Imitation of Christ, the renegade label of handmade clothes reconstructed from Salvation Army castoffs by Tara Subkoff and Matt Damhave, doesn't stage traditional runway shows. At the presentation of its fall 2001 collection in January, editors and fashionistas elbowed their way into Manhattan's Beekman Theater to watch a video feed of models hopping out of a superstretch white SUV limousine outside. First out was actor Chloe Sevigny, followed by models Carmen Kass, Missy Rayder, May Andersen, and Devon Aoki. From the red carpet, past a phalanx of photographers, and into the theater, the models vamped in the feminine, ruffled, prom-style dresses, then took their seats in the front row.

Next IOC screened a short film, written and directed by Damhave, Subkoff, and her boyfriend Jonathon Craven (son of director Wes). Starring Selma Blair, Lisa Marie, Reese Witherspoon, and Jason Schwartzman, the movie follows stylish nightbirds at a wild Hollywood soiree, where the guests include Patricia Arquette, Natasha Lyonne, and Paul Sorvino. "On the one hand it was about showing off the clothes," Craven explains. "On the other, it was making fun of all that by trying to insert a human perspective and a symbolic political perspective. Yet at the same time we were selling sex. It had all these different aspects."

Just as smart as IOC's witty take on the red carpet glitz of the fashion shows and Hollywood was its request that invitees donate $150 to the anti-sweatshop charities Free the Children and Sweatshop Watch. By putting industry heavies on the spot, IOC raised over $25,000 for their favorite cause.

"A lot of people have complained," Damhave reported after the show. "People just want flash gear, and they don't care at what cost. We would never manufacture this line. Its whole basis is against mass production of crap that people are just going to throw out anyway." IOC had met with acclaim in much of the fashion press for its show last year, staged in a funeral parlor in the East Village. "Was this the death of fashion? Or simply the rebirth of a whole new way of looking at what we wear in the 21st century?" asked Fashion Wire Daily.

Tara Subkoff walks into the Dresden Room, an archetypal lounge in Los Feliz made famous by the movie Swingers. Blond strands darting out from beneath her trademark beret, Subkoff resembles Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. The spritely beauty slides into the booth tentatively, eyeing the tape recorder on the table -- as if she might spin around and disappear at any minute.

Subkoff requests a pot of tea and takes a deep breath. After eight years of making movies, she's worried that her work on IOC is upstaging her first career. "People really have thought that I've quit acting," she sighs, narrowing her sea blue eyes. "People want to put you in a slot, like: 'OK, you're a designer now, or an actress or an artist or a lawyer. You have to be one thing.'" Her most recent role was in the surreal psychological thriller The Cell.

But since last May, Subkoff has been engulfed in making clothes. The rebelliously cheeky collection is more art than commerce. Subkoff, 28, and Damhave, 22, use needle, thread, felt-tipped pens, and paint to manipulate, transform, and reshape "dead clothes" into something new. "We look at clothes like they have their own personality," Subkoff remarks. Imitation of Christ's mostly pricey pieces (from $150 for a T-shirt to $5,000 for an evening gown) often feature silk screens by Subkoff's younger brother Daniel. Some are emblazoned with observations like "Sincerity Is the New Vulgarity" or "We Have Come to the Conclusion of Boredom." An old Yves Saint Laurent men's shirt from their first collection declared, "Bring Me the Head of Tom Ford," while a Victorian-style blouse ironically screamed, "We Need Enemies."

Such brazen proclamations have captured the imagination of the style press. "Subkoff and Damhave understand that true originality is found in unexpected places," opined "By recycling, customizing and updating discarded clothing, the pair makes what is old new again -- and the results are fresher than the self-conscious retro looks established designers often propose after cannibalizing fashion archives in search of inspiration." Others seemed puzzled by the spectacle. "[One questions] the sincerity of designers like Ms. Subkoff and Mr. Damhave," said The New York Times after IOC's first show. "[T]heir things were gorgeous and enchanting, and they are even right to be a little appalled at... the fashion business[.] But where will their recycled clothes take them in the end?"

