A monochrome life: Eugene Rabkin, Founder of StyleZeitgeist
Eugene Rabkin is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of StyleZeitgeist: a forum-eventually-turned-magazine that offers a place for intellectual discussion on avant-garde, slightly obscure, and unknown designers. Based in New York, working from his home office — which he is now redecorating so it’s more monochrome — he travelled to London in June not to look at the menswear week, but rather as a break after Pitti Uomo in Florence. Europe is his cup of tea. He’s a frequent flyer to Belgium: his interest in fashion partially started after seeing the clothes of Antwerp designer Ann Demeulemeester in Barneys. He interviewed her for his second published article ever, and hit it off with Rick Owens straight after.
We sat down to enjoy a long conversation over breakfast at Ottolenghi in Spitalfields. The interior was serene and quiet, apart from some guests toasting their own bread on the table. To eat, we chose a Shakshuka (a North African dish with eggs, peppers and tomatoes) and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. To drink, London-custom: black coffee, similar to the clothes Rabkin wore. Over the span of two hours, we discussed emerging talent in the UK — ‘Craig Green has critics? I’m shocked!’, the in-depth poetry conversations he had with Polly Jean Harvey when interviewing her for the magazine’s second issue (as PJ loves her privacy, we leave you guessing), the death of youth culture that happens with every generation and our expectations for Iris van Herpen’s ready-to-wear line.
We started, however, with one of his fashion roots: Antwerp. He mentioned the differences between the generations of designers who graduate from the Royal Academy of Antwerp’s Fashion Department: “In previous generations, all these Belgian students knew each other, they stayed in Antwerp and worked with each other, but it doesn’t really happen much anymore. There are a lot of international students who either go back to their countries or get snapped up by conglomerates. There isn’t that kind of communion. They’re all buddies, like Raf Simons and Olivier Rizzo, and Ronald Stoops knew everyone so everything was really DIY. I interviewed Kei Ninomiya, the new protégé of Rei Kawakubo, he has his own line. He went to Antwerp for a year, in the summer went to Comme, gave in his portfolio. I don’t really know what’s going on there now. It’s much harder to start your own line.”
“IN THE 80S, EVERYBODY WANTED TO BE AN ARTIST. IN THE 90S, EVERYBODY WANTED TO BE A MUSICIAN. TODAY, EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE A FASHION DESIGNER. THEY’RE THE COOLEST PEOPLE.”
I had a conversation with a graduate from CSM who said that the blogs appeared when she started the Foundation course 6 years ago. At that time there were about 2000 people applying to CSM, but as everything exploded on internet, you’ll now have 20,000 people applying. So many graduates coming out, wanting to do their own line.
It’s the same at Parsons. Because of Project Runway they literally doubled their enrolment in 2 or 3 years. You have to wonder what these kids are going to do when they graduate. I think there’s an overproduction of fashion degrees. In the 80s, everybody wanted to be an artist. In the 90s, everybody wanted to be a musician. Today, everybody wants to be a fashion designer. They’re the coolest people. It’s strange. Rick Owens said designers are the new rock bands. Everybody wants to be one. Schools should be careful. It’s harder to start your own line now than any time before. Yes the market has expanded but I don’t think it did in proportion. I remember this article on BoF written by the president of LCF and I found it so disingenuous. He was raving about all these fashion students, and quoting some ridiculous numbers like hundreds of students being hired in the field of journalism, I don’t see that, where is that?
I don’t know what the situation is like in NY in terms of money and the cost of living, because here it’s like everybody’s being pushed out because the rents are rising.
It’s the same in New York, people can’t afford to live there, everybody lives in tiny apartments with roommates. There’s been an exodus to Los Angeles and Detroit. Artists moving from NY to LA is like adding insult to injury [laughs].
They move upstate, but you know, behind all of this you have to wonder, am I in the right industry? You would never have so many privileged young people whose parents tell them: you can do whatever you want and you will succeed. It’s unprecedented. When I taught at Parsons, I would ask my kids, did your parents pressure you to be a lawyer or an accountant? That sort of safe, upper-middle class job? And overwhelming majority of them said no. I was so shocked.
“I CONSISTENTLY FOUND THE BEST ARTICLES ABOUT FASHION IN THE NEW YORKER, SO I THOUGHT, WHY DON’T FASHION MAGAZINES WRITE LIKE THAT?”
