An Interview With Toxic Designer Kaytee Papusza

I met Kaytee Papusza 3 years ago when I did my first modeling job for Art Basel in Miami. She hung me from a swing 10 feet in the air dressed in an outrageously wild costume themed off of a myth about Iceland's Mother Nature. That was probably the first job I ever did that actually inspired me beyond the 24 hour spectrum of the event. We ended up spending the whole week of Basel together discussing designers, concepts, life and of course fashion. As the years have gone by and my mind has expanded Kaytee has stayed extremely close to my heart. Her passion is unbelievably strong and her spirit goes beyond this world. Time and experience has taught me that not all people think about their work to the depth that Papusza does and that is what has intrigued me to keep in such close contact with her. That is also what inspired me to collaborate with her on this particular toxic adventure you all have experienced this week. Today I wanted to dig deeper into the mind that is Papusza Couture

How did you first become interested in design?

I think I was born with it in my blood. When I was a kid my single mother was doing seamstress work. I spent my childhood growing up around her while she did this... in a house filled with antique lace, vintage silken nighties, old school Singer sewing machines and closets filled with her beautiful detail-rich collections of dresses ranging from the 40’s-70’s. From the time I could adorn myself I had a closet filled with bags and bags of dress-up clothes; old circus costumes, hula skirts, tutu’s, bloomers, poodle skirts. I had trunks and shelves-wall to wall-covered in dolls wearing the most beautiful dresses. There were boxes of paper dolls in my closet, regularly given additions from my grandmothers. It’s in my blood-even today, I have shears on my altar that have been in my family for generations.

As I grew into my adolescents it became more and more a form of artistic expression... for lack of a better description I would even go so far as to say fashion was my form of rebellion during my preteen years (and before I got caught up in more destructive behaviors). I would go shopping for school clothes and end up with $200 worth of costumes, vintage and stuff I had found at thrift stores. I was living in the Pacific Northwest in the 90’s-with grunge culture as my sole positive creative influence; everything else just seemed so *BORING*. Through my love of old clothes and the influence of grunge I started reconstructing vintage-which gave me a greater understanding of how real (non factory produced) clothing is made. I started not only wearing reconstructed vintage pieces, but I also started making my own clothes. I always had some of the loudest style in my school when I was a teen-that’s for sure. Although I’ve gotten a lot more casual in my style it’s still loud as f#!%, and I hope it stays that way until I die.

Being based on the west coast you must see tons of people on the streets wearing things inspired by the nu goth and sea punk trends. Those elements of rebelliousness and individuality with an acidic twist can be seen in your dip-dyed tights and other hand dyed garments. What got you to start hand dying your garments?

I got really into it right before I went to Iceland. I was making a collection to show there called Oceania Etherea- a concept collection inspired by Vikings and the mysticism of Iceland (a place I have been obsessed with since I was a child). Two of the main inspirations of the collection were sea and air, in correlation with the stunning landscapes of the island. I started dying a lot of the light, airy, fabrics. I used shades of blue and green, using techniques that would create a watery, wave-like textile effect. With the tights, it was the same thing.... I wanted to give the effect of “sea legs,” literally.

I had dyed stuff previously, and worked for other designers that did a lot of dying work, but that was when I fell in love with creating my own textiles. Over the years fiber arts have become like chemistry or witchcraft for me... I like to dip and drape garments and tights into my boiling vat of magick and recreate them. It’s really exciting. I also really enjoy hand painting things, which gives them a very OOAK element, and a unique touch that can never be recreated on a machine.

As for nu goth and sea punk-I love. Wasn’t something I really became enchanted with until I came to California, but the style here is very playful, colorful and streetwear oriented. Not to mention there is a heavy punk/DIY influence in a lot of the fashion aesthetics here, which brought me right back to the ways of my youth-using old reconstructed t-shirts, bits from vintage dresses, and overall spurred my lifelong adoration of grunge into resurrection.

The way I see a lot of these fantastical, colorful, rebellious emerging style trends-such as nu goth, pastel goth, sea punk, soft grunge, etc.-is as a convergence of my childhood and my adolescence. At times it is so literal that it is labeled-like on shirts with “Hole” and “Barbie” written on them, and bling that says “Mermaid” or is dangling with doll parts of Lisa Frank creatures. In other ways it’s a little more subtle; my little pony hair, stone washed cut-offs, t-shirts that read fuckthehellofffuckstick or “Bitch Craft,” literally dripping with the sweet allure of teenage angst. I love it all... reminds me how wonderful, sassy, creative and liberating that playful sense of youth is. I want to remember to feel like that forever. 

Your work always seems to contain a story behind it. Do you feel that the process of creating a collection or piece is more important than the final outcome?

