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Dara AllenModel & Stylist

New York, US. September 17th, 2020

Interviewed by Alexei Key

Photographed by Justin von Oldershausen


 

I moved to New York in 2016 with my best friends from California, Iris and Cruz. We always loved playing with clothes and taking pictures, but we didn’t know anybody else who was interested in it until we became immersed in fashion Tumblr. Seeing everyone we talked to online also doing shoots or putting on independent runway shows together was what made me feel like I could have a place in the industry.

After moving here, I jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim. I started assisting stylist Ian Bradley and then fell into modeling. To me, fashion has always been the language in which I’m most comfortable expressing myself. When I don’t know how to say something with words, conveying a feeling in a picture through gesture and shape somehow makes more sense to me. In this industry, I’ve found people who I don’t need to explain myself to. I’m not sure what draws us all to fashion, but I’m glad it’s brought me those close bonds.

The person I am today is just the sum of all the decisions I’ve made and continue to make. One thing I’ve really learned from fashion is that everything is forever until it’s not. Each season, each year, each phase of life, you commit to something as superficial as what handbag you’ll carry or as deep as how you perceive yourself, until suddenly, you see everything differently and it all changes. I commit to everything like it’s a forever proposition until I have to confront an inevitable change. It always feels abrupt but that’s life.

Moving to New York was really a big change for me. I had never gone to a party or on a date or lived on my own before. I had to grow up really quickly and it always felt like I was playing catch-up. I still feel that way sometimes. Realizing that the people I’m closest to also feel like late bloomers helps me recognize the importance of our shared experiences.

When I first moved here, I met photographer Ethan James Green who has become one of my best friends and has really encouraged me to explore my creativity. On one of the first nights we hung out, he showed me clips of the Richard Avedon documentary Darkness and Light, which completely changed how I look at photography and fashion in general. He’s always pushed me and given me opportunities, in front of and behind the camera, before I ever felt ready to take them on.

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Even though modeling has been super-exciting, I never stopped being curious about what all the other people on set did. I kept asking questions of the makeup artists and hair stylists and photographers. A couple of years ago, I started doing pictures with my friend, photographer Cruz Valdez. We work out of our apartment, which we turn into a studio for shoots. Sometimes, I’m in the pictures and sometimes I’ll just style them. Last year, Mel Ottenberg asked us to do some for Interview magazine, and I’ve styled shoots for each issue since then. Having a consistent place to express ideas was a big turning point in our work process.

Being able to work as a model and as a stylist lets me exercise two separate parts of my brain and exercise two disciplines that I really love and am passionate about, equally. When I’m on set as a model, I don’t mind letting myself go to the creative process, because I know how much I love having a model give me that trust. Sometimes, I want to perform and other times, it’s fun to direct somebody else to act out my vision. I’m really lucky to be part of fashion right now and get to enjoy both roles at the same time. Historically, it’s been a classic narrative for a model to eventually become a fashion editor, but doing it simultaneously like this somehow feels indicative of how the industry is changing.

Thinking about how important playing dress up and transforming clothes have become to me I remember that growing up, I obsessively watched Cinderella and other movies about the glamour of change. Everything in that movie is beautiful. Even the dirt sparkles. As I got older, I wanted to play with my clothes the way the mice and birds cut up and sewed together Cinderella’s dress. My mom never let me cut my clothes up, out of fear I’d ruin something, so I became very adept at using safety pins to transform things. It’s funny how things you do as a child follow you into adulthood, and this has become a huge part of how I approach styling a shoot.

Creativity doesn’t stop and end with work, a full life exists beyond it. Validation from the industry doesn’t make something good, even though it feels like it does, so much of the time. I love making shapes and putting clothes together, but that’s something that I do while alone in my room with no one to see. Fashion is about the creation of yourself and a way of playing make believe with your desires. To me, that is a basic human instinct.

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Dialogue about that all is so important though. I feel the most creative when I’m given a prompt to answer or a problem to solve and I have to find a solution. I love what happens between two people in collaboration. It’s always the combination of ideas that uncovers something new.

In work, I don’t know if I ever feel truly authentic or “myself.” I’m always nervous, I always feel like somebody won’t like what I put them in or that it might not work. With modeling, it’s always kind of a performance. At the same time, I also feel so committed to my idea that I have to see it through. It’s complicated. I feel most myself when I completely understand the direction given to me by a photographer, whether in front of or behind the camera, and when we get it all to fall into place somehow and we all tunnel-vision focus in on that one right moment.

I just keep trying things and I make sense of it later. I think that really seeing yourself hurts, but when you get used to it, it’s the best thing. Letting your identity be up to other people’s interpretation can be such an important part of getting to know who you are. Acknowledging other perspectives allows you to really recognize who you are to other people, and what you mean to them, how you really look through their eyes. It’s like hearing your voice on a recording or when somebody takes a really honest picture of you. You almost cringe. When you get over that and look at yourself as someone else sees you, it reveals something about who you are that you could never have known otherwise.

Feeling understood is important, but being looked at, being “seen,” is a whole other monster. Knowing that people are looking can be both liberating and incredibly frightening. Sometimes, I wish I could do what I do without anybody seeing it. Contending with loving the process, but not necessarily the result is just how it goes.

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I stay inspired by the joys I experience while doing what I get to do, even if it’s not necessarily purposeful or useful to anybody right now. I think creating fiction as a way to interpret our lives is still a worthy pursuit, and fashion is a sort of fiction. It’s kind of like sketching ideas down, almost like every shoot is an attempt at mimicking real life and instead, getting it a little cartoon-y.

I’m also always trying to push to do what I want, how I want, because girls like me are told so often that we have to be a certain way and say certain things to validate our spot in fashion or in the creative industries. I just want to be honest about why I’m here, and it’s simply for the love of the creative process. I think we deserve as much room as anyone else to propose our vision of the world.
 

DARA ALLEN


In collaboration with The New Cast