Purple Magazine
— S/S 2009 issue 11

Zac Posen

Portrait by Glen Luchford

pictures by GLEN LUCHFORD
featuring PARKER POSEY
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM


Perhaps the most precocious and flamboyant designer of the downtown Manhattan scene, ZAC POSEN is a truly an American success story. He’s talented, charming, hard-working but easy-going, and totally committed to fashion. What’s the secret of his success? His glamour, his energy, his social cachet? Perhaps it’s that fashion is his religion, and his charismatic aura draws the fashion faithful toward him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What a nice, well-organized office you have. How many people work with you?
ZAC POSEN — About 70. We’ve been in business for about seven years now. It developed organically. I started it up in my parent’s living room when I came back from St. Martin’s in London. I just started making the clothing I wanted to make — very wild and exciting pieces — and people started buying them. I took on interns and then employees and it just kept growing. Around 2001 we started receiving a lot of attention. It all happened really fast. I didn’t really follow fashion before. I was only interested in making sculpture and clothing, and in the philosophy of high fashion. I worked at the Metropolitan Museum; that’s where I received my real education in fashion. I knew that New York could give me an opportunity to create a voice and a message.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I read that you had a summer job at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum when you were only 16, and that you worked with Richard Martin. He’s no longer alive, is he?
ZAC POSEN — No, he died in the third year of my internship there. Working with him was the greatest experience. He took fashion very seriously, which, at the time, I didn’t. [Laughs] My father is a painter, and I was raised to believe in the nobler arts. I didn’t think of fashion as being a high art or as having any great cultural significance. I thought that something with character, emotion, and great line and form was great — because it had a function, a social function — and that art should stand on its own, its power being self-sufficient, with the artist’s personal exploration often being the only really important thing. I changed my outlook after I began working with Richard at the Met. He helped me learn about fashion’s cultural significance and its value as an art form. We researched continuously and explored his philosophy of fashion — the role of text in fashion and the significance of Versace’s use of the media in the ’80s, for example.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you assist Richard Martin in his role as a fashion curator, as well?
ZAC POSEN — No, I was only an intern. But by just being around him I picked up on fashion, and I was able to use the library, study the actual garments, make wigs, and be around people who took fashion extremely seriously, when I was 16, 17, and 18. I went to work after high school. Richard would edit the research papers I did on fashion — “The History of the Color Gray,” or “Heels, Height, Femininity, and Power.” [Laughs] I started to make clothing myself during this time, when I was 15 or 16 — trying to figure out sewing and pattern making, and just taking in as much information as I could.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of paintings does your father do?
ZAC POSEN — Now he does abstract paintings, but before he was a photo-realist. He would attach boxes to a wall, drape them in fabric, paint the fabric, and then paint a photo-realistic painting of the whole thing. It was a very expensive, very laborious process. He abandoned this process in favor of a more controlled abstract expressionism.

