- Lily Sullivan
Photography by Thomas McCarty
ECKHAUS LATTA MAKES ITS MUSEUM DÉBUT AT THE WHITNEY
Fashion favorites Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of the acclaimed brand Eckhaus Latta have pushed their talents once again with a début exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. The show, which opened a few weeks ago, is entitled “Possessed” and asks questions about the place for fashion in the art world and especially the dynamic role commerce plays in this conversation. The designers served as curators, exhibitors, designers, and artists for this wide-ranging show, working alongside curator and head of the emerging artists program at the Whitney Christopher Lew and head of product development Lauri Freedman.
Eckhaus Latta is known for its conceptual knits, avant garde materials, and diversely cast runway shows, and the designer duo took a similar approach to their exhibit. Located in the lobby gallery on the museum’s ground floor, the show begins with large-scale images resembling those of a fashion campaign. The main space has been transformed into a retail environment complete with a checkout counter, racks and shelves with clothing, and a fitting room to try pieces on. Through a beaded curtain, designed by artist and frequent Eckhaus Latta model Susan Cianciolo, is a wall of video monitors with live streams both from within the shop space and Eckhaus’s and Latta’s own studios. Other pieces include a painting that seamlessly melds into a wall-mounted clothing rack by Annabeth Marks, a metal fan by Jessi Reaves, and jewelry and glass display cases by Latta’s father Jay, along with one-of-a-kind beaded pieces by Eckhaus Latta. Eckhaus and Latta created a number of custom pieces for the exhibition, including dresses and tops printed with notes from the show’s conception, vintage-sourced and hand-dyed shirts and sweatshirts, as well as jeans with beaded fringe.
“When you see shirts in a museum, it’s not unexpected, but I think they are playing with the idea of what is unique and what is mass— because while they appear mass, they are each unique,” Freedman says of the pieces. “The ‘www.eckhauslatta.com’ on the back has been handwritten by Zoe, so there is a phenomenal amount of the artist’s hand involved and it was how we could keep pricing in line with what the museum does: accessible in a fashion sense but also accessible in the prices we have in the shop. Again, if we are saying everyone is welcome here—we want to have a sense of what the tolerance is.”
The show is entirely shoppable and patrons are encouraged to experience the art in the same manner as you would try on clothes at a mall, but although it resembles one, it is certainly not a pop-up shop. “We have been really careful in the language we use, but the fact that it may feel like a pop-up is not bad,” Freedman explains. “It’s what will help people to know what behavior is acceptable in this space. Why is it in a gallery and not a shop? It’s because museums are designed to ask questions in galleries. We have a lot of questions we are asking—Mike and Zoe have a lot of questions they are asking. The gallery was the place the museum gave them to do that.”
Eckhaus further explains, “When I think of a pop-up shop, it’s an immediacy of pure commerce and for us, there was a lot of time spent on conceptualizing the relationship of the objects to the artists who have created work for the space. [There were] different spectrums of approach from something that is a more mediated experience of fashion and how it’s seen through the light of advertising and then this kind of backroom surveillance voyeurism to the intimacy of experience to this passive space and back and forth. Those are definitely things that are not pop-up thought: the collapse of what is a retail environment in an art institution and what are the questions that arise in the convergence of the two.”
Curator Christopher Lew first discovered Eckhaus Latta years ago, in the mix of other artists in their community he was following. “I started to spend time seeing how they are engaging with fashion with a capital F,” he recalls. “Then I started going to their runway shows without knowing where it would go. At that point, it was just research.” As the group began talking about what a show could look like, they knew it was important for commerce to be involved. Lew notes, “We realized if we had things for sale, people could touch it and try it on and it created something exciting and fresh. It’s not the first time things are for sale within an exhibition context but they wanted to keep the clothes with integrity and intention. They are made to be worn. Even if it’s a one-off unique piece or it’s a t-shirt, they are things that want people to wear. An exhibition where you can’t wear it or feel it, you are missing so much.”
For a label that has always made a celebration of diverity a priority, patron participation has been vital to the show’s success, going even beyond the sales to really highlight the experience of clothes and of shopping. “The body is an important motif. Then it’s your own body, not just any body,” says Lew. “Not just models on a runway—you can go into the dressing room and try it on yourself. You get an understanding of what they do most intimately and directly. We know what traditional fashion exhibitions look like and they can be beautiful and super informative, but there is a distance always because you are not with the clothes. It’s a way to keep the clothes feeling alive.” Such ground-breaking thinking is no surprise for the RISD grads who, as finalists for the LVMH Prize this past summer, continue to wow the worlds of fashion and art with their unique perspective and challenges to the industries’ norms.
“Eckhaus Latta: Possessed” is on view through October 8 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
- Lily Sullivan
Photography by Thomas McCarty