In Carly Mark and Ayla Argentina's NYC studio, cosplay becomes cult fashion

On a gloomy Saturday afternoon before COVID-19 hit New York city, Document sat down with Puppets and Puppets designer and co-founder, Carly Mark in her cozy, West Village apartment (which doubles as her brand’s studio). Her friend and Puppets and Puppets co-founder Ayla Argentina, who boasts a background in costuming, sat at the sewing machine, stitching together their Fall 2020 ready-to-wear collection. Around us, the walls displayed the previous season’s iconic “Egg shoes,” a promotional poster for the movie Alien, a model building of the KeyFoods on Avenue A, and a crystal-embellished sheathed katana.

The studio feels just as eccentric and homey as the clothes they create within it. Rooted in the art world, Puppets and Puppets evokes a palpable sense of surrealism and playfully subverts ready-to-wear codes with each season.

As we sat in Mark’s living room, we discussed anime, Aphex Twin, and Souen on 6th Street. All the while, mascot and muse Puppet, a black chihuahua, listened in, occasionally defending Mark’s honor with low growls.

Myles Xavier: Do you and Ayla have any muses?

Carly Mark: I mean we have consistent models who walk for us, and they’re our friends and they’re also our muses. Michael Bailey Gates, who’s an amazing photographer. Jane Moseley, who’s a great model and artist. Richie Shazam, who is just the best person in New York City. Last season we were lucky enough to have Caroline Polachek walk for us; another Gemini we love so much. Danny Bowien who is a great friend of mine, and you know, Mission Chinese is the most delicious place to eat. We work with muses more than we work with agency models.

Bella Lucio: So when you look for people to wear your clothes or walk your shows you’re looking for less agency and more street casted, people you are familiar with? What is the process?

Carly: I like a mix, I find dealing with modeling agencies very difficult; I don’t think they understand young creative brands so much. I understand we all have to make money to survive in this city, so their focus is to make money, but it is easier for me and more exciting for Ayla and I to be involved with people who don’t have anyone or anything stopping them from working on a collection with us. No middleman, no one to deal with the in-betweens.

Myles: It’s almost like a family, your brand.

Carly: Yes. I think [with] young New York designers, it’s not just about creating a brand, it’s about fostering a community, a community that they’re creating and a community they are in conversation with. I think Telfar does a really good job at fostering a community and casting people who really inspire them and are a part of their family. I know other brands that do the same and that’s how we operate too.

Myles: How do you begin to source inspiration for the collections?

Carly: I went to school for art, art history, and my mother is an art historian, so I grew up learning and listening to theory, and I think it was really rooted in my brain to develop a concept for things before executing a project or idea. I’m also a Gemini so I’m an information junkie. Throughout the years I have just accumulated a wealth of different creative sources that I can then expand on. We know what the next four seasons will be just because I’m a fan of certain cultural things, certain artists, certain musicians. I basically have a rolodex in my mind of people who I really love and really inspire me.

Myles: Your past collaborators have been really interesting like Eric Wareheim, and I’m really interested in your work with butt plugs and the transition from butt plugs to a full fledged ready to wear brand.

Carly: I love Eric, Eric is a really good friend of mine. I think Tim and Eric’s work is actually groundbreaking. When you watch that show, the type of comedy that they did together and do together, was quite ahead of its time. They’re very innovative in that way. Working with Eric, his brain is like ahead of everyone else and that’s really exciting. He’s also just really funny, and that’s something we work with a lot in our collections, although they are serious and we are serious about it, they’re always funny too. We love humor. I think that’s how I got to the butt plugs too, because I was making sculptures, and I was working with Haribo, and I was like how can I dement this wholesome childlike thing? Like this gummy bear. I thought, we can make something that’s like the exact opposite, something that’s phallic or sexualized, fetishized, etc. So we made Haribo bear butt plugs.

That’s not that different than last season when we worked with the eggs, changing the context of things. Taking something and turning it into something we can laugh at. As beautiful and serious as the egg bra is, it’s also really funny. We were really inspired by fabergé, last season the theme was an intersection point between Romanovs and American Psycho. So, it turned into this kind of twisted, funny, beautiful, poetic thing.

Myles: What led to you wanting to enter the fashion world?

Carly: I was tired of the art world, you know.

Ayla Argentina: Me berating her.

Carly: And Ayla berating me. I had moved here to work in art, and I didn’t really understand, as an 18 year old girl, that art is just a business. Especially when you learn about it in Art History, you think it’s like this transcendental thing, and it’s not. It’s not actually a religion, it’s just a product, a reflection of wealth, and that’s fine, it is just not what I signed up for. Fashion is also that, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and because it transparently is a commodity, somehow we’ve been able to find the visceral transcendence in it. It’s actually far more emotional than artworks and going to fairs and showing in fairs. Having a runway show is completely ephemeral, you don’t make money from it, and it’s the best feeling in the world too.

Myles: What do you guys do for fun, do you have any reality tv shows?

Carly: I just finished Succession, but I think we sleep for fun.

Ayla: I definitely sleep for fun.

