The week of our two interviews, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta were characteristically busy. The bicoastal designer couple were, first up, hands-on constructing their first flagship store in a former medicinal marijuana dispensary on Latta’s side of America, in Los Angeles (Eckhaus mans New York). Plastic tarped the otherwise empty space during our initial visit. A weekend later, a familial crowd would fill it. Hundreds showed for the opening, which was announced by Vogue. All ages, drinking tart cocktails, we milled around an installation by artist Nora Slade and a single bar hung with clothes, and spilled out onto the street.
The following day, I found Mike and Zoe back there. Beyond our interview, the two had a lot to do. They were supervising the store and selling clothes, while calculating big business decisions, plotting seasonal production and working on another opening. They’d been invited to participate in the Hammer Museum’s biennial showcase of local art, Made in LA. There, a greatest hits selection from the label’s nine seasons would show alongside work by artists such as Sterling Ruby, Rebecca Morris and Martine Syms.
Whereas, for their shop, Eckhaus Latta emphasised what would traditionally be figured as “art”, with Slade’s painted and found-objects installation and garments as delicate as a Richard Tuttle assemblage, for the Hammer, the designers honoured high fashion. Their showroom at the Hammer deliberately mimicked the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, with black walls, black floors and elegant black mannequins, posing as if in a Diana Vreeland editorial.
This is also characteristic of Eckhaus Latta. They bridge “art” and “fashion”, as if hoping that maybe, one day, people will stop making the distinction. The output is all expression, and Eckhaus Latta’s is distinctive; it has been since the start.
Eckhaus Latta was born in New York in late 2011. Its first public outing happened a few months later, at New York Fashion Week autumn/winter 2012. I first interviewed the designers that year. Over the past four years, I’ve interviewed them four more times, at the request of many magazines. It’s been an honour watching Eckhaus Latta develop. Though they do so much – showing every NYFW, making seasonal films with committed collaborator Alexa Karolinski, and working with artists such as Bjarne Melgaard, Annabeth Marks and the collective K-Hole – they always manage to keep their cool. Rarely seeming rushed, they stay “on brand”, making art out of commercial demand. Their vision (something like beauty + intimacy x necessity + currency) holds steady across all media, be it deodorant, poetry, comics, condoms, choral singing or clothing. They’ve worked with all those.
Both Mike and Zoe say they “couldn’t even imagine” doing what they do without the other. The fashion industry is fast-paced, demanding and capricious. Art isn’t so different. Mike and Zoe support each other through both worlds. Self-proclaimed workaholics, they encourage one another in risk-taking. And they have fun. They’ve fostered a community of like-minded creators around them, trading, for instance, garments with friends, such as Alexandra Marzella, India Menuez and musician Dev Hynes, who model for them.
The following Q&A was cut up from two sit-downs and amended via email. A few details to note, as our acquaintance elided these basics. First, Mike and Zoe are not a romantic couple; they both have boyfriends. Second, they were both born in 1987 on opposite coasts, and met a decade ago at the Rhode Island College of Design. Third, their brand has been bicoastal for four seasons. Fourth, they tend to talk in detours, cutting or finishing each other off, and laughing along the way. And lastly, they’re into astrology. Our Q&A begins in media res with that. Mike and Zoe had just had their business charts drawn up. To do so, they would’ve had to declare a birth of their brand (since that’s how astrology works), so I asked:
When is Eckhaus Latta’s birthday?
Mike We set it around Thanksgiving of 2011. Zoe and I had just gotten this closet-sized studio in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. We’d been having conversations about making things since we met.
Zoe Once we had this space – we had one knitting machine, a shitty domestic sewing machine borrowed from a friend, and a couple hundred dollars worth of fabric – we went totally cuckoo.
Mike Over the course of a weekend, we decided not to sleep for 72 hours, and apply for this fashion competition in the South of France called Hyères. I remember running to the post office, crying, I was so tired. We tossed everything together and sent it to France. Who knows where it is now – we didn’t have the money to have it sent back.
Zoe For the competition, we had to make one look, and design this hypothetical collection. After that, we thought, if we could do that in one weekend…
“When one of us shows up in the other city, everything else drops. We’ll be together all working hours”
Mike We decided to develop the collection we designed. I think that first work was maybe… a little angsty? That has dissipated.
Zoe You should read some of our early press releases. We were like, how do we get this down to three pages?
