"Here's the thing: I'm actually really keen on the spaces in-between -- where you become an enlightened human being. Oh my God, I'm rhyming. How's that happening? What's going on here?"
What's going on is that Erin Wasson is having what for her is a typical epiphany -- this one rhyming, no less. It's one of many she will have this cool Friday evening in L.A. Typical, because here in the garden of Venice's Jin Patisserie, sipping strong black tea and nibbling macaroons just a wooden fence away from the strollers and street people on Abbot Kinney, she's finding one of those "spaces in-between" to talk about her own ongoing enlightenment. Or at least how the hell she's ascended from outspoken runway icon opening Gucci shows and gracing Elle covers, to Alexander Wang stylist/muse/collaborator, to designing her own Erin Wasson x RVCA clothing and LowLuv jewelry lines.
"It just comes from me having an incredibly overactive brain," she laughs, slumping back in her chair in the kind of dressed-down-but-dressed-well ensemble she's made as famous as her offhanded remarks: sweats and ballet flats, a sleeveless T, leopard print coat, her surfer-sexy-frizz hair pulled pragmatically, if dramatically, into a top-knot off her mile-high cheekbones.
"The funnest part of all this -- my empire of dirt, I call it -- is that there's no strategy to any of it," Wasson says in her matter-of-fact rasp, a by-product of her preferred mode of exercise: "I smoke cigarettes and talk shit."
Erin wears a jacket by Lost Art and her own jewelry.
These days it seems she's known as much for what she says as what she
does. While other models, vaguely desperate to extend their shelf life,
would be building their brand, Erin is more like the skaters and surfers
that ride her backyard ramp and paddle out with her in Maui. She says
what's on her mind -- which is a lot. Some people need their own show;
Erin needs her own channel. Hell, she needs her own satellite. Coming
from Chelsea Handler, some quip about the practicality of homeless
fashion would get a horrified chuckle. Coming from a supermodel -- a few
years back, Wasson famously mused, "When I go down to Venice Beach and
I see the homeless, I'm like, 'Oh my God, they're pulling out, like,
crazy looks" -- it bites you in the ass. Whatever. There are old records
to be bought, corners of the earth to venture to, and, yes, clothing and
jewelry to be designed, like the nuggety rings she's wearing right now.
She puts her feet up. "I have literally just been in this place of zero fear. I just believe, as totally hippy bullshit as that sounds, anything's possible if you're willing to grab it and make it your own. You look at Stevie Nicks. Did she have the most amazing voice in the world? Fuck no -- but she got on stage and she owned every molecule inside of herself and completely captured every molecule around everybody else in the entire room. She was this poster child for, 'I don't give a fuck, it's about my soul and my spirit and my music, and you either dig it or you don't.' And that's kind of my take on all this -- minus the vulgar words."
Owning it comes easy to her, a by-product of being raised in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, with what she refers to as a "no bullshit, do-it-your-way sort of mentality." Growing up, she says, "I always felt like anything was possible. Did I come from a family of artists? No, I had a really normal upbringing." Mom was a flight attendant, Dad a pharma sales rep. Wasson was taller and thinner than everybody else, which, when you're in junior high in Texas, does not mean you model; it means you play basketball. "There was a point in my life I actually thought I was going to be in the WNBA -- that's how hardcore I was. I ate, slept and bled basketball. I was such the perpetual tomboy," she sighs. Her older sister bonded with her mother; Erin was closer to her father, from whom she got her eye (or rather ear) for detail.
"I got my obsession with music from my father," Erin says. "I have
these vivid memories of him telling my mother and sister to run to the
grocery store for milk to get them out of the house so he could crank up
the music, and the windows would be vibrating," she laughs. "He actually
wrote Kenny G a letter saying the audio quality on one of his tracks was
messed up, and Kenny G sent a hand-written letter back saying the song
was actually about his mother and that he had spit in the mike to make
it sound like tears. My dad still has that letter framed in his house.
But those subtleties of music -- we would sit and listen to the music,
Her dad sent her picture in to a modeling competition when she was 15. Erin won a shopping spree. "I could finally get the Doc Martens I always wanted that my parents couldn't afford -- black and white wing-tips." The money from modeling was so good, she finished high school a year early and moved to Dallas's boho-arty Exposition Park in the late '90s. When she wasn't modeling, she spent most of her time at artist David Quadrini's Angstrom Gallery. "He really was a mentor to me," she says of the outspoken art provocateur. Erick Swenson -- Dallas's Damien Hirst -- lived there, too. "I got him to give me a monkey head one night because he was drunk," she laughs. "Being in that neighborhood, everything that mattered in all of our world fit in that one square block."
She eventually moved to New York, where a decade later, drawn to that same type of creative extended family, she helped get the downtown multi-purpose nightlife shangri-loud that is Santos Party House off the ground. "It was just a way to get involved with people I have a lot of respect for. The whole idea was there wasn't a place in New York to go to just fucking dance; [co-owner] Spencer [Sweeney] brought back how clubs like Danceteria used to be," she says. "I'm just down if people have a vision. We're all looking for our tribe members."
