A Rising Star in Fashion Who Sees No Future in New York

A Rising Star in Fashion Who Sees No Future in New York

On a phone call in October, Carly Mark raised the idea for the first time: She needed to leave New York.

There comes a moment in every creative New Yorker’s life when this may happen — when the city that once seemed as if it pulsed just for you now seems as if it is pushing you out, like an organ transplant gone wrong.

But there was more: Ms. Mark said she could no longer sell clothes.

This was and wasn’t surprising. A few weeks earlier, in September, Ms. Mark held a runway show for her five-year-old fashion brand, Puppets and Puppets. The show was well-received. Vogue called it a “conflation of Cristóbal Balenciaga and mall rats” that hit “right on the mark.” Women’s Wear Daily praised its “strong evening wear” and its balance between “creative and commercial” — something critics say when they think a collection could sell well in stores, despite being a little strange.

Puppets and Puppets may not be widely known, but Ms. Mark can draw an audience: celebrities with grit, writers with money, artists with modeling gigs. Last February, she lined her runway with sculptures of dirty dishes and food strewed across books; in September, she borrowed robotic dancing cats from a subway performer. (She encountered him after attending a Limp Bizkit concert at Madison Square Garden.) The installations tangoed with the clothes: elegant and screwy, sexy and goth, coated in cinematic references.

Her leather bags have been particularly successful, with 3-D chocolate chip cookies, roses, fried eggs or spiders plopped in place of a designer logo.

“The cookie bag has become more recognizable than the name of the brand,” said Ms. Mark, 35, who named the label after her small dog, Puppet, and a character in the Japanese franchise “Ghost in the Shell,” the Puppet Master.

Still, business can be bleak for founders of young brands. This is not news. Manufacturing clothing is expensive, particularly in the United States, where producing just one sample dress can cost $1,000. Putting on a runway show is expensive, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 — twice a year. Living and working in New York is expensive, more so than in the European fashion capitals of London, Milan or Paris.

To finance their brands, designers may rely on personal loans or industry awards or family money or (sometimes) investors or (if they’re lucky) wealthy clients who regularly commission pieces. “You hope for the best,” Ms. Mark said. “But if you’re not infusing money into the brand and you’re also not increasing sales, even if your sales are close to $1 million, you’re still not making it work.”

Being well-received is not enough when stores decline to place substantial orders. Last summer, Ms. Mark’s financial adviser told her Puppets and Puppets had about eight months of operating funds left.

“I panicked,” she said. “I don’t want to stop making clothes. I don’t want to stop having shows. This is my life. When you are developing a brand, you put so much of yourself into it — so much time, so much energy, so much effort. And I just couldn’t fathom not doing that anymore.

“I just kept thinking to myself, I’m going to figure it out,” Ms. Mark said. “I’m going to figure it out.”

Here is what she figured out: Puppets and Puppets will continue as an accessories brand with headquarters in London, where Ms. Mark already works with Katie Hillier, an accessories designer and former creative director of Marc by Marc Jacobs. Ms. Mark plans to relocate in the spring.

“I haven’t felt that inspired by my New York community, but I go to London and I’m very inspired,” said Ms. Mark, who includes the filmmaker Lena Dunham as a member of her London community. They met in 2018 while Ms. Mark was nursing a baby squirrel that turned out to be a rat, Ms. Dunham said in an email.

Ms. Dunham, who wore several Puppets and Puppets pieces while promoting her film “Catherine Called Birdy,” described Ms. Mark as having “the mind of Dalí and the look of Morticia.” (Ms. Mark often wears black clothing and an inscrutable hollow-cheeked expression.)

“I’ve been in New York for 18 years now, and I’m at a point where I feel like I can’t breathe,” Ms. Mark said. “There are people everywhere — human bodies everywhere.”

We were having olives and cheese in Midtown Manhattan. The previous week, Ms. Mark had lost the emerging designer of the year award at the Oscars of American fashion. It was her second consecutive nomination and loss. This stung but seemed to her a sign that she was making the right decision.

“Hit the refresh button, Carl, it’s time,” she said to herself.

Ms. Mark moved to New York from the suburbs of Detroit when she was 18. The indie sleaze era was just beginning. She interned at Marc by Marc Jacobs and graduated from the School of Visual Arts, where she studied painting, sculpture and video.

