Doug Abraham, aka @BessNYC4, Discusses Fashion and Controversy with Image Man Fabien Baron

Blurring the lines between found images, fashion campaigns, bondage, and cyborg, Doug Abraham, owner of the Bess NYC clothing store in New York’s SoHo, has gained a cult following in the fashion and art worlds for his image mashups on Instagram @bessnyc4 (@bessnyc1-3 were deleted by Instagram for breaking terms of service). Calling on advertising images including Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, and Saint Laurent, Abraham devours images as quickly as they’re in the world. And last night we were invited (via Instagram) to a preview Doug’s first show of work at his storefront space at 292 Lafayette Street, NYC, featuring a plethora of images of Daria Werbowy, mixed with bondage photos and frat hazing snaps. Click through for an exclusive remix of the FW 2014 cover of Daria Werbowy by Richard Prince, reimagined by Doug Abraham, along with a preview of the new show.

From Document‘s FW 2014 issue, Doug sat down with creative director Fabien Baron who has been called by Vanity Fair  “the most sought-after creative director in the world” and has been an admirer of Doug’s work on Instagram, to discuss making images and controversies.

Fabien—I have to tell you, I really like what you’ve been doing on your Instagram page and I think you should do that in a bigger way really, and do a show about that because it’s really, really good.

Doug—I appreciate your compliment.

Fabien—And you were one of the first people I followed on Instagram. When did you start with Instagram? At first it was Bess alone, Bess New York, right?

Doug—Not that long ago. Bess NYC is actually my wife’s Instagram account because her name is Bess (also the name of our store). And then I think my first one was @bessNYC1, but that was three  Instagram accounts ago, since they kept taking them down. I’d try to do a different thing when I would have to make a new one, you know. Fabien—Describe the first one, because from what I recall, you were posting three pictures together.

Doug—Right, which I still do.

Fabien—Really? Oh, yeah, but like they were very beautiful. It seemed to me to be like all about the colors and feelings and emotions. All the colors were pastel and amazing pinks.


Fabien—And everything was beautiful.

Doug—I remember I did pink for two or three months. And I was into sunsets and a strict color palate, and then I was exploring dark themes in a sort of pastel way.

Fabien—I thought that was amazing because you were posting pictures of the sea with beautiful colors, and then a nude of this guy with a bit of his dick visible. It was all different, soft and gentle colors, and cropped very interestingly as well.

Doug—I was combining different kinds of ideas in color, editing them by color and looking for a range of vibes.

I think direct access to the public is the only way to do something where you’re not going to be censored.

Fabien—You had a blue period.

Doug—Yeah, and there was a period that was only black and red.

Fabien—It got really dark, sexual and tough, and that’s why they took you down?

Doug—Yes, I remember becoming private at a certain point so that they would stop taking down my pictures.

Fabien—But you’re @bessNYC4 now, so they’ve taken you down three times?

Doug—Yeah they took me down recently again, but this time, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people at Instagram. I begged them to help me out and turn it back on.

Fabien—Yeah, you were posting things that were quite out there.

Doug—People find it to be edgy, now. I try to keep it pretty tame. I mean, comparatively.

Fabien—Totally, I agree with you, I think you made a deal with Instagram then?

Doug—Well, I know in terms of body parts what they don’t want you to do, but then I did one of new CK One collage campaign where there were a lot of drug images, which is kind of a gray area, you know? Pictures of drugs are somehow like pornography I guess. Which is odd.

Fabien—I think Instagram is very American. And what I find very interesting is that people who use Instagram in other countries say ‘oh my god, you cannot do anything on Instagram,’ it’s so Americanized. And I find it a little strange that some people can put pictures of extreme violence on Instagram and that’s fine. Nobody is going to say anything about that, but if you show a breast or anything that involves sexuality, it’s an issue. I find that very bizarre, myself.

Doug—Well, a nipple is worse than a decapitated head on Instagram, which is saying something about America in general, I don’t know.
I like violence, too, so I’m glad that can be explored on Instagram, at least somewhat.

Fabien—Yeah, and you’ve done that, can you tell me about the type of imagery you’ve used with that?

Doug—I would just look at different images on the internet, saving a lot of them and later I would go back and make a sort of mood board.

Fabien—And then you would take those images and change the color, making them pastel, or pink, or—

Doug—Or I would literally search for pink images. Now, when I do the collage ones, I usually don’t have that much time so I’ll think of something and see how quickly I can find an image to go with it. Sometimes I’ll do it in reverse.

Fabien—So are you first inspired by the company itself, the brand, or do you get interested in the image that the brand is putting out there?

Doug—Well, it’s hard to say. Honestly, I’m never interested in the brand. I think there are campaigns that I find interesting for whatever reason and there are logos that I like. Sometimes the identity the brand is trying to put forth in an ad is interesting to me in terms of what it’s saying overtly and then what I think it’s kind of trying to say.

