Is she joking with these clothes?

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, April 22, 2024

Is she joking with these clothes?
The artist and fashion designer Penelope Gazin on a denim-themed photo shoot set at the Glendale, Calif., offices of her Fashion Brand Company on Jan. 13, 2024. Gazin has built a fan base by straddling a line between pranks and product merchandising. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times)

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK, NY.- Not everything sold by Fashion Brand Company is weird or playful or erotic. Occasionally the inventory is mellowed out by the addition of plain trousers or a ribbed tank top.

But it is the more imaginative pieces that have seduced the brand’s customers: minidresses with 10 cartoonish arms sticking out from both sides; sunglasses with a realistic set of teeth embedded into each arm; gowns with necklines that make the wearer look as if she is being eaten by a fish or choked by an alien. Even a plain summer frock may have a freaky name, such as the “breeze on my genitals dress.”

The clothes are jokes. The woman telling them is Penelope Gazin, a 34-year-old artist who lives in Altadena, California. Yet the brand, founded in 2018 in her old apartment, where she boxed and shipped orders herself, should not be mistaken for either a joke or an art project.

In 2023, sales exceeded $7 million, said Kate Giambra, the vice president and chief operating officer of Fashion Brand Company. Its headquarters are now a former martial arts academy in Glendale, where the previous tenants left behind several trophies. In addition to its roughly 13 stateside employees, the company has 32 full-time-with-benefits garment workers in China.

This ethical factory, as the company calls it, opened in 2021. Gazin needed patternmakers and sewers who understood how her mind worked, and who wouldn’t question making a 12-foot-tall version of a jacket to install inside the office. (“The idea came to me on ketamine,” she said.)

“When Penelope would explain what she was trying to do, they would always be like, ‘Are you sure people want to buy this?’” Giambra, 35, said.

For its first two years, Fashion Brand Company was like a part-time project, Gazin said: “But then it got to a bit of a manic place when I was diagnosed with cancer.”

She was sitting in a bulbous caramel leather armchair in her homey living room, with its terra-cotta tile and 1970s-style wood paneling. Tapestries and paintings of monsters and nude women hung on the adobe brick walls. A throw pillow read “Sex House,” an iteration of one of Gazin’s first designs, a sweater.

In 2021, after she gave birth to her son, Skip, Gazin was told she had a rare type of cervical cancer. It was aggressive but operable, she said, though it took over a year after the removal of her cervix for doctors to declare her cancer free. A few days before that surgery, Gazin married Skip’s father, Max Baumgarten, an actor and professional clown who once surprised her with a puppet striptease show while she waited for an MRI exam.

During this time, Gazin made some death preparations, including designing a collection, hidden on the back end of her e-commerce platform, that she hoped would keep the business running for years.

The thought can still provoke Giambra to tears; she and Gazin are best friends as well as business partners. Not so funny for a brand built on being funny — on “irony, stupidness, silliness,” as Gazin described her sensibility.

Then again, Gazin doesn’t overly identify with the typical Fashion Brand Company customer — someone who might be attracted to attracting attention. Sometimes, particularly after having a baby and having cancer, she wants to dress “sexy and cheaply,” as if in costume. More often, she said, she wants “quiet pieces” — well-made day care pickup outfits. At home, for this interview, she wore casual striped pants covered in illustrations of soccer players.

“It’s not for shy people,” Gazin said of her line. And yet she can be surprisingly shy. At least for someone who once embedded her own pubic hair into a pair of sunglasses, pricing them at $666.

‘Lady Business’

By the time she started Fashion Brand Company, Gazin already had a reputation for mixing business and humor.

In 2015, she and Giambra founded Witchsy, an online artists’ marketplace to rival Etsy. (The name was a reference to Etsy’s ban of spells and other occult offerings.) Gazin had grown tired of her popular enamel pins being censored by Etsy. On Witchsy, nipples could be expressed freely.

