At the Whitney, Alt-Fashion Icons Eckhaus Latta Revolutionize the Way Museums Exhibit Couture

Part interactive art show, part retail boutique, “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed” is the first fashion-related exhibition at the museum in 21 years.

A version of an image on a lightbox included in "Eckhaus Latta: Possessed." Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Charlotte Wales.

When fashion makes the leap to the museum, more often than not it’s static—usually taking the form of lavishly clothed mannequins mounted on platforms. But “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed,” the Whitney Museum of American Art‘s first fashion-related exhibition in 21 years, is a very different kind of experience altogether.

The show, dedicated to the shapeshifting fashion label Eckhaus Latta and the two designers behind it, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, has as much in common with the high-end clothing stores lining the meatpacking streets outside as it does with the ultra-polished spectacles of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. In fact, it’s a working retail space where the label’s clothes sit for sale among functional art objects.

It’s ironic, really, that at a time when e-commerce has caused retail stores to close at record rates, one pops up in an art museum. But this particular exhibition is not a relic; far from it. In fact, it’s more likely to feel inscrutably new than blandly old.

From Art to Fashion and Back

Eckhaus and Latta, who both just turned 30, met at the Rhode Island School of Design nearly a decade ago. Eckhaus studied sculpture; Latta studied textiles. A couple of years later in New York, while Ekhaus was working as an accessories designer at Marc by Marc Jacobs and Latta was pursuing art, the duo decided to apply to a French design contest together, almost on a whim. They didn’t win, but the experience kickstarted their collaboration. Within months they had founded their eponymous label and were showing their garments at a friend’s downtown gallery.

Installation view of Eckhau Latta: Possessed," Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Thomas McCarty.

Installation view of Eckhaus Latta: Possessed,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Thomas McCarty

That was 2011. Since then, the label has taken off, operating both in LA—where their main retail space is—and New York. They’ve made a name for themselves producing non body-specific garments from unconventional, everyday materials like mohair, Ikea rugs, and plastic sourced from outdoor furniture; putting on runway shows with diverse, non-professional models of different backgrounds and body types, as well as artsy friends like Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Juliana Huxtable; and DIY ad campaigns, photo shoots, and live events.

“Possessed,” part of the Whitney’s Emerging Artists program, occupies the museum’s first-floor gallery and is free and open to the public. It was co-organized by Christopher Lew, an associate curator at the museum (and one-half of the team behind last year’s biennial), and Lauri London Freedman, the institution’s head of product development, in charge of all things retail. (It’s both Freedman’s first curatorial effort and the first time anyone in a position like hers has taken on such duties for a Whitney exhibition.)

Scenes from Eckhaus Latta’s FW 18 runway show. Photos: Mitchel Sams.

For Lew, who first learned about the label around five years ago through artists who wore the clothes and were friends with Mike and Zoe, Eckhaus Latta’s practice is art, even if the designers don’t call it that themselves.

“Mike and Zoe’s approach to fashion parallels how visual artists think about their work,” Lew explains. “The duo is thinking hard about not only the garments and designs, but the fashion system itself. Their LA shop is almost ‘retail as institutional critique’ and their ad campaigns have tested what marketing can do and what it can communicate. The systems they inhabit become additional material to work with.”

However, the trick is not just about convincing us that the duo belongs in an art museum. It’s showing us that Eckhaus Latta’s cool, inclusive brand of fashion does not fall victim to the same pitfalls as the worst of experimental art: being elitist and impenetrable.

“Fashion is thought of as such a commodity,” says Eckhaus. “It’s a point of tension, and a reason why a lot of people don’t interact with it, especially in a critical way. At the end of the day, these are all creative outputs by individuals, and we intersect them differently in our lives. For us, it’s often about questioning these territories that are built around fashion and art.”

Installation view of Eckhaus Latta: Possessed,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Thomas McCarty.

