Adrienne Antonson on designing smocks, making sculptures out of human hair and the problems of sustainable design.
Artist and designer Adrienne Antonson’s fashion label STATE caught my eye with its liberally pocketed garments, quality fabrics, and minimalist aesthetic. They aren’t clothes just to suit one’s lifestyle, but the kind of clothes that inspire a new lifestyle while wearing them. Coming from an art gallery in Charleston and an alpaca farm off the coast of Seattle, Adrienne’s garments and accessories are durable yet delicate and ethically sourced and her insect sculptures crafted of human hair are currently touring in Ripley’s Believe it Or Not. I caught up with Adrienne in her new studio space in Gowanus to discuss sustainable designing, hair as a medium, and being stranded on a deserted island.
Effie Bowen What’s new?
Adrienne Antonson I’m exhausted but I’m really exhilarated—I think that’s just how it is in New York. No one comes here to coast. You come here to grind.
EB I’m happy to be meeting you here in your new studio.
AA Yes, I’ve been in this space a week. I can work here so my house can be my house. This is the supply stash up here. This is my pocket collection, well, it’s pockets and cuffs. When I take shirts apart, I act like a hunter and disassemble all parts of it and save everything usable so I have an impressive collection of pockets I’ve saved. These will become part of a tee shirt series called a “pick-a-pocket” shirt so you can choose your own contrasting pocket. I have hundreds of pockets. It's very satisfying for me to stack them and think about all the possibilities. I have random collections of things. Bags of hair. Bags of alpaca. It’s nice to have it all in one spot and not stuffed all over an apartment.
EB I know you collect your own hair, from the shower drain and sink—
AA (laughter) When I first started, it was the drain. I was in college and lived with a boy with long blonde hair as well and so our hair would clog the drain. I would slide it out so I could keep showering, and we would throw it away and I just kept thinking, We’re throwing this away all the time, what if we didn’t, what if we saved it? And eventually I turned it into a pair of underwear. And that was the first piece I made out of hair.
EB Did you felt it?
AA No—this is gross, but I just, because of the soap and whatever, and pooling itself in the drain, the hair formed into these circular patties and I arranged them all and just stitched them together and edged it in lace and that was the very first item I made out of hair.
EB How did you first consider hair as a medium?
AA All throughout my childhood we saved it.
EB Your family saved hair?
AA Yeah, it’s in this box, if you want to see it. I have the original box where my mom saved our hair growing up. It’s always been a very sentimental and sweet marker of time, so to save it was never that gross. But she saved my first ponytail she cut off—
EB Oh, actually, my mom did too! I just remembered.
AA So I made the underwear and then I started making lingerie and I really loved the attraction repulsion contrast of working with hair and was very supported by my independent study professor in college. I enjoyed figuring out different ways to assemble it, work with it and manipulate it. And then the insects took it to a different level, a much more refined, acute and precise place.
EB What is your favorite part about working with hair?
AA People either love it or they hate it. And I enjoy that response a lot.
EB What kind of response have you gotten from someone who hated it?
AA When the insects went viral I would look at my Google analytics and started reading comments on these sites where people only write comments if they really love something or really hate it. People were writing such mean things and you can't help but be sensitive about it. Especially me. There were comments from people who hate hair, who think hair is disgusting—unless it's on someone's head, they hate hair. A lot of people also hate insects and a lot of people hate them both so there were a lot of comments like, "this is the most disgusting thing," or, "why would anyone spend their time making this disgusting filth?"
EB You've completely transformed the hair from what it normally looks like so while there is a “gross out” factor, you are also tricking us by not having the medium so easily discernable.
AA Yes, I love that people see the bugs and think that they are real. When I was little I loved Ripley's. I'm totally geeking out right now being in Ripley's Traveling Show next to a car made out of matchsticks. You can do anything with anything.
EB When you started making the bugs were you modeling them on real insects or did you make them up?
AA Well the first time I made one I just thought, Can I do this? I looked at a moth I had in my insect collection and tried to replicate it. Eventually creative and manufacturing limitations came up like, Oh his body should be bigger here, and I thought, I can really do anything I want, these aren't for a science museum. But I do like the challenge of replicating something exactly and do it as close as possible and to hold it in my hand and for it to look real. They really become dares to myself: Can I do a praying mantis, can I do a housefly?