Black, white and pink tulle skirt and black satin jacket ZAC POSEN

OLIVIER ZAHM — Having a painter for a father, were you a part of the SoHo art scene?
ZAC POSEN — Not really. My dad is very introverted and not very social, so I didn’t grow up with the media art of the ’80s. I went to school with children of famous or unknown artists or of professors, but my parents weren’t part of the SoHo art group. Everyone’s apartment was half living/half studio space. It was definitely a more bohemian existence than the glamorous one of the New York high art scene, which I learned more about as a teenager. I was intrigued by it, and eventually I understood it, but finally I was disgusted by it. [Laughs] I’ve always had a sense of grandeur and scale; I take joy in it, in the ability to be transported by it. As a creator I like to facilitate experience, emotion, and adventure. It’s like wearing a mask — you can’t hide behind a mask; it actually brings out more of your personality, but it has to be exercised honestly. In the process of developing my company I gained a real understanding of the different ways one can facilitate this in America. I’m fascinated by mass media. Perhaps because my father never showed his work, and labored in isolation, I reacted in the opposite direction. My mother made leather belts in the ’70s, became a businesswoman, and then went on to become a corporate lawyer on Wall Street in the ’80s. So I had a weird mix of influences. In high school I was pulled toward the academic world of mathematics. I designed computer systems that could break down and measure bodies for pattern-making using tessellation. This would have helped in the construction of wire models of bodies, using patterns with allowances for the seams to be printed out, and so on. Being completely dyslexic, however, I had a hard time growing up, so when I got to high school and I actually began to understand academic subjects, it was a high for me. [Laughs] It was something like the high I get building my business now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it because, in contrast to the business side, the artistic side of your life is kind of crazy?
ZAC POSEN — No, the business part of my life is much crazier. [Laughs] There’s much more rationality in the creative process than in numbers. Numbers have different meanings in different cultures and are sometimes incredibly abstract. Studying Egyptian mathematics and what numbers mean actually helped me understand numbers in clothing-making patterns.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you like living in London?
ZAC POSEN — It was horrible. [Laughs] I was really lonely. But in retrospect I can say I had a lot of fun. I lived like an adult for the first time, first by myself and then sharing a place, first with Jessica Joffe and then with Vanina Sorrenti. Vanina and I became like brother and sister. She was just starting her career as a fashion photographer. I learned a lot about the London fashion world through her. It was the first time I really thought about magazines and the editorial processes. It was an exciting time. McQueen was at his height. It was just before he left for France. I think he’d just left Givenchy. It was around the time he did his glass box. It was a great community of people and friends. My friend and neighbor Simonez came over all the time for dinner. I traded dinner for marijuana. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do students at St. Martin’s have to attend lot of courses?
ZAC POSEN — No, it’s mostly projects and presentations. Which are very hard and rigorous. They pushed me very hard. I explored and tried my hardest to find things that interested me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did they put you down for being an American?
ZAC POSEN — Of course. [Laughs] I was an American. I needed attention and I dressed for attention. I always thought it was important to explore how clothing can affect the way you feel, and the way different characters dress in different ways. It’s an important part of the process of becoming a designer, to understand how clothing makes you feel. But, yeah, they were very hard on me, mainly for being six years younger than the other people in my classes. I skipped the foundation courses. They put me right into the main program, because of the work I was doing, the clothes I was already making — which was probably a mistake. [Laughs] It was a great time, though. I learned so much from my friend Anita Pallenberg, who I met on the street the first or second day I was there. I had no idea — this woman was kind of growling at me, so I just growled right back at her and she ended up inviting me to a party. I didn’t know who she was or what her history was. It was great. She was like my mother away from home. She really took great care of me. I started selling clothes to my friends, and then to people who saw my clothes on my friends, people like Naomi Campbell, who first saw a piece of mine on my friend Lola Schnabel. It was all very innocent and uncontrived. I just wanted to grow creatively and expand my vision. I didn’t want to become part of the fashion scene. But I did understand the necessity of the media in fashion, and it was clear to me that the next step for fashion was in the media, that people were becoming very interested in the people behind the fashion industry. But there was no strategy. It was all instinct; it all just happened around me. I’ve always been intrigued by the old MGM movie studio’s system of creating stars and culture. I knew that people were interested in the social life of New York. I knew from how I dressed in New York that people were interested in a kind of self-made star culture, in character and individuality. I took it to the limit in the young girls that I pictured as stars — and therefore dressed like stars. It’s all about seeing star quality in people. So moving in with Jessica Joffe or making clothes for Genevieve Jones before they were well known helped. I met Paz de la Huerta in high school; we did photo shoots when she was 12 years old. I’ve always had great women around me and what I think I’ve been able to give them is a level of support, clarity, and belief.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you see the star quality in women and you nurture it.
ZAC POSEN — Exactly. But hopefully I nurture it in healthy ways, because when you’re young it can be really dark. You can get involved with drugs and drinking. Too many friends of mine have disappeared, people I thought were too smart for that. I’ve always had a sort of protective aura around me. I naturally shy away from situations that seem uncomfortable, maybe because I’m comfortable with myself. I’ve been with some of the most hardcore people in the world but I’ve been able to stay clean. [Laughs]

