“[Le Tigre’s] JD [left] wanted something like Joan of Arc, and we thought a jumpsuit would look sporty and fun. Kathleen [middle] wanted something that said ‘feminist’ and would go with her skin tone. Jo was our special one. We felt she has a hidden brightness to her, so we added a really soft yarn that reflects direct spotlights.”
Fur coats are made of mink, rabbit and stuff. Suede is dead cows. The hallucinogenic knitwear made by Elyse Allen and Jim Drain, however, is composed of nothing but skinned Muppets and decapitated stuffed animals. Using vivid and optically challenging colors and patterns, these two Rhode Island School of Design graduates (Lightning Bolt and all that) make the most inventive sweaters, bodysuits, blankets and leg warmers ever seen. The Happy Banana vibe (for that is the mantle under which they work) lies in a cool land of pot smoke, Sid and Marty Krofft puppets, babbling brooks and green grassy fields. “We started working together on Thanksgiving Day 2001, sometime around eight p.m. No joke,” says Jim, who has been knitting on his own for some time and with some infamy. A founding member of the art/music juggernaut known as Forcefield, he is the one who designs and makes all of the crochet-alien suits they wear in their videos and performances (remember our Photo Issue?). Basically, he is to knitwear what Albert Ayler was to jazz or Martha Stewart is to homemaking: a total revolutionary. “Even before we started working together, Elyse taught me everything I know about knitting,” explains Jim, “Three summers ago she left for work everyday and I would stay in her air-conditioned apartment and teach myself how to knit. Then she would come home and show me what I did wrong.”
Happy Banana textiles courtesy of Parlour Projects.
For Elyse, the clicking of needles goes way back. “My grandmother was an architect, a painter and an amazing knitter. She taught me to handknit when I was about six. Her father, my great-grandfather, came from Austria and started a textile-design factory in Pennsylvania. Textiles are in my blood.” She is extracurricular as well, collaborating with Argentinean painter Alejandra Seeber on woven paintings and doing textile projects with local craftspeople in South America. Shit, she’s even in Argentina RIGHT FUCKING NOW (you got it).
Happy Banana knits are so good that they deserve to be on a stage. So Jim and Elyse made performance outfits for Le Tigre and Erase Errata. “I asked JD if we could make some clothes for her band and she said yes, so I sent samples of the ideas I had in mind and everyone else said meow,” reports Jim. “Then Erase Errata saw them one night at a show in Williamsburg and they signed up, too.
Live and jumping around making music is the perfect way to see these clothes. They add a dimension that has been neglected in punk lately. Fuck, dude, who was the last good band that wore handmade outfits onstage? The fucking Residents? Seriously, who? Madonna?
Happy Banana is a cold breath of fresh and hot air in two staid little worlds: fashion and music. And they aren’t even heavy about being groundbreakers. Jim sums up his and Elyse’s mission thusly: “Our stuff is bold and delicate. It should purr the words ‘psyched to party.’”