In the midst of New York Fashion Week’s frenzy, there was a meditative procession quietly underway in the East Village. A stream of downtown art kids playing the role of model walk down a runway shaped like a spiral labyrinth — their faces in a trance-like daze.
This show was held at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery with clouds of frankincense filling its nave and marked Zoe Gustavia Anna Whalen’s arrival on New York’s fashion scene.
As an alum of Eckhaus Latta, Bless and Interior, Whalen’s first collection represents a recent leap of faith. In September she quit her job at Interior and emptied her savings account in pursuit of launching an art-as-fashion label — becoming the latest designer in New York City’s movement of DIY brands, many of them fashioned as commentary on mass production and overconsumption.
“I am just at a point right now in my life where I was going through a lot of personal transformation and was giving a lot of energy to other places. I had a moment where I wondered what would happen if I gave that same energy to myself to focus on garments I didn’t feel like I saw in the world and could make,” she told WWD by phone a day after her show.
Jack Miner and Lily Miesmer, her former bosses and the cofounders of Interior, said of Whalen: “Zoe has a ton of depth as an artist and designer — we consider her to be a formidable new voice in fashion and are so excited to see her contributions to the industry.”
Whalen’s designs — constructed of bits and bobs of gauzy fabrics and a woodsy color palette — speak to her New England upbringing and her mother’s lifestyle in Salem, Massachusetts.
It was there in the winter of 1692 that many women — wearing the kind of cotton voile fabrics Whalen seems to gravitate toward and amid a background of lifeless trees from which she pulls her color scheme — found themselves embroiled in one of America’s greatest conspiracy theories that ultimately led to the Salem Witch Trials.
Whalen looks to clothes of that time, including its corsetry and pannier silhouettes, and merges them with the visual hallmarks and “can do” attitude of today’s DIY movement. All of the fabrics in the collection were either deadstock or discarded.
The designer appears to focus on antique undergarments as a means to reference the past — the nightgowns, chemises and hoop skirts that defined another time. They are paired with kooky, sculptural takes on today’s underpinnings and lingerie-dressing. It was a good starting point from which Whalen can spin a deeper narrative and point of view.
“I think the words upcycle, DIY and craft are around a lot right now. I really want to rethink how we can shape textiles and honor women that have historically been at the center of crafting and sewing. Women’s history is rooted in seamstresses and quilting and [that history] has been lost in time,” said the designer.
Like her many peers trading in this moment of deconstruction, Whalen does so out of necessity. As the cost of living and operating a business in New York City continues to climb, making clothes by hand that are a little rough around the edges feels more attainable for many self-funded creatives in the fashion space.
Whalen intends to price her line to reach people like herself. “Things that are more handcrafted and not easily replicable will be priced from $250 to $900. But I’d like to have things that are very accessible so young struggling artists can afford them, like from $50 to $150,” she said.
She hopes to do a small production run of her first collection and is in discussions with several stores to carry the line for fall.