The downtown Los Angeles neighborhood where Victor Wilde directs his fashion-art-design enterprise, Bohemian Society, lies at the intersection of several transitional neighborhoods — the Historic Core, Fashion District, Arts District and Skid Row. One of L.A.'s oldest saloons is a mere stone's throw from Wilde's studio, as is an array of prominent social service agencies and stunning, sometimes jarring, architectural silhouettes.
It could be said that the city sidewalk is Wilde's notion of a runway — an enveloping, immersive catwalk with a thousand eyes on it, and its flâneurs continuously scanning the horizon, only fleetingly fixing their gaze on one thing or another. Wilde is aware of himself as one of those actors; he stares with scavenging eyes, continuously recomposing his gaze.
Off those streets and up in that studio, Wilde is focused on an actual runway — or at least a “runway environment.” He's closing L.A. Fashion Week with his presentation of SS19, a collection called Manifest, and it's going to be something to remember. The notion of a Bohemian Society show being other than a full-blown interdisciplinary happening is a total non-starter. This will be Bohemian Society's first L.A. presentation in three years, and Wilde's gaze is wandering in all directions. Contemplatively, he says, “It will be just enough chaos.”
A certain cinematic aspect to Wilde's approach is readily apparent, and not accidental. Although his talent for fashion surfaced early, his childhood passions were painting and filmmaking. A featured extra performance in Woody Allen's 1987 Radio Days sealed his fascination. In film studies at North Carolina's School of the Arts, Wilde chafed against what he perceived as the school's arbitrary institutional guidelines, but he took what he needed from the experience. He knows how to shape a production.
Only a couple of years ago, a camera followed Wilde strolling through Berlin, all but rolling up the sidewalk for his work, ripping up derelict street advertising and construction signage for a show at Berlin kunsthalle SomoS, planning to turn the stuff of assemblage into couture. The production, presented as an “interdisciplinary multimedia micro-residence,” was titled, “Was ist Los?, or What Is Happening?,” in a pun on Los Angeles, plus '60s conceptual art and social dismay all at once — but there was nothing micro about it. Wilde's art and clothes, which is really the exact same thing, bloom as the creative process happens, performatively, in that crucial creative moment of a sharp spark within one dazzling blur, before a live audience.
Back home amid the art-music-fashion cross-pollination of downtown L.A., it was almost inevitable that Wilde would cross paths with the charismatic tenor Timur Bekbosunov and his band, The Dime Museum; as he had with so many musicians, Wilde would later dress and style them for videos and photo shoots. But before any of that, within minutes of meeting him, as Bekbosunov describes it, “I immediately pitched him Collapse,” a “post-ecological requiem” produced by Beth Morrison Projects for REDCAT in 2014. “At our very first meeting he made a spontaneous draft on a napkin as to what my three costumes should be,” Bekbosunov recalls. “He seems to always know what he wants from the beginning, but then things evolve…”
The clothes became a spectacular and striking element of the production. While the band members were attired in variations on the burned, melted-down, smoky elements that are a Wilde specialty, tailored to their “post-apocalyptic” specifications, Bekbosunov moved between a dramatic goth priest look, a spectacular slashed and brocaded suit of fire, and a half dress suit/half bustier-and-petticoat getup to marry the sexes.
Wilde continues to work with Bekbosunov and with Morrison, as well as other Dime Museum members who, like most musicians, have multiple gigs going. Guitarist Matthew Setzer, who regularly tours and performs with bands such as London After Midnight and Skinny Puppy, wasn't sure what hit him when Wilde dressed The Dime Museum for their first photo shoot, but he was taken with Wilde's relaxed, improvisatory self-assurance — and the results. “The pictures just looked insanely good!” he says. They bonded during a tour through Amsterdam; and later (with video projection artist Jesse Gilbert) plunged deep into Wilde's origin story, set between Canarsie and Red Hook in Brooklyn. As Setzer views it, Wilde's creativity shines in collaboration with other artists.
