Imitation of a Designer

The day before his 24th birthday, a prime concern for Matt Damhave was that people never perceive him as a fashion designer. Which might sound odd coming from the former co-producer of Imitation of Christ, a New York–based fashion label that embellishes vintage clothes for resale, and for which he and his creative partner, actress Tara Subkoff, were nominated for a CFDA Award in 2001 for best new talent. At the height of IOC’s flare-up of fame, Mr. Damhave refused Madonna free clothes. But last fall he quit, relinquishing the line to Ms. Subkoff, who for the past two seasons has exhibited the clothing without Mr. Damhave. The two no longer speak, save terse cordialities at cocktail parties. And now, after months of downtime in Los Angeles, Mr. Damhave has moved back to New York, and says he is choosing happiness over fame and possible fortune.

Ah, to be young and punk.

“Fashion is fake, beyond superficial. You can convince someone shit is caviar if you spread it thin enough,” he said recently over breakfast at Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place. With his round glasses, blond hair the color of hay and soft, cherubic features, he looks like a cross between Harry Potter and the musician Beck. “I didn’t want the applause, the CFDA Award,” he said. “If I wanted that, I would have hung out. There’s an element to those people …. It’s kind of gross.”

He said he wants to start a quarterly magazine of social criticism, called The Way We Speak About … . The first issue would be about stupidity. “Everybody’s stupid,” he said. “Some people are stupider than others. When you’re making art, you’re trying to elicit a response. And if you’re not eliciting a response, you’re a decorator.”

Time will tell if Mr. Damhave made the right move. After all, the things he’s doing now-playing guitar in a band, writing movie scripts, working as a D.J. alongside Paul Sevigny, brother of Chloë, at Sway in Soho on Saturday nights, living on the Lower East Side-are the sorts of vaguely hip things a lot of young, social aspirants-with-an-edge do in New York. And most of them would probably trade it all in for the perch Mr. Damhave so nonchalantly left last fall. Meanwhile, his ex-partner, Ms. Subkoff, is reportedly looking for a financial backer to help expand IOC into art, film, a shoe line and a perfume. She and Mr. Damhave were courted at one point by the French luxury-fashion behemoth LVMH.

“I think Tara calls herself a ‘fine artist’ now,” Mr. Damhave said with a grimace. “I heard she slagged me as ‘one of many collaborators’ of IOC.”

Ms. Subkoff declined to be interviewed in any detail about their former partnership; she sent a brief statement saying that Mr. Damhave has not been involved with IOC for over a year and that many others continue to contribute to the label’s work.

One of two siblings (he has an older sister), Mr. Damhave grew up predominantly in Pensacola, Fla. His father worked as a respiratory therapist, and his mother was an emergency-room nurse; Mr. Damhave said he grew up surrounded by “blood and guts.” He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, before dropping out his junior year to follow a girlfriend to Los Angeles. One night outside a rock show, he was chatted up by indie actress Chloë Sevigny ( Kids , Boys Don’t Cry ) and Ms. Subkoff, who has appeared in The Last Days of Disco and The Cell . He had only been there a week.

“They just came up and started talking to me,” he said. “And I kept trying to pawn cigarettes from Chloë. My girlfriend accused me of flirting.”

The girlfriend left Mr. Damhave several months later. He ran out of money. “I slept on a friend’s floor in Silverlake and wasn’t eating,” he said. “I don’t have a good work ethic.” He bumped into Ms. Sevigny and Ms. Subkoff again at a club. A few months later, Ms. Subkoff asked if he wanted to start a T-shirt line. “She wanted extra money; I just wanted money, period,” he said.

During the first few months, Mr. Damhave and Ms. Subkoff rummaged through Salvation Army bins. “Tara’s a very good shopper,” he said. “She’s been shopping her whole life. I’ve always embraced mythology-and the first night we started working, I came up with the IOC manifesto: We wanted people to stop making uniforms which were so processed, so refined.” They did their first show in an L.A. subway.

“I took this original Y.S.L. Oxford and wrote across it, ‘Bring Me the Head of Tom Ford,'” he said. The prank got a fair amount of coverage in fashion magazines. Mr. Damhave said that from the start, he already started to turn off. “I hated having my photo taken,” he said. “And I never wore our clothes. Only once, for Surface Magazine , and it was a disaster. It’s like wearing your own band’s T-shirt.”

Although IOC’s men’s jackets were soon selling for an average of $800 and its dresses for $1,500, Mr. Damhave said he personally didn’t cash in.

