Nick Cave On The Inspiration Behind His Amazing Soundsuits

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ePhoto: Courtesy of Bob Carl for the School of the Art Institute Chicago.
Karl Lagerfeld may not believe that fashion is art, but after performance artist and fabric sculptor Nick Cave's first, major touring exhibition of his Soundsuits, designers began showcasing wild, Muppet-like, fur apparel on the runway. Coincidence? Maybe. But, if it were up to Cave, designers would see his work as "an opportunity to explore themselves deeper and create a shift in their mind." Mission accomplished, judging from the fuzzy stunners at Derek Lam and Versace.

But, Cave's pieces weren't motivated by sartorial aspirations. In 1992, the artistic talent created his first Soundsuit out of twigs, inspired by the LAPD beating of African-American construction worker Rodney King. Over the past 20-plus years, Cave has sourced flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales for cast-off materials, including synthetic hair, beads, and buttons, to create suits that have an audible appeal during physical movement. With the possibility of a studio opening in Chicago, where he is also the director of the fashion program at the School of the Art Institute, Cave talked to us about everything from the birth of the Soundsuit to the way his family affects his creative process.

How did the idea of the Soundsuit come about?
"After building a sculpture from fallen twigs, I realized it could be worn, and upon moving in the sculpture, I heard the most mesmerizing and magical sound that came from the rustling of the twigs on my body. The sound behaved as both a white noise of protection, as well as a siren of warning."

What is the thought process behind the materials you choose for the suits?
"It is based on feeling, an emotion. I collect materials and objects that speak to me. It is through play and familiarity that I find the juxtapositions of color, texture, form, and meaning that my patterns are born."

You recently performed at The Walk event at the School of the Art Institute, but performances in Chicago are rare. How come?
"It’s not purposeful. However, one of my first performances was called 'Clowning' and took place in Grant Park at SummerDance."

We read that your childhood circumstances greatly influenced your creative process. Can you elaborate?
"I come from a very loving and supportive family. My mother and my brothers were always accepting and celebratory with regard to my individuality."

Do you feel your training as a dancer with Alvin Ailey helped shape your career as a performance artist?
"The classes I took with the Ailey School made clear to me the role dance or movement could play within my work. To activate the art through the body as a vehicle can have profound effect."

Do you believe in fashion rules, or an anything-goes philosophy?
"I have a work-it philosophy: If it works, it works."

What designers are you partial to, and why?
"Those who are fearless. People like Junya Watanabe, Rei Kawakubo, Ann Demeulemeester, and Yohji Yamamoto."

Do you feel like you have any direct influence on fashion?
"I hope that when other designers experience my work, it creates a shift in their mind. That it opens an opportunity to explore themselves deeper."

Why do you choose to use cast-off materials to create your suits? You've stated in interviews that you use items you've collected over 20 years from flea markets and garage sales.
"Giving new life to a spent object is important. It is also with these types of materials that we see opportunities. The history, how it was used, worn, or abused in the past adds a layer of richness that a newly minted material does not have."