Source: The New York Times
On a Tuesday afternoon in September at Public School 42 on Hester Street, there were drinks spilled on the floor of the cafeteria and wadded-up notebook paper littered here and there. Tiny chairs for tiny students were arranged in loose lines, barely at knee height, but P.S. 42’s students weren’t coming.
The chairs were awaiting a raft of Vogue editors, major retailers and critics from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Women’s Wear Daily. While the students were off for Rosh Hashana, Vaquera, an upstart New York design collective, had convinced their principal, May W. Lee, to rent out the school for its spring 2019 fashion show.
There were no seat cards, not even seat assignments. People who later in the week would be guided to front row seats at Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs air-kissed and how-was-your-summered by a flotilla of publicists, would be more or less finding their own way.
“We want to make people really uncomfortable, really insecure,” said Emma Wyman, Vaquera’s stylist, smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk outside. “Like the first day of school.”
Vaquera, whose current members are Patric DiCaprio, Bryn Taubensee and Claire Sullivan, is a fashion label and an exercise in cheerful provocation, equal parts Dada and D.I.Y.
Fashion often lunges after glamour or sneers in protest of it, but Vaquera swerves both: It serves grit with a grin, disregarding such pieties as gender. (It shows, and sells, its clothes as unisex.) Early last year, at the show that introduced them to the fashion world’s mainstream, they sent lobster-bib ties and chef’s toques down the runway, and a life-size Tiffany bag, which tied daintily around a model’s shoulders but left her backside entirely exposed.
Vaquera was already known on the fashion fringes, but the industry took notice. Reviewers, even stern ones, were charmed. Vogue named it one of the finalists for its Fashion Fund award, the young-talent sponsorship program administered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Attendance at subsequent shows shot up; new stores came calling.
Since then, Vaquera’s star has continued to rise. The pop star Lorde bought its pieces, which she has worn onstage and in a music video; Christina Aguilera commissioned a look for her tour. MoMA PS1 invited the collective to collaborate on an event next spring. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he loved their work.
“They’re able to use the runway for the reason the runway should be used: showing beautiful clothes, but conveying ideas,” he said in an interview. Next spring’s Costume Institute show (and by extension, the next Met Gala) will be on the topic of camp, and Mr. Bolton said he saw plenty of it in their work.
But success has many facets, and not all of them align. For all its good press, Vaquera is still struggling to transform itself into a viable business.
It is carried in 13 stores, most of them in Japan, but the label has yet to turn a profit, and each of the designers still works a day (or night) job. Mr. DiCaprio works at Beacon’s Closet, a secondhand shop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Ms. Sullivan tends bar. Ms. Taubensee works as a cater-waiter.
It is not a great surprise that their idols are those who lived and worked on the outskirts of fashion, who have similarly struggled with fitting themselves into the strictures of the industry machine.
In a recent show, they paid overt tribute, showing oversize polo shirts with stippled portraits of their faces. There was Martin Margiela, Vivienne Westwood. Miguel Adrover, New York fashion’s onetime enfant terrible, who was hailed as a genius and since retreated to Majorca. André Walker, celebrated by insiders but inconsistent in execution.
Mr. Walker put the image on Instagram with a caption that read: “You guys are the answer.” Months later, he and the designers spoke, in an interview brokered by Vogue.
“I always say,” he told them, “‘compromise’ is a word that only noncreative people use.”
Vaquera is an evolving organism. The constant through all of the phases of its existence is Mr. DiCaprio, 28, a wiry Alabamian with a Travis Bickle mohawk and drawl he can deploy for emphasis. He is the only person I have ever seen wear a Louis Vuitton purse around his neck, like a feed bag.
Born Thomas Oldweiler Jr. in Mobile, Mr. DiCaprio did not fit in with the local culture. He eventually made it to the University of Georgia, where he studied photography and invented Patric DiCaprio as part of a student project about a fictional, mediocre pop star, a cousin of Leonardo DiCaprio with dreams of fame.
But he felt constrained by his classmates and professors, and in 2011, he sent a two-line note to DIS, an online magazine in New York that blended avant-garde style and postrecession politics, offering to be a summer intern. Lauren Boyle and her husband, Marco Roso, two of the founders, invited him to come to New York. He stayed on their couch for weeks.
