Photographs courtesy of Max Avi Kaplan

One afternoon in the spring of 2009, a crowd gathered outside NYU’s

Gallatin Galleries, beckoned by the siren call of something too sensational, too eye-catching, too thought-provoking to miss.

The windows revealed a stunning, floor-length Victorian-inspired couture gown, made entirely of white silk hydrangeas and held together with an intricate application of wire, taffeta and paper.

It was the breathtaking public debut of designer (and New York University student) Max Avi Kaplan.

Three years later, Max is still obsessed with showcasing flowers and nature in a fashion context, though his work has evolved and taken a fresh, pointed direction with his informed focus on head accessories and Victorian-inspired gloves. Max is also still an NYU student, but now he’s enrolled in the highly selective Visual Culture: Costume Studies graduate program at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He splits his time between his art studio in his home state of New Jersey and the Hell’s Kitchen apartment he shares with Rebecca Faye, his sister and “the cynical critic I need.”

Subverting beauty

Over a cappuccino at downtown “It” café, La Colombe Torrefaction, Max revisits that very first flower gown, which he now looks at with a certain detachment as excitement (and press from Nylon magazine) build around his latest collection of ornate gloves and fabulous floral turbans.

“The Victorians, especially in the middle of the 19th century, were completely obsessed with controlling nature, and this often manifested itself in integrating floral motifs or actual flowers into fashion in a very prescribed but at the same time uniquely sculptural fashion,” he says. “I just love that rich ornamentation, that density. To me, it’s very mysterious and it can be very noir if you put in certain elements. I love the profusion of ornament. I’m obsessed with that.”

While Max loved creating that dress, its style is “too beautiful” for his current aesthetic.

“I also am growing into my own creative space where I want to still embrace that inner beauty, but kind of subvert it a little bit and make it more unique and a little bit creepier, a little bit darker and have there be that surface of beauty, but then there’s something off. And that takes a long time to cultivate.”

Getting there

Max works off commission now, predominantly for stylists like Elle Werlin, who had him create custom-made headpieces for shoots.

“I met her through my (distant) cousin at a wedding. So one day, Elle called me and said, ‘I need turbans,’ and so I made a turban for her on the floor of her apartment and she was like drinking wine and telling me, ‘I want gingham. Here’s some I bought. I love the stuff you make, but I need gingham and can you do it now?’ And I did it, and it got into Nylon magazine and that was my first moment of being published and it felt crazy. It was last April and I finally had something on stands,” Max says with a wide smile.

“I’m very proud of that work, and it’s all very beauty for beauty… Elle and I work and improvise together really well and she’s been feeling my feeling for gloves. And I thought, ‘Why not do art gloves? Why not do sculptural gloves?’”

Just over a month ago, Max’s sculptural wrought-iron gate-inspired nylon net gloves were featured in none other than the windows of the Gallatin Galleries, introducing his newer designs to passersby.

While still inspired by the garden, now he says, “I have photographs of lichen growing on gravestones and that’s what I’m basing this latest collection off of – basically organic matter, composite organisms and growth and the transparency of the stretchable nylon net gloves. It’s totally see through so if you have a beautiful Chanel on, you can see your red nails through it…. These days I’m most interested in exploring the way that the floral, organic lichen can be replicated in an altogether decorative but at the same time fleeting, ephemeral way.”

Through his designs, Max is also interested in making a connection between the Victorian era and the conformity of women’s dress in the 1950s, referencing Dior. Yet he still strives to keep his fashions very current.

Eventually, he hopes to hone his passion for embroidery at L’École Lesage Paris, which the house of Chanel bought in 2002 as a means of training its embroiderers and keeping that couture legacy alive within the brand in the future.

“There’s this ’50s beauty to the gloves that is really innocent but also has this feel of being kind of trapped, to me at least, as material culture objects. I see that these women had to put on their gloves and they had to conform and part of their dress was integrated into that conformity. And I find that in the Victorian period in the same way.

“And that’s how I was inspired by see-through gloves. There’s ornamentation that’s distracting your eye but then you’re also looking deeper and you’re seeing the person’s skin…. Our hands aren’t always beautiful. With women who get plastic surgery, their hands tell their age. And I absolutely love that.”

For more, visit maxavi.com.

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