Tara Subkoff, 2002


The Spectacle of Fashion activism.

ARIANA: You just performed a sort of guerilla intervention during the Paris couture week, staging your show outside John Galliano's presentation for Dior, with the models arriving in ambulances.
TARA: I originally intended to have a few clowns and a band as well. It all happened very fast — everything was orchestrated in two days time for under a hundred dollars. We went in three ambulances and got through two different security checks because they thought our models were part of the Dior show.

ARIANA: Imitation of Christ shows are always a little bit of a circus here in New York as well. Why did you decide to invade Paris this time around?
TARA: Sorry if I sound pretentious, but it's really based on the ideas of the French Situationists — using an amusing spectacle to make a point. So many people take couture too seriously. There should be a sense of enjoyment and decadence. Instead, at most shows, there are five different security checks before you can get inside! I don't know, isn't there a war going on? Aren't there more serious things to think about? I just wanted to create a demonstration in the most amusing way possible.

ARIANA: What were you demonstrating against?
TARA: Since the label began, we've tried to raise awareness about the horrors of sweat shop labor. If you talk about it, people say, "Oh, sweat shops, yeah, everything is made in them." They're just taken for granted. But you have to look at what they do to cultures that once were very simple farming communities. We've completely destroyed places in China, Indonesia, and San Salvador with our factories and by enlisting all these really young girls and boys to do manual labor.

ARIANA: Are you addressing the sweat shop issue by making all your Imitation of Christ clothes by hand?
TARA: We use what people throw away. I think that our culture is incredibly sick with needing the newest version. People want more better, quicker, faster. I take things from Goodwill and other thrift stores, and rework them so that they're modern — even more modern than brand-new clothes. That's where the label starts — taking the undesirable and making it desirable again.

ARIANA: Do you think it's legitimate, from a fashion standpoint, to depend so much on vintage and thrift?
TARA: We're trying to bring the human hand back into an industry that reeks of manufacturing. I like old things because they are so beautifully made, usually by hand. People used to do needlepoint and embroidery. They made these fine laces that don't exist anymore. Nowadays it's not economical to make things that way, so it's just not done.

ARIANA: The press doesn't usually represent you from a political angle at all. The label could be interpreted as a highly ironic take on fashion.
TARA: It's been misunderstood for a long time. I've never thought of it as a gimmick. I try to make it sincere. People stick us into the world of fashion, which we never intended to be a part of.

ARIANA: Is it more of an art project?
TARA: I wouldn't place it in fashion and I wouldn't place it in art. It's more interesting when different parts of regimented industries can be combined to open up something new.

ARIANA: Since the label started, you and your collaborator Matt Damhave, have been the conspicuous faces attached to the project. He decided to leave earlier this year. Do you still consider the label a collective?
TARA: Yes, it's still a collective. When Imitation of Christ started I had a film coming out called The Cell — a lot of journalists were interested in talking to me about that, but they would interview me about the label as well. Matthew was the person that I brought along with me. There are other people who have been involved since the very beginning but because they are not as outspoken as Matthew, in this bratty punk-rock kind of way, they didn't get as much attention as he did or I did.

ARIANA: Who do you work with now?
TARA: My brother, Daniel Subkoff, has always collaborated with me on all the silk screens. We draw the screens by hand, then he hand prints every one. Another person who has been involved since the beginning is Marcelo Mullins. She's an incredible visionary. Most recently, Elizabeth Bagatso started making a lot of the jewelry that we've been using for the past few shows.

ARIANA: How do you respond to the cynics who say that it is a gimmick, a con to sell re-engineered vintage clothes at outrageous prices?
TARA: The press loves to hate me. The first year we did so many interviews, but none of what we said actually got printed. That's because we were talking to fashion magazines about sweat shops and how things are made. That kind of commentary can really put those publications in jeopardy with their advertisers.

ARIANA: So you feel like you've been stonewalled by the fashion media.
TARA: It's a world where no one wants to pay attention to anything except, "I have to have that new pair of Prada shoes." I might even have to have the new pair of Prada shoes, but at the same time, it's important to pay attention to where things are made and by whom in order to be a little bit more responsible about what you buy.

ARIANA: The label's persona has always had a kind of fuck-you element to it. Whether it was a bratty attitude in interviews or the treatment of shows as spectacles. At one show, you had the invited guests walk the catwalk and the models sit and watch. Is it because of your background as an actor that you're so attracted to performance?
TARA: Yeah, I'm always intrigued by performance. I think of the clothes as mostly costumes in some ways. They're usually the last things that we think about after we've come up with an overall concept. It's a piece of the whole, not the whole itself.

ARIANA: Will you presenting again in September in New York?
TARA: Definitely. I like to work — it's my favorite thing to do. If I don't work constantly I start to feel like I'm ill.

ARIANA: Do you ever feel like you're adding to the sense of mindless consumerism because your political message isn't being communicated?
TARA: I really hope not. I think the label will be better understood the longer it's around. Part of the idea now is to fight from within, rather than trying so hard — in a juvenile punk-rock way — to be heard. I've realized that the message doesn't have to be ham-fisted in your face.

ARIANA: Are you looking for a way to manufacture responsibly?
TARA: I'm going to start working with a fantastic company called Fle-x in Los Angeles. They make t-shirts. Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's ice cream started it. It's trying to change the way the garment industry manufactures its products. Every single worker at the factory buys into the company with the first part of their earnings. If the factory does well, and I really hope that it does, everyone will receive a piece of the profit. It's never been done before.

ARIANA: So you would be switching gears and creating some clothes that could be mass-produced.
TARA: Right. I would love to be able to grow with Fle-X and enable their growth. I think it's important to do things the right way — although it can take a little longer — than do things the wrong way.

ARIANA: Have you read Naomi Klein's No Logo?
TARA: Yeah. I'm not a fan of that terminology, culture-jamming.

ARIANA: That seems to me like what you're trying to do.
TARA: I'm a traditional iconoclast — that pretty much covers it.

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