Did you have that? Did your parents pressure you to become a lawyer?
Of course, they’re Russian too, what do you think? [laughs] It was Doctor, Lawyer or Wall Street.
And you went for Wall Street, right?
Yeah, I worked on Wall Street. We came to the States from Belarus as immigrants to become rich. I was good at math. So I thought I’d go into finance. But what did I know, I was 15 years old. The next year I took an exam that determined where I went to college. Two years after, I had to apply. I took a wrong turn for ten years, it’s okay.
What did you learn from Wall Street that you can now apply?
I learned first that I didn’t want to be there!
Were you any good?
Yeah I was good at what I did, but it’s not even the work, it’s the people that surround you, it’s really spiritual death. What did I learn? Not much else, really. It got me interested in economics which I still read about because it affects us all. After 5 years I started soul searching. I asked myself, what would you do for free? And thought, I would enrol in an MA degree in liberal studies, my BA was finance, and I took mostly literature. By then I realised that I was already interested in fashion but not impressed with fashion writing. At all.
Are you now?
No. I consistently found the best articles about fashion in the New Yorker, so I thought, why don’t fashion magazines write like that? I thought, you know what, maybe I can contribute here. Whereas say, in literary criticism, they are much smarter. That was at New School in NY, and Parsons is part of it. So I came and offered my thesis subject and they said, we can’t really help you, find an advisor at Parsons.
What was your subject?
Is it embarrassing or do you not remember?
Not embarrassing, it’s a long explanation. It’s about how we judge fashion, about what is good and bad, and what the criteria are. The backbone of it was a book by Robert Pirsig called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which had nothing to do with fashion, but the concepts could be applied. How do we judge what is good? What is it that we are doing when we judge fashion? So I did that and my advisor invited me to teach at Parsons upon my graduation. I simultaneously started StyleZeitgeist, the forum, in 2006. It snowballed.
“STYLE, BECAUSE IT’S NOT FASHION, IT’S A DEVELOPMENT. AND ZEITGEIST BECAUSE IT’S A SPIRITUAL AND INTELLECTUAL CLIMATE.”
So how did it all start with StyleZeitgeist? Did you want to learn from more opinions? Get a conversation going?
I was really looking for likeminded people. Of course you look for soulmates in life. I was into fashion already but it was all from music, like black and rock and roll and Belgian and Japanese, while everybody wore Versace and D&G. I was already a member of The Fashion Spot, which is another forum, which I found while bored out of my mind at work. I was googling Raf Simons and I found this place to kill time at work. Very quickly there I developed a reputation for a) knowing these avant-garde designers, and b) firing witty one-liners, because let’s face it, there’s so much in fashion that can be spited. They were very smart and knowledgeable. But you had to wade through all this talk about models and celebrities and blah blah, I wanted something more purist. I decided to try my own. Very quickly I was butting heads with moderators of the forum, and I was like screw it, I’ll make my own. Now there are thousands on it.
Why the name?
Because I wanted to reflect that fashion which comes from a cultural background can reflect culture. Style, because it’s not fashion, it’s a development. And Zeitgeist because it’s a spiritual and intellectual climate. I thought if I put them together it would make it difficult to find. So I came to fashion from music…
What part of music?
I was, and still am, really into industrial music, some post-punk, Depeche Mode of course, it was really Nine Inch Nails that was the black hole for me. The music and the clothes all fit. I thought yes, that works. It’s all a reflection of your world view. I had this friend who said you gotta go into Barneys. I remember walking in (and it was very different back then, now it’s more commercial) and that’s when I saw clothes by Ann Demeulemeester for the first time, and it blew me away. I thought, this is what I always wanted to wear, I didn’t know it existed. It was Ann, it was old Raf Simons.
Do you like new Raf Simons or only old?
I’ve been quite disappointed with Raf’s output in the past years when he sort of tracked off this youth culture direction, and it became something that I could not understand. I feel he’s sort of coming back to that now. I respect Raf incredibly, and looking back at what’s going on now… Everybody is talking about Instagram friendly clothes, Raf did that fifteen years ago, before Instagram. All the slogans, they’re very photographable. In a way I wonder if he’s coming back to that, maybe even to remind people: I was the one who did that, really. I have a lot of respect for him, but I haven’t bought anything from Raf recently. I still hunt vintage pieces.
