It’s common for conversations to begin with a stranger commenting on another’s fresh new jacket draped over their shoulders. Or maybe it’s the shoes that catch someone’s eye — or the purse.
Regardless, a safe gamble on that initiation would have to be: “Wow, I just absolutely love the shirt!” followed by a reasonable, “Where’d you get it?” The answer is often times a store everyone’s been to once or twice at whatever mall.
But what if it didn’t come from the mall?
Constructor of things from patios, to furniture, to clothing, to God-knows-what, Tony Wright sat in his Olde Towne East home along with roommate and avant-garde fashion designer Oliver Valdienne, and long-time collaborator Ben Slodobien.
Wright is self-taught, and has been in the game of making almost everything for about 40 years.
“I was hanging out at the neighbors’ house, they had a young daughter – (we) always played together. She had an older sister cutting out patterns and sewing up this thing — I was one precocious 6-year-old, and I walked up to her like, ‘what are you doin? Why you cuttin’ up that sheet to make clothes?‘ ” Wright said. “‘Don’t you know you’re supposed to go to the store to buy clothes?’
“She looked at like she was gonna smack the s— outta me,” Wright laughed.
Instead of resorting to the physical altercation, she gave Wright a piece of fabric for a chance at an alteration.
Wright went home, cut up a vest in his closet and reinvented it with the fabric, buttons and whatever else he saw fit for his creation.
“(I) wore it to a family dinner, got jacked by my cousin, never saw it again,” Wright grinned as the other two laughed around the large worktable in the living room.
It was because of this constant output of initiative and self-motivation that Slodobien and Valdienne eventually submersed into Wright’s lifestyle of doing instead of dreaming.
Valdienne had been interested in fashion – beginning with his grandmother and the tendencies of women in the 1920s – but lacked the experience and knowledge needed to make those ideas a reality.
Later on down the pop culture timeline, big names from the earliest movement in the female standard like Coco Chanel or Marilyn Monroe began his path of female iconic inspirations. To Valdienne, these women pushed the departure from the long-sleeved, long dress norms that dominated American culture for eras until a shift in the 1950s.
“For women, edge comes with masculinity,” Valdienne said, “If she’s super feminine, she’s not gonna be into doing anything that makes her feel like a whore or a skank.
“But a woman with a masculine edge – or perspective – is gonna do what she wants to do — she’s gonna do what she wants to do. She’s gonna hold her balls, she’s gonna wear a bra with short shorts and hooker boots,” Valdienne explained, “But, she’s gonna own it.”
He sides with anyone who pushes the feminine envelope, and in doing so, obliterates any preconceived notions previously oppressing the “tender” sex.
Ever since Valdienne’s brother introduced him to Wright, the two have been working together to bring any of Valdienne’s wildest, out there ideas to life.
They were – and still are – radical in both senses of the word.
Slobodien was busy hating his position at a J. Crew store when suddenly Wright walked in, later to be hired. They became friends immediately. The sort friends who bonded over making anything their imaginations spit-balled: hats, chairs, wallets, bags, beds, clothes, light fixtures and so on.
“I’ll just deconstruct things – like, ‘wow that’s pretty cool — and somebody made that — I can make it too,’” said Wright, lighting up a cigarette and blowing the smoke past his short dreadlocks.
The thing is, people are constantly buying things, with convenience as the ultimate enemy of day-to-day ingenuity. And just like any other good, people are buying clothes every single day.
“As a designer, that’s one of the most important things you have to know how to do — sell what you do — make sure that all you’re creating as a creator, you still have a final market,” Valdienne said. “Therefore you gotta still make sure you’re relevant, always be on.”
Plus, people have more options than ever before in today’s marketplace.
“(People) can go anywhere and buy whatever they want, but they really can’t,” Valdienne said before cracking up. “If you wanna look cool, come to me.”
Valdienne may be speaking facetiously, but Wright can visualize designs by his friend and protégé being worn at the red carpet one day.
