Chloë Sevigny's 90s Throwback: Part One

A Two-Day NOWNESS Takeover by the Coolest Girl in the World Kicks Off with a Fashion Home Movie

Shooting in the late 90s during one of Chloë Sevigny’s visits from New York City to London, photographer and filmmaker Michael Cleary enlisted super-stylist Alister Mackie, then a fellow student, to collaborate on Surface, an intimate film starring the future Oscar and Golden Globe nominee. Air-guitaring, playing dress-up and flitting in and out of a fragile waking dream, Sevigny was at the time an emerging ingénue, fresh from having starred in Larry Clark’s Kids, the film that cemented her position as one of the icons of her generation. “A lot was going on in her life at the time; she was getting into films and Hollywood,” says the director, who edited the never-before-seen 16mm film—which now features specially commissioned title art by Brooklyn musician and artist Hisham Bharoocha—into raw, black-and-white vignettes in the basement of Central Saint Martins. “We were just using what we had around,” adds Mackie. “It was the last revolutionary period in fashion where things actually changed.” In this first installment of our two-day celebration of the 90s as seen through Sevigny’s eyes, Interview magazine Editor-at-Large Christopher Bollen muses on his friend, the decades most enduring symbol.

Christopher Bollen on Chloë Sevigny

The young people who come to symbolize entire eras don’t choose that assignment on their own. We do it for them. The culture decides which youths best epitomize its tempers and spirit. Whatever frightening conclusions we could draw about today from that hypothesis, it does say something pretty excellent about the generation I grew up in: the 90s. While the current fashion resurgence of the 1990s—designer flannels and baby-doll dresses; sloppy rock acts reminiscent of early Pavement; the tsunami-like obsession with rambunctious girl empowerment—might induce us all to believe that the decade was one long grunge ride, there were many other, more valuable forces at work. Memorably, it was also a decade that Chloë Sevigny came to be heralded in many circles as the ultimate American teenager. Everything about her—her hair, her voice, her background, her future, her clothes, her choice of projects, her taste in movies, how she once used a rubber band for a shoelace, how she went out to clubs back when clubs weren’t easy to access and required more than money for entry, that her interest in fashion seemed self-willed rather than strategically implanted, her boyfriend, her love of the Village and the Lower East Side, her blasé indifference to her own star power—wasn’t about market saturation but about a feral personal self-determination. The new teenager back then was a breed apart. And maybe it was the last middle finger to the corporation of predigested culture. That was the weirdness of the 90s; for a minute, beggars could be choosers.

Chloë Sevigny moved to New York City in 1993 (although she had been taking trips into the city and corralling her pack of friends for years before that), and was famously photographed that year at age 18 by Larry Clark—the image is currently showing at New York’s New Museum in a smart, hagiographic artistic survey of 1993 (NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star running through May 26). It wasn’t just grunge influencing American youth back then. A certain lifestyle that now seems eerily portentous was being aggressively promoted on television (I’m referring to 90210). But the fact that Sevigny came to represent New York—or at least a section of it, back when New York had definable sections—demonstrates that there was still, in the mid 90s, a collective interest in independence, an underground, and the possibility, the glorification really, of personal choice (three virtues that really don’t traffic much in the two-thousand-and-teens). It turns out that Sevigny had terrific mentors, and the 1990s was a magnificent time to be a young woman. Women like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the riot grrrl movement, Jane Pratt of Sassy magazine, female-driven art collectives like Bernadette Corporation, artists like Rita Ackermann, and editorial influencers like Ingrid Sischy, were just a few of the strong, impressive women re-shaping the cultural screen. Sevigny seemed like the next and absolute inheritor of that rebellious womanhood, and, after her appearance in Clark’s 1995 nihilist masterpiece Kids, she managed to tightrope over the film, music, fashion, nightlife and art industries, without ever losing herself and her very particular style (a style influenced as much by her hometown of Darien, Connecticut, as by Washington Square Park skateboarders).

I wouldn’t call Sevigny a muse. That sounds far too passive, too privileged and removed from the street. I think the whole world was jealously in awe of her because she appeared to be leading a life that hardly seemed sustainable in the shifting dynamics of the mid to late 90s: she acted in strange, unconventional films and hung out with strange, unconventional artists, designers and musicians. She brought an almost European bohemianism to New York when, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the city was quickly sliding in the opposite direction. I remember when I moved to New York in 1996 and when I’d find myself at the same bar or concert or party or club as Sevigny, I felt not some radioactive charge from being in the presence of a celebrity but rather a sense of reassurance that I was in the right place. I trusted her decisions and tastes even before I knew her personally. I think we all did.

Sevigny did not get stuck in time. That’s another vortex she avoided, perhaps the most important of them. She continued to stick to her decisions and tastes and be transformed by them, dozens of film and television roles later, many of them entirely unimaginable without her grit and talent. If this is a valentine to Chloë, it’s a needless one. She doesn’t drift on compliments. And her 90s “it girl” status wasn’t really a compliment but a bizarre attempt at taxonomy for someone so indefinable. Was 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry the end of the 90s in terms of independent film that tackled difficult topics, or the first film of the new decade, when independents became submerged in the mainstream? It was the film that garnered Sevigny an Academy Award nomination and affirmed her career as a professional actress. The actress has already had a busy 2013: a few television roles (she’s appeared in American Horror Story, Portlandia, Louie and just wrapped an as yet-unannounced pilot), her ongoing women’s fashion line with Opening Ceremony, and now hunting for a new apartment in Manhattan. But I came over to her old place and we sat down and went back in time to the 90s. I like to think we still look as young as we did then.  

Check back tomorrow for an exclusive Q&A between Bollen and Chloë Sevigny. Production by Alanna Gabin.

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  • TODAY'S EXTRA
    TODAY'S EXTRA

    Chloë Sevigny: Trees Lounge

    On the Set of Steve Buscemi’s Dark Portrait of Suburbia

    A pixie-cut, kohl-eyed Chloë Sevigny lounges between takes of Trees Lounge in this exclusive series taken behind the scenes of Steve Buscemi’s 1996 writing and directorial debut. Captured by photographer and co-producer Chris Hanley, the black-and-white shots show the Boardwalk Empire star share a candid moment with a twenty-something Sevigny, cast to play a teenage tearaway in pursuit of his alcohol-consumed character. A complex, seriocomic tale that sees Buscemi drive an ice-cream truck called “Good Humor,” the Cannes-endorsed feature launched him as the indie auteur of his generation. "I feel like the indie thing, it had a moment," muses Sevigny, who handpicked the unseen series as part of the two-day 90s takeover. "Independent movies were easier to get distribution because they had cachet."

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    Larry Clark: Marfa Girl

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