Three generations of New York fashion join Document to discuss their creative origin stories
Susan Cianciolo, Eckhaus Latta, and Maryam Nassir Zadeh—designers from three different decades who have a lot in common. Coincidence brought them together, and carved out a curious path towards ongoing collaboration, outside the current flow of technology and trends. Susan was a pioneer of progressive, artistic American fashion in the ’90s when glamour ruled. A decade later, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta (of Eckhaus Latta) and Maryam Nassir Zadeh are putting their own twist on thoughtful and everlasting fashion, juggling beauty, business, and art—not the easiest challenge for small designers today.
Ours wasn’t a traditional conversation, but happened in a way that’s become relatively normal in the age of COVID-19. Maryam was writing from Turkey, while Mike hopped on a call a week before Eckhaus Latta’s NYFW show. Susan hosted me and photographer Dimitri Hyacinthe in her Spuyten Duyvil apartment, but also suggested a separate followup interview, as her current schedule is busy with teaching (at Pratt Institute) and modeling jobs. On the morning we arrived at Susan’s, the rain had just cleared, the sun was soft, and there was dew on the leaves. Her apartment—which she shares with her 11-year-old daughter, Lilac, and a ginger cat, Alex—is full of art. As Susan explained, these works were either gifted to her or exchanged with her own works. There is a deeply rooted artistic soul in that apartment. For Susan, art is created everywhere, and here is the story of it.
Ana Tess: How did your relationships with Susan start? Susan, when did you first appear in Eckhaus Latta and Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s shows? Had you ever modeled before?
Susan Cianciolo: I would say the relationships started by being a fan of both—Mike and Zoe, and Maryam. I really cannot say when it was [that I first appeared] in Eckhaus Latta and MNZ shows. If I try to remember back, it feels like that may have been yesterday.
Maryam Nassir Zadeh: I admired Susan from afar in the early 2000s while attending RISD. I felt a connection to her work and her path immediately. Eight years later when I opened my store, a friend of Susan reached out about an appointment to see her collection. From then the journey of our relationship began. We have [bought] her work for the store, and done many events, art openings, and shows at the store. She has appeared in photo projects as well as in my runway shows. We feel like family, and outside of work, we have a deep spiritual connection.
Mike Eckhaus: Back in 2014, Zoe and I met Susan through our mutual friend who was babysitting Lilac, Susan’s daughter. It started with a very casual friendship, but we got along well from the start. Susan firstly appeared in our Spring 2015 collection and has been walking every show since then. Our shows have always been the trust of a lot of friends and Susan enfolded into that space.
Ana: Talking about your roots, how did Rhode Island School of Design influence your work?
Susan: We did not live far from there, but when I applied to RISD I was not accepted, so I have always imagined what it would have been like to go there. Therefore, the imagination is far more influential than the reality, in my way of looking at roots and influence.
Maryam: I attended RISD for undergrad, I studied textiles. My education in the history and process of creating fabrics has deeply informed my work as a designer and buyer. The way I design, and what other designers I’m drawn to, often starts with my fascination for textures and colors in knits and wovens.
Mike: RISD has a very creative scenery oriented around the school and the local community—different texture energy. It allows you to not be a part of mass fashion, like in NY, and shape your perspective. You have an absence of distractions. I don’t think it’s unique but definitely makes it somewhat special.
Ana: Susan and Mike, you are both involved in teaching at Pratt Institute. How would you all describe a future generation of American designers?
Susan: I do believe they are the future, so it’s really in their hands, this next chapter—I can only say we are in good hands!
Maryam: One of the most talented people I know, Claire McKinney, my production manager, is a Pratt alum and former student of Susan’s. The new generation of designers keeps the integrity of handwork and concept in the design, as well as being efficient of rigor, and execution.
Mike: I’ve only taught at Pratt for two years, and I don’t think I’ve had time to see enough. I’ve observed amazing work from students there, a lot of students Susan had taught, and [seen] how her aesthetic had informed them.
Ana: What are you learning from them?
Susan: Well, I learned how smart [they are and how] fast and easy things come to them. And I see how patient they are, so they teach me about excitement and [having] a different outlook on history.
Maryam: My sales director and I attended critiques of Pratt fashion design student collections on multiple occasions, and their graduating runway shows. Students put a lot of emotion and detail into every piece, there is usually a story behind every decision they’ve made. It reminds me that having more time to design can lead to valuable revelations.
Mike: Students always help me to understand the process—they are entering the creative space without being there, trying to explore the concept. The things that you take for granted or the things you put to the side because there is too much under the plate or you don’t think it’s necessary, are clarifying when you look from the perspective of the student.
Ana: How do you imagine launching a brand in the 2010s compares to what it would have been like in the ‘90s, when Susan’s Run first appeared?
Maryam: I’m not sure I can speak to the difference, since I only know my own. In terms of the past, I love using it as a reference of simplicity and purity. So much of me wishes to design in a way more simple but artful, making so much less but handmade, meaningful, and special. [The ‘90s was also about performance, storytelling— I miss that these days where fashion has become so fast.
