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Amid California's Wildfires, Imitation of Christ Presents a Vision for a More Sustainable, Equitable Future

Tara Subkoff talks us through her new/old vision for the brand.
An opera singer and skateboarder at Imitation of Christ's Los Angeles show.

An opera singer and skateboarder at Imitation of Christ's Los Angeles show.

Climate change has perhaps never felt more real than it does right now in California. I can't quite remember the last time I saw Los Angeles's typically bright-blue sky unobstructed by smoke and haze. When I ventured out on Monday night to attend the recently resurrected Imitation of Christ's "New York Fashion Week" "show," held at a skate park in Highland Park, I was almost more concerned about the "unhealthy air quality" (per my iPhone) than I was about contracting Covid-19.

Imitation of Christ founder Tara Subkoff and her group of young "co-creative directors" — a title that once belonged to Chloë Sevigny during the brand's first iteration, exactly 20 years ago — decided to use teenage female skateboarders as the models for the brand's long-awaited official return to the fashion world. Subkoff and her team often experimented with unconventional show formats in IoC's 2000s-era heyday, famously staging a wake-themed presentation in an actual funeral parlor, for example. It was also one of the first fashion brands ever to champion up-cycling as a way to reduce the industry's environmental harm — representing a stance that's even more important today, as climate change is now literally, physically unavoidable.

This time, Subkoff staged a multimedia, multi-coast event that involved the following: in New York, at the intersection of Bowery and Houston, at 9:00 p.m. EST, a short film starring a group of cool, young, female skateboarders all wearing IoC's latest collection screened on a building as actual skateboarders, accompanied by eight opera singers, performed in front; in L.A., at the aforementioned skate park, Subkoff herself holding court at 6:00 p.m. PST (the exact same time) as the same skaters who starred in the video skated live for onlookers, wearing the clothes, as two opera singers performed. Meanwhile, the film, and a previously-shot lookbook, was unveiled on the CFDA's Runway 360 site. Additionally, each look went up for sale on The RealReal with proceeds going to support Black Lives Matter, Covid Relief and Greta Thurnberg's organization, Friday's For Future. This all happened, more or less, simultaneously.

In-person, the L.A. event was ultimately a tad underwhelming: The skaters were far away, obstructed by other skaters who were not part of the show, and it was tricky to see the clothes. (For the audience, at least, the event was safely socially distanced, with all those in attendance wearing masks and allowing plenty of space between one another. Though the young skaters themselves were a bit more...carefree.) But altogether, the concept, the reintroduction of a once-beloved brand, and the ways in which it tied into everything that's currently going on in this country, were collectively fascinating and thought-provoking. Plus, Subkoff likes to describe her shows as "social experiments," and this — the first time I'd personally socialized with more than two or three people since March — was definitely that.

Tara Subkoff

Tara Subkoff

In the interest of social distancing, we caught up with Subkoff via phone the following afternoon to discuss the inspiration behind it all, the decision to hold an in-person event, her love of The RealReal and what's hopefully next for her and Imitation of Christ.

Congratulations on this multimedia, multi-city event. How does it feel now that it's happened?

What I'm really excited about is it's selling so well on The RealReal. It's the first time that I've ever been able to — because of technology and because of their platform — do the video, shoot that, get them the entire collection and have them put it up so that as soon as you see the video and the shows, you're able to order the collection right away. I've never been able to do this; it's always been a dream for me to have it be that immediate but still so couture and hand-done and labor-intensive and it just worked out. I'm really happy about that. I can feel the excitement about it too because it's, hopefully, almost sold out.

Why did you want to partner with The Real Real?

I love The RealReal, I get stuff from there all the time because I don't buy new; it's how I get my designer pieces and it's the only way that I've shopped since all vintage stores were closed down during the quarantine. I thought it was so helpful and it's really one of the only companies that's thriving right now and not closing and going bankrupt and closing their doors, so it's doing something really right. I think that's also because people don't want to pay high prices right now. I do think there's more consciousness even because of The RealReal putting — every time you look at a garment — how much carbon footprint you're saving by buying something that's secondhand. It's a really likeminded partnership, and with their platform, it makes so much sense to sell Imitation of Christ on it. Also that it's going to be a charitable project that we're giving the proceeds [of] to Friday's for Future, which is Greta Thunberg's organization to stop global warming. We in California are literally choking on the air here. It really does wake everyone up, when you're out here and actually going through it, especially with Covid. It's been a really challenging time and experience but I'm trying to alchemize some of the negativity into positive creative expression, which I love being able to do. 

The RealReal to me is this incredible phenomenon of a big huge company that has had so much success in up-cycling. It's proof that it can be done, that it is profitable, and with everyone else that's been so focused on making new things available to everyone is going bankrupt and closing their doors, that this company is thriving... It's one little ray of hope that we can change and that we can evolve and that we can change our thinking and our habits.

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Do you think you'll continue working with them?

I hope so. Like anything, it's a new relationship. We're gonna date, we're gonna feel each other out, we're gonna see how it goes and hopefully it's a marriage, who knows?

Tell me about conceptualizing this whole project and why you wanted to do something in-person, especially when a lot of designers are choosing to go all-digital or abstain entirely?

I love performance work and spaces, I think there's something about having an audience that's important as well as keeping people socially distant and safe, so my choice was to do two performances that were outside and happened at the same time.

I think part of being able to muddle through this time that I find incredibly challenging and I know everyone else does too — I have empathy for everyone who's going through this time in the world — but especially in this country, we have such poor leadership and somebody that's running the country really doesn't care about the people. It's super unfortunate, the fact that there's no federal reserve to put out these fires, it's extraordinary, it's beyond my capacity for comprehension. But what I think is super important to be able to thrive is to just figure out a way to continue to be creative and to continue to put passionate work that's saying something into the world that hopefully inspires other people to do the same.

Even if the shows had a bunch of hiccups and a bunch of different things happening that were last-minute that we didn't anticipate, I think that's part of the work. I always call my shows social experiments and it's very interesting to see what people pay attention to. There's a lot of layers in them, putting opera singers and skateboarders together was a bit unexpected and those are two things in the world that usually don't collide but that's what I think is beautiful. It's the same with the clothes pairing football jerseys with beaded gowns, it's unexpected. It's the idea of both things are beautiful and the idea of inclusion and everyone is beautiful and how important it is to see that in the world today. I think it's been so important to hear and read and understand everything that's going on with Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Time's Up, with all the movements that have come through this year and to really be able to change our thinking and accept differences. I feel like we've always done that with this collective, but it's important to make that the norm. 

imitation of christ la show 4

What's your vision for the future of Imitation of Christ if you have one? More shows and charitable sales like this?

I really love to stay in the moment and trying to predict the future... we've realized this past year, at least the past six months, is virtually impossible. When we're in an environmental crisis where there's unprecedented fires and the air quality, we're still in the time of Covid...  I think to try to understand what is next is extremely challenging. Even with as much as I've been able to understand some things that could happen next, I am really stumped for what the future holds right now. There's this quote from a graffiti: "The future holds what we put into it now." And I think the more that we can put into it collectively and individually... and inspire other people to understand what we're talking about, I think that can affect great change.

I'm focused on more than what licensing deal Imitation of Christ might do or collaboration. I've done a lot of collaborations in the past, I love collaborating and I'd love to work with big brands who need to understand how they can up-cycle. I would love to do some type of partnership with something like LVMH or Levi's... Jordache... big brands that need to understand what they can do with their own waste and how to up-cycle it and how to possibly produce less and more effectively so we have less waste, and also what to do with their old stuff. It would be so fun and that's what I hope the future holds.

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