As Four 101

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The cast

As Four are a New York–based design collective made up of four members — Adi, K.A.I., Gabi, and Angela. While they have gained a lot of attention for their innovative, otherworldly fashion experiments — fish-scale tops, pod dresses, balloon trousers, all-metallic lines and out-of-this-universe prints — they have also raised eyebrows as manic appearance-makers in the downtown art scene. All of them heavily accented — Adi is Israeli, K.A.I. is German, Gabi is Palestinian-born Lebanese-raised, and Angela is a Tajik-Russian — international cosmopolitanism was such a given they have perhaps had to look to other planets for their inspiration. The four insist that they do not deliberately extract influences from their cultural heritages, but nor do they shake their heads when critics point out striking Middle Eastern influences, as well as streaks of pan-Asian and ancient European aesthetic — they admit their own roots do exist in the micro-melting pot the foursome has constructed to provide one take on the notion of a truly universal vision.

They resist definition and description and yet their strong individual presences make it irresistible…

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For instance, Adi is the glorious gooey center, the sunshine, the easy favorite. She’s the one grinning under her tightly wrapped red unicorn-shaped bun, never feeling any less artistic in giggles and hugs as she does working a sketchpad or thread. Something about her exudes whimsical, enthusiastic, idealistic, youthful power. You can’t imagine her toughening up.

K.A.I. is the flair, the positivity, the theater, the handshaker and presence-maker. He’s the devilishly beaming dervish with the mad lion swagger. He is what Optimism looks like all grown up and badass.

Gabi wouldn’t claim to be, but he’s arguably the top dog — the brooding philosopher, the iconoclastic visionary, the outspoken evangelist, the dashing hypnotist — who is about as diplomatic with his strategic in our opinion conversational tags as he is generous with cursing the state of a world not worthy of his vision. And he’s right.

Angela is the incarnation of the group’s enigmatic spirit and introverted soul all in one. She is dark, difficult, mysterious, stunning. She’s deeply latticed, knotted even — within her there’s a tangled web, a whirlwind history. It take five phone calls to the group’s studio to get hold of her — at one point she even answers the phone but passes it on. She’s ready only when she is ready. She comes around, but you can imagine the only thing that repulses her more than a recording device freezing her words is seeing them in inanimate print, instantly dead.

The setting

Midsummer evening. The As Four workday is adjourned prematurely as they are getting ready to make an appearance at the Brooklyn opening of the Big Apple’s very first Target department store. In New York, this is the type of anti-fashion event that creates considerable fashionista/hipsterati ripples — and so what couture cult could convey that sweet absurdity better than fashion renegades As Four…

Just one of the many evenings when As Four HQ stands without its ubiquitous nightlife-fixture agents. Their Chinatown loft, shrouded in the type of art-world mystique you’d imagine Warhol’s Factory once garnered, screams life, with its manic all-silver disco balls and nonstop music (K.A.I. warns that the fearless soundtrack will easily juxtapose Latin, house, Barbra Streisand, and heavy metal.). It’s true that the space has already undergone its most dramatic alteration — unlike the good old days when this was the quartet’s working as well as living quarters, the residents are now

As Two: Gabi and Angela, while K.A.I. and Adi have opted to live somewhere else close by. They shrug it off — nobody in As Four country has time to psychoanalyze, dramatize, freeze-frame this or anything else, it seems….

Because As Four do. In a few days, the group will be in Japan for an art exhibition in which they created a bag for Hello Kitty’s thirtieth birthday. Then there’s the homework: a new collection that they’ve just begun working on for September’s fashion show season. Not to mention they’ve nabbed an upcoming stint with Gabi’s former employer Kate Spade (Gabi leaves it at “we’re doing a line of clothing as accessories,” with K.A.I. only muddling further with “you know, items you don’t need a changing room for”).

Adi highlights everyone’s lukewarm appreciation of all their laurels — “it’s tough,” she says of the As Four livelihood, even now, three years since their runway debut. Even in the trust-fund fueled downtown art scene, even with their infamous circle bags on the arms of the Sex & the City girls, As Four has been kept all too real — they’ve been a self-financed operation since day one without an investor in the shadows. They are perhaps the design collective that most of the creative, progressive Lower Manhattan fringe will define as being emblematic of the city’s turbulent 9/11 era … and yet they’re still a way from being honored anywhere outside a neighborhood or two in the city.

The lines

The following are some questions we knew As Four would never answer and some that we were amazed they did:

Adi

Real name: “That’s usually just for passports and stuff like that — we’ve just decided it’s not the most important thing. Adi is an Israeli name for boys and girls.”

