It’s raining but no one seems to care, especially not the models who march from a drenched Canal Street straight onto the runway as passersby look in from the darkness on a September night. The audience is comprised of artists, curators and writers—not the usual New York Fashion Week fare, but this is the world of Gauntlett Cheng—the place where the insider and outsider makeout in the alleyway.
The looks that walk–slashed sundresses, transparent pants, see-through cable knits–are what everyone is here for–if not to cheer on their friends, the brand’s founders Jenny Cheng and Esther Gauntlett. The duo’s theatrical erotics and off-kilter collaborations have earned them a prurient reputation that now stretches beyond the art world bubble–dipping its toes into the mainstream–a fact that is evident from the stack of fashion magazines also in attendance.
“We wanted to open the show with something that we always have—a sexy dress—and that’s what it’s called this season, ‘The sexy dress’,” Cheng announces, “It’s what we like to make. Our clothes are sensual. They come to life on a body. We pay so much attention to making sure they look good on different shapes and sizes. We want people to feel it in the fabric and the way it holds them.”
Gauntlett Cheng’s whole vision for SS19 courts some form of desire or another. Their almost wet-looking fabrics, bright tropical patterns by artist Jared Madere and beachy silhouettes respond to what was racing through the designers’ minds this summer: an endless diet of Instagram vacation envy—al fresco lunches in seaside towns and bikini-dotted yacht decks. “We’re watching everyone having these beautiful Italian summers that are not available to us because we’re toiling away in our hot studio making clothes,” Gauntlett continues, “so the summer house fantasy elements are definitely in there, and then there is also this element of nostalgia for the summers we had growing up: the board shorts, the polos. We found ourselves attracted to materials that seemed almost wet. You know that moment when you pull your shirt over your wet bikini and suddenly your see-through in a way that feels sexy and improper.” This cheeky humor was echoed by the models’ laughter as they strutted down the boot-wetted runway that night. Of course, who wouldn’t crack a smile with their ass hanging out of a pair of sheer trousers or the gaping window of a skin-tight dress?
For those looking to share in the fun, SS19 is available for preorder in Gauntlett Cheng’s temporary shop on Canal Street—where the designers were invited to realize their dream of a brick-and-mortar shop. Open through the end of October, their pop-up boutique is part of On Canal, a new real estate residency aimed at giving small outfits like theirs the chance at real foot traffic. “A shop is something we’ve always wanted,” Cheng tells us, “It’s a space for our friends to hang out, like a clubhouse, but it’s also the first chance we’ve had to get real feedback on our work.”
The actual shop—an industrial rectangle with few frills—has been made over with the help of friends; Gobby, an ongoing collaborator, created three large murals. Madere’s original collaged tapestries, which made their way into the collection as a pattern, hang from the ceiling above a couch, rugs and some clothing racks. The windows are plastered with Gauntlett Cheng’s fall ad campaign shot at a love motel in New Jersey. In the images, friends sprawl out in champagne flute tubs and mirror bedrooms, hinting at the certain brand of seedy irreverence that defines their DNA.
“I think this season for the first time we really thought about what people buy from us,” Gauntlett says, “We had to sit down and think why are really doing this? Our voice really isn’t in the basic, chill pieces. Where both of us excel are in the pieces that are a little wilder, and that is the stuff we really like to design so we let ourselves have a bit more freedom and fun with that.”
This sense of joy extends into every aspect of the new collection. Take for example, artist Bea Fremderman’s contribution—a series of handmade, mother of pearl buttons that adorn Gauntlett Cheng’s knits alongside her sets of silver-dipped oyster shell earrings. A playful nod to the bivalves as both a luxury commodity and an aphrodisiac, this souvenir-like jewelry transform what is traditionally cast off into something precious. A small piece of summer for a long winter.
Gauntlett Cheng’s pop-up is open through the end of October at 357 Canal Street, New York.