Telfar and Babak Go to White Castle

A Conversation with Artist and Creative Director Babak Radboy in New York

Babak Radboy for Bjarne Melgaard, Photo: Jason Nocito.

During last Fall’s New York Fashion Week, the Internet blew up with pictures of a raucous after-party taking place at a White Castle in Times Square. The sight was surreal to the point of seeming mythological. Club tracks blared from a DJ booth set up on top of the fast food counter. Artists, stylists, and models mixed cocktails from the soda fountain. Employees in White Castle uniforms danced in front of the kitchen and handed out free burgers. The event was the result of an unlikely alliance between the New York-based independent label Telfar and White Castle, a regional fast food chain famous for its stoner street cred and its cardboard suitcase of thirty miniature hamburgers (“The Crave Case”). For Telfar, this was one of many occurrences in a long chain of strange and boundary-bending events. The brand once turned New York’s New Museum into a pop-up flagship store. They trademarked the word Simplexity™. And last year, they released a unisex miniskirt. The mastermind behind many of these moves and more was Babak Radboy.

If the fashion-art complex is destined to crash into a wall of emojis and brand collaborations, then Babak Radboy is likely to be its driver. He is an artist disguised as a creative director. Or, he is a creative director disguised as an artist. His work is a puzzle, a dialectic, and sometimes a joke. He is the creative director of Bidoun, a magazine that challenged many Western assumptions about the Middle East. He is the founder of Shanzai Biennial, an art project pretending to be a lifestyle brand pretending to a biennial. And he has provided art direction for clients such as Bjarne Melgaard, Fatima Al Qadiri, and Kanye West. 

E.P. Licursi and Babak Radboy sat down in New York to discuss corporate aesthetics, hamburgers, and why Instagram might be obsolete.

E.P. Licursi: To start, I’d like to ask you about the Telfar party at White Castle that happend last year. How did that work of unexpected brand synergy come about?

Babak Radboy: I have to be really honest. Of all the people I’ve worked with in New York—from George Clinton to Lawrence Weiner—I think Jamie Richardson, the VP of White Castle, is the most inspired person I’ve ever met. Like, I started out trying to trick this guy into sponsoring an avant garde fashion label, and he ended up tricking me into proselytizing for White Castle! He signs off every email: “Crave on!”

And it doesn’t seem disingenuous?

It's absolutely sincere—and it's effective. In fact, he’s come on as an ongoing sponsor at this point. The party this season’s going to be even crazier than last season. And, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it because it’s in the works right now, but Telfar is going to design the White Castle uniforms for the 95th anniversary.


And that’s happening next year?

It’s happening after the show.

"I want to be like Michael Kors, but on purpose."

That’s truly incredible.

It’s surreal. And it makes perfect sense with what Telfar’s about.

How so? What’s Telfar about?

One of the core things that distinguishes Telfar and makes it so difficult for fashion to grasp is that the one component that’s missing is luxury. Telfar does not care about luxury. That’s not the language. So it’s not like “streetwear plus luxury.” That’s fine. You could even do “caveman plus luxury,” and that’s fine. But if you remove luxury from the equation, all of a sudden it becomes really transgressive.

It reminds me of a quote I read from Telfar Clemens himself, “I want to be Michael Kors, but on purpose.”

The way Telfar makes clothes is pretty unique for a fashion designer of our time. Like every season we get asked by New York Magazine to show our inspiration image for the season. And there is no inspiration image. There’s no Tumblr. There’s no going to galleries. Like, that’s not our process. There’s literally not one reference on the way to the collection. It really starts with material and with seeing people in the street. With most brands there’s a lot of copying. It’s not a mystery. They go vintage shopping. 

In Shanghai, I went to one of the big malls where they pretty much exclusively sell “knockoff” products. And these products seem so pregnant with meaning, much more so than any other item of clothing you can see. Because you can tell that much of our whole worldview and our whole economic system is tied into these little decisions that happen—whether it’s intellectual property, or simply style and design.