Carly: Ayla and I, I think part of the reason we work so well together is we’re kind of crazy people, after the show we will sleep for two weeks, then start again and we don’t take breaks.

Ayla: We’re constantly sound boarding each other, texting and being like, ‘Oh my god look at this thing,’ and, ‘Look at this thing, this would be fabulous,’ so it doesn’t ever really stop.

Carly: It doesn’t. If we’re not physically working together, we are DM-ing each other images like vintage Gaultier pieces, or I’m FaceTiming Ayla at 10am on a Sunday like, ‘I just had an idea.’ It just does not stop, we are crazy people, and that’s why three seasons in—beautifully, luckily—people are really into what we’re doing. For any young person, or person at all working on something new, the best piece of advice I can give is work your ass off. You work your ass off and people pay attention; that’s why we’re in the position we’re in right now is because we don’t stop.

Myles: A lot of comparisons have been made saying that you guys are like the next Commes des Garçon, the next Vivienne Westwood, that you’re giving New York a reason to be important.

Carly: Who said that! That’s really flattering. It’s heartening to us, we love our contemporaries. We’ve hit walls with ‘the authorities’ here, the powers of New York Fashion, and they don’t really get what we’re doing. Although bothers us in the moment, it is only an incentive to push back because New York does need this. I am constantly asked why don’t you move this to Paris, because of the reception and financial backing and room to do this is all. We won’t leave New York, we won’t abandon New York, New York needs this right now. So it’s great to hear that, especially when we are so tired. So tired.

Bella: And how long have you guys been here?

Carly: I’m from Detroit, I moved here when I just turned 18 and I’m 31 now. So, 13 years, 14 years.

Bella: Ayla, where are you from?

Ayla: I’m from Long Island, native New Yorker.

Myles: And you met through working together right?

Carly: I had a painting assistant at the time who was living with Ayla, and one day we were all working and they said, ‘My roommate just got let go from their job and they’re really upset, can they come over?’ And I said sure, because I’ve always loved my studios to be like a safe place for people to come, even just to hangout (not that we have time for that anymore).

Ayla: That was such a messy way to meet you, I came into your studio hysterically crying.

Carly: I was like, ‘who are you?’, ‘Ayla’, ‘And what do you do?’, ‘Clothing’, and I was like, ‘Do you want to make me clothes?’ And Ayla’s like, ‘Ok.’ And that was selfish; at that point I was like, ‘I want a bodysuit that looks like something Gaultier would’ve made, but with a Giger print. Ayla made it for me and I was like ok you’re hired.

Myles: What was this for?

Carly: I had a show opening in Athens, Greece and I knew I wanted to wear this exact thing that didn’t exist. It was two weeks before I was leaving, so Ayla had to finish it while I was already in Greece and ship it to me. But, a few days before, I got a frantic phone call from Ayla; it shrank in size, like two sizes smaller. I was like, ‘don’t worry girl you got this just fix this,’ and she was like, ‘what?’ But Ayla fixed it and shipped it to Greece, and I wore it to my opening.

Myles: Where do you see Puppets and Puppets headed in the new decade?

Mark: Well Murielle [Maalouf] just came on board and is going to help me start production after this season, and we just want to be able to sustain this, keep doing what we’re doing. I eventually would love to do clothing for films like Gaultier did. We would be really open to doing theatre and ballet too, but we will always have a collection, because the runway shows are what we do this for: it’s mayhem for months, leading up to the best six minutes of your life.

Myles: Where does your love of showmanship stem from?

Carly: I’m a Leo rising, and Ayla’s a Leo rising, and my boyfriend is a Leo rising, and Jane Moseley is a Leo rising; everyone in my life is a Leo rising. We’re all showmen; we love to be the center of attention.

Ayla: Big Leo energy, and I’m actually a Cancer, Leo cusp.

Bella: In the spirit of characters, do you either of you have any favorites?

Carly: I love everything Miyazaki, we love No-Face, I love Aphex Twin, anything Chris Cunningham. I also love Matthew Barney, he’s really great at characters, everything in The Cremaster Cycle is beautiful, I think he really executed the characters well. Alien, from Alien.

Myles: Do you wear a lot of your own clothes?

Carly: I do, I’ll wear it out. When I get dressed, I’m lucky to have a fashion line that all lives in my home, in my size. I’m very selfish and lucky to have made that my life.

Bella: What are your favorite restaurants in the city?

Carly: Right now I really love Cafe Altro Paradiso; it’s the same owner as Estela. There are go-tos also: I love Omen, been there forever. I love Souen; I miss the old Souen, but I still go to 6th Street because they have gluten free cornbread. Kiki’s, really good greek food. I can never remember what I have eaten, there are too many things to do in a day. We have a song that constantly plays in here; it’s a disco song about someone constantly going uptown and downtown and uptown and downtown, and Ayla is always saying, ‘this is your life.’ Everyday except Sunday (only because it’s closed) I’m going uptown to the Garment District and coming back down and going back up, until I go to sleep.

Ayla: The song is called ‘Beam Me Up’ by Midnight Magic.

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