The day the four fashion designers who call themselves As Four visit the Met to take a look at the “Extreme Beauty” exhibit, they are dressed as follows: Kai has a beaded butterfly ornament plastered over one of his ears, Adi has donned a shredded orange fur jacket the same color as her hair, Ange is in a neo-Victorian skirt over jeans, and Gabi sports a blue metallic version of the spherical carryalls As Four is famous for.
The quartet, who at one time briefly changed their name to Future Planet of Style (“We were having some gender and identity problems,” says Kai), live in a silver-painted loft on Norfolk Street (“Nor-Four,” according to Gabi) with Powder, a pit bull they sometimes paint to look like a dalmatian. “Say born, please, not from, when you talk about us, because, you know we are not from any place,” Gabi requests when he’s asked, for the millionth time, how the group got together, a story that spans continents and ends up with everyone getting together four years ago on the Lower East Side. (For the record, Kai was born in Germany, Adi is Israeli, Ange is from Tajikistan, and Gabi is Lebanese.) In any case, all this creative and personal togetherness seems to have paid off—As Four’s odd, sinuous clothes are sold at Barneys, they just won a $20,000 grant from the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation, and their eccentric runway shows (one featured headless spinning dolls wearing miniature replicas of their outfits) are a highlight of Fashion Week.
Walking down the staircase that leads to the subterranean Costume Institute, As Four, with their funny hair and piquant finery, look like an advertisement for Extreme Beauty itself. The exhibit, which chronicles the strange, provocative, unusual, and sometimes excruciating ways fashion has celebrated and distorted the human body over the last 2000 or so years, is packed this wintry afternoon, but the group dives right in. A showcase containing a reptilian Thierry Mugler gown with glittering scales and a feathery Big Bird-ish outfit by Alexander McQueen provokes oohs, but Kai only has eyes for the shoes, square-toed affairs that look more like the boxes the shoes came in. “Oh! They’re by Benoît Méléard—we like him! Well done! He’s pretty good! You know, graphic with heels and stuff,” he says, eyes glinting in the dim light.
Adi is across the room, gazing dreamily at a body-molded Givenchy metal bustier that looks like a breastplate. “I love the metal, it reminds me of motorcycles. I was always looking at motorcycles in magazines when I was at school. Some things you don’t forget.” Two feet away, Ange is hardly as enthusiastic about a loopy Olivier Theyskens dress that turns the wearer into a big black package tied up with giant ribbons. “Look how he copied it from a Balenciaga that was in Vogue,” she sneers, pointing to a print of a 1967 Vogue article that the museum has provided to explain the genesis of Theyskens’s work. Adi may have loved the metal breastplate, but Tom Ford’s leather version, which has nipples—one with a gold ring—and an indented belly button, is another story. “Oh, it’s bad, it’s totally bad, it’s totally wrong, and it’s been done before. I even made it already,” she moans. “Yakkety doo da,” adds Kai. This is not meant as a compliment.
Ruff trade: Junya Wantanabe collars fashion.
(photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
But for everything the team doesn’t like there are 10 things that inspire awe. “This corset is amazing,” observes Ange, who has found the time to turn the Met’s admission button into an earring. “Look at the details, the sewing. I don’t even know if they had sewing machines then.” The corset, 110 years old, is from a Paris house called Maison Leoty and has stays sewn into place with heartbreakingly tiny stitches. “It’s so exaggerated, it looks like a vase, a pot. I love a corset. You know, ‘Keep it together, forever and ever.’ ”
Gabi, who has taken off his fur to reveal a T-shirt customized with three tiny bejeweled pleats on each shoulder, thinks the museum favors McQueen’s work out of all proportion, though the others are quite taken with that designer’s Asian ensemble: a dress decorated with beaded fish and a capelet put together from wooden sticks, which makes quite an impression, at least until Ange notices that there are beads missing. “They should have brought the glue gun,” she sings out, which leads to a brief discussion of the butterfly suspended in Kai’s hair, since it turns out that it was affixed with glue.
The idle chatter stops dead in front of Junya Wantanabe’s neck ruff, a confection of layered and puffed tulle that begins around the neck and extends nearly to the waist. All four are in love. “This is one of the most beautiful things!” “It’s Japanese origami!” “Well done!” It is, in fact, the audacity of those Japanese designers who first emerged 20 years ago that has had the most profound influence on As Four. Looking at a mannequin wearing one of the lumpy tumor dresses from Comme des Garçon’s notorious collection, Kai says, “Comme des Garçons was like opening the door for us, to try anything.” Gabi agrees. “I think it was their best work. They cannot go further than this. The more you can get away with things the better.”
Be that as it may, sometimes too much is too much, even for this crew. Ange directs everyone’s attention to a circa 1750 English court dress called a robe à la française, a richly embroidered sky-blue dress, twice as wide as it is long, that makes you look like you have a table under your skirt. “If dresses were like this today, you would have to have different cars, different elevators, different everything,” says Ange, who has emerged as the social historian of the group. Now Kai spots a case full of lotus shoes, meant for bound feet, that are displayed next to X rays of horribly deformed bones. He grabs Gabi’s arm. “You have to look at these. It’s so sick! Like dolls! It’s like canceling the foot completely.” Gabi stares and murmurs half to himself, “It can be distracting, though, the foot, when you’re designing.”
Skirting the absurd: a circa 1750 English court dress
(photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Someone suggests finding out whether the Met cafeteria sells alcohol, and As Four troops up the stairs. On the way out, Adi muses about whether anything she’s seen has the potential to influence her own work. She shakes her head. “I like to look, but it doesn’t really affect me. I get more ideas from old movies.” Ange says that, actually, she goes to toy stores for inspiration. “I go to the Barbie dolls and look at their clothes. They were better in the ’80s, though. Really, we would like to design for the house of Mattel.” Gabi is off again about how political the museum is, deciding who gets to be in an exhibit and who does not, but Kai is slightly more sanguine. “It’s OK, but it’s too dark in there. For extreme beauty, you need more light!”