Mike It was art-school angst, it wasn’t mean-spirited. Both of us really love making things with our hands. The desire to make things is still, to this day…
Zoe …we get really depressed when we don’t get to make things.
And do you still get to make things regularly?
Mike Oh my god, I haven’t touched a thing since our last show. Most of our life now is: we make spreadsheets.
Zoe After we make one thing, we work with others to produce it. But the first thing, it’s always our hands.
Mike And that’s the best part.
What did you learn from your birth chart?
Mike With the business chart, it was interesting to see how Zoe and I balance each other out. There are certain aspects to the company that we naturally approach in opposite ways, so we find midpoints. Or it becomes a bad cop/good cop situation.
Do you two split up labour, like, are you each responsible for different tasks?
Zoe Yes, but we like to keep that between us. We do swap cops: sometimes I’m bad, sometimes Mike is.
You showed that first collection as part of New York Fashion Week autumn/winter 2012, right? How did that happen?
Mike We showed it at Jack Chiles gallery on Bowery. It was super DIY. The space was small. We had the crowd standing in the middle, like an island, and the models walked along the perimeter by the wall.
Zoe We have no document of it. We did our own invites, with this system of colour codes. A photographer was one colour, a member of the press another, this important person was another, and…
Mike …it got inverted.
Zoe Colourless people got inside, and everyone with a colour waited outside. So people from Elle and my former boss couldn’t get in.
Oh no! What colours did you use?
Mike Way too many colours were used, that was the problem.
After that show, what happened?
Zoe The collection was picked up by Opening Ceremony and [New York-based boutique] Maryam Nassir Zadeh. They were like, what’s your delivery date? And we were like, what does that mean? We made it – all of the production – by ourselves. Our first line sheet was over 80MB, I remember. It was a Word document, filled with pictures shot on an SLR camera, not resized, that we sent via WeTransfer. And that was: hard.
Zoe It’s been a really public education. For our second show, we had our first interns email our invitation. We were sending it to any and everyone who may have wanted to come. The attachment didn’t work, so the message was just, “Hope to see you there!” From my personal email address from high school. That’s when we learned what “BCC” meant.
Hilarious. I’ve had a very public education, too. I feel this may be a generational thing? Like it’s internet-enabled. Do you feel connected to a generation?
Zoe I am so obsessed with the 87 crowd. Not the 89-plus, or the early 80s, but 87. I, personally, feel that I have a fluidity in a digital native and a non-native world. I remember being an autonomous human being without the internet. I didn’t have a cell phone as a teenager. Of course, there’s an extreme dependency now, but I can also remember using a payphone to call my parents collect and just using the space where you’d say your name to say, “Come pick me up at this place!”
What about community? I feel like we exist in a community. There’s this jet-set nomadic thing happening, though it’s not so glamorous, in my experience. It’s like, EasyJet then crashing in friend’s beds. LA-NYC-Berlin-Paris… It’s internet and smartphone-enabled: Uber, Instagram, and so on.
Mike I think we definitely belong to some form of a community, though I’m not exactly sure what defines it. It’s exciting, and tiring, to be able to exist fluidly in so many cities – your unglamorous jet-set is so true. Given the shift in our business structure in the past few years, borders have become increasingly irrelevant, whether it be physical, or through constant use of technology and its modes of communication. I am literally getting on a flight to Berlin this afternoon, and have been to LA three times in the past month. It feels insane right now. Normally we’re schlepping all of this work stuff with us, back and forth. It’s nice when you don’t have three body-sized duffle bags with you when you get on a flight – that feels like luxury.
What’s being bicoastal like?
Mike When one of us shows up in the other city, everything else drops. We’ll be together all working hours. And when we travel, not in New York or LA, we’re actually together 24/7.
Zoe Like sleeping in the same bed. Also, now that we’re bicoastal, we share two different Instagram accounts, one public and one private. Mike will follow, from New York, new friends of his, and I’ll follow mine in LA; we won’t even know who these other people are. Our community can expand and contract like that.
I’ve been thinking that the way community links up now may be similar to how it always was, via common interests, but it’s more dispersed, accelerated, and evidenced now.
Mike It’s traceable. Like, by the minute. The government could probably figure out when you and someone else met on Instagram.
There’s this line in one of your press releases I love: “It was the latest thing to be nowhere.” That, to me, felt so true, of our moment. Community doesn’t have to be place-based any more.
