Photography: Michael Hauptman for Vaquera
Inside an eerie Lower East Side chapel and seated across from a woman in a chunky red leotard, moody noises began composing an ethereal soundtrack. We knew we were in one of two places: the scene of a high fashion cult sacrifice or the runway of Vaquera’s Handmaid’s Tale capsule collection.
When the NYC brand—composed of Patric DiCaprio, Claire Sully, Bryn Taubensee and David Moses—announced they were teaming up with The Handmaid’s Tale for a special project, we had very high, bonnet-filled hopes for what outfits might result. Our expectations were surpassed by the show we witnessed at the Angel Orensanz Foundation—a place that likely hadn’t seen such energy within its walls since Sarah Jessica Parker married Matthew Broderick there in 1997. The capsule delivered on thoughtful silhouettes, textiles and intentions, but above all, stayed true to Vaquera’s ongoing mission: to create characters.
“It’s something that’s at the core of our collections,” DiCaprio told OUT. “We do work about people that are oppressed, and we like to talk about a person’s individuality, and create these characters, which is the opposite of what’s happening in The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re very focused on the personalities. Once you put a piece of clothing on someone who has a great personality, it evolves and becomes something so much greater.”
Personality certainly took the spotlight on Vaquera’s runway: two models in red tunics and bonnets planted kisses on each other as they took their place center stage, while another stormed around the room chucking ripped up flowers at audience members with all his might. One look featured a woman in a thong and bra holding a pearly white umbrella over her heard, with a cocoon of silvery gauze shielding her body from the outside world. Another model ate a bag of oranges as he walked, letting the peels scatter behind him on the runway.
“We were all fucking weird kids,” DiCaprio said. “So I think doing something that speaks to oppressed people, or people who are weird comes naturally to us.”
In true Handmaid’s Tale form, the collection was grounded in stifling imagery that reflected a history of female marginalization: bound hands, a dress with the words, “Votes for Women,” emblazoned on its chest and a model dripping with sewn-together cone bras.
“The original theme for us in this was empowerment versus oppression,” Sully said. “We were talking about how, throughout the collection, as we worked on it, we realized that every look could be either empowered or oppressed, depending on the way you, the wearer, is wearing it. And so the cast was really important in that. And that individuality coming through with the way that they were acting, and the way that they walked, was really important to us.”
An eccentric, inclusive cast was essential for conveying the wide variety of identities being communicated at the Angel Orensanz Foundation. To accomplish this, the brand collaborated with Midland Agency‘s Walter Pearce, who’s known for discovering and championing unconvential beauty—especially through his work as Hood by Air’s longtime casting director.
Vaquera’s most recent fall ’17 collection tackled American identity, from long gowns constructed with American flags to cocktail dresses fashioned as oversized Tiffany’s bags. Through their collaboration with The Handmaid’s Tale, the burgeoning label continues to explore what it means to be a member of the United States.
“The election has obviously changed this country,” DiCaprio said. “We don’t need to say it. But America has a long history of oppression, and it was built on that. It’s sad to say, but it’s true.”
Moses underlined the importance of working with intent in fashion today: “I feel like we always talk about putting clothes out in an oversaturated market, and how it’s really important for us to have a strong message behind what we’re putting out there,” he said. “So this worked out very serendipitously.”
The individuality of each Vaquera look—a gown made from a wildly oversized hoodie, a high-low tunic incorporating seat cushions—comes from the designers’ understanding that fashion is a vehicle for telling stories about the wearer and the larger cultural context that individual is living within.
“I made a lot of looks with bras this season, so I feel like that must say something about me,” Taubensee said. “I was really interested in sexuality, and—I don’t know, it sounds cliché, if bras are empowering or not, but I guess the bra was somehow very poignant to me, and I guess that would be my personality this season. It’s hard to say exactly why.”
DiCaprio echoed Taubensee, adding that Vaquera likes to use clichés to raise questions, in this case, asking why femininity equates to bras? “You can make a simple answer to that, but if you think about it, it’s pretty complex, and cool to talk about,” he said. “Why can’t women show their breasts? Does that mean something? A nipple is bad, but you can see other things.”
With all these deeply complex conversations at play, Vaquera’s collection certainly felt cathartic, like something inside the designers’ minds had been bumbling around, desperate to escape into reality. And through their Handmaid’s Tale capsule, that something finally has:
“In middle school, I was dying to paint my nails black, and dye my hair, and wear tight pants, or whatever, but when you’re doing something like this, you put it outside of yourself,” DiCaprio said. “And I think that’s why people become designers—that’s at least why I do. I felt so much of that was like, “Get out,” And now it’s on the runway, and I feel relieved. [Now] I can wear jeans and a tee shirt every day.”