Ahead of her Puppets and Puppets Autumn/Winter 2023 show at New York Fashion Week, Carly Mark talks about turning her back on a career in fine art and “poking fun at fashion”
“I really, really don‘t like when people call my brand ‘whimsical‘. I hate it, actually,” designer Carly Mark says over the phone. She’s lying on her sofa in New York City, which is where she’s decided to sleep at night instead of her bed because she’s “not supposed to”. We are speaking ten days before the presentation of her eighth collection for Puppets and Puppets, the ecstatic brainchild of Mark’s creatively ravenous mind, and after four years of well-received presentations, a CFDA Award nomination under her belt, having weathered the storms of a global pandemic to more recent commercial success, she feels as if she is in a good place.
The inspiration of her Autumn/Winter 2023 collection alone should mark a departure from the dreaded “whimsical” trope. Held downtown in New York’s financial district yesterday, the show was an ode to David Cronenberg’s 1988 film Dead Ringers – an eerie psychological thriller telling the story of identical twin gynaecologists fascinated by female anatomy, whose minds descend into delirium as they grapple with their codependence. In bloody red sequinned dresses, rich velvets and copious amounts of tailoring, gone were the less practical historical references Mark established as her signature. Less hoop skirts, boned corsetry and theatrical panniers; more leg, sex and 80s hedonism. Gaspare Traversi’s excruciating painting The Operation was blown up as laser-printed draped dresses. Of course, Mark’s little absurdities still made themselves known; a fried egg or a blooming rose atop the nipple, an old-school telephone receiver as the top handle of handbags.
After being disenchanted by the art world’s lack of structure and commercial transparency – the allegory of the ‘starving artist’ is more a fashionable statement than an aspiration – Mark abandoned her career as a contemporary artist at age 30. During this time, she made Warholian works from Haribo sweet wrappers, and her fixation on American snack food and its profit-making means still remains an evolving levee of inspiration. The food’s sculptural transmogrification into clothes and accessories teeters on the absurd – for A/W21, a delicious two-tiered cake became a headpiece, and her signature bags (which are constantly sold out) holster a resin cookie or carrot.
While the designs from her first three collections weren’t made for production, toeing the line between costume and couture, Mark’s later output soon found itself in the wardrobes of an adoring cult of New York’s forward thinking art-fashion elites. Megawatt stars Rosalía, Doja Cat, Julia Fox, Lorde and Tove Lo have all donned Puppets and Puppets fantastically quirked-up designs. “I just love a powerful, sexy, badass human,” Mark says.
Here, in her own words, Carly Mark tells the story of her eclectic A/W23 collection:
“This season I was really inspired by David Cronenberg. Specifically, a film called Dead Ringers which is about these twins played by Jeremy Irons who descend into madness. They’re doctors and it takes place in the late 80s. There’s a lot of really beautiful suiting, a lot of men’s shirting. The psychological aspect of the film was really interesting to me. I love horror. I love thrillers. The collection … it’s sexy. It’s inspired by some masculine suiting, but there’s still very feminine silhouettes in there, and you’ll see a bit of the psychological state of the main characters in the film through styling aspects and some props and accessories.
“[I’m introducing] a lot of new bags. I come from a fine art background, so the bags feel like sculpture to me. Before I started fashion, I was making these paintings of Haribo bags. I had spent a lot of time walking around bodegas in New York when I was young when I first moved here, I think because I just was freaked out and I didn’t know what to do, and they were everywhere. I’d never seen them before because I grew up in the Midwest, and so I ended up making all these packaged food paintings. But the bags this season are going in other directions.
“Dead Ringers has a lot of red in it. It only made sense to me to do a rose [bag], which feels like the most iconic red object. A red rose has a lot of power. The phone bags are an evolution from last season. But then I like to add objects in there too that have nothing to do with anything. The butterflies are just because, who doesn’t love butterflies?
“I love that shows are a vacuum. If it’s a good show, it’s nine minutes of you forgetting where you are. I love anything that is transportive, that takes you outside of yourself. I think my earlier shows particularly did [poke fun at fashion]. I’m not trained in fashion, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’ve been learning as I go. There are no rules for me – or for anyone! – I always say ’we’re floating on a rock in outer space’. So it’s like: do what you want to do, who cares?
“I just felt like art was this thing that markets itself as transcendental or holy, like it is this special thing. But the truth is, it’s just people making products. And when that really became clear to me, I felt a bit let down. I didn’t like the lack of structure in art, like there isn’t a schedule, there aren’t rules. It was too free for me. I tried fashion first, and it worked out. The structure that I found, the calendar, the transparency that you’re making a product. I found freedom within that structure. Although I operate left of centre, I can also be quite basic. I’m wearing Brandy Melville sweatpants right now. I like things that are wearable, but a little bit strange.
“I can only approach [fashion] from the background that I have, which is fine art. Fashion isn’t like one plus one equals two for me. I essentially don’t know how to do the math. So it’s like, five plus nine equals three. And that’s fine, too. From the first collection, people were pretty on board with what I was doing. It kind of clicked for people. But the process has definitely freaked out others around me who have gone to school for fashion, and who might have some financial stress about things like debt and how to get there. It’s almost like they know too much. I know nothing. So I have no fear.
“As I move forward, this is becoming more and more of a real business. And there are aspects of it that I do have to think about, and I’m like, ‘let's figure out how to keep the lights on’ – but when I’m figuring out that equation, I’m still a contrarian. I’m still a person that likes to push buttons. I’m still a person that has a backward sense of humour. So even when I am making something that potentially will sell really well in stores, there’s always going to be that thing hanging on the rack next to it that’s making buyers scratch their heads. You know I said I was in my bed? I'm actually on my couch. I’ve been sleeping on my couch. I’ve been talking about this with my therapist. He’s like, ‘Why are you sleeping on the couch?’ I’m like, ‘Because I'm not supposed to.’ I have a bed. And like, I love that. I think I work the same way. And I always will.”