In 1995, Susan Cianciolo made her debut as a fashion designer at Andrea Rosen Gallery, in New York. Two strips of red tape on the floor demarcated a runway, and the first model walked out flipping a switchblade. For the next several years, Cianciolo would continue to stage shows in sync with the New York Fashion Week calendar, but even when she was most in fashion, she was never really of it. In 1996, she showed in an abandoned garage, the makeshift runway cobbled together from shipping pallets she and a friend had fished from Dumpsters and covered with brown craft paper. Another show, in an empty storefront on lower Broadway, included spoken-word performances and programs hand-decorated by skate phenom and urban poet Mark Gonzales.
Cianciolo referred to her collections not by season and year but by the word Run, followed by a number. She offered up not only finished garments but also, every so often, a DIY kit that invited women to participate in the making of, say, a denim skirt. The kits were a natural extension of her practice—a way of widening the sewing and knitting circles that she regularly assembled to help produce her collections, and which included her mother as well as like-minded friends such as the artist Rita Ackermann (and, on occasion, Rita’s grandmother). “And, in between, I was doing exhibitions,” Cianciolo recalls one morning in December, as we sit in the sunny living area of the apartment she shares with her 8-year-old daughter, Lilac, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I wasn’t just having a normal fashion-designer life.” All around us is evidence of her prolific creative output, which spans films, performances, collages, mobiles, drawings, zines. For Cianciolo, it has always been all of a piece—but just try explaining that to the media. During the 1990s, she says, pretty much every interview she sat for opened with “So, are you an artist, or are you a fashion designer?” It was a question that always incited a sense of panic in Cianciolo—one she could not answer even for herself. “When I was still in my 20s, the New School invited me to give a lecture on being an anarchist,” she recalls, still visibly amused by the memory. “I said, ‘Are you sure? I feel like you have the wrong person.’ ”
Cianciolo, 47, was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents divorced when she was young, and though she spent time with her father, who moved to Maine, she was raised by her mother, and her maternal grandparents and great-grandmother. The family did not have money (her mother worked for the prison system); Cianciolo says that her handmade clothes and hand-knit sweaters were a constant source of embarrassment. She was allowed to attend college only on the condition that she learn a trade; becoming an artist was out of the question. She was accepted into the fashion department at Parsons School of Design with a partial scholarship but says, “My professors all begged me to change my major to fine art.” She found work as a fashion illustrator for Geoffrey Beene and as an assistant designer at Badgley Mischka, and created window displays for Bergdorf Goodman. When she started Run, she was just three years out of school and working part time for X-Girl, the streetwear brand fronted by Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth.
More than 20 years later, Cianciolo has, at last, come into her own as the artist she has always been. In 2015, she was included in “Greater New York,” the high-profile survey of local talent at MoMA PS1, in Long Island City, Queens. That same year, her first solo show with Bridget Donahue gallery opened to critical acclaim and then traveled, in expanded form, to 356 S. Mission Rd., in Los Angeles, and on to Yale Union, in Portland, Oregon. This June, Cianciolo will inaugurate a new space for Stuart Shave Modern Art, in London, and will present a second solo show with Donahue in September. And just to seal the deal, she is one of 63 artists selected for this year’s much-anticipated Whitney Biennial, the museum’s first in its new building in downtown Manhattan.
Over three days and nights in April, Cianciolo will reprise Run Restaurant, a monthlong pop-up she first presented in 2001, at Alleged Gallery, a haven for misfit creatives like Gonzales, Barry McGee, and Mike Mills headed up by Cianciolo’s then husband, Aaron Rose. At that time, Alleged had migrated from its original location on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Washington Street, in the yet-ungentrified Meatpacking District—and just across the way from the current Whitney Museum. Cianciolo transformed the narrow storefront into a Japanese luncheonette, offering a $10 prix fixe vegetarian meal. Not only did she design the interior, dress the tables, and outfit the staff in her handmade garments, she also did most of the cooking. Items like T-shirts and DIY dress kits were displayed flea market–style and available for purchase (as were the clothes off the servers’ backs). In his review in The New York Times, Holland Cotter described it as recalling “those edifying facilities proposed by the Russian Constructivist avant-garde, where peasant workers could eat and read Marx at the same time.”
“That project was prescient,” says Mia Locks, who, with Christopher Y. Lew, curated the biennial, referring to the sort of farm-to-table values that have long informed all aspects of Cianciolo’s work. “And it held her work together in a performative way.” This time around, Cianciolo will not be in the kitchen: She is collaborating on the menu with Michael Anthony, the executive chef at the museum’s in-house restaurant, Untitled. But just as she did more than 15 years ago, she will transform the space with collages, mobiles, and table linens; she will costume the staff and curate a lineup of performers including a poet from Portland, Oregon, a pair of Afghan rappers, and a band that she and her daughter discovered in the subway.
After all those years of having to defend her place in the fashion world, Cianciolo isn’t entirely sure how to process this moment of not just acceptance but true recognition from the art crowd. “Being in the art world is so different than I imagined,” she says. “That’s why I sort of flipped out: Oh, my gosh, I don’t actually fit in now that I’m in it!” Almost counterintuitively, she recently gave up a big studio she was leasing in Bedford-Stuyvesant and is now working out of the small front room of her apartment, craving, she says, the feeling of domesticity that the restaurant project demands. Lilac, who has aspirations of becoming a chef, is more than happy to take part. And the feeling is mutual. Cianciolo observes that a lot of artists she knows are able to shut out the world for months at a time and just get into a zone and work. Lilac has taught her it doesn’t have to be that way. “All the work is coming from real life,” Cianciolo notes. In the living room, three mobiles, destined for yet another exhibition, in Tokyo, dangle from the ceiling. One is anchored by a large triangle fabricated from Christmas wrapping paper. Another is dotted with Halloween stickers. “That’s what happens when your crew is an 8-year-old girl and a cat,” she says with a laugh.
There are a handful of people, like Cianciolo’s close friend and former roommate the model Frankie Rayder, and the artist and filmmaker Liz Goldwyn, who are the de facto keepers of her fashion archive—a trove of beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces that bear the fingerprints of the artist who made them. I have a long black satin hybrid dress-vest she gave me as a thank-you for walking in one of her shows—and I treasure it. Typically, for Cianciolo (and mercifully, for me), that show did not follow a traditional format. Women of different ages (at 39, I was definitely the oldest) marked out an unchoreographed pattern, entering and exiting the room almost at random. On the floor was one of Cianciolo’s patchwork tapestries.
On the day we meet, Cianciolo is finishing up some of the costumes for the Whitney project, and in the tiny kitchen, an assistant perched on a stool is sewing tags into silk-screened sweatshirts that will be sold as part of her Run Home Collection through Thompson Street Studio, an experimental textile collective with which she frequently collaborates. It’s been some time since Cianciolo has produced anything you might call fashion: She has found kindred spirits in the designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, and borrows things from them to wear to her openings; she also walks in their runway shows. But it is clear that making clothes will always be an essential part of what she does—and she no longer feels the need to apologize for it. “I’ve signed with two galleries, so I’m officially an artist. But this is who I am: I’m a textile designer; I’m a fashion designer; and I’m always going to be me—and I have to do a lot of things.”
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