The millennial brand of feminism demands, perhaps differently than previous generations, that women take charge of how they are represented in pop culture, media, and the arts. The seemingly endless “outing” of predatory men in powerful positions within the entertainment and fashion industry is an aggressive reminder that men have literally controlled what stories are told, how they are told, and how to manipulate their bodies to tell them. When the “male gaze” (and his hands) dominates fashion imagery and advertising, we are robbed of a crucial and valuable point of view — how women see themselves.
Attempting to launch a meaningful modeling career in New York, Elle Muliarchyk became frustrated by the mediocre fashion images produced by the photographers she was working with and started taking self-portraits in the dressing rooms of Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton and styling herself in their clothes. (This was long before Instagram and selfies were an inescapable part of life.) What started as a project to build her modeling portfolio, turned into a stunning, sensual, and mysterious body of work that was featured in The New York Times T Magazine and launched her career as an artist and photographer. Muliarchyk’s work captures the power of women tapping into their creativity and self-expression, but without sacrificing any of the femininity and sexual danger.
A decade after Muliarchyk’s first self-portrait series propelled her into the public eye, we discuss what those pictures mean to her now, how the fashion industry has changed since the year 2000, and why Citibike could become the most fashionable transport of all.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I was born in Belarus, but my mom is from the Czech Republic. So as a teenager, I was in Prague, and before that I was in Belarus, Moscow, and Vietnam. I came to America when I was sixteen. So basically, I feel like I grew up here.
You consider yourself an American more than anything else?
Absolutely, absolutely. Because my personality is American. People from Europe I think they’re kind of cold, and they’re a little bit reserved. But Americans, everything is hanging on the sleeve.
When I went to Moscow, about ten years ago, I went with a friend, I said, I’ll be your tour guide, I’ll make sure they don’t rip you off, because Russia is like going to Turkey, or a Middle Eastern country. They see a white person, they’ll rip you off, right? And, so Moscow is the same thing. They see a tourist, they try to get the dollars. I can speak Russian without an accent, but as soon as we got in the taxi, the guy looked at me and said, “You said you’re Russian?” And I said yes. And he said, “You’re not.” I said why? He said, “Because you’re smiling and you’re looking me in the eye. If you want to pretend you’re Russian, take my advice, don’t do that anymore.”
Wow. I did not know that.
Yeah. They don’t make eye contact, it’s very hard. They’re very uncomfortable, Russian people, about eye contact or smiling. When you go there, it’s very gloomy.
So you were all over the place and then you ended up in the States. Did you move immediately to New York?
First, California, I was like an exchange student. I went to an American high school, which was incredible.
That must have been such a culture shock for you.
Yes, it was. I showed up with my leopard print tube top, high heels, push up bra, a black velvet mini skirt — seriously! And everyone was just tee shirts and jeans and flip flops. Everyone, their mouth was hanging down on the floor. And, I continued dressing like this.
You didn’t change your look the next day, you just stuck with it?
No, no. I thought, what is this?! Wearing flip flops to school?! This is despicable.
Did you ever adopt the Cali uniform or did you just stick it out through high school?
I was the Eurotrash for the next few years until I came to New York.
New York frowns upon Eurotrash.
Exactly. So I started modelling my last year living in California, and I went to Milan, and I made some money, and I got these Gucci sunglasses with the big rhinestone G’s on the sides, and some kind of python print jacket. I modeled for Bebe, every teenage girl’s dream at the time. It’s Versace for suburban girls. I got some store credit, and I spent it on these belts with shiny, rhinestone-y buckles — so that’s me walking and strutting into the agency in New York. I came into Supreme, which was the coolest agency in New York at that time. They took me right away, and the agent, Muhammad — he was this kind of intimidating character — took my sunglasses off my face, and flung them across the room into the trash.
Then he said, “Here is a sponge. Go into the bathroom and wash your face. Take all of your makeup off.” So, I went to the bathroom and I scrub my face. I felt like my skin was raw and my eyes were puffy and I walked out of the bathroom and I felt horrible. Since 14 years old, I did not leave my house, even to take out trash, without full-on makeup.