Age: “Well, I can give you my age … usually we don’t care about such things — we say that our combined age is over 100. But I was born in ‘74 so I am actually … twenty-nine! Usually I forget.”

Born and raised: Israel until the age of sixteen, then her family moved to Germany. “I never felt comfortable in Germany, so when I finished school, I just went with my feelings, and came to New York. I don’t know why — I had never been here before!”

What is As Four?: “Four people that like to be together and work together and create something beautiful together. We used to do everything together — now, we’ve changed a little bit but we still believe we want to be recognized in whatever we do together. The thing we do is fashion, of course — we do a lot of other things, but I think our strength is clothes. For example, the early shows were not typical runway shows — we created music and we had our friends performing. We show in galleries. We showed almost two year ago in Deitch and it was not necessarily clothes — it was what people call art!”

Aesthetic: “It’s not just fashion, it’s a lifestyle as well. How can I describe it? It’s hard for me to say in words…”

Progressive? Futuristic? “I don’t like the word futuristic! A lot of people like to pin that label on us because our studio space is all silver, but we didn’t really think about being futuristic — it just happened because we believe silver’s a good color that reflects everything. We don’t really believe in [futurism]! Timeless perhaps.”

Political?: “That we are from different places shows that you can be together. I’m from Israel and Gabi’s from Lebanon — we’re obviously Middle Eastern. Middle Eastern people can work and be together. But putting Arab prints on our clothes or making Arab-looking clothes or Jewish-looking clothes — it’s not about them, it’s more about us. I think the fact we are together is in a way political but it doesn’t necessarily have to show so obviously on the clothes.”

Inspiration: “Shapes and the body.”

Why fashion matters: “You can buy fashion but you can’t buy style. If you have it, you have it. It’s not really fashion for me. It’s more about your own personality and style. What we do — it’s style. It’s lifestyle, it’s culture.”

What are you wearing?: “Long pants with a lot of slits so I get some air. Because it’s so hot, I just wear a scarf as a top — I just wrap it around. And red sandals.”

Are you tired of being known for the circle bags?: “As long as they know it’s not the only thing that we do, then it’s fine. That’s how we got recognized.”

On home: “I went back to Israel last summer. Since I’m not living there, I freak out a little bit but actually it’s fine. Of course shit happens there. It’s bad but life goes on. You live with it. People live there. I don’t know anymore if I can live there, only since I am not used to the mentality anymore. I don’t know if I can take it … I consider New York my home.”

K.A.I.

Real name: “My name is actually Kai.”

Age: “Together we come to more than 100. You know, it’s so important to people to be young and beautiful. I always answer my phone, ‘How are you — young, beautiful, and talented?’”

Born and raised: Germany, near Hamburg. Moved to New York nine years ago.

What is As Four?: “It is exactly what the words suggest. It’s one unity out of four individuals. Four equal parts of one thing.”

How did you find each other?: “It was somehow magical. We all have the same ideas most of the time. We tend to find the same things ugly, beautiful, boring.”

Aesthetic: “I like to call it a new kind of classic elegance. It’s important that we try not to redo something that already exists but create something that is eternally beautiful.”

Political?: “Probably. Everything in a context is political. But it’s not something that we like to stress. We all live in America, but we’re not Americans. We all come from different cultures. They always make a joke that a German, a Jew, a Russian, and an Arab are stuck in a room — what happens? And [we are] old enemies: German and Jew, once political, and now the Arab and Jew … But it’s hard to express what I believe in politically. I try to do it in the way I live my life and do my work.”

Why fashion matters: “It’s one of the things that really unified people in the past. That’s actually something we’ve lost — an individuality that used to be expressed through clothes and cultures. People might think something couture or avant-garde is crazy but in Germany people used to run around with huge pom-poms on their head. That is something that in daily life all over the world has disappeared, but fashion is about expressing yourself through clothing. And you can communicate — that’s one of the main things that’s important in the world, communication — and doing it through your own body with clothing!”

Inspirations: “It’s in everything. With us, it’s more natural — like an Arab silk print that we might buy in Paris, but everyone thinks is a Japanese kimono, you know? There’s something universal about our things. We did a whole golden collection and people thought it was A Thousand and One Nights but it had nothing to do with it.”

Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “No, we love them actually! It’s kinda funny, but we don’t sell them that much. We didn’t show the bag for a few seasons, so I think it’s changed now. It’s a classic. Also, we wear it.”

What are you wearing?: “I’m wearing harem pants — pleated low pants — in gold lamé silk with orange and purple. My eye color is olive green and my silk shirt is in the same color. Flip-flops. And lots of golden bangles.”

