Chris Habana: First of all, I’ve never played interviewer so this is really exciting for me. I imagine myself as Barbara Walters, without the speech impediment. It’s thrilling for me to have a conversation with you and Char Alfonzo because I feel that all three of us have a definitive vision of taking subculture and interpreting it for the masses in an artistic way. In addition, I’ve worn your pieces and love the way the line is evolving. However, we never really talk about where all of it comes from and what the origins of your work are. Can you explain your background in design and how that led into you creating work that took leather out of the dungeon and into a fashion context?
Zana Bayne: I actually don’t have a background in design. I have a BFA in “New Genres” from the San Francisco Art Institute and spent most of my time there trying to not make fashion. I really have to credit the creation of my business to my blog. Since 2008 I have shared different aspects of my life visually online, including little projects that I would make for myself. When I posted about a harness that I had made in ’09, I got such a strong response that when I moved from San Francisco to Berlin to New York later that year I started making and selling a few of them as a way to hustle extra cash during a very broke time. A few styles grew slowly into a collection, which has brought me to where I am now.
Chris: Your work for Fall 2012 is really taking your harness concept and moving it to new directions. I really love the spine-shaped pieces, the full skeleton body harness and the peplum belt from the collection. In a time when fashion seems to be getting simpler and more mass marketed, why did you choose to create a collection that was more intricate and aspirational? Can you talk about how you came up with that specific grouping?
Zana: Since the beginning, I’ve always tried to do two things. The first is to create things that were not in existence before, such as the spinal cord and skeleton. The second is to create pieces that can instantly become a wardrobe staple, that complement one’s existing way of dressing, such as the peplum belt. At the same time, I like my work to feel special—my pieces are all assembled by hand, and with this collection I have started working with dye-cut techniques for the belts and linked spinal cords. Dyes are sort of like cookie-cutters for leather, so I’ve been exploring shapes rather than straps. I work with a guy who handcrafts each dye—carves the wood, bends and welds the metal, etc.—so that brings another element of workmanship into the pieces. I love that aspect of hands producing what I do, bringing a bit of Old World garment production into a time of digital diffusions.
Chris: I recently went to your Fall 2012 exhibition at the CATM Chelsea Gallery and was blown away by the collaborations you were involved in, namely the one with Char. He is a friend and such a talent. It’s clear you guys seem to have this symbiotic relationship, as evidenced by the fact that you guys have collaborated on lookbooks and videos for your line in the past. How do you work together when coming up with your projects?
Zana: Char and I have a pretty incredible friendship that transitions seamlessly into our working relationship. Individually, we are both stubborn perfectionists who believe strongly in our own visions—so, in theory, we should be butting heads constantly! Sometimes I approach projects from a very abstract place and Char will come to the same project with the technical jargon to get it done, and we both have to sit and figure out what the heck the other is trying to say. But the great thing about our collaborative works is that we respect each other to the fullest. There’s never ego involved.
Char Alfonzo: Absolutely! It kind of works like cooking a stew. We each bring our own ingredients. I get to see at first hand how Zana develops her collection from scratch and how it goes from a moodboard to a final product—an advantage I get from hanging [with her] constantly! Then, I add my spices by adding my own image references and presenting them back to her in a photo/film treatment to fit the vibe and the feeling [of the collection]. The beautiful thing about working together is that we mix different references and we end up creating something that speaks for the both of us. I experience some sort of postpartum depression every time we release a new Zana Bayne lookbook and video! Zana is a dear friend to me so I feel personally involved with and attached to every single project.
Chris: In your collections and Char’s video work on them, I see this definitive theme of tension. To me there’s tension in the pieces, in the choreography and even the music—not only in the Fall 2012 video, but in the past videos Char has shot. Is this something you guys sought out to achieve when conceptualizing the works?
