“Are we talking about the 1890s or 1990s?” Chloë Sevigny laughs. We are chatting about Edith Wharton, eminent Edwardian author and New York tastemaker of an earlier era. Like Wharton, Edie Sedgwick and Kim Gordon – all personal idols of Sevigny’s – Chloë remains a heroine from the city’s glamorous, and occasionally gritty, downtown history. Once christened by author Jay McInerney in The New Yorker as the coolest girl in the world, Sevigny continues to set the benchmark for “alternative” in a post-millennial, post-alternative New York.
Her new photo book, titled simply Chloë Sevigny, catalogs hundreds of images of the actress/model/designer, some iconic and others unreleased, from her Connecticut childhood to her teenage years as an East Village hipster and her adulthood as a Hollywood star and fashion trendsetter.
“I kind of wanted it to be an art fan-book, if I dare say that,” Sevigny explains. “I wanted to set a mood and a tone, to make this object that I could put out into the world that represented me. I didn’t want it to be too high-fashion or to be just a stylebook. Mainly, I wanted it to have a vibe.”
Though it is not chronological in order, Chloë contains a number of family and friends’ souvenirs of the Darien, Connecticut girl captured candidly in basements, beaches and schoolyards. Pretty, wide-eyed and flaxen, she resembles every other tween with a suburban, middle-class pedigree and a penchant for theatrics. The photographs of her bedroom, however, tell a different story. Covered wall-to-wall in posters, music handbills, drawings, magazine cutouts and collages, the room was “always my scrapbook,” she says. “I had a very intense relationship with my bedroom. It was ever-changing and constantly being disassembled. Growing up in Connecticut, there wasn’t a lot of stimulation. So I had to create it on my own.” She points to her father’s copious record collection, her mother’s obsessive thrifting and her brother Paul’s love of skater culture as formative influences for her walls. Between Thrasher magazine, Kool DJ Red Alert and the covers of records like Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English and Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, Sevigny had erected a constellation of artistic and stylistic heroes.
“I’d have to go back into my room and try to make sense of it all,” she laughs.
If the story of Sevigny’s escape from suburbia to New York’s Washington Square and subsequent discovery by film director Larry Clark has become the stuff of Nineties legend, then Chloë goes some way in filling in the gaps – and the people – that made her ascendance to indie stardom possible. Included are photos of Sevigny in denim overalls for a Sassy magazine featurette (titled, appropriately, “Our intern Chloë has more style in her little finger…”), a shear-haired Sevigny working at famed East Village raver boutique Liquid Sky and on the set of an outdoor fashion shoot for Kim Gordon’s X-Girl clothing line. Gordon, whom Sevigny still counts as a role model and good friend, was among a group of women who took the budding actress into their confidence and introduced her to the city’s clubs and ateliers. Others, like artist Rita Ackermann, musician Lizzi Bougatsos and Bernadette Corporation-founder Bernadette Van-Huy, appear throughout the pages of the book, both in front and behind the camera.
“I met Rita fresh out of high school,” Sevigny remembers, “and she took me to MoMA to see Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is a huge movie for me, and to see Bikini Kill at the old Knitting Factory…I think I met [Bernadette] at a rave. We were probably on drugs, and we had this connection. What she was doing with Bernadette Corporation was wild. And Lizzi started one of my favorite bands of all time, I.U.D., and was a major fashion inspiration and all-around best pal.”
“Do you think as women they really had to struggle to gain acceptance within the art world?” I ask her.
“They definitely struggled and had a harder time being celebrated as artists than the men,” she answers thoughtfully. “I wish people would cite [them] in the way that they cite Larry Clark. But I think Larry is a really bold-faced name when people want to sell magazines and newspapers and whatnot.”
Many of Chloë‘s pages are filled with the fashion editorials and model shoots for which Sevigny carved her own indie niche in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Often photographed by Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller and Mark Borthwick for magazines like Purple, The Face and Self Service, Sevigny’s image, presented in toto, is still innovative for its sportive originality. In the maximalist age of the “supermodel” and the Baywatch centerfold, what could be more alternative than Chloë garbed in a vintage tuxedo and tiger-print turban? Or, in one particularly flirtatious shot by Richardson, a gamine Sevigny delicately licking her hand like a preening cat?
Gordon, who pens the book’s forward, explains her friend’s appeal most succinctly as a “beguiling charisma refusing to be reduced to ‘sexy’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ or any of the other tags the world uses to tell girls what they are…She dresses in subtext.”
“I was no Kate Moss, do you know what I mean?” Sevigny offers by way of explanation. “I think part of my appeal was that I wasn’t this classic beauty or even sexy…When I was younger I was less self-aware, so there’s more of a freedom in the photos.”
“Do you see yourself as a sexual icon of the Nineties?” I ask.
She laughs again. “Oh God, I don’t really sit around and ponder that very much. I don’t know if I’m just not that analytical or just not that narcissistic.”
She points to the public backlashes that resulted from her role in The Brown Bunny and, more recently, from an art spread published in Marfa Journal – in which Sevigny posed nude, and Schiaparelli-like, with a large crustacean – as evidence of the media’s disquieting double-standards.
“Why has the world become so soft? Why can’t that just be a funny, interesting photo?” she asks. “I think it has a lot to do with the Internet…you can’t say anything anywhere and not think it’s going to be retold or reheard. I think a lot of people find freedom in the Internet, but I find it…sort of terrifying.”
Part of the pleasure of perusing Chloë Sevigny is precisely in re-experiencing this pre-Internet era of “alternative” and “independent” that Sevigny inspired with her mischievous, do-it-yourself aesthetic. Even as she joined larger Hollywood ensembles and accrued more mainstream success, her passion for the avant-garde has not waned. Moreover, the book highlights contemporary fashion’s extraordinary spirit of levity and inventiveness, qualities for which she has been largely responsible.
“I was just being myself and wearing wonky outfits and owning it,” she says. “I think over the years my playing dress up and the fantasy – it was always about emulating something that I felt was cool.”
Twenty years later and Chloë still owns the term.