If You with Patient Eye Attend the Spirits

by Long Nguyen

Creatures of the Wind and the Spoils of Collaboration
At the Desmond Tutu Centre in West Chelsea in February, the swishing passage of a black silk taffeta gown with tulle pleats through a painstakingly arranged garden of flowers collaged and hand-cut from magazine photos, announces the collaboration between multimedia artist Stephen Eichorn and the Chicago bred it-boys behind fashion line, Creatures of the Wind, Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters. Given the pair’s history of eclectic inspiration, Gabier and Peters’ involvement with Eichorn is the least surprising element of this otherwise fabulous Fall coming out party. Eichorn’s work is the very stuff of eclecticism—collaging found images into architectural pieces. His latest exhibition “Flowers” at the Ebersmoore Gallery in Chicago so moved the duo, that CotW had to bring him into the mix.

“I incorporate plants in a lot of my other work (primarily hand-cut collage) and the natural components I use in my collages are more formal architectural components,” Eichorn says. “I used these to build up imagined architecturally diverse spaces through the natural occurring forms in the found imagery. Through the gathering of collage components I’ve been able to hone in on different mythology, rituals and histories surrounding the types of flora or foliage. So for the floor and hanging work I used my process of collage and arranging of components as a jumping off point.”

Designed so as to convey the mood of an enchanted forest, Eichorn’s runway adornments were meant to reflect Gabier and Peters’ discovery of the book The Secret of the Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies—which inspired the Fall collection.

The final result is a range of artisanal garments that mix and match a variety of fabrics; leathers, treated lace, silk tulle, jacquard, poplin cotton and wool. Other fantasy influences include Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn, which can be seen on a white long-sleeve shirt, intricately embroidered with a phrase from the story. When styled with a three-quarters sleeve heavy-knit sweater, a patent leather skirt, and a bolero scarf with vivid floral hand embroideries, the entire look is decidedly romantic. But its fantastical theme of other worlds speaks to the designers’ curious intelligences, their notions of duality, destiny and free-will, the mind’s encroachment on the data of a sometime obdurate world.

Sitting at a corner table in the Cookshop, the West Chelsea eatery where artists and dealers mingle for power lunches, Shane Gabier, Christopher Peters and I all nibble on warm cookies while we talk about life, mystery, Chicago, work, fate, fashion, fabric, freedom and their collaborative work with Eichhorn.

How did you both come to study fashion?

Shane Gabier: I moved to Chicago to go to school and I originally thought that I was going to go for architecture. That was my plan at the time. I started in architecture, but it really only took one semester to decide that it wasn’t for me. I had always been interested in clothing so I decided to take a few fashion classes. I transferred and loved it right away. The scale of everything made a lot more sense to me and I was able to see results happening immediately.

Christopher Peters: I started making my own clothes in high school and became more interested in the idea of studying fashion. I didn’t know if I should pursue that or science and become a biologist. After I graduated school, I did a year as a Research Assistant for a couple of different programs in Marine Biology. After that year, I decided I would go and pursue fashion instead. It was really amazing, but in the back of my mind, it wasn’t what I thought that I needed to be doing.

In terms of working together and coming up with the first clothes, how did that come about? Was it an organic process?

SG: In the beginning, we started coming up with ideas, talking about fashion, sketching together and making samples. We have a studio in our house where we started working together and developing ideas. At that point, we were making all of the samples ourselves. Everything was more of a project than a collection.

CP: Our first collection was probably Spring/Summer ’11. We started working together in 2007, but we don’t consider those real collections. They were more experiments for us.

Before Spring ’11, what you presented was actually bits and pieces of ideas. Can you describe some of those concepts in the early days?

CP: The Spring ’09 collection really revolved around “Mayday” and the idea of youth and fertility. We weren’t trying to make anything too complex. It was really about focusing on the core ideas since it was just the two of us.

From the first two years or so that you’ve been experimenting with pieces, how did you conceive the idea of moving forward and starting an actual collection?

SG: The first two seasons that we started working we were doing both men and women; maybe 4-5 looks for men and 6-8 looks for women. After that, we realized that we weren’t able to focus. We needed to make a decision and put all of our energy into one place. We decided to start focusing on women at that time. That’s where I think if we were to look back to that point, that was when we started seeing things clearer. Our ideas and concepts were starting to work through the collection a bit more. We have slightly different backgrounds and you can definitely see the pieces that Chris made and what I made.

How did you come up with the name for the collection?

SG: It’s a lyric from the song, “Wild Is The Wind”. The song was first performed by Johnny Mathis in 1957 for a film by the same name. I first knew the song from a cover Nina Simone did in the late 60s, early 70s. For me, it was a really beautiful lyric. Chris really liked it for other reasons as well.

Every collection you start, there is always an idea and concept behind it. Let’s take this Fall for example. What was the idea and concept behind it?

