A Conversation With Susan Cianciolo
Portraits by Mark Borthwick
Susan Cianciolo is a multimedia artist and designer who has been working for almost two decades both inside and outside the fashion system. She was at the forefront of the customizing, deconstructionist movement of the 90s, and her collections often culminated in presentations that included live music from bands like the No-Neck Blues Band and collaborations with artists like Antoinette Aurell and Mark Borthwick. Cianciolo also showed her collections internationally in art galleries from Alleged Gallery in New York and Tokyo to the Purple Institute in Paris. The clothes were made in the most historically traditional way—a sewing circle, which is actually considered pretty untraditional by the modern fashion industry.
Even as her popularity grew, Susan stuck with the homespun vibe she’d created instead of slipping into the fashion industry’s accepted ways of doing things. In 2001, the New York Times declared she was “dropping out” as she announced her decision to work independently as an artist and make one-of-a-kind creations for clients only. Since then there have been retrospectives of her past fashion shows, which often include her films, drawings, and books in addition to her clothes, at museums all over the world. Recently though, Susan has returned to the fashion world in a new way, one completely in step with—and yet still subversive of—the moment.
Vice: So, Susan, you’re back in the “system” now, showing seasonal collections during Fashion Week. How’s it going?
Susan Cianciolo: Well, I’ve done two seasons now with Showroom Seven and that’s been wonderful. They’re a great agent for me. I feel like we’re working together to fulfill this vision of coming back and continuing my work on the runway. And before these past two shows, I had the Cone Denim show at Sears-Peyton Gallery. Cone Denim—the oldest denim company in the US—approached me and said, “Let’s do an exhibition, a film, and a book, and let’s do it in New York and LA and then we’ll see if we want to go to Japan and Europe after that.”
I saw that. It was at Fashion Week in 2006.
After the Cone Denim project, I was feeling out whether or not I wanted to line myself up with the system again, and I think it happened naturally. After that, I did the “Queen of Hearts” show. I presented it in New York and LA and then I did a film with the model Frankie Rayder called 1960’s Butterfly Girl.
I loved that.
Thanks! So my last two shows have been concentrated and focused on being during Fashion Week. I’m having a great time in a commercial sense of doing it cut-and-dry, with no tricks, and pouring all my energy into the clothes. There’s a lot of power within that.
How do you feel about your new collection?
Well, right now I feel this is the best work I’ve done, but then I always read back on things I’ve written where I’ve said, “This is the best work I’ve ever done.” So I’m not sure since I feel like that every time, but there was a certain click and magic that happened in making this collection. There’s something that’s relative to the current climate that I’m trying to align with.
It’s interesting to see how the presentations for your work have evolved over the years. Your earlier shows seemed more aggressive and confrontational about sexuality, especially Run 1, where you had people like Chloë Sevigny and Rita Ackermann painted up and wearing fishnets and lace in a way we take for granted now, but which felt really subversive at the time. I see your new clothes as sexy, but in a different vein. The body is often cloaked and you seem drawn to the fabric and clothing of indigenous cultures.
I was thinking about my influences and realized that I go in on a much deeper level in terms of looking at the customs of Native Americans. There’s such a simplicity to be found there in healing and medicine—things that have become so complex today. Certain influences draw me in for that reason. That’s also why I looked to the circuses of the 1920s when they made everything out of cloth and wood by hand. It was extraordinarily emotional and beautiful.
But it’s not like you’re taking these older influences to make something that feels like a nostalgic throwback. Your work is always very modern.
These influences are more about inspiring me to make a feeling from the simplest things. We are so lucky to have all this technology around us, and I’m definitely not against it. I just feel a need to balance it.
I’ve always loved how your clothes fit the bodies they’re on.
All my work is draped for hours and hours. Exactly how it’s sitting on the body is the most important part of the dress, even after all the research and the hours of embroidery and beadings. I’ve spent weeks and weeks on some of the dresses doing the same things over and over. It’s all about finding out how it hits the body in just the way that’s complimentary and beautiful. People have always said to me that the clothes are sexy and this could be why, because I’m always thinking so much about body shapes.
With your clothes it feels like it’s not necessarily a garment that’s fitted to particular body types, so much as a form that only specific people can wrap themselves in and inhabit.
I know. I always felt that it was about individual bodies too, and I decided to just work with models this time. I’m always customizing for the person walking down the runway.
So when you’re casting models and fitting them for a fashion show, it is really about sculpting the piece directly on them.
And I found beautiful models who really carried the energy that I was looking for too. I’ve always done the casting myself. It’s a great part of the collage process.
Your collections from 1995 until 2001 were all titled Run and then numbered so it was Run 1, then Run 2, and so on. Where did that name come from?
I came up with that name as a tag for myself when I was doing performance art in the early 90s. There was a group called Bernadette Corporation, which was headed by Bernadette van Huy, and we would go out and do what we called “outlaw parties.” These were basically performance art pieces in streets and alleys—and then we would get hired to do performance events too. I ended up really taking on that name. If you look at my work, I’m interested in generic names—taking them and watching them gain a whole other meaning. I look at words and how they work graphically because I know they develop and can be used in different ways.
From Cianciolo’s Fall/Winter 2008 collection.
Run suited the kind of work that I felt I was doing. Like, Run equals “floating,” so that you are not a part of whatever else exists and you’re running so far ahead—really running away from anything and everything. You are doing your own work that comes from you. When I opened my first collection and Bernadette styled it, I decided from then on that I wanted to make Run the actual tag. When it grew into this big collaboration with many, many people, I added “collection” to the end. That’s the name that’s registered with City Hall—Run Collection. Making up names was one of the most fun parts of the shows—coming up with a new generic way to label something that’s completely not generic.
It’s still kind of subversive though, even though it’s generic.
Being subversive was always my main topic, really. Whatever I would be working on—a show, a film, or a book—it was always about how do I make it subversive.
It’s still important to me, but it’s in a different presentation. It’s much softer now. And, you know, the reason why I chose more to make fashion over other media was because I felt it was the loudest way of communicating what I wanted to say.
Aaron Rose wrote a really beautiful essay concerning the term “collection” and what it meant in relation to the community that you have around you.
From the beginning there were people around me that made the shows happen. In ’95 when it began, it was just Rita Ackermann and her grandmother doing the knitwear, plus my mom and whoever came along to intern. That grew and grew. By the time I did the Run Restaurant project in 2001, there was a big group of people working on it. That’s when I decided to scale down. This time, a nice group of students from Parsons who I’ll be teaching in September worked on the collection. There was also an artist named Desiree Hammond who came from Holland and worked on the jewelry, embroideries, and beadwork, and this great artist named Aki came from Tokyo and worked with me very intensely on the pieces. It’s fun to see the completely naive working with the very skilled. Some pieces were passed around many times and it’s kind of a gamble.
Doesn’t it scare you that a piece might get ruined?
Sometimes I resist, but then I have to completely let it go. It doesn’t matter how it turns out. It’s about the experience and what happens while it’s being made.
You work with ecologically sound materials, right?
Yes. There’s a black lace gown from the 20s that we reconstructed. If you use pieces from the 1920s and before, it’s considered organic. Then there was a lot of fabric brought over from Thailand and Japan by friends I worked with. That stuff was all fair trade. I also worked with Jasco, which is a manufacturer of knit jersey that Geoffrey Beene worked with. They now have an organic section. All the yarn is from a farm in Maine that’s organic. Everything in the entire collection is fair trade and organic. I love working within clear parameters but making it feel like there are no boundaries.