revisiting the radical 80s new wave fashion of ‘east village eye’

Nearly 30 years after the Eye's final issue, the seminal East Village culture magazine is being celebrated with a huge exhibition. We explore the Eye's radical fashion content, from those iconic Trash & Vaudeville ads to coverage of Rei Kawakubo's...

by Hannah Ongley
16 September 2016, 8:45pm

From 1979 through to its last issue in 1987, the East Village Eye was on the frontline of downtown NYC's radical youth culture. The Eye was the first publication to ever print and define the term "hip-hop," nurtured writers such as Richard Hell and Cookie Mueller, and helped detonate the explosive East Village arts scene through boundary-pushing articles and interviews on Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Mapplethorpe. "The young and the relatively powerless are drawn to the new as a way to leapfrog entrenched interests," says editor-in-chief Leonard Abrams of the Eye's insatiable appetite for post-Vietnam popular and avant garde culture. "With new designs as our armor, we seized the vanguard, attracting the young and compelling the old guard to follow, however slowly. And we looked better too." 

That last claim is entirely accurate. The magazine rejected what Leonard calls "hippie frumpiness" and "the brainwashed slavishness cultivated by the media merchandising machine" in favor of radical fashion features that still feel intensely modern nearly three decades after they were first published. Among them: a perceptive write-up of Rei Kawakubo's first American show for Comme des Garçons, an interview with Helmut Newton upon the release of his brilliantly 80s book Big Nudes, and Michael Holman's "Ski" fashions from Harlem and the South Bronx documented in the seminal January 1982 hip-hop issue "Chilly Xmas." All these and more will be on view at the Eye's retrospective exhibition at Howl! Happening gallery in (naturally) the East Village. It's All True: The East Village Eye Show opens tonight with covers, centerfolds, interior pages, ephemera, artwork, and prints of the thousands of photographs that graced its pages. 

Though the Eye reporters weren't opposed to schlepping up to Long Island City's Silvercup Bakery factory for a Comme show, its primary fashion focus was on the surplus stores and emerging designer boutiques scattered south of 14th Street. Patricia Field, Betsey Johnson, Manic Panic and Trash and Vaudeville were part of the unconventional Eye family. "Necessary budget consciousness dovetailed with an appreciation for neglected trends of the past in a celebration of couture from the 20s through the early 60s," Leonard tells us of Eye's democratic yet anarchic approach to fashion. "The assertive angularity from these periods went well with the aggressiveness of the era. Punk and New Wave clothiers echoed these themes and added humor and irony by exaggerating and riffing on these earlier models." But at the same time, "we could take temporary refuge in bygone elegance without falling prey to previously hidden messages of hierarchy and hegemony."

"It's All True: The East Village Eye show" is on view at Howl! Happening gallery from September 14 through October 9, 2016, with an opening reception on September 15 from 6-8pm. Check out a list of bonus events below.

September 18: Panel Discussion
September 24: New/No Wave Films
September 25: Cinema of Transgression
October 6: Channeling the Dead: Readings of stories by deceased writers Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, Rene Ricard, David Wojnarowicz and (too many) others.


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Leonard Abrams

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