Friend-Crushing With Eckhaus Latta
Muse Michael Bailey Gates Shoots the Social Circle of Designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta
- Interview: Thom Bettridge
- Photography: Michael Bailey
Since the inception of their New York and Los Angeles-based label, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta have been heralded in style magazines as saviors of the “downtown” aesthetic and its corresponding political values. And, indeed, many elements of this description are true. Eckhaus Latta pioneered the now-ubiquitous practice of casting “non-models” in their runway shows. All of their collections have been largely unisex and encouraging of gender fluidity. And their brand videos and images depict a post-collegiate, perma-freelancing proletariat that is now ever-more precarious with the global rise of right-wing politics. Yet, in spite of this, it seems misguided to slap the normal critical theory-inspired headline onto Eckhaus Latta. Speaking with them in person, their approach to creating clothes is guided by more intuitive and personal predilections. For one: in a fashion industry that trades in “fuckability” and networked images of bodies, Eckhaus and Latta seem to be driven by their friend-crushes more than anything else. The result is clothing that is produced and presented in an alluring atmosphere of humanity and ambiguity.
Eckhaus Latta muse Michael Bailey Gates photographed himself and the social circle of Eckhaus Latta in Los Angeles and New York.
Zoe Latta (ZL), Mike Eckhaus (ME)
Something that has always attracted me to your work is the way that it documents a group of friends. Is that mostly a part of how you represent yourself to the outside world—having friends walk the runway, or starring in your films? Or is it an element that goes into the production of the work itself?
ZL: It’s both. In the beginning, it always came out of necessity. The people we put in our clothes were the people we liked seeing wearing our clothes—they were our best friends, or someone we met once at a party and just dug.
ME: Things seem to have come full circle—a lot of it does come from necessity, and now we’re seeing all these write-ups in big glossies about Rachel Chandler and Midland Agency, where Eckhaus Latta is mentioned. We started working with Rachel last year. It’s interesting now to see how that type of casting—of friends and people we may know or acquaintances—has grown into something that’s become a lot less strange.
A lot of people in our lives don’t necessarily like this atomic family idea of a man and a woman.
What draws you to the people you work with—is it just instinct? And is there ever a conflict that the people who inspire you are not necessarily the people who can afford these clothes?
ZL: It’s totally instinct. Sometimes one of us has the instinct and the other one doesn’t, and we’re like, “Really?” And we’re always right. The last video we just shot was with a woman Alexa Karolinski who I found at the farmer’s market and is amazing. Intuitively, we knew that we wanted to collaborate with her. She’s in her forties and is an opera singer. We’ve always inherently held this idea that we prefer the people that buy our clothes to use it to define themselves rather than us defining who they are. I don’t want to exclude anyone from that scenario because no one person fits the bill here, and that’s been the value of the brand.
ME: It’s always really natural—how you actually meet people in real life and how friendships and engagements occur. Not everyone who has been visualized in Eckhaus Latta is a close friend, but a lot of them are acquaintances or friends of people who are in our world doing things that we’re drawn to. People who have a magnetism.
I think it creates a unique effect, because so much fashion is about sexuality or looking “fuckable” in a certain way. With your type of casting, it seems to be more driven by a friend-crush mentality rather than some idea of sexiness.
ME: Friend-crush is a really good way of putting it. I feel like that’s how a lot of things emerge—being open and honest about friend-crushes at times and seeing how those end up spiraling.
ZL: And this can even happen with the professional models that come to our castings. Last season, this girl walked in with a puppet—and was like “I’m signed by Ford,” or whatever, but she was a puppeteer as well. Then we started talking about puppeteering, and she couldn’t not be in the show. She was so fun. It’s definitely more of a vibe or friend-crush.
Do you think that creates a deeper element of representing people than a hook-up mentality?
ME: There’s also such energy with the different people who have been in so many different projects we’ve done. The energy that certain people have—there’s a sense of longing. When we started, I was living in a warehouse with more than six people. There was a sort of naivety then of being in your early twenties and having an openness to the community. And Eckhaus Latta has been good at sustaining parts of that community at times. It’s so interesting to see the people who we’ve been working with for years now, how all of our careers have grown and impacted each other. Eckhaus Latta is focused around fashion, and we have all these things that are so much a part of the fashion world which is totally great, but it also just feels great to have all these friends that are doing exciting things whether it’s in art, or music, or design—there are these crossing paths that we feel akin to.
It’s really thinking about where are the spaces you can play with your gender.
A lot has been said about your casting, which I think is often described from the outside as a conceptual decision, but talking to you it feels like a very instinctual dynamic about the people you guys relate to. Were other decisions in your work like this as well? For example, having a big focus on unisex clothing—was that out of the practical need of not having to design collections for each gender?
ZL: No. I think in the beginning gender was pretty irrelevant to us. With Mike and I, our friendship came from thrift shopping—and Mike probably had more women’s clothes and I probably had more men’s clothes. We’ve come to gender things more, since fit really does matter in the technicality of the fashion system and in fashion shows, but we would never have a men’s store and a women’s store, or two different collections.
ME: It’s still a sliding scale. I feel like a lot of it comes to styling at the end of the day. We have such an amazing crew of people who we end up casting and working with that it’s often a lot of really slender men who fit into the women’s clothing, but really beautifully. It’s nice to have that space, because those bodies exist. It’s not necessarily about making this man into the image of a woman. Sometimes it’s having people who are gender fluid or trans come in, and we can dress them towards what their gender is and how they represent themselves. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to partake in the acknowledgement. There isn’t just a strict idea of a man and a strict idea of a woman. That’s not interesting to us. It’s really thinking about where are the spaces you can play with your gender.
Masculine or feminine—it’s a lot more fun to think of these things as masks as opposed to firm identities.
ME: I also think a lot of people in our lives don’t necessarily like this atomic family idea of a man and a woman. There’s so much space in how you can portray your gender through clothing, and I think that’s really appealing to us.
I feel like a lot of the tailoring you guys do plays into this kind of ambiguity. You find yourself asking, “Is this a sweater? Is this a kaftan? Is it both?”
ZL: As consumers, Mike and I are the first people to run to a thing on a hanger that we don’t understand, like this weird puzzle. At the end of the day though, making ambiguous things like that can come off as though we didn’t finish the job or something. But, that ambiguity and classification is still something that I think is part of the brand identity, whether it’s about gender or size.
Are there things that seem too complicated to reproduce on an industrial scale? Is that something you guys think about with production?
ZL: No. I think if we care about it, we’ll figure out a way to produce it. The main reason our clothes cost what they do is because we care a lot about how they’re produced and who they’re produced by. That might mean we only make 15 of something, which is like paying for them as if they were samples. They’re all made in America. We talk to our fabricators and our team every day.
Last season, this girl walked in with a puppet—and was like ‘I’m signed by Ford,’ or whatever, but she was a puppeteer as well.
I want to ask you guys about your own mutual friend-crush. How did you first meet each other, and how did you decide to work together?
ZL: Initially, we hated each other. I haven’t had a person like that since you. He was just this fucking freak, and so was I, and we were on this freak-show college campus together for years. But we didn’t actually get it together to have a real conversation until our junior year, or something. Neither of us were studying fashion, but we both loved it in our own ways and we started like a sub-dialogue. Our friendship was never casual.
What were you guys studying?
ME: I was studying sculpture and Zoe was studying textiles.
Were you guys still in school when you decided to start a brand together?
ZL: No. We both graduated, we moved to New York, we both had design jobs and worked together in some capacity in those jobs. And then we got a little studio because we weren’t fully satisfied working for other people. Starting a brand wasn’t even really a conversation. There was a competition in the South of France, where you had to make one look and photograph or contextualize it. Then you had to give it drawings of eight other looks. It was due the Monday after Thanksgiving, and we just didn’t have Thanksgiving that year—we worked throughout that weekend. We didn’t sleep. We just made this psychotic little collection and sent it off. Then we were like, “Well, we already designed it, why don’t we just make it?”
ME: Then we were like, “I guess we should do that again.” And then we did it again.
ZL: We never got that first one back, that first collection we designed. It’s somewhere in the garbage in France.
- Interview: Thom Bettridge
- Photography: Michael Bailey
- Hair: Silvia Cincotta
- Models: Meetka Otto, Richie Shazam, Thistle Brown, Carly Mark, Michael Bailey-Gates, Leah James, Chloe Wise, Jane Moseley, Ursula (Dog), Human (Cat), Balzac (Rat), Goose, Ren Pan, Matthew Lutz Kinoy, Nathaniel Santos, Mariah Ruff