Susan Cianciolo

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

RUN 5 collection, Styled by Pascale Gatzen for Purple Magazine, 1997. Photo: Mark Borthwick

The first way I learned about your work was from photos in fashion magazines. The photos were always really different.
When I began, I really hated fashion shoots. They would make me feel really claustrophobic and I watched them turn into something else in the industry, all this glamour and fluff. I started to remove myself from press and photo shoots because I would get anxiety attacks from the whole experience. Then I met Marcello Krasilic and he started shooting my shows, and photographing me, and doing photo shoots with my clothes. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, his aesthetic felt like it was my brain. I felt that with Rosalie Knox, too, and Mark Borthwick. They're all very honest.
You seem to switch your self-identification between fashion designer and artist.
Right now, I don't feel at all like a fashion designer. I love fashion with all my heart, but I don't feel a connection with it right now. I don't mean to be confusing, I feel myself to be an artist now, but that's been on and off. It’s a curse because it's always so up and down.
I’m sure your patrons don’t care. What is your relationship like with clients?
I end up being so in love with my patrons. It's a relationship of deep support and understanding. It's very real, as real as it gets. I would bend over backwards for them and I'll do any kind of special detail or work. It doesn't matter to me how much they're paying, and most of the time, across the board, they convince me that they want to pay me more. They always double the price—because they know the value. They're not messing around with me.

Kids Collection, 2013

You wear your own clothes a lot, too.
I mostly used to wear it just so I would know how things felt, especially because we were doing such big production numbers for each collection. Recently I've been really enjoying feeling what it’s like in other people's clothes and having that experience. I like all kinds of feelings of clothes. I'm not just into comfort.
How did you start making children’s clothes?
I made a ton of dolls for friends who had kids, before I ever had kids. I'm sure I made kids' clothes too. Then I made my daughter Lilac a ton of things and when she got to a certain age, she said, “Sell it, sell it.” Since I would always put Lilac in the show, I'd make some things for the show for her friends. Clients began seeing I had all these children's clothes and wanted to buy them.
Lilac likes being in the shows?
Oh yeah. When she walks on stage and sees all the people she brightens up. She wants to be in the show, she wants to help, she wants to be a part of it. Now she's become so much of a director that she wants to say how everything should be. 
So she is also a collaborator?
I swear she always adds a better touch. It's so much more courageous. We disagree a lot, but it's great to have her collaborative aspect. There's just so much she's added to pieces that have made them 1,000 times better. And it's a way we can get along.
How have you remained independent for so long?
Well, you have to roll with the punches. I know that when a recession hits luxury items are the first things people drop. But I was never afraid to starve because I grew up so poor I never had anything to lose. I was fine if I was homeless. I went two weeks without food, knowing things would come around. Through all the ups and downs I found a perfect rhythm. Where I'm at now, after so much learning and risk taking, it was all worth it.

Mixed Media, Rhode Island, 2013

From Sex Magazine #9 Fall 2014
Labelled Fashion