Mike: I think budgets are the main difference. We didn’t have money when we started—the fashion industry didn’t, especially in NYC—and fashion wasn’t pop culture like in the ‘90s. Back then it was a different world, with luxury conglomerates starting to form. Our approach to it was very DIY in the beginning. We’ve integrated the hand wovens and merged the androgynous beauty. In that sense, people sometimes draw a connection to Susan’s language. I can see there are parallels, but it’s a widely different world.
Ana: Susan, do you get involved in the design process for Eckhaus Latta and MNZ?
Susan: This seems like a funny question to me, because I could never imagine getting involved with designing with them, although it’s a very nice idea. I would say there are more abstract ways we have collaborated. I have asked Maryam if she could hire me to be her design assistant and I am still waiting to hear her answer!
Maryam: Susan has not been involved with the design process, but she brings a personal connection to my work, because we have a history together and an authentic love for each other. Susan talks about assisting me with design and I’m so curious how that would translate. I’m so intrigued and I feel it would elevate my work. We should experiment together.
Ana: Mike and Maryam, what is the best advice you’ve ever got from Susan?
Susan: I’m going to answer this question even though it’s not for me, because I want to point out that I would say it’s the opposite. I have never given any advice, and every time I have needed help I can see I have received that from [Mike, Zoe, and Maryam], and in a way that was like advice to me. They are the wise ones.
Maryam: Susan is a reminder, for me, of many things I envision for myself my future self. Her art and spiritual practice, and her discipline with them, are an inspiration and how I feel my path will evolve in the future.
Mike: We usually talk about making work and the process of it, but never ask for advice.
Ana: Susan was saying in one of her interviews that she’s questioning herself—why does the world need more art and clothes? What do you think about this? Especially after the pandemic, when designers face an issue selling their overstock.
Susan: I am pointing out that this comment really pertains to my work in that. I would not need to make an overstock since there are enough of my archives.
Maryam: These days, more than ever, I feel there needs to be a thoughtfulness—now that deadlines are less intensive—to invest energy into projects, and create things where every decision feels right and important. This is an important time to rethink and re-evaluate how to move forward in a way that feels sincere.
Mike: You are always questioning yourself—what’s the need of this? There is an obvious logic to it, but I think, why don’t we all be more contentious and strategic in decisions? Like, decision making, or being less wasteful in design, really caring that things you are making are worth their value. It’s really easy to get caught in the system, but the past few months showed the reality to most people.
Ana: What are your plans for the current season?
Maryam: I am launching a brand new division, it has been something I have wanted to do for years. We are leaving to the south of Turkey, where I spent time this summer, to document the collection. That location has been a big inspiration to me—the rawness, light, textures, and Mediterranean air feels very much my aesthetic. It will have our DNA but end up being something new—a reflection of what is sincere to the brand.
Mike: I don’t believe in a digital fashion week, it’s super flattening and less appealing. There are a lot of brands that don’t need to participate in fashion week, but they do, just because. Showing our work in the performative presentation was original for us, and there is just a question, ‘How do you adapt?’
Ana: Would you rather stick to the seasons or do something on your own schedule, as Susan did with her Run collections?
Maryam: I much prefer to do things on my own without a deadline. It would be very interesting [to work on my own schedule], but there is something about the seasons and deadlines that motivate things to happen, and I appreciate the momentum to flow.
Mike: Seasons make sense to me. People like to complain a lot, but in the end, there’s a logic to the structure. Even to think of fashion week as happening all year long, with everyone doing their own thing…It’s a different game if you are a big company with huge budgets. But as [part of] a small company, I don’t feel like a victim accepting industry canons.
Ana: Who is your ultimate icon? Susan, as you are not just participating in Eckhaus Latta and MNZ shows, but also wearing pieces from both designers, would you name yourself an ‘influencer’? If so, what is your own definition of this term?
Susan: I am definitely not an influencer, since I have a specific lifestyle that would not appeal to the many or the mass public.
Maryam: I don’t prioritize icons, I get inspired by people I know whose characters inspire me, as well as their work and their personal style.
Mike: We do not have an icon for the brand. I don’t ignore [the influencer sales model], but we work with people we like and care about, whether they are influencers or not.
Ana: During the lockdown, in a talk for BoF, Pierpaolo Piccioli said that he wants to give people beauty even during difficult times. What is your main purpose when it comes to creation?
Susan: I want to give people beauty in times of ugliness, and great ugliness in times of beauty. Right now it [feels like it’s] raining inside because nothing makes sense. So maybe that is what we need to promote—a feeling of beauty, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it is up to each of us to feely offer creation.
Maryam: As Susan said, sometimes it feels like it’s raining inside—we need to acknowledge that, and take responsibility while lifting each other up when we have the strength to. Creating gives my life beauty, I hope it does the same for others.
Mike: We always want to make clothing that makes people feel more like themselves without prescribing an identity.
Hair by Koji Ichikawa. Make-up by Robert Reyes using Tom Ford Beauty.