Resurrected, Imitation of Christ Resumes Its Tradition of Disruption

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Twenty years after Imitation of Christ, a multimedia collective led by Tara Subkoff, staged its first public, pop-up show in Santa Monica, the brand relaunched last week with the aim of affecting change through collaboration in ways consistent with its punk and situationist ethos.

Photo: Courtesy of Imitation of Christ

The brand’s second coming was heralded by a public event/protest/show in Griffith Park, home to the Hollywood sign, on July 4th. It’s title, Americans Not Allowed in Paris, was a reference to the pandemic-related travel ban instituted by the EU, and perhaps also a challenge to the idea of couture as set out by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, an organization that Subkoff thinks should open up to young creatives. “I would love to see what [would happen if we] let go of the kind of conservative rules that aren’t really applicable anymore, and aren’t really even important for what we’re facing now, in culture and society,” she muses.

Imitation of Christ has always been self-cast in the role of provocateur, which is due both to necessity (i.e. lack of resources) and philosophy. The brand’s creed, says Subkoff, is to reject “supposed to” ways of acting and “to have the courage to think differently.” The group’s values have been consistently expressed through its garments and via its show formats.

Imitation of Christ, spring 2001 ready-to-wear

Photo: JB Villareal / Shoot Digital for Style.com

Imitation of Christ, spring 2001 ready-to-wear

Photo: JB Villareal / Shoot Digital for Style.com

Consider the brand’s April 2000 debut, which consisted of friends wearing IOC while riding a descending escalator in a subway station. Months later, the show went on the road, landing in New York where Imitation of Christ added interest and intrigue to the spring 2001 fashion week with a collection presented as a mock wake in a real life East Village funeral parlor. As, or more, shocking as the format were the clothes the models wore. These were customized vintage pieces in various Frankensteinian states of disrepair that played with the idea of resurrection, a concept that more than a decade later was re-christened upcycling. Context is important here; in 2000 vintage had yet to achieve mainstream appeal, and in an era of slick corporate branding, it retained a sort of countercultural appeal.

While Imitation of Christ was never fully integrated into the fashion system, the more enmeshed it became with the fine art world, the less relevant the actual clothes seemed to be. And after 2012 it seemed as if the project had been put to rest. Not so, says Subkoff, who explains that she’s continued making pieces “within a fine art context” related to her own performances. This July 2020 couture show marks her return to the fashion arena.

“I think Imitation of Christ is more relevant now than even back in 2000 when we started it,” states Subkoff. “To try to produce thoughtful, powerful change that makes us think about our actions and behavior, and to produce something that’s more conscious, is what I think Imitation of Christ has always been about, and what I’ve always been about. The concept and manifesto with which we started this political art project disguised as a ‘fashion house’ remain even more relevant today,” she continues in an email exchange in which she underscores her decades-long commitment to environmentalism and collaboration. “It was definitely a relaunch in the true spirit of when we started up: To evoke, create, and inspire by taking old things and putting the human hand back into them by hand-sewing the ‘unwanted,’ transforming something you never wanted to look at again, and making it the most coveted item—essentially making it an artwork—that everyone wants and thinks is so cool.”

Carmen Kass and Matt Damhave.

Chloë Sevigny at Imitation of Christ’s fall 2001 show.

Tara Subkoff in Imitation of Christ, 2000.Photo:  Frank Trapper / Corbis via Getty Images

Subkoff was 25 when she started Imitation of Christ with Matt Damhave, who was then about 19. Chloë Sevigny soon got involved (she was billed as the brand’s creative director), as well as other friends and contemporaries. This time around, Subkoff’s role has expanded to include the duties of a proud den mother as she believes the best people to do this work and make change are “young people, young artists, who see things differently. I think that they are the most concerned, in a Greta Thunberg kind of way, about the environment and are upset with the future that they have to inherit.”

Hudson Schaetzke, Lulu Syracuse, Tara Subkoff, and Jersey Bond.Photo: Martim Vian  / Courtesy of the Imitation of Christ

The 2020 couture collection was created in Los Angeles by Subkoff with three core collaborators, Hudson Schaetzke, Jersey Bond, and Lulu Syracuse. (Fun fact: Syracuse attended IOC’s very first show in California—in utero). IOC’s wider circle includes an extended group of 17-19 year old friends who are all stuck at home during the pandemic. The pieces were made using vintage and thrift sourced by Subkoff as well as pieces pulled from the dark depths of from the kids’ closets; meetings were virtual or held outside observing social distancing guidelines.

“I think if you’re a creative person you have to create,” Subkoff states. “Mental health is as important as physical health and I think this [project] allowed [these young creatives] access into their own creativity again; to make work that said something politically, socially, personally for them; connect in a tactile way to each other when they couldn’t see each other; and to do so in a way that feels important in terms of of taking things that are waste and recreating them and putting back into the world as something new and relevant.”

