Fashion can be high-end, avant-garde, commercial or casual. But in Denver, where most people like to dress for comfort and an outdoor lifestyle, cutting-edge style isn't easy to find. Photographer Alexander Ablola and stylist Meredith MacNicholas decided to change that, teaming up on a creative agency that produces a biannual fashion magazine, Soft and Shallow. The third edition will be unveiled at a release party on July 20.
Ablola moved from Colorado Springs to Denver in 2015 to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design for fashion design. "It was cool, but the way the school was set up was not for me," he says. "I think I learned a lot about art, how to look at art, make art, and create a feeling. But beyond the structure, [fashion design] was too new of a program. I couldn't pay thousands of dollars to be a guinea pig. I knew I had to keep doing something with fashion, and that's when Meredith and I came up with the Soft and Shallow idea."
"Since moving to Denver, I've specifically had the thought to make a fashion zine," MacNicholas says. "I didn't think we would necessarily take the pictures ourselves, but there were images that I wanted to see, just as a source of inspiration. I love flipping through fashion magazines and being like, 'This a look I want to re-create, or I'm inspired by this.' We wanted something in print that you can pick up somewhere and flip through. ... We talked about it, joked about it, and then we were serious and sat down and had a meeting and we created it. We actually fucking did it. We made a Denver fashion magazine."
A fashion magazine sparked by creative chemistry when they met while working at Buffalo Exchange. "I knew she was my style counterpart, pretty much," Ablola says. "It's not very often you meet a stylist who gets it right on the first try, just nails it every time. It's too easy. It's too good."
"We have the same ideas and thoughts in our own minds, and then we say them out loud and it makes it easier to collaborate," MacNicholas adds. "We don't have difficulty explaining ourselves. It's nice when you know someone like that and you don't have to over-explain yourself. You can just show each other a few images, and you don't have to go too in-depth. Everything just clicks."
From the start, they agreed on goals for Soft and Shallow. MacNicholas is the stylist, Ablola the photographer. "I want my work to be editorial, and I want to make high-fashion looks that make people uncomfortable at the same time," MacNicholas says. "I want to push people out of their comfort zone."
The publication also gives a voice to those who might not otherwise have one. "The purpose of Soft and Shallow, beyond being a fashion magazine, is to be a platform for other creatives to say what they need to say or have that platform for expression," Ablola notes.
The first issue, called "Gothentic," focused on dark and edgy Gothic fashion mixed with modern-day street-wear. "Interviews," the second, "was a study to capture the perspective of the models that you usually don't see," Ablola says. "We asked them questions about their outfits, It was a huge experiment; we didn't even interview them ourselves. ... We did not want our influence to sway the answers, so we decided to step away and see how much innocence we can get in a project like that.
"Every time, we try to change it up, because we can," he continues. "We have the freedom to try new ways of presenting the material. This is all about experimenting and trying new things. We have talked about switching roles and are open to different creative endeavors. We have so many ideas. The future is limitless."
The third edition, "Wet Ruffles," explores male platonic intimacy with a collaborative video as well as a magazine. "'Wet Ruffles' discusses how males express intimacy in their own groups and how sometimes you can cross lines and play with what is considered taboo, like femininity," explains MacNicholas.
Adds Ablola, "It's really about how men interact with each other physically, because we need to interact with each other physically. Violence is the only way that men can touch each other and not have it be considered 'gay.' Personally, I would say I'm a violent person. It's a huge part of my past. Especially when it's violence against men, because that's who all of my violence has been acted out upon. At this point, I think it's important for us to have this conversation, because I still have questions about male intimacy, and I don't think I have answered them yet."
That's a serious topic, but the announcement of the release party invites all Denver fashionistas to "pull up and stunt on everyone," says Ablola. "The first issue was 'Gothentic,' so everyone wore black, and that was cool. For the second issue, 'Interviews,' I was inspired by ’90s raves when we did the photo shoot. So a lot of people dressed in ’90s rave clothes, and you don't always see that in Denver."
And for "Wet Ruffles"? "I just want people to look weird. Just be authentic as possible. This one is gonna be an intense one," says MacNicholas.
