Aaron De La Cruz is The Alphabetizer

Aaron De La Cruz collaborated with MM6 Maison Margiela for a collection of bags during Art Basel Miami Beach 2016.
Aaron De La Cruz collaborated with MM6 Maison Margiela for a collection of bags during Art Basel Miami Beach 2016.

Maison Margiela has long been favored by the art world. Founded in 1988 by the camera-shy, taciturn Martin Margiela, the brand has consistently adopted avant-garde strategies that play havoc with fashion norms. Both their high-end Maison Margiela label, which is now overseen by John Galliano, and their casual MM6 line, whose artistic direction is managed by a collaborative team, are in the habit of deconstructing clothes. One of MM6’s most popular products is their “Japanese Bag.” Made since 2009 and inspired by a vintage tote, the bag has been reinterpreted and re-issued in diverse materials (such as denim and polyester mesh), and is also offered in a variety of colors from season to season by the in-house team.

Late last year, MM6 decided that it was time to collaborate with an outsider. They chose Aaron De La Cruz, a former graffiti artist. De La Cruz turned to painting and graphic design after studying illustration at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. His visual style revolves around taking letters apart and putting them back together again, creating an interconnected maze out of the alphabet. His deconstructive mode has great synergy with the Margiela brand.

“Ninety percent of my work is unplanned mark-making. It still has the energy of a tag,” explains De La Cruz from his studio in the Bayview warehouse district of San Francisco. The artist sits on a high metal stool, scratching his thick stubble. NPR plays at low volume. De La Cruz’s works start with a lower case b, p, q or d—“drop ins,” as he calls them, after a skateboarding move—which eventually resolve themselves into balanced all-over compositions.

De La Cruz started tagging when he was 11 years old under the name “Vear,” which for him suggested veering off, branching out, doing his own thing. “Friends were involved in gangs and I wanted to remove myself,” he explains. “Graffiti was a way to be badass while avoiding the violence.” De La Cruz’s mother and father (both born in America of Mexican descent) held various office jobs in Fresno. “They worked nonstop,” explains the artist. “Our home was a creative environment, where we all worked on house renovations and learned how to sew.”

After graduating from CCA, Aaron De La Cruz taught in the “Art Esteem” program in the Oakland Unified School District for a decade while working on domestic and commercial mural commissions. His break came in January 2014 when Diesel flew him to Breganze, Italy, to create a 1,250-square-foot mural in their headquarters. Renzo Rosso, the founder of Diesel and president of the holding group that owns Margiela, was introduced to De La Cruz’s work through Arkitip magazine. The project gave the artist the confidence to quit teaching and devote himself full-time to his art and design practice. Since then he has worked on many murals (one was seven stories high, another was two blocks long), a re-design of the bottle for the German beer Warsteiner and the band of a Casio G-Shock watch.

De La Cruz found the MM6 commission to be galvanizing. Conceived as a single painting spread over 60 limited edition “Japanese bags,” each buyer acquires 1/60 of the “work” as well as a limited edition screen print. The bag was launched at the mobbed opening of MM6’s first American pop-up in Miami’s Design District during the Art Basel fair. “I believe in human engagement,” explains De La Cruz, who loved the experience. “I don’t watch TV. I was raised to converse with people.” Inspired by the process of making something tactile, he hopes to work on another interactive project soon. “I like getting my hands on things,” he says. “I have always hated ‘Do not touch’ signs. I want to break with that rule in my art.