CP: With this collection, The Secret Commonwealth, we were analyzing ideas of duality and, at the same time, having it represent ideas of transformation. We just went all out with what we were feeling at the time. We always start with a narrative. It’s based around a 17th century cleric, Robert Turk. He wrote a book, The Secret Commonwealth, which was an exposé of the fairy world. The book is real and he was a real person. But following the publication of the book, he was taken by spirits and sealed into a tree, punishment for writing it.

How were you able to translate that concept through the collection?

CP: We really just analyzed different facets of it. Robert Turk was attracted to the idea of something that was eventually self-destructive and dangerously alluring. It was something that, to him, was more perfect and beautiful than his real world, and it eventually lead to his death. That, to us, is an interesting idea. Also, the idea of a magical and invisible world overlapping the real world was intriguing. To bring that to the collection, it was really important to find the material that really had a layered element and a bit of fantasy.

SG: I think that it’s also important to note that this kind of concept is really the framework for how Chris and I bounce ideas back and forth because we are two people working together. I think it’s not necessary to see the concept in the end, but use it as a frame for the mood or sensation. Then it’s about us finding that Pandoric representation through the materials and styling. For us, it’s there, but I don’t think it’s so important.

How did you communicate this vision to Stephen Eichorn?

SG: We wanted the set to reference a forest, without being too direct. We wanted to capture a feeling of ceremony and ritual, but again, in an atmospheric, evocative way.

In terms of the clothes, they have a very handiwork, artisanal approach to them. Is that an important part to how the CotW clothes are made?

SG: Yes, I think for this Fall’s collection, it was a really important investigation. I think we approach every collection and season differently. We really focus on this aspect of craft for Fall. I don’t think it’s necessarily a crucial part of every collection. Going forward into the next collection, we were thinking about garments and their construction in the most different way. I think it’s interesting for us to switch up our technical approach every season as well.

Has the collection grown, in terms of the amount of pieces that you add on from season to season?

CP: I think we’ve been adding on about 15-20 pieces each season since we’ve been properly showing. We’d shown 18 pieces in Spring ’11 and now for Spring ’13, we’re showing 28-30 pieces.

So any single outfit is a shared enterprise between the two of you?

SG: Yes, we have to be really careful about what’s being made. We can’t be wasteful. Everything is thought out and we have lengthy discussions about every pieces before it goes into production.

CP: People have to be happy with the collection. We’re also a couple and the happiness that happens within a collection carries over to the relationship and that has to be maintained.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations. Can you talk about some of them? Is there a small fashion community in Chicago as well?

CP: We haven’t really collaborated with many fashion people in Chicago. People that we’ve worked with are usually musicians or artists. There are a lot of art communities and recording studios in Chicago. The singer Matteah Baim did some silk macabre one season.  Even our friends that don’t live in Chicago are there, part-time, recording albums. We have collaborated with Tabitha Simmons. This will be our third season with her. Her shoe collection is the best. We work with Erickson Beamon on jewelry. They are so passionate and have a very encompassing vision.

Where does all of the production take place?

CP: We do everything in New York City. This season is the first season where we produced a few styles in Japan. Just in terms of quality, they have some of the best facilities in the world. Bringing any sort of economic support to Japan is very important to us as well.

How do you plan to expand the business within the next five years?

SG: As Chris said, we’re adding at least 15 more styles each season and I think our collaborations are growing. We’re looking into accessories and are in the very first stages of that project. We’re looking at an organic type of growth. We are really comfortable with the rate things have grown in the past couple of years and want to maintain that. We’ve experimented with small networks of groups and that’s something that we want to get into more. We’re growing the collection. For Fall, we did our first evening wear groups with a couple of pieces and we’re going to continue that for Spring.

Was it weird coming to New York City to break into fashion? New Yorkers aren’t as receptive to non-New York designers, for some reason.

CP: We’ve faced a lot of resistance when we first started off. People weren’t really looking to embrace anything that wasn’t New York. In L.A., I feel like people treated us really badly, and if you’re from Chicago, it’s like you just wandered out of the forest. We actually had a major retailer tell us to lie and say that we’re from New York. Then the collection started getting critical reception, and people started paying attention. Our first retailers that we started off with were some of the best shops in the world.

I’ve looked at your collection for the past few seasons and they seem as though they’re ready for any season.

CP: We don’t want our clothing to be a disposable commodity, but to be something that’s important and still feel fresh and relevant in a person’s closet well after they buy it. That’s definitely one of our key points when we’re designing a collection.

The existence of Creatures of the Wind means an intersection between individual tastes, craft and collaboration is still possible in American fashion. And just as its impossible to imagine what CotW clothes would look like if one or the other wasn’t involved, it’s hard to imagine the fashion landscape without CotW flourishing in it. Their clothing doesn’t look or feel like any other designer clothes currently available at retail stores. When so few things on the racks call out for attention or stir that part of the soul that urges one to buy, buy, buy—CotW is something of a miracle; a lucky toss of the dice. Hopefully as their business grows, they can maintain the special quality their designs have—that collaborative, daring, gambling spirit—without any compromises.