Black bow and navy heels ZAC POSEN, vintage black sequin shorts, black leather gloves SERMONETA

OLIVIER ZAHM — Hardcore in what way?
ZAC POSEN — Indulging in suffocating behavior — maybe having an addiction of some kind. Often it’s people who are too intelligent to cope with the stupidity of the world. Anyway, I came back to New York in 2001 and did a small show right before September 11th. I had thought that maybe I’d go to Paris and work for Azzedine Alaïa. I probably would have loved it, but I couldn’t afford it. He was very nurturing and very nice. He’s an angel. He can be a devil, too, as any great artist and perfectionist has to be. He’s a true sculptor, a real designer, and a real comedian. He puts humor in his clothing too, but in the most sophisticated way. He’s someone who is able to reinterpret form. His work is as substantial for me as a great stone carving.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I think you share with him the expectation that very high standards will be met.
ZAC POSEN — You’re right. There is a level of technique, fabrication, and finish that I do expect. It drives the people I work with crazy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is true love for women essential in a designer?
ZAC POSEN — Yes. It has to be a religion. That’s what I’m here for. I’m a fanatic about seduction and the kind of dance that clothing can have. But all the attention I got when I came back! I mean, I didn’t even know who [fashion critic] Suzy Menkes was. My first show was put together on a grant from a winemaking company. We started this company with $10,000 of lemonade money. [Laughs] But there were cool people around who just wanted to help. It was a beautiful time for me as a creator — finding the right people to work with. In retrospect I see that I abandoned some people, but that’s part of the learning process. It was right after 9/11. I thought, what the hell are we doing making clothing? It felt like such nonsense. But there were three or four people who were willing to take a career risk and work with me on my next collection. We showed it in a beautiful synagogue on the Lower East Side. It was incredible. Some great people helped me out — Thierry Dreyfus gave me his beautiful lighting and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers composed amazing hypnotic music for the show. But there was a level of polish I demanded in what was very abstract clothing. I wanted to reintroduce the ideal of glamour into American clothing. I wasn’t aware of who were the popular models of the time. I cast weird models, like Helmut Newton models from LA. I did a general casting for two weeks. It was a pure speculation. I didn’t know who anybody was. There was no P.R. It was exciting and terrifying, an ultimate kind of high, like a band’s first concert.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you deal with your celebrity?
ZAC POSEN — I like interacting with people and I’m inspired by watching what other people do. I also like to entertain. Throughout my childhood I wanted to be a singer and an actor. So being a celebrity satisfies part of that desire, but, more importantly, it draws attention to my work. But celebrity can be a curse, because it’s not considered cool. Mystery has something cooler about it. A pop culture icon rarely has sophistication.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe your personal style?
ZAC POSEN — Well, I’ve changed it many times. It’s evolved. For many years I had no money — when I lived at home and then in my studio. I just dressed in what I found and then cut up and layered and created something out of. I was thinking mythical, nomadic, 1930s, bohemian, fashion illustration.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You really like wearing jackets, don’t you?
ZAC POSEN — Yes, I love jackets. I like construction. I like boots, if only for pro-tection. Like cowboy boots. I mean, I lived with a cowboy for four years. I even learned how to cut cattle. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was a long way from SoHo!
ZAC POSEN — Yeah! [Laughs] No, I actually learned how to ride really well. It was all a great relief from the fashion world and the media. You’re basically just in touch with the land, the weather, and the cattle. I learned about agriculture — and music! Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Leon Redbone… I even learned how to dance the two-step, and all about the peacocks of the cowboy world after the Fourth of July rodeo. I was able to explore the imaginations of people totally outside the fashion world, their ability to dream and celebrate life. I connected with nature. I got my hands in the dirt. But then I always liked planting things and nurturing things. Connecting with nature is a pure peace.

