Scooter LaForge repurposes existing garments into one-off pieces of art.
PHOTO BY JORGE CLAR
After seeing Debbie Harry, aka Blondie, grace the stage in a garbage bag for her 1980 “Atomic” music video, artist and designer Scooter LaForge’s brain started whirring. “She blows every designer, every pop star on the stage away,” he says.
The ability to literally turn trash into sartorial treasure has long been part of the New York–based artist’s creative ethos. His newest collection, inspired by the “Atomic” video and debuting at Fashion Week El Paseo in March, features a series of handmade, one-of-a-kind garments that he has taken apart and remade, from painted Louis Vuitton bags to chopped up army jackets he found at thrift stores.
“Everything I find here and there that I love, I’ll take it and make it my own,” LaForge says.
In the past few years, clothing resale has become a billion-dollar industry. Today’s young consumers are more aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion. They are embracing the styles of yesteryear, using creative techniques like upcycling to hone a unique personal style. For LaForge and other designers of a like mindset — including Simon Ungless, who will also show a collection at Fashion Week El Paseo — this commitment to re-imagining the past runs deeper. Ungless, who is based in the Bay Area, came up in the London punk scene while LaForge is a staple of the downtown New York art milieu. They grew up worlds away, yet each got his start remixing and reworking existing garments to create something entirely new.
For these designers, sustainability isn’t a buzzword or bandwagon that they’ve jumped on to keep up with the times; it has long been an integral part of their creative process.
PHOTO BY JORGE CLAR
“I’ve always stood by that you shouldn’t compromise your design integrity for any reason,” says Ungless, a fashion industry legend who was part of the original Alexander McQueen team. While he acknowledges that sometimes striving toward 100 percent sustainability isn’t possible, “The challenge of trying to adapt has made me a better designer and more conscious in what I do.”
LaForge’s scrappy approach to style began when he was young. Growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the 1970s, he remembers sewing toy bugs on his sweatshirts and stitching faces on the back of denim jackets as a way to express himself. After getting his start as an artist in San Francisco, he moved to New York in 2001 to study art at Cooper Union, taking retail jobs at stores like Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo to pay the bills.
While hustling to make it as a painter, LaForge also began selling painted T-shirts on the street outside Cooper Union and in nightclubs across the city. Designing clothing was part of his creative process; he would sketch out the designs for his larger scale works on T-shirts. “I’ve always treated clothes as art,” he says. “I hang T-shirts on the walls as art.”
His shirts caught the eye of Patricia Field, the visionary designer who created costumes for Sex and the City. Field was an important bridge between the fashion world and New York’s avant-garde art scene, holding exhibits for Basquiat and Keith Haring at her Bower boutique in the 1980s. She began selling LaForge’s T-shirts, launching a collaboration that has spanned more than two decades. “It’s a great symbiotic relationship she and I have,” LaForge says.
Painting propelled LaForge into fashion design, which he upholds as another expression of art. Each hand-painted creation is a one-off made exclusively from recycled garments.
PHOTOS BY JORGE CLAR
Since then, LaForge has continued to blend art and fashion. Field still sells his clothing, which now encompasses everything from bags to leather jackets. Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck incorporated LaForge’s paintings into his menswear line, and LaForge has done collections for cutting-edge brands like VFiles and Dover Street Market. He has also designed pieces for stars from Beyoncé to Madonna to — naturally — his friend and longtime inspiration Debbie Harry, who wore his shirt on her recent Blondie tour.
For LaForge, the question of whether fashion can be art is a no-brainer. “I think about it as walking paintings and walking sculpture because I’m painting on the clothes, and I’m changing the silhouette of the clothes and making the body shift,” he says, noting that he sees his clothes as “shape shifters.”
When Simon Ungless first started chopping up and remaking garments, it too began “really out of necessity,” he recalls. In the ’70s, as a 10-year-old in England’s burgeoning punk scene with little money to spare, he got inventive and designed things himself. Ungless’ first fashion project involved taking a huge pair of bell bottoms and removing the seam to turn them into straight stovepipes. In the early ’90s, while studying at the famed Central St. Martins art school, he and his friends would hit up thrift stores “finding things, customizing, and creating things together.”
