The Bushwick warehouse is dark and warm, illuminated only by spotlights trained on what is less a runway than an arena: a rectangle of sand and dirt perhaps forty feet long surrounded by a hundred people who stand shoulder-to-shoulder, watching, waiting for what avant-garde designer Elena Velez has in store for them.
When at last the models enter, they walk with the slow, lurching determination of zombies. Their hair is matted with white paint that also stains their faces like the celebrants of some Paleolithic ritual. As they walk their circuit they are expressionless, with thousand-yard stares of trauma survivors—or rite-drunk bacchantes. They’re dressed in outfits that, like the strange, pulsing music, seem at once post-apocalyptic and a reassertion of older styles. The designs, made from materials Velez describes as “debris,” suggest a blasted earth whose inhabitants still feel compelled to adorn themselves in what beauty they can wrest from the decay.
At the show’s end, the models return in single file to circumnavigate the arena so the audience can have one last look at the designs. Mid-circuit, however, the music abruptly stops. Shrieking, the models fall upon one another in a frenzy of hair-pulling, shoving, wrestling, even animalistic kissing. The sand is revealed to have been a thin veneer covering a mud pit. The models grapple in the filth, which slathers onto their garments, perhaps ruining them. Slowly, they filter off the stage and into the darkness.
The audience is given a few moments to ponder what it all means before the doors of the warehouse open to a curious sight. In the courtyard where we had queued before the show, there now stands a sumptuously arrayed banquet table crowned with flickering candelabra. Clusters of pendulous grapes overhang the edges. Velez’s manifesto for her show states that the muddy bacchanalia signified the primal chaos created by the feminine archetype. Here we are invited to its counterpoint: care and nurture. Elena Velez is, after all, a mother of two children.
Held at the height of New York Fashion Week, the mud-spattered performance was calculated to provoke consternation among the great and the good of the fashion industry. It succeeded. A fashion reporter for The Cut was so startled she “felt like crying.” Vanessa Friedman of EuroJournal writes, “At the end the show predictably deteriorated into a wrestling match, dragging everyone down into the swamp. It wasn’t necessary. Nor was the silly proclamation.”
Count me among those who did not find the provocation silly or predictable. In October 2022 Balenciaga’s creative director Demna set his show in an enormous mud pit. He placed a didactic note on every seat which read, “This show is a metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth.” That’s an empty cliché, one that Velez exposed as typical of the fashion industry and its vapid self-image.
Velez sees herself as a working-class outsider to the fashion industry. She has not hidden her contempt for its desiccated elitism and she has ridiculed the self-importance of its grandees. But in this show, “YR004; The Longhouse,” she doesn’t merely flip the bird to the industry. She offers substantive criticism of Western decadence and fashion’s complicity. And she does so by defending the full humanity of women, which means accounting for the powerful dark side of the weaker sex.
Velez spells this out in a manifesto offered as show notes:
The universe I strive to create through this brand has always been one which reinforces a creative space to have complex, dualistic, and paradoxical conversations around contemporary womanhood. Fashion is a medium that has always claimed to be a reflection of the changing values and aesthetics of women. In our attempts to reconcile with the inevitability of commercialization, we have lost touch with our gift and responsibility to paint a truthful and beautiful picture of our times. It feels to me like the sanitization and unilateralization of womanhood in popular culture today leaves no room for the nuance and multiplicity we deserve as architects of labyrinthine interior lives. Where are our anti-heroines? Our villainesses who speak to the darkest mysteries and desires of the feminine soul? What is contemporary female evil and why do we condescend to women by claiming its lack of existence? What if some of the most insidious perversities of contemporary society were built with the tools of feminine wickedness…?
Inspired by the literature emerging from Downtown NYC’s burgeoning Avant Garde, YR004 is a creative interpretation of the reorganization of contemporary society around feminine expressions of control and behavioral modeling. In a climate of post-progressivism where resistance to a monolithic cultural paradigm are intensifying, YR004; The Longhouse is a ritualistic catharsis to the coddling, histrionic, and moralistic ills of oversocialization. The collection is assembled from linen, cotton, denim, silicone latex, animal hairs, pelts, mud, and other such material debris. Situated in the allegorical chthonic swamp, The Longhouse is both a celebration and exorcism of contemporary feminine influence.
Velez drew the image of the “chthonic swamp” from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. In that book, Paglia presents the history of Western art and civilization as an ongoing contest between masculine order (Apollo) and feminine chaos (Dionysus). According to Paglia, “the Dionysian is liquid nature, a miasmic swamp whose prototype is the still pond of the womb.” The swamp generates life, but it is dangerous, threatening to collapse the male-created order into an undifferentiated state. Left to its own devices, the Dionysian will draw life back into its primal chaos the way a starving rabbit will absorb her fetus. “The Longhouse” is a term on the dissident right that gives metaphorical expression to the Paglian idea that feminine chaos destroys individuality and domesticates the order-created ambitions of the masculine. As Paglia sees it: “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Velez was captivated by the metaphor when she read “What Is The Longhouse?” on the First Things website, and she credits the article’s author, L0m3z, as an inspiration for the show. She went so far as to plant a copy of Passage Prize Volume II: Rewilding, which L0m3z edited, in the runway sand. (Full disclosure: my story “Lovecraft” is featured in the anthology.)
The Longhouse metaphor is a paradox. After all, the image acknowledges femininity’s social power—it oversees the Longhouse—even while excoriating its excesses. Paglia is alive to this irony as a social manifestation of the often comical battle of the sexes. “Paradoxically, assent to savage chthonian realities leads not to gloom but to humor,” she writes. “Comedy is born of the clash between Apollo and Dionysus. Nature is always pulling the rug out from under our pompous ideals.”
What sets Velez apart is that she’s in on the joke but hasn’t been poisoned by our postmodern temptation to hide behind the irony. A joke can be a very serious thing—and subtle. By spotlighting “feminine wickedness,” Velez is also attacking the essentially masculine evil of commercialization, the order-creating transmutation of art into profitable fashion houses. The creative act is mysterious, hidden, like life gestating in the womb. According to Paglia, the masculine principle longs to exploit all that is hidden, to use and exploit femininity. Left to its own devices, masculinity turns everything into a product, ready for us to take and own.
When the primeval swamp acquires too much power, we find ourselves swallowed by the collective homogeneity of the Longhouse. But if the feminine becomes too weak, the masculine logic of the market escapes its proper limits and eventually produces its own homogeneity, a banality of “creative” sameness that, like the banishment of God-given sexual difference from public life, deserves to be mocked.
Of course, it is possible that Velez is wallowing in the symbolic excess, or that the shock value will drown out nuanced interpretations. But I believe something deeper, even hopeful, is intended for those willing to look. The inclusion of Passage Prize Volume II: Rewilding as a set-piece on the runway is more than just an Easter egg for the Twitter-savvy denizens of New York’s Dime Square scene. It suggests that there is no exit from the Longhouse—or the suffocating fashion “industry”—that doesn’t involve partnership between the sexes. Men cannot “rewild,” an imperative in our neutered times, without first delighting in the very different but equally powerful wildness of women.
Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image courtesy of Justin Lee. Image cropped.