Whitewall Magazine/2008

Zac Posen, fashion designer, experienced the unique advantage of growing up watching his father, artist Stephen Posen, construct massive still lifes that mixed cloth, photo images, and paint. The question remains, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" 

WHITEWALL: What were the first paintings Zac saw of yours as child? What were you doing at the time?

STEPHEN POSEN: In the early seventies I made paintings that were vertical still lifes that consisted of huge pieces, eighteen yards of cloth that was sewn, sometimes by my wife, Susan Posen, which I would then drape on a wall. I would position a canvas exactly the same size at a right angle to it. I would be looking at the still life, and I wou1ld be painting. That's what Zac would see when he came home from school.

WW: How did you keep him away from playing with your materials?

SP: He could do whatever he wants. He's smart. There's also a thing about not interrupting your work process. He understood my work process.

ZAC POSEN: There were rules.

WW: Really? A structure?

ZP: I was just thinking that - paint working through fabric swatches to get colors right.

SP: You can really be so nuanced with it that I don't even think ,;bout color anymore.

WW: Zac, did you ever get into paint, when you were little?

ZP: No. I had my own paint, but I was never in my dad's studio painting.

SP: He had his own rules for how he painted.

WW: Did you try to show him and he said, "No,

Dad, get away"?

SP: That's right. You're always painting as a child, that's fun to do. If he took a brush, as he's doing ­ don't, please, Zac [laughs], and stamped down on the brush and squished it around, it wasn't exploring the possibilities of what touch could be. And if I might suggest that to him, it didn't interest him.

ZP: There were also technical nuances that you were interested in teaching me with pencil, charcoal, or brush. Just from seeing your work, the idea of how you capture a figure, different techniques, were exciting and definitely daunting.

SP: It would be quiet, because he would go in his room and he was inventive. I would come in. If he was making clothing for dolls, or in the midst of creating some theater experience, he would pretty much take a tool and do whatever he wanted to do with it.

I was teaching at Cooper Union and at Yale, so I know teaching, and with a child you leave them to their own because their invention is much greater than . . . his invention was much greater than mine.

WW: Was he excited to show you what he did Afterward?

SP: Oh, my gosh, yeah. It's like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in one. It's like [laughs], "We're

putting on a show, Dad, Mom, get everyone."

He was playing with play-dough - that segued into working with dolls. Remember the cork figure? We used to take champagne corks and dress them. We used to save the wire basket and use it as the structure for the cloth.

WW: The first collaboration!

SP: I'd pop the cork and he got the structures.

ZP: You know, whether it was champagne cork, or a wine cork, there was appropriation play.

SP: I wouldn't say this is going to make a dress or anything - I'd say you want to play with this? And then he would take a little piece of cloth and say, "Yeah, I'm going to make a dress on this."

WW: Zac, you have a huge celebrity following.

ZP: Fashiontainment...Creating that and having people who follow what I do, that's part of the interest. Not on an ego level, on a communication level: whether it's actually people who wear the clothes or don't even wear the clothing and are able to interact with it.

WW: What’s inspiring you now aesthetically, artistically?

ZP: It continuously changes. Artists continuously change. I'm really interested in a hand spirituality and quality of Anselm Kiefer. I think there's something interesting about what people are, where their values are. Aesthetically in fashion there's a balance of  high-texture minimalism, this kind of synthesis of how you take textures and technique to most extreme, almost in a quilting kind of way.

I love Brancusi, things that are about movement and space. I think I've always been drawn to that.

SP: What about Europe, what you saw as a child?

ZP: Going on trips with my mom and dad and sister and being in churches, the experience had something to do with the theatrical. Chartres and how the light worked in that church. Giotto paintings. There's a great sculpture I'm trying to remember in Rocamadour, a black Madonna. Then Gaudi, the whimsical quality. I don't know if I'm still there, but the distortion was interesting. Looking at really great Valazquez paintings. The costuming, his expression up close - they're totally gestural and sculptural. There's a sense of romanticism that's so expressive, just a sleeve. I love Seurat. Jim Henson.

WW: You mean Muppets Jim Henson?

ZP: Yeah, Jim Henson was my idol. The Fraggles, and the Muppets, and The Dark Crystal were huge influences. I don't know if that was a mix of macabre art, nouveau look, and dark mythology.

WW: Stephen, what about you? What artist influenced you?

ZP: Picasso was a huge influence!

WW: On your dad or you?

ZP: Both.

SP: After graduate school I had a Fulbright to Italy, which is where I met my wife. So living in Florence I really was able to spend a lot of time in the churches, in the museums, and you look at Giotto in different ways than you would before. My proposal as a Fulbright was to study Giotto, the Arena Chapel. I think that a sense of solidity in his work and in Piero's work made some linkage to Cezanne for me. Through Cezanne there was a brief thought about the conceptualism of Cubism and then really what was significant for me was Matisse. And it has been an ongoing love affair with what Matisse was capable of doing. A contemporary artist I always really admired is Jasper Johns.

ZP: Why?

SP: Because I was making a parallel between the use of a photograph as an object and let's say the American flag, or target…

ZP: I feel like I have been influential in the colors of your work. I think that purple, the violet, the

saturation of ultraviolet, the orchid next to nude.  Looking at purple - that's not a color that I've

seen in a lot of your work before.

SP: I don't even think about color in a mix-and­match kind of way.

WW: Zac, you like some of your dad's series but not others.