Black and white criss cross dress and navy heels ZAC POSEN, black stockings FALKE and black leather gloves SERMONETA

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m guessing that you like to cook.
ZAC POSEN — Absolutely. I love cooking. I cook all day long. I used to go home after school and watch all the cooking shows. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you plan to make men’s clothing?
ZAC POSEN — I’d love to. I think I understand what it would take to do it well, business-wise. It’s exciting as well as frustrating. I always want to get bigger, faster, and closer to perfection, but it takes time. I took Puff Daddy and Ron Berkel in as investors after a period of wondering where the money to pay my employees would come from. People often worked for me without fixed salaries before then. My sister, who is my creative director, had never been paid! It was very scary, meeting with large companies. Then I met Puffy and asked him to do the music for one of my shows, and he and Ron Berkel ended up investing in our company.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So the business side of your company is as interesting to you as the creative side.
ZAC POSEN — Absolutely. So is the media.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it possible to be nice and still be an effective boss?
ZAC POSEN — It’s very hard. You have to keep everything in balance and it doesn’t always work out. I’ve burned a few bridges. Some people probably hate my guts or think I’m untalented or that I expect the impossible. But I think that anything one dreams is possible. That celebrities ended up wearing our clothing only happened by chance. Natalie Portman wore a dress of mine to the opening of Star Wars in 2001 and her picture ended up in the Post, The Daily News, and The New York Times. I was making clothing that was all about character, and stars want something that looks good on them. My clothing looks better on them than it does on models.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is a very American approach.
ZAC POSEN — That’s true. The clothing itself isn’t so American, but the media part, the celebrity part, is totally American.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very wrapped up with movie culture and Hollywood tradition.
ZAC POSEN — Yeah, it’s part of the industry. Fashion-tainment is a new word we put into the vernacular. [Laughs]

Jardin lace dress ZAC POSEN and vintage black flower pin

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you feel about American fashion? Who do you like these days?
ZAC POSEN — For their emotional and æsthetic qualities, and for the level of their perfection, I get a reaction from the work of Azzedine Alaïa and Yohji Yamamoto. For his splendor and brand building, I think John Galliano is brilliant. For what he did with media, star quality, and mystery, I think Marc Jacobs is amazing. He lived the American Dream…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean to start from an anti-fashion position…
ZAC POSEN — And end up being extremely fashionable. And to also go through a personal development like that — that’s what keeps it exciting, beyond the clothes themselves. I also admire people who are in touch with women, in terms of constructing clothing for the form of women, in the way Alber Elbaz does today at Lanvin. I understand how he looks at it. I definitely create for myself. American fashion has become completely media-driven. Celebrity in fashion is the most powerful thing in it now. That’s what American fashion has to offer the world. I don’t think sportswear really has a purpose in American fashion anymore. After World War Two, Europe reduced the amount of fashion it made and so America had to make its own, one that had a puritanical utility. Earlier on Levi-Strauss was very important. But the disposable fashion of H&M, Zara, Mango, and American Apparel has replaced durability in fashion. What designers can still explore is the balance of art and commerce and what interests them creatively.

