“Uh huh, this my shit/ All the girls stomp your feet like this.” Gwen Stefani’s voice repeats the iconic early aughts lyric in a hardcore “Hollaback Girl” remix. Chicago-based HIM HUN is warming up the audience at Anna Bolina’s off-calendar presentation, rattling the windows with her DJ set in a fishnet dress that emphasizes her thong underneath. For this particular crowd, it’s a familiar sight and volume — the type of room you’d find in any 3 AM warehouse, only with the lights on and a little more space to breathe.
Previously dubbed the “Downtown Donatella,” Bolina lived up to her growing reputation in New York this season, with a Spring 2023 collection that delivered on sex appeal and glamour through a distinct nightlife lens — where drink tickets, list spots and flyer placements are the ultimate social currency.
Related | Anna Bolina Is the Downtown Donatella
Designed in metallics, blacks and deep reds, Bolina’s evening wear looked luxe, fit for an underground Oscars carpet. She played with sheer fabrics and revealing cutouts, celebrating the feminine form as much as the dramatic silhouettes of her gowns. Some were so long and “impractical,” as Bolina describes, that models held onto the hems with drawstrings.
Plastic leg warmers and Pleasers called back to the designer's stripper days, with friends like Jovel and Star Ah-Mer-Ah-Su strutting around the catwalk. From the casting to cuts, Bolina's brand is all about creating and committing to your own fantasy, whatever that may be. And with that comes a certain aggression and understanding of self that was mutually shared in that space, from guest to model to designer — a real community.
After the show, Anna Bolina called up Star Ah-Mer-Ah-Su to reflect on their years-long friendship and project into the future, exclusively for PAPER.
Anna Bolina: Last night was really fun.
Star Ah-Mer-Ah-Su: You really are an icon and I'm blessed to know you.
Anna: Oh, thank you, I'm really blessed to know you, too.
Star: I feel like it was the idea of fantasy, for me. I love that and I know you do as well, but it was really nice because when I was younger I’d watch a lot of America's Next Top Model and I was like, "I want to be a model," and in my living room stomping. I never thought I would be able to live that fantasy and I got to do it wearing my friend's iconic design.
Anna: I'm happy to hear that. I love seeing everyone feel good in the looks and just go out there. I was watching the footage back and your walk was so iconic.
Star: That's the thing: There's something about your work that's about power, right? What is it about the play with power and femininity that appeals to you?
Anna: Yeah, it is a lot about power. I feel like a lot of the feminine representation in fashion right now is very delicate. Or there's a lot of fashion brands that are unisex and I don't want to be unisex. I really like to focus on women, and I don't want the models to look delicate and breakable. I want it to be aggressive, but also still fragile.
Star: Yeah, it's like a play with femininity. That balance between sex appeal and the shape of femme bodies and then also being like, "We're making a statement." Compared to some of the other stuff, I think a lot of the looks this season were so bold.
Anna: Yeah, they were really long and dramatic.
Star: There were a couple sporty looks. That was kind of new for you to do more sporty stuff.
Anna: The original concept of the show was going off evening wear, so I started getting all these very long, big dresses and pulling them apart and working with the insides and stuff. I wanted to play with how that could still feel fresh and new because I feel like in evening wear, it hasn't really changed. I mean, now obviously people are very experimental, but a lot of the time for me experimental fashion is like, "Oh, that dress is made out of some really weird material" You don't really want to wear it, you know? I mean, a lot of these looks were also impractical and I feel like that was the beautiful thing about them.
Star: You're no stranger to deconstructing things and ideas. I mean, we met in 2015. What you started doing back then to what you're doing now, there's been this gradual evolution. What inspired you then in 2016 at Gallery Y2K and what inspires you now? And what has changed over that time?
Anna: The first time I met you was at my 22nd birthday party. Back then, because I went to art school, I was trapped into the "I'm going to be an artist" phase where I was not really sure what I wanted to do. Then I started doing video art and I really was inspired by music videos. I started making clothes because I wanted everything in my videos to be made by me and fashion was a cool element to bring in. I was also working with a lot of fashion footage, but it wasn't my own and so I started making these collage videos. I'm always collaging in different ways. I feel like I was collaging with videos and now I'm collaging with clothes in a way.
Star: That mixed media type of art practice. I don't know the technical terms because I didn't go to art school.
Anna: Exactly. That's why I really liked having the DJ front and center. I'm inspired by music and being at a live show, or music videos and performers, and that's why you are so inspiring and amazing to me. Seeing you perform live brings tears to my eyes. Nothing can really shake me more, so I want to put on a show like that.
Star: There's a big element of performance, and when I think performance with clothing, that's almost sculptural. You're getting your eyes and your ears. And then there's a bunch of people and there's lights. There's a lot happening, so it was a nice show. With you, everything's planned out, right?