“He was the epitome of clean-cut,” Ms. Boyle said. “He was just sparkling, he was so fresh. He wore these well-ironed khaki shorts with a pink polo tucked in. Belted! And loafers. He didn’t make much sense in Williamsburg, which is where we were living at the time.”
Without much in the way of resources, DIS was an all-hands-on-deck operation, and Mr. DiCaprio, who came with dreams of photography, ended up assisting on styling as well. Through DIS, he met Avena Gallagher, a fashion stylist who works with labels like Telfar and Eckhaus Latta, and after graduating, he became her assistant.
Mr. DiCaprio expressed an interest in making clothes himself, and Ms. Gallagher encouraged him.
“I said, just do it,” she said. “It happened really quickly, honestly. He taught himself how to sew. At first he was making these very two-dimensional things, but they had a lot going for them.”
He learned by YouTube video and surgically deconstructing his own clothes, and when he had enough for a collection, he christened the label Vaquera, after the nickname he had picked up working in a restaurant kitchen. (“Vaquera” is Spanish for cowgirl.) DIS covered the first collection.
Working with Ms. Gallagher and DIS offered membership in a developing community of self-starters. Vaquera’s second addition was Ms. Taubensee, 28, who was another of Ms. Gallagher’s interns; its third, David Moses, 24, a kinetic, occasionally frantic young man with saucer glasses and many scratchy tattoos, who interned for Eckhaus Latta.
“I admired that so much,” Ms. Gallagher said. “All of them just going for it, full force. I’m older. I’m from the slacker generation where you just neurotically sit in a box ruminating about how you can’t do it — thinking yourself deeper into the box.”
Young, social and tireless, Mr. DiCaprio began courting local stores.
“I met Patric while he was still styling,” said Carol Song, the fashion director of Opening Ceremony. “This was his passion project.”
She liked the outfits, but they required the kind of styling someone used to photo shoots would be able to do, not the kind that sells a garment off a hanger on a rack.
“I loved that vibe,” Ms. Song said. “But to be honest, at the end of the day, I’m a business. I need to be able to sell this.” She encouraged Mr. DiCaprio to envision how a customer would approach one of his pieces without him standing by to explain it. He did, and she bought the collection the following season, and has carried it ever since.
“I didn’t expect it to sell,” she said. “We were just getting the word out. I was really surprised when we got it, and it actually did sell, really well.”
At boutiques with a strong following among the young and boundary pushing, Vaquera has always found support. Irikita Akihiro, the founder of Radd Lounge in Tokyo, has been buying it since its second season, though he has never met the designers or been to one of their shows.
“When I started selling them, there was a frenzy, and now the brand seems to be generally recognized,” he wrote in an email. “From this year’s spring collection, we sold out of 100 key chains.”
In London, LN-CC, picked it up for fall. “Brands such as Vaquera need to have people taking chances on them,” said Reece Crisp, the head of buying. “Otherwise the marketplace is going to be so boring.”
What goes up may come down. Many of the stores that took an interest after the waves of press declined to place orders.
“Retail is not an easy business now,” said Julie Gilhart, a fashion consultant and the former fashion director of Barneys New York. In an earlier era, retailers like Ms. Gilhart would work with young designers to find a commercial middle ground. “I think that happens less and less now,” she said. “The majority of retailers don’t have time to do that.”
Vaquera found itself in the cross hairs of Diet Prada, an Instagram account dedicated to calling out copycatting and appropriation, for pieces that closely resembled work by designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Karl Lagerfeld. (Vaquera countered that its homages are what it calls “fashion fan fiction,” a tribute to past masters; the feud has since died down.)
Vaquera did not win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund; the designers’ friend Telfar Clemens did. The feedback they received from the prize jury centered on two things: their lack of sales and the difficulties of operating as a quartet, a formation that does not have a history of success among fashion labels. (Ms. Sullivan, 24, joined Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Taubensee and Mr. Moses in 2016 after interning for them. Until now, she has been working under the name Claire Sully.)
