Susan Cianciolo, the '90s Artist-Designer Inspiring Eckhaus Latta

Eckhaus Latta - Backstage - Spring 2016 New York Fashion Week

Mike Eckhaus backstage at Eckhaus Latta Spring 2016. Photo via Getty Images.

If there’s one fashion show in which it’s hard to stand out as a model, it’s Eckhaus Latta: Since launching their label in 2012, designers Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus have put their designs on a wide spectrum of body types, genders, and ages – not to mention a model wielding a hammer. Being 46, then, is hardly the reason Susan Cianciolo has commanded a presence on their runways, and in more ways than just as a model. The fashion designer behind the '90s label Run, Cianciolo, who put on shows featuring the likes of Chloë Sevigny in between her art exhibits, pioneered the deconstructed, DIY elements so central to Eckhaus Latta's clothes.

“We really feel like amazing people such as Susan have paved that way for us,” Latta said of falling into that nebulous space between fashion and art. Both 28, she and Eckhaus first got together at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied textiles and he studied sculpture. Since their first official runway show in 2014, they've not only landed critical acclaim from the likes of Cathy Horyn, but racked up some serious art world cred, working with artists like Bjarne Melgaard. Next month, they’ll be among the 26 emerging Angeleno artists highlighted in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial, and last year, they were included in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show, making them two of the four designers featured among the 158 artists in the survey – one of the others, of course, being Cianciolo.

The three had a reunion at PS1 in February, too, when Eckhaus Latta held its Fall 2016 show under the dome in the museum's courtyard – a slow, choreographed performance of sorts where the only model keeping the breakneck pace of the more conventional shows in Manhattan was perhaps the 6-year-old prancing alongside India Salvor Menuez. It was PS1’s first-ever fashion show, and “felt like a natural extension of the exhibition,” chief curator Klaus Biesenbach told me at the time. “I don’t know so much who’s here from the fashion world, but the whole art world, that generation is here,” he added.

To Cianciolo, who closed the show, that must've felt familiar. Run’s shows were often held at galleries, if only because they were what was available. “From morning till night, all night long, I would walk around the city looking for spaces,” Cianciolo said. “Later, it probably became cool to show at a gallery, but it was just only because I needed a space, and whoever I knew I would ask.”

Of course, Cianciolo had her predecessors, too: She started her label in 1995, when arty collectives like Bernadette Corporation and X-Girl were already redefining fashion in downtown New York. Cianciolo worked as a production manager at X-Girl, which was helmed by none other than Kim Gordon, and after interning under Alber Elbaz at Geoffrey Beene and designing at Badgley Mischka, it came time to make her own collections. That was when Cianciolo turned to Bernadette van Huy, whose namesake collective was a mix of party planning and a sportswear-inspired women’s clothing line, which now seems very prescient.

Cianciolo had participated in some of Bernadette Corporation’s “outlaw parties” – essentially public performance art, an aspect that also found its way into Cianciolo’s fashion shows, too. Featuring live bands, the shows were not just in galleries, but took over abandoned parking lots and storefronts in the then-desolate area below Canal Street. (The decade’s heavy hitters, on the other hand, stuck to the tents at Bryant Park.) Van Huy helped Cianciolo organize and style her first show.

For their part, Eckhaus Latta’s shows have featured not only the hammer-wielding model breaking down a wall, but a Twister board-type conglomeration of models curled up in fetal positions while a youth chorus performed in the background, and even head-to-toe blue and purple face paint. “There’s a lot more to say at times than just thinking about the clothing itself, and I think we both love putting on a fashion show,” Eckhaus said of their predilection for spectacle. Even when the brand did go more mainstream, collaborating with Nike, they unveiled the finished result at Artists Space, the nonprofit gallery in TriBeCa that showed a retrospective of Bernadette Corporation a few years back.

Cianciolo’s also been no stranger to commercial success: Her designs ended up on the racks in Barneys, in the pages of Vogue, and on camera for MTV House of Style – even if they were made of cheesecloth, plastic mesh, and paper. Through all that, her designs remained almost entirely handmade and were produced largely through her sewing circles. “It’s funny to say it now, because it seemed just normal then,” she said with a laugh. “How else would you get the clothes sewn other than just sitting and sewing them?”

“It was just an enormous amount of handwork,” she added. Everything from the dying and draping to the lace and buttonholes were done by her artist friends; Cianciolo’s grandmother even tried her hand at the embroidery. “It was for the beauty of the craft,” Cianciolo said. “I mean, that’s my whole investment in my life, is the beauty of the craft. It’s not to just feel like doing it for the hell of it."

Under the dome at PS1 in February, just after she and Eckhaus garnered a spot on Forbes’s 30 under 30 list, Latta told me that a byproduct of the label’s success has been the ability to be more ambitious with repurposed materials, which they estimate make up about 90 percent of their designs. “We used these old World War II military blankets that in the past we kind of would have been scared to offer, because they were covered in holes and we have to hand-embroider them,” she said, describing their latest collection. “Now we have a facility to do that, and we're really excited to offer things that might be more expensive or more time-intensive.”

Even as its reaches expand outside the art world and fashion, Eckhaus Latta hardly seems ready to join up with a luxury conglomerate. “We’re young Americans trying to make stuff in New York,” Latta said modestly. Still, she acknowledges that means a very different thing today than it did in the '90s. “If Susan had been born around the same time as us, I wonder if she would have had to make more commercial decisions, or done more production-oriented designs. Her coming up in New York was a very different scene than ours.”

That might not be a bad thing. Cianciolo remembered the time without nostalgia: “Well, people dying of drug overdoses or I don’t know, being homeless and still making collections,” she said. “We copy periods of time style-wise, but you can’t copy periods of times of living.”

By 2001, Cianciolo “wanted nothing to do with fashion,” she said. The business side was starting to take over the joy of creating. “I didn’t want to have 20 assistants; I wanted to have one assistant, and just show my work how I wanted as an artist,” she said. (She’s returned to the runways a few times since, but mostly makes clothes on a case by case basis, or for her own art installations.)

If there’s anyone to renew Cianciolo’s faith in the industry, though, it’s Eckhaus and Latta. From the moment she first discovered their designs through their mutual friend Maryam Nassir Zadeh, she’s “felt that they were the new frontier of a voice for fashion, and I hadn’t felt that way in a very long time,” Cianciolo said. “I feel this is a part of history. It comes in waves. It's about catching it.”