Alia Penner is an artist with unquestionable style. Her work is scattered all around L.A., from her loopy '70s-inspired Cinefamily posters to her work designing t-shirt prints for Shepard Fairey's company, Obey. But she's also become an online style darling for her hippie aesthetics and kooky collection of vintage dresses. This isn't surprising, given that Penner comes from the bohemian enclave of Topanga Canyon, and spent her childhood dreaming about bright, psychedelic color.
After a T magazine profile on her brief foray into dress-making, she's been flooded with requests for lookbooks and portfolios.
Recently, the laid-back Penner's stylish, retro illustrations have taken her into the epicenter of the very un-laid-back world of fashion. She's been set designing and photographing for cult indie fashion magazine Lula, worked with model Erin Wasson and Missoni among others, and just came back from a trip to Paris, where she did a collaboration with Colette, the Parisian dictator of cool.
Last week, LA Weekly paid a visit to Penner at her Mount Washington studio. Nestled cozily on the steep hillside, her studio is a riot of color — rainbow paintings, vintage prints and psychedelic throws decorate her living-room, and a delicate lace veil hangs over a stairwell like a Victorian canopy. Penner's big ambition is to live in world that looks as if it's been taken straight out of a dream, and she's certainly taken that up in her own house. We spoke to Penner about her life as an artist, decorating Parisian clubs for The Strokes' afterparty, and whether we can expect to see more of her work in the fashion world soon.
How did you become an artist?
I went to school at Otis, and I'd been doing art my whole life. I wanted to study fashion design there, but I quickly decided that it wasn't for me. I like to work by myself and be in charge of what's in front of me, and I feel like a lot of times, fashion felt like the end of the world. I loved to draw, and everything I draw is really graphic, so I went into illustration and graphic design.
You've worked a lot with companies or magazines in the fashion industry. Recently, you were invited to participate in a show at Colette, the trend-setting Parisian department store. Could you talk about your collaboration with Colette?
It was in collaboration with my friend David Mushegain's show, called “Don't Call It Cool.” I was the L.A. connection that he brought in. There was also an art collective from New York of young artists, 17- to 20-year-olds, who took over the water bar downstairs. RVCA was another of the sponsors, and they rented an entire house for all of these artists to stay and make art in.
I would mostly be making posters for things that were going on during the week, or drawing on top of the book that David did. Towards the end, I did a mural in Colette, which was really amazing.
I was also invited by the exclusive French club Le Baron to make art for an event. Mostly, I was just trying to figure out how to find 400 red balloons in Paris and how to get them to some tiny club. A friend and I tied a million hand-written cards to the end of each balloon — they were designed as conversation-starters. It was a massive amount of work for two girls to do. That ended up being The Strokes' afterparty, which was awesome.
What about the dresses that you designed?
Before I left L.A., there were some people who were approaching me about doing dresses. I thought of bringing something out there, since Colette is a clothing store. I have all these giant paintings but I can't really bring them out there until someone really wants them. My friend and I did five of each kind — I view them more as wearable art. It's like getting to own that piece of artwork.
How was the process of designing the dresses? Do you think you're going to continue designing clothes?
I think if it can be separate from the fashion world, and I can continue to be an artist. I definitely don't want to get into having there be some kind of formula where I have to have this many pieces to show, and have them at this time to show them.
How has your art evolved over time? Any favorite L.A. collaborations that you've done?
I loved going to out to Long Island and working on a shoot for Lula. Twenty girls were shooting this witch movie on Long Island and built a giant lace tent on the beach.
Also, getting to be part of the show at the A+D museum last summer really changed my perspective and my life as an artist. It was called “Come In” and I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something architectural, so I started making giant rainbow portals.
Why are you so attracted to bright colors?
I think I just like colors. I don't think it necessarily has to be entirely rainbow. In my upcoming work it'll be more specific, but when I walk around the city, or when I'm looking at a building, I want everything to look like a dream. When I look at a hotel on Sunset strip that looks like a file of bills that's been opened, I don't want people to think of bills — I don't want them to think of anything like that in association with my work.
Your father is a 3-D cinematographer. Has his work inspired yours?
He's a really big inspiration for me. He has to see the world differently — he has to turn knobs and make it so that dimensions go forward or push backward. He's like a mad scientist, so I'm hoping that one day, we can make something really important together. I think making something psychedelic with a 3-D camera would be amazing.
How has growing up in Topanga Canyon influenced your art?
I lived in a utopian situation where I could grow up and play in the forest and pick flowers all summer. I think it was a special time; all the kids I grew up with are really amazing, and we're really close. When I organize events, or make flower crowns for older people, they think it's a hippie thing. But flower crowns have existed throughout our entire history; it's not a hippie thing, it's a joyful thing.
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