I mean, if you look at say a Raf Simons piece, purely as an example, that piece is the result of one hero designer with his process, and his atelier, and whatever he’s been seeing in galleries. And you could pretty much limit it to that. But if you look at a sweatshirt that comes out of China, that’s a design process that includes pretty much our entire epoch.


Interesting.

The thing about producing in China is that it makes it possible to actually work on a garment.

Shanzai Biennial #1, by Shanzai Biennial, Photo: Asger Carlsen.

You can afford to really work on it.

Like, if you want to make a change in the late afternoon, you can see it that night. Whereas in New York you’d give it to someone, they’d come back in four days, and there would be a bill for $700 to change one seam.

There’s an outcry surrounding Chinese production and the low wages there.

I think that the whole thing about “Made in China” is pure propaganda. And the way that the press buys into it is really unfortunate. Luckily the Chinese have never fucking cared. I think they’re a model to the rest of us.


It’s a funny kind of next step in the unsophisticated propaganda of the Cold War. What’s funny is that now so many Chinese manufacturers are becoming more expensive, and companies like Nike can’t even afford to produce in China anymore.

Well, it’s because the factory is now bigger than Nike. 

"All of yesterday’s rebels are now the creative class today."

What has it been like working with a large corporation such as White Castle?

It started out in a very normal way, looking for sponsorship. And when we take on a sponsorship, we’re not scared to make it visible. The idea of compromise is part of the material of our brand. We printed these “Get the Look” t-shirts a few shows ago and we were putting logos on them that we didn’t even have to. We want to show as many sponsors as possible, for it to be a document of the conditions of creativity.

Right. So you’re sending this message that there’s no truth to the whole notion that these artistic things come out of the clear blue sky.

And supplemental to that is that these collaborations are often really unpleasant. I mean, I’ve been shocked by the way the clients behave. We live in a time where if you’re working in that kind of art-commerce bridge, the agency is like texting you at two in the morning with like, slang. And they’re late paying you. And they’re rude. And weird. And, like, on drugs! Like, literally just doing drugs. And the artists are emailing at nine in the morning and being like, “Hello! Are you going to send me that contract?” 

The cover of Fatima Al Qadiri's album Brute, with sculpture by Josh Kline and art direction by Babak Radboy.

Wow.

That said, the White Castle thing was different from the very beginning. It doesn’t fit into any other kind of wider ideology for me. Just take the party, for example. That party seemed impossible, because it made no sense! People were using the soda fountain to mix drinks. And the people working there were dancing on the dance floor, flicking the lights on and off by hand to make a strobe light.

And it’s all at a White Castle!

Right. In Times Square. It was just this crazy experience.

And the employees just totally got into it.

Everyone was having an awesome time. Nobody got hurt. 

It seems like a lot of people will see this collaboration and view it through this lens of irony, which I think is so typical of how we interpret everything now.

Let me explain something about White Castle. The last time we met, they told me about a woman in a cancer ward in some East Coast city—I forgot where—and she had these really special days with her sister. She was in chemo and not doing well, and her sister would come in with a change of clothes and they would sneak out of the hospital and go eat at White Castle. And those were the most lasting memories before she died. So her sister wrote to the company requesting a White Castle urn for her sister’s ashes.



What?

So they are going to make a White Castle urn. The motivation is one hundred percent sincere— but at the same time they completely anticipate that the press will make fun of it—that it is essentially surreal. They are self aware of this paradox of the sincere and the surreal. It’s highly nuanced. It’s profound. But it’s a true story! It’s the same attitude they have towards Valentine’s Day at White Castles. The press covers it as a gag-line but actually tens of thousands of people make reservations.

"For me, Instagram is obsolete."

Do you think that brands are becoming more open to critique, and to creative directors, and to having a sense of humor about the product within their advertising?

Critique has always been a commodity. All of yesterday’s rebels are now the creative class today.

So that’s something that you see as a long-standing trope.

