VANITY FAIR | Rachel Comey Delivers an Ode to Joan Jonas and New York's Creative Class | Laura Regensdorf

Rachel Comey Delivers an Ode to Joan Jonas and New York’s Creative Class

For her spring 2024 show, the designer transformed a downtown alley into a runway, debuting a collection that draws upon Jonas’s decades-long body of work.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2023

A little after 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, a crowd found their way to Great Jones Alley, a few blocks north of SoHo’s onetime renegade art scene, for Rachel Comey’s spring 2024 runway show. Industry types and faithful fans of the designer took their places on slim benches, in defiance of the heat wave hanging low over the city. A phalanx of photographers gathered at the far end, where Comey’s young daughter and her friend claimed impromptu spots beneath the lenses. Overhead, neighbors leaned out of apartment windows and ventured out on fire escapes, in anticipation of a particular kind of New York moment: a high-brow happening at street level. 

Right in the center of it all was Joan Jonas, a white-haired luminary in Rachel Comey print pants, seated not far from the sound system that would soon play a score by Vorhees’ Dana Wachs: contemplative drone layered with interview clips of the 87-year-old artist. “You don’t go for poetry to begin with. You don’t go for magic,” Jonas said in a voiceover, speaking about the creative impulse. “You cannot make a work of art without structure.”

To create some of the textiles, Comey drew from artwork and ephemera in Jonas’s archives. Makeup artist Romy Soleimani also took inspiration from an early video piece for the asymmetrical eye designs. 

Two blocks south, at a loft space on Broadway serving as backstage, the same rang true for the collection, where Comey signatures—soft tailoring, denim in unexpected silhouettes, airy dresses designed to catch a merciful breeze—set the framework, with Jonas supplying poetic inspiration. Comey credited a friend at Soft Network, an organization that forges connections between artists, with the introduction. “Joan is in SoHo, where she’s lived for 50 years, and I’ve lived and worked in this area for 25,” said Comey, who paid a visit to the artist’s studio and pored over materials from the Gladstone archives. Jonas, 87, with a retrospective at MoMA next spring and an upcoming Drawing Center show, remains a prolific force—another reason she is a lodestar for Comey and others. “She crosses between all different media, from performance to drawing to installation,” said the designer. “I feel very lucky that she was so generous.” 

Some of the resulting nods to Jonas’s career are evident in the clothes—such as a poster for the 1976 installation, The Juniper Tree, here translated into a textured minidress. Other references are more oblique. Stills from 1989’s Volcano Saga, featuring a young Tilda Swinton, migrated onto fabric. Comey gestured to a nearby model wearing a blazer and maxi skirt over a plunging yellow tank. “It’s a swimsuit, actually,” the designer said, explaining that its print takes after one of Jonas’s pieces. “She loves the water. She’s very connected to nature. But I was trying not to delve into her content and her narratives as much because I wanted to be inspired in a different way.” 

Two monochromatic looks felt at home in the downtown setting, accompanied by teased and crimped hair by Rutger van der Heide. An all-white moment echoed what Jonas wore in early works like 1976’s Mirage.  

Such flexibility with interpretation extended to the beauty looks—part of the multidisciplinary exchange, from sound design to artist-centered casting, that lured Comey back to the runway after two years away. In one corner of the loft, makeup artist Romy Soleimani was at work, painting on an unexpected chocolate lip: “It feels like a new neutral. It’s a statement lip that’s not red, that’s not bordeaux.” She held up a tube of Estée Lauder’s Pure Color Matte lipstick in Sultry, which gives an instant approximation; for the runway, she also dabbed concealer in a deep, cool tone onto lips. “It feels almost graphic with the clean, glowy skin,” Soleimani said, crediting the brand’s Re-Nutriv Ultimate Diamond serum and cream —topped with a T-zone dusting of Double Wear powder to counteract the humidity. A handful of models got another kind of painterly moment: a half-moon of shimmery blue shadow drawn across a single eye, or a brushstroke of molten silver on one lid. (The asymmetrical makeup design was a nod to Left Side Right Side, a 1972 video by Jonas.) As a finishing touch, Soleimani pressed lip oil pressed into the eyes’ inner crease to amplify the shine. “I love the idea of showing reflection in different ways,” she said, alluding to the runway's defining prop. The final model carried a full-length mirror, as if she’d walked right out of Jonas’s 1969 Mirror Piece. 

Jonas, whose retrospective at MoMA opens next March (this performance still of 1969’s Mirror Piece I will be on view), inspired points of reflection throughout the show, including mirror hair clips and high-shine fabrics.  

Hairstylist Rutger van der Heide brought a similar sense of unconventional play. Some models got an oddly pleasing bend in the hair near the temples, achieved with a backward-flipped curling iron and Uberliss’s bond healing spray. Others saw their lengths transformed into a diaphanous mane, with teased sections that were then flat-ironed and brushed out. The result was “lightweight hair that kind of bounces when the girl walks the runway,” he said. A few bobs were teased and crimped into a triangle shape. Still others with personality-defining cuts, like the artist Hanna Sandin, strode out with little intervention. “Fashion used to be always very interesting until it became boring: a lot of ponytails and clean, fresh faces on the runway, which I get,” van der Heide said. “But I feel now a lot of designers and stylists want to bring back some character.” 

Birgitt Doss and Elisabetta Dessy in the statement brown lip. 

That is a given for Comey, who has long been known for diversity in casting, age included. “She really was the one to always do that. It’s always a part of her story,” said Soleimani. “I love that, as a woman who’s not 20.” Bringing an artist like Jonas into the conversation continues the thread. “It’s nice to be able to have an icon to look to, never having [had] a mentor,” said Comey. Her daughter, taking in the scene, broadens that intergenerational web. “This is only the second time she’s been to a show,” the designer smiled, “but now she’s kind of at the age that she’s curious.”