Zoe That line was for our spring/summer 2015 collection.
Mike It was the season we went bicoastal.
Do you think about our historical moment often? I’ve been able to do this big picture zoom-out lately, and our moment is fascinating. I feel that we’ll look back and be like, what a weird social experiment.
Mike I don’t know… I try not to…
Zoe Mike gets really deep into conspiracy theories when he thinks about this stuff. He’s like, the government knows.
Mike Of course the government knows! But I don’t care. What are they going to find out about me? That I search for vintage Balenciaga and Helmut Lang clothing on eBay?
1987 is the year of the Fire Rabbit. I’ve been thinking about that as like go go go! Industrious.
Mike That definitely feels apt.
Zoe Sounds really horny.
Definitely. I’ve heard you call yourselves workaholics. What does that mean to you?
Zoe I think it’s when you can’t not work.
Mike I enjoy a drink and a cigarette, but I don’t have that thing where I can’t function without it, where I get anxious if I need it. I have that with work. I’ll wake in the morning, and it’s the first thing that comes in. In all addiction, there’s pleasure, of course.
How do you manage to not burn out?
Mike This is a scary question. I don’t think there is an answer to what could cause or prevent someone to burn out. I love working, and there are numerous ways it has unfolded in my life. I think the pressure, anxiety and energy that comes along with it is not something unique to fashion. Yes, schedules can be never-ending, but that’s part of the fun. The intensity of work also shifts throughout the year. The build-ups and comedowns help keep us “balanced”. Which I think is a bullshit concept, as it seems that every-one is constantly striving to be “balanced”. That term feels like some advent of millennial branding – is it working harder in order to strive to work less?
What do you weigh when making decisions?
Zoe So many of our decisions are reactive and not action-based. They’re intuitive, or even accidents. We’re rarely sitting there with this strategy, thinking, if this plan at x point hits this obstacle, what are we going to do about it? It’s more like, we’re working with this factory; oh, they’re fucking us over; oh, we’ve gotta find a new one; oh, we accidentally went to the wrong building for the appointment. That’s how we found one of our best factories. We accid-entally knocked on this building, had this amazing conversation with the owners and, when we left, we were like, I don’t think that was the right place. That was four years ago, and we’re still working with that factory.
You two are so close. How has your dynamic changed your relationship with relationships?
Zoe I think our relationship has really accelerated our ability to have relationships. Unfortunately, he’s my number one. We have lovers whom we love deeply, and they are incredible, supportive, amazing human beings, but I don’t want to be this close to anyone in my life ever again.
Most of your collaborators seem to be intimates. Do you draw lines between business and pleasure, life and work?
Mike It’s progressively becoming one big molten… I just had this image of this psychotic marching band. We’re all just…
Zoe …in it together! We’ve learned boundaries better. It’s still a fucking mess, but in a good way. We work with so many people, and are actually in love with them, so it’s a very emotional process.
I sense that love in your work. Does capitalism ever intervene? Like, your models are also friends. Do you pay them? Is that ever an issue?
Zoe Everything is on trade. People want to do it because they like the clothes. That’s one of the greatest things about being a fashion business, and not a solo art practice. We make commodities and multiples, and can share them with people, and they can incorporate them into their own lives, which, to us, is a driving force. This social trading model was an amazing way for us to be young entrepreneurs without start-up capital.
Speaking of which, I wanted to share this. When I flew from New York to LA in February, the daughter of a famous actor was on my flight. I’m a creep, so I was watching her, in all black, looking introspective. I saw her get collected by Lyle Lodwick, who models for you. He was wearing an iconic denim Eckhaus Latta suit, holding flowers. It was this incredible moment, like one of your fashion films, the sun was shining, she was smiling…
Zoe These two people are lovers? Are you putting this in print?
Maybe I shouldn’t.
Zoe It’s kind of fun. You’re such a Kitty Potter.
I don’t even know what that is.
Mike You’ve never seen Prêt-à-Porter?
Zoe Oh my god.
Mike It’s a Robert Altman film.
Zoe This movie, Fiona, is essential. Kitty Potter is this amazing American…
Zoe … fashion reporter who goes to Paris to report on Fashion Week. She’s just everywhere. She sees everything. And you probably hear it a hundred times in this movie, she always asks, “What did we just see?”
That’s a good question!