York. For a while, I feel like there wasn’t. I first came to New York in the ’90s to go to school at FIT and what was going on then was really cool and sort of similar to a certain thing that’s happening now. You had people like Susan Cianciolo and Bernadette Corporation and ORFI...
Miguel Adrover. Like, god. That shit was popping off, and it was really meaningful, to me, anyway.
What was meaningful about it?
It was fashion with meaning, but more than even fashion. It was different from the fashion that I was fascinated with as a child looking at my mom’s Vogue magazine that she would bring home from the supermarket. That shit was amazing and iconic, so glamorous, but then this thing that I’m talking about was more underground and it was more renegade and it was kind of bohemian and it had this spirit. It was irreverent. It was anti-establishment. It was punk. And it was exciting. New York was cool. I think a similar thing has been happening in recent years. I don’t know if it’s that sort of cyclical thing where different eras become fashionable again and we’re sort of reliving the ’90s again.
It was irreverent. It was anti-establishment. It was punk. And it was exciting. New York was cool...And then 9/11 happened.
I was actually talking about those late-’90s designers with somebody else recently who mentioned that the era was cut off by 9/11 and now this new generation is finding that spirit again. I’m curious to hear if you also think it was stunted?
Oh yeah. That was a big changing point. In fact, you’re actually right because that pretty much ended Miguel.
I mean, when you look at pictures now from Miguel’s fall 2001 collection that was in September, like weeks before 9/11.
I think it was days before 9/11. It actually had a cast of characters that got implicated in 9/11 even though, obviously, there was no such narrative. But clearly Miguel was open to all of these things being in the mix of what’s really going on, and he channeled it through his collection and the shit was brilliant. But the investors found it really controversial, and I think they pulled out because of it. I hesitate even to be talking about it because these are just stories I’ve heard, but that’s what happened. He had that show with people in hijab and people whose clothes looked like they were blown up. It was super Middle Eastern and it was really political and then after that...
He kind of started petering out after that, didn't he?
Yeah. And he had actually been given a whole bunch of money right before. He got this building on the Bowery and this amazing Jaguar and it was really fabulous for a second, then 9/11 happened.
In those days I was assisting Camilla Nickerson, and on 9/11 there was to be a Narciso Rodriguez show at 4:30 p.m., which Camilla styled. We were working on the show and the fucking shit happened that morning. At 9 a.m. or shortly after that I was walking from my apartment in the Financial District to Century 21 to buy G-strings for the models, and this huge plume of white office papers exploded into the sky. I had headphones on and was listening to Stevie Wonder really loud, and all of these white pieces of paper flew straight out like in a cone burst out into the sky. Super high in the sky. Like, really high. For some reason, I happened to turn and look at it. It was so beautiful. The sky was clear, clear blue. And then the heavier debris started falling into my eyes, and I was on autopilot. I got into a cab that was right there, and I was just like, fuck it, I’ll just get thongs up closer to the office. The studio we were working on, I can’t think of what street it’s on. Do you know where Ace restaurant is, or Alimentari?
It was on Bond. So Narciso was on the second or third floor of that building facing south, and I got there and — actually as we turned the corner onto 6th avenue and drove right past the World Trade Center there was a fucking hole with a ring of fire that you could see right through the towers. We were like, what the fuck. Anyway, so I think 9/11 did cause that change.
Were you working with those people then?
God, I wish, but I was just a kid. I was assisting Camilla, and I couldn’t have gone to better styling school or working in fashion school. But there’s this parallel between those guys and Eckhaus Latta and Telfar and the whole New York scene right now. It’s designers that have a fucking viewpoint and a position.
I wonder why is it happening now?
I would hope that this kind of thing is happening all the time, but I don’t know. Shit is so fucked up. Where would we be if we didn’t have some outlets for something to say. Or to have, like, a position or some politics.
Do you think it’s a politics thing? Because that makes sense too. It’s similar now to then.