I think both aspects are important, but clothing lacking in concept bores me, which in turn makes the process just as crucial as the outcome. My background-and the basis for much of my fashion inspiration-is in cultural anthropology with an emphasized interest on adornment and storytelling. Culture compels me enormously, and the origin of all cultures is within the stories that have created each unique social structure-from aesthetics to how people communicate.

I have been very literal with my use of storytelling in correlation with my designs in the past. For example I have done a couture collection of tarot card dresses inspired by the Romani (aka the Gypsies) and a Viking inspired collection. Another collection was of dead bird dresses, called Sleeping on the Wind; an ode to the souls of the departed-a legend originally conceived of by a number of Native American tribes. Currently in my couture work I am doing a collection of Ghost Story Dresses; this collection is an ode to my ancestors and a tribute to the haunted souls of those who suffered in the past that remain with us. In pretty much all of my couture work an element of history and/or mythology is present. 

I like to think of my streetwear collections as a continuation of this solemnization of cultures, but in a more contemporary sense. I have an enormous fascination with and love of urban tribes. My most recent body of work is a collection of streetwear inspired by street art, nu goth, slime punk, pastel punk and grunge resurrection. The collection includes new limited edition items-such as leggings, stockings, shrugs, dresses made of scraps and tattered tutu’s-as well as a variety of one of a kind pieces; many made from salvaged clothing or materials. There is an element of the occult in some of the pieces-much of which is intended to be a joke-and an overall mockery of mainstream Western media and culture. The idea of this collection carries in it a note of irony, merging colorful childhood innocence and embellishment in the pieces, with the bitter dark side of teenage angst-exhibited by the fusion of goth/punk/DIY aesthetics. I like to think of it as My Little Pony on an acid trip gone wrong, but in all the right ways if you know what I mean. Hence the title, SéANCE, it is a semi-innocent attempt to bring the “dead” clothes and style fads back to life, both literally and figuratively.

So in long I don’t think that the outcome of a piece is less important than the process-I think process and outcome are equals in all mediums of art and fashion that need to tell a rich story.

Myths, rituals, mysticism, and metaphysics all seem to play a heavy role in your process. Would you agree or do you feel that other things are more significant to your art?

I guess it depends on the project... but ultimately, yes, my art is my way of practicing magick. By creating with my hands I am able to take the images of my dreams and ideals of my visual aesthetics and put them into motion, therefore making them a reality. I have always viewed this as my form of controlling my own mind or emotional state, which admittedly at times has scared me. By crafting beautiful things I am ritualizing what I imagine in the sense of making it a reality-aka magick. For this I am enormously thankful. If I didn’t have my creativity as an outlet I fear where I might be.

As for myths-I love them. I read fairy tales before I go to bed, and try to infuse my dreams with poetry. I believe in ghosts, but I don’t think they are anything to be afraid of... I am pretty sure I have some sort of guardian angel on my shoulder watching my back and protecting me from any sort of truly evil demons. But I get props from that force of protection only through creating and being committed to my art... keeps me honest. I think that when I am making the most beautiful, alive garments that I am losing myself into something or someone else. Something comes through me. I know this might sound crazy, but I swear-when I am designing couture each piece takes on a different persona, as if I am channeling a force much greater than me. This feeling is so enticingly addictive. It’s like making a couture gown feels like having a child to me. Perhaps this is why I get so attached to certain pieces.

You have traveled quite a bit in your life. How have those experiences you’ve had with different groups of people influenced your work? What is your favorite place you’ve visited?

I’ve always been a gypsy. Being fluid and nomadic has, ironically, been the only constant in my life. I tend to feel the most alive when I am wandering and the idea of journeying rouses great excitement in me. It’s strange, but one might say that I feel most at home when I am traveling and exploring new places. I’ve always been a pro when it comes to living out of my suitcase-I might even call that suitcase my home away from home

I would *DEFINITELY* say that living a nomadic lifestyle and meeting all kinds of people has influenced my work. People are great, compelling, complex and inspiring beings-whether they intentionally choose to be that way or not. Adapting to different environments, and being pushed to learn how to hustle no matter where you are or what you are doing is intrinsic to surviving as an artist. There are so many factors to consider; environmental, aesthetic, financial, survival instincts, maintaining mobility, collaboration, getting exposure and prioritizing all serve in part of being a successful artist. It’s a lot to juggle and it can be a lot to digest at times.

The greater the spectrum of life experience a person encounters the more inspired her/his collections and body of work will become. Each place I’ve lived or visited has taught me something different, playing a role in developing pieces of my character which are part of the puzzle leading to the greater vision which I seek to live. It’s all about embracing the experience, letting yourself feel everything, and see everything-even if it’s difficult or painful. Being part of the hustle, the burden, the beauty, the decay. Bliss cannot exist without melancholy. The darkside is so important, and I often feel people stifle the painful stuff forgetting that you can’t truly enjoy laughter if you don’t know how to cry.

