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Puppets and Puppets SS20 3
Photography Andrew Tess

Puppets and Puppets is lighting up NYFW with its absurdist collections

With fans in the form of King Princess, Richie Shazam, and Ruby Aldridge, founders Carly Mark and Ayla Argentina are bringing fun – and a sense of the ridiculous – to fashion week

Right now, in New York, there are a handful of designers doing things differently – and Puppets and Puppets is one of them. Founded by fine artist Carly Mark and designer Ayla Argentina, the label made its debut on last season’s schedule with a show which saw the likes of Richie Shazam, Ruby Aldridge, Jane Moseley, and Lili Sumner take to the runway as model-slash-cellist Patrick Belaga played on.  

When it comes to the clothing, Puppets and Puppets place emphasis on handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pieces that take into consideration the state of the planet, as they push towards a more sustainable future. Working out of a studio that doubles as Mark's apartment, the artist takes on creative direction while Argentina sews everything by hand, with many of the fabrics they work with sourced by chance (dish rags, for instance, feature heavily in their SS20 offering). 

“The brand is like an ode to our furry son. We liked the ridiculousness of repeating it twice” – Carly Mark

Mark’s background in fine art is evident throughout, with each collection feeling playful and experimental. “We don't look at fashion seriously, which is also why we love it,” she says. “We're not, like, cautious about it.” In fact, the label takes its name from Mark’s pet chihuahua, further demonstrating the pair’s propensity for the absurd. “The brand is like an ode to our furry son,” she explains, laughing. “We liked the ridiculousness of repeating it twice.”

Similarly, the two clearly have a lot of fun when it comes to staging their fashion shows. Approaching them more like a film, they create characters and storylines for those starring in them, enlisting creatives including NY-based artist Nails by Juan to help bring them to life. Last season saw models take their turn on the catwalk with dramatically thin arched brows that recalled the stars of the 1920s silver screen, with some carrying supersized Dutch clogs which had been turned into handbags full of fresh flowers, and others donning OTT perspex sunglasses that threatened to take out the eyes of anyone coming too close. This time around, the bizarre comes by way of shoes made from egg boxes and sunny-side-up bras. 

Ahead of the label’s SS20 show, which took place in NYC last night, we caught up with Mark to talk art, fashion, staging a runway show with a difference, and what’s next.

You both have a strong background in art. How does this affect the overall aesthetic of the brand?

Carly Mark: I think we come at it from a completely different angle than a typical fashion designer or someone who studied fashion. Although we do our best to uphold quality, that's not really the point for me. I love the shows themselves, because I'm used to working towards an art show or a solo show. I think of it in terms of production – I used to make short films. I'm sure I'll still make short films in the future, but the process of making fashion, to me, is more like making a short film. It's super cinematic. I'm developing characters, building the costumes for them, choosing the sound and lighting. So, fashion is like another medium for me. I think that really makes the process different for us, as opposed to other brands that I've talked to.

How do those different aspects of show production play into the theatrics of one of your fashion shows?

Carly Mark: Fashion shows are really performative to me. You're choosing the actors or models to walk the runway, which inform the clothes. How you do their hair, how you do their make-up, it’s all really cinematic to me. It's really like live theatre, like you're watching a play or a performance.

“Fashion to me is like the ultimate collaboration because you take your clothes, you put them on a model, it changes the conversation. The clothes move with a body and all of a sudden it's a completely different story” – Carly Mark

What is your performative vision for this season?

Carly Mark: We decided to intersect two opposing aesthetics or ideas. We’re inspired by Romanov Russia, then the whole collusion that's been going on in this country politically. There's so much myth around it and that's something that we've always been really interested in: myth and fantasy. We want it to touch on that fantasy aspect but still relating to something that's deeply affecting us and this country and this city right now. The concept kind of sits on that line between what is real and what is not and we're just going to augment that idea. 

Why move into fashion fully from art?

Carly Mark: I felt like I hit a wall with art, I wasn't able to fully voice my opinions through it. I think it had a lot to do with the structure of art. You need representation in art in order to show the work you are making, especially if you want to show it in a full collection rather than group shows, which is a very disjointed way to represent you, your brain, your vision. I didn't have representation. I had a lot of sculptures in my studio that no one had ever seen and I felt very frustrated, waiting around for the right gallery.

When it comes to fashion, there's a show every six months. I love that structure. I love the fact that you can choose a venue, you put yourself on the calendar and you do it. It's a very all-encompassing practice. I also love collaborating with people. I was always collaborating in my studio. Fashion to me is like the ultimate collaboration because you take your clothes, you put them on a model, it changes the conversation. The clothes move with a body and all of a sudden it's a completely different story. The clothes take on a life of their own, which I really love. That felt very powerful to me in a way that felt like a sculpture. 

How would you describe Puppets and Puppets in your own words?

Carly Mark: It's a mix of utility and fantasy. We're really interested in costume. I'm also really interested in all the young designers that are using their brands to have a voice. I think that the type of culture that you can push through fashion is really amazing. We're really interested in that. I think a powerful thing is happening in New York right now. There's this a pushback. I think it's like pushback against, politically, what's happening in this country. New York is such an economy-based place. The fashion world here really cares about money and sales and there's this younger generation that cares about sustainability and just getting the job done.

With that said, do you think it's easier to make a statement in fashion right now than it is in art?

Carly Mark: I do. I think art suggests some type of, like, transcendence, that objects are being made for the sake of conversation. But when you're in the art world, the truth is, art objects are product and you have to make money to make more art objects. In fashion, it's transparent. You know, you're making a product. But with this younger generation, partly because I think people can't afford to go into production, the whole point for us is just to get it done.

“I think a powerful thing is happening in New York right now. There's this a pushback. I think it's like pushback against, politically, what's happening in this country” – Carly Mark

How does upcycling play into the line?

Carly Mark: We use a lot of upcycled fabrics. Sometimes fabrics that are just around my house end up in the collection. This season we reused anything that inspired us that we had sitting around. But more than that, we really care about upcycling and sustainability. I mean, I have no interest in making things in mass quantity that might end up as landfill. 

How do you approach production?

Carly Mark: Last season everything was one of a kind. It was partly because it was season one but also because, financially, it is very expensive to go into production. We'll see after the next season, we're very open to sales and stocking. But we're going to have to baby step towards it because right now, everything's made in-house, and in-house is literally in my house. One-off pieces is what I'm used to, as an artist. I love the idea of sales only to sustain this practice. But family members of mine have said, ‘Don't you want to be the next Donna Karen? And I'm like, ‘No!’ It's not our main focus. 

Last season the casting had a lot of familiar faces. Was this a conscious decision?

Carly Mark: A lot of the casting was made up of friends of mine. People who inspire me, people who are part of that village. It was really important to have people walking in the clothes that I have connections to.

What’s next for Puppets and Puppets?

Carly Mark: Our future goals are really just to sustain our line and just to keep going. I would love to do costuming for film at a certain point, you know, the same way that Gaultier did for Fifth Element. I've directed short films of my own and I think that that could be a really fun project in the future, and directed a feature film where we do all of the costuming for it. 

I’m also thinking of different photo collaborations for next season, too, working with some really great friends of mine. I have a dream of doing collaborations times a million in the future, all by creatives in New York that I’m inspired by.