marchioness > archive > issue 2 > Alissa Bennett: Serendipitous Fashun
Interview by Jessica Ann Richardson / Edited by Jessica Fynn & Izzy Yon
Alissa Bennett: Serendipitous Fashun
Marchioness talks PROVIDENCE RAVING WITH MEL OTTENBERG, NINETIES NYC, JUERGEN TELLER, MODELLING, WALKING IN CHALAYAN’S 1998 RTW COLLECTION, BABY DEVON AOKI, MARGIELA DRESSES, THE C-WORD and THE FEAR OF BEING FORGOTTEN with former model, gallery girl and zine queen Alissa Bennett.
Photograph 1: © Leigh Ledare
Alissa wears Junya Watanabe coat and Balenciaga earrings.
Alissa Bennett holds the belief that every woman deserves at least three lives. So it's no surprise that when it comes to the art of reinvention, she’s a pro. Throughout her life, she has crisscrossed the worlds of art and fashion — her relationship to fashion being strangely serendipitous at times. After coming-of-age as a nineties teen raver in Rhode Island alongside super stylist Mel Ottenburg, she relocated to New York, naturally falling in with the fashion elite of the time. Scouted by Edward Enniful, the Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, aged twenty, her modelling career took her to London where she graced the covers of i-D, Dazed and Confused and featured as part of Juergen Teller’s Go-Sees series. In 1998, she walked Hussein Chalayan’s infamous Burka Show alongside a baby Devon Aoki. Serendipitous, much? No doubt any fashion lover's eyes will be green with envy reading this. Hell, I’m green with envy writing this! Quitting modelling in her mid-twenties, she returned to New York to work retail assistant gigs - the McQueen shop, no less - to put herself through college. Did she meet Lee? “He was nice. He was a sad person. He’s an area of special interest to me. When you kind of know someone and then they die in a catastrophic flameball, it becomes more personal.”
At college she befriended HBO’S Girls creator Lena Dunham, with whom she now co-hosts Luminary’s The C-Word podcast. Each episode explores the public downfall of a woman “society dismissed by calling her mad, sad or just plain bad.” Their ethos: “we will never call you crazy — because we are fucking NUTS.” Standout episodes include faux 9/11 survivor Tania Head and British pop cult icon Paula Yates. Their meet-cute took place in a college toilet where she found Lena crying, having put her hairless cat to sleep earlier that day. Lena’s tears moved Alissa. They embraced. A kinship was formed. “I was forty and you were twelve” Alissa jokes during the opening episode, to which Lena retorts, “You were coming back to school having been a supermodel and I remember you saying ‘I’m just moving here from Brussels, do you like my corset that I bought at a Victorian market? It was a lot to handle!” Dubbed ‘the best gallery girl in New York,’ she has held her position as director of the Gladstone Galleries for several years now, all whilst writing and publishing a series of zines z— Dead Is Better — that explore her fascination with celebrity, death and fandom. TEEN RAVER turned HIGH FASHION MODEL turned GALLERY GIRL turned PODCASTER and SELF-CONFESSED ‘HISTORIAN OF BAD BEHAVIOUR.’ Fear not Alissa, neither you nor your many selves shall be forgotten anytime soon. Here at Marchioness, your bio reigns as supreme inspo for our fashion follies ahead.
Tell us the tale of yours and Lena Dunham’s friendship?
Lena and I took a class together at The New School in around 2002. She was fresh out of high school, and I was just starting college as a married 23-year-old.She was so awkward and unfiltered and funny. Her unpopularity kind of touched me, and I felt very protective of her.
How did The C-Word podcast materialise?
We started talking again after not having seen each other in years, and Lena had gotten copies of one of my zines and started trying to think of a project we could do together. When Luminary pitched a podcast to her, she asked me if I would like to co-host.
In Matt Keeghan’s book 1996, you discuss your being a raver in Providence with Mel Ottenberg (Creative Director of Interview Magazine). How were you dressing at this time as a nineties teen raver?
Well I think everyone had two looks at this time. During the day, baby barrettes, huge jeans and infant sized t-shirts, and if we were going to a rave, lots of pastel colored fur, hologram prints, mini skirts and platform sneakers.
You’ve said of the nineties: “We lived in an age of major visuals and aesthetics, where we’re on the phone looking at stuff all day long, more stuff than we were ever looking at. But there was something nice about the purity of your brain back then; where you saw something new, your brain would electrify.” Are you ever nostalgic for the pre-internet age?
The internet has been really important to my work, specifically because it can function as a kind of confessional where people let their guard down to strangers, which I think is quite moving in a way. In its idealised form, it also has a very similar function to the zines I was interested in as a teenager in that it is a way for like-minded people to communicate via subculture. In a lot of ways, I can't imagine making work without it, but I do think that it has made people kind of emotionally flat and insular. I wonder where things happen in real life now, and I wonder what privacy means in a world where we show everything digitally. I feel like it kind of interrupts the possibility of the personal, which is a really sacred sphere.
What was your experience of living in New York City in the nineties?
It's funny to walk through the neighbourhoods I was in a lot when I first moved here and to try to remember what it was like. I moved to Greenpoint in 1996 and I remember my father telling me he hoped that I was going to ‘be alright’ the first time my parents came to see me there! I hate to sound like an old person, but it was a less acrylic place then. I worked in a hair salon as a receptionist and was able to pay my rent. I cannot imagine how young people move here now, which is sad to me. This should be a city where creative 20-year-olds can come. It does not often feel like that to me anymore.