One of those friends was a young designer named Lee Alexander McQueen. Ungless would go on to collaborate with McQueen, also his roommate, in the early years of his eponymous fashion line. “How I got started working with McQueen was really through the modification of garments,” Ungless says. “He would make something, I would change it, and we would go back and forth.”
Simon Ungless recently announced his partnership with Angelina Jolie's company, Atelier Jolie. “His work for the highly anticipated project has so far focused on line development for Atelier Jolie’s private house label,” San Francisco Chronicle reports.
PHOTOS BY TYLER GRAVES
His connection to the brand has remained strong. Later, teaching printmaking at Central St. Martins in the mid-’90s, he helped connect McQueen with his longtime collaborator Sarah Burton, who became the creative director after McQueen’s 2010 suicide.
Many of Ungless’ iconic styles for McQueen were born out of a process of creative improvisation. Last year, Ungless worked on an exhibition for the London Design Museum, Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, which paid tribute to the early years of McQueen. One of the pieces in the exhibit was a dress encased in liquid latex — a technique Ungless developed “by accident” years ago when he didn’t have time to hem a dress, opting to finish it with latex, so it wouldn’t fray. “What happened was, Oh my god, this is the most amazing way to finish a dress,” he enthuses.
Since his McQueen days, Ungless has continued to play with fashion. He created a line called When Simon Met Ralph, in which he remade classic Ralph Lauren pieces by printing on them, dying or bleaching them, or reworking the silhouettes. The technique became so successful, he began taking commissions from private clients like Paul Smith, Tory Burch, and McQueen, who asked him to put his spin on existing garments. “I call it fashion rehab,” Ungless says, laughing.
A product of the punk scene, Simon Ungless bucks the norm as a designer by using materials such as mushroom and cactus leather.
PHOTO BY TYLER GRAVES
While Ungless’ work always used sustainable techniques like recycling, initially there wasn’t much of a coherent philosophy behind it. That changed when he moved to California to teach at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University School of Fashion — where he served as the longtime director until last summer — and started to see the impact fashion design had on the environment. A friend brought him to Central Valley, where he was horrified to see miles and miles of toxic stagnant water, a result of cotton farming, which was causing birth defects in the local bird population. That prompted him to get involved with a sustainable cotton advocacy group.
“I really started championing a different way of doing things,” he says. “It was kind of a going back to basics, but also being really conscious about my impact on the planet.”
Now, Ungless continues to rehab garments, just as he did with McQueen, but with a much more intentional focus. His self-titled collection for Fashion Week El Paseo incorporates mushroom and cactus leather. He also used the sun to dye fabric over a period of months. “There’s a memory of color, there’s a memory of the person that has previously worn that garment. And that all adds into the narrative of this sun-bleached story that I’m working on at the moment,” he says. “People talk about ‘slow fashion’ — this is the slowest fashion I’ve ever done.”
An existential anxiety about the state of the planet has also become increasingly present in LaForge’s works. As a painter, LaForge is known for irreverent large-scale murals inspired by a hodge-podge of movements from graffiti to pop art. His colorful, wall-sized works combine homoerotic imagery with nostalgic childhood memories and interpolate current news and pop culture with historical techniques like cave-painting.
His 2020 booth at the New York Armory Show, entitled Please Don’t Feed the Animals, was a play on Judy Chicago’s dinner party. Made up entirely of recycled materials, and serving as a commentary on global warming, it connected wildfires in Brazil and Australia to industrial agriculture and animal farming. During the pandemic, he made a series of Corona Cave Paintings on the walls of his apartment that explored similar themes of animal rights and humanity’s alienation from nature. “It’s like I took all this anxiety in the world and kind of put it on the walls,” he says.
This environmentally focused ethos comes through in LaForge’s designs. He only makes one-off pieces and relies on recycled garments. “All those guys making denims and throwing the clothes out, all the fast fashion, means there’s just landfills filled with clothes.”
For LaForge and Ungless, clothes are pieces of history — they are built to endure. “Anytime somebody gives me something, or hands me down something, it’s really special,” LaForge says. “I usually keep it my whole life.”
Simon Ungless and one of his designs.
PHOTO BY TYLER GRAVES