Puppets And Puppets

It seems like each of the Puppets & Puppets collections to date have been themed, with underlying concepts informing the pieces and presentations. Is the same true for this latest set?

Yes, I had originally based the collection off of turn of the century Iranian royal silhouettes, which I then meshed with American Western from that same time period. But then COVID happened, and like everyone else, I had pandemic lockdown brain and was much more interested in comfort than I ever had been before. This is my first season of production, so I also had to consider what people would want to buy right now through this strange period of time. So there are still remnants of the original mood boards within the collection, and you’ll be able to see that, but it’s through a lockdown filter, a reaching-for-comfort filter.

What was it about those two particular styles of silhouettes? Were you seeing similarities between them, or even between the two periods and places? Or were you more interested in juxtaposition?

More the latter. I like to mix things that are a bit disparate, because I think that’s how you come up with something new and fresh, and have conversations about things going on in the world. So that’s why I chose those two departure points, but at the same time, the range of the imagery that I pulled was happening at the same time, just on different continents. So it was a question of, what’s happening here? What’s happening there? Let’s see what happens when we mix it all together.

You mentioned a newfound emphasis on comfort. What does it mean to you to be comfortable right now?

At the moment, dressing up means taking off my sweatpants. [laughs] And even that really takes some emotional effort on my part. But in terms of the comfort lens as it applies to the collection, it led to me to focus on knitwear, which will be in production. Knit pieces from this new season will be purchasable within the next few months. But we also styled sweatpants into the looks, because realistically, I feel like you can’t be part of the conversation right now without using a pair of sweatpants or two. If you want to talk about what’s actually being worn in the world at this moment, that’s what it is.

The knit pieces are being outsourced?

Yes. We’re working with this really amazing women-run group of artisans in Bolivia. We’re also doing something similar in Peru, but that’s for leather goods. 

Is this the first time that you’ve worked this way? 

Yes, this is the first time we’ve outsourced our garments. Part of it is that with earlier collections, we hadn’t produced quantity—it’s basically been couture—and once we decided to take this step, we realized that there’s just so much that needs to be made. We needed outside assistance to fill the quota. But then we also found that there simply aren’t a lot of options for knitwear development in New York City—and even when you do find someone, the pricing is way too high. Like anything else in New York, on top of the item itself, you’re paying for that person’s rent. So as a young designer going into my first season of production, I had to work outside of the US in order to make it happen financially. But really, it makes sense to produce  where we’re producing, in places like Bolivia and Italy, because we sourced the yarn from those specific regions, so it’s actually more sustainable. Fashion production is complicated because it’s so disparate, which is one of the factors that has made producing clothing so unsustainable for the environment. But the way we’ve done it, the materials don’t have to travel from here to there, and I’m only paying for the shipment to New York once the product is made. Sustainability was definitely one of our top concerns, but I think we figured it out pretty well.

What led to the decision to go into production? 

It was a combination of things. First, I wanted the community that loves and supports us to be able to own pieces if they desire, because I think that only enriches the relationship between you and your audience. We’ve always been really show-centric—it’s been concept, construction, make the show happen, and then move on to the next one—but at a certain point I realized, “People are asking to buy this.” So I want people who are interested in what we’re doing, and who want to be a part of it, to be a part of it—and the way you’re a part of it is to support the brand by wearing the clothes. At the same time, I want to be able to keep doing this, and realistically, that can’t happen if I don’t have numbers coming in and going out. Production is a means of financially sustaining the practice, so that it can go on for seasons and seasons, hopefully. 

It’s something young labels have to negotiate at some point if they want to grow. At the same time, it seems like Puppets was established with an ethos that wasn’t necessarily anti-commercial, but that definitely made a point of defying certain New York fashion conventions—part of which was avoiding the pitfalls of mass-market models by instead centering handmade pieces and attention to detail. Going into production, has there been any concern as to how you might retain those ethics while expanding your business?

Not really, because it’s still a combination of both elements. This new collection isn’t strictly production—it’s a mix of production and one-off, handmade things. I think that will definitely continue moving forward. I’m also interested in finding ways to incorporate some of those handmade elements into production. For instance, I work with Margalit Cutler, who helps me with the resin pieces. I have a leather handbag coming out, made sustainably in Peru, and there’s one of Margalit’s resin cookies from season three fixed to the bag. So I think there are ways to balance production with these special, handmade, against-the-grain methods that we’ve established. 