Grungy, torn up street-punk fashion styles are the most prominent theme in Valdienne’s creations.
“(These are styles) that kinda make you cringe, like ‘she’s wearing duct tape on her breasts! What the hell’s going on here?’” Valdienne said, remembering a show where duct tape covered many of his models as they showcased his line of clothing.
“That only happened ‘cause I forgot the tops,“ Wright said quietly, shrugging with a smile. Valdienne laughed, agreeing, though he said no such mistake is accidental.
The two decided to wing it for the Feb. 28 Art Collision Vol. 2 show anyway, and the models wearing Valdienne’s line gave the designer the O.K. to proceed, completely comfortable with the given stipulations. Everything worked out perfectly in the eyes of Valdienne and Wright.
“That’s fashion,” Valdienne said. “You can look at it as it being we ran out of time or we left the tops, or it can be because it’s art and I’m giving it to you in such an edgy way that you’re either gonna cringe in your seat or you’re gonna embrace it, think about it, break it down and analyze it.”
“You’re so lucky that was a cheap f—— roll of duct tape because their nipples would still be on there otherwise!” Slodobien joked.
For the amount of roles and responsibility taken on within these events and processes, Valdienne allows things to unravel as they will, and utilizes the outcome to his advantage. Wright refers to it as “laissez faire.”
It was after designing a leather fringe skirt for Columbus electro-pop band Damn the Witch Siren’s Bobbi Kitten, whose real name is Krista Botjer, that Valdienne discovered the direction for his upcoming line.
“Bam. The 70s. Bam. Eagles, phoenix, life, politics, all this s—’s going on. Bam. Here’s you’re collection,” Valdienne said, “Fly like an eagle, rise like a phoenix.”
Everything on this new, predominately jacket-based line contains leather and plenty of fringe along the backs and arms of the jackets. In some aspects, it holds patches and stitchings of political commentary as well as nods to bands ranging from the heavily influential and iconic, to entirely obscure punk bands from a wide spread of decades.
“It doesn’t quite make sense but that’s f—— life, it’s not supposed to make sense,” Valdienne said passionately.
The conglomerate has been approached with various offers and deals to sell their lines.
Nonetheless, the three are well aware that they must take steady, calculated steps now as to nourish the future of their careers.
“If we don’t love it then we wouldn’t want to sell it — we wouldn’t want to make it either,” Slodobien said, “But it’s not like we don’t want to be filthy rich.”
“I mean yeah, we totally do (want to be rich),” Valdienne interjected, cracking a beer and lighting a cigarette.
“I want more clientele — I’ve had new clientele — but I’m ready to have more,” Valdienne said.
Wright said he feels that the offering boutiques, pop ups, and shops in Columbus have not been the right places to sell their products. Based on things as basic as the presentation of their lines in a store, a term also called “hanger appeal.” Slodobien is also surprised at the improvement Valdienne’s clothes undergo when going from a rack to an actual body.
“I’m not into caring ‘cause I’m still wanna be like anarchy, punk — but I gotta sell this s—!” Valdienne said, before conceding that a part of him is beginning to reconsider.
Wright and Slodobien poke fun at Valdienne’s statements until everyone just laughs. A couple more cigarettes were sparked, as if to light up another random anecdote.
“(Wright) decided he didn’t want a chimney one day, so he got up on the roof and took it down and made a patio out of them,” Slodobien said of the bricks that once made up a chimney.
The group pointed toward a hole in the ceiling where the chimney used to reside.
“Didn’t know what the f— I was doing,’” Wright chuckled, “You just go for it — you f— up, you go back and fix it.
“It’s a lesson: learn the whole thing and start over,” Wright said.
It’s the same conscious disregard for formalities that guide the rest of the gang in their artistic endeavors.
“I’m like, middle fingers up constantly,” Valdienne joked.
“Not in the aggressive way, Oliver’s a really gentle person — he’s not rude to people,” Slodobien explained.
“No, no, no, I’m a sweetheart!” Valdienne smiled.