Still, they began taking the collection to Paris to sell it as an official delegation sponsored by Vogue and the CFDA, where it met with a more receptive audience. The designers were charmingly uncowed by the gravity of their new supporters and remained as weird as they pleased even at official functions.
After their February show, on the themes of faith and doubt, Mr. DiCaprio attended the opening cocktail party for the Paris showroom in March in a white christening gown, Ms. Taubensee in a devil outfit, complete with horns.
Vogue has been known to suggest to its protégées that they comport themselves Vogueishly, but the Vaqueras stayed Vaquera. Mr. Moses, whose Instagram account, since deleted, had been a regular chronicle of himself in states of undress, bristled at the notion that Vogue had been behind his exit from social media. “Even Anna Wintour couldn’t make me put pants on,” he said.
Just as the anointment of Vaquera as comers has brought the label attention, it has also invited criticism.
“Sure, some of the ideas are delightfully kooky,” Robin Givhan, the fashion critic of The Washington Post, wrote. “They are meaningful to particular cadres of people. But all too often, the clothes are not well-made, and the ideas are only a millimeter deep.”
The designers are understandably frustrated by criticisms like these, even while they admit that the quality of their production is a work in progress. (Ms. Song at Opening Ceremony, for the record, said she had never experienced any problems with the craftsmanship of their clothes. “It may look like they just sewed that up, but that’s kind of the intent of it,” she said.)
“We aren’t doing something that there’s a precedent for, or that maybe makes sense to these people in the industry,” Mr. DiCaprio said. “But their industry is failing right now. It’s maybe, like, don’t be so critical and maybe accept that we’re doing something that could work. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s a suggestion, and it’s opening up a space for new things.”
They recall, to their fans, the spirit of an earlier era in fashion, a smaller, scrappier, precorporate time.
“They remind me of the energy that was around at the turn of the century — that grungy, dirty, downtown edginess,” said Nicole Phelps, the director of Vogue Runway and a judge of the Fashion Fund. “I think we need them in New York fashion right now.”
In August, Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Taubensee and Ms. Sullivan invited me to their studio in Greenpoint. It is a cramped one-room space that they share with their studio manager and a rotating cast of interns; the bathrooms are down the hall. Each of the designers mentioned feeling marooned there, though they have an easy camaraderie, passing rhinestoned Juuls back and forth.
Mr. Moses had left the company, they said, a mutual parting of ways that had been difficult. It had the air of a foregone conclusion after the feedback they’d received about the difficulty of groups, though they insisted the issue had been personal, not professional.
The last time I had seen Mr. Moses, before their show six months before, he had seemed a changed man. He had alluded to struggles with substance abuse but had entered recovery and had temporarily moved home with his parents in New Jersey.
He asked if I knew how to drive; he didn’t. “My shrink told me I need to learn,” he said. “He told me I’m avoiding growing up.”
I asked if he thought that was true.
“Yes, definitely,” he said. “But I’m also 23. I want to be able to make as many mistakes as possible right now. Which is really easy to do when you’re 23.”
He paused. “On the right track, I guess.”
Reached by email now, Mr. Moses declined to comment, saying he preferred to keep the focus on Vaquera, not on himself. Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Taubensee and Ms. Sullivan said they supported him fully and unanimously.
“David needed to devote more time to his personal life,” they said. “His leaving was something the four of us agreed was beneficial to the brand and to him.”
He and Mr. DiCaprio still work side by side at Beacon’s Closet.
Mr. Moses’s absence had led to a recalibration of their responsibilities. Each of the Vaquera members handles a bit of everything; labor had not been divided along any traditional lines, though each has his or her strengths, and defined roles are emerging.
Ms. Taubensee, quieter than her collaborators, has a head for business, and also designs statement pieces, and all the hats and bras. Mr. DiCaprio designs more “men-ish” wear and pieces he described as “asymmetrical/oversize/confusing blobs.” Ms. Sullivan, with a husky voice and a pile of curls, designs more feminine pieces, both staples and some of Vaquera’s wildest offerings.
Ms. Taubensee and Ms. Sullivan had together taken a Fashion Institute of Technology course to better understand their business. “It was really hell to sit through,” Ms. Taubensee said. “But we learned a lot of good things from it.”
