Purple Magazine
— The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

speaking out bernadette van-huy



interview by olivier zahm and aleph molinari

OLIVIER ZAHM — When the Bernadette Corporation collective was created in the mid-’90s, why did everyone decide to use your name?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — It was Thuy Pham’s idea to impersonate a corporation and to call us that. Corporations often adopt a female front, to seem warm and giving.


ALEPH MOLINARI — So, it’s a play on not being corporate?


Corporation — in a romantic, fictional way, imagining we’re a corporation in a William Gibson novel. Corporation — because corporations are society’s lawful criminals. So, the corporate name is a permission slip, a rabbit hole. A good-looking font behind which you can do whatever you want and disappear. Corporation — to annoy the politically correct types. And finally, because yes, it’s a joke, a play on not being corporate. We lived in a filthy, windowless loft where each of us had a horse stall, not even a room.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Everyone could disappear except for you.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — I was already invisible. I disappeared behind the others. The group was like a magic cloak. The others could speak very well. Antek [Walczak] spoke very well.


OLIVIER ZAHM — John Kelsey, too?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — John, too, but he started working with us a little later. So, I didn’t have to speak. My voice could bounce around within the group, but others could do the speaking.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Until now. [Laughs]

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes! For Purple’s 30th anniversary, I’m blabbing away.


OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you were doing fashion shows, videos, photography, styling, and some art, also. But Bernadette Corporation started as a fashion collective, right?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — I would say, in hindsight, that it was more political and literary than anything else. That was more the heart of it. And then our choice of industry, where to apply that heart, was fashion at first. Thuy was going to Cooper Union at that time. And the climate there — at least among the kids he knew, and also in the greater downtown area — was very Pop. Kids were playing at being wan “fashion victims,” after Warhol. Our idea was to try something along the lines of what Malcolm McLaren did with the Sex Pistols, to invest something subversive into a popular product and send it as far out into the center of mainstream culture as possible. Like a little bomb. Where it would affect as many people as possible. That’s why we chose to make a fashion line, and not to do something in an art gallery. We didn’t want to be artists.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Or fashion designers, even?
BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — True. Not really that, either. [Laughs]


OLIVIER ZAHM — I love that Pop attitude. Do you remember Art Club 2000? They had a similar spirit.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes, Thuy was at Cooper with them. They are the other art-school kids I was talking about.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Playing with fashion just for the attitude, in a pre-Instagram or pre-Internet world, because the Internet was not really there at the time. And you never had any ambitions to become famous?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Oh, we definitely wanted to be famous.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Very quickly, Bernadette Corporation created a scene with its fashion collections, which were very underground and unlike anything anyone else was doing. It was very New York: this attitude of mixing a street influence, sneakers…

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — But that didn’t exist in New York at that time. Strangely, whereas it would seem as if culturally NYC could often be leading because it didn’t have a history or tradition to deal with. I don’t know what happened to NYC fashion — why it wasn’t more interesting collectively. I can only speak about the industry at that time. Not that there weren’t interesting things, but altogether it was kind of dull. And although NYC was such a melting pot, none of that seeped onto the runway. I don’t want to say white or nonwhite, or male or female, simply because it isn’t simple anymore along those lines. A nonwhite person can be more white than a white person, a female more male than a male. Anyway, the runways were very well behaved and organized around the bogeyman of self-uniqueness. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there was the evil pleasure of the Chinatown designer knockoffs, of street riffraff getting arrested on that show Cops, wearing head-to-toe Polo, making an impromptu ad campaign.


OLIVIER ZAHM — You connected street and sportswear with the world of art and fashion, and created a comment on that duality of high and low, creative and commercial. And that was interesting because they were still very divided at the time.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Right. I read something recently about Kafka: he said he liked to write like a dog digs a hole. John also made a crack about Warhol — that he recognized the stupidity of being smart. People often think that to make “art,” you have to look “higher,” when actually you have to look down to find it. Not the lowest-common-denominator kind of thing, where I think America has found itself, but a low that is also a high. Going low and going high can be the same direction, and that is the stuff I’m talking about. Not the lowest-common-denominator culture, which makes everything about sex and consumerism.