Mix and Match

The exhibition is roughly divided into three sections. The entrance, a dark, raw hallway with exposed sheetrock and steel supports, is illuminated by a variety of lightboxes. They each feature chic models donning Eckhaus Latta wares—the kind of big-budget glamour shots Eckhaus Latta is known for eschewing in favor of more naturalistic and DIY looks.

The hallway opens up to the second section, part retail boutique and part exhibition, where you’re not sure what is art and what is merchandise—or if there’s even a difference between the two—but you’re welcome to touch it all.

Items in the shop, all made specifically for the exhibition, are everyday, street-style-influenced pieces, including beaded skirts, all-over-print dresses, and loose-knit sweaters. Many feature faux-poetic texts—a pair of white jeans with the phrase “MOST PLACES COME UNDONE” running down the leg, for instance, or a tan seams-out t-shirt that reads “I WAS ON THE AMERICA FLAG’S WEBSITE.”

They’re enigmatic, but they’re also (largely) affordable, ranging in price from $24 for a tote bag to a couple hundred for a pair of denim jeans. (There are a handful of one-of-a-kind items, made from woven plastic shopping bags, with price tags of several thousand.) For a label that espouses inclusivity, a tension emerges: It’s high fashion that’s accessible in terms of price, but perhaps not in terms of concept, even if the designers are aware of it.

Installation view of Eckhaus Latta: Possessed,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Thomas McCarty.

The articles of clothing are displayed next to, and often on, objects made by a host of artists, most of whom are in Eckhaus’s Latta’s circle of friends or previous collaborators. Small piles of jeans and socks are stacked on an epoxy and steel rack made by young LA artist Riley O’Neill, for example, while sunglasses sit atop a slick, oil-black ceramic shelf created by Matthew Lutz-Kinoy. A small dressing room in the corner of the gallery is curtained-off with a patchwork textile created by Susan Cianciolo. Next to it is a husband couch from painter Torey Thornton made mostly of stacked sheets of cardboard taped together—like a recycling pile after moving day.

Finally, the last section of the show is a dark room that houses a handful of TV monitors, mimicking those found in a security office. Exploring the role of surveillance in the contemporary shopping experience, they feature a combination of pre-recorded footage from Eckhaus Latta’s LA store and other stores that carry the label, as well as a live stream of the retail space outside the room—effectively allowing visitors to spy on those behind them.

A room of security monitors in “Eckhaus Latta: Possessed,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018. Produced in collaboration with filmmaker Alexa Karolinski. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Thomas McCarty.

“Open to Everybody”

From the very beginning—two years ago, when the conversation with Lew originally began—Eckhaus and Latta knew they didn’t want to put on just another clothing show.

“We find that to be very stagnant and passive,” says Latta. “Seeing clothes on a mannequin in a museum, it feels like that’s where they went to die. They’re preserved in a history that doesn’t feel like a lived, present experience.”

Instead, Eckhaus and Latta sought to channel the hands-on experience of fashion.

“Very early on in the curatorial process, one of the stories that Zoe told us was that when she was a younger person, before her friends were well-known designers and artists, she was interested in fashion and would go into stores where she couldn’t afford things and try them on,” says Freedman.

Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, Photo: Skylar Williams.

Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, Photo: Skylar Williams.

“I think that was something Mike and I both did a lot when we were younger,” says Latta. “Being able to go into these stores and try things on, experience collections and materials and not really owe anyone anything—that was very important for us.”

That’s why it’s vital to them that the show lives where it does, in the museum’s dedicated public gallery. (The exhibition exceeded the costs of most Whitney lobby shows, and given that all money made from clothing sales will go to the artists whom Eckhaus and Latta tapped to make the showroom trappings, the museum won’t make any direct money off of it.)

“In this day and age, even places that are open to everybody aren’t always open to everybody,” says Freedman. “We as a museum have a commitment within our mission to not just open our doors for people, but to take specific steps to ensure that everyone—especially those who wonder whether or not this a place for them—feel welcomed.”

Eckhaus Latta: Possessed” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 8, 2018.

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