Like a bizarro witches-brew of Bode, Vetements, and Hood By Air, Matt Damhave and Tara Subkoff's early noughties New York-based label Imitation of Christ was your proto firebrand outlier. Rather than typical runway shows, they held mock wakes and auctions (there was one particularly wild Helmut Lang tribute that saw half-naked models vacuum an empty furniture showroom), fucking with critics mostly for the thrill of it. As for the clothing, it was subversive and well ahead of its time — exclusive upcycled pieces from thrift stores, 10 years before upcycling was even a thing (you could say the very idea of "vintage" was still in its infancy). Then there was Chloë Sevigny, the label's art director.
Perhaps such a raucous project was always liable to burn out, and within a few years, Imitation of Christ was over. Subkoff has since brought it back in various guises — as recently as last month — whereas Damhave has forged his own path, most intriguingly working as a graphic designer with Toby Fetwell, Sk8thing, and Hishiyama (Hishi) Yutaka, otherwise known as Cav Empt.
Established in 2012 by Asher Penn, Sex Magazine quickly carved a niche as one of the internet's best online culture magazines for discovering bubbling talent and creatives. This summer, Penn has rebooted the publication for print, in which he conducted a rare interview with Damhave. See an abridged version of it below, and read it in full by ordering a copy via the button.
What were you into growing up?
I was thrown into punk rock and hardcore. Pensacola maintained, and continues to maintain, a passionate DIY community. At 14, I was going to something like four shows a week. We played in bands, booked shows, made zines, traded tapes. That was my first foray into graphic design. Cut and paste and Letraset, naturally.
My high school art room had Photoshop when it first came out and we had a thermal copier that would print silk-screens. From that point, I started silk-screening because I wanted patches for bands.
What was your style like at that point?
Growing up, the way my friends and I dressed was completely tied to music. We were schizophrenic in our taste. In high school, I dressed with nods to a DC/Ulysses mod type look with high water pants and skin-tight T-shirts. But I would also do Adidas trail-running shoes and big hoodies with an Antischism patch on it. Carhartt double knees with the inseam taken in so they were tight — a boom-bap-hip-hop-meets-crust-look. We’d look like homeless freight hoppers but we had expensive shoes on.
How did you meet Chloë Sevigny?
Before my girlfriend and I broke up, we went to go see The Fucking Champs at The Troubadour. Outside the show, a woman and her friend just kept coming up and talking to me and bumming cigarettes. My girlfriend got really mad at me because it was Chloë and her friend Tara Subkoff.
How did Imitation of Christ actually start?
From what I understand, Chloë told Tara, “You’ve gotta figure out what Matt can do. Do something together," and Tara was like, "What do you want to do?”
I said that we could make clothes. She was enthusiastic but also was like, “'How are we going to get patterns? How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that?'” I said, “We’re just going to go to the thrift store and buy clothes and make new things out of them.” So we did that. The name comes from a Thomas Aquinas book, a 15th-century Christian handbook. When Tara and I first started shopping for materials, we saw a stack of them.
How did people find out about Imitation of Christ?
After Chloë was nominated for an Oscar she wore our t-shirt to some events and there was a picture of it in WWD. People wanted to know what it was.
That’s really when it started. So we decided to just make a whole bunch of clothes and do a fashion show. People had to come out, or they had to look at a magazine, or take a picture of it, or they had to be there. We sent out communiques, manifestos, and press releases that we just ripped off — or “borrowed” heavily — from other sources. I stole whole-cloth from Up Against The Wall Motherfucker, International Werewolf Conspiracy, King Mob, SPK, SI, and the like.
What were your shows like?
We did our first show at the Vermont and Santa Monica subway station. We put up a tent on the side for the models to get dressed in and they came down this really long escalator, took a turn, and then returned topside on the ascending escalator. I don’t know if any video footage has survived, but if you want to see something like it, but not at all, check out the Vetements version from a few years back. Pretty much everything we did has been done since by someone else. Except the funeral show in New York. At that point, we had enough cache to get all the biggest models for nothing.
For the following show, we made a film and had a red carpet premiere at the Beekman Theatre. With the film, we pulled out all the celebrity stops and favors that we could. Selma Blair, Reese Witherspoon, Jason Schwartzman, with a soundtrack that had Mogwai and Black Heart Procession on it. Very much of its time. The film is blatant, let’s say, “appreciation” of Weekend, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Exterminating Angel - movies that Tara and I really loved and found appropriate to our gatecrashing at that time. We rented Hummerzines, and all the models walked the red carpet for our screening. The runway and press photos were essentially paparazzi pictures. The last show that I did with IOC was the one in which we reversed the runway. Unsuspecting editors and photographers and guests entered the venue only to walk the runway as the models leered at them and photographed them from the stands. Rupaul’s Supermodel blasting whilst Casey Spooner and Tracey Ullman barked commands like “Work It!!!” and “Show Me Sexy Koala!!!” at the guests.
How did Imitation of Christ end?
I felt I didn’t have anything else to say. After turning the tables, what was left? Two days after the show, September 11th happened and everything changed. For the next 7 years I worked primarily in nightlife, DJing full time, doing parties and promoting. It got to the point where I drank for free almost everywhere. I went out every night. Sometimes I’d style shoots or fashion shows or assist friends in that field. I did graphics, posters and album art for friends’ bands and labels, especially The Social Registry.
How did your collaboration with Cav Empt start? You’re the only American who works with them, right?
Toby and I knew about each other before we knew each other. We had a lot of mutual friends. If I remember our first meeting correctly we drank a lot and just put each other through the wringer - books, music, cinema, style. From 2006 through 2010 I was going to Tokyo frequently so I would see Toby and spend time with him. Once I got on Instagram, people got in touch with me to do stuff and I didn’t really want to do any of it. But one day Toby wrote me: “I don’t know why I didn’t think about this earlier, but as you might know, we’re doing this thing called CE. Why don’t you do some stuff for us?” It’s been maybe five years now.
So what’s the process like working with Cav Empt?
Toby will say, “We have another season coming up. We’re thinking about this.” Then we might bounce some references back and forth.
Like visual references?
Always literary or conceptual. I can’t think of single instance in which I have been sent an image. Between us it is always “I read this, check it out” or “I was thinking about this, check it out.” Then comes the challenge of solving the problem that we invented. Can I do something with this idea? Can I illustrate this concept? I try and then I send it over. It is a dialogue in which CE HQ has the last word. I don’t have any say in how it’s applied, nor would I want to have any input on those decisions. It is more fun to be surprised. Every time that I see the finished product how things have been combined - I’m like “Oh my gosh, that is so mad. That’s mental!”
It seems like a return to the manifestos - CE has always had a puzzling message.
I suspect that some people might just think that it’s nonsense, like Engrish, a jumble of words, but I know whenever they do something where there is text, or when one of my images contains text, there’s nothing arbitrary about it. Everything is really thought out and deliberate. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a fun game to play.