"What we've tried to do is so much more than what we've been recognized for," Subkoff complains. "Mostly no one has gotten it yet. The media has been so ready to take us down a notch, because they don't understand what we are. It's the tactic: If you don't understand something, critique it instead of asking questions and digging deeper. Now that everyone has built us up on a pedestal, it's time to knock us off. If they build you up fast, they take you down fast."

Another aspect of the media's fascination with IOC has been the presence of Chloe Sevigny as a kind of unofficial spokeswoman for the fashion house. Sevigny (whom Subkoff befriended while making Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco) modeled in IOC's debut show last spring, held on a subway station escalator in downtown Los Angeles. "We've gotten a lot of flack for certain people with notoriety wearing our clothing," Subkoff admits. "It's funny, because everyone gets attention for famous people wearing their clothing. It's how the fashion business is run at this point." Some are miffed by IOC's brisk ascent. "People want to call us fashion designers," she says. "That's not what we are. And then there's fashion designers not liking us because we're being called fashion designers."

Despite the Catch-22, IOC has spawned numerous copycats. One anonymous foursome that also redesigns old clothing has dubbed itself Imitation of Imitation of Christ. Is this what they call the sincerest form of flattery? "The whole imitation thing -- everyone's trying to make a buck off what someone else made a buck off," Subkoff says. "It'd be so much better if everyone would do their own thing." To set the record straight, IOC is named after a 15th-century book by Catholic ecclesiastic writer Thomas Kempis. "It's a beautiful book," Subkoff enthuses. "The message is to really try and do something. If you really want to analyze Christ, he's completely a rebel -- someone who did not live by society's standards, doing something completely not of the time. I'm not going to compare ourselves to Christ. We're not resurrecting clothes. People are freaking out about the name, but it keeps everyone guessing. I don't ever want to define the name. It stands on its own."

Reared in the "preppy world" of the east coast, Subkoff has always managed to do her own thing. After less than a year of art classes at Otis Parsons in Los Angeles, she dropped out. While working for a director, Subkoff, then 20, landed her first part, playing boy and girl insane mute twins. She won a small role in Freeway and then starred in the teen girl-girl romance All Over Me. Parts in As Good as It Gets and The Last Days of Disco followed. The Cell proved the most taxing shoot, calling for her to film most of her scenes underwater. "It was dangerous work," she recalls. "I had to hold my breath a lot. It was intense and grueling, but I loved doing it."

In November Subkoff wrapped At the End of the Day, an independent film based loosely on the Prince and the Pauper story, in which she portrays a struggling singer (the film has not yet been scheduled for release). "Everything is getting really bad," she says of the lackluster state of filmmaking. "I read scripts that are not new ideas. No one is willing to take risks. This year has been disappointing in films. That's kind of why I branched out and decided to do my own thing. I still want to act, but I've been completely consumed with something else."

That something started when Subkoff and Damhave first met, outside a concert of the band the Champs in West Hollywood, and immediately bonded. "I was frustrated with what people were making in fashion," she says. "We were complaining so much about what everyone else was doing, we decided we had to do something ourselves."

Although Imitation of Christ's artistic medium is clothing, Subkoff envisions the fledgling company as an umbrella for many different creative endeavors. "I'm a control freak," she admits with a giggle. "I love making clothes and maybe we'll still be doing it in five years, but probably in a different situation. I don't think, despite our high prices at Barneys, that it's been a very lucrative experience for myself or Matthew. Matthew is still homeless and I'm about to be seriously evicted at the moment. We have to figure out a different way to do this, and I also have to get another acting job soon."

As eyes focus on Subkoff, the style daredevil is taking things as they come. "I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up," she confesses. "I always flew by the seat of my pants. I never had a plan, and I still don't. I never thought I was going to live this long. I had a palm reader when I was very young say I wasn't going to live past 21. Whenever I've tried to make plans, they've never worked out anyway." Actress? Artist? Designer? The chameleonlike Subkoff likes to keep people guessing. "It's good to stick to your guns," she exclaims. "But you've got to change as a person or you're not still moving -- you're not alive."

Hair by Rebecca Friedman/Good Form * Makeup by Roz Music * Tara Subkoff wears clothes by Imitation of Christ.

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