Muhammad took me to the wall, took a Polaroid of me with this raw face, and he sent me out, for Fashion Week. I would just have tears in my eyes because I hated that picture so much, it looked so different from who I am, who I was at the time. But now, of course, when I look at it now, it’s such a fresh-faced beauty, not a drag queen.
Right. At that age I did the same thing. I wore so much makeup, until my mid-twenties and now in my thirties, I feel unattractive when I have a lot of makeup on because I don’t look like myself.
Also, it ages you.
Yeah, it can. I wish I went through my teens and my twenties without touching makeup.
You would have saved you so much time, right?
So you were modeling in California, and you came to New York. What made you decide to come to New York?
At that time, I was at UC Berkeley, when you come from Europe, especially from Eastern Europe, education is at the end of the day what you want. I wanted to finish college, have a job like a doctor or lawyer. That’s what your parents tell you. I wanted to go to Columbia, but I didn’t get in. I decided to take a year off and go to New York to model, and make money to pay for it. But, little did I know that models don’t make money — that was my Columbia dream.
Okay, so, let’s fast forward a little bit. You were modeling, and then you went from modeling to taking photographs of yourself. What inspired the self portrait series?
When you are a very young model, unless you immediately become exclusive with some super fancy fashion photographer or shooting for Conde Nast, you test and shoot a lot of editorials [that are] specs. I would do two shoots a day, seven days a week. I was working nonstop, and only a fraction of those [specs] would come out [in magazines]. Unfortunately, most of them, I should point out were not that good. The clothing was not so good, makeup, locations, photography. When I joined the agency, right away, I was hooked up with [Patrick] Demarchelier, and I shot with him a few times. So I knew, what was good, what’s not that good. My agent would make me shoot for Zink magazine, and I said, “No, please don't make me shoot for Zink.” He said it’s just about exposing you as much as possible. But, I would see those pictures and photographers who were so proud of the photoshoots, and I thought it was horrible. I know that I can look amazing in pictures, so why are all those pictures so horrible? So, I started to photograph myself because I can get the right light and angle. But then it’s the clothing. Where do you get the clothing? And at that time, I didn’t even have a credit card. So I decided I would go to the store, and not even buy it, I would just shoot it right there, in the changing room.
You’re talking specifically about your self-portrait dressing room series?
I did it for the next few years, and I shot in hundreds of dressing rooms, I got arrested a few times.
What were your top five dressing rooms?
In New York: Prada Soho, Calvin Klein, Missoni, Comme Des Garcons, Ralph Lauren.
How did you get the idea to do that in the first place?
When I was trying the clothes on in the dressing room, sometimes the lights are really cool, and I started posing in front of the mirror, finding a good angle, and I thought, wow, this actually looks like a fashion picture. With the pure light coming down, that’s Patrick Demarchelier light, that’s not Zink magazine light. When you shoot in a mirror, you can really see everything. That’s why people got so good at selfies because you can really see what you look like. Then I showed it to Patrick Demarchelier, and he said, “Oh, who took this? These are so good, you should keep doing this.”
I just kept doing it and took it to another level, bringing props, and backdrops. At that time, there was no Instagram. But word got around, and the editor of The New York Times Style Magazine, Andy Port, calls me and asks if I can come and show them pictures. They wanted to do a big story on me for the September issue. They also organized an incredible exhibition in a pop-up gallery in Soho. It was interesting because everyone came, all of the photographers I admired so much like Mario Sorrenti. He came to the opening, and says, “You’re such a great photographer,” but my dream was just to be a supermodel. I didn’t want to be a super photographer. My modeling career was cut short. Now models are more than just models. Almost every model is a public figure on Instagram.
But I think it’s so forward-thinking and so interesting that you really took your career into your own hands before it was normalized by social media. Now it’s expected and in some ways photographers are being replaced by influencers and their selfies. It’s really been a shift in power and industry dynamics. You took those self-portraits out of necessity, what do they mean to you now when you look back at them?
When I look at them I think they are so colorful and rich, and my life was so much more grey. Even though it was exciting, it was all these parties and drugs and exciting people, but the pictures are so much more colorful and joyful and playful than what the industry was and what the mood was. This was just right after September 11th — the decade after — everyone is grey on every level; yet, the pictures were so fun and super colorful, and the props were funny and silly. Now the industry is very light in terms of the content. It’s fun, it’s energetic. Those pictures to me look like they’re very now, very timeless.
