Popping Off With Empathy Los Angeles
The Trials and Tribulations of Living Up to Your Brand‘s Name
Fabric lines the blocks of L.A.’s Fashion District like brightly-frocked dancers waiting to get into a party. I met Henry Stambler near 9th and Wall, where a bolt of silver paillette sequins streaked light across the sidewalk, a makeshift disco ball turning a corner into a club. Henry is young, but it doesn’t really matter how old, because his line, Empathy Los Angeles—while implicitly about youth—is also about a vision far beyond its scope. Empathy is the result of years of retreading and reexamining relationships in the hopes of discovering what went wrong. He found inspiration not in the pain itself but in the possibility for invention that he saw in those reflections. If you know what went wrong, it’s possible to imagine what it could have been like if it was right.I spoke to Henry about pain turned into productivity, explaining poppers to your mom, and the references that guide him.
What is Empathy’s history?What was that pain?So it’s a cathartic project?You seem hesitant to say it’s about you, and that’s a little perplexing. People usually make art about who they are.
I didn’t set out to make clothes. I was really heartbroken and devastatingly depressed. I spent so much goddamn time thinking about clothing—not necessarily making it, but thinking about the idea of identity, about becoming someone else, about what clothes mean to people. I became obsessed with the different properties clothing can embody beyond the fabric that it’s constructed of. Then I had this moment where all I could do was finally make it. It was a way of externalizing the sense of pain I was going through at that particular time.That pain was a product of relationships. I had to start thinking about them through the context of the clothing that I was making so I could contextualize a burgeoning sense of agency. I needed to understand what had happened, what had gone wrong. I focused on memories, on thinking about the ways I’d acted in these relationships and tried to make sense of it through my clothing. It was about crafting a new story for myself in a way, or a new story for the other people involved.When I came up with a name for it, it was loaded with so much. For me, it’s not necessarily something I can adhere to all the time, but that I can aspire to be. It’s a world that’s more understanding and forgiving.I don’t design clothes based on what makes sense for me right now. A lot of the pieces are memories, and I can’t pinpoint exactly where they come from. Initially, though, what I created was an attempt to salvage things as a reaction to heartbreak. Now that—for the first time ever—I’m super content, I have to figure out what my reference points are for moving forward with this new set of circumstances.
Is it hard to create when you’re happy?The tags are inspired by Jenny Holzer’s work, at least visually, and feature quotes from a diverse range of sources. What guided their conception?How do you choose the texts?
It’s hard for me to reflect upon situations when I’m happy. I’m a relatively critical person. I’m always problem-solving and creating out of a sense of urgency. When that fire isn’t on, it requires a different way of thinking and that’s what I’m transitioning into now. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it will be interesting to see what inflection that has on the clothes.I love the idea that a lot of this comes back to this philosophy of a garment’s intrinsic value, and the fact that something can be worth significantly more than the sum of its parts. That’s why I find sneaker culture so fascinating. I love that shit. I eat it up. People get this sick thrill out of seeing a label. You see a Saint Laurent tag and suddenly you’re like, “Oh my God, of course this button down costs $850!” A tag implies something far beyond what it took to produce the garment. So, it’s like, “You recognize that rambling, incoherent, overly-romanticized body of text on a tag? Oh, that’s Empathy.” I wanted you to see that tag and feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.A lot of them were made with one of my best friends on Earth, a very gifted writer named Emily Bannon. We collaborated on sourcing the texts, and between the two of us we came up with 50 or 60 different bodies that both of us consider talismans, phrases that we had carried throughout our entire lives.
All of a sudden beautiful images of poppers are a thing. You’ve created your own, set amongst flowers. There’s an idea there of queer nostalgia that is both retro and incredibly of the moment.
I can’t believe I’m getting so giddy about my weird theorizing on poppers! I love it because it’s so coded. It’s this imagery that speaks to a subculture that operates the same way as labels, actually. It’s something that only makes sense if you’ve been fucked, or if you’ve been to a skeezy leather bar, or if you’ve been to any of these places that are inextricably tied to a particular subculture. My mom saw those images and called me asking, “What are those things?” And I had to explain them to her. Like, please! I literally had this conversation with her over the phone where I had to break it down for her. I was like, “This is a drug, but it’s practical.”
I’m interested in the idea of queerness as being banal nowadays, and I think that part of a larger project for you in the creation of these images and your line, it being inspired by queer relationships, is a deliberate reckoning with what it means to be gay.
I thought I had a good idea about how normalized queer relationships had become, until this huge political shitstorm made it so murky. Being gay now, or I guess as of last year, brought thoughts of dating. You think about Grindr, you think about online platforms as decentralizing this idea of being gay in public. You can be gay in all these different ways. But things are going to change. People are going to have to be radicalized and are going to have to be publicly, visibly, and intensely queer. People are going to have to be gay as shit! How else are you going to deal with Mike Pence as a vice president if you don’t have that sort of inescapable, aggressively queer imagery?
The references you sent over seemed very related. There were two or three main themes that bubbled up. The first was an aesthetic insistence on youth, whether in Alasdair McLellan, Viviane Sassen, Derek Ridgers, or Ewen Spencer. How does what you do respond to that?
I have such a bizarre relationship with youth. I love it visually, but I don’t know if I would feel comfortable building my brand around it. Obviously, I’m in my early 20s and so much of the world I deal with goes with it. Referencing youth culture is such a cheap trick though. I’m a sucker for it but I also have to reconcile the fact that the obsession with and fetishization of youth is a business concern. It sells. It gets people in touch with this sense of fantasy and desire and escapism. Your clientele wants to become something else. They want to shave 15 years off their lives and be in the back room of a club. With Alasdair, for example, what really resonates is his honest relationship to his subjects. He was trying to capture the essence of the type of people he grew up around. I should have put Peter Hujar in there—he did that too. When I think of him versus Mapplethorpe, they both had a relatively similar style of photography, but Hujar gave a shit about his subjects, he actually cared. Whereas Mapplethorpe had this exhausting, fetishistic outlook on the people he worked with.
Did you see the HBO documentary on Mapplethorpe? It so clearly depicted how self-serving the relationships he fostered were.
If I could create a relationship like the ones Hujar had between my subjects and I, that would be a field day! There’s nothing more that I could hope to do. That’s kind of why those are in there. There’s a lot of honesty in all those photographs.
California artists like Wallace Berman encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to art that is au courant. Everyone's a photographer and a designer and an actor and a model. Sometimes we think that’s unique to our generation, but then you see Berman’s Semina and, going further back still, the idea of a Renaissance man, and you realize that they all relied on pulling from disparate sources and not pigeon-holing your productive potential. How does being a polyglot affect what you make?
I was only able to start creating when I realized that I was allowed to be that, that I was allowed to think and work that way. It’s a very pure way of working. It might not be the most efficient, and sometimes people spread themselves too thin and their product becomes diffused, but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. It’s important to know what you love and know what really fuels you to make things that emotionally resonate. It was only when I threw off the self-doubts about what I had to be and what I had to make that I was able to start producing things.
On Empathy’s Instagram you call it “an exercise in worldmaking, and not a fucking moodboard.”What’s the worst thing about you, Henry?
It’s not a t-shirt brand. It’s not an Instagram. It’s not a photo of one of the tags that got 20,000 notes on Tumblr. I want Empathy to be a conversation, a showcase to credit the work and passions of the people I love. Put them on the fucking hangtag! Don’t shoo them away like they’re designers working under you. It’s about celebrating the people that have made you who you are today.Probably that I’ll never be able to live up to my brand’s name.