Photograph by Jessi Lembo
Herzen Clerge burst into New York City’s artistic community over the past couple years, and it’s my pleasure to publish this interview on the occasion of his most recent collection for FSR A/W 2022. Clerge is focused and self-possessed, extending his reach into so many facets of the creative realm: his studio contains prototypes and multimedia works that pertain to his personal artistic practice, he’s still in school, he’s emerging in the City’s fashion industry with designs that hold a vibrant and dynamic philosophical motive. We shared this exchange of words over the summer, when he was still in the early stages of planning.
Naomi Falk: The quintessential interview question: how did you get started in visual art?
Herzen Clerge: I never was keen to practice classic visual art—drawing, painting, whatever—because I’ve never been interested in my work having a specific role or feeling like I’m failing if it doesn’t.
NF: You’re open; you practice self-discovery.
HC: Of course I took art class in elementary school, and this lady used the word “painterly.” She described it as being obsessed with the material element of painting; that wasn’t what I wanted. My real first project was probably making t-shirts in high school. They were emulsion screen printed pineapple t-shirts. It was the first time I made something that I could put my name on as one of my own artistic endeavors.
Photograph by Jessi Lembo
NF: And you eventually decided you needed studio space, and that you were going to have this full-time practice?
HC: In college, I started making clothes. In a weird way it was inspired by Instagram, by this guy Ass Pizza. He takes trashed clothing and repurposes it. There’s a lot of patchwork; that was a thing in 2017 and 2018. I started making hoodies, though I was never satisfied with anything.
When Corona happened, and I said, “Damn, I don’t know enough. I don’t know anything, really. I just really like clothes, and I like building, so how do those things add up?” I found this YouTube video about Bauhaus. It was about the interdisciplinary extent of everything and the Modern idea that everyone is multifaceted. Bauhaus had the ability to stretch its practice through the ideology, but within different facets. I started looking into the practical element of design and, in my research, that began with architecture. I read a lot about how the practice of architecture developed with certain people like Le Corbusier and Michelangelo. I’m watching these videos and reading plans for the Circular Dome in Italy, or learning about how German architects would leave architecture school and build elaborate villas, or about how Frank Lloyd Wright created this congruent idea of a home and stretched it through public spaces while maintaining his own identity and the idea of lending to space.
NF: I love Frank Lloyd Wright. I call him Flank Lloyd Steak as a joke. He has this element of goodness, of using art to better human lives.
HC: I read this book called Finding Home. It’s about a mom going through this super depressing shit—hates her life, hates herself. She’s taking all these pills to get fucked up. This is the 1930s. She’s living with her husband in a commissioned FLW home. It has beautiful French doors, these openings—I’m reading the book right, there’s no imagery—but I’m imagining this FLW home standing in Modernity in contrast with the Sears catalogue homes, right? During that time you could buy a home like that. There’s this idea that he’s creating a middle class, that he’s giving design and thought to living. He’s creating wealth through well-designed homes for the middle class. He’s creating a standard for life.
FSR A/W 2022 Collection
NF: You mentioned practicality earlier. Talk to me about bringing design—and at the time, Modernity, product design, innovation—into the lives of people who might not otherwise come into contact with it. Are you working on anything that might be brought to a consumable level?
HC: With everything, it’s like: are you an artist? Why are you an artist? Why are you labeling yourself an artist? Because you make art? Does that mean that your art is a vessel for your ideation to be consumed? Then it gets developed into: How can I refine this idea, so that it’s consumable? Everything that is consumable was probably simplified at some point. Then you get into higher-tier consumables.
NF: Like haute couture?
HC: Exactly. I have a fashion background and studied high-culture, pop-culture, and low-culture. High-culture is derived from rich people—artists used to be brought to that level rather than living as craft makers.
NF: They were paid by their patrons to regurgitate work into that “elite” sphere.
HC: They were placed adjacent to the rich, to a higher-echelon of wealth. This dynamic pressed the idea that art and high-culture are in-tune with each other. So, pop-culture is irrelevant because it experiences overconsumption, and then there’s low-culture that’s derived from subcultures, poverty, and pure form. The starving artist idea. The idea of Japanese designers who pull from Americana street culture and 1970s and 1980s train-cart hopping and homelessness. They elevate that into high-culture. I designed this stool—
NF: —Like your concrete piece?
HC: Yes, that one. Stools present themselves everywhere: you have a bar stool, you have cushions that are Mediterranean-inspired that sit on carpet, you have prayer pillows, you have all these different stools. This one is from a bucket that I had poured concrete into. The reason it’s so low is because in school we would sit by a really low table or carpet: engaged and attentive.
NF: It forces conversational intimacy. When you sit on a barstool you’re high off the ground. You’re facing toward the bartender, and so even if I’m sitting between two people I can’t really be talking to both at one time. I can lean back and people can lean in, but it’s not necessarily conducive to the atmosphere that you’re describing.
HC: A more intimate and grounded space. And a barstool is consumable. My stool can be consumable but it’s extremely heavy, it’s bleak, it lends to a specific environment.
NF: It’s kind of brutalist, ha ha ha.HC: Exactly. It’s rough. Melanie [Maynard] is looking at the stool and she’s like, “This idea of the stool can be…” and gets into a redesign. She comes from a graphic design background and likes more “designed” objects. So we’re thinking of this stool that uses a wooden peg that reduces a lot of the weight with an acrylic plaster top that’s egg-shaped and soft and curved. It’s portable. So, on the stool-hand, you’re designing something for consumption because you’re enabling elements of it to be consumable. With my concrete stool it’s different. With clothing, people will always wear a shirt and jeans. Why wouldn’t you? It’s comfortable, it’s easy.
NF: It’s been proven to work for decades.
