JL: It’s got a little bit of the Akira feel to it. The clothing, I think. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about the clothes that makes it futuristic, or something, but it always has this kinda “grimy underworld of Neo-Tokyo” feel to it. Like, you roll up to a bar and it’s raining and you’re wearing a cashmere shearling jacket, because that’s what you do in Neo-Tokyo.
IS: Yeah. Well, I’m really glad that that’s shining through. I hope so. Kotaro doesn’t like vintage – I’m American, so I can’t not like vintage, but I don’t own or wear much vintage. There are a lot of brands that do what I like to call the Texas two-step, y’know, of finding a great old piece and essentially making a modern version of it. Some of my favorite brands do that, and they do it really well. What I’m about to say is not a criticism, but what we try to do at Nine Lives is more of a three-step process. So we do try to find old pieces, or pieces we like from friends – obviously they’re basically almost always based on vintage – and once we’ve done a recreation we always try to go one step further, and there is an effort to do new design. Like the rider’s jacket is basically somewhere between a double and a cafe racer, and it has what we call a coffin back, so the pattern on the back of the jacket is coffin-shaped. The lines of it are new, but it’s evocative of a few classics, it doesn’t freak anyone out. That’s the needle we try to thread – we really do try to make sure that everything is new, in that very literal sense. If you look to Kotaro’s old line, it was gorgeous, but it had a very – it would feel for a certain Western audience too much, too much visual kei. But in that context very futuristic, and this idea was we don’t have to give that up, that can be part of the DNA. Let’s just start from this different jumping off point and do something that’s kind of mod, but we’re going to do it to a flannel.
The one other thing I’ll say is that I feel like the market has opened up and up, that space has opened up, but one of the areas – to speak in Silicon Valley techno-ese for a moment – one of the ways you can disrupt right now, is that all these street brands place such an emphasis on branding and disruption through branding; so you’ll see the street brand take on the flannel, or the street take on a denim jacket, and basically it’s either anti-fit – which is cool – or it’s just processing. It’s got a little bleach or paint on it, but there’s not much that actually goes into the DNA of it, that messes with the lines of the actual piece.
JL: Give me an example of that, when you’re talking about flannel shirts – because you’ve got a bunch of flannel shirts.
IS: We basically have two primary shirt patterns right now. So one is that darted raglan, and we do that in a few fabrics, but the one that was the first big splash is the jacquard woven check. So, because of the intricacy of the jacquard machine you can do a flannel pattern where one side is different from the other, and you can destabilize it that way.
We sew the colorways inside-out – we swap ‘em, and so in that way we’re trying to take a basic flannel, basic check pattern, and try to render it vividly: 5 colors in the thread, and also with a pattern that’s just a little destabilizing. In that destabiliziation it obviously picks up a lot of beauty too, because with the intricacy of the weave pattern you get what we would call chatoyance, right? The light’s hitting the weave from different angles, and different panels of that pattern are popping. And then things like the cashmere – the baby cashmere fur coat – I actually think it’s the first time anyone’s done that fur. But, y’know, cutting it as basically a denim jacket, a chore coat. Even then, the way that the pockets are articulated and designed, it’s not just a carbon copy of a type 3 or anything like that. We build the whole thing from scratch.
And Kotaro keeps my feet to the fire on that. As an American, it’s easier for me to say “Oh, we’ve got some really good fabric, so it’s okay if we keep the classic detail here.
JL: You mean, go with the classic T3 shape and call it good.
IS: Yeah, I’m able to compromise with that more often, and what I hope we have is a ‘sum-is-greater-than-the parts’ thing, because Kotaro will push me on that side of it. He’ll say ‘No, I really want to do a new line here, I want to push this out further.’ My challenge in that conversation is to both try to go with it and try to resist only if I think that’s a direction that’s not going to work with our market.
To stay with the poetry analogy, I sort of describe what we’re doing as sonnetteering, because we’re trying to make clothes that people will wear every day, and if you’re trying to make clothes that people will wear everyday, what you’re doing is trying to make clothes that rhyme. In that sense, we have a sort of strict formalism, but it also shines through in the patterning, which has almost maybe more of a tailored Italian vibe. Danny at Rivet and Hide described it as “Basically Victorian punk,” which I also liked.
JL: Yeah, that’s good.
IS: We had a nice season at Pitti last time, and we’ve recently started getting some coverage from Leon, and we’ve become friends with those guys. Obviously, they were always classically Italian tailoring, and something in the cut of our clothes is connecting with them.
JL: I feel like I can see a little bit of the Visual Kei influence in some of the lines, especially in the back panels and side seams, where it’s all sort of anatomical. I like your idea of the ‘sonnetteering,” and I want to hear more about that, I want to hear more about how clothes rhyme.
IS: So, yeah, I mean I write poetry –
JL: You still write poetry.