It comes and it goes. If anything, I think that we’re slipping backwards now. I mean, number one, advertising is an antiquated form. It no longer has the power it had in terms of distribution and environment, and the whole social media aspect of it is creating really retrograde forms of address.

So it’s regressing because of the Internet?

Yeah, and social networks. For me, Instagram is obsolete. I don’t care if it exists for another ten years. It’s like old, you know? I feel now that we are under the rubric of the post-contemporary. The idea of what is old and what is new is becoming dislodged from any kind of temporal index. Is a Diane Arbus image old? And, if Snapchat is worth nine billion dollars, how much is a Mondrian worth? 

Painting by Jerry Lafaro — commercial artist responsible for the 1990s "Joe Camel" ad campaign for Camel cigarettes—commissioned by Babak Radboy for Bjarne Melgaard.

Interesting.

I’m becoming very old school. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I don’t care how many people are doing it.

And so you see Instagram in that category?

I think the brands are losing. I think that everybody’s losing. It’s a question about journalism, really. Like, I watched a review of a TV show, and they’ll have all these quotes like, “Upstanding! Incredible!” but then you look at who wrote it and it’s like, googoo.com. It doesn’t matter who wrote it anymore! It doesn’t matter if the journalist can even read! Half the press we get is mortifying. I’ve had reviews of Telfar shows where I couldn’t believe how stupid they were.

And I think there’s a crossover here, where there’s all this debate in journalism about the blurred lines between sponsored content and pure journalism. And I wonder if these false dichotomies also exist in art versus art direction—or advertising versus art for art’s sake.

I feel like I was tortured for a long time about that question, especially when I was at Bidoun. I read too many Italian post-Marxists, and really, really considered and made a very deliberate decision to go into art direction. It almost happened on a specific day.

Babak Radboy for Bjarne Melgaard, Photo: Jason Nocito.

On your website you say very bluntly that you’re an artist who uses art direction as a medium.

This is what I’m doing. For me, it’s like a false dichotomy. Within that authenticity is the commodity. Like, I don’t blame other artists for being artists most of the time, but sometimes I have a sense of superiority [laughs]. Because the simplest aspects of being an artist are so absurd. And I’ve seen it at every level. I’ve seen a blue chip artist’s life. And the idea that they’re not compromising is insane. It’s a joke.

It’s a joke that people literally buy into.

It’s an enormous money laundering scheme, you know? You do the most incredible installation, and all anybody wants is your paintings. They will literally throw the other shit away. What I’m doing is kind of an acceptance that the violence of capital is not going to be resolved in culture.

What are some things in culture at large—in the art world, in the fashion world—that are exciting you right now?

For some reason, I don’t have that kind of flâneur’s thrill of experiencing culture. The only two times I’ve been to MoMA were for dinners. I'm excited about the projects that I’m doing with the Berlin Biennale. I feel like they are kind of like the ultimate culmination of the practice that I started with the Shanzhai Biennial. 

A goat wearing knockoff Ugg boots. Shot for the cover of Bidoun Issue #28 by Boru O'Brien O'Connell.

Roe Etheridge editorial for W Magazine featuring a sportswear collection for filmmaker Catherine Breillat by Babak Radboy and Bjarne Melgaard.

How so?

In the beginning there was a real thrill in fooling the press with a thing that doesn't quite exist. But I’ve become less and less impressed with that process because the real things do not seem to exist either. I mean, look at start-up culture. There’s all this venture capital money, but nobody seems to care if your product ever launches or makes money. It's all vaporware. So this façade that I developed as an avant-garde strategy has become the absolute norm in our economy.


I mean, look at the way people panicked about Chinese debt.

Less than one percent of capital enters into circulation amongst the human work force. So the bet is that tomorrow there’s just going to be a lot more of everything. Yet the reality is that tomorrow there’s going to be a lot less. But I believe in the idea of floating that hedge forever. The name of that idea is communism.

Interview: E.P. Licursi
Images: Babak Radboy