Fabien—But I don’t think that people read it in the same way. I think you’ve done some of the companies I’ve worked on. I think some of your images are actually more interesting than the way I’ve done them, because they just push the idea way further than the brand could go. But when pushing imagery that far out and attaching it to a very big company, such as Calvin Klein or Prada or Givenchy, these big luxury companies, the message becomes really interesting and much bigger. What you’ve done with Calvin Klein makes sense for Calvin Klein. It’s very smart, bright and very well put together, and the collages are usually very powerful and meaningful, and it’s meant for the brand.

Doug—I appreciate that. Once I establish a vibe for a brand, I’ll try to return to that. Particularly with something like with Calvin Klein, where I feel a consistent vibe from advertising, it seems to make sense. I try to do it in a collective unconscious kind of way.

Fabien—The thing I really like about your work is that in fashion advertising there’s always a slight sense of pretentiousness about it. A lot of companies are in some way trying too hard to pass a message and polish all of the details, I find that what you do is very pure. I think you take all the pretension out of what we’re trying to do. It becomes very direct.

Doug—That is kind of what the intention is, to make it more of an immediate or visceral response. A lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is not a collaborative thing, it’s something that you do that can become public very immediately, so there’s no process to this, like with real advertising images.

Fabien—For us to make an advertising page, the team is at least 30 people and you end up on the set with 60 people and everyone has something to say. The client has something to say, the hair, the makeup, and so on. But then it becomes as public as Instagram, which is now is very powerful and your images are seen almost like a page of advertising when you have that logo present there on the bottom of the page. What kind of feedback do you get from people?

Doug—I think people are interested in it, because even though my account was private, there were a lot of fashion people following it. I was trying to figure out how to get people to really pay attention, to have a sense of immediacy in what they’re looking at.

Fabien—Absolutely. You definitely got that down, I think. I see in your work a need that is impactful, provocative, and memorable. The way that you’re using the brands and their visuals directly, the meaning becomes more powerful, that’s the way I’m reading your things. So, what made you think, oh, I want to take this advertising and mess around with it?

Doug—Right, well I was messing around with appropriating images and putting my own logo on them, sort of branding images. I’m interested in the idea of branding images that aren’t products. In doing that, I started looking at actual advertising in a different way. And as I said, there were many fashion people following me, so I started thinking more about what other people do, literally sorting images on my iPhoto next to the other images that I was collecting for random reasons. I started to see an interplay between the advertising images and I wanted to mess around with putting them together, you know? And I think I also felt like I was a little lazy by not making Instagram more of an art platform. I felt like I had gone as far as I could just reposting pictures, or not reposting. Even if I was doing it in an intentional way, by color story or by sort of thematic or whatever my intention was, I felt like I needed to make each thing more of an art thing.

Fabien—You had to create something of your own, yes.

Doug—Yeah, because I was not taking full advantage of what I could be doing on Instagram. I felt like the art world, the institution of it, freaked me out too much. And I felt like Instagram was a great way for me to have direct access to.

Fabien—So you were educated as an artist to start with?

Doug—Yeah, the reason I came to New York in the first place was to go to a fine arts school, and be a nineties art kid. I was doing exactly that until I started to get an insider look at what the art scene was, and I couldn’t deal.

Fabien—Where did you study? What did you study?

Doug—I went to Hunter College for graduate school circa ’95 or something, which is when I came here.

Fabien—And then you started to work for an artist?

Doug—No, I went to graduate school, and then I was working at Kim’s Video and was doing group shows and stuff. Then, to pay back my student loans I started doing some jewelry design for people that I knew. So that’s sort of how I got into doing fashion stuff. But even in art school, people would call my stuff too ‘fashion-y’.

Fabien—Oh really?

Doug—Not so dissimilar to what I do with photographs. I was into photographically drawing film stills and appropriating images and sort of reconceptualizing them, only I would physically draw the images instead of just taking images from photography. I remember doing a series of Belle De Jour pencil drawings and a critic saying that it looked too much like fashion advertising, which is ironic.

Fabien—I don’t understand why people would have an issue with the fashion thing.

Doug—Well, when you’re in art school, someone’s always got something negative to say about your work. But, again, I was drawing film stills from horror movies or would redraw another film still from Belle Du Jour and put it next to a film still from like Alien or something. It was not so dissimilar from the kind of thing that I do now, providing a personal narrative. In a way I’m talking about the branding, and expressing myself through the choices that I make.

Fabien—It’s definitely personal, and Instagram allows that. I wish there were more people doing interesting things with Instagram. I think it’s a lot of dogs, food, I’m with this one, I’m sitting next to that one, and I’m going to this party, you know?