“I knew Imitation was a one-trick pony,” he said. “It was a Trojan horse. Whenever the troops busted out of the horse, they got hugs. I got to meet a lot of people, but I was living on $20 a week.”

Mr. Damhave and Ms. Subkoff made a short anti-sweatshop film featuring their friends, including actresses Reese Witherspoon and Lisa Marie, who played troubled, pill-popping rich kids wearing IOC garb. Mr. Damhave believed that members of the bourgeois class, like themselves, could have a profound impact.

“Godard, Fellini-all came from privileged backgrounds,” he said. “That’s something Tara and I tried to say in our film.”

Their fashion shows during New York’s biannual Fashion Weeks were anticipated as “hot tickets” for the bohemian crowd and a curiosity for fashion editors who wanted to see if there was any substance behind the fanfare. As a label that produced “one-offs”-retailored vintage schmattes -the originality of the presentations often counted for more than the garments themselves. For example, in lieu of a traditional runway, IOC once staged a fake funeral, with a repressed WASP side of a “family” opposed by wailing Italians. And IOC received a slew of press in September 2001, when they turned the tables on editors by having them unknowingly walk down a runway while M.C. Tracey Ullman and models critiqued their outfits.

“Nobody wants to embrace class clowns,” said Mr. Damhave. “I think Tara wants it to be art. I had a problem with that. Art should explain the process. Tying your shoelace involves art. Everything is conceptual.”

While he credits Ms. Subkoff-now also living in Manhattan-as “a really talented stylist,” he said most of the label’s design ingenuity came from Marcella Mullins, who has been with IOC as an assistant since the first show.

Mr. Damhave said his final act in fashion was their high-concept show last September-the one where fashion editors were ushered into a hall, cattle-call style, while models dressed in IOC sat in the audience jotting notes. “The night after that last show was the end of fashion for me. When we reversed the runway. That was my closure. It was the wizard behind the curtain.”

And so he quit, and spent three months in Toronto, hanging out with his then girlfriend, actress-model Jaime King, while she made a movie called Bulletproof Monk . During his time there, he penned a screenplay about a group of art brats as pranksters. Ms. King gave him a platinum pinkie ring for Valentine’s Day, but the romance didn’t last, though they still remain friends.

His romance with fashion, however, is not totally finished: He styled the Y&K show during the recent spring 2003 collections.

“I wanted to use fashion as a building block to show how systems work,” he said. “I’ve never been a subscriber to Situationalism. When you smash the structure, there has to be a new one. Now I’m looking for opportunities to have fun.”

He said one such opportunity was developing image books with Neville Wakefield, an art curator and writer and the husband of Vogue editor Camilla Nickerson.

“He’s a curveball,” said Mr. Wakefield. “He has this kind of anarchic sense that is informed and ridiculous at the same time. And a capacity for improvisation that is always good news.”

Mr. Damhave is living on Allen Street with a guy named Matt Jones, a friend from when they were teens in Florida.

“We’re rednecks,” said Mr. Jones, who like Mr. Damhave doesn’t have a day job but supplies the vocals for the pair’s two-man rock band. “Our parents thought enough to give us a good education. But we’re rednecks.”

Mr. Damhave’s 24th-birthday party was held on a recent Saturday night at Sway. He took a break from spinning records to sit on a red velvet couch and chug a Heineken. He was wearing abundantly patched Levis, a black T-shirt and blueberry-colored Nikes. He pointed to his sneakers and said, “They were probably made by 6-year-old children with bloody fingers. But the big fashion labels are worse. They’re selling clothes to people who have exploited other people. If you have billions of dollars, you’ve done something wrong.”

Carrie Imberman, a stylist in a long black peasant skirt and matching lace top, gyrated in front of him. She boasted that the skirt was a thrift-store find.

“Yeah, it’s never been washed,” he shouted back.

“He’s nasty, but in a good way,” she said.

Natasha Lyonne, the actress, came bounding in like a golden retriever and started some playful fisticuffs with Mr. Damhave. His roommate and bandmate, Mr. Jones, showed up. Their band has played at Spa, and Mr. Damhave takes music seriously.

“I’m a music snob,” he said. “A lot of these rock bands now … it’s been done. Nostalgia is one of the most dangerous things in the world, because you forget the bad stuff. It’s romantic. Like J.F.K.: He was not that great of a President. But he got shot in the head. Or Marc Jacobs, who is bringing Mod clothing into an era where it shouldn’t be in the cycle. Or trying to create the scene of Max’s Kansas City in 1975. I wasn’t even living in 1975. To me, it’s history.” Imitation of a Designer