How not to sell out
After turning down an art-school scholarship and hiding out from the Sacramento fashion scene, Amy Hemmens resurfaces with a new boutique and a timeless aesthetic
Amy Hemmens was born on New Year’s Day, which may not be as big a cross to bear as, say, sharing a birthday with Jesus, but it does carry the disadvantage that just about everyone is hung over by the time your big day arrives. So this winter, the Sacramento designer decided to celebrate her 30th a day early in the homey surroundings of Atelier, the clothing boutique that she and her sister Melissa opened last month.
Surrounded by racks of handmade and vintage clothing, mirrors, mannequins and musical instruments (a vintage Hammond organ is among the Midtown shop’s permanent fixtures), Hemmens entertained clients and cohorts while serving up organic vegetables from the garden she started to support her raw-food habit. With the arrival of a graphic-designer colleague on break from Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design, conversation turned to institutional biases against representational art. (Daniel Clowes’ depiction in the film Art School Confidential, it appears, was barely an exaggeration.) After hearing her friend’s tale of ill treatment by one L.A. gallery, Hemmens was inspired to check out the gallery’s Web site and scroll through an array of stick figures exhibited there by a trendy neo-primitive artist called NeckFace. She began drafting a droll e-mail to the gallery owner, insisting she knew nothing about art, but would nevertheless like an internship as well as advice on what it takes to succeed in today’s art world.
A vestige of her punk-rock days, the gesture seemed telling for Hemmens, who in recent years has undergone something of a spiritual conversion in her life and her work. Here, on the eve of a holiday associated with resolutions and renewal, all this talk of art-school airs and stick-figure chic seemed to epitomize the path not chosen. Just last year, Hemmens surprised friends and family by turning down a full scholarship to the Bay Area’s California College of the Arts.
“I’d had one of those years where you don’t know what you want to do with your life,” Hemmens explained in an interview the following week, as winter rains pounded the shop’s 16th Street storefront. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I know: If I go to art school, everything in my life will change. I’ll become more serious about what I’m doing and less, um … .” She grinned. “Well, you know, a lot of art shows turn into parties around here, basically.
“I really thought I was going to go, but then at the last minute, I decided not to,” she recalled, noting that the whole experience of writing essays and putting together a portfolio of her work proved valuable nonetheless. “I realized how you can pull yourself together without having to go to school. I realized I could be an artist without actually having a degree and without going to school and blowing all that money. Because even though tuition would have been paid, you still have to pay rent in a city where rents are very high and come up with food money. Trying to keep up your art when you’re a starving artist is hard enough here, let alone going to a city where it costs a lot more to live. So it just made sense to stay here.”
The West Sacramento native’s theatrical take on fashion earned her acclaim as “one of Sacramento’s best artists” during a local media spurt two years ago. At the time, she was still making the transition from fine art to fashion design. A jacket painted with a striking portrait of a woman’s face now hangs in the shop as evidence of that period.
“I had an art studio where I was painting and doing other random things, and I just started making clothes for myself,” she recalled. After visitors to the studio began admiring (and buying) her clothing, Hemmens took to selling it at art shows. “I just got interested in making clothes as an art form, and then it sort of turned into fashion somehow, even though I don’t really consider myself a fashion designer.”
She noted the intricate stitching in a blue-velour waistcoat nearby. “I’m into approaching it like it’s a sculpture, and then later on defining it to someone’s body. And even then,” she said, holding up a remarkably unconventional looking pair of knitted works, “it’s still not something that someone would look at and go, ‘Oh, that’s a top.’”
Visitors to Atelier will notice also that the shop sorts clothing by color rather than size or gender. “I want men to look through the women’s clothes to see how beautiful they are,” Hemmens said. “It’s not just about coming in here and finding the most perfect thing for yourself. It’s also about looking through completely original, beautiful pieces, whether they’re vintage or handmade by us.”
Hemmens played a role in pioneering downtown Sacramento’s alternative-fashion scene through runway shows at Club 21 and Gallery Horse Cow, as well as a series of collaborative performances with Sac State faculty choreographer Nathan Jones. But by 2007, she’d come to a crossroads.
“I almost lost fashion, I almost lost art, I almost felt like none of that was really important,” she recalled of a period of questioning that was heightened by a trip to Europe—much of which she spent working on a farm in France. “I drank lots of coffee at cafes and ate lots of bad food—all the things you’re supposed to do when you travel—and I started feeling funky and depressed and not right, just heavy. Not literally heavy, but everything about my soul felt heavy and weighed down and nothing seemed right.”
Hemmens decided that when she got back to the states, she’d go on a raw-food cleanse for a month as a transition back to a healthier, more balanced diet. She’d tried it before, but hadn’t been serious enough about it, she said, pointing out that a diet is a huge commitment, potentially dangerous if handled incorrectly.
Indeed, Hemmens’ description of her first week is enough to make anyone think twice. “It was like my body was pushing out everything that was wrong,” she recalled. “My hair was falling out, I had a lot of physical symptoms of hurting, depression, really bad headaches. It basically felt like someone who might be detoxing from drugs, like years and years of things were coming out of me. Just that feeling of your soul being weighted down. But I knew that was going to happen. I had read about it, and I was really good about doing it the right way this time.”
After that first week of the new regimen, Hemmens began feeling back to normal—yet somehow different: “It feels like you’re getting lighter and lighter; everything starts quieting down inside of you.”
She pressed on and ultimately came out of her self-described reclusive year with a more receptive attitude toward the world around her—something she’d been working on for a while. “I’m proud to say that in the last five years, I’ve really, really improved, because there was a point where my motto was something like, ‘I hate 95 percent of the population.’ I’m not like that anymore.
“I feel like I’ve been sort of searching for the last year how to make something within fashion that doesn’t exclude people—even people that aren’t into fashion,” she continued. “It was fun just messing with people, making things in a punk-rock sort of ‘fuck-you’ vein, but it was also kind of childish in a way. I think when you start realizing that you do want to do these things seriously, and you do want to make a living at it, and you don’t really want to be working at some other job and doing it part time, that’s when you start to maybe compromise and make some things that everyone can appreciate. But what I found is that I didn’t have to compromise, that I naturally, as I got older and kind of matured, really enjoyed making the things I’m making that anyone can appreciate.”
Once Hemmens resolved her intentions, things began falling into place. Her sister Melissa had recently earned a business-management degree, and the two decided to look for a shop together. “It happened very fast,” Melissa said, “and I remember turning to Amy and saying, ‘Are we crazy?’ And she said, ‘No, we’re just doing what we always wanted to do.’”
Moving into what had been a crowded real-estate office, the sisters and their friends set about transforming it into a kind of postmodern space, combining vintage and contemporary, elegance and whimsy. “I think it’s about going back to childhood and innocence,” said Amy, who still sells her work in L.A. shops and online. “I couldn’t imagine making this place really sterile and really cold, like a mall.”
Having previously done shop-window and mannequin art for Evangeline’s and Prevues, Hemmens developed an interest in costuming that contributes to the shop’s timeless perspective. “It’s kind of like being a teenager, when you go through all your different phases of looks,” she said, laughing. “One year I’ll be really into the 17th century, but right now at this moment, you can clearly see with a lot of my hats that I’m really influenced by the 1920s.”
While heavily indebted to British-punk godmother Vivienne Westwood, whom she describes as “the perfect example of punk marrying into high fashion,” Hemmens recognizes a kind of reverse elitism in the punk, goth and shock aesthetics. “There’s this pride, I think, in both the world of no-money punk rock and in the world of money punk rock,” she said. “To me, it’s sort of like a mirror image, and it could be a waste of time to be on either side. Maybe I want to come from another angle.”
Hemmens has yet to hear back from the gallery that brought us NeckFace, and isn’t holding her breath.