Her first solo art show in 2016, a commentary on commercial packaging through the lens of Haribo Goldbears candy, included a video of her friend, the comedian Eric Wareheim, in costume as a nightmarish gummy bear.

“I’m a pretty sarcastic person, and I think she is, too,” Mr. Wareheim said. “But what we share is the love of beauty. That’s how her art and her fashion work: a sense of irony, a sense of comedy, but most important a sense of what is beautiful.”

In 2018, she founded Puppets and Puppets with Ayla Argentina, a friend who knew how to make clothing — Ms. Mark did not — and who left the brand after its first few collections. At first, nothing was for sale. Puppets took big, theatrical swings: cheese hats, hoop-skirt sleeves, sci-fi fantasy ball gowns.

At the time, Ms. Mark didn’t design with the thought, “I want to make a shift dress.” She began with the thought, “I love sorcerers” or “This is going to be a David Lynch collection.”

Gradually she learned to put more attention into individual pieces rather than the collection’s theme. “It’s about merchandising, it’s about putting things on a rack, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” she said. She figured it out by asking herself, over and over, “Would I wear this?”

The result “reeked coolness,” said Julie Gilhart of the Tomorrow Group, a fashion consultant known for her work with emerging designers, including at Barneys New York.

“There’s a certain energy — it’s the thing you can’t really put on the business plan,” Ms. Gilhart said. “You just feel it. She has this sort of unpolished polish.”

This is how Ms. Mark became her own muse.

“It’s really about making it more like her,” said Chris Peters, the Puppets head designer, who knew when he joined last spring that the company’s outlook was precarious. “She wanted it to be a lot sexier. She wanted it to be less silly — maintaining a sense of humor while not being goofy.”

Last year, Ms. Mark was lying on the floor of her office, joking with her design team about having a fictional boyfriend who lived in his parent’s basement in New Jersey. He listened to metal music and owned a print shop. Her assistant, Matthew Biggs, used the A.I. program Midjourney to generate images of this boyfriend. They made a few pieces using the print, including a stretchy mesh dress.

“That’s how a lot of things happen in the office,” Ms. Mark said. “It’s really just me cracking some stupid joke and everybody listening, as they should, and either writing it down or putting it through A.I. or asking me if I want to turn it into a bag.”

As the company transitions, three people on her staff will be let go; the other three will be offered part-time or freelance work. Delivering the news was “very painful,” Ms. Mark said.

But this is the reality of the industry. Stores told Ms. Mark that her prices were too high or that the clothes were “‘a little too strange for our customer,’” she said. Conversations about investment never went anywhere.

“I don’t make things so that they are easily digestible,” she said. “I’m not sure a standard run-of-the-mill investor would know what to do with me.”

The bags have thrived because they’re inexpensive to produce and more consumer-friendly. People are “more interested in carrying a strange handbag with a very normal outfit,” Ms. Mark said.

Ironically, her final collection may be her most wearable yet. It will be shown on the runway on Monday, during New York Fashion Week, and will never be put into production. It is a gesture — an expensive one. She is struggling to keep the show’s budget under $100,000, funding it with sales of last season’s collection.

Yet it feels important to her. “Saying goodbye to New York, saying goodbye to ready-to-wear for now, I care about that so much,” she said.

Ms. Mark also wanted to pay tribute to her grandmother Florine Mark, who died in October at age 90. Florine was an “alpha businesswoman,” Ms. Mark said. The family’s matriarch, she was once a leading shareholder of Weight Watchers International, and she modeled in a Puppets and Puppets look book last June. The models in Ms. Mark’s show next week will be wearing hoop earrings recreated from a pair that belonged to Florine.

“This collection will be the most well-rounded, honest version of Carl’s Puppets there has been,” Ms. Mark said. “Pure Carl.”

There are sheer dresses and bike shorts and fur jackets and tights that somehow connect to a hood. The clothes are made with lingerie fabrics and medieval-ish prints, inspired by Ms. Mark’s referring to her West Village basement apartment as a “dungeon.” There are big T-shirts printed with blurred images of posters of movies she likes.

“The sad thing is American fashion is losing one of its most interesting designers,” Mr. Peters said. “There’s no one who’s going to take this spot.”

When Ms. Gilhart heard the news, “I was really sad,” she said. “Her last show was so good — every show, she’s moving forward, and her clothes had this young, cool elegance to them.”

“The greatest misstep,” she said, “is that there’s no one really aggressively investing in young designers.”

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