The tribe, the family, is so important to her, she has a permanent reminder of just how hard -- and what a miracle it is -- to really find and keep one at all. "This tattoo," she says, pointing out the three tiny circles that dot her left ear lobe, "this is something my dad said to me: You start out, you got a big 'A' circle of everybody you meet. But as you get older you edit it down to the 'B' circle. When you die, if you have five people you really love and adore in that 'C' circle, you're ahead of the game."
As Wasson's life demands more quantity -- projects, titles, responsibilities, people -- quality has become even more of a priority. She spent today visiting the factory, finishing up her new LowLuv costume jewelry line for her upcoming RVCA show during New York Fashion Week. The jewelry's great, she says, "But what's really fantastic is that I have everything made here in L.A. I think it's just a matter of finding the right people -- they come to the table with just as many ideas as I do, so it's a real collaborative effort," she says.
In a few hours she'll be reuniting with designer Alexander Wang
("He's the love of my life," she quips.) for a dinner that Opening
Ceremony is hosting for his new sunglasses line for Linda Farrow. In
2004, Wang recalls, he was a star-struck designer dropping off sweaters
at Nolita's Ksubi. "Of course I knew who Erin was, but I was too
intimidated to say 'Hi.'" Instead, he left her a sweater. Two years
later, and they discover they're living in the same East Village
building where they became fast friends staying up late in each other's
"My first show was coming up and I wasn't thinking about having a stylist," says Wang. "Erin and I were just hanging and she was trying on clothes and she said she wanted to style the show," he says. For Erin, Wang's Spring '08 presentation wasn't just an accomplishment, it was an epiphany.
"Doing Alex's show was such a moment for me," she remembers. "That
was the first time I wasn't getting my hair and makeup done. I was
backstage with the seam ripper putting holes in a girls' tights and
making sure the cuff was perfect on a pair of pants. When those girls
walked out on that runway and it wasn't me, it was like this revelation
that I so enjoyed doing that."
This revelation turned into inspiration for Wang's Fall '08 show, for which it was Erin's look -- the walk of shame hair, the melodic use of accessories, the "fuck-you" make-up -- that turned the term "model off-duty" from a joke term that Wang coined as a student at Parsons into a statement of defiant, off-beat essence of femininity. "It really put this awesome fire under my ass when Alex asked me to actually make pieces for this show and that sort of catapulted this venture into the jewelry world," she recalls. "The New York Times calls me and says, 'Hey Erin, so what's the name of this jewelry company?' and I was like 'Wow.' I hadn't even wrapped my head around it!"
She had, however, already wrapped her heart around it. "I'm a big believer that jewelry has magical powers," she begins, pointing to the large metal nuggets on every one of her fingers -- three of which are LowLuv. "I feel naked if I don't have this shit on my hands, which is ridiculous because I've got enough metal to set off every metal detector at LAX. But there's a sense of empowerment you get when they all have their own little stories."
The only thing left was to design her own clothes, and that happened as the result of another epic coincidence. RVCA founder and creative director Pat Tenore's son, see, had just come off a French Vogue photo shoot. "He kept talking about this really cool girl in the shoot who surfed and skated and had a half-pipe in her backyard," Tenore recalls. "I later realized he was referring to Erin." Tenore invited her to the RVCA compound in Costa Mesa and the idea for a collaboration, Erin Wasson x RVCA, was hatched.
The result has been two lines of attitude-and-estrogen infused classics and T-shirts as comfortably intense, inspired and foul-mouthed as Ms. Wasson herself. "One of my favorite pieces is from the second line -- a T that read 'If You Ain't Cowboy, You Ain't Shit' -- simple, clean and to the point," Tenore says. "What's impressive about Erin is that she is so grounded. On one hand she is this prominent stylist and model, and at the same time so down to earth, working on her old Bronco, surfing or whatever. Just keeping it real." Fittingly, another shirt in her line advises, "Keep It Neil."
"She has drive, passion and a great design sensibility -- I think she can do big things if she wants to," says Tenore. "I see Erin doing her own line."
The question now is if she wants to. "I always feel weird when people
call me a designer. I feel more like a curator," she says. She talks
about how, at her last show, Gang Gang Dance performed as massive
projections of her Super 8 footage from the desert played behind the
runway. "To me that's as important as the clothes." For her Fall 2010
show, Brooklyn's Yeasayer played.
That said, Wasson's ready to take a break from the coasts and mix things up -- she's buying a house in Austin this summer, inspired as much by her Texas roots as her love of music: "Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, all the kooks there," she laughs. "I always say that one day, when all else fails, I'm gonna start playing really shitty, folk country music at coffee shops in Austin, ya know, rolling around in my pickup truck, strumming three chords on a guitar."
Photographed at Smashbox Studios.
Styled by Taylor Jacobson
Hair: Jamal Hammadi for Hamadi Beauty at The Wall Group
Makeup: Jenna Anton for Nars at See Management
Stylist's Assistant: Angelica Gleason