Fashion

L.A. Confidential: Eckhaus Latta

After just opening their first-ever NYC store, we look at how the artful designers are reinventing the vernacular of fashion, giving new weight to the intersection of art and design.
Reading time 12 minutes

Bright light streams in through the windows of the Eckhaus Latta shop in the West Adams neighborhood of Los  Angeles. Zoe Latta and the photographer are trading surfboard injury tales:  They’ve both had terrible crashes recently,  and Latta hasn’t been surfing as much. Latta shifts her pose,  bouncing her long blonde bob. The photographer remarks that it seems she’s posed for a lot of pictures before, to which she replies that, lately, she has. Latta is the LA  contingent of Eckhaus Latta, a bi-coastal design duo who were nominated for the LVMH Prize and received a  solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art this  year—both things that require a lot of pictures.

“We’re getting pretty good at it,” Latta jokes to the photographer,  before shifting her stance again. Later,  seated at a picnic table in the backyard of their studio, I bring up the Whitney show,  their inclusion in the 2016 Hammer Biennial at the  Hammer Museum in LA, and all the other art institutions with which they’ve done projects. Straddling the line between  art and fashion in an authentic manner (“A gray area,” they call  it), the duo have collaborated with Bjarne Melgaard on art exhibitions  and artists like Juliana Huxtable and Alexandra Marzella have walked on their  runways.“We never really thought of it as an art project, even though it’s been perceived that way and probably still is by a lot of people,” says Mike Eckhaus, who is in town from their studio in New York. Some of this perception comes from Eckhaus Latta’s origins. Latta and Eckhaus met while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, a place much better known for the artists—Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, and Julie Mehretu among them—who have studied there than for any sort of fashion output. Eckhaus was studying sculpture and Latta textiles as an artistic medium when they bonded over their respective closets.

They remained friends after graduation, supporting each other as they landed entry-level positions in the  New York fashion industry. Latta got her start in the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of  Art before beginning her own textiles company,  Prince Ruth, with which she made printed fabrics for the likes of Opening Ceremony, Proenza Schouler, and Urban Outfitters. Eckhaus, meanwhile, toiled in the accessories division at Marc Jacobs. They were both frustrated with the way their jobs foregrounded the commercial aspect of fashion.  Eventually, they decided to take matters into their own hands. The only problem? They started making their own clothes in November 2011 and New York  Fashion Week was at the beginning of February. “We didn’t sleep,” recalls Latta. “It was the start of a habit of doing this to ourselves.” What they conjured for that first Fall 2012 collection was a cloud of fluffy, inviting textures. The fits for the male models and the female models seemed interchangeable. Some looks were matched with pillbox dunce caps and deconstructed shoe concepts. The palette was almost entirely milk-tea cream or overcast gray. It captured everything that a new generation of early 20-somethings might pair with disintegrating vintage on their way to a performance at an alternative art space, with Chris Kraus books in their hands and a radical sense of the politics of the body in their minds.

A glimpse inside the duo’s LA studio

There are many ways to get into fashion, but the rarest may be to simply decide one day to start sewing together garments. That might also be the most difficult route. There are strict rules to showing, to selling, to advertising. It’s basically impossible to even get noticed. But a cool charisma seemed to ooze from Eckhaus Latta. I remember those early days of Eckhaus Latta, now seven years ago. Though they were based in New York at the time,  they had friends in LA, and those friends brushed up against the circle of my friends. By word of mouth, I knew that this was a fashion label that people were paying attention to. Artist friends who didn’t care about fashion were talking about them. As a fashion writer, I guessed that meant something. What wasn’t so apparent at the time was that the attention they were receiving was hard-won.

“We were also doing silly novice things like, We’re going to cold call every publication and invite everyone to our show with handwritten invitations, knowing that no one will come,” says Latta, cringing.  “It was solicitous, but it wasn’t like we were  standing outside of Condé Nast hoping to run into Anna.”

A look presented in their F/W ’18 show

Eckhaus Latta wasn’t an overnight success, but the fashion-forward blogs DIS Magazine and VFiles were taking notice. Barometers of a young art-fashion insurrection, their audience,  though smaller than legacy fashion media, was receptive. Soon, they landed their first account, with fashion hub Opening  Ceremony. Organically, things began to solidify for the brand.

“I  feel  like we  were both  in New York  and we were 24  and going out to parties  a lot, and we would run into  people who were like, ‘I’m a buyer for  here’ or ‘I write for this,’” says Eckhaus,  who sports a short-cropped haircut and a disarming  smile that flashes and then is quickly put away. “People  who became friends and still are our friends.”

One of those friends included  Bjarne Melgaard, an artist known for provocation and sexual directness, whom they had met through their friend James  Valeri, the founder of Document  Journal.  Melgaard and Eckhaus Latta collaborated on an exhibition called Ignorant  Transparencies at  Gavin Brown’s enterprise in 2013,  making outfits that became absorbed into a series of paintings.  (An edition of sex kits sold for the  show included poppers and lube.)

Meanwhile,  their collections were evolving and they were building a reputation for not having one particular style. Perhaps the only signature was the lack of one. Their S/S ’14  collection was silky, breezy, and metallic green. Their A/W ’15 collection featured striped slacks, halter tops, and a runway soundtracked by  Dev Hynes from Blood Orange. S/S ’17 was shiny and athletic,  by Eckhaus Latta standards.“I forget who we were talking to, but they were like, ‘Well, there’s not a distinctive thing of Eckhaus Latta as a product or an aesthetic that necessarily means Eckhaus Latta,’” says  Eckhaus, taking a drag of a cigarette.

