CARLY MARK COFOUNDED
PUPPETS AND PUPPETS,
ONE OF NEW YORK’S MOST
CREATIVE DOWNTOWN FASHION LABELS.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Carly, why is your label called Puppets and Puppets? It’s an amazing name. Is it ironic?
CARLY MARK — It is. I think it’s pretty multilayered. At the surface level, it’s the name of my dog. I have a rescue Chihuahua-terrier named Puppet. So, the brand is named after him, but he is named after the antihero in the anime Ghost in the Shell, the Puppet Master, a villain who hacked the brains of half-human, half-AI characters. I also have a tattoo that says “Puppet Master.” I had the tattoo before I had the dog.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That film is amazing. It offers a new perspective on the future.
CARLY MARK — Oh, it’s amazing. Because, isn’t that what we’re moving toward? Right now, there is a separation between brain and iPhone, but at a certain point, that won’t be the case. So, the Puppet Master relates to fashion in a way.
ALEPH MOLINARI — The models are a bit like puppets. You are the puppet master who creates these puppets.
CARLY MARK — Exactly. It’s a control thing. [Laughs] I’m a control freak, at the end of the day. So, it’s a multilayered name, and on top of all of that, it’s also funny.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because there’s a sense of humor in your fashion.
ALEPH MOLINARI — From the cookie bags to the porcelain clogs, the flowers… It’s a bit of a parody as well.
CARLY MARK — Yes, because when I started doing this, I wasn’t trained in fashion. I went to school for art. So, I don’t think from a fashion perspective. My angle is making art objects, and I’ve moved toward production and all of the standard things needed to build a brand. But my education — and the root of all this — is art-making, not typical fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s very New York, too, because art is connected to fashion in a way in New York, especially Downtown New York.
CARLY MARK — Yes, because here we have to be a bit scrappier. The young designers are a bit rough around the edges because we’re just trying to get things done. There’s a divide between young designers and corporate commercial brands.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A big gap.
CARLY MARK — Possibly a bigger gap than in other cities. So, it becomes more of an art practice for young designers in New York because it has to be. We just have to get it done in any way possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And in New York, there’s also a tradition of performance art, such as Jack Smith. There’s a real history of performances, where you need to dress up, find the costume, the looks. But also, nightlife is important. Is that something that you can relate to — this history of performance?
CARLY MARK — Yeah. I’m from Michigan, and when I was growing up in the Midwest, I was obsessed with Limelight and Party Monster and Leigh Bowery — and just seeing all of these people dressing up and creating personas to go out at night and feel freedom, liberation. As a young, creative person living in a conservative community in the Midwest, I saw these people, and nothing seemed freer to me than that. I really gravitated toward New York because of this.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how did you have access to this? Through the Internet? This was 10 years ago?
CARLY MARK — No, it was in the 2000s. I was so hungry for culture, and I was constantly searching. I don’t even know how I came across Party Monster, but I think I somehow found Chloë Sevigny and looked into what she did. I started connecting dots. I remember going on eBay and finding a copy of Party Monster. I was just searching. In my senior year of high school, I would sneak out of the house and go downtown to concerts, and I saw M.I.A. perform. And then when I moved to New York, there was a whole scene that was going on here. Everyone is rehashing it now. Like indie sleaze, and then the Beatrice opened. I just followed the breadcrumbs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you remember the first time you arrived in New York? What was it like? You were 20?
CARLY MARK — Eighteen. It was crazy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In 2005?
CARLY MARK — No, 2006. We used to go to Salon. I was really good friends with all the LA kids who would DJ at Salon, like Matt Creedon and Austin Peters and Harley Viera-Newton. I used to go to all the parties that those people would go to, and it was such a different time. New York is so different now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But nightlife remains a real creative resource in New York, no? It’s a place where you can meet people, where you can start collaborative projects.
CARLY MARK — Going out, you meet people, and then you end up working together. I think that’s the best way to build working relation- ships in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — New York, in that sense, has a collaborative energy, don’t you think?
CARLY MARK — Yes, absolutely. If you get out of the house, you meet people. I mean, that’s how we met. You just have to leave the house, and you end up working together. I don’t know what it’s like in other cities because I’ve never lived anywhere else, but that’s exactly what it’s like here.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And that’s something you also feel in the fashion world — that sense of community, where make-up artists, models, and stylists are all part of this community?