Working at Buffalo Exchange, MacNicholas has been collecting a style closet, and most of the pieces for their photo shoots come from there; she styles secondhand pieces to look like high-fashion editorial. "I would love to work with designer clothing all the time, but when you can take things that have been thrifted and make them high fashion or editorial, that becomes interesting," she says. "It's about what you are able to piece together. We'll see what the future holds: Alex has been making more things."
Ablola has created two garments for photo shoots and plans to do more. "I have been doing photography for so long, and it is my entry point into fashion, but at the end of the day, I have to be a designer," he explains. "There are just things that have not been made that are not going to get made until I make them. ... From the beginning of Soft and Shallow, we have planned to slowly release my work into the magazine. I make menswear, but I am influenced by womenswear in terms of silhouette and textile. I feel like there is a broad range of things to play with."
"The way that fashion is going, like having men walk in women's shows or vice versa, it is becoming more androgynous or unisex — having that crossover," MacNicholas adds. "Maybe in the future there won't be a men's section and a women's section. Shop wherever you want to shop and wear whatever you want to wear. Wear what makes you feel comfortable. I think that's where fashion should be going."
But will the fashion industry get there? Ablola has his concerns. "People are getting bogged down by the machine," he says, "like how many fashion shows can we cram in a year? There is a fashion show for every season, and then pre-fall, resort, and every city has a fashion week. It's too much. Why is the calendar so crazy? It's burning out a lot of people. So people are rebelling by not following the system, or having men and women together in the same show. But it should really just go back to two seasons. We don't need so many collections a year. It's exhausting, it's overwhelming.
"Soft and Shallow and the future of whatever else I do, but specifically in the fashion system, is to be conscious of our consumption," he continues. "That's how our whole world is now. It's too much all the time. We do this bi-annually because everything, regardless of fashion, comes out so quickly now. People don't really have time to absorb it. Having two issues a year is a good way for us to let people digest what we were trying to say with the issue. It gives people time to think of this product."
As children of the ’90s, MacNicholas and Ablola are inspired by the millennium and fashion emerging at the turn of the century. "Like Y2K," MacNicholas says. "That is my favorite era of fashion. Everyone was like, 'The world is going to end,' but it didn't, so now let's just make the strangest clothing. I love the resurgence of it coming back now. Everyone looks like [futuristic 1999 Disney Channel film] Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. That's the vibe, for sure. I don't think I'll ever be able to get off that influence."
The year 2005 was pivotal for both Ablola and MacNicholas. "My background comes from Hypebeast. I was on that website in 2005. I loved looking at brands like Supreme and A Bathing Ape. That was the genesis of fashion for me," recalls Ablola.
That same year, MacNicholas was reading Nylon and Teen Vogue, which she says was just as good as the adult Vogue. Publications they admire today include i-D, Paper, Dazed, Tank and several out of London, such as Man About Town and AnOther Magazine. "All of these publications are in a similar vein as ours, biannual, with no ads and little to no writing — purely editorial images," says Ablola. "As we move more digital, the importance of printed publication is important. The number-one way that people see fashion is through magazines; fashion magazines are forever. So why not add another to the pile?"
Soft and Shallow is essentially an art book and sells for $15 a copy. "Although it is handmade and has a DIY quality, it is not a zine," MacNicholas says. "It is a magazine, and it deserves to be bought. It is something you would want to hold on to for a while." The first two issues were in black and white; the third is in color. Ablola and MacNicholas do all the work themselves, from the styling and photo shoots to the layout; they use the magazine as an excuse to learn new skills and explore new creative outlets. "That is the way of the creative world now," MacNicholas adds. "It's important to know how to do everything yourself. That's how we learned to bind the magazines by hand, and how Alex learned Photoshop and graphic design."
Ablola plans to eventually return to fashion-design school to complete his degree. "I have been thinking of my first fashion show since I started learning fashion design. I have to get a degree because I want to be the best, and I have to know what the masters know," he says. "Before I went to fashion school, I used to sew punk patches with dental floss. When I took my first fashion-design class [at RMCAD], I learned to sew. I designed my first pair of pants with a sewing machine, and that was it. It felt good. ... I didn't learn enough [in school], but in due time, I will. I'm saving my name for my brand when I'm forty."