ZP: I think that's a generational gap. To me, there's technique in there that is referential, and to my eyes, as a child of the Apple, there are those that are elementary early Photoshop techniques on computer that don't look to me as cool.

The effect of it, the context together of them, it's not interesting to the eye, visually.

WW: Do you think if it were on a different scale it would be?

ZP: No. Maybe, I don't know if it's a different print or a different medium. It has a poor quality to it that doesn't - to me - feel sensual.

WW: Stephen, how does that make you feel?

ZP: Well, that's a real dialogue.

SP: Um, well, I think it's worthy.

WW: Does it change how you survey your own work?

SP: I have people in here all the time, critics, painters, people who aren't painters, and they all give you their reactions to everything in this room. So…

ZP: Take your hat off.

SP: Why?

ZP: Because it looks better. He doesn't ever paint in his hat - it's not real.

SP: I paint in my pajamas. Look, I did those Bloomingdale's windows last September.

ZP: 'Cause I made him.

WW: What do you mean you made him?

ZP: I wanted to. Asking a fine artist to go in presenting his work in a retail environment could be viewed as vulgar and definitely so, for someone who has been so private with his work process. To present his work in such a commercial format is not so interesting. What was more interesting was having public reaction to his work.

WW: And what was that

ZP: Really amazing. I mean, the reaction.

WW: Were people contacting you about buying the art after that? I'm just curious.

SP: Um, if that were a measure of something?

ZP: No, not a measure - it would be a measure if the results were a success.

SP: When I was putting up the show, people were coming by and asking me if I wanted to show in Europe at their gallery.

WW: This is an interesting point. The reason I think this whole story is about how fashion and

art presently have gotten a lot closer.

ZP: Not really. What about fashion or commerce to support art? Murakami is somebody who is inspired by commercial art.

WW: Well, some people argue that he’s not even an artist, but that’s a whole other thing.

ZP: I don't know what defines an artist - that's a personal thing. I don't find the work emotional, but I don't think that's what defines art. I don't see any designers becoming artists, very few of them. Yohji Yamamoto is very close to becoming an artist.

As a creator, I'm not interested. I guess what I learned at a young age living with an artist is I'm not interested in the decorative quality of art. My clothing is quite decorative.

SP: No it's not.

ZP: It's form-driven.

SP: All art can function decoratively. It isn't you're impetuous to embellish.

ZP: I'm not interested in topical.

SP: Zac's stuff is all about the purity of structure to me.

WW: What about designers like Marc Jacobs working with Richard Prince?

ZP: It's about branding. Marc Jacobs is a cultural commentary. Marc Jacobs is genius. To me, his genius is about -and I don't use that word very often - being in touch culturally with youth, with trends of youth obsessions in a true way. That's a kind of rare brilliance.

WW: Same thing with Tom Ford. even.

ZP: Totally with Tom Ford, even glossier. Tom Ford's image that he built is much more about a mystery and aspiration.

WW: Do you think this diminishes art?

ZP: I'm interested in creators, whether they are designers or fine artists, in people's own creative evolution. And I'm interested in the people that work with in fashion that are revered for their ingenuity.

I'm ready for people to take much farther risks or perfection. I'm more interested in Azzedine Alaïa, who disappears and perfects form. That's in a really high place for me. I'm interested in Alexander McQueen taking his shows much bigger than he's done and I want to go more in depth into his world. Dries Van Noten mixes beautiful textures and beautiful clothing. Point blank, desirability is interesting.

SP: We live in a time when there are no standards for what art is. So when anything is possible, anyone

is capable of throwing anything into the mix hoping that - it's association. I think that what Zac is saying…well, what is possible to be the highest standard. We aren't in a moment where that kind of purity is valued for its possibilities.

Whatever takes you to a higher place, if it involves associating with art, which may not have a standard that is very high either. So maybe that's how they're meeting rather than, it's not art coming down to fashion, it's kind of like they both seem to be meeting each other.

ZP: Listen, every young person wants to have the next simple, easy, cultural idea concept art like Warhol had. And people are still in search of that – whether it's in fashion or in painting.

WW: Zac, give me the top points about what you've learned from your dad, as an artist.

ZP: Creative perseverance, risk-taking. Learning, having an expressive hand in one's work, playing with imagery upon imagery, ironic imagery, and text in work. Form and color and line.

WW: Zac is able to critique your work pretty harshly. How does he respond to your critiques of his work?

SP: I think that my critiques are really tough. I think that you can take anything and really analyze it and say that this work should have been better, and I think that is particularly true in clothing.

I try to take a generalized look at what his whole collection looks like, and there are always a few pieces that I feel are exceptional and there are generally some that I don't feel that way about I tend to focus on the most positive things and try to see that there is a consistency moving forward, which I really feel he always does and continues to do.

WW: Stephen, what have you learned from Zac?

SP: What is the famous Wordsworth saying? The child is the father of the man. I think that I've learned from him all along but different things at different times. He is like an explosion of ideas and sensibility in his business, and I'm awestruck by his intuitive knowledge of what it is to function both as a designer and as a personality, because he seems to be very comfortable doing both.

Given the choice, would I rather be in my studio painting? Yes, rather than be outside, but I really do enjoy being at a party or on the carpet. It's fun, and he's taught me how fun that is. But I don't think as artists we've influenced each other specifically, but as examples of the care and integrity, possibility, and optimism that are reciprocal things.