In 2017, Witchsy made headlines when Gazin and Giambra revealed that they had invented a fictional third co-founder, Keith Mann, to communicate with outside parties. The women had found that when emailing with people in the tech or startup worlds, pretending to be a man could elicit more respect and cooperation.

In 2019, their story was reported to be in development as a Netflix film called “Lady Business,” starring Brie Larson.

“We just went with the person who offered us the most money,” said Gazin, who invested some of the lump sum into Fashion Brand Company.

Gazin has been working for most of her life, starting as a teenager in Connecticut selling vintage clothes on eBay. The idea of not having enough money — of feeling trapped financially — always made her anxious. She enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita to study animation, but the prestigious program was expensive, and she dropped out to work in animation instead. Then she realized she just wanted to make art.

“I don’t like working on other people’s vision,” said Gazin, whose grandfather was the author and artist Barnaby Conrad.

Gazin began building a following on Instagram, where her identity has evolved over the years: artist, dancer, comedian, drummer in a band called Slut Island, fashion designer.

She also has an idea for an animated TV show and is considering self-funding a pilot. Someday she may self-publish a graphic novel, “Sex House,” that she worked on in 2020.

But none of these plans mean stepping back from Fashion Brand Company. Giambra sees the company’s next phase as “building out more of the FBC universe” with more weird art, videos and projects. “I’m going to make a robot Penelope in the next couple of months,” Giambra said.

A sense of rebellion underlies the brand. Last year, after the company began selling a dress bedazzled with the speech from Nicole Kidman’s viral AMC Theatres ad (“We come to this place for magic”), AMC sent a cease-and-desist letter.

Gazin and Giambra pulled the design from the website and agreed to pay AMC the amount they made from the dresses sold.

Gazin then designed a new dress similarly bedazzled, but this time with a parody of the speech. “We arrive at this location for sorcery,” it begins.

The Coven

In early February, Nimay Ndolo, an actress and influencer in New York, released two tops made in collaboration with Fashion Brand Company. Over the past year, she has worn the brand to industry parties and in TikTok videos with her mother, who liked the teeth sunglasses so much that she replaced the lenses with her own prescription.

“They have a tank that just says ‘Soup,’” said Ndolo, 29. “Where’s the logic? Where’s the sense? But we don’t want logic and sense. We want psychosis.”

Wearing a piece from the brand in public is a siren call to fellow fashion weirdos. Ndolo referred to fans as a “disjointed coven” of people who are “welcoming and don’t take themselves too seriously.”

“It creates conversation, it creates community, it creates camaraderie,” she said.

Humor has been in fashion for at least a century — Elsa Schiaparelli, who opened her atelier in 1927, became known for surrealist “little jokes,” such as gloves with claws or a hat shaped like a lamb chop.

Today’s celebrated jester-clothiers include men such as Demna of Balenciaga, who designs handbags that look like Ikea totes, trash bags and cheap souvenirs, or Jonathan Anderson of Loewe, who adorns shoes with deflated balloons, patches of fake grass and heels shaped like bars of soap. But these designers operate within fashion’s upper echelon, charging $1,000 to $2,000 for their little jokes.

Gazin is more of a comedian for the everywoman, writhing around her dojo, indifferent to the mainstream fashion industry’s seasonal schedule and show circuit. A tote bag resembling an old-timey bank robber’s sack runs for $69; a shirtdress covered in long gloves, layered like fringe, sells for $448. The sizes are inclusive, offered up to 6X in some designs.

“It’s hard to find silly, fun, joyful clothes that are plus size,” said Carlee Rhodaback, 30, an office manager from Albany, Oregon, who wears the color green every day and owns about 20 pieces from the brand.

Sara Camposarcone, a Toronto content creator with an acidic-maximalist sense of style, owns a beige sweater covered in pink nipples and yellow “Swiss cheese” pants punched with holes. She concedes that her outfits are not considered, by most people, realistic for everyday dressing. But these Fashion Brand Company pieces are among the most “wearable” in her closet, she said.

“You can wear those cheese pants with a button-down and a black boot,” said Camposarcone, 27. “You can totally wear that to the office.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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