HC: Swear to god, right? So why would you ever go out and buy some shit that’s cool, or different? It’s because there’s an innate desire to find something deeper or to show yourself through these things. Why do people consume? Because they want to fulfill something personal. You can’t really go into an intrapersonal consumption.
NF: Although… you kind of can. The other day when Sticks was downstairs, he brought those shirts out, not even to sell them. Immediately we were all like, “I wanna get one.” We all bought a shirt. Number one, because the design was cool. But also because I have a relationship with the person who has brought the consumable out. If someone asks about the shirt while I’m wearing it, I can say “Oh, my friend made this.”
Jessi Lembo: Right, I remember I even asked you about it that day.
HC: Sure, there is an opportunity for interpersonal connection with everything we own. When I make shit, I’m asking, “How does it work functionally? Am I making it to be consumed?” If I’m making it to be consumed, then what am I?
NF: You’ve mentioned how high fashion is consumed by so few. You have a fashion background, and you have worked in modeling and gotten big gigs. When I see a Calvin Klein ad, I know I can go buy a bra and panty set for like thirty dollars. I would assume most people don’t think of a runway show’s garments as being accessible. Perhaps they can’t think of it as art. Probably because the fashion market is so fucked up. It’s hard to see past that sometimes; I think people regard fashion in a different way than the other arts. But even the way you style yourself can be a form of art. You seem to have a philosophical view on the role of the consumer. Does that configure into your modeling work or view on the fashion industry?
HC: I try to draw myself away from the practical work of modeling. It’s so vain. So rooted in all this bullshit, such as self-loathing. A need to be something that you’re not. If I let that mentality get into my head for a day, then I feel sick. Like I’m a green monster.
NF: At the same time modeling and fashion are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could create a modeling industry that’s less based on people needing to make a living. I’m sure these big companies are so desperate to make a buck off you being that “hot guy.” To have your image.
HC: Swear. I talk about this all the time, too. For me, I’m just a face and an idea. You are a piece in your larger categorizations: tall skinny white girls with blond hair, tall skinny white girls with black hair, all these descriptors. Everyone is a buzzword, and you fit into that category. It’s funny because it’s dependent on your mood. I’m a black kid with dreads; I’m more upbeat and smiley in general, so I do commercial work because I’m more down to smile. There are kids who look exactly like me who don’t book commercial work because they don’t smile, so they’ll book more high-fashion work.
NF: You said, “I’m down to smile!”
JL: As someone who has worked as a photographer, it makes sense. Even if models are trained to shapeshift, everyone has a different energy in front of the camera.
HC: You’re just a pawn to convey their message. Like in movies, every element is chosen to convey an overall idea. Same thing with modeling. You’re chosen to convey their idea and for them to monetize your face.
NF: I’ve always wondered: When you’re on set, do you ever feel that you’re doing more to influence the brand’s vision compared to how much the brand is influencing your actions?
HC: No. I play such a menial role in the process of getting the idea out. I could be a stick with tape on my joints and the clothes pitched up on me.
NF: There’s a slightly different, and I think demonic, role in the writing sphere. I think about times when writers produce some listicle for these buzzword-y "news" sources. You’re writing the same copy you write twenty times a day.
HC: Same idea for modeling. There truly is no point of change, no affecting change, no impact. Unless you get to the point of being true to the idea of change where you can work within the industry. Like Alton Mason. He’s a model but has funds in Senegal. Like Naomi Campbell. At that point, you can begin to meld the industry.
FSR A/W 2022 Collection
NF: Over the past year in this space, you’ve been hyperproductive. I think about terms you tend to use: brutalism, modernity, etc. Are there pedestals or terms you’re trying to “redefine”—sorry I hate that word—or prioritize when you’re making art?
HC: When I’m making shit I’m always seeking that feeling of—you know when you’re about to take a flight and you’re running late?
HC: You don’t know where to go, the gate is far, TSA is about to give you a hard time. That’s what I’m looking for when I’m making something. That same unsureness, but you must win, you must make the flight. If I don’t get that feeling I’m not doing it right.
NF: Talk to me about Black futurism.
HC: Sure. Me and my friend were talking about how numbers shape the future.
NF: Like big tech?
HC: The Big D. Come on, you can’t deny the Big D. Big Data.
NF: I knew what you were talking about.
JL: I didn’t.
HC: There’s art and writing and there’s fictional writing, science fiction, and clothing. All these things figure into shaping a visual identity for the future. These are the people writing it. Like Fahrenheit 451. They made a flatscreen TV in the ‘50s, and no one had ever seen shit like that before. It’s almost exactly what flatscreens ended up looking like! So, to relate that to myself: I like the idea that clothes serve a function. Whether that be conveying something about the self, where you come from stylistically or physically. How does what you wear work for you: how does it keep you warm? How is it helping you see when it’s windy? Or protecting from the sun? How are clothes playing a role in your life, as opposed to you being the commander of the garment? The future gives me hope for design, and that there can’t be this idea of redlining, in terms of clothing wear. There can’t be an exclusion of consumption.
NF: I like the idea of the future holding hope. I’m thinking about a show like the Jetsons—a very specific viewpoint, very ethnocentric and class-centric, not considering many problems we face today—but it’s interesting that the root of the idea is imagining what life will look like in the future… the hope that what will come will always be better. When we look at that show… a lot of those ideas are spooky now that we know what tech can do. Having a robot that is a servant, to me, reads as particularly evil.
HC: Exactly. The assembly-line-ness of that time. Clothing can speak on a geopolitical platform. And that relates to a healthy earth. It takes 100 gallons of water to make a single shirt. There is a future that can work for us all.
JESSI LEMBO is a photographer who lives and works in Brooklyn.
NAOMI FALK is a writer, editor, and book designer who lives and works in Brooklyn.