I read somewhere that you only had ten minutes to take some of those photos, it feels like it’s a stolen moment. Do you think that the thrill of trying to capture that moment of fantasy, contributed to it? How do you think those photos would have looked if you had bought the clothes and taken them home?
I would have someone else shoot it, and then it would not be as good. The thrill was incredible, and also the freedom that I don’t have to buy these clothes.
Could you imagine yourself doing something like it again?
You know, I fantasize about it all the time because no one is doing it. No one is turning dressing rooms, to that level, to take pictures that look like they’re from a fashion magazine. What I was doing, it was creating fantasy. It was just capturing this feeling.
After that, you were commissioned to shoot the Bella Freud series, which is amazing. I love that series so much.
You know, I forget about this myself, but it was one of the most special times in my life. Some of the images I would actually dream them, and then I said to Bella, I want to take this picture out of my dream. And we would work together, she would help me make it happen. And some other pictures were her dreams.
So the way you describe it, you sort of fell into photography. At what point were you like, okay I’m going to take photos of other people?
After I did Bella Freud, I went from hanging out with the fashion crowd to the really cool art crowd. I would be literally having dinners with, you know, Larry Gagosian sitting here, and Jeff Koons sitting there, and that became my world right away, from one night to another.
Yes, it was absolutely crazy. I would be invited to those parties and people would be arriving in limousines and car services and I would be trudging in from Washington Heights, on the train, and change into my Jessica Simpson high heels behind the doorway of a building next door.
This wasn’t your life? I feel like every poor kid did this?
Oh yeah, it was definitely my life and it’s so funny because I know so many well-known fabulous fashion women who have a similar story.
It just shows how powerful appearances are.
Yeah. Oh my God.
I remember when I first moved to New York, one of the first pieces of advice I was given was to buy one expensive bag and one expensive pair of shoes and you’ll be fine.
Oh wow, I wish I had known that.
The thinking was, no one will ever go to your apartment, no one will ever ask any questions about you outside of what you do for a living — and they don’t. They make assumptions.
You know it’s very interesting because I really miss being a model. I’d be wearing just the simplest clothes and just walking down the street, and I actually don’t think I was attractive at the time, because I was so so skinny, people would just stare at me and ask me, “Oh you’re a model right?!” It was more about the fascination, people would be fascinated by my looks. They’d want to talk to or take pictures with me. And I kinda miss that. You’d just have to walk down the street and you are a star. Now, I have to make cool shit for people to compliment me. I guess that’s why models, we just continue doing this, knowing that we don’t have any money, and knowing that you’d keep doing this until you reach your 30s, and that then they would have nothing. Because it’s like heroin.
So you’ve worked in many facets or roles in fashion, dipped into art, you’re clearly a creative, forward-thinker. How do you think the fashion industry could improve? What do you see as an ideal thing for fashion to aim for, to improve and grow?
Once there is enough people caring about issues, I feel like it will translate into fashion. For example, the environment, right? When I went to meet with you, at Grand Central, I had my Whole Foods recycled bag, and I had the mug that I travel with, I don’t want to use single-use cups, and I want to use everything as recyclable as possible. Then, I saw a friend of mine on Instagram, and she had a necklace that was a reusable straw that pops out. You look at the necklace and you know this person cares about the environment. I’m making a statement with my Whole Foods bag because I want people to see this, and when they ask me, I want to say that I do this because I want them to do this too. Fashion can really start a conversation by what you look like, what you wear, you can represent something.
Well, I would love to see your interpretation of that trend. I think we’re gonna circle back and explore how that looks.
I think if we really go into fashion as not just practical and utilitarian, but more as a fantasy, then of course, I think it’s taking it really to an essence, how it makes you feel.
Well, why wouldn’t we fantasize about a future with a thriving environment?
And the simple thing, like the CitiBike, right? That’s cool. If you come to an event, imagine it was Met Gala, and the person doesn’t arrive in a limousine but on a CitiBike.
Like, that’s a good statement.
We need to make that happen.
You know, you can make fun, you can make it irreverent.
You can be the environmental punk.
Photography: Elle Muliarchyk
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonija Hyon