As we hunker down under quarantine conditions, all the amusing frivolities of our on-hold culturati lives seem so much less significant right now. But perhaps escaping into fantastical fripperies is just what we need, to distract us from the ongoing worrying reality.
To that end, we recently came upon the concept brand ILANIO, founded by San Francisco conceptual artist Ilan Reuben. One of the first (that we know of) to employ 3D printing technology in the service of a stylistic mission, it started with space-age backpacks, and has evolved to include collectible pieces of a corresponding aesthetic, including shoes that might just double as emergency weaponry.
It all puts us in mind of the likes of Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow, in terms of sheer impracticality and level of statement making. The idea “laboratory” has also continued to include fellow fearless creatives, like fashion Designer Laura Zey, perfumer Dana El Masri, and artist Gavin Wilson.
Amidst the pandemic lockdown, we caught up with Reuben to try to get a better idea of just what ILANIO is trying to tell us about the imaginary line between fashion and art.
How was the project conceived?
I was running a clubwear clothing business in the mid-aughts, but by 2009, I’d had enough of spandex hot pants and faux fur boleros. Around that time, I stumbled on a show of “soundsuits” by Nick Cave (the dancer & artist, not the musician) at the Yerba Buena Center here in San Francisco. Seeing what could be done in this space between fashion and art was inspirational, and I decided on the spot not to give up on the part of fashion that I loved: the art, the part that challenges our thoughts about our bodies, and that touches on so many social, sexual, political, and spiritual questions. I also think that show imprinted on me a connection to performance and dance as a way to access and talk about the body.
Can you explain the involvement of some of your collaborators on ILANIO?
My most constant partner has been Ed Dahl, who has had a hand in just about everything we’ve done, at least on the art side. He’s the guy who will take a reasonably fucked up idea and turn it into something truly fucked up. But also the guy who will look at a project idea that seemed eminently practical and punch a bunch of holes in it. He’s got a brilliant and exacting design sense, and is also the master of organizing people to make something happen.
Warren DiFranco has shot almost everything we’ve done; Ian Albert is our go-to video editor; Raven Le Faye and Wenchi are two of my favorite models; Jai Young Kim has done music for several of our pieces; then Gavin Wilson, the visionary NYC-based artist, that I’ve been working with on recent projects.
Does one collaboration stand out for you?
Laura Zey’s internship at ILANIO was brief but brilliant. She was a student at the Academy of Fashion and Design in Düsseldorf when she contacted me in 2013 to see if I’d take her on. I looked at her portfolio and asked her if instead she would take me on as an intern. She came out to San Francisco that fall and together we designed all of what became the COBOL 77 line. It was one of the most productive design relationships I’ve ever had.
Is ILANIO considered as more of a “laboratory” of ideas, than an actual brand?
It’s both. It started out as just the laboratory. That encounter with Nick Cave’s soundsuits showed me the freedom and potential for expression that’s possible when you remove things like practicality, wearability, and salability. Once those are out of your way, you can experiment with all kinds of ideas, and even the grotesque failures can lead to wonderful surprises. In that way, we’re more like a mad scientist’s lab than a clinical research facility.
Was there a specific goal of creating something provocative? Or is it really just about the design?
I’m a big believer in provocation. Audiences are so overwhelmed and their attention is so thin, you need to provoke and surprise just to create a connection. But provocation can’t be the goal; it’s just one tool in the toolbox known as “form” for shaping and expressing content. There is no shortage of provocation these days, but real content feels pretty scarce.
So no, there was never a goal of creating something provocative; instead, the provocation followed from the content. Our work connects back to the human body, which is almost impossible to talk about without provoking. In the same way, the designs are in service of the content: they connect with the themes and ideas we’re exploring on the “art” side. Those might be the obvious material or design ideas, like transparency or circular forms…or they might connect to our explorations of gender, sexuality, spirituality.
But there’s not really a “practical” application?
The downside of designing essentially unwearable things—and so, things that can’t be sold—is that it limits the audience’s experience to images and videos. And in the age of Instagram, the consumption of images has lost all its nutritive value. The best you can hope for is a quick swipe and maybe a “like,” and then that incredibly shallow experience is over in 10 seconds. Compare that to your favorite dress or bag or pair of shoes or fragrance, that engages multiple senses and that you might touch or wear for many years. It’s that kind of engagement that led us to start creating our limited-edition collectible designs. The more commercial idea of “ILANIO the brand” was part of that effort.
What is the dividing line between art and pragmatic fashion for you?
I’m not sure there is a line; it’s a continuum of how directly beholden to commerce the work is. How many risks it can take. How many lines it can cross before it hits a boundary with power. Pragmatic fashion doesn’t provoke and it doesn’t challenge the consumer.
Can you describe the ILANIO client?
The ILANIO client defies categorization and demographic targeting. Our clients are the iconoclasts, the free spirits, the ones who are not afraid to express their unique selves. The ones for whom that is the only choice.
The designs make me think of people like Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow. What and who are some of the inspirations for ILANIO?
I try to work with blinders on—it’s just too distracting to see all the things that other people are doing. Certainly I have inspirations, but I try not to remember them too clearly. My initial set of fashion influences included people like Pierre Cardin, Gareth Pugh, Alexander McQueen, Leigh Bowery, Charlie LeMindu, and Miles Aldridge. Other favorites I’ve fallen in love with since then are Rei Kawakubo, Shayne Oliver and Thierry Mugler.
What are your favorite ILANIO pieces?
The Protuberance Bubble Dress from Nightlife on Other Planets, which has new relevance now in the age of COVID-19; the acrylic shoes from Deva: Alpha; and (of course) the white rubber dress and eyeball cowl from Supreme Beings.
From the ’80s on through the middle oughts, fashion reveled in extravagance and provocation—but has in the last decade retreated to a greater pragmatism. How does ILANIO fit into this?
I would take that distinction you’re making between “provocation” and “pragmatism” and reframe it as one between art and commerce. In the last 30-40 years capitalism has made great inroads into areas that were traditionally sheltered from its destructive embrace. Look no further than the elevation of Jeff Koons (and all his cynical descendants), whose entire oeuvre is a winking celebration of the luxury market that is the art world now. Look at the visionary designers driven to self-destruction by the withering production schedules of the fashion houses that own them. Look at the shameless touting of “box office gross” as a valid objective measure of a movie’s worth. In all these ways, the domain of “art” has been pushed into the margins, into the small dark places that capital has yet to spill into, where there is still freedom to engage in “extravagance and provocation.”
ILANIO exists in this margin, this no-man’s land between art and fashion. We try to stay true to our ideals and vision, and to allow our audience to experience our work in a deep and intimate way.
Describe the ILANIO mission statement in a few sentences.
ILANIO and its audience are part of the same community: the irrepressibly free-thinking fringe that questions social conventions, that refuses to build a one-dimensional identity from off-the-shelf parts. An ever-mutating community that craves new tools for authentic self-expression. Our mission is to imagine, design, and build those new tools.