Susan Cianciolo

"Everything was handmade."
Interview by Asher Penn
Portrait by Wallace Lester

Susan Cianciolo is a pioneer of American Independent Fashion. Finding her start in the alongside experimental 90's art brands Bernadette Corporation, Imitation of Christ and Mended Viel, Susan Cianciolo's's signature frayed stitching and handmade alterations of thrift finds became an influential aesthetic for decades to come, seen today on Etsy. Despite constantly shifting trends and economics Susan has maintained a prolific and consistent career without compromise or expansion, allowing her to create and share truly unique clothing, artworks and experiences.

Where are you from?
I’m from Rhode Island. I grew up in Maine with my dad part-time, but mostly I was in the inner city right outside of Providence. I grew up with my mom and grandparents there.
What did your parents do?
My dad has done real estate his whole life and had an antique business as well. My mom worked in a prison most of her life. She was a counselor for men's maximum high security. Later on, she became a parole coordinator planner. I remember taking trips to the women's prison on Christmas, working with a lot of different nuns, getting presents for the women that had kids. But she never allowed me to go into the men's prison.
I read in an interview that your mom also made dolls. What were they like?
It could be anything you could imagine. It was always different. I remember one year, we recycled all our walnut shells and that was a little bed for all these dolls and then they became ornaments. She also made me a dollhouse with little curtains, little paintings. It was such a work of art, every little shingle.

"RUN KIT Collection", children's box kit shown at Maryam Nassir Zadeh, 2012

Was a lot of stuff handmade for you growing up?
Every sweater I owned was hand-knit. Everyone wore hand-knit slippers. Growing up, my dresses were completely made by hand—whatever you can think of—the curtains, the blankets on the beds.
How did you end up making your own clothes?
My mom bought me a subscription to Vogue. That's how I started. I asked her if I could go buy some Vogue patterns and start making things.
Did you want to dress cooler?
It was more that I was embarrassed to be brought up so poor. Here I was, in this house with grandparents and a great-grandmother, and everyone else had cars and lived in cool houses and had a regular mom-and-dad life. As a teenager it is so humiliating to not be like everyone else and be cool.
How did you learn to sew?
I learned from a woman who made wedding dresses. I went to Catholic school with her daughter, who was my best friend at the time. So, I asked my friend’s mom if she would give me lessons. We'd meet in the evenings. I remember being in the basement and she was so good, I was so thankful she had the patience to teach me.
You went to Catholic school?
Yeah, but it was very experimental. The principal was a feminist nun who ran all these programs in the prison. She was super strong, smart—a real renegade of a nun. There weren’t separate grades, so the freshman and seniors were all together. There were no classes either: you had three-month blocks where you did just one subject. I decided I'd create an art studio class for myself. I just sat and drew forever and ever. We didn't have any sports. There was a lot of hanging out and smoking.

Look Book for "RUN KIT Collection", 2012. Photo: Brianna Capozzi

What was your religious upbringing?
Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Episcopalian.
Wait, how does that happen?
At age four, I decided I was going to become Pentecostal. I joined with this family that had a church down the street. I spent all my time with them, went on tours with them in their station wagon to meet families, or just stay there all day and read the Bible. My dad was Sicilian Roman Catholic, so I would do that when I was with him, and my mom decided to become Episcopal so I would do that with her.
Were you spiritual from a young age?
Yes, my mom talks about that too. She said it was really scary, very shocking for a young person. I remember giving her talks starting around the age of four.
Religious talks. Which is weird because she’s always seemed like such a saint in the ways that she's helped so many. And I always wanted to be like that.
Doing good with what you do?
I was really tortured inside. How could I choose fashion when my mom's working at the prison? Couldn't I pick a better way to help humanity? But I couldn't get it out of my head—fashion and art—and I didn't know how that could possibly help anything.
Was the first time you came to New York to attend Parsons?
Yeah, I was 17. We came for the interview and I just said to myself, “I love this place.” It was so exciting. I was honestly so shocked by all the other people. It was a big deal. People on my block didn't ever go away, let alone go to college. We had loans and financial aid and all of that stuff.