“I  think that’s kinda cool, in that,  for us, it’s always been trying to not be pigeonholed.  It is malleable and constantly shifting.”It was the campaign for that S/S ’17 collection that ended up being one of the most important moments for Eckhaus Latta. Working with Korean-German photographer  Heji Shin, they recreated a series in which Shin photographed real people performing real acts of sex. By reaching out to friends and posting ads on Craigslist, they eventually gathered a group of people to create what turned out to be beautiful, undeniably sexy, images, with the actual intercourse pixelated out.

But  from the  moment they  launched the campaign,  the reaction was not what  they expected.“We didn’t think about the consequences at all,”  says Latta. “Heji had already done that project in Germany for the intents and purposes of a sex-ed book and was paid by the government to take these educational photographs.  We were like, ‘Woah, these are just people having sex. That’s beautiful.’ And in the fashion context, it’s just so unseen. And so we just set out to do that, but it was very naïve [to not think about] how people respond to sex. The photographs were crazy beautiful. I  remember in the edit being like, ‘That’s gorgeous! That pose is great!’ Then they came out and it was such a shitshow. We have a landline here, and you can find the number online. The phone was just ringing non-stop.”

A look presented in their F/W ’18 show

Eckhaus recalls hitting  send on the campaign  before boarding a flight and  landing to an additional 15,000  Instagram followers, and another 15,000  by the time he woke up from a nap.“The dialogue around it, at the end of the day,  was all good. But then, just being that exposed and having the models exposed—it was in Playboy without our permission,  there were memes—it was just not something the people that volunteered anticipated,” says Latta. “It also did not equal sales. Sex does not equal sales. People are always like,  ‘Your business must have blown up.’ And we’re  like, ‘Actually, no.’”

One thing  Eckhaus  Latta is known for is their diverse runway casting, which has included characters from their friend circle, alternative models, artists,  and a smattering of represented models.  The aforementioned Juliana Huxtable, for instance,  has walked the Eckhaus Latta runway, as have Grace Dunham,  Susan Cianciolo, and Melgaard. Is it part of a larger ongoing discussion about the politics of the body? What may seem like personal concerns—our hairstyles, our reproductive choices, our age, how we think of our own bodies—are the most politicized. Eckhaus Latta runways are diverse not just in race but in gender, body shape, and age. Even if the duo denies a more  deliberate position, it’s refreshing at the very least.“I don’t think it was ever a  political stance,” explains Eckhaus. “It was just more the sense of clothing being these objects that come to life on a body. Lots of people who we’ve worked with over the years are people who have a certain energy or a certain way of carrying themselves that has been appealing to us to work with in terms of presenting the clothing on them. There are plenty of people who are friends who we have yet to work with or who just don’t want to do it. It fluctuates.”

The casting is equally present in the fashion films—video art really—that accompany each collection, all directed by German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski.  The films are exquisite and accentuate the brand’s subversive cool: a messy dinner party, a runway show in the parking lot of a shopping mall, their friends sitting around in a living room smiling maniacally. The brand has a lot to smile about in 2018. They were finalists for the LVMH  Award—past nominees include current heavyweights Grace Bonner,  Louis Vuitton’s new director of menswear Virgil Abloh, and Craig Green.  On the tail of that, there was that solo show at the Whitney, a dream for almost anyone who works in a creative field. For the show, they built a version of a flagship, complete with all the artist collaborations they could think of. In fact, Eckhaus Latta tend to think of themselves more as curators than as artists.

“All of those invitations  [to participate in art shows] are shocking, but at the same time, if we listed our goals, having a solo show at the Whitney is probably not on it,” says Latta. “But it’s also a complete honor because it’s where we came from. Our community,  especially from school, is largely artists, and that dialogue is a lot easier to participate in as a young person. You can go to openings multiple times a week. They’re open to the public.  It’s a, in some ways, more welcoming community. And I also think museums are changing. They want to have a dialogue that isn’t just this white cube, painting aesthetic, and they want to engage a creative practice in a contemporary way. We’re honored that we fit into their rubric of what a museum should be for. But I definitely  think that’s a time and place thing—it’s not like we’ve wedged ourselves into the art institution,  but more I think the art institution is looking to change its boundaries.”

Perhaps because they seem like such a young brand with such a young audience  (not to mention that Latta just turned 31 and Eckhaus will in December), it’s hard to believe that the label is already seven years old—though Eckhaus says that it feels like 14, his life measured in seasons. The duo still remains almost complete owners of the company, and they plan to keep it that way. For Eckhaus, that ownership plays a big role in their creative freedom—and perhaps the reason behind Eckhaus Latta being the gray-area fashion-cum-art brand we’ll always need.

Eckhaus  grins impishly  at the notion: “It’s  exciting to think of at  times that, because it’s managed  by the two of us, there’s certain  things that we get to do that you probably could not do as a bigger company."

An installation view from the Whitney Museum show, Eckhaus Latta: Possessed

Eckhaus Latta's first-ever NYC store is now open at 75 E. Broadway, Unit 202B

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