creatures of the wind is the comme des garçons of the prairie
Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters reference everything from Poly Styrene to kaiju movies in their collections, but their clothes are wonderful whether you get that or not — and now they’re bringing their magic to resort.
Photography Katie McCurdy
When so many designers are crediting real women for inspiring their collections, sometimes you want a brand that will admit its floral dresses are channeling Biollante, Godzilla's only female enemy, a giant reptilian flower monster.
New York brand Creatures of the Wind has always been about specialness and idiosyncrasy. And if that makes Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters' aesthetic difficult to define, well that may be annoying for journalists but it's good for fashion — and for women who want to wear flowing lamé dresses, voluminous gingham skirts, colorful tweed coats, and T-shirts layered with waves of delicate fraying chiffon (all of which the designers offered in their fall collection alone).
This May, they will present their first-ever resort collection in New York. It's the next surge of the sudden but graceful growth spurt their brand has undergone since being named a runner-up in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2011. Prior to that, they were, in Chris' words, "just two people working out of [their] basement in Chicago."
"When we first started, a lot of people told us we were out of consideration," he says. "Telling people we were based in Chicago was like saying we grew up in a coal mine!" One retailer even told them to lie and say they worked in New York. But they liked that they weren't in New York. Shane (dark side-swept hair) was a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago when the couple met and began working together. And Chris (bleach-blond, center parting) was a student at the same school. "When you don't feel like you have a place where you belong, you just rally behind the ideas that you have," says Shane.
Being in Chicago gave them the space and time to concentrate on the intense handwork they enjoy doing. "We were very self-indulgent and obsessive!" says Chris, who was also working as an assistant at Nick Cave's studio, and doing intricate hand-detailing there. The couple made coats patchworked together from two hundred tiny pieces of fabric and bought lace from speciality mills in Europe that sold to Chanel, Givenchy and Valentino. (Buying six-yard lengths of couture trimmings, it turned out, was still cheaper than meeting the high minimums for more everyday fabrics.)
Things changed, though, when the line got picked up by Barneys. It was a reminder, the designers say, that "fashion is a two-part thing: you're making clothes because you really enjoy making them but it's not an art project, it's a commodity." Their approach to making clothes shifted slightly, from an exploration of a fantasy to an effort to better understand their customer.
Shane and Chris both grew up in somewhat dreamlike settings. Shane, in a tiny village near Lake Michigan, surrounded by hippie communes (one of his aunts lives in a yurt compound where she bakes bread and lives on a barter system). And Chris spent part of his childhood in Kinsale, on the southern coast of Ireland. "I think about moments from my childhood and they seem so unreal. We would go mushroom picking with our babysitter."
Marketing their fantasies has been an ongoing effort helped along by friends like Ikram Goldman, the owner of the progressive Chicago boutique Ikram. "It's about us saying what we want to say but giving it a slightly broader appeal," says Shane. They learned the hard way that some of their more niche references aren't always picked up. "We made pieces once based off a photo of Sid Vicious in this sweater," says Chris. "They were all hand-knit, and the pattern was worn off in parts because they were supposed to look destroyed. But people were like, 'Oh, cool granny sweaters'!"
The diversity of their references goes a long way towards explaining the aesthetic turns their collections have taken. From season to season, they can wax nostalgic or psychedelic, buttoned-up or free-spirited. There might be girlish skirts and socks for spring and Bianca Jagger blouses for fall. Editors tend to identify "quirk" as the common thread. But really it's more about obsession — with detail, with storytelling — and the intensity that brings.
The brand name itself is a clue to how Shane and Chris work. It comes from the song "Wild Is the Wind," which has been performed in turn by Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, Cat Power and David Bowie. "It's a song people sing over and over again but all the covers have such different, really emotional, hands to them," says Chris. "We wanted the collection to be very emotionally strong, but with different iterations every time."
The next iteration will be the brand's first resort collection. "It's about the beach," says Chris. But then adds: "It's already gone off the rails!" They're exploring what resort means: how is this season about beachwear but also party dresses? And they're bringing all their pattern-making in house, "which means we can deconstruct things a little more," says Shane.
And as the brand grows, its messaging is evolving. The designers are finding new ways to work their fantasies into our wardrobes. "It's about being able to cut something out of this larger story and fit it into your own story," says Shane. And it's about being clear. "Our whole thing when we started was that we wanted the line to be nebulous," says Chris. "We chose to be, not difficult, but vague. Clarity, though, that's our thing now!"
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Katie McCurdy