It helped them to organize their time and their production; it also helped them consider who they were designing for. They divided their imagined customer base into three categories, based on age and income.
“The bottom one is Young Visionaries,” Ms. Taubensee said. “The middle one I can never remember.”
“Spirited Creatives,” Ms. Sullivan said.
“And then the top one is ...” Ms. Taubensee said.
“Upscale Influencers,” they all said in unison.
Such marketing speak is a joke and not a joke, easy to poke fun at, but undergirded by a reality that’s harder to ignore. The gap between affect and spending power can be wide: If Vaquera is beloved of the young visionaries of the world, they may nevertheless lack the $650 for a patchwork shirt.
Even if some do, such a model can be difficult to scale. Businesses are built on more than 13 stores, and good press helps designers less than they may think. Many former industry darlings have, despite profiles and awards been forced to shutter, or seek the patronage of a more stable company. Suno, Orley, Ohne Titel and Hood by Air, all garlanded with accolades and good reviews, have closed or gone on hiatus.
Vaquera’s designers do not pay themselves a salary; they get by on their jobs, on made-to-order pieces (besides their web shop, the occasional special order comes via Instagram, and they set out to fulfill them personally, like Greenpoint couture) and on scattered projects.
Last year they were able to float themselves on a project from the streaming service Hulu, which asked them to create a collection, not to be produced, and stage a show to promote its series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It is the kind of project that represents a bright hope for the future: patronage for creativity without the drag of practicality. They are eager for more.
I wondered what camp they themselves would fall into.
“I’d say we’re at least Spirited Creatives at this point,” Mr. DiCaprio said, hopefully.
“We do not have the spending power of Spirited Creatives,” Ms. Sullivan said. “We have the spending power of Young Visionaries.”
At P.S. 42, it was approaching showtime, all the jangled nerves and exhausted energy. The designers had been at their studio until nearly dawn.
The models were beginning to assemble — not the usual swarm of professionals but a ragtag crew of friends, students, fledgling models and first timers. I know because I was one of them.
After months trailing them, the designers told me that to really understand Vaquera, I had to walk in the scuffed secondhand sneakers they used for the show, the ones that just yesterday I’d seen an intern spray-painting on the sidewalk.
The cast had been put together by Walter Pearce, a founder of the Midland casting and modeling agency, which specializes in the kind of ersatz, awkward models Vaquera prefers. He taught us our paces (the “walk” for Vaquera is not fashion’s usual shoulders-back glide but a lurching, aggressive canter, knuckle dragging and furious), and he appeared, as he usually does, in the show himself. So did his brother. So did his sister. So did his mother.
Hair and makeup commenced: an unbecoming. The hair should be “a little sweaty,” the master stylist instructed. The makeup was to be raw. “As makeup artists, it’s hard for us,” said the makeup artist who brushed foundation onto my face before the lead stylist rubbed most of it back off. “We’re trying to make you not perfect.”
Slowly, the school hallways filled up with models waiting for the show to start, pecking at their phones. The August heat had barely dissipated two weeks into September, and the room was sweaty. Principal Lee, in track pants and a Gucci bag, invited models into the cooler air-conditioning of her office.
Showtime ticked closer.
“Some kid’s throwing up,” Mr. Pearce said. “It was his birthday yesterday, so we’re pretty sure it’s not the flu. We replaced him with an intern — I like him better than the original kid. I don’t think I’ve ever done a show where I didn’t replace someone with an intern.”
Leo Becerra, the show’s producer, appeared in a doorway with an apparently necessary announcement.
“Absolutely no smoking or Juuling,” he said. “This is a school.”
I can now report from experience that a show passes instantly, quicker even than the scant eight or so minutes it takes. You line up (here, in a back stairwell behind the cafeteria), you are doused (here in Axe body spray, for high-school vérité), you are dabbed (to desweat), the music pounds, and you go.
I could see nothing, hear nothing. I stomped through the cafeteria, scowling as instructed, and felt, for those few, seemingly second-length minutes, like one of Vaquera’s young visionaries, a fellow traveler in a pack of cultishly self-possessed, if nearly feral, creatures. If fashion is about feeling more than merely clothing — and I think it is — I could understand paying for Vaquera. I would have paid a lot.