“I try to make what is not there”: Orchid Velasquez‘s red satin halter blouse with black lace back and crepe-and-satin skirt with embroidery; lavendEr sheer stretch polyester dress with burned-out velvet insets and tulle trim; knit cotton top with inset panels and decorative stitching, and denim skirt with upholstery fabric insets and lace detail
“You never know what you are going to get”: Araceli Silva’s red cotton one-shoulder ruffle dress with black stripes; patchwork blouse made from vintage fabrics; vintage polyester striped halter blouse and denim wrap skirt with safety-pin fastener
It starts with a fist pushing upward from a black hole. A drop of blood, sweat — or is it nectar? — flowing from beneath the wrist. This is the logo for LaborFruit, a fledgling cooperative of local Echo Park artists started by four people: Aaron Kuehn, Araceli Silva, Orchid Velasquez and Alex Safonov. The seed for the idea came two and a half years ago: Orchid Velasquez, newly graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, was working as a design assistant for a mass-market clothing company. Disgusted at the way garment-factory workers were treated and at the commodification of creative work, she decided to branch out on her own. At a cafe, she met and fell in love with graphic designer Aaron Kuehn, and the couple tapped into friends and friends of friends to join them in a kind of craftsmen‘s collective.
The idea was to bring together artists trapped in unfulfilling jobs who would pool resources, time and skills to be able to create art while making money. Though many responded, only designer Araceli Silva came onboard. Along with Alex Safonov, a tilemaker whom Kuehn had met slipping in and out of one university program after another, the quartet formed LaborFruit. It is an elusive concept — part artists’ refuge, part open marketplace, part retail entity, part town-hall circle. For LaborFruit, there were no “95 Theses” nailed to the wall, no single defining moment of inception, only a hazy, gradual coalescing.
It wasn‘t until this summer that LaborFruit got going in earnest, when Frank Sosa and his bookshop 33 13 moved into the adjacent store. LaborFruit had struggled for some time at its Echo Park location to define itself: an art store, a gallery, a punk rock performance area. At one point, the space was painted green and everything inside was arranged to form an altar — customers were confused, pissed off. Especially when Kuehn, ever the smart-ass, wouldn’t give a straight answer about what LaborFruit was. Partly the struggle was about marrying a socialist ideology with the need for cold hard cash, about the dichotomy of fostering the independent by means of a collective. And partly it was about timing. This June, when Sosa moved in, LaborFruit redesigned the interior — lemony walls, pale-blue ceilings, a central counter shaped like a hexagon — and re-conceptualized as a retail space. With one-of-a-kind artist-made clothes, hats, purses, jewelry and furniture for sale on one side, zines and political books on the other, the 1200 Alvarado Street location is brewing into a retail revolution.
Araceli Silva, poised and elegant as an Aztec goddess, stands behind the counter, stringing beads into a bracelet. Alex Safonov, the group‘s quiet tech man, is laying tile onto a hand-welded coffee table in the back workroom while Lola, the shop cat, looks on. Frank Sosa — the hustler, the organizer — fields calls on his cell phone, percolating a some half a dozen shows about to roll in to 33 13. A girl comes in with her dad and picks out a slinky black jersey column with a long slit cut down the side, which she tries on as a skirt. “Actually, I made that as a top,” Silva says, joining her in front of the mirror. She indicates that the piece is worn with the long cutaway section exposing the lower back. “Oh wow,” the girl purrs, twisting in the mirror. Long tinsel-y threads dangle from the material’s edges. “It‘s interesting the way people interpret the pieces.”
Silva and Velasquez design most of the clothes. The pieces have the experimental, playful feel of couture, like Commes des Garcons mated with the outfits your kid sister might make for a Barbie doll. They are the products of happy, creative minds. The style is edgy, pretty, avant-garde. There are asymmetrical, geometric skirts secured with safety pins. Aprons that double as sashes or wraps. Back-baring halter tops and stretchy lace camisoles in lavenders, indigos and pinks, ruched up the sides with exposed contrast stitching. A sleeveless shirt with a streak of miniature ruffles zigzagging across the chest. Pieces suggest deeper narratives, in the way that only well-thought-out, handmade garments can. A wrap skirt made by Velasquez of blood-red satin embroidered with black flowers evokes geishas; her glittery cowl-neck top in creamy rayon brings to mind the era of disco divas. Silva’s sheer salmon-colored shell edged in sea-green velvet suggests a Renaissance lady in waiting. Asked about her inspirations, her methods, she sighs, “Oh, God,” smiling, and props her elbow up on the counter. She‘ll drape a length of material over a mannequin and cut away until she arrives at an interesting shape. Or she’ll sew together fabrics of different textures into one big sheet — body-skimming vs. stiff and moldable, see-through vs. opaque — and only then trace out a larger pattern. Seams and hemlines wind up in interesting places: “You never know what you are going to get.” This conversation about why the artist does what she does is something that could never happen at the mall.
