Photo by Conor Lamb
The scene backstage at fashion label Eckhaus Latta's September runway presentation was hectic. Before the show, one gorgeous girl wobbled by me as she tried to walk in white sneaker wedges that were mounted on top of baby shoes. Another model fit a playing card behind her ear while she adjusted her see-through, knitwear top. And nearby, a male model with his legs painted to look like tube socks paced back and forth, punctuating the room's controlled chaos.
This was the fashion house's fourth straight season at the Standard Hotel, a spot in New York's Meatpacking District that's known for its guests fucking on the windowsills and its hot tubs being breeding grounds for STIs. And even though the spring/summer collection was being presented as part of Made Fashion Week—the much cooler, downtown cousin to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week—I wasn't sure how the prim WWD types would appreciate the brand's beautiful, yet strangely-presented garments.
From the knees up, the looks were delicate, even a bit sexy. But they were also incredibly eccentric. The designers had managed to imbibe every aspect of the show with clever little inside jokes—even the catwalk was strewn with big pieces lettuce.
But as off-kilter as the show was, it was a crowd-pleaser from the first look. Even though the hotel hall was filled with stuffy fashion folks who never smile, I saw countless grins in the crowd. The baby shoe as a heel, in particular, forced photographers to their knees to take detailed shots on their phones as other attendees watched them snap pics with jaws slightly ajar.
In retrospect, that spring/summer 2015 presentation was sort of a tipping point for Eckhaus Latta. Last fall, the line to get in was around the block and they had to run the entire show twice because so many people showed up—and there were still folks who didn't get to see it. So it makes perfect sense that the label's moved on to a bigger venue—the third floor of Artists Space in lower Manhattan—for its upcoming fall/winter 2015 show, which takes place this afternoon at 2 PM EST. Given Eckhaus's penchant for the unexpected and sensational, it's likely to be a show that everyone will be talking about long after the myriad of mundane collections at this season's New York Fashion Week fade from their memory.
Eckhaus Latta's peculiar-yet-exciting designs are the outgrowth of its willful and weird creators, Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus. Zoe was raised in Santa Cruz, California, a hippie surf town a couple hours south of San Francisco. Growing up, she loved to thrift at a by-the-pound local store that received all junk Northern California Goodwills wouldn't take. "I related to fashion by digging through trash," she told me in the fall at the label's Chinatown studio. This process led her to think about clothing not in terms of cost, but in terms of what she thought was interesting.
Mike, on the other hand, grew up just north of New York City in Westchester County, and was "the kind of kid that discovers fashion." Unlike scores of Tri-State teens before him, the allure was not in the parties and lifestyle, but in the energy and creation. "Fashion was performative, sure, but it was also a nerdy scene," Mike explained. His encyclopedic knowledge of models from those formative years and his ability to name certain designers by seam work drive this point home. "The parties weren't on my radar, just the people, the crowds, the shows."
The two met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where neither of them were studying fashion design. "We both knew we were really interested in fashion, but didn't know we were going to start our own line. We knew we would have our own practices, but didn't know how it would manifest," said Zoe. This was at the tail end of school for the pair, and in 2010 Zoe moved to Williamsburg, soon followed by Mike. The two started living together and the label slowly began to gestate. But things really started to become serious once they moved south to a warehouse by the Navy Yard, a relatively inaccessible nook on Brooklyn's East River.
"The space was a world into itself," Zoe said. "Dozens of tree stumps, chickens... We had dogs for a while. The house was made to collapse into a party. We had shoots, videos, and castings there, but it was too distracting." "Thirty-five people woke up at our place one New Years Day," Mike chimed in. "We got a lot of wiggles out there."
Back in those early days, using off-kilter materials became their signature—transparent leather, carpet-like textures, digital prints, just to name a few. They were fueled by the hunt of strange materials. "One supplier won't have a thing, but they'll point you towards the next clue," Mike said. "It's always the people with no website who are the best. You have to go there physically, you have to look," Zoe emphasized.
Reviews of their earliest collections spent a lot of time remarking on their idiosyncratic sourcing with statements like "[garments] seemingly made out of rope"—they weren't seemingly made out of rope, they were actually made out of rope. However, these days, they claim they've moved away from that a little bit. "We're no longer obsessed with something like, 'How much stuff can we make in plastic?'" both designers noted with a tongue-in-cheek grin.
Outside the sensibility of Eckhaus Latta's fabric and textiles, their distinction within fashion's up-and-comers manifests in their humor. While it shines clearest at their fashion shows, compared to their videos and images on the web, their whole ethos goes beyond a wink to something that's gleeful, but still wry. Once, they sent burgeoning artist and noted male model Cohl Moore down the runway painted green. The season before that included an elaborate presentation involving performance art, treadmills, and more. Even their ads are deadpan. One Tumblr-favorite ad they ran featured a model huffing a bottle of poppers with the tagline "Liquid Cosmetics." The poppers were even made available for purchase in a package that contained a condom and a come rag, released in collaboration with artist Bjarne Melgaard. The collaboration also featured one off Eckhaus Latta pieces incorporated into Melgaard's art, which was shown at the notable Manhattan gallery Gavin Brown Enterprises.
Their friend and sometimes-collaborator artist Alex Da Corte summed up this energy to me over email, explaining, "Eckhaus Latta are making a language that is hard to define in a moment when most things are 'like' another. They leave me tongue-tied and rubbernecking in the best way."
Though Zoe and Mike seem inseparable in person, they often work independently of one another. That's partly because Zoe moved to LA nearly a year ago to oversee the duo's West Coast production hub while Mike works out of their Chinatown studio. They talk constantly, but for their collection last September, the two designers did their own thing for three months before coming together and combining their ideas.
For the clothes that they may not agree on, they become each other's consultants, working and weaving their thoughts together into something fluid, as if two sides of one brain. "Major conflict pieces are the ones that oftentimes end up being the ones you most love," they said. "If you're uncomfortable with something on first sight, sit with it, let it come to you, and those are always the most exciting things."
Though an ever-growing favorite amongst the fashion heads, the designers are still a bit nervous about press. It's something that is pretty easy to understand considering they have such a funny and grotesque vision of fashion at a time when people are still obsessed with staid concepts of perfection. To ensure that their strange new ideas for fall/winter 2015 are revealed to the world in the purest form, the duo have decided to keep all the details of today's show under wraps.
"It's not that we get misquoted, it's just that..." Mike murmured to me a few months ago, taking a minute to gather his thoughts. "After [another] interview, I got a call from a close relative saying 'next time you do an interview don't mention rape, vomit, or menstrual blood.'"
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