Every place has something so different to offer... for example no other place can teach you to hustle and squash cockroaches like NYC. I can only imagine a few other places in the world where the light looks as beautiful striking the earth as it does in Iceland, or where the faces of old people are as brilliantly sun-struck with leathery wisdom and soulful eyes as they are South of the border. A train ride across the SW of the states can be as vibrant as a dream if you look out the window at sunset and see the horizon painted in a million brilliant colors from the sky, even if the land below it is littered with strip malls and gas stations. It isn’t always pretty, but you also can’t always take the easy way out. If you *REALLY* love something you have to be willing to work hard and struggle for it. I think the most important thing I’ve learned in being a gypsy is that if you aren’t willing to struggle for what you do then you shouldn’t be doing it.

I can’t pick one place that’s been my favorite. They all complete a different part of how life experiences and the ability to struggle and adapt have shaped me. In correlation with my statement about fluidity I can say that no matter where I am the ocean is always my favorite part of any place. Be it Coney Island or Venice Beach-the Indian Ocean, Dead Sea or the Mediterranean-I think I’ll always feel this way.

You beautifully describe the dissatisfaction that every artist has with their work as a necessary evil to create beauty. How would you describe your own experiences as an artist dealing with dissatisfaction and how have you managed to overcome them?

Oh geeze, I mean this is-in my humble opinion-the fuel which feeds the fire. I know this might sound crazy, but I hope I’m never satisfied with my work. I guess in a sense the dissatisfaction is what drives me to be inspired, and to keep seeking that perfect moment where my art will look exactly as I dream for it too. On the other hand if that ever happens, what else is there? I mean, honestly speaking, what else do I have to wake up for in the morning? Of course there are family, friends, chocolate truffles, cupcakes, boys, bicycle rides, cheap champagne, mermaids, bitch craft and bubble baths. But I mean really, without my art would I be terribly depressed? For my art is the voice that the darkest part of me uses to escape-and without it none of this other stuff would really matter. In turn all of the non-art, life stuff listed above is the stuff that calms me down, brings me back to earth and makes me happy when my art is to much or to heavy for me (which happens sometimes). I often think of it this way; being a creative person and knowing which medium(s) you are in love with really is the perfect drug. It gives you something to do that no one can ever take away from you, an escape, a best friend that can’t hurt you and won’t lie to you. If you are like me it will keep you up for days, make you forget to eat, make your brain go a million miles an hour and make you so f#$&ing high on ideas that you will feel like you are never gonna come back to earth. But it can also be really intense and even addictive... which is where bicycle rides, boys and bitch craft come into play.

I accepted years ago that the sense of dissatisfaction and struggle will always be there, as long as I am choosing to live my life as a working artist-it comes with the territory. It doesn’t go away, no matter how much I do or don’t see myself as succeeding, so like any other blessing or curse (depending on how you spin it) one must learn to live with, it’s all about configuring the delicate balance of keeping it manageable. Being self reflective, intuitive and taking alone time (away from creating art) are all important factors. For me, communication with loved ones, remembering to eat/sleep right and keeping my mania at bay are the key things. As long as I have these three factors in place I am usually pretty good about coming back to planet earth from my art frenzies.... and an art frenzy is a beautiful thing to exist in, but if you can’t come back from it then it really does make you crazy. We must dream and rest in order for new ideas to become sanely palpable.

If you had to describe your style in 3 words what would they be?

Psychedelic Witchy Gangster

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

I have a whole lotta new stuff up my sleeve. Lately there has been a lot of streetwear and grunge/punk apparel coming out of my studio. My newest line is called Papusza SéANCE; a collection of resurrected grunge inspired streetwear, limited edition and one of a kind handmade unique shirts, sassy cocktail ensembles and loud punky leggings and tights... infused with all things on the line where nu goth-ism and pastel punk converge. It's like my 14 year old grunge self and my 4 year old My Little Pony self had a baby and now it's all grown up.

As previously mentioned I’m also working on a couture collection called The Ghost Story Dresses. The concept of this one is suggested in the title, and I’ll hold off on going into detail too much until the collection debuts but I’ve been working on it for over a year now and chances are that it won’t be done and ready to get shot until Fall of ‘13. I have put a lot of strenuous effort into perfecting all the many tiny details of these highly conceptualized fine art dresses. They are near and dear to my heart.

There are many more magical ideas and little projects floating around in my head that I foresee in my future but for the time being I’ll keep those top-secret. I try not to let more than a couple of my ideas out of the bag at the same time. I’m a manic dreamer... once my head starts spinning I don’t always know what moon or planet it will land on. For the sake of sanity I try not to go to too many places at once. I like to make an effort to slow the thought process and pace myself-hard as it might be-but I know that my future is filled with wonderful places; both in the real world and in my imagination.

All clothing by Papusza Couture, if you would like to purchase anything click here.