Cecilia Dean is not exactly famous, but among an ultra-stylish subset of top designers, editors, and fashionistas she’s practically a household name, the sole female member of the triumvirate that has run the fashion world’s hippest media empire for the past 25 years. Founded in the mid-80s, their first magazine, Visionaire, won a fanatical following with New York’s art and fashion luminaries. (For years, the magazine’s Fashion Week bacchanals were among the most coveted invitations of the season.) Together with two college friends, James Kaliardos and Stephen Gan, Dean had a hand in some of the fashion world’s most venerated titles, V Magazine, V Man and CR Fashion Book, the much-anticipated new magazine by French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld.
So when it was announced late last year that Dean and Kaliardos were separating from Gan, the fashion world was floored. (Dean and Kaliardos will now concentrate on Visionaire, while Gan will focus on V.) But while news of the split came as something of a surprise, Dean’s gradual drift has been evident for years, as her interests have broadened beyond fashion to include film, performance, events and public art. On Friday she will be presiding over the latest iteration of MOVE!, a popular event that unites all these forms in daring and unexpected new ways.
MOVE! originated in 2010 after powerhouse curator Klaus Biesenbach approached Dean and her friend, the artist and journalist David Colman, with an intriguing creative challenge. As the executive director of MoMA PS1 (the Long Island City-based, more experimental arm of The Museum of Modern Art) Biesenbach had lobbied to expand the museum’s traditional definition of art to include architecture, music and performance. He asked Dean and Colman to come up with an idea that would convincingly commingle fashion and art in a way that had not been attempted before.
The concept they eventually came up with merges fashion and performance in ways that are surreally provocative yet still accessible. “We don’t think fashion is what waltzes down the runways in Paris,” says Dean. “It’s about how normal people engage with and relate to what they’re wearing. We had zero interest in showcasing fashion on mannequins or nailing a bunch of gowns to the walls.” In fact, though installation at MOVE! comes out of collaborations between artists and designers, many of the resulting performances don’t feature any art or clothes.
The debut of the show in 2010 was a smash success, thanks to installations like the one produced by the design team, Proenza Schouler and artist Dan Colen. As part of their contribution, they left a half-dozen fashionable items unattended at random street corners in Manhattan — a single shoe next to some trash cans in Harlem, for example, or a stray opera glove hanging from a tree in Central park. Hidden video cameras captured the reactions of passersby who came across these random works of art. “There’s sometimes a sense when you’re at a fashion show or in a museum that you’re not smart enough or pretty enough to be there,” Colman says. “But we keep it fun and engaging. Your waist size is not a disqualifier here. There’s nothing that will make you feel like you’re too dumb to understand.”
Following up on their previous success, Dean and Colman are re-launching the series this weekend. Their show opens to the public on Saturday under the glassy atrium at Brookfield Place, an austere Wall Street edifice across the street from the former World Trade Center. This year’s lineup includes some of the best known fashion designers and visual artists on the scene today. Performance artist Ryan McNamara and Diane Von Furstenberg co-created an installation called POSE, which invites participants to don signature DVF wrap dresses while they’re meticulously posed and photographed by McNamara. The image is then stamped onto a textile and repurposed back into a dress. The result is a meta fashion experience: a DVF wrap dress imprinted with tiny patterns of you wearing said DVF wrap dress.
Another standout installation is A STAR IS BORN, a wry take on modern celebrity that was produced by artist Kate Gilmore and Italo Zucchelli, a Creative Director at Calvin Klein. A pair of sexy, solicitous male models guides visitors to the atrium’s main floor from a glamorous red-carpeted staircase. But as soon as they reach the last step, their short taste of the luxe life is marred by a crew of “paparazzi” making catcalls and popping flashbulbs from nearby trees. More straight-forward, (but equally fun) is CROSSOVER, a nod to America’s recent wave of Caitlyn-fueled trans-mania. Created by James Kaliardos and the luxury cosmetics purveyor Cos Bar, the installation relies on a vast array of Yves Saint Laurent Beauty products to completely transform guests from male to female or female to male, as a bank of overhead cameras live-streams their amazing transformations across the globe.
In many ways MOVE! is a natural extension of Dean’s work at Visionaire, an anomalous cross between a magazine and an art project that can fetch thousands of dollars an issue. Its contributors list reads like the unlisted directory of the world’s creative class — a weird mash-up of talents from Stella McCartney to Stephen King, Jeff Koons to Jil Sander. Part of the genius of Dean and her co-founders is their ability to convince these elites to collaborate on the project without receiving a single cent in return. (Every publisher’s dream.) In a way, it’s the ultimate vanity project; a magazine that inspires the creators of every issue to try and out-do the creators of the one before it. As a result, throughout its history, the magazine has continued to defy expectations, continuously shape-shifting and reinventing itself.
It’s also been far ahead of its time. Paper was growing obsolete at Visionaire long before the dawn of the Internet. Various issues have been produced out of metal, glass and wood, as well as portable stereoscopes and lightboxes produced specifically for the publication. One issue featured a box packed with vials of different scents, each of them matched to a particular image. (A photo of Kate Moss and her daughter was paired with the smell of “motherhood,” which in Moss’s case at least, apparently smells very sweet. A steamy Karl Lagerfeld shot of a naked male model covering his package with a loaf of bread was paired with the scent of Paris’s Poilâne Bakery.) Visionaire’s “Larger Than Life” Issue featured a nearly seven-foot tall Lady Gaga peering out from the cover, and was later certified by The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest magazine ever made.
