There’s no doubt that designer and actress Tara Subkoff has a flair for drama. Fans of her clothing label-turned-art project Imitation of Christ may remember its buzzy fashion week antics from the early aughts such as when, in lieu of a runway show, Subkoff held a glamorous faux funeral or, in a sly reversal on the traditional hierarchy, she herded magazine editors and store buyers down the catwalk while models, wearing the collection, looked at them with judgment from the front row.
The L.A. label, which was big on concept and seemingly ambivalent about commercial prospects, was a darling of the underground downtown scene at the turn of the century.
Therefore, it was not completely unexpected that the show for her spring and summer 2021 collection would have a bit of that guerilla-style energy. Held at a Garvanza Park on Monday night in Highland Park, the label’s big moment (Warning: Video contains strong language) featured a troupe of female skateboarders whizzing around a graffitied concrete bowl wearing the collection as opera singers provided the soundtrack.
This presentation was one of the few in-person events to coincide with New York Fashion Week (it was outside, and masks and social distancing were encouraged). It’s a fashion season like no other before it because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most fashion shows are taking place online this year with a few notable exceptions such as Jason Wu and Christian Siriano.
“I believe in the tenacity and the resilience of the human spirit,” Subkoff said when asked why now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread fires across the state, she felt that showing the line was important. “I believe that we need community. We need art. We need experiences and performances.”
Subkoff is a bit of an iconoclast, and her brand initially made headlines by thumbing its nose at the established system. She took thrift store finds and reworked them into new, unconventional garments — a practice now embraced by environmentally conscious labels and christened “upcycling” (Subkoff suspects she was the first to use that term). She remembered discussing in 2000 a potential acquisition with the luxury conglomerate LVMH and asking for all their cast-off textiles to build her collections.
Her label’s new collection continues that renegade spirit — salvaging vintage finds and assembling them into works of one-of-a-kind, handmade couture. It’s a do-it-yourself ethos that challenges the accepted notions of mass-produced luxury and a consumer culture obsessed with continually making new things to sell and then throw away.
“I was always raised with the idea that old is better,” Subkoff said. “And it’s true. Pieces from the 1920s or even Victorian times are still standing. So why not continue to have these things live on? To update them and make them unique? And I love couture, the making of something with your hands. So this is like punk-rock couture, something collaged together, that’s unexpected.”
It’s an eccentric offering. You’ll find floral dresses that have collided with athletic jerseys, sweatshirts fused with sequined gowns, women’s lingerie embedded into sweaters, T-shirts that are distressed and dyed, and jeans or graphic tees with a dribble of lacy frill running down the side. It may lack the finesse of corporate labels, but that’s the point. Imitation of Christ is, and has always been, a retort to stuffy fashion norms and yet it’s not completely divorced from the current industry either.
In its own way, it conjures the magpie look of Gucci and the grandma’s quilt aesthetic of menswear label Bode. Subkoff describes it as “finding beauty where there is none.”
The collection, with its nods to ’90s grunge and early Maison Margiela and Comme des Garçons, was made available for purchase on the popular resale site the RealReal following the show. Prices range from $75 (for a trucker hat decked out with a toile veil) to $1,795 for the blazer-skirt combo. A representative for the brand said proceeds from the collection will go to Greta Thunberg’s environmental organization, Fridays for Future.
These days Subkoff is particularly inspired by the young people around her, be it the women who go into the traditionally male sport of skateboarding — a territorial one filled with machismo and bravado at that — and make it their own. And part of the reason she revived the brand, which stopped operating in 2012, was to provide a creative outlet to her friends’ children who found their worlds had come screeching to a halt earlier this year. For this iteration of the brand, Lulu Syracuse, Jersey Bond and Hudson Schaetzke are her creative directors (a position Chloë Sevigny once held).
In addition to the brand’s ad-hoc skate show, Subkoff directed a video for the collection, which was shown online as well as in Los Angeles and New York.
“This is about heart and hard work in a world that reeks of manufacture, reeks of no heart and no soul — just commerce,” she said. “We’re trying to put the art back into it by using the over-manufactured garbage, to make couture from something that someone has discarded and said they’d never wear again. That alchemy, that process … I really implore for us all to do it in our everyday lives.”