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Char: Zana said to me once that even though harnesses are meant for restraint, she sees them more like objects of power, liberation and expression. I’ve always kept this in mind and tried to depict this tension between wearing a piece that is meant to enslave you, yet can make you feel in control and free. However, for “Danse Macabre,” the video I directed for Zana’s latest collection, I had full creative freedom and control. Zana’s current collection is inspired by the Mexican festivity Dia de los Muertos, which celebrates life through death. I happen to be obsessed with the classical piece, “Danse Macabre,” by French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns that speaks about the fragility of life and the appreciation of it in spite of struggle and pain. The choreography showed this sense of battle, submission and pain. At the same time, camera movements were soft, delicate and fragile, a combination that celebrates the beauty of being alive in every aspect. All this, with Zana’s work, created—once again—this tension between surrender and liberation.
Chris: I also met your mother during your recent gallery show and thought she was so poised and creative. How was your family background growing up?
Zana: My mom has always been, and continues to be, one of my great inspirations. I’m always telling my friends about her as well as telling her about my friends, so I love when she gets to meet the faces behind the stories! I look up up to her ability to be a great leader and her meticulous eye. Her background is in textile and clothing design, but she worked in corporate marketing and creative fields when I was growing up. My dad was a composer and artist when I was young as well. I’m so incredibly lucky to come from an endlessly artistic and completely supportive family.
Char: When I met Zana’s mom I got that, “Oh, I get it!” kind of moment. They’re both strong, beautiful women with overwhelming presence and confidence. I absolutely adore her mom.
Chris: I have always wanted to ask you this: I feel like since your pieces walk the line between fetish and fashion, have you, or Char, or any of your devoted fans ever used them in any sexual situations, and if so how that all went down? Too personal? I hope not… Lemme know!
Zana: The TMI [too much information] stories are always my favorite! One that comes to mind involves my “Francesca” harness and debauchery in a dark corner at Sugarland… But for the most part, I think my friends and fans have been holding out on telling me their most risqué anecdotes. I’ll just say that I’ve had my own bedroom moments wearing little more than a harness.
Char: Let’s just say I don’t mix my business with leather!
Chris: You know, I love talking about boys with you and this interview is no exception. I’ve known you to be both “single” and “In a relationship” during the few years of your meteoric rise. It also seems that sex is a common thread in both yours and Char’s work. Can you and Char both explain how designing is as a single person versus as a person in a relationship? Does it effect your design process and its outcome?
Zana: This is an interesting question… My design process is highly influenced by the people who I encounter in my daily life, but more so socially than intimately. In regards to actual productivity, I was more consistently hungover when I was “single” and I’m frequently late to the studio now that I’m “in a relationship”.
Char: Well, I am kind of a loner in a way. I work in my dark little home office and lately, blasting music and drinking wine by myself has become my creative atmosphere. However, Zana knows I am “boy crazy” and, I am sure you can understand, that takes a lot of brain power! I am different when I am in a relationship, though. I actually like presenting my ideas to whoever I am seeing and getting their feedback. I like being surrounded by creative people, my only kind of people, everywhere and anytime.
Chris: I really love that both your and Char’s work are continually getting more elaborate and ambitious. I’m gonna ask you what everyone wants to ask: Where is the work going? What future projects do you have in the horizon for Zana Bayne Leather and Char Alfonzo?
Zana: Right now, I’ve just relaunched my online store, so I’ve got a summer of production ahead of me. I’m also working on a virtual gallery of my Fall 2012 show, and then before you know it it’ll be Fashion Week again…
Char: I call myself a multimedia artist as an excuse to my creative A.D.D. I have a degree in Communication Design and I ended up picking up a camera two years ago and designing textiles last year. At the moment, I am flirting with different projects and ideas that will take me out of my comfort zone again. I get bored easily so I need to keep the creative juices flowing!
Chris: In these interviews people always seem to ask you to “describe yourself in three words or less. Well, I will spare you the pressure of doing that. Instead, I want both of you to describe each other in three words or less. You didn’t think that was coming did you?
Zana: Passionate, unstoppable, sassy.
Char: Optimistic, restless, punny.