A Shanghai Museum Illuminates Its Own Breed of Design Innovation
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 decade’s 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.
The Indie Darling's NOWNESS Takeover Continues with Kim Gordon's Posse and a Marc Jacobs "Situation"
"Nothing gets between me and my Calvins," muses a 21-year-old Chloë Sevigny before setting off on a quest for a mysterious bank boy in this unseen film by Phil Morrison. During her downtown frolics a mod-ish Sevigny sneaks a hidden camera into a Marc Jacobs show, where the likes of Ethan Hawke, Naomi Campbell and Suzy Menkes are seen toasting one of the designer's seminal grunge collections. Shot as an original video campaign for X-Girl, the preppy downtown fashion line and one of the many collaborative projects conceived by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, the video was “supposed to be like Godard,” explains Sevigny, who starred as the Jean Seberg-inspired protagonist alongside Hungarian-American artist Rita Ackermann. “I was hanging out with her all the time and making videos with Bernadette Corporation and all those people; it was all up in the mix.” The tongue-in-cheek script co-penned by Morrison is a loose, sharp-witted rumination on fame, gender roles and the art and music scene of mid-90s New York. “I remember being concerned that people might find it boring, and Kim being very encouraging that she wouldn’t mind that at all, that it was to some degree the idea,” says the Junebug director. Nearly two decades later, the X-Girl muse paid homage to the cult line with a Fall 2013 Opening Ceremony presentation, where Gordon returned the favor with a one-off Pussy Riot-inspired performance. Here, Sevigny opens up to Interview Editor-at-Large Christopher Bollen.
Christopher Bollen: Tell me about the picture of you that Larry Clark shot in 1993 that’s in the New Museum show [NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star].
Chloë Sevigny: I moved to NYC June of 1993, but I think that was shot earlier in the year when I was still visiting. I’m trying to think of the length of my hair because I was always shaving it that year. There’s a tank top, the ringer tees, stars of course were very popular in the 90s, so I feel like my outfit is very emblematic of 1993. It was shot in Larry’s apartment. I think I went over there with Harmony. He was already photographing us and making weird little videos and stuff.
CB: You were raised in Darian [Connecticut] and you’d come into the city on the weekends or after school, and that’s how you eventually met Harmony. I know this is part of your legacy.
CS: I met Harmony when I was a junior in high school, just hanging out. He was going to NYU and living at his grandmother’s in Queens. Washington Square had two different camps. There were the homeboys on one side: it was more the hip-hop, gangster side of the park. On the other side was the skaters. Me and this girl Lisa would come in together and she liked the gangsters so she’d hang on one side of the park and I would be on the other side with the skaters. And then we’d drive back home together in her mom’s Isuzu Trooper [laughs].
CB: Have you watched Kids recently? Are there specific scenes that you remember?
CS: I can remember almost every scene. The hardest one was when I was sitting with the doctor and she told me that I’m [HIV] positive and I had to react. I’d never really acted professionally, it was so hard, and Larry and I were trying to figure it out together.
CB: Were you interested in acting from a very young age?
CS: Yeah, I was interested in acting since kindergarten when my mom brought me to see Annie on Broadway and that was it. That was when I decided. Because they were kids my age, on stage singing and dancing, which is what I loved to do. I was always dressing up.
CB: Were fashion, style, and music all interrelated for you as a kid? Like a form of acting?
CS: I was into style and fashion really young, I really went for it! Eighth grade was when I veered off into the alternative world because I was obsessed with my brother’s girlfriend Ellie. She had blue hair and wore kilts and Doc Martens and I just thought she was so cool and so pretty and I wanted to be like her. Then I started getting into weird music, but even when I was doing the mainstream thing like everyone else, I didn’t feel like part of the popular kids.
CB: What did you wear while walking around New York in your first months here?
CS: I had combat boots and this white satin wedding gown that I had torn the train off of and I’d wear little T-shirts underneath, usually they’d have a Rita Ackermann drawing on them. And I had this pink 60s coat that was all falling apart and tattered, and I had pink and white hair.
CB: Do you look back on those early days in New York as particularly feral or free?
CS: A lot of that time in the 90s when me and Harmony were going out, more of my world was just about him. But I don't think about it much now. It takes a trigger like when I read Christine Vachon’s book about the making of Kids, or a photograph or someone’s story—then a flood of memories comes back.
CB: Was Harmony really ambitious at that age? Were you both? It seems like such a slacker skateboard world, but the two of you managed to make pretty astounding careers.
CS: I was less ambitious; more curious, you know? People thought I had a staring problem. I remember everybody saying: “Why do you stare so much?” Harmony knew what he wanted, he was on the fast track. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to work at a magazine, which is why I worked at Sassy. I knew I was interested in fashion and maybe designing because I’d made stupid hats on my sewing machine. Or maybe acting or some modeling, you know, if I can get that. I was just kind of feeling it out.
CB: Do you think the New York of Downtown in the 90s is gone now? When you walk around are you aware of the changes?
CS: I guess it felt more like a community, more like a village. Even walking down Lafayette Street, there wasn’t all the shops and stuff like that. There were only a couple of little spots where you could see people but that was just my scene. I hung out at X-Large everyday.
CB: What do you miss most about those days?
CS: I guess I miss that sense that something could happen, and I don’t think that was just to do with the age that I was. I think there was more danger—not that I want that anymore but it was more palpable and more exciting. Even something as little as people smoking in a club. There’s a different feeling in the room. It’s as simple as that. That’s what I loved about [Sevigny’s older Brother] Paul’s clubs, always. There was this sense that anything could happen. It was kind of wild again at the Beatrice [Inn]. Not that many people can capture that feeling of recklessness. I miss the big nightclubs, Times Square, the street walkers.
CB: It seems like there was a nice convergence in the 90s with musicians and artists and filmmakers working with fashion, like Kim Gordon and her X-Girl line. She seemed to get all of the artists and filmmakers involved. You starred in the 1992 Sonic Youth video “Sugar Kane” set in a Marc Jacobs fashion show.
CS: Kim called me at home and said, “We’re going to do this music video. Would you be interested? You have to be naked.” And I said, “Okay.”
CB: So you really were naked in that runway scene?
CS: I think I might’ve worn a thong, which I’d never worn before in my life. I mean I was young, I was a junior in high school.
CB: You were very brave.
CS: I guess I just wasn’t very self-aware. I think people weren’t as brand obsessed, not the people who I was hanging out with. It wasn’t like Clueless. I don’t think I was thinking about making money. It was easier to live here without as much money, so it wasn’t anything I aspired to have. I didn’t want to be rich and famous. I just wanted to be cool and respected and admired. Harmony was into being pure and not being photographed. He informed how I felt about the press and what kind of decisions I wanted to make in my career. He was a real purist.
CB: The culture of film has also really changed since then. Do you think indie films still even exist? Boys Don’t Cry, for instance, was a watershed role for you. It really confirmed your place as a serious actress.
CS: I wish there had been more. There are a lot of movies I’ve made in my career that I’m really proud of, like the Last Days of Disco and American Psycho and even later with Dogville and Zodiac. But I feel like since then there’s been a dip and I want to get back to that consistency of working with good people and doing good work again. I read somewhere that no matter how famous you are, or how many movies you’ve been in, you’re always remembered for one or two parts. You know Robert De Niro is always Taxi Driver. I think I’ll always be associated with Kids. And that’s okay.
Production by Alanna Gabin.