MacNicholas is evolving, too. "I have a lot of influences," she says. "I take from a lot of high-end designers who are clean-cut and sleek and have beautiful lines. I love grimy shit, too. It think it's important to have that crossover. Something high-end with something thrifted, like in the styling. My number-one inspiration for clothing in general is Eckhaus Latta. I like not only the clothing they make, which is beautiful, but their runways and photo shoots are always as inclusive as possible with race, gender, and just feature all sorts of different people. That is something we strive to do with Soft and Shallow.
"Other than that, music and art and everything in my life is constantly inspiring me to create looks for myself and other people," she continues. "I am constantly looking at clothing and thinking what I can piece together. I can't stop. Doing that for myself is nice, but for other people, it's great to see what emotions and reactions people have when I style them. I want to be styling as many shoots as possible. My goal is to be a stylist."
Ablola defines his own style as "maximum-minimalist, black and confidence." His aesthetic inspiration "boils down to two things for me: punk and rap," he says. "I grew up listening to rap music because it seemed rebellious. In eighth grade my friend showed me skateboarding and punk, and that was it. I love juxtaposition in general, and life itself is super-paradoxical: It is always trying to make two separate ideas into one seamless idea."
The title of their magazine came from the two riffing off each other. "If you take yourself too seriously, you're forgetting to have fun. We are funny people and we like to have fun. It is very tongue-in-cheek," says MacNicholas.
Her own style is "hard to narrow down," she says. "It's an important question, and I've thought about it before, tried to compile it down, but I always want to try different things, and it changes day to day. I would say the common threads are 1990s, Japanese fashion, and cleaned-up messy. "
How does she decide what looks good? "I try to find balance," MacNicholas explains. "That is the key to making an outfit look good. The weight of each item — and we pay attention to proportion. A good fit and a clean line are so important. That is something that goes far with fashion: Fit is a way to make things that are not high-fashion look high-fashion."
Ablola's favorite accessory is jewelry, specifically rings. "It makes me feel like a prince," he says. "I deserve to feel like a prince. Maximal-minimalist comes into play with my jewelry. I'll wear a white tee and black jeans but with lots of jewelry. I like to play with that juxtaposition and balance."
MacNicholas's favorite accessory is "probably earrings, and my tattoos," she says. "I have like five or six. Sometimes I think about them when I get dressed. Otherwise I like to accessorize my models, not so much myself," she admits.
MacNicholas's favorite color is hot pink, and Ablola's is baby blue, though he usually dresses in black, white and red. "I do everything to fulfill this childhood fantasy," he says. "A lot of my inspiration comes down to my childhood. I think after a certain point that all artists go back to their childhood for inspiration."
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MacNicholas agrees: "I think I'm making ten-year-old Meredith happy right now by doing this."
With Soft and Shallow, they're expanding Denver's definition of fashion. "I've worked Denver Fashion Week and noticed that everyone dressed like they were going to a club for a fashion show, and to me, that's not what high fashion is about," Ablola says. "Giving people a reason to look as extra as possible is a good reason for us to exist, too. It's something to look forward to. Present yourself however you would like. It's about creating a space where people feel comfortable. What I've noticed about the art community here is that each art gallery in Denver has its own crew and we seem to bring everyone together from all sides of the spectrum. The music, arts and fashion communities seem to come out for us, and it creates a lot of diversity.
"At the end of the day," he continues, "art is the only thing that is going to matter and is something that will stand the test of time. So if we add art to everything we do as a society, we can create a dialogue. Artists should use their voice to say something for everyone, and for those who do not have a voice. My last couple of projects have been more personal on my end, and that creates a universality. I feel like fashion can appear as the most reactive to arts. It reacts to culture, it reacts to politics, it reacts to art. But if you think about it, fashion as fine art is really the most introspective and personal. It takes a person a lot of time to think about what they are creating. I'm trying to do the same thing with fashion. Not that it hasn't been done before, but I just want to do it, too."
MacNicholas and Ablola will host a release party for Soft and