One way in which the No Americans Allowed in Paris collection will be relevant is that sales of the garments will be donated to assist COVID relief workers, environmental protection, and Black Lives Matter, in addition to funding the brand relaunch. Unmeasurable is the potential of the new generation. “These incredibly talented, hard working, passionate teenage artists really might affect a change in the world that we couldn’t,” notes Subkoff. “They are harder working. It’s something to witness and be inspired by; in some ways it’s our only hope.”

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

The collection, accessorized with IOC masks, included gender fluid separates for men and women. In keeping with brand tradition, many of the pieces featured slogans, some “upcycled” and reused as they remain relevant now, says Subkoff, including “The More You Consume The Less You Live.” Written out over the yellow felt letters spelling US IMMIGRATION SVC on the finale’s tiered lace were were two words: FUCK I.C.E.

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

There were also a number of floaty wedding dresses. Their inclusion Subkoff explains like this: The artists “who worked on the show are also protesting for their futures and [the wedding dresses were symbolic of the fact] that their collaborative art work ‘marries’ their real social justice work with the art honoring it.”

Subkoff wants IOC 2.0 to serve as a platform for young, conscious creators. “I have been talking to them about just creating what you can, how you can. A lot of artists that I respect always said to me that sometimes when you have less materials, less access, and you’re only able to do a few things, that’s when you can be the most creative. I kept saying, ‘Let’s just make what we can in our own backyards.’ ” That’s another way, really, of saying all change starts with oneself. The protests have shown us what the collective power of personal change is capable of.

Imitation of Christ’s July 4th happening might have hit most close to home of all of Subkoff’s “interventions,” but, interestingly, it’s not her first agitation timed to the couture: The first one was staged after September 11th in Paris outside of the Dior show.

“We got through six security checkpoints in an ambulance filled with models, a Caribbean band, a very voluptuous kind of opera singer, and some ballerinas. It looked like a three ring circus. I ended up being on top of an ambulance with a banner myself; it’s the only show I’ve ever actually been in,” recalls Subkoff who describes the happening as “a manifestation protesting couture, protesting decadence, protesting waste, protesting commercialism.

Short-lived as the performance was—it was shut down, tout suite, by the police—it was captured on film by Jessica Craig-Martin, and featured in Self Service magazine. “It was a real moment in time,” says Subkoff. “I remember John Galliano on the news saying ‘Pourquoi? Pourquoi? Why me? Why did you do this to me?’ I actually love John and it had nothing to do with him, it was just an opportunity to use what was there. [It fit the definition of] situationism exactly: To create a situation, to create a real spectacle, and to use the attention that was already on something else and to take that, absurd it, turn it upside down, and have it be on something else. Have it be on something more important—dare I say—than fashion, [like] politics, the world we live in, the choices we make, what we pay attention to as a culture, and how we can talk about it, and the environment. I’m really proud of that one.”

Imitation of Christ, fall 2005 couturePhoto: Pool Bassignac / Benainous / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Four years later Subkoff, in a gentler state of mind, brought Imitation of Christ back to Paris for fall 2005 couture. Held in a park, the models, with flowers in their hair, wore pretty pastel dresses that had been hand-dyed and painted with floral motifs by different artists. All of the pieces were hand sewn and made using vintage garments that were deconstructed and fit to the models who wore them.

All that romance didn’t preclude the show from expressing IOC’s trinity of values: art, attire, and agenda. “It was very simple, it was very beautiful, and it was political in the way that we actually charged money [for charity] for the performance,” says Subkoff.

Michel Gondry filming Roos van Bosstraeten with his vintage 16mm Bolex at Imitation of Christ’s fall 2005 couture show.Photo: Pool Bassignac / Benainous / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Michel Gondry was on hand to direct the show. Says Subkoff: He “stopped and started the show, like five times, calling, ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ The performance was about starting and restarting and starting again, and it never being quite right.”

This broken rhythm was also a sort of riposte to the fashion system. “In the fashion world you have to do everything in the manner it’s been done before,” Subkoff comments. “Any change to tradition is always met with a lot of anger and resistance, and a ‘Who do you think you are?’ [attitude]. I think we realize now that things have to change, that there has been a change, and that change is inevitable. You can’t stop change.”

Michel Gondry documenting, and acting in, Imitation of Christ’s fall 2005 couture show.Photo: Pool Bassignac / Benainous / Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesPhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

Photo: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Lulu Syracuse / Courtesy of the photographer and Imitation of Christ

Imitation of Christ, fall 2020 couture

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