The rules of the LaborFruit collective are as follows: Be expressive. Be flexible. Do what feels good. Help watch the store, and you get a hundred percent of the sale price of your own work. Stay away, and you get 50 percent, with the other 50 going to cover rent and bills. Yet there are no real rules. “Sometimes we‘ll wake up and for months at a time we’ll feel very lazy and won‘t want to do anything, and the store gets really dirty and nobody comes and we all get really broke,” Aaron Kuehn says. “And then we wake up another morning and really take charge.” In another world, Kuehn would be the silver-tongued devil seducing virgins into a life of debauchery. He is, instead, the group’s de facto PR and idea man. The collective is wrestling with philosophical issues that go back to the ‘60s, to the late-19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, to Marx. Applying it to a modern, capitalist Banana Republic world is tricky. “It’s a classic American concept — take your radical ideas and bring them to market,” notes Kuehn. “All of us are progressive in our political and social understandings, so sometimes there‘s conflict when you have a retail business. You’re hoarding things until people give you money. That can be very confusing.”
“One thing that‘s smart for artists to do while they’re watching the store is to work on their stuff. That‘s good for everybody. We have more stuff, you’re productive with your time, it gives the space a constructive energy so it‘s not just a showplace.” It’s a simple idea that Kuehn explains, but an uncommon one in retail, like the hand-lettered “Made By” labels affixed to everything they sell. For Kuehn, LaborFruit is something akin to utopia building. For his lover Orchid Velasquez, it‘s simply a room of her own, a place where she can sell and make the clothes she likes to make. If Kuehn is a loquacious treatise on social thought, Velasquez is a haiku, concise and enigmatic: “I try to make what is not there.”
If Aaron represents the collective’s philosophical soul, then Frank Sosa is its political spine, its revolutionary engine. In June, Sosa gathered all the comic books, magazines, political journals, hardcover and paperback books in his Silver Lake store Zine O Rama, re-christened it 33 13 Books and started splitting the rent with LaborFruit. By banding together, both groups were able to reach a demographic neither would have been able to reach on its own. Sosa brings in the shows, LaborFruit gets them to linger. Sosa calls it “synergy.” The name 33 13, originally the title of an open-mike poetry series organized by Sosa and friend Chris Vargas, is also a riff on DJ culture. “Hip-hop is the newspaper of the ghetto. Rather than rotations per minute, it‘s revolutions per minute.” In the store, Sosa’s brothers, visiting from their hometown Santa Cruz, hop up and down to ragtime jazz. As Sosa watches them, he talks about informing the young and the disenfranchised, about the homogenization of bookstores, the possibility of dissent. He tours the shelves: The Communist Manifesto, Lies My Teacher Told Me, books by Banksy, bell hooks, Burroughs, pamphlets on the Zapatistas, plus a thousand and one independently published zines mailed or schlepped in by the writers who made them. “The bookstore and the clothing store, they‘re both examples of people taking their destiny into their own hands.”
At 33 13, a platform is being readied for an art show and a 36-hour continuous reading of Orwell’s 1984 to commemorate September 11. With the skateboarders perched outside the Echo Park Film Center next door, which is gearing up for a screening, this is the most happening spot in the city. Across the street, amidst the modest, rundown houses, a peeling Lady of the Lake mural looks on benevolently. Even with the Downbeat Cafe two storefronts away shuttered for summer vacation and the shoeshinebarber shop around the corner closed up for the night, there is an energy about this one-block stretch. LaborFruit and 33 13 are, consciously or not, attempting a sort of DIY urban pioneering. Both are endeavors that involve the Echo Park community at large. People who come in to the store are not just hipsters. They are grandmothers, parents, teenagers, children, members of an extended family. Tonight volunteers from the neighborhood move purposefully about the store, carrying lights or tools, or lumber out to the sidewalk. They stop to clap Sosa on the back, to hug Velasquez, or to ask Silva to ring up a purchase. As Kuehn eyes the activity, he says, “The way that I put it is that we‘re buying back people’s time.”
As he talks, Kuehn cradles his and Velasquez‘s newborn baby, Bucky, named after inventor Buckminster Fuller. The real strength of the collective kicked in last September, when Velasquez suffered a mysterious, paralyzing stroke and the group rallied around her. The minutiae of managing a retail environment, once shouldered by the two women — the men, it seems, were oft found puttering with projects in the back workrooms — now falls on Silva’s shoulders. Since the frantic day she drove her friend to the hospital, and separately, since Bucky was born, Silva has in many ways assumed the lion‘s share of duties in the store, from designing, to promoting, to recruiting artists, to sweeping and mopping up, to helping customers. It’s a tough thing they‘re doing — trying to maintain each individual artist’s distinct voice within a larger chorus, advancing disparate aesthetics within a single unit, leaving people free to do their own thing yet still keeping them beholden to the group enough to call it a group. What, after all, has a tile designer in common with a jewelry maker in common with a clothing designer and graphic-arts dreamer? What quality labor yields what quality fruit? It is always threatening to dissolve into chaos. Always in danger of losing cohesion. Yet this is also the beauty of a cooperative — strength in numbers, flexibility in unforeseen circumstances, variety. The blouse Velasquez is wearing tonight is simple compared to more elaborate designs hanging on the rack, but is somehow a bigger triumph. It‘s the first piece she’s made since the stroke.
Gurgling in his father‘s arms, Bucky bends backward and forward like a reed, fists in the air. He is the most flexible baby in the world. “Whatever we’re doing, it‘s in the guise of a boutique, something that people understand,” says Kuehn. “But the revolution, it’s still going on underneath.”
LaborFruit and 33 13 Books, 1200 N. Alvarado St., Echo Park; (213) 413-5550 and (213) 483-3500; www.laborfruit.org.