The pop collagists of Chairlift are delightful misfits in the Brooklyn music scene, and frontwoman Caroline Polachek has a similarly imaginative fashion sense. She loves wearing clothes outside their intended contexts and often shows up dressed as figures from her imagination and video game characters based on her own past.
A fan of New York’s futurists Proenza Schouler as well as local underwear-as-outerwear specialists VPL, Polachek is also enthralled with the conflicted, cerebral beauty of Prada, whose Fashion’s Night Out celebration the band plays tonight. Polachek talked with Rolling Stone about her impressively comprehensive style philosophies, why this evening’s show is special to her and why fashionable ladies can never go wrong with a “secretary on ecstasy” vibe.
You’re playing Prada’s Fashion’s Night Out. That seems like a huge deal. Are you a fan of the label?
It’s really exciting! Kind of the holy grail of Fashion Week gigs, for me. I can’t wait. I’m a big fan of the label, especially in recent years. I didn’t really follow fashion until I moved to New York six years ago and since then, I’ve grown to love Prada more with every collection, seeing how Miuccia [Prada] repeats and reworks elements of the vocabulary: the bands of kelly green, the Seventies prints, the boxy paneled shapes.
What do you appreciate about Prada’s aesthetic?
I love how awkward and confrontational Prada is. The muted, sometimes “ugly” colors, the tension that gets set up. I love how adapted it is to real life – even though I’m a huge McQueen fan, I love how Prada is meant to torque and fuck with everyday life. I read somewhere once that Miuccia tells her new interns that “if you dress for sex, you won’t have it.” That kind of sums up how I feel about the sexuality of Prada clothes: the Prada wearer is a challenge. There’s sabotage of her prettiness, a playful anti-agenda that requires a real personality to pull off.
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Is Chairlift a band that concerns itself with fashion overall?
Patrick [Wimberly] doesn’t really care what he’s wearing, as long as he feels like himself, not dressed up in a costume. He’s a Southern boy, a realist. I consider it much more, which I suppose is predictable, being the one who looks after our visuals. My goal is to channel the fantastical melodies and synth textures of our songs, yet still be part of the team with the boys. That “team” thing always leads me to functional fashion: military, school uniform, officewear, scrubs, even sports apparel like gymnastics, ice skating or dance rehearsal gear. I love that it becomes dysfunctional when I sing in it, like a surgeon possessed or a secretary on ecstasy.
Which NYC designers do you feel a special affinity for?
Proenza Schouler, VPL, Patrik Ervell, Samantha Pleet, Mandy Coon, Nomia, the Lake & Stars, Lady Grey jewelry.
What shows might you check out this week? Are you DJing/playing any other fashion-related shows?
Sadly, we flew into New York just for one day to play Prada. We’re on tour through early November.
The Japanese version of your new video “I Belong in Your Arms” is getting plenty of blog accolades. Why did you record this version of it and does it respond to Americans’ seemingly growing interest in Asian pop music?
The song itself is the sweetest song on our album, the pinkest! I always imagined the narrator in the song to be a schoolgirl with a big crush on someone, [with] airplanes zooming and petals falling in the background. Since I spent my early childhood in Tokyo – with the plaid school uniform, earthquake drills and all! – my archetype of the schoolgirl is Japanese. So even while recording the English version, I’d picture a Japanese schoolgirl singing. After the original came out, I impulsively tried a version in Japanese with the help of my translator friend, which ended up feeling truer to the song than the English version.
So we made the official video for that version instead of the English version, even more for non-Japanese speakers than for the Japanese, because it reduces it to pure music and fantasy if you don’t know what I’m saying. I’m also inspired by this post-globalization context for pop music; traditionally foreign pop is translated into English, never the other way around, but I think the predominance of house and electronic dance music in the U.S. has taken people’s focus off lyrics in a way that prepares us to get into music in other languages. I’m also personally obsessed with the idea of Western decline, of American pop culture being finally humbled to others instead of the other way around. There’s something romantic and chaotic about that humility.
Can you briefly discuss your look in that video?
I wanted to stay true to the character of the song: a back-to-school girl, like Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. Hence the sweater vest, which I borrowed from Jorge Elbrecht [of Violens]. That sweater vest has an almost digital quality to the knit, which ended up inspiring a lot of the animation that Eric Epstein and I did later on. Digital plaid, digital argyle is exactly the perfect world for the song! And then the bleached white “halo” in my hair was an idea I had while on an airplane recently, where I drew it on a cocktail napkin. I wanted to take the sweater vest into anime territory, like a schoolgirl in Second Life. Laser twee!
You’ve worn Mandy Coon and Hannah Marshall and other severe, dark, modern designers, but you also can look almost haunting and elegant when you opt for lighter hues. What sways your style decisions for stage and photos and for everyday wear?
Like I was saying earlier, I love the idea of functional fashion. Especially while touring, when you can’t take that much stuff with you. Mandy Coon and Hannah Marshall were my gateway drugs into wearing leather; I’m a vegetarian, so I never wore leather until I met them and saw how gorgeous their simple, sleek pieces looked on. For everyday wear, I’m much more schizo; I love overdressing for stupid things like going to buy groceries.
If you controlled the whims and tides of Fashion Week, what would we be seeing on the runways this week?
Ooh, I wish! I’d be seeing white patent leather, Japanese kabuki makeup, harlequin prints, neon paired with non-neon, flat-heeled platform ankle boots with grippy rubber soles so you can wear them in the snow, and some kind of hi-tech fake fur with qualities that fur could never have, like iridescence or color-changing heat-sensitivity. Mood rings, mismatched earrings on guys, dresses that have illuminated piping like the outfits in Tron – they’d have to come with a charger, but ideally the charge would last for at least 24 hours.
What is one perfect/idealized item for your wardrobe you’re still searching for?
The perfect white suit.