In that sense, it doesn’t change the narrative too much—it’s just about finding the right balance. It’s quite exciting, actually. I find the whole process of reaching that sweet spot exciting, because it’s not easy to do. You want to push forward, and you want to expand, but you want to maintain integrity, and you don’t want to become just like everyone else, which is part of why people responded to us in the first place. Even now, I’m keeping production very small. I don’t plan on ever having large quantities, because you can’t keep things special if you’re simply focused on making as many of one thing as possible. I care so much about everything that we do, and I want to put out quality. So yes, going into production may be a financial necessity, but it’s really not just about trying to make money. I’m trying to make something special. 

To that point, it sounds like your production items are still handmade. Even when produced for commercial purposes, that sense of intimacy can still translate to the garments.

Exactly. The choice to work with my weavers in Bolivia was intentional. It’s like, “I get what you’re doing, and you get what I’m doing. We’re doing something similar.” It keeps that same conversation going. You just have to be careful, specific, and detail-oriented about who you’re working with when you go into production, because there are still very special ways you can do it. And the truth is, honestly, I don’t know if I’m even capable of going completely in the opposite direction, because I come from a fine art background. I feel like I will always approach these processes differently.

The first Puppets collection was actually an extension of the costumes you were producing as part of your art practice. If we can look back for a moment, what initially prompted the transition from costumes to collections?

At the time, I was constantly working on things in the studio, but I didn’t have gallery representation; even if shows were lined up, it was always in a group exhibition, or with some international gallery here and there. I found it very hard to stay excited and be hopeful when there was (a) no timeline and (b) no place for the work to live, and it got to the point where I thought, “This doesn’t make sense any more. This isn’t fun.” I’d accumulated all of these garments that were produced for the video works, so the idea came to do a full collection. I was resistant at first, but in the end, I said, “Let’s try it.”

And things worked out.

Yes. In the beginning, I was just approaching it as a project I was diving into; if it didn’t go anywhere, I could write it off as an art piece and move on. But it was really well-received and really fun to do, so I kept going. 

There’s an interesting tension in the space between costumes and commercial garments—not just in terms of negotiating settings and social conventions, but also in terms of practical functionality. Generally speaking, in designing a new piece, how important is wearability to you? Does the look or concept sometimes take precedence?

I think it’s always a mix of both. With a lot of our pieces, it’s really a matter of time and context. Like, if you look at the hoop skirts we’ve used, there was a period of time when that’s what was worn. It’s inherently functional. At the same time, with each collection—even last season, which was maybe more extravagant than the season before—there have always been wearable items slipped in there. I like to mix construction with things that we’d just want to wear on a daily basis. I feel like that’s one of our strengths.

I agree. I love how a single collection can range from these exaggerated silhouettes and elaborate constructions—something like that blue piece Richie Shazam wore last year, which I thought was an iconic look—to simple jeans and a t-shirt with an ironed-on “3”. 

I was just thinking about that shirt today. I’m very proud of that. Someone commented on Instagram with something stupid, like, “Is this supposed to look like shit?” I’m just like, “Yes, it is, actually. Thank you for noticing.” [laughs] That’s the point.

The reviews we had for that show were pretty funny. We’d decided we were going to do a season that was mostly costuming based on Moebius, the sci-fi graphic novel illustrator. We knew it was very niche, but we also knew this was our last season before going into production, and so we were kind of pushing back against the people that were telling us to be more commercial. In the Vogue review, the writer says she’d brought a friend who had never been to a fashion show before, and after the show was over, the friend turned to her and said, “I feel like they were making fun of fashion.” To me, that’s perfect. I love fashion—but, yes, I’m absolutely making fun of fashion, too. 

You mentioned that there was some hesitation on your part in moving from art into fashion. It’s interesting that you felt the two pursuits might be somehow at odds, because outwardly, your approach with Puppets seems pretty similar to how artists structure their practices and conceive of exhibitions.

Yeah, looking at what it is now, I think you’re right. I think that hesitation stemmed more from my experiences when I was younger. Even going back to when I was a high-schooler living in Michigan, I was really interested in fashion. So I did some internships and saw what the terrain looked like, and what the people who worked in fashion were like, and I was very turned off by it. To me, it seemed like fine art was the antithesis to that. It seemed more pure. Of course, this was a 16-year-old who had never lived in New York or really experienced the art world. So after I switched and went to school for fine art, I worked in galleries. I interned at Paul Kasmin and worked at Gavin Brown, and I saw that the gallery system really wasn’t that different from fashion. They’re both just businesses. But even then, I was still hesitant to veer into fashion. 

Why’s that?