Wilde's process is essentially an all-encompassing bricolage, seeing couture as a form of assemblage, handmade using whatever materials are available. He can be influenced by film (one collection was inspired by Jonathan Demme's 1986 Something Wild, another by David Lynch's Wild at Heart), but his influences come from all over and include Jasper Johns, arte povera and Alan Vega. “I'll get ideas and draw them,” he says. “Sometimes you're inspired by the street, sometimes you make an upside-down mood board from whatever's on the internet.”
As far as his studio practice goes, well, how do you describe getting in front of a blowtorch? Explosively embroidering? Wilde's fabric racks are treasure troves of swagged silk, layers of vintage lace collaged with botanica decals, chainmail beneath jackets in various stages of deconstruction, dyed silks in radioactive hues. His techniques are classic — draping, gathering, swagging, pleating — but he's entirely self-taught, with an innate sense of how to seam, reverse or slash to transform the texture of a fabric.
Musicians and other creatives are always game for Wilde's process. Most recently he dressed Alan Cumming for his band's summer tour of club appearances. One of Wilde's most in-demand looks is a collection of hand-embellished “shark jackets” after the one he made for Julian Casablancas to wear in a video fronting for Daft Punk.
The connection with performers is something that comes from his own experience — not just donning masks and costumes for an aunt's Christmas pageant in Canarsie but as a street performer in a silver bodysuit, which Wilde describes as his first legitimate job. Later he was invited by the West Hollywood Standard Hotel to occupy its signature lobby “Box.” The first (and possibly only) man to occupy this space, he made a compact design studio of it — a one-of-a-kind fusion out of which he fashioned a debut at Lisa Kline and what's going on 15 years in the business.
Wilde has kept his distance from the annual Fashion Week ready-to-wear rollouts but has done his share of trade shows. Bored at one such trade show in Paris, he wandered up to a neighborhood between the Second and Third Arrondissements and a street once famous for its maisons of ill repute, Rue Blondel. The sumptuous art deco Belles Poules is now a museum, but along several blocks and alleys they continue to practice the oldest profession well past what we might think of as retirement age. Wilde was fascinated with the women's looks, their poses, sitting, standing and strutting from their doorways, as well as a story he heard that Max Factor's most famous red lipstick was inspired by just such femme fatales.
He convinced a photographer he'd met in Berlin to help him with both the photography and her fluent French. “She brought two cameras and a light and I brought a suitcase full of my stuff. We started at the beginning of the street, and she introduced me, 'This is my friend Victor from L.A. He's trying to work with people for his clothing line who aren't regular models.' Everyone said no until we got to the end of the street; and as the last woman is saying no, another woman walks by and hears us talking. She takes us to a back alley where we started to dress and photograph her. It started to rain and we went to another alley. A younger woman comes down; she starts trying on the stuff and we photograph her. Then an older woman sticks her head out the door and shouts to us, 'What are you doing outside in the rain?' And suddenly I'm inside this woman's boudoir where she's probably just given someone attentions 10 minutes before and we're photographing her. In the meantime, there are knocks on the door, and she's putting her customers off while we filmed for an hour.”
Like something out of Toulouse-Lautrec, this was a moment that for Wilde eclipsed even fashion, a moment when, he says, “I felt so completely alive. My dream would be to close down the Rue Blondel, dress the standers and walkers in Bohemian Society, and make the street the runway.”
L.A. Fashion Week's closing-night presentation will feature Bohemian Society's SS19 collection “Manifest” inside a classic Wilde-style Spring Happening, at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Timur Bekbosunov will perform live with Alex Noice, while actress-photographer Rie Rasmussen (who shot the campaign for Bohemian Society's signature scent, Sex Tape) captures and creates Manifest SS19's lookbook live on the runway. Unconventional model casting includes the legendary Buck Angel as well as performers from the Skid Row theatrical collective Los Angeles Poverty Department. thebohemiansociety.com