hailey gates on liberian fashion week and meeting david lynch
As her documentary series ‘States of Undress’ returns for a second season, the writer and actress discusses weird fashion, writing a screenplay, and her role in ‘Twin Peaks.’
Photography Eric Chakeen
In the second season of States of Undress, Hailey Gates joins an emo rally, a protest organized by members of Mexico City's largely teenage emo subculture.
Mexico has what the media has dubbed an "emo-bashing problem," and the marchers — dressed like a walking Hot Topic ad — were commemorating the victims of a 2008 hate crime against their brothers and sisters in the city of Queretaro. Mexico is a majority Catholic country and when the emo subculture migrated to Mexico from North American malls in the wake of NAFTA, its aesthetic — all grommeted belts and 90s Pete Wentz hair — became a target for widespread homophobic aggression.
States of Undress is proof that even our most seemingly surface-level fashion decisions carry political weight.
In that same episode, Gates meets the stepdaughter of Mexico's president at a bougie fashion week show, gets all three feet of her hair coerced into a mohawk, rides on the back of a proudly self-identifying cholo's chopper, interviews transgender sexworkers, explores an emerging subculture of Tupperware-obsessed office workers, and applies a metal butt plate (reading "NO WALL") to a model's rear-end. Moving between these various warring subcultures requires multiple outfit changes, navigating an Uber strike, and seemingly limitless compassion.
The show's second season premieres on VICELAND tomorrow and continues its mission of documenting fashion's lesser explored issues and epicenters. Over four months, Gates and the show's nearly all-female crew filmed in eight different countries including Lebanon, Bolivia, and Thailand. They attended Liberian fashion week. They met cam girls in Romania. They almost made it to Iran, but were prevented, at the very last minute, by Iran's countermove to Trump's travel ban.
This season is defined by its uncanny timing. "Every place that we picked seemed to be in this heightened state," Gates explains. As the crew was planning to shoot in Thailand, the country's king died after a 70-year-long reign. When they decided to go to Romania, the plan B after Iran, the country was erupting into the largest protests since the fall of communism in 1989. "It was so bad that people began calling me the Grim Reaper," says Gates.
She wanted to focus on more personal stories this time around, and to illustrate larger narratives through them. In Lebanon, she attended a conference of Syrian tailors who'd emigrated during the civil war and were working in ateliers across the border. Through that, "we were able to tell part of the story of the Syrian refugee crisis."
Gates's role in telling these stories is a cross between Joan Didion quietly observing Golden Gate Park in 1967, Kate Adie at Tiananmen Square, and Cindy Crawford wearing a conical bra on House of Style while interviewing Jean-Paul Gaultier.
"Sometimes people think I'm unassuming, so I lean into that a little bit. It allows people to feel more comfortable," Gates explains. "But I'm also a yes person." She is gung-ho about strange encounters and willing to see the best in her subjects. "I've definitely had some very uncomfortable cups of coffee with people that I didn't really want to be hanging out with," she says.
Nowhere is this clearer than when she attends a concealed carry fashion show in Ohio. She is respectfully confounded by the politics of the show's gun-owning attendees, while also impressed by the ingenuity of the female holster designers, who work in a male-dominated industry. "To give them some props, the fashion show was also the most diverse in terms of bodies and ages," she adds, smiling. "I'm laughing because I'm so conflicted."
It's easier to be unobtrusive in some countries than others. In Liberia, Gates would have been conspicuous even before she contracted a sudden and aggressive stomach bug. "It was not fun to puke in Liberia, because there's such a stigma around vomiting," she explains, referring to the Ebola crisis. "At one point, I had to get out of the van to vomit and it was really stressful because you don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I had to find a private puking spot for myself, wedged between two cars. Everyone immediately scattered."
Gates has learned to become Zen about traveling through hours of airport delays, visa holdups, and fraught interactions with local fixers who will speak only to the male camera man. Traveling the world through States of Undress has been surreal in other ways, too. "If someone asks me if I've been to St. Petersburg, I tell them I have. But I've never been to the Hermitage — even though I've been to, like, a porn shoot in a dungeon!" Taking vacations abroad is also confusing now, "because I'm like, 'What the fuck am I doing here?'"
Not that Gates seems to have taken a vacation in a while. Last year, she was called in to interview with David Lynch about the possibility of joining the cast of the new Twin Peaks. What is an interview with David Lynch like? "You're, like, sitting in the Valley but there's no audition process, which I think is what I would do [if I were a director]. It's so much easier to tell who people are through their own stories," says Gates. Later, somewhere in between Pakistan and Liberia, she got a call from the show's producers asking her to meet them at an NDA-protected location from which they would transport her to another undisclosed location to film her part.
When we meet, she still hasn't seen the episode in which she appears (spoiler alert: she plays a pill-popping mother in an Arizona housing development). She's not even sure what her role is within the larger plot. "I know nothing! I was just trying to do my job. I'm still so scared to talk about it. But it felt like a really warm set."
The summer before Gates began college, she studied experimental theater in Paris, and later went on to graduate from Tisch with a degree in experimental theater and playwriting. It's a degree of most parents' nightmares. It was also probably the only preparation she could have had for acting in a David Lynch production and reporting on a gun holster fashion show. "When I left college, I really thought [experimental theater] was what I'd be doing. And maybe there's still time for that." says Gates. "But I really look a left turn!"
For now, she's working on a screenplay as a way to re-engage what she calls her "writer brain." So far, she has an outline, and says the film will fold in elements of her experiences from the past two years. She also has another mysterious project in the works that she won't speak about yet. Two seasons of States of Undress, one frighteningly secretive David Lynch shoot, and a recent fashion campaign shoot for Miu Miu have produced another side-effect: "I have NDA PTSD," she says.
The second season of States of Undress premieres on VICELAND on Tuesday, June 6 at 10pm.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Eric Chakeen