I think I was afraid of taking the leap and not being able to go back to art if I wanted to. But maybe even more than that, I knew it was expected of me as a young girl who liked clothes and liked to go to fashion dinners, regardless of the fact that I was in fine art. I think I was afraid of becoming what people expected me to become, and resented that people had that expectation in the first place. So I was very resistant—but like you said, it all ends up crossing over anyway. So as I made that transition, the way I went about it was the only way that I knew how, which was from a fine art perspective. As an artist, I would come up with concepts, I would make the work, I would install the show, and I’d start again. It’s been the same thing in fashion.

Having taken the leap, could you see yourself wanting to pursue projects that were tailored more to a fine art setting again? Or does your work with Puppets satisfy that creative impulse?

I feel so satiated by what I’m doing, in a way that I never did in fine art. I know that I am, at my very core, a drawer, a painter. But fashion’s great because I can incorporate that into the collection. I make drawings or paintings that I then turn into prints, that I then print on fabric, that I then turn into clothing. I have the same output. So I really don’t have a craving to go back to fine art—but at the same time, I wouldn’t be opposed to taking a year off to make a painting show. It would just have to be in the right context.

So that initial hesitation might have had less to do with the creative process than with how you might be perceived by art audiences once you’d embraced fashion.

Exactly, which is something that really hindered me in art. I was way too self-conscious, and I cared way too much about what the art community thought of me and what I was doing. I felt unaccepted, and I felt judged by it, and I didn’t want to exacerbate those feelings by moving into fashion—but the truth is, once I did, not only did it free me, but all of those false realities I’d created for myself just fell away. I immediately felt understood and accepted in a way that I never did in art. Looking back on my fine art work, I think you can see all of the things I just described: the insecurities, the feelings of being judged. That older work feels really frustrated to me, whereas this work is not that way at all. It’s so much easier to look at something that feels free, that feels unhindered, that feels brave and effortless.

As you said earlier, in both art and fashion, one finds romantic notions of creativity and expression quickly challenged by the financial and social realities of navigating an industry. At the same time, it does seem like fashion offered you a new range of possibilities—in terms of collaboration, community, or even the broader conversations you might enter through your work.

Oh, definitely. I felt very restricted in the art world, and I felt like the people there were pretty conservative. Honestly, I expected the same from fashion, but it hasn’t been that way at all. It’s been much more open and accepting.

To that end, you’ve been able to cultivate a group of friends who not only champion the brand, but whom you often use as muses, models, stylists, and so on. There’s an almost familial spirit to it all.

Yes, absolutely. Community is very important to us as a brand. Once I started working on Puppets, it became clear that my close friends really were more in the fashion realm than fine art. I never felt any real sense of community in the art world. I know certain artists come up with other artists, and these little circles can form, but I was never part of anything like that. I didn’t know where I fit, and nothing ever felt right. But even as I was putting together the first Puppets collection, I looked at my friends and realized, “Oh, this person can do this, and that person can do that.” Everyone around me was geared more toward fashion than fine art, so it all just flowed. It was a really natural thing that happened.

I love that aspect of fashion. I was just talking to my parents the other day about how I find so much relief in the fact that this brand isn’t “Carly Mark.” It’s a community of people. I specifically didn’t name it after myself because that kind of egoism—which you find everywhere in fine art—never felt right to me. The fact that I can work under the name Puppets and Puppets and include so many other people is super exciting to me. I love it when I make something, Muriel Maalouf makes something, and Laine Bolte makes something, and we’re all having the same conversation. Then we bring in our stylist, Stella Greenspan, and it becomes this completely unexpected, beautiful, poetic thing. To me, that’s the most exciting part: seeing what happens when you figure out your community, relinquish full control, and just let people do their thing. Very interesting results come from that.

Yes, I was wondering about that element of control. It seems like with your fine art work, you were quite exacting in how your ideas were being translated to the final pieces—but with fashion, by its very nature, things get a bit looser and come together in a different way. How have you adjusted to that while still ensuring your vision is being realized?

I think you have to do both simultaneously. When I’m collaborating, I like to loosen my sense of control during the creative process. It’s better to let people feel free to do their thing with confidence. I like when people like what they’re doing for me, and I think the best way to ensure that is to let them know that you trust them. But then, when the work comes in, that’s when I turn my control button back on, and I say, “Okay, great. This works, this doesn’t, this will work in this way, this can be tweaked a little bit.” Then I send it back out again, trusting them to make the necessary changes. So you have to oscillate between the two in order for it to hit that sweet spot.

Obviously, when it comes to finding collaborators and building a community, location plays an important role. How would you say New York has impacted your practice?