IS: I still write poetry, for better and for worse I still write poetry – probably mostly for worse. Being at the New Yorker was fun, right? Because obviously you’re picking up a wide range of styles. And I would never have put my personal style as particularly avant-garde – it’s certainly not the most experimental style out there by a long shot – and the guy that I worked for at the New Yorker and who was my mentor, and was a mentor in college, is a guy named Paul Muldoon. He’s an Irish poet, and so the Irish tradition has a lot more sonnetteering; has a lot more form, has a lot more rhyme, pastoral influences – and so that’s a lineage that’s Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, and then this guy Muldoon. He’s been a really big influence on my life, and is really a dear person to me.
Anyway, that’s all to say that when we started doing this clothing, I had this instinct that I’d have to be more experimental, and one of the things I’ve found interesting is that because poetry’s such a free art – I mean, you can’t make money off it; it’s such an unencumbered art – that by the time you talk about doing clothing, and if you’re doing runway clothing that’s a totally different story, but if you’re actually trying to make clothes for people, you’re trying to make ready-mades, you’re trying to make stuff that people will wear everyday, I realized really quickly that that’s such a strong formal constraint that in many ways it was writing sonnets. We’re operating, even with Cthulhu-mushroom-cloud-aloha-prints, that’s us raging as hard as we can and making as much noise as we can with a verse, chorus, bridge; verse, chorus, bridge; verse, chorus, bridge. It’s not prog-rock, it’s not a 60-minute metal album. Pick your metaphor. The reality is there’s a certain amount of formal constraint to what you’re gonna do in a creative sense when you decide that you want a bunch of people to see your jacket, put it on, want to walk out with it, and not want to take it off.
I like that. For the same reason that I like writing sonnets, even in 2017. It’s because out of that tension, and out of the coiled tightness of a form, you can create a menacing, rippling energy. And maybe that’s where the ‘Zen as fuck’ comes from.
JL: So, even if you’re designing clothes for the street, you’re writing blank verse. You’re choosing to restrict yourself to a form that’s still recognizable.
IS: Yeah. For what it’s worth, it’s not as though I’m only writing sonnets in my own life. If you look at various experimental poetry – you look at any experimental art – and you try to draw the analogies across different fields, to me, when you’re looking at more high-concept catwalk, runway collections and things like that; crazy anti-fit stuff, all this deliberate manipulation of human form – that’s experimental in a way that’s really beautiful and interesting. Obviously it’s not what a bunch of dudes are gonna roll in off the street and buy for daily use.
Whether you’d say that it’s blank verse or whether you’d say that it’s – I don’t know, you could probably have a ton of fun comparing styles, talking about people who do found poetry or erasures, where you take a text and then white out a bunch of words and leave words that create a poem; there’s probably certain analogies to some of the people who are doing ‘remakes,’ you know? I don’t know, now we’re just kind of mentally masturbating.
JL: Nah, that’s cool. That’s the point of having a background in literature, I think.
IS: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s why most people don’t do it. And why smart people avoid those that do.
JL: I was going to say something about how you’re not making Keats-wear, because you’re all rock and roll, but maybe you are; maybe poetry is rock and roll enough for Nine Lives.
IS: That would certainly be our contrarian hypothesis. And maybe Kotaro would be devastated to hear that. You know, I think that a lesson that most people learn if they’re doing anything they enjoy, is that you’ll rarely enjoy something if you’re not putting yourself into it. And the clothing – there’s enough Blade Runner, there’s enough detachment from it – it’s not as if it feels like I’m on the therapist’s couch confessing through the pieces that we’re doing. It’s not personal in that way. But the clothing will always be better if we’re being honest with ourselves about who we are when we’re making it, and at the end of the day I’m just going to enjoy it more. And that’s contagious – or at least I hope it is.
JL: I want to go back to something you said about the summer collection being a response to…world events. From your market teaser, maybe, you had that quote from Call of Cthulhu: “We live on an island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity…”
IS: “And it was not meant that we should travel far”
JL: Right, right. When I was reading that I wasn’t thinking about world affairs, I was thinking about clothes.
IS: I think that when you talk in a strictly post-modern context, there should be layers of potential meaning superimposed over one another. And in that context, if you’re reaching back to some of those evocative texts and they’re speaking to you in a certain way, then their implications should translate somewhat naturally, right? It wasn’t that we sat down and said “OK, what’s our philosophy for clothing,” it was that world events happened – and this was a very big reactionary collection, this last season – and we reached for Lovecraft.
If we have this aloha shirt that literally has mushroom clouds and Cthulhu on it – in every other respect it’s a classic aloha shirt, in a way that almost only Japan could do, right? It’s 100% vintage-style rayon, and the buttons are wood/metal buttons; on some level it’s basically the closest thing to a vintage construction piece that we do. And then we just really tried to push a print that was charming and disarming at the same time.
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Great interview. Serious, thoughtful, and deep, but playful and not pretentious. Thanks guys.