PRINT October 1995


EARLY ONE EVENING last winter, the 34-year-old British-born, Brooklyn-raised, and Paris-based couturier, painter, poet, musician, and hair-and-makeup artist Andre Walker went for a stroll along the eastern half of 14th Street in Manhattan. Moving through the stale winter air, buoyed along by his own centrifugal reverie and strikingly costumed as was his custom (ankle-high horsehair boots, plaid summer trousers, green mohair jumper, brown mohair scarf), Andre Walker alternated singing and explaining lyrics of his own invention: “You knew I was a dodo bird when you met me. . . . / Would you mind?” he sang, casting a sidelong glance at his companion, who nodded appreciatively, though Walker’s meaning and syntax—abstract, and replete with nonsense words such as “dodo bird,” and with equally nonsensical questions, in the context of Andre Walker, such as “Why can’t people just see me as a normal dude?”—generated in him equal parts glee and infatuated exasperation.

The glee was really an anticipatory delight in Walker’s propensity for stringing together—with the mortar of his charm, soft lisp, and bass-based laughter—sounds, then words, and then, eventually, sentences, without necessarily being entirely aware of their meaning. This singular logic (or better, counterlogic) also informs the process of intellection behind Andre Walker’s clothes. Generally, the shapes Walker employs are culled from sculptural elements found in nature, which Walker reinvents, subjecting them to the same profound transfigurations he visits on the English language. In one collection, he exaggerates the curve of a pair of jodphurlike trousers until they resemble the horse flanks to which they allude, and in another he shapes a jacket’s lapels not like anything so prosaic as butterfly wings but, rather, like moths pressed flat against a window screen.

Andre Walker’s companion’s infatuated exasperation, on the other hand, was really a reaction to Walker’s attention to the physical and natural—a reaction to the ease with which he moves to the skewed rhythms of his own cultivated delirium—at the expense of the artificial medium of conversation. In fact, Walker’s observance of the natural exposed his companion’s discomfort with physicality. Sensing this, Walker felt obliged to provoke him, thereby aggravating his discomfort, as he had done on other occasions with various fashion journalists, editors, buyers, and retailers.

“I need fabric,” Walker said. He had come to the eastern half of 14th Street seeking “looks” for a photo shoot the next day. “I need awful wigs and a grotesquerie of makeup, I need a face of horror. Would you mind?”

Since Walker’s emergence in the early ’80s as an original and influential new designer, his peculiar power has depended on his near-simultaneous marginalization within the fashion world and veneration by it. His maverick stance as a designer not only independent of an established house but also without backing of his own italicizes the concept of success in an industry loath to promote from within. But in the past 15 years, Andre Walker has become known for: a style of talk that replaces the banal hyperbole of fashion speak—“marvelous,” “fabulous,” “worship,” “beyond,” and so forth—with his own lexicon of opposites: “plain,” “awful,” “grotesque,” “commercial,” “horror,” words that when spoken by Walker have the curious effect of elevating the most mundane experience (walking along 14th Street on a cold winter night, say) to the realm of the fantastic. He has combined, in his designs, the functionalist concerns and understated earth tones of designer Claire McCardell with the architectural inventiveness of couturier Charles James. And he has created out of this amalgam a personal esthetic, which is also his ethos. Its subtleties include: a “horror” of the “overdone” (i.e., of fashion overkill) or of anything he does not condone as “normal” (i.e., as “style,” that which is natural to itself).

What Andre Walker considers exceptionally normal is his access to his own imagination and its fixed regard for the natural. He does not, in other words, place fashion in opposition to nature by styling trees. Over the course of his career, Walker has refined his esthetic; his current work is distilled to the extremely normal. Ten years ago he gave women Sta-Prest lips and “pressed” coiffures. More recently he has abandoned anything resembling conventional makeup (powder, base, lipstick), applying instead, to his models' faces, a “grotesque” (i.e., interesting, or unconventionally beautiful, in Walker's lexicon) shiny vitamin E as foundation.

Andre Walker has also been: the house designer at WilliWear, the company of the late black American designer Willi Smith. (During his year there he showed a collection in which the models’ hairpieces and makeup presaged Jean-Paul Gaultier’s notorious Hasid look by ten years.) His ideas have influenced the styling of Dom Casuals, the “hip” design firm. He has staged innovative fashion shows featuring his mother, a Brooklyn beautician of West Indian descent. He has left America and been temporarily sponsored, in Paris, by Bjorn Amelan (the late designer Patrick Kelly’s former partner), for whom he produced a number of profound, deliberately marginal designs: the Drab Housewife look, its accessories being Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals and bad posture; the Frosty Christina look, which included a wool jumpsuit, largely plain, but with oversized bell-bottoms and lined with Persian lamb. He has written and recited poems to introduce his collections (“Frosty Christina/After all these years/Frosty Christina/Sheds no tears”). And he has created a series of remarkable drawings of designs he has been unable to execute due to a lack of financing, a situation that has generated many press clippings and offers from New York clubs to show his work.

Walking along the eastern half of 14th Street in the phosphorescent darkness, several yards of blue silk and white cotton under his arm and improvising in his head another design, Andre Walker talked around the next day’s shoot, which had come at the invitation of a friend who wanted to preserve Walker’s classic but improvisatory sartorial sense on film. He said, “For this shoot I want to create a grotesquerie of awful West Indian horror” (a concept based on Walker’s fond memories of and ironic distance from the West Indian women of the Brooklyn community in which he grew up, women he considers an influence, having delighted in the juxtapositions of their dress: large full skirts worn with white cotton socks, strawhats, and oversized handbags). He continued, “I want to beat faces on this shoot,” referring to his concept of greasy makeup. He concluded, “I want a wrecked commercialism of disaster,” i.e., nothing that had been done in the fashion community before; certainly nothing “acceptable” or “beautiful.”

In search of “awful” makeup looks, Andre Walker walked into Kiehl’s, a Second Avenue venue specializing in hair- and skin-care products. Young white-smocked salespersons were poised behind glass counters; bottles stood sentry in front of them. Having exchanged a few pleasantries, Andre Walker described what he sought: “I want a face of greasy horror. I want an awful accumulation of fatigue around the eyes and a grease of disaster for the hair.” The young salespersons looked at him without light in their light blue eyes. Andre Walker bought a few bottles of this and that. Later, he would mix the liquids to his satisfaction.

Hilton Als is a writer living in New York. He is a frequent contributor to Artforum and The New Yorker.