Eli Russell Linnetz Follows His Intuition

The ERL designer—and recent Dior menswear guest curator—reflects on his uniquely multifaceted approach to creativity.

Interview by Andrea Whittle
Photographs by Eli Russell Linnetz

Eli Russell Linnetz wearing a blue t shirt, grey hat and black glasses and looking pensively directl...
Eli Russell Linnetz wears a Dior Men hat; his own T-shirt and glasses.

For W’s annual The Originals portfolio, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, design, fashion, comedy, activism, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. See this year’s full class of creatives here.

You’ve had a uniquely multifaceted career: You’ve directed music videos for Kanye West and designed concert sets for Lady Gaga, and now you run a clothing brand, ERL, which was awarded the Karl Lagerfeld Prize in June. You were even a child actor at one point! Is there a quality that you feel unites all of the work you do?

My intuition drives me. When something doesn’t feel right, I’ll switch to something else. From a distance, it can seem chaotic, but for me it’s actually one journey. When I was younger, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I even went to school for screenwriting. But ever since I can remember, I was always drawing clothes and I loved playing dress-up. That childlike sense of make-believe has really suited all the paths I have taken.

One of your most recent projects was guest curating a men’s collection for Dior, dubbed “California Couture,” after your home state. How did you feel when you were first approached by artistic director Kim Jones?

He asked me what my vision was, and before I knew it, the whole Dior team was at my studio in Venice Beach. I was never interested in doing “partnerships” or “collaborations”—a lot of people have asked me to work on things, but Kim approached me as an artist, which was intriguing. I feel like a lot of people want to pretend as if they’re giving you freedom, but they actually want to stay in control—there were no guidelines with this. Kim really wanted it to come from me, and for me to share with him what was inspiring to me. That’s the beautiful thing about a partnership—you never know what you’re going to be drawn to and what someone else can bring out in you.

What did you learn from working for a major house that you want to apply to your own work going forward?

At ERL, it’s just me and two other people. When I started working with Kim, I realized that he’s a director, and I had never connected the term “creative director” in that sense. In my head, it was always more about pulling references. But you’re really directing the creativity—I know that sounds silly, but it truly is this amazing orchestration of hundreds of people and hundreds of departments and really guiding the artistic process. I approached the design process like I was directing a film, where you’re trying to tell the specific story and you have to identify which elements are necessary. Every color choice, every fabric, every costume tells a different part of the story and communicates to the audience the characters and the world they come from and where they’re going. I’m excited to apply more film directing to my own work.

You’ve said in the past that the collaborative work you’ve done is almost secondary to the friendships that you make. What do you think is the most important element of a successful collaboration?

It has to come from a place of authenticity. I’m inherently a more isolated, quiet person. I like being at home, and that’s where I’m happiest: in my studio, working seven days a week. I don’t really go out. So for me, the people I surround myself with are a big part of who I am. Letting someone into my world influences everything else.

What does originality mean to you?

Risk-taking. There are already so many rules in the world, and on top of that, we create so many rules and restrictions for ourselves. The ultimate luxury is to be able to create freely.

What do you want to do more of in the next couple of years?

I’m excited to be creating on a bigger scale. I want to continue to grow so that I can reach more people, and also experiment more with fabric and color and different ways of telling stories that even I might not be aware of yet.

Anything you want to do less of?

Carbs? I don’t know. I don’t really do anything I don’t want to do.

Courtesy of Eli Russell Linnetz.