Anna: Mostly. There were a lot of things that at the end of the day just happened, but I'm also starting to accept that in terms of when you're doing that big of a production, it's just going to be hard. I planned on things that didn't happen or things happened that I didn't plan on, but just letting it live and breathe and happen is something that is starting to become easier.
Star: Yeah, the idea about control.
Anna: That's definitely been hard for me. I feel like it really worked out, but I like how in the photos, people are in different spots on the runway, or maybe one of them, the person is not looking in the camera. If you try and control that too hard, why not just do a shoot? That would be so much easier, but a runway show, at least how I've experienced, is going to kind of be a mess, but that's what's fun about it.
Star: Yeah, and in your case, it's a sexy, hot mess, but I didn't feel like it was messy in a bad way. It's messy in that there's some room for improvisation.
Anna: Totally. I mean, the show was supposed to be not necessarily messy, but the concept with the makeup and the music was on the verge of having a mental breakdown. [Laughs]
Star: Let's talk about the makeup. I remember four different stages. Can you talk about what those four were in your mind?
Anna: The first stage was kind of bare and natural tones, and then it got more and more heavier and also more messy — a little less put together, kind of like the end of the night like you've been out dancing at a hot sweaty club. I wanted it to have this buildup and feeling of when you're on the verge of snapping — kind of aggressive vibes, throwing it in your face.
Star: When I saw myself with that makeup, it added to me being that character or embodying the fantasies. That's what it boils down to. Are good delusions real and if they are real, how am I going to carry that with me?
Anna: That's exactly what we were going for and [Nat Carlson] did such a good job executing that. It was a really hard task, especially when all the looks are very extreme, and you have to work with the model and make sure they feel good.
Star: There were a lot of good hair moments [from Sonny Molina]. I love the idea of the extensions. Is that something you thought about? What attracts you to that look?
Anna: I was trying on the looks one day and my hair wasn't cute, and I honestly just have a bunch of extensions around my room, so I put my hair up in a wig cap and clipped my extensions. It looked really cute. I feel like that was just another deconstruction moment. It's like you're deconstructing a wig, pulling everything apart and seeing the insides. I wanted it to be very raw, like you're looking at everything right there.
Star: Do you personally feel those moments in your life? Obviously, you're an artist, and all artists, we have this connection to the human experience in a way and interpret that through different mediums, so you experience those feelings. How does it come out of you? How do you express your emotions?
Anna: One thing I do is turn music on really loud in my headphones and I'm singing in my room, just belting out super off tune. Because I miss that about driving in California — just listening to music really loud and dancing is also something that I really love to do. When I'm at a club and I'm just sweaty and dancing, that's a super good release. Other than that, I guess creating is a big thing and talking to my friends. I'm always spilling all of my feelings 24/7. I'm just an oversharer. Like, I can't not.
Star: Well, let's talk about astrology. What's your sign?
Anna: I am a Gemini with a Sagittarius rising and a Leo moon, and my whole chart is just fire and air. So I think of myself as a ball of fire that doesn't really have direction because of the air, and so it's kind of just going crazy.
Star: You are. The wave just keeps moving it and making it bigger and bigger.
Anna: But it's a little bit not shaped because the wind is going everywhere. What about you? What are your top three?
Star: My big three are Aries, Pisces moon and a Gemini rising, so I've got the Gemini in there too.
Anna: You are such an Aries.
Star: I feel like it makes me an angry crybaby instead of talking about it. You know, I can explain my ideas. I noticed that about you. You're very good at executing an idea or being able to express the idea that you have, whether it be in the shape of the clothes or the form of the actual thing or even with just talking, you can express your ideas pretty clearly to people.
Anna: Yeah, the same for you, too. I feel like I think of you as such a fire sign, but then you also are very good at articulating yourself. You're so good at expressing what's on your mind and you're also just super business-minded. You have a goal and you make it happen.
Star: True, but you're the same. So how long have you lived in New York now? It's been a while.
Anna: I think I moved here in 2018. I was 24 when I moved here, so five years ago almost.
Star: You started [the brand] Anna Bolina in 2020, right? In what part of your New York journey did that happen and what was the catalyst?
Anna: When I moved here, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a mess, I moved here with no warning. I was fresh out of a couple shitty breakups, as you know. Well, I'll just say interesting breakups. But anyway, I moved here and I didn't know what to do. I remember that time we were hanging out and I was like, "I think I'm gonna become a stripper," and we were thinking of my stripper name.