CARLY MARK — Yes, and I think each brand builds its own community. And there are different communities around each brand, and they’re all connected and overlap. But the Puppets community is very specific to me and my friend group. All of the young designers, like Vaquera or Telfar, build their community. And they all have a very specific voice because it’s the voice of the people running the brands. My community is made up of my very close friends, like Richie Shazam, Caroline Polachek, Hayden Dunham, and people whom I’ve just met and love over the years. I think there’s a lot of genuine ness to the communities around the young designers in New York. We’re so not corporate, and by being outside of the American market, we have the opportunity to do whatever we want and interact with anyone we want. There’s a cool factor to New York that I don’t think you see necessarily in Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But that requires an incredible energy, optimism, and trust in the future because you work with basically nothing.
CARLY MARK — You start with nothing. I mean, you remember when you came to my first studio for Puppets? It was in my living room. I had six or seven people working in my apartment for two years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In that tiny apartment. That’s real devotion. It’s a real commitment. In a way, this gap between commercial fashion — which is very powerful in New York and in America — and this underground scene is a paradox because it’s also stimulating, an opportunity to not be part of the system immediately. To have a place for dreams, for your own perspective. And to fight the system, in a way.
CARLY MARK — Yes, it’s simultaneously difficult and liberating. People always comment on my unique voice in fashion, and it’s because I have had the room to build a unique voice while working with nothing. My challenge right now is that as the brand is growing and people are investing in it, I’m trying to figure out how to grow while simultaneously holding onto that spirit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because the risk is selling out quickly. We’ve seen a lot of New York brands that are very promising at the beginning and then go commercial. CARLY MARK — I don’t want to lose my special thing. You have got to hold on to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you can become a caricature of this kind of 8th Street, Downtown look.
CARLY MARK — Totally. Some- thing that is very difficult for a lot of designers — not just New York designers, but designers in every city — is understanding and accepting when it’s time to stop. I don’t think fashion designers need to design forever. It’s rare that fashion designers can go their entire lives being relevant and fresh and holding onto that spirit. It’s amazing that Margiela bowed out when he did. He never put out a bad collection. Not once. And now he’s making art. I probably will go back to fine art at a certain point.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Or you could take over a bigger brand. CARLY MARK — I would love to do that. To me, that’s the ultimate goal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that’s a real possibility for you.
CARLY MARK — Thank you. That’s really what I want. I love New York, but I’ve only ever lived here. I want to move to a different city and do what Virgil Abloh did at Louis Vuitton. I’m not afraid of stepping into a heritage house and turning things on their head.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like what Daniel Roseberry is doing at Schiaparelli?
CARLY MARK — Yes, he’s really talented and has successfully brought the brand back into relevancy, which is not easy to do. The market is tricky, and he’s managed to tap into it successfully. The brand sells well, I know, because we both sell at Bergdorf, and I discuss this with my buyers there. I think it’s really hard to top the original.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. Very hard. Especially when it’s so specific.
CARLY MARK — So specific. Elsa Schiaparelli was a genius. Not that Daniel Roseberry isn’t, but she was a very specific genius. And she was so funny and strange. She didn’t have to worry about the market or being commercial, because she was…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Just an artist.
CARLY MARK — I mean, he’s accomplished something amazing there. But I would really love to have his opportunity eventually.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that fashion is more subversive in New York than in Europe?
CARLY MARK — I think that’s more common here, but there are European designers who have been able to do it. I think Demna is the best designer in the world right now. That’s what he’s done at Balenciaga. He has subverted that brand so successfully, so seamlessly, so brilliantly. Jonathan Anderson’s also doing a really great job at Loewe, and Glenn Martens is doing an amazing job with Y/Project and Diesel. I guess it is happening with some of the new brands in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an interesting moment because there are so many little brands that are sometimes immature, sometimes interesting, sometimes purely virtual on Instagram.
CARLY MARK — It is. Many came out of the pandemic. Many people started developing these lines during the pandemic, and it all blossomed. But I’m curious to see which ones stay — just because you blossom doesn’t mean that you can sustain.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, it’s been, what, five years?
CARLY MARK — I started in 2019, so I’m working toward my eighth season. I think every time I put out a collection, people are surprised. They’re like, “Wait, she’s still here?” And I’m like, “You have no idea how relentless I can be.” I’m focused and not a quitter. I’ve lived in New York for 16 years, and the city turns you into a tough, resilient creature, for better or worse.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Definitely. And let’s speak about the way you use upcycling.