OLIVIER ZAHM — New York is the prefect place for you, then, because you’re constantly informed by what’s happening in the art world and the film world.
ZAC POSEN — Absolutely. It’s imperative to live in a city like this.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Although it must be hard to concentrate here.
ZAC POSEN — Totally. I have to shut the door of my studio and concentrate on draping my mannequins.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And shut off your cell phone.
ZAC POSEN — Yeah. Though I’ve only had one for two years.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Karl Lagerfeld: no cell phone.
ZAC POSEN — There’s no need for one. An assistant can take your calls. But it’s hard because our business is very big now. We sell in 47 countries; half our sales are outside the States. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to build a luxury brand from the States. But it takes a lot of time to run the company and also be the face of the company. I don’t spend as much hands-on time in the studio as I would like, and I don’t always succeed in creating the purest, clearest message. But I feel like I’m growing and getting closer to achieving that. But a designer has to have the support of an infrastructure of finance and marketing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve managed to survive, unlike a lot of independent labels.
ZAC POSEN — I’m determined to survive. Being so big is a form of sacrifice in a way, but it’s a short-term sacrifice.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can stay small, but if you want to get bigger, you have to try to get really big.
ZAC POSEN — My original concept was just to make one-of-a-kind pieces inside a Damien Hirst-type glass box that people could look into. [Laughs] It was kind of a predecessor to the idea of reality TV. I really wanted to keep the whole thing as small and exclusive as possible, but it didn’t turn out that way. So I took it to the other extreme. And that’s beautiful, too. The result is a new level of perfection. But I’m not sure being big makes one happy in the long run. Even though we have investors and a lot of resources, we still keep a pretty close eye on our books. There’s a real art to running a business, one that I don’t think is respected enough in fashion. It’s really the backbone of it all, and it’s fascinating when you understand it. I was talking to my friend Fiona — she worked for us in the beginning — about my more wild, experimental pieces. I said I knew that she understood that they meant a lot to me as a designer and that she might love to wear them, but that she had to consider who the real customers are. Sometimes it’s not so interesting to create something just for the sake of creating. It can be like fashion-masturbation, which can be great, but… [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — This seems to be the problem of a lot of young European designers.
ZAC POSEN — American ones, too. But there weren’t a lot of young American designers around when we started, and we were really young in terms of our creative development. The media simply jumped on us and I think that encouraged a lot of young designers to think they could become famous, too, or that they could just start creating. My mother and I used our drive to interact with Anna Wintour, the matriarch of American fashion, to convince her to support new designers. But this created a problem — the market wasn’t big enough and a lot of uncreative minds ended up getting attention. American designers aren’t particularly inspiring for me, but I do like Geoffrey Beene and Charles James. I’m intrigued by some of the work of Francisco Costa. I also think Ralph Lauren was brilliant in the branding of his work. I mean, I really want to live in his movie. [Laughs] I want to drive his car, or just take a ride in it, as I don’t drive. Calvin built a great brand as well. I’m trying to do that, too, so eventually I can have creative freedom. I’d like to design for the opera and films. I just want to have interesting experiences. I admire people like Walt Disney — people who inspire young people to dream. It’s really powerful, the ability to inspire other people to create things themselves.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’d like to branch out into other areas.
ZAC POSEN — Yes. I think it’s a common thing now — look at fashion-tainment TV and all the media around fashion now. American Vogue is no longer a magazine or a catalog; it’s more something that follows and promotes and creates character development for entertainment. I want to push that a lot further. I want to be more hands-on in creating the content that people see. The celebrity part of it is going to get bigger. People need escapism, something to dream about, and something to react to. It’s during hard times that the real characters are born. I want to create even more emotional pieces. It’s not about merchandizing and numbers. It’s really about having the ability to create something, to create emotion, to have your hands in it, and to make things that are unique, special, or one of a kind. In film and television you can find new ways of using your creative voice. I don’t do it for the money, not ever. I want to see the company grow but that’s not what it’s all about. I may not be in the position to direct a movie of my own, but I like conceptualizing and I think that because of my understanding of the commercial side of things I can support and protect other artists so they can make their own work. That’s important to me. So is offering great content, a new look, and a new voice to our culture. There’s so much junk out there. I can’t stand it. [Laughs] It’s such a waste and it drives me crazy. There are so many talented people out there. I don’t believe in throwaway. Everything should have meaning. Anyway, now we’re working on a fragrance and the bottle for it. We worked with Fabien Baron and it was an amazing collaboration. And we’re going to introduce our lower-priced collection in September. Maybe we’ll show it in Europe too. But it’s been a funny kind of dance for me and for my work in Europe. People are intrigued, but don’t like the grotesque quality of mass media. It’s not part of their culture. They don’t understand my ironic use of it, the absurdity of it, the humor of it.

Christopher Niquet, style — Dana Veraldi, stylist’s assistant — Jimmy Paul @ CALLISTE, hair — Lisa Houghton @ JEDROOT, make-up — Doug Bruce, photographer’s assistant — Jack Webb, lighting technician — Heath McBride, digital technician 

[Table of contents]

S/S 2009 issue 11

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