Doug—Yeah, I almost never like food. That’s the only thing I will rarely get into. But, you know, I think what people like about what I do is that it subverts something that’s corporate, it’s a little bit naughty. I think it’s good for people to get into some rebellion.

Fabien—It is pushing buttons, and is controversial, in a way.

Doug—Well, I don’t really know a lot of fashion people, so it didn’t feel personal, I wasn’t getting paid by corporations or anything, so I felt comfortable doing whatever I wanted to do.

Fabien—You were free enough to be able to do what you did to the artwork, which I cannot do because my hands are tied with brands.

Doug—I felt like I was getting a good response from photographers whose work I was manipulating.

Fabien—Even Mert and Marcus say they love it because you’re putting the pictures in a much better place.

Doug—Well, sometimes.

Fabien—All the ads that you’ve done are cooler than the original.

Doug—I appreciate that. When they’re good, they’re good, you know? There was a moment in the nineties where advertising was a bit more progressive in terms of the boundaries than where it is now.

Fabien—I agree.

Doug—There was a lot more nipple in the nineties in Calvin Klein.

Fabien—But you know at that time, Calvin was there and he liked to push things. I remember proposing advertising campaigns and  he would say, ‘oh, that’s good, I like that, let’s do it,” and he would just do it. It was great! Now the corporation takes over, so it’s not the same focus.

Doug—Yeah, I think, ironically, as the internet makes real pornographic images so available to people, there’s a strange backlash in terms of the establishment being much more puritanical with its imagery.

Fabien—In the nineties, you couldn’t see sexy pictures like you can today. You have your own retail store and, do you want to talk about that?

Doug—Retail in SoHo, New York City, is really the dumbest thing you could possibly do. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but really nobody has any business spending their own money to have stores in SoHo because it is in the thick of corporate branding. These corporate flagships don’t need to make any money because they’re basically advertising in real estate. But unfortunately, my store has to pay its rent and make money like a mom and pop business, which is almost extinct in this day and age in New York City. And ironically, I was interested in retail in the same way as Instagram because it’s direct access to the public. Bess NYC quickly grew like a brand, editorially. Suddenly, in 2010 or something, we were in lots of fancy international magazines without having PR or a showroom or anything, I think it was because we gave stylists immediate access to whatever we were doing in real-time, which I think is sort of exciting when they were used to going to show rooms and sending a million emails. It’s just getting worse in that regard, too, for stylists.

Fabien—There’s not a lot of freedom in magazines these days.

Doug—No, but I think that was part of my motivation for doing retail. I knew I would never be able to succeed the way you’re supposed to because it would be too disheartening for me.

Fabien—It’s really about having direct access to the public, that seems to be very important to you.

Doug—I think it’s the only way to do something where you’re not going to be censored. I think the reality of both fashion and art is that there’s a whole networking scheme and you have to be somewhat socially skilled. I always felt that I didn’t know how to do things the right way or know how to be at the right party. I think in art I always felt like I had to go to openings because everyone was going to be there. I just felt like a phony and that it would never be an effortless thing for me.

Fabien—I know exactly what you’re talking about. I hate all the social parties. It seems that today, though, it’s a real job. Being successful requires a big social life, being at all the parties with this person or that person, making sure you’re Tweeting it, Instagramming it. What do these people do, really, apart from being out at 4 o’clock in the morning? To me, it’s about work, it’s about doing things and producing things. And the rest, I’m not really a pro at it. And some people are amazing at it.

Doug—It’s difficult for me, but I feel like it’s also counterproductive. I’m very anxious and uncomfortable in those situations, so I feel like it’s not the best way for me to interface with people. I’m either going to consume massive amounts of alcohol or I just have to go, you know? So I think that you have to figure out another avenue to participate.

Fabien—Yeah, and that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing. Has anyone ever gotten upset by your treatment of the images? I mean, every time I see anything you’ve done of mine, I always think ‘oh my god, it’s much better.’ I wish I could have done it myself!

Doug—Well, I always appreciate when people say that. I haven’t gotten negative feedback from a brand. I’ve gotten plenty of negative feedback from the public, but I think that’s the result of having a large audience. Instagram does that somewhat. I did an Alexander Wang one recently where they reposted it and then I got a lot of requests for interviews from political blogs about why I’m a misogynist.

Fabien—Oh really?

Doug—But, you know, I like stuff like that anyway. Calvin Klein had a good understanding of how to use some controversy in advertising. It is certainly what I’m trying to do when I’m reworking ads, going to some place that is going to make people upset because that’s good branding for me. And I think that’s what gets lost with public companies because they can’t do anything that is incites controversy. They are missing out on the greatest thing about access to the public consciousness: mixing things up a little bit for people.