Star: Oh, yes. [Laughs]
Anna: I was broke and didn't know what to do, so I started stripping and did that for a few years. I was kind of working on creative stuff, but I was also just partying a lot and I was on this nighttime schedule and it wasn't really conducive to... I don't know. I had my bills paid and it also took up a lot of time and energy, but I feel like the good thing about doing that for a few years is that I spent a lot of time hanging out with people and forming a really solid community. That really helps doing this. I couldn't do this without having a community and people, so that was perfect.
Star: Also, I feel like with stripper nightlife community people, there's a different understanding too. Okay, now I'm gonna get, you know, whatever. The constraints of capitalism on all of our bodies, right? How we have to physically use our bodies to gain fiscal capital in the world and how that impacts the art that we make or the work that we do after forever. I remember I was a stripper in San Francisco in 2013 or ’14 at this place called Divas.
Anna: Oh, yeah, I used to live right by there.
Star: I think we went once as a group to get drinks.
Anna: I never went there, but I knew of it because I used to live in the Tenderloin right there.
Star: Yeah, I used to live in the TL. It was right around the corner from Edinburgh.
Anna: Edinburgh, I love that place. Good memories there.
Star: But yeah, I think there is a big community. And also something that I loved about your show is you have the trans girls and you have cis girls and you're not beating people in the head with the idea of all of us being these beautiful women together. I think that also comes from that background in the nightlife world, right?
Anna: Totally. Being in the nightlife world or stripping, you meet people and realize different types of beauty. Especially stripping, you can see a girl that you might think of in a certain way making the most cash that night. Or you realize that it doesn't matter if you look like this. You can work this angle of yourself and there's going to be money for every niche of person. You get used to having this community of women, and they're all pretty strong personalities and they're really unique in their own ways. So that was really inspiring for me. I was so fascinated by all the girls there all the time. It's a crazy world because it's something that you don't really see unless you go and hang out there.
But back to how I started making clothes and what you said about money. When the pandemic hit and the clubs closed, I was just like, "Well, I need to make money,” so I started doing the screen printing and making it a business because I couldn't really strip anymore, you know? So it just pushed me there.
Star: What was the first design? The screen printed [dresses]?
Anna: Yeah, that was the first product. The two dresses.
Star: What did they say? The very first ones?
Anna: They say, "Do whatever you want. No one gives a fuck." And then the back says, "Who are we trying to impress?"
Star: Where does that come from?
Anna: That came from an angsty moment of me feeling like everything was really boring. Also, it happened in the pandemic, so that might have been part of it, but I felt like nothing was really happening that was exciting. Now, the world is kind of picking up again, but just in fashion, it was a message to be yourself, work what you got, and you can wear whatever you want.
Star: I love that as a message because it's a really good starting place. You're making a fashion brand and your first statement is that you are going to view everyone as the roles that these people tried to impose upon all of us in society. You're circumventing that and making it look sexy and hot and great, and making people feel good about themselves. So you're just a powerful woman. Should we talk about our goals? What is your five-year goal?
Anna: I definitely want to, in five years, be in a place where I have figured out the business sides of things and I'm not doing everything myself. I would love to hire all my friends and make everyone money and be more established. Because right now it feels like I'm a chicken with its head cut off running around crazy and doing a lot of things to myself that I just want to hire someone to do. I want to make my friends money and get everything set up.
Star: That's an honorable goal. Expansion, and not only that, but getting your friends involved and helping you.
Anna: It also shows all their talents, too. I mean, not like my friends need me to showcase their talents, but making it more formal jobs and having the resources to do that.
Star: I feel like there's a saying. It's like, "If I eat, all my bitches eat too."
Anna: I'm also the type of person where I need to work with people that I like. And, also just getting a studio, that's something I need to do. What are your goals?
Star: Me? I think of my brain as a computer. I have a goal and then I start working towards it.
Anna: Yeah, you make it happen.
Star: So if I want to learn, I take a class. I started taking acting classes again last year. I first went to school for musical theater before I dropped out, so that was my background. Honestly, I picked music because I thought conventional theater was going to be super cisnormative, which it is. While I was in New York, I went and saw Chicago, which is the first time a Black trans woman and an out trans woman has had a lead role in a musical on Broadway ever since its inception, and it's like 2022, so it was obviously a backwards world. So I back then realized that musical theater wasn't going to be the way. If I wanted to make money and be successful, I was not going to be doing that as my starting point. I pivoted to music the same year I met you, like 2015. Now that I've done it for so long, it's like I've made enough of an impact in that way. My other passions are coming back like acting, so I downloaded the actress program for my brain and I'm going to install that into my reality and I'm going to live that fantasy. I'm going to be a movie star.
Anna: I could definitely see that for you. You are such a performer.
Star: I'm ready for it. You know, I believe in both of us.
Photography: Leander Capuozzo