Even after 25 years with the publication, Dean remains clearly excited by her day job, as a wildly inventive, indie counterweight to the mainstream glamour of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But after spending much of her life cozily ensconced in fashion’s innermost sanctum, she also seems eager to explore new territory. A former model, she was once loath to venture beyond the more luxurious stretches of Manhattan, Milan, London and Paris. Today she lives with her boyfriend David Selig in gritty-chic Red Hook, in a fenced house overgrown with tomato vines and patrolled by dozens of free-range chickens.
Selig, a well-known restaurateur and chef, is also a fanatic surfer. After closing down his restaurant, Rice, a downtown New York mainstay, he teamed up with an associate to open Rockaway Taco, a cheery beachside outpost in a bleak Queens neighborhood that’s quickly becoming the new hipster capital of the world. More recently he purchased an abandoned concrete lot in a blighted neighborhood and transformed it into an acre of lush, bucolic farmland where he grows everything from kale, tomatoes, hops. He named the place Edgemere Farm; Dean frequently escapes there when she needs to escape Manhattan. WITW caught up with her there last week to talk about MOVE!, the shake-up at Visionaire and her plans for the future.
Women in the World: In what ways has your background with Visionaire influenced your vision for MOVE!?
Cecilia Dean: Visionaire to me has always been about cross-pollination. It’s art, it’s fashion, even music — it’s totally multidisciplinary. Each issue of Visionaire is radically different, so you are also dealing with new formats. So in a funny way, MOVE! contains the DNA of Visionaire, but takes it to an event level rather than an object level. It’s designed to be accessible rather than elite. Lately we at Visionaire have been very interested in public art. It didn’t start out that way, but because of the nature of what we do, over time our publications have become very expensive and very exclusive. With public art however, you can really open up and speak to a much larger audience.
WITW: Visionaire has always managed to maintain an air of exclusivity, but MOVE! seems almost defiantly democratic. Have you ever pared down the exclusivity of Visionaire and invited the masses to participate?
CD: Last year we produced 45 t-shirts and sweatshirts for the Gap, all with different artist images from Visionaire. It was so fun to do something of such high quality, and still be able to sell them for $29.95, which for me was amazing. I know everyone always wants to sell stuff for really expensive, but we were thrilled when we could sell something for under $50. We never sell anything for under $50. Our issues probably average $500, and our last issue had a deluxe edition that sold for $5,500.
WITW: What is it like to build such an influential and indescribable publication from scratch?
CD: We started back in 1991, which if you think about it was so long ago, culturally speaking. New York was a very different place when we first started out. James and Stephen and I were barely out of school. The Internet didn’t exist. We knew so many photographers and illustrators who had done all this amazing stuff, but had no place to show it. They weren’t accepted into the gallery system, so they weren’t being shown in exhibitions. So we started Visionaire as a place where our friends could get their stuff noticed. I was working as a young model in those days and, after an expensive advertising shoot, a bunch of us would keep going and do a few more fun photos for ourselves, like a set of nudes or photos for an up-and-coming fashion designer who had no money. We offered these people a place to show personal work before desktop publishing or the popularity of the Internet.
WITW: Visionaire has changed a lot since those early days. In what ways have you matured with it, both personally and creatively?
CD: That’s such a hard question, I don’t know! Fashion and culture is so obsessed with youth these days, but I know that I’m much smarter and faster at my age now than I was ever before. Everything is much clearer to me. I don’t get as stressed out about things, even though the stakes are higher. That’s one big way that I’ve personally matured. Creatively, I’m probably the wrong one to ask just now. We’re in the middle of a project at Visionaire that requires us to look back at the last 25 years — a coffee table book for Rizzoli to celebrate our 25th anniversary. So we have to go through all of our past issues and edit them down. As we go I find myself becoming very critical of every issue, I know all the problems with them and remember each time we were forced to tone down or compromise. It is interesting to step back and look at all the heartache that went into producing this thing.
WITW: What was the most challenging issue you worked on?
CD: Well, the greatest challenge in every issue is always production; that’s just the nature of the beast at Visionaire. But no issue created more production problems than our 63rd issue, Forever. The whole issue consisted of a case with 10 images in it — but everything was made out of metal. It was a stainless steel case with stainless steel and aluminum pages, all either etched or embossed. You realize there’s a reason why you don’t see many metal publications out there.
WITW: Can you talk about the split last year with Visionaire’s founding members and how the publication has changed since?
CD: We were three partners from the beginning — Stephen Gan and James Kaliardos and myself and several other people who have been very involved with Visionaire. We all started together and then in 1999 we started V Magazine, in 2004 we started V Man, and in 2012 we started CR Fashion Book. I just think we all evolved in different directions. I loved working on Visionaire in the different formats and was much more interested in film and public art and other kinds of projects like the Gap t-shirt. To be totally honest, I just wasn’t that interested in traditional print publishing and Stephen just loves publishing. He is a real magazine guy and I feel like that was really much more his interest and his focus, so it just made sense to split the companies up.
WITW: How does your home-life, raising chickens in Red Hook, balance and support the artistic career you have made in the city?
CD: Art and fashion are such funny industries. It is very easy to get stressed out or upset over particular things that happen during the course of a day. So it feels great after a long day at work to hop on my bike and ride back to Red Hook and see my boyfriend David. If I am upset about something I will start to describe it to him and realize how ridiculous it sounds in the real world. I think it is really important to keep that perspective. The real world has real problems. It makes you realize how privileged we are being able to work in the creative industry, just doing what we love every day.