I don’t know. For me as a woman, as a person of color, as a creative professional, and a freelance person I’m a political subject. My life is a fight for survival on all levels, so it’s always political, but obviously now shit is really bad politically. Arguably it’s always been, and maybe I’m just aware of it now because I’m a legit adult in the world.
I feel like a lot of what’s interesting and cool in fashion today is very much intersected with the art scene.
Yeah. I would’ve called Miguel Adrover art, and we all know that Susan Cianciolo was an artist, and so is Bernadette Corporation.
So it’s not really new now.
No, I think that if you make clothes with a certain meaning and a certain spirit and in a certain way how do you say that it’s not art? It’s just as expressive. It’s not really different from any other type of art. But there’s these acts that sort of function in both realms. With these emerging brands, you can say that people who are making clothes and art really aren’t functioning as businesses and are more akin to artists with a creative practice. But fashion figures into art because art talks about life and art talks about culture and what’s fashionable is inseparable from this.
It’s interesting to think of it as, before it’s a business it’s art. And then it becomes a business, and it turns into the world of fashion or corporate fashion.
Yeah, but then so much of art is big business, right.
True, so then what’s the difference.
Why are some designers more closely tied to the art world than others?
I can’t really say. You know, Telfar has really close ties to art because the art community was the first venue that he was given to show his work. For a long time, we would show in galleries, and there was even one gallery who sold his collection rather than having stores sell it. He just designed uniforms for the Swiss Institute, so that’s really organic. And then with Eckhaus Latta, Mike and Zoe both went to RISD, and their training is art training. So naturally what they were doing was born out of an art practice and an art background.
I like thinking of galleries as early adopters of certain brands.
I think that’s also just community-based too. Because it’s just like who you’re friends with and who’s in the community because everyone ends up working with each other or relying on each other.
I think that if you make clothes with a certain meaning and a certain spirit and in a certain way how do you say that it’s not art?
Do you feel like a lot of your work came from that too?
Now I feel quite at home in all of this, and I think that’s got a lot to do with the fact that there’s a community, for real. I mean, I’ve been here for a long time too. There was a long period of time in my work-life where what was popular was something that I didn’t relate to that well. After 9/11 came this time of luxury and money. That era of Tom Ford Gucci and this really luxury-obsessed trend. It was really super high gloss. Some really iconic imagery and clothes came out of that, but I wasn’t really that into it. Then this more arty thing began to emerge again, and now it’s comfortable in its own right. It’s ironic because I feel like in the past few years the fashion establishment has become really attuned into these non-conventional fashion acts and so you have Vogue.com covering what the kids are doing. And also social media has a lot to do with it because people have access now to what everyone’s doing, whereas before you only saw what Style.com wanted to put on the website and it was usually just industry people.
Earlier you mentioned the cyclical style of trends and references, and I wanted to talk more about that. I read an interview you did with Topical Cream where you talked about how in the ’90s people were inspired by the ’70s and now people are inspired by the ’90s, so is that really just being inspired by the ’70s and the references are getting smaller and smaller?
Yeah, I think that happens. And then, of course, the ’70s were referencing the ’40s. I think it’s just a funny thing. It does get sort of concentrically smaller. There’s a way in which the Internet makes everything smaller minded too. It’s that same thing if you’re on Instagram and you follow thousands of things, but it only feeds you ten of them. Or if you Google something. I feel like the range of information that you find gets smaller and smaller, and it’s dictated by how much the people who put the stuff up have worked at getting better placement on the search engines. I think things get a bit boring in that way.
What’s cool to you now?
So many things. There’s this cool brand A Cold Wall that’s not looking into the past. There’s people like Yohji Yamamoto who’s a fucking poet who to me is always kind of futuristic. I think Martine Rose is really fucking cool. I don’t think Martine Rose is necessarily referencing the past at all. There’s so much cool stuff out there that’s not nostalgic in any way.