CARLY MARK — Before fashion, I am an artist and a lover of objects and things that have life in them. There’s so much more life and energy in objects that have been around for a while, and when you integrate them into a collection, they really energize it. I find that when I either use a vintage fabric or make shoes — the runway shoes are vintage shoes that I then alter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It gives it a different energy.
CARLY MARK — Totally. Be- cause when a collection is all brand-new, fresh, everything you just made feels like an infant. It feels like a child, which is great, but there is something really beautiful about integrating an adult object into a collection with a baby thing. It just brings more life into a collection.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s also for creative reasons. It’s not just about the planet.
CARLY MARK — I care about the planet, of course, because we live on it, and I make things in small batches be- cause I’m still a young designer, and I don’t want to overproduce if I don’t have to. I don’t want my clothing to end up in landfills. But it’s also a visceral thing, for me. I’m an incredibly emotional person, and I care about energy and how things feel. I appreciate things that have existed in the world longer than me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about your casting method.
CARLY MARK — The people I cast in my shows are always a mix of models and friends or people from the
Puppets community. You want people in the show who in- spire you just as much as you want a beautiful body.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s also something specific to you and specific to New York, which is how your collections embrace the queer revolution in New York.
CARLY MARK — Yes, I try to be sincere. So, I’m constantly thinking: “Is this something I would wear? Is this something I care about?” I’m glad it comes off that way because I do think about it a lot.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And that’s your version of New York fashion, too, because the gender revolution is very alive here.
CARLY MARK — Do you find it’s more present here than in other cities?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Much more than in Paris, even though it’s coming to Paris, but it’s not totally integrated in fashion, or it is but in a more marketing way. A more politically correct way. Not as a source of inspiration.
CARLY MARK — Yeah, it’s super important here. And I feel like I saw the birth of it probably 10 years ago. Everyone started having conversations about pronouns and gender.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was very difficult to understand at the beginning. It was a different way of creating.
CARLY MARK — Totally. And for people who have been here for a long time, hav- ing a conversation about gender politics at the Beatrice, never! You know what I mean? We were just all in that back room smoking with Björk DJing and Liv Tyler sitting there and all of us being like, “Oh my God.” It’s like no one was talk- ing about they/them. It’s like, who knew? So, when it started, I remember being like: “Wow, what is happen- ing? What is this?”
OLIVIER ZAHM — I was confused, too. But it’s very interesting how the social landscape has changed the creative energy.
CARLY MARK — I remember one day it just clicked. Now I can’t imagine a different world. And nightlife revolves around it in a very specific way as well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But when you see that the new British prime minister wants to cut the rights of trans people…
CARLY MARK — It’s so fucked up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s so strange, this regulation. When things happen in New York, the city has this political agenda that transcends generations, don’t you think? From Jack Smith to today, it’s like a straight line.
CARLY MARK — Yeah. It doesn’t backstep. We’re not really a city that takes 10 steps forward and five steps back. New York keeps moving forward. I don’t know if I’ve ever even really thought about that, but it’s completely true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, New York is an emotional city?
CARLY MARK — New York is a very sensitive city, an incredibly emotional city. And that’s probably why we don’t move backward, we don’t look back. And to tie back into fashion, that’s probably why young designers are all really creative, and their collections very personal. It can be hard for young New York designers to break through the market and make money — because we care so much about what we’re doing and about being genuine that, in a way, we make it hard for the masses to understand us. I made the cookie bag, and I was like: “Oh, this makes so much sense. This is so easy. People will get this.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s such a great bag.
CARLY MARK — Thank you. We took it to market, and the buyers who are middle ground, totally basic people, a lot of them were like, “It’s so weird.” And I was like: “What? What do you mean it’s weird?” I left. But I think that’s how New York designers are. We’re like: “Oh, this is great. This is real.” And the masses are like, “You’re so weird.” Like: “I didn’t know. Really?” But that makes it hard for us business-wise. I’m working to find the middle ground, where I’m still being genuine, but I’m also making things that people understand, that the Net-a-Porter buyer can buy into. Because I want to keep the lights on. I want to be able to keep walking into my office every day and eventually be hired to creative direct a heritage house. And although, yes, that is based on your abilities and creativity, they also care about numbers. Can you sell clothes? Because when people are investing millions of dollars in what you’re doing, they need to know that it potentially will come back. So, finding that balance is really, really hard.
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