Aged twenty, you were scouted by Edward Enniful (Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue) and flew to London where you graced the covers of i-D and Dazed and Confused. Juergen Teller included your portrait in his famous Go-Sees series. Could you talk a little about this time and what was it like to be photographed by Juergen Teller?
I actually met Edward in London. My New York agency had sent me there to meet an agency during show week, and it was a big shock to everyone when the agency passed and declined to represent me. My booker at Women set up a few appointments for me, and one of them was with Edward, who booked my shows that season and shot me for i-D the next month. It was exciting to meet Juergen, he was such an important figure in that moment of fashion even as a young photographer. We had worked on a Wild and Lethal Trash book together before the Go-See photograph, so we knew each other a bit. It was very common to go to a photographer's studio and have a couple of photographs taken, so the bigger surprise was when the book came out!
What was it like to walk the iconic Hussein Chalayan 1998 Burka Show?
That was the first show I ever did. I remember getting my makeup done by Pat McGrath and sitting next to a baby Devon Aoki who was listening to The Dropkick Murphys on a giant set of headphones. I felt very lucky to be there, though I did not know the significance of the show at the time. I think a lot of moments like that one feel like sleepwalking. There was something very surreal about it, I'm not sure if I ever thought about any of it while it was happening.
Why did you quit modelling? And post-modelling, did you ever consider a career in fashion?
I was getting into my early 20s and at the time I felt like I was really getting too old for it. The anxiety I felt about aging out of my career was really impacting me, and when I started going out with an artist in New York, I understood that modeling was incompatible with the kind of person I wanted to be. I spent the summer of 1999 in Japan trying to monetize the last vestiges of my cultural capital, and when I came back, I got a job in a clothing store in Soho and enrolled part-time in school. I still have nightmares about going to Japan, only I am the age I am now and not a 22-year-old. It was a very stressful thing to be so young and feel washed up. I'm not sure there is a way to have a career as a model and not feel tortured by the inevitability of aging.
Has working in the art world influenced your personal style in any way?
Maybe it's just getting a little older, but I have definitely become more conservative. I like very classic things, which maybe read otherwise because of my personality.
What’s the story behind this photograph?
This was a shoot I did for i-D in the late 90s with a model who was my big rival. It's not so much that we looked the same as it was that we were regarded as the same ‘type.’ I always understood that she was a little more special than I was, and I cannot even begin to give an account of the amount of time I spent thinking about her and trying to understand how I could be as compelling as I thought she was. I had thought about her for many years, and recently found this copy of the magazine on eBay — it was really interesting to look at the two of us on these facing pages and to remember all of those feelings.
What's the most extreme look you've ever rocked?
Oh probably just something with a bad home haircut dyed an unflattering color. I was full of extreme looks as a teenager.
What did you wear on your wedding days?
I wore a pale pink silk dress and a vintage mink stole. Sometimes I have regretted that I didn't wear something more traditional. You really only have one shot at it.
After your divorce, you wore the same Margiela dress every day for a month. What was your connection to this particular piece of clothing?
I still have the dress and sometimes still wear it. It's just a very simple raglan sleeved gray shift. It was almost nothing. It was nice to depend on this kind of unremarkable dress and not have to think about anything other than my sadness. I really love those pictures.
What references make up your personal style now?
If I'm not at work, I just want to look like Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote has taken a trip to Kenneth (the 1960s hairdresser to the stars). I like keds and unremarkable jeans mixed with a cat eye and a little bit of glamour. Being comfortable has become a lot more important to me than I ever thought it would when I was in my 20s.
Do you think there is a link between so-called ‘bad behaviour’ and style? It seems many of the women you cover in The C-Word have iconic dress sense!
Maybe it's just a resistance to being slotted into a given space. I had never considered that it might show up in fashion, but I think it's possible.
If you could have lunch with any of the ‘badly behaved’ women you’ve researched, dead or alive, who would it be? And where would you rendezvous for lunch?
Oh Barbara Hutton at the restaurant of her choice. I'm sure a spendthrift heiress would know a better way to spend an afternoon than I could ever come up with on my own!
You have previously said: “I always liked the idea of focusing on people who have been forgotten about, people who were all over the news for one minute and then just totally disappeared the next.” What is it about the women you research that you connect with so deeply? And where did your interest in these figures begin?
I think everyone has their own particular anxieties; mine has always been being forgotten. I have always felt a little bit like vapor, I guess. I understand why some people do things so that they become ghosts that can never be vanquished.
How did your zine series Dead is Better begin and why did you pick the format of zines to publish your writing? Would you ever consider writing a book?
My friend Frank Haines publishes zines and small publications, and he was familiar with my interests. I liked the idea of not having an editor, not needing permission, and being able to release something in a low pressure kind of way. I have never been a particularly ambitious person, and I have always been sort of passive, I guess. I am working on a novel at the moment, which is a different animal. It is much more daunting to make work with the assumption that someone will eventually be able to tell you that it's not good enough. The freedom of writing a zine is something that appealed to me because it somehow subverts judgment.
There seems to be a pattern of reinvention amongst the women you research and write about. Why does this interest you and is it something you connect with?
Because I always want the privilege of reinvention for myself. I think every woman deserves at least three lives.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I have always been kind of a sleepwalker. I don't know that I have learned anything substantive as an adult that has changed me that dramatically. I would tell her to keep doing what she's doing, to keep imagining that everything will eventually turn out alright.