Who Wore It Better: Art or Commerce?

Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta at the Whitney Museum for the installation of “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed.” At top, a light box with ad imagery that will be part of their show.
Credit...Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Labels. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

At least not in today’s milk-glass world of vanguard culture, where the once-distinct disciplines like dance, fashion, art, photography, food and performance have begun melding together like never before. In some quarters, it’s now blurry enough to recall the Newton disc, a wheel of the color spectrum that when spun at high speed turns white (or at least a nice dove gray).

The latest and most clearly confounding exemplar of this blurrealist trend opens Friday at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Titled “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed” and delving into (and around and about) the art-inflected fashion house founded by Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus in 2011, the exhibition is almost dizzyingly multivalent.

First off, it’s not really an exhibition, because it’s also a shop — or at least a retail environment where you can browse, try on and buy the label’s clothes. It’s not in the Whitney’s own lobby-level bookstore, but in a lobby exhibition space that’s free to the public and where a store vibe seems appropriate. Even so, it is the first time the Whitney has installed a shoppable space in one of its galleries.

There are artworks (not for sale) included in the show, not Mr. Eckhaus and Ms. Latta’s own but by artists they commissioned. The installation is also kind of a performance, since the sales staff is kind of part of the project — and will actually be performing the role of salespeople through Oct. 8, when the show ends.

All together, this kit and caboodle is really something else entirely, a kind of conceptual art installation that aims to encapsulate today’s fashion system (if not today’s galloping consumption of all kinds) through a distillation of our experience with shopping and clothes into a three-chambered feast for the eyes. The first stokes future desire with light-box ad imagery; the second delivers the tangible, present pleasure of the clothes themselves; and the third space lets you look back at the past, warping your own memories of the purchase through security footage. So it’s about shopping, but it’s also not about shopping, but it’s also not not about shopping.

Is it art? Fashion? Here’s the thing, and it applies whether you are talking about Eckhaus Latta or their Whitney show (or about Mr. Eckhaus or Ms. Latta themselves): If you are trying to pin them down as being one thing or another, you’re already out of the game. Defying categorization isn’t a goal or a gimmick; it’s a given. And it’s one that everything else is built upon.

“This is something we get asked a lot,” Ms. Latta said earlier this week, after having flown in from Los Angeles to install the show. (Mr. Eckhaus lives in New York, so even their base of operations is blurry.) “For us, if it wasn’t getting asked of us, we wouldn’t ask it of ourselves ever. That gray area is always where we’ve been the happiest, and not needing a definitive label.”

Articulate as Mr. Eckhaus and Ms. Latta are, they falter in describing their own style. “We’ve always had this issue when people want us to describe the clothes or ask ‘What is Eckhaus Latta?’” Mr. Eckhaus said. “We still don’t necessarily know how to answer those questions, but I think that’s a really exciting thing rather than a detrimental one. Why does everything need to be a one-liner or an elevator pitch? Why does everything need to be so easily understood?”

Part of the reason for their insistently amorphous approach was their Artsy-cum-Etsy education. They met more than a decade ago at the Rhode Island School of Design where he was studying sculpture and she was studying textile design. They met and bonded over their shared obsession with fashion. “We were both interested in each other’s closets,” Ms. Latta said.

Moving to New York in 2010, Mr. Eckhaus started designing accessories at Marc Jacobs while Ms. Latta was designing textiles. In November 2011, they impulsively decided to submit a look to the famed fashion competition in Hyères, France. “The day we sent it off we hadn’t slept in, like, two days, and I remember hallucinating in the post office just trying to get it out on time,” she said.

That one design gave rise to a handful of others, which they showed at a friend’s gallery on Bowery, and they were on their way. One of the early hallmarks of their line, and their approach, is what the artist and performer Kembra Pfahler has called “availabism,” the practice of using what’s on hand or at least easily procured.

Most strikingly, that meant plastic — the kind not really meant to be worn next to the skin. One early look that generated some buzz was a high-waist pair of pants knit from tan plastic and mohair worn with mint-green patent leather-covered woodblock shoes and a double-faced cashmere vest.

“We were very into outdoor upholstery materials,” Ms. Latta said.

“It was very Home Depot,” Mr. Eckhaus added.

These comically avant-garde early efforts were carried off with a pointedly un-fashion-y sense of presentation. Eschewing professional models for art-world friends like Susan Cianciolo and Juliana Huxtable, casting people across the spectra of age, race, size and gender, and collaborating with artists like Alex Da Corte, Dev Hynes and Bjarne Melgaard, the pair almost seemed more interesting in formulating a new model for a label as they were about designing the clothes: the brand as conceptual artwork.

But if that sounds even more airily arty and self-indulgent, a no-nonsense marketing professional might disagree. In an age when there are 1,500 names on the runway show list, finding a voice that resonates with people outside the Wintour circle is of paramount importance. With a canny mix of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, that is just what Eckhaus Latte has done, as borne out by their Whitney show.

The charm of this approach is that it has allowed the pair to take an abstract and personal approach to runway clothes that can change from season to season without ever hewing to one aesthetic or rule. It really is almost impossible to define the Eckhaus Latta style, though in 2015 Women’s Wear Daily came as close as anyone has to pinning it down: “a look that melds utilitarianism, pansexuality, streetwear and thrifted silhouettes into a unique, counterculture aesthetic.”

And yet if that suggests that pragmatism isn’t part of the mix, that would be wrong. Indeed, the most surprising thing about Eckhaus Latta isn’t the edgy-chic clothes on the runway; it is the clothes in the showroom, where there are full-fledged collections of denim, knits and accessories as well as one-of-a-kind collection pieces.

“That’s the thing — we’re not artists,” Ms. Latta said. “At the end of the day, we’re serious about our business and changing the ways this industry works and working within its limitations. We can talk to you about tailoring and bias-cut dresses and knit structures all you want.”

So in an age in which binary systems, like male/female and young/old, are being rejected left and right (sorry), maybe it’s also time to retire the old canard that art is above commerce while fashion revels in it. That’s very much the message of the Whitney show.

“This concept of blending, allowing commerce to happen within the context of art, all came from them,” said Lauri Freedman, the Whitney’s head of product development and a co-curator of the show, with Christopher Y. Lew. “It’s not just that they know how to put on a fashion show, it’s not just that they have this amazing group of artists they work with. They are stewards of their ideas in a way that is fully holistic.”

That wasn’t something they set out to do but rather that their intuitive approach led them to — the same mind-set that brought them together when they were students as RISD and the internet was still up for grabs.

“It really felt like a different time in terms of how we related to stuff and images and buying things,” Ms. Latta said. “Now we hang out with our interns, and they all talk about the same Netflix shows. It’s this homogeneous culture that they participate in. We were always into our esoteric stuff.”

So let others try and put themselves into a box — Mr. Eckhaus and Ms. Latta will be out browsing.

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