Haya Maraka for "Hearts Open to Revelation Sky" Collection, 2011. Photo: Rosalie Knox

What did you focus on? Apparel?
My parents did not want me to do fine art. I had to do a year of marketing, merchandising, advertising, and then go into fashion. They said I could do art on the side. It's funny, a lot of the professors kind of begged me to go into fine arts. It was looked at like, “fashion is evil.” When I got into the fashion program, every professor said I should be in the fine arts.
You started collaborating with Bernadette Corporation when you were a student. How did you meet them?
Through Seth Shapiro. I don't know how we met, but we'd sit around and talk about God a lot and he asked me to model for him. Then I helped him sew pieces for his first collections. I really wanted to help him. I loved what he was doing. Then I met his cousin Bernadette and joined in on Bernadette Corporation for the performances.
I didn’t know you modeled.
I like the fact that I got to know what it was like to be the subject, whether I was treated badly or if it was exciting. I was glad I would always know the rest of my life what that person would feel like if I was to be dressing them and directing them and how hard it is, how much your feet hurt, all the stuff you go through. All the pain was so worth it for that experience. 
Were you working while you were at school?
I was lucky. I worked at Bergdorf Goodman and did the murals for all the windows. They gave me so much freedom it was unbelievable. I got to do all the fashion illustrations for all the boutiques, and giant murals in the windows and be up on ladders. I learned how to paint really large scale and just do whatever I wanted in there. I was also working as a fashion illustrator and had graphic design jobs.

Collage from screen play for "Pro-Abortion Anti Pink" collection with Aaron Rose and Phil Frost, 1995

You also worked for X-Girl...
And Badgley Mischka. They make evening dresses for the Oscars.
Wow. So you were really good at executing work that wasn’t really your own?
I feel like it's a good skill. It's really hard. It feels like my soul is dying inside. Around the time I started working at Badgley Mischka, I started really intensely doing my own work. And I always did both, but I was really pushing a lot by the end and never sleeping and then when I left them, I just knew I was immediately ready to open my first collection.
What was your first collection?
I had a boyfriend that really wanted me to clean my act up, get a job, and be more professional. After I left that job and I broke up with him, I said to myself, “I am ready.” I got back in touch with Rita Ackerman and showed her all my drawings for my new collection and she said they were great. Then I showed Bernadette and she said, “OK, I'll style it,” and Gabriel Asfour helped me. Then we asked Andrea Rosen if I could do my first show there.
That’s really brave of you.
I know... You can't just go open a collection. People really did everything they could to convince me, and I was scared to death.

RUN 7 Tag, 1998

What inspires a collection?
I get these insights or messages. I don't know if you would call it a vision—it's like this lightbulb pops up and tells me, “This is what you're going to do next,” and I just put on this tunnel vision and I do it and I never deviate. I dedicate my whole life to every show. I used to push myself to death, like actual hospitalization. I felt like I had to sacrifice my whole self. It's always been sacred to me. It's this offering, and I'm willing to accept if it's hated or if it's loved or if no one comes or if 2,000 people come—it doesn't matter.
Where does the name Run come from?
When I was 15, I was training as a runner, racing for medals, whatever. Then I met this high school girl down the street that was much older than me and she asked if I would train with her every night, and we'd do hurdles. My mom didn't believe me. She would sneak down in the car and watch the track. She thought I was out there doing drugs.
I was really into running. And now I see I connect it to work. I had to switch to something else because I'm so messed up from it. It's hard on the body.Running is such a basic thing and it came from that deep love. During the Bernadette Corporation times, I would sign everything as Run and then when I was going out—my very few moments doing graffiti with Phil Frost—that was my tag. I realized you can pick really mundane, banal words and you can transform them and then they have other meanings. Like with Bernadette Corporation, we were running from responsibility or anything to do with society. Then it became Run Collection, because the studio became so big at one point. It was this giant collective of artists and Run represented the studio.

Film still of "Pro-Abortion Anti Pink", 1995. Photo: Cris Moor

From Sex Magazine #9 Fall 2014
Labelled Fashion