OLIVIER ZAHM — It was also connected to music and to the beginning of the hip-hop scene and the Wu-Tang Clan. It was a moment when creativity in music came from the street, from real people.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Hip-hop is an example of what I’m talking about. It was made out of nothing, in hopeless existential conditions. And then, this creativity invented something from nothing. That’s an example of low and high together — low meaning from less, from nothing.


OLIVIER ZAHM — From their own energy.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes. The Bronx was a bombed-out war zone, and everyone was in a street gang. You had to be. It didn’t matter if you were the nicest person in the world. You had to be in a gang and fight. Every neighborhood had its own gang and so was off-limits to the other gangs. But then miraculously, after so much useless killing, one gang started to advocate for peace, and they actually created a peace accord.


OLIVIER ZAHM — By themselves?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes. Do you know the film The Warriors?



BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — There’s this cult film The Warriors by the director Walter Hill. He made a very strange movie, centered on the street gangs in New York having a bizarre summit meeting. It seemed totally absurd and made-up, but it really happened. There was a pan-NYC summit of all the gang leaders and deputies, and they declared peace. Because of this newfound peace, people could suddenly enter different neighborhoods and intermingle. All the previous violence and aggression were sublimated into music and dancing. And that’s why the early dancing was like very aggressive ballet.


OLIVIER ZAHM — And Wu-Tang is very interesting for that because you can feel the energy of the street, the energy of the danger. Also, everyone is performing for themselves but at the same time as a group. Bernadette Corporation has a similar spirit, mixing the street and a critique of the fashion system. I attended two Bernadette Corporation shows. It was really exciting — there was an amazing energy.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes, there was. We were always backstage, frantically dressing the models. So, we never knew what was happening out front. One of our friends always made a crappy videotape of the show, and then, after finishing and packing up, we would go home and watch it. And the funniest things had always happened. Some of the models were great performers, and they’d take a reading of the clothes and act it out.


OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’d mix models, friends, and artists on the runway.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — I mean, we always tried to get supermodels, but the agencies never gave them to us. We bugged our friend Mark Borthwick so much every season to convince his friend Stella Tennant to model for us. He always tried, but it never worked out. We bugged everybody for things. Olivier, we bugged you, too, when we were making our magazine, to get us a Marc Jacobs ad. And it never worked. You tried, didn’t you? We were always trying to drive into the middle of fashion, but the roads were blocked.


OLIVIER ZAHM — It was really difficult for young designers in New York in the ’90s, and it may still be the case.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — The production costs are just too high.


OLIVIER ZAHM — And for you, is it because of economic or cultural reasons? Because remember, you had American Manufacturing Company, Seth Shapiro, and Susan Cianciolo. Proenza Schouler was among the few who managed to break into the fashion system, and that was in 2010 — so, 15 years later. It’s difficult for a young designer to establish a creative brand in New York. The context is much more commercial.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — It’s really an economy of scale. You can’t do it unless you’re massive.


ALEPH MOLINARI — And in many ways, it compromises the artistic intent — that you have to sanitize…

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Well, I mean you can’t really do it in a fun way anymore if you just have to go so huge. It just becomes a business concern.


ALEPH MOLINARI — Which is a race to the bottom in terms of costs, and at the same time, it’s just commercializing every aspect of the brand. How can creativity survive in that process?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Don’t ask me. I could never work that much, so I can’t even begin to… Even this Pur­ple operation is remarkable to me.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that why Bernadette Corporation moved to the art world?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — No, it was because we split up with Thuy. We never planned to be a normal designer [operation], but I think that when we started getting so much attention, it went to Thuy’s head, and he wanted to transform us into just a normal design company, with him at the top since he was the fashion designer. So, we just broke it up.