Aren’t you ever tempted to wear something non-As Four — just everyday crap? “Yeah, but all our crap is so beautiful.”

Gabi

Real Name: “No”

Age: “No.”

Born and raised: Palestinian, born and raised in Lebanon. Moved to Washington D.C. with family in 1986.

What is As Four?: “Fundamentally it’s an opinion that is filtered through four people. So the idea is that it’s four times better. If we don’t all like it, all four of us, it’s out the window. We have thousands of ideas — most of them are never realized. The ones that are good enough come through. That’s what makes it exciting. So our own personal ego has to eat itself up. It’s a lot of criticism and a lot of fights, but at the same time it’s mostly pretty smooth.”

How did you find each other?: “I think I’m very lucky — I never expected this to happen. I was doing my own line when I met the others. We started by taking pictures and styling. I was in fashion for a while on Seventh Avenue — I was with Donna Karan and Kate Spade and all that stuff — so I had the industry experience. They had other experience — the girls were doing styling for a while and K.A.I. was taking pictures. Being a designer was not as interesting to me as having a challenge from equal-minded people. I thought, wow, the product could be much better.”

Aesthetic: “Some [Middle Eastern influence] is there but it’s also Asian and northern European and Greek and Egyptian. We think it’s more universal what we do. It also applies in the future and in the past. We say it’s ageless and universal.”

Political? “Fashion is really political right now. It’s very conservative and not open-minded at all. The public is very limited in terms of what they dare to wear because of the political situation. The way the world is right now is not allowing anyone to have any fun. This is the dullest time for a century, I think. Since the collapse of the communist regimes, there’s been a monopoly of capitalism, and that’s based solely on money. Any regime that’s based on money has to be conservative.”

Why fashion matters: “I think fashion is still the most exciting field in the arts! In our opinion, art is very mediocre right now. There hasn’t been anything new in a long time. It’s become a business. Fashion is a business but you’re wearing wearable art — it has more function. In my opinion, art that you put on the wall is not really as exciting as art that you put on your body — it’s something that moves with you. There’s more action and entertainment in it. The people who are in fashion may be more bitchy than people in the art world, but that’s probably why they are more interesting.”

Inspiration: “People in general. People everywhere. We feel people.”

What are you wearing?: “I’m wearing hoof pants and a sequined shirt — all in white — and boots.”

Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “Yeah! But it’s like a logo. It means something. It’s a shield.”

Can you wear non-As Four?: “No. But it’s not a conscious decision, it’s just that we can’t find anything that fits or looks better. We go still to second-hand shops, but if we find something we always have to alter it, because it’s not good enough the way it is.”

On the difficulty of getting Angela to be interviewed: “Well, let’s see, hold on… but she has to be in the mood to talk …”

Angela

Real name: “‘Ange’ is like my business or outside name. It says ‘Ange’ on the letterhead. It’s always weird when people on the street call me ‘Ange’. I am Angela.”

Age: “All together we are like … over 100, around 100 … does it matter?”

Born and raised: Born in Tajikistan, to a Russian mother and German father (although he was born and raised in Russia). Family moved to Germany when she was eight she spent next sixteen years there. “Which means I’m probably going to spend thirty-two years in America.”

What is As Four?: “We are one, but we all have our own little individual things. It used to be much more extreme — the four of us very closed in — but I guess we go through different periods. What makes us strong is the four individuals who create in the end. You cannot let go of yourself ever.”

Aesthetic: “I hope it’s always beautiful. It definitely opens your eyes and makes you curious. You cannot overlook it.”

Political?: “It’s already a very political statement that we are four people — it goes against human egomania. And of course, coming from different cultures and countries…”

Why fashion matters: “How can you justify it ever? I guess sometimes I wonder why I am doing this. But I have no other calling in me. We don’t even really call it fashion. We try to live our lives and try to express this urge inside that has to come out.”

Inspiration: “Here. Home sweet home. And the world that we live in. The people around us. The dreams that we have and the nightmares.”

What are you wearing: “Black tube top with black angular riding pants.”

Are you tired of being known for the circle bags? “Not really. It is part of us and it makes me happy when people recognize it.”

On looking East: “Tajikistan is in Central Asia, very close to the Middle East. And very close to a Middle Eastern feeling because of the Muslims. Very peaceful, I remember. It was very mixed — before everything crumbled down, it was different cultures living together. I believe it inspired me a lot. I was born blonde — I kinda changed that when I was fourteen — so I’m actually a very Russian blonde girl but my beauty ideal was always long dark black hair.”

On interviews — You hate them?

“Yes, I do.”

Why?

“I don’t like talking too much. I like doing.”