EB Your smocks are unlike any other fashion item I've seen. They blend functionality and fashion in an exciting way. How did they come into being?
AA They were this crazy idea I had while living on the farm in Seattle. I made this weird garment that was strange and not something you see everyday but now people all over the world are wearing them and living in them because you can become addicted to their usefulness.
EB We need pockets!
AA We do! We need them all the time. I can't wait to have a baby because I think I'm going to start thinking of housing a human on my body and how could I do that fashionably. I think it will create an interesting surge of inspiration.
EB Your visual art and fashion design seem to collide in the garments; They look like the art was being made while wearing them.
AA I make clothes that evoke this feeling of when I was the happiest; In fifth grade on Wednesdays it was art day and I lived for that day and walking into class and putting on those old dad button-down smocks.
EB Those were so good.
AA Right? I’m still that fifth grader who cannot wait for art day. I think I’m just creating this world where you’re always making and always doing and it's practical and it's messy, but it's interesting and somehow stylish. Because I miss painting, I just paint on clothes now.
EB The demand for the smocks has grown exponentially. Have you shifted your production practices?
AA I now have a woman in Pennsylvania sewing my smocks for me. I made an instruction manual and she thrifts, I give her guidelines, she sends me photos, we have this back and forth about what colors and textures I’m looking for and we have this conversation. She thrifts, launders, constructs, sews, and mails me finished smocks. It’s the coolest thing to go from having this idea of making this garment so that I could carry my iPod while raking alpaca shit on a farm years ago to have boxes of smocks made by this woman ready to sell. It’s amazing.
EB How would you define your aesthetic for the bugs and for the clothes?
AA The garments are romantic utilitarianism. They are editorial, but you can also get down on your knees and till a rove of radishes. But for both of the bugs and clothes, there is an intricacy and delicacy that ties them together.
EB The objects you craft are very clear, they don't necessarily need to be suspended by anything conceptually.
AA I always try to have the objects speak for themselves and with the insects and the hair and at the end of that day, there's this apocalyptic survivalism that I'm always thinking about. If I had nothing, how could I do this with nothing? I'm like those people in Waterworld who just make everything.
AA I think about Waterworld a lot.
EB Oh my god, that movie.
AA I know. It's really stuck with me. I think a lot of my hair work is thinking about being in a situation where I have nothing but myself to rely on. I often imagine this solitary confinement situation where I am so productive because I've gotten very good at making things from the byproducts of my body.
EB What would you bring on a deserted island?
AA I don't know. . . I love scissors but I want to say I wouldn't bring anything. I could say a hat, but I think I'd have more fun making one.
EB What is coming up in the future for you?
AA I have this upcoming project called the Secret Summer Catalog. Did you get the Delia's catalog when you were young?
EB Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it.
AA I loved Delia's. I loved getting this catalog that was my style, my age. Since I'm taking STATE in such an online direction, I want to have a really tactile shopping experience that's not online so I’m going to make a catalog for the summer. You can't see these items anywhere except in this print catalog. I'm also inviting in other designers that I adore and think will be a perfect match; jewelers, hat makers, bag makers, all sorts of things. So it will be a collaboration between multiple photographer and styling teams and STATE is curating and ultimately printing the catalog. I love doing something totally analog. It's a conceptual retail project.
EB What are your thoughts about the “sustainable design movement” that is now dominating a commercial as well as homegrown marketplace?
AA Ultimately, it’s good. It’s essential. But I think people get caught up in talking about it and I just prefer to act on it. When I started designing with reclaimed materials it was cutting edge. Etsy didn’t exist, this handmade movement didn’t exist, so people were really excited about it. Similarly, I feel like I’m just ahead of that trend in that we don’t need to talk about it being green, we don’t need to show that it’s green, it just needs to be beautiful and affordable.
EB What would it look like if all your dreams came true?
AA I want to create jobs and give people a fun place to go everyday. I have very simple goals. I just want to pay the bills and eat goldfish, occasionally. I would love a washer and dryer. And an El Camino. But that’s it. It’s not a lot. I’m so close.
Effie Bowen is a performer and contributor to Interview and BOMB Magazine.