OLIVIER ZAHM — He continued for a while, right?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes, he made United Bamboo afterward. Antek and I did nothing for a while, and then we moved in with John. And so, we were all living…


OLIVIER ZAHM — In your little commune.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes. [Laughs] A commune of whiskey worshippers.


OLIVIER ZAHM — And you created the magazine Made in USA.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes. It was because we were used to doing fashion, and we weren’t designers or anything, and so we couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, we did that homemade magazine, and every issue took us one year. It’s so much work to make a magazine.


OLIVIER ZAHM — How many issues did you do?

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Three. We were in the middle of making a fourth, and then 9/11 happened, and we just aborted everything.


OLIVIER ZAHM — 9/11 destroyed Made in USA.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes! A minor casualty.


OLIVIER ZAHM — But then you created the Reena Spaulings collective project.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes. But let’s talk about something else! That’s enough history — people can Google the rest.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. Tell us about the fashion project you did recently with Rita Ackermann.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Yes, we called the line McLaren. It was a spontaneous, personal project — extremely light and instinctual. It was like a series of fast judo moves, and suddenly there was a small collection of clothes, and we made a photo shoot with it and drawings, and published all of it in the art magazine Ursula. My impression of Rita is that her vision is so strong that when she looks out of her eyes, what she sees is a fantastical world, according to her desires.

Reality is an invention, but most of us don’t utilize that inventive, creative part — we default to some humdrum idea of reality, to what we’ve been told is reality. But I think that reality, for Rita and me, is much wilder and more enchanted. And when you spend a lot of time with her, suddenly you’re in that enchanted place, too.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Bernadette Corporation is a critique of the system, but you are also very good at producing an image. You’re an image-maker, Bernadette, not only because of your photographs, but also with your styling, your picture compositions. When you produce pictures, they look like fashion, but they also articulate a visual language that transforms fashion. This is why people like your art — because it looks like fashion, but it’s not. How do you work on your pictures? Because you have a very specific aesthetic…

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — How I like to work on a shoot is that I’ll look at whatever I’m thinking about at the time, and I’ll try to find a way to make some part of that process function as pictures. Meaning, I take a piece of the problem and translate it into the visual realm, so that I can keep developing my thinking on it. My shoots are always part of a larger concern. To talk about the state of our culture for a second… In this kind of global society, with people having to or wanting to speak to thousands or millions of people with their product, most resort to the lowest-common-denominator practice. An obscene sex or consumerism spectacle. They assume and bank on the belief that this is what all people have in common and can’t not look at or talk about. A celebrity strips down for the millionth time, and all the papers cover it because everyone assumes this is so base that it’s like gravity, a force that none of us can escape. But there is a universality around a higher culture. There’s so much evidence of it. It’s the phenomenon when high and low are two aspects of the same direction. The strip-tease and consumerist show are base. The other kind of thing that I call “low” is more what Kafka or Warhol did, for example. It’s a de-creating. Discovering a pre-individuation. Going high is finding a post-individuation. So, they are two sides of the same thing. And the thing is that this high/low value speaks to everybody. It’s a rarer thing, but there are cases of it all the time — the great comedy, performance, music that people universally respond to. People of all classes, educations, localities, and kinds have a commonality, an undeniable commonality for great things as well. I think we’re forgetting that… How did you deal with the pandemic?


OLIVIER ZAHM — From my perspective, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I had a panic attack. I felt that the magazine world would not survive this situation. You couldn’t even buy a magazine for almost a year. Newsstands were closed, and people didn’t care. But I never stopped publishing. And I was surprised that the desire for the magazine continued — it’s still there. But the beginning was very scary. I was thinking, “How can I transfer the magazine from paper to TV, maybe, or just to an Internet space?” But I couldn’t find the alternative solution online, and I’m still looking for it.

BERNADETTE VAN-HUY — Well, from someone who’s made a magazine herself, who experienced firsthand how hard it is, props to you for making such a playful and inspired one for 30 years. Happy birthday, Purple!


[Table of contents]

The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

Table of contents

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