I’m very much tied to New York. I’ve been here since I was 18, and I’m 32 now. This city really raised me, and I think you can see that in the brand. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of people come into the studio and immediately ask, “Are you going to move this to London, or are you going to move this to Paris?” People seem to think this doesn’t belong in New York. But it’s like, “No, I’m doing this here for a reason.” Especially when we were putting together the first collection, my feeling was, “New York needs this.” It needed—and still needs—something different, something fun, some new blood. I’m a contrarian by nature, and I’m very proud of the fact that the collections, for the most part, haven’t looked like the other things that are happening in New York right now. 

Definitely. In that sense, bringing up these European cities—London, especially—doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to me. I can see where people might connect your output to what’s happening there.

Right. I do understand where they’re coming from. The thing is, New York fashion is very commercial. I’ve had a lot of conversations with older-generation New York fashion people who haven’t understood what we’re doing: “Is this an art project, or is this a fashion brand?” I was actually confused by that at first. I was like, “But isn’t it the same thing?” [laughs] In cities like Paris and London, they don’t have restrictions like that, which is why the European market rarely comes to New York shows. New York brands have to go to Paris for Market Week in order to sell internationally, because no one gives New York a chance any more. It’s too commercial. I feel like we’re really the opposite of that. We had three collections before we realized we needed to start making something that people can actually buy. It’s just not been our priority whatsoever.

Speaking of which: I know runway shows have been the central focus for Puppets thus far—but given pandemic-imposed restrictions, how are you approaching the presentation of this new collection? 

This one is a little different. We shot a lookbook with a really amazing photographer named Jody Rogac—

Oh! I love Jody. She’s great. Such a strong image-maker, and one of the nicest people in the world besides. 

Oh my gosh, she’s so kind. I really loved working with her. I felt like hers was the perfect lens for us, because our aesthetic thus far has been pretty loud, and very much about pushing back in the New York fashion world—but I feel like with all that’s happened the past year, this is not the time to push back. This is the time to be reflective, be conscious, be supportive. So Jody was perfect, because there’s something about her photos that feels calm as well as classic. They’re beautiful, but always with the perfect amount of restraint.

Absolutely. You and she are such an interesting, even unexpected pairing—I can’t wait to see the book! 

It turned out beautifully. I think you’ll really like it.

At the same time, having to shift your prime mode of presentation from the runway to still imagery seems like a big step. I wonder, what is it about the runway format that you’ve found exciting and potentially useful thus far?

Runway shows have this very intense energy, like a strange high. I find them extremely emotional—but they’re also very quick, and then suddenly it’s done. The whole experience is a vortex, which I really like.

And then there’s the comedown afterwards.

Oh, yes.

Artists often get that way after exhibitions, too—a kind of postpartum depression. 

It was definitely that way after the last collection. I think a big part of it was that we’d never really done the seasonal calendar before. With the first two shows, there was six months to prepare each one—but this was the first time we’d done fall/winter straight into spring/summer. You’re putting together shows of the same scale in half the time, and honestly, we didn’t know what hit us. 

Will you feel bound to that schedule moving forward?

I feel like the pandemic could change things for everybody. Obviously, it’s been a really difficult and disruptive time—but it’s also been an opportunity to step back and look at what we’ve done and how we did it, and maybe change a few things. So, for example, this past fall, we decided not to push for a September lookbook. We gave ourselves more time, because this whole structure, I think, is about to change—and it needs to. It’s unsustainable. I really think this is why so many young brands fail. 

Especially with a team as small as yours, it’s hard to imagine being able to maintain the same level of detail and intentionality at such a hurried pace over a long period of time.

Right. I think that’s why designers become numb, and then their clothes aren’t as good any more. I find there are very few designers out there that are still making quality collections later in their careers. Comme de Garçons is one that really pulls it off. They still turn out beautiful collection after beautiful collection, but that’s pretty rare. I think more often you become exhausted, and at that point, you’re just keeping up. You have enough people working for you that you can do it, but you’re not producing at the same creative level. 

These questions of pacing and space and personal well-being—at a certain point, it seems like they have to be integrated into the business model itself. It has to be a conscious decision.

Definitely. I think if the pandemic is showing people anything, it’s that we really have to reconsider our priorities. It’s not even just time and space and breathing room—it’s the Earth, too. Let’s not fly around the world, bustling to get this season done. Let’s not do everything at light-speed to get these fabrics to us. Let’s reconsider how we’re sourcing and shipping our materials. Let’s just breathe and take some time to get these things done in a better way. Now is really the moment to do it.

Photographs by Hannah Metz