“I SAID, WELL, IF I HAVE A CHOICE THEN I WANT TO GO INTERVIEW ANN DEMEULEMEESTER. I DID, AND THAT WAS THE SECOND ARTICLE I HAVE EVER WRITTEN.”
eBay or elsewhere?
Second-hand shops in Antwerp. Then one day I got a message on the forum from some stranger from Israel. We started talking, and he turned out to be the editor of the weekly magazine at Haaretz, which is sort of the New York Times there. It’s a very well respected paper. I jokingly blurted out: if you need someone to write for you about fashion, maybe I can do it. And he said: send me something. So I sent him one of my school essays that had to do with fashion; he wrote back an hour later and said: you got the job, what do you want to do?
For my first article, he said: why don’t you interview Karlo Steel, who was the co-owner of Atelier in New York, which was this iconic menswear boutique. I did that, he loved it and said: what do you want to do next? I said, well, if I have a choice then I want to go interview Ann Demeulemeester. I did, and that was the second article I have ever written.
Ann as the second…
And that was an amazing experience, because I went to Antwerp and I met her twice. We really hit it off, as I knew we would, because we come from the same cultural place. Then I sent that article to Rick Owens, and he said: ok yes, you can interview me as well.
Is this also how you got to feature PJ Harvey?
Yeah, Polly and Ann are very good friends. It was Ann who recommended me.
You get into the magic triangle. Ann, Patti [Smith], Polly [Jean Harvey].
Ann has helped me a lot, that’s how we also got Jamie Bochert on the cover. Jamie wrote to me and said: whatever Ann asks, I do, so let’s do it.
“THE MORE I MATURE, THE MORE I FEEL THAT OUR LIVES ARE SO COMPLEX AND THE VISUAL ASSAULT, PARTICULARLY THAT COMES WITH THE INTERNET, IS SO OVERWHELMING THAT IN MY REAL LIFE, I JUST WANT PEACE, AND THAT’S TO ME A MONOCHROME PALETTE.”
Do you work from home?
I work from home, yes. To be your own boss and not to have to answer to anyone is a luxury that I have really fought for.
Do you think that’s also why so many young designers want to start their own labels?
Partially yes, but partially I also think that as a creator, you want to own your stuff. Fashion, however, is the only industry where at some point you can be ousted and no longer own your own name. Imagine what that’s like for a creative. You look at Helmut Lang and though he never talks about it, it’s practically written on his forehead, the sort of torment he has gone through. His entire art output is really therapy.
If you wouldn’t be doing fashion now, what would you be going for? Music? Have you ever been interested in music writing?
No, I don’t know, I’m not a musician myself. I just love music. Literature, for sure, probably teaching.
As designers are the new rockbands, who will be the new designers?
I am starting to pay close attention to interior design lately, to furniture mainly. That’s a field that is ripe for exploration. It’s a bizarre, disorganised industry. The dynamics are different. We have star architects, we have star fashion designers, we have a few star product designers. People don’t wear it. Furniture doesn’t change every month.
Imagine if it would.
That would suck, because with the fashion industry the planet is already groaning. You’d think there would be more longevity in furniture, at least. But I do think it’s an interesting field, and if right minds went into it we could have more really beautiful products. It’s very rare, because now I’m redecorating my apartment — it’s not so easy. More and more I’d think ‘I’ll just have it custom-built’ as opposed to trying to find something.
Why are you redecorating?
I want a black-and-white life. It’s not monochromic enough now. I’ve done quite a bit myself, it’s very easy to sand and stain wood, easier than you think. I’m a very big proponent of Adolf Loos, who wrote this really groundbreaking essay in 1908 and said that ornament is crime. The more I mature, the more I feel that our lives are so complex and the visual assault, particularly that comes with the Internet, is so overwhelming that in my real life, I just want peace, and that’s to me a monochrome palette. Black, grey, and white are rest for my eyes. You probably wouldn’t want that everywhere, but there is really so little of it. I operate in a codified environment where everybody wears black, etcetera, but really, when you walk down the street, it’s a rare phenomenon. I’m all for contributing expansion.