A splash of color can inject new life into anything. So can artist/designer Erin Tate. We'd spotted her several times around Denver: once at Thrift Con by Station, and again in RiNo near 27th and Larimer streets. Each time we saw her, we were captivated by the meticulous paintings she creates on vintage denim and leather jackets, demonstrating her ability to fuse art and fashion. Finally, we stopped to chat with her about her story and style.
Originally from Miami, Tate moved back to Colorado over a year ago. "I lived in Aspen for a year, then moved back to Miami, and then I realized I wanted to live in Colorado," she explains. "Now I'm in graduate school, getting my marketing degree from University of Denver. I studied art history at Florida International University for my bachelor's degree. Everybody was like, 'Where will that take you?' and it brought me here."
She was back in Miami for Art Basel this fall. "I did a little pop-up shop. My friend asked if I can do the live- painting at Art Basel, so I was excited to do that," says Tate, who's inspired by artists of the past.
Here's more from our conversation with Tate:
Westword: Who or what inspires your personal style?
Erin Tate: Music albums. I love album artwork; I study those and I painted a few. I did the Tekashi69 and Nicki Minaj one. I did a jacket for DJ Mala, and he posted the picture on his Instagram. I painted a trenchcoat with his album artwork on it. He commented on my picture and re-posted it. I wanted to send it to him as a gift, but I didn't get a response. It was exciting to get noticed by him, because he is kind of famous.
Does Florida influence your aesthetic?
I grew up in Wynwood. It's kind of like RiNo, with lots of graffiti, and it hosts Art Basel every year with all kinds of murals, the Wynwood Walls. It used to be warehouses, and now it's totally gentrified and has become art galleries and restaurants, but it still has Art Basel every year. I had access to a lot of street art growing up, and I loved that.
When did you go from art history to making clothes?
I didn't really think about it and decide to do this. After I moved from Aspen back to Miami, I had just finished school and I didn't know what to do, but I kept painting. Then someone asked me to paint on a jacket for them, so I started off doing commissions, and then I made some for myself. ...That's when my marketing degree came in. But I did not think that I would be doing this. All through middle and high school I wanted to be a lawyer. I was preparing for the LSATs, and then I changed my mind because I hated it. I was initially studying criminal law, and then I fell in love with my art classes, so here I am.
When did you paint your first jacket?
I painted my first jacket two years ago. It's still my favorite jacket. I also made a jacket for this girl, Corrine, to promote her lipstick line. She was on the The Bachelor and is from Miami, too. That was really cool. I made a lot of promotional pieces that I was commissioned to do.
What is your favorite color?
Red, but it used to be purple. If you see my work, there are bright-red components. I don't even plan it while I am painting, but I will think something is missing and then I add red and it looks complete.
What is your favorite accessory?
A denim jacket. I am always wearing a denim jacket, always. I'll paint on something new because a client will send me something to paint, but the work does depend on the material in the end — like, linen is very different than denim. All the paintings will have a white layer first to make the colors pop. If I painted red on this, it would look really bad without a white layer to start. That is something I had to learn through trial and error.
What is your favorite film?
It takes a lot for me to sit down and watch a film. Film doesn't really inspire my work, although I do like the television show Friends. That is my favorite TV show by far. I have seen all the episodes from every season, in order, several times. I kind of feel like I am the unofficial seventh character, Erin.
What are your favorite art movements or art decades?
This is what I live for. I love pop art. I love Roy Lichtenstein; I reference him all the time in my work. I love this artist named James Rosenquist, who works with collages. I love German expressionism. I really love Vincent van Gogh, and I am obsessed with Edvard Munch. I like Basquiat, too, but he is an artist who is being overplayed right now.
Is pop art your favorite period?
It's what I get inspired by. It's the style I like to paint in. But as a whole, German expressionism is so good, and it's dark. I love "Starry Night" and how van Gogh painted it in an asylum, looking out the window of his ward. He had this story to tell. People who have such crazy lives make such beautiful art sometimes. There is a painting by Munch called "The Dance of Life" that I love. It is so depressing, but it is so pretty. I like understanding why they painted what they painted. They have these cool stories. I love 1920s and 1970s art as well. But German expressionism was my favorite to study.
What is your price point for a jacket?
On average, one custom jacket is $400 to $600. That's custom. The ones that are already made are less expensive. It's a very small market of people who appreciate the time and detail and want to buy a real work of art. I like to consider myself more of an artist than a designer.
Do you still paint on canvas?
I used to paint on canvas, and now I paint all on clothing. If I have a cool idea, I do it on a jacket before I do it on canvas. It has been over a year since I last painted on a canvas. I'm never going to plan an entire jacket in a sketch book. If I plan it, it never works out. Part of my process is creating it on the jacket as I go.
What is the connection between art and fashion for you?
Honestly, the lines that define what art is these days are so blurred. After studying art for four years, I've realized some artists are popular because someone sees potential in them, and it is all very subjective. The same goes for fashion. Some people dress practically, and that is not art. But other people dress for fashion and to express their personalities, and that is art to me.
What is your jam of the moment?
"Africa," by Toto. I always put it on when I get in the car. I listen to it all the time. I feel embarrassed to say that. I really like "For You," by Bruce Springsteen. Any time and any day. Nobody plays Bruce Springsteen anymore, so I will never get over that song.
Where do you shop?
All Saints and Rag and Bone. When I do shop, I buy their jeans. All Saints is what I strive to make my style look like all the time. They have this cool, dark, edgy style that I love so much. Even though they make these tight girly jeans, they put them with something really edgy. I do love a good pair of Levi's jeans or a jean jacket as well.
What is your style mantra?
My friends always tell me I'm very edgy. So as a joke, I ask myself, "Is this edgy?" If my friends ask me to dress them, I will do that — but I don't necessarily style people. If someone asks me what to wear with one of my denim jackets, I will definitely dress them. But most of my clients have great style and can figure it out.
I mainly dress for my mood and depending on where I'm going. When I was seven, I wanted to be a fashion designer; I wanted a sewing machine because I wanted to sew everything, but it didn't work out back then. Now I am slowly getting back into all the things I used to be obsessed with, and it's nice to go back to that. I started sewing pants and this jacket, so we'll see where it goes.
Now that I know how to sew, a whole other world opened up, a whole new world of possibilities, like embroidery. It takes hours to get embroidery right; Sewing definitely helps with that.
What are three words you would use to describe your style?
I would say funky, edgy, girly.
If I say that something is funky, then that means that I like it and I really want it; I will probably end up wearing it. I like girly. I always put a feminine spin on everything I do; I throw a girly twist on all my outfits.
Do you like tomboy or baggy looks?
I like oversized shirts and pants, but I like to wear baggy pants with a tight tank top. Or a baggy shirt with tight pants. I love baggy jeans with a turtleneck or a body suit to balance it out. I will steal my boyfriend's clothes and wear some of his shirts. I like to wear one of his sweaters as a dress, with leggings. I will never wear all tight clothes or all baggy clothes. I like when a look is balanced.
What is your favorite fabric to paint on?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Denim. I love painting on denim jackets, because they never go out of style. They are practical and cool. They are classic and timeless and art looks good on them. People used to paint with overalls on and get splashes all over them, and now people wear paint splatters to fashion shows. Now I paint on denim jackets, so it's a good look.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Like Tate, never be afraid to paint your own vision, Denver.