The House of Gabriel Held
The New York Stylist with a Covetable Vintage Collection Plays Dress Up with Maluca Mala and Gets Candid with His Childhood Friend, Lena Dunham
- Interview: Lena Dunham
- Photography: Magnus Unnar / Rep Limited
His vintage collection is unrivalled. Gaultier. Moschino. Todd Oldham. Versace. Lacroix. Dior, 1990-2007. Meet Gabriel Held, the sought-after New York stylist and vintage dealer whose closet is an ode to fashion’s recent history.
Joining him in conversation for SSENSE, is Held’s longtime friend Lena Dunham.
I met Gabriel Held when I was 11 years old. We went to different schools but he was visiting mine to decide whether he might want to switch. As an openly gay child with extraordinary taste, an insanely high emotional quotient, and more flair than most divas with shows in Vegas, I’d imagine he felt a little isolated. I, meanwhile, hated my school, where I was teased for my love of Barbra Streisand, vintage blouses, and pixie cuts. He appeared like a life raft. He didn’t end up coming to school with me (I don’t think I made the place sound very appetizing) but I never let go.
Since then we’ve had our fair share of adventures. Whether it was New Year’s Eve 2001, when Gabe styled me for an 8pm reservation at an empty Peruvian restaurant, or the parties between college summers when we hung in the corner trading faux-gold jewelry, or even just the obsessive trading of VHS tapes of Ab Fab, Strangers with Candy and anything starring Parker Posey, we were hive-minding, creating a shared lexicon of references that lifted us out of our often painful realities and opened the door to new languages, new aesthetics, new selves. He starred in my first short film as an experimental dance artist. I modeled for him, spread on the floor in Pucci and fake hair.
This year, Gabriel and I got to work on our first adult project as a duo: Gabriel helped to source and style nearly twenty Todd Oldham looks for a press tour. As kids, Todd was the obsession, playful and perverse and adult in the way we hoped to be adult—aka still childlike. Now his designs, and our youthful lust for looks we couldn’t find or afford, were within our grasp and the fantasy-fulfillment made us both giddy. Unlike most “Hollywood” stylists, when Gabriel tells me I look great it means something more. When he tells me he’s proud it means something more. It means I am making good on our unspoken mutual promise, to be the most dynamic, engaged, and impassioned versions of ourselves, to never give up on dirty jokes and kooky hats, to never conform to anything but the standard set by our pre-pubescent selves. He’s done the same. It’s a forever thing.
You and I have been friends for a nice, solid 20 years. I got to watch the evolution of the Held, but how would you, for the readers at home, define who you are and what you do?
Whew, well, I guess I would describe myself as a curator and a vintage dealer, and aspiring stylist. Maybe I can drop the aspiring by now [Laughs]. What would you add?
I guess I would also say that you’re running a pretty sweet game as an internet personality, which is its own thing because your Instagram—I mean, you know it’s a bit of a sensation, right?
It’s definitely my bread and butter. I’ve been kind of doing a primitive Instagram all my life. I’ve always carried around clippings and saved images and stuff, so it’s a platform that I took to like a duck to water. In fifth grade I used to carry around an empty backgammon case full of clippings from like Vogue and dELiA*s and lay them out on the table at lunch.
So this is basically just your backgammon case made digital.
Do a lot of people find you and what you do through Instagram?
Oh, absolutely. I would say the vast majority of my clients come to me through Instagram.
Something that I love that your Instagram displays is that you are literally the funniest person I’ve ever met and a lot of people in the fashion industry, I’ve managed to learn, don’t have the most evolved sense of humor about themselves and about work. How would you talk about the role that humor plays in what you do? Because the fact is, you take fashion seriously, but you also don’t take anything too seriously.
Camp is a big part of my aesthetic. It’s fun to revere something but also mock it at the same time. That’s why you’ll find in my collection Gaultier runway pieces but also Baby Phat and Juicy Couture, and these other kind of cultural artifact garments that are definitely not too serious.
How did you start? You were a Brooklyn baby, raised in the art world, went to Maryland Institute College of Art, and you were always an artist. But you also were always something else, too. You were a performer. How did you wrap your head around what that could mean for your life and what that could mean for a career? You’ve managed to find the career that makes the most sense for you, but it’s kind of a career you created.
Well, as I celebrate my 32nd year, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that I really did create a space for myself to do exactly what I want to do, and that’s pretty empowering. I mean you know that I scratched and clawed, and tried to make it in the gallery world and indie publications and stuff, but when I kind of gave over to the process of life and followed my passion that’s always been underlying, things started to click into place. In terms of the performing, I’ve never really had much of an intent behind it other than that it feels good and it’s fun, I mean it’s also a way for me to deal with stage fright which I do have. But I enjoy to sing. I enjoy to rap. And I’ve always been doing these performances, I just haven’t always been making them public.
When you were in high school, you were the only white boy engaging in the rap or hip hop dance department, the only boy and I believe the only child of Polish descent, and that was sort of before big conversations about cultural appropriation. I wonder how you’ve internalized so much of that since in high school—a lot of markers of your identity were connected to black womanhood.
They still are. I grew up in the art world, but as a grandchild not a child, which gave me a little more distance, and economically my family wasn’t like other families. I just identified my otherness through signifiers of black femininity, I guess. It was a more tangible way for me to express that I felt different than something less concrete, but I also grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of Latina girls and I just thought they were the most glamorous with their makeup and jewelry, and hair. I learned a great lesson about being fly on like $10 from some of these girls.
You were also the youngest person I ever knew who was like clear on their sexuality, and if you don’t mind revealing to the readers of SSENSE, how old were you when you actually said, "I’m a gay man"?
That’s what I remember, like you were maybe straight for the year of 10. But like, that also, you didn’t have a lot of cohorts in that. You were the only 12-year-old out boy who I knew, so did connecting to these marginalized female cultures make you feel less alone?
Oh, totally. And I mean just to highlight Lil Kim for a minute—a feminine and sexy woman who was also tough and hard, paradoxically allowed me to access my masculinity through her more easily than I could through, say a male rapper. I mean, that’s camp, too. I’m going to get roasted if I say that’s why gays love Betty Davis and Joan Crawford, because they were all such tough women.
No, absolutely, you have an attraction to women who seem like they’ve overcome a remarkable amount of adversity and remain saucy.
That is, like, your passion area and I think you introduced me to everything I love, everything at camp that impacted my aesthetic, whether it was with Absolutely Fabulous or Strangers with Candy; that was all Gabriel Held. You were the one that was sort of informing us all that there was a world outside of TGIF. You were always the curator of our lives. What I wonder is, you sort of came of age doing this mixing and matching and winking, and now so much of modern culture is like, "let’s bring back the 90s," and in this kind of hyper-uninformed way. How do you feel about the mainstreaming of the things that you were always passionate about?
Well, I have mixed feelings about it. Obviously it’s good for my business since I specialize in 90s vintage, but to me it means I kind of have to move my area to, like, 2005. Like in 2008, I was already bringing back the Juicy sweatsuits, and now it’s a thing. So, I think I’m going to start on the Alexander McQueen skull scarf, and other things that some people are still wearing without irony, because I think that’s really where you get ahead of the curve of nostalgia and era-based trends, to be almost too soon for something to make a comeback. Like, Patsy Stone says, “You get your dry cleaning back now and it’s a revival.”
[Laughs] That’s so good! This is a question I think about because a lot of people watched Girls and some of them got it for the right reasons, and some connected for the wrong reasons. Like some people came for the boobs, and some people came because I looked great, and I wonder if all the people who follow your Instagram and what you do really understand what you’re saying or if they’re just like “LOL it’s Paris Hilton.” How do you feel about your engagement with your audience?
I definitely have some that get all the references and some that are seeing stuff for the first time. It does feel like a nice position to be in to celebrate the things I appreciate that may be less part of the mainstream consciousness. There’s almost 80,000 of them and I’m pretty sure not everybody gets where I’m coming from, but I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of like the cultural appropriation debate. Hip hop has been a huge influence on my style, but I always try to do my interpretations of it while showing the source of inspiration. It’s not like I’m taking anything and running, and claiming authorship of it. I’m more giving a salute to this thing that informed what I do. Most people seem to get that I’m an appreciator rather than an appropriator. But it’s important to me to give credit where it’s due and respect the architect so to speak.
Respect the architect is a perfect way of putting it. When you’re collecting vintage, when you’re filling your shop, when you’re selling your collection, what makes you understand that you need to have something in your possession? What makes you understand what is a Gabriel Held piece?
It’s honestly a physical feeling. If something makes me feel like I’m going to puke, then I’ve got to have it. Also, things that have personal significance. I have a certain kind of savantism for remembering people’s wardrobes. Your wardrobe for instance, is an inspiration when I’m collecting vintage Stella McCartney pieces. I’ll always remember your banana and monkey pieces and the Pucci moon boots, and other stuff like that. When there’s something that has personal significance like that, I usually try to get it.
I’ve thought a lot about designers that have been relegated to commercial, like Cynthia Rowley being reduced to a Bloomingdale's floor when she actually is a Marc Jacobs. I feel like there’s some sense of certain clothing, like you and I’ve talked about how Todd [Oldham] was as innovative as any designer, but he didn’t play the whole, I’m going to Paris thing, there was a different energy around what he did and somehow it caused people not to understand the essential nature of the whole thing.
Which I think people like you and me might get a thrill out of, but other people might not. I mean Todd, for my money, was definitely an artist who worked in the medium of clothing, but people like him and like Franco Moschino did these kind of irreverent, almost parody of fashion type things, like a Chanel-style jacket done in burlap or something.
If something makes me feel like I’m going to puke, then I’ve got to have it.
It’s fun to revere something but also mock it at the same time.
Or like when Todd would do a classic white shirt that happened to show the bottom of your tits.
Right, definitely not for the mainstream consumption, which makes it more special for me. It can be a hard thing to pull off professionally.
Do you feel as though this particular moment has leant itself to your styling? I feel as though the Gabriel Held effect is in demand right now because people don’t just want to be sexy, they want to have irony and to be in on the joke, and I wonder how far is it that you can go when you’re also styling someone that’s interfacing the mainstream and whether you feel like they fully understand what you do…
I guess at the end of the day, my main agenda in styling is to make things visually appealing, so that is something that I feel will always be workable. But if I was working with a client who I wasn’t sure was in on the joke, I might not try to do something unorthodox with them. I might try to keep it pretty and do it for the fashion people who will get a kick out of seeing this Fall/Winter 2000 Pucci by Lacroix stretch boot. Maybe the boot is just amazing to look at? Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, 100 percent. You have to know your audience. Styling is a really intimate thing. I’ve been styled and felt really understood and styled and gone home and felt totally defeated and depressed. How do you feel about your relationship to the people that you style?
To me it’s very important to make them comfortable right off the bat. It’s helpful that I enjoy talking because that can put people at ease, but I am never putting my ego or agenda at the forefront of styling. I generally try to make people happy in this order: the subject first, the magazine or whatever forum it’s for second, and then me. I do want to like what I’m doing, but if a client wants me to use a garment that I’m not crazy about, I might let them try it so they see why I don’t think it will work. I never push anybody to wear anything they don’t want to. When I’m working with musicians or people who have their own identity and they’re not there just to model, I want to stay true to them and just help them be the best-dressed version of themselves.
I’ve been kind of doing a primitive Instagram all my life.
That’s exactly what you need to do, that’s exactly how they need to feel. Who have been some—I’m sure you’ve enjoyed styling everyone—standouts for you?
Well, I have been lucky that I haven’t worked with anyone too unpleasant. I would say Lena Dunham is standout number one, most fun project I’ve ever done. There’s something very self-actualized about that, so that was great. I had a lot of fun with Kehlani, she’s a very bright young woman. Anybody who is just open and willing to experiment and get caught up in the fun of the whole project. I had a great time with Lady Miss Kier. We bonded pretty tightly. Jojo was here the other day and she was trying on clothes and just singing the entire time, and I was so tickled. I was like Ariana Grande watching Aretha Franklin at the White House, like holding my face in my hands. Also as two fairer-skinned RnB singers we have something in common.
My final question is: what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Be it creative, be it personal, what is something that’s been a guiding principle for you?
I would say in the past two years, which is when I’ve kind of been getting my rhythm, it would be to trust in the process of life. There were times where I had an agenda that I was trying to push that was different from the universe’s agenda, and all I really got was frustrated. As soon as I just gave myself over to the natural rhythm instead of fighting against it, you know, a lot of things that seemed important were less important and things that seemed unimportant became important. I am just getting my life and doing exactly what I want to do and it feels good.
Lena Dunham is a writer and director from New York.
- Interview: Lena Dunham
- Photography: Magnus Unnar / Rep Limited
- Styling: Gabriel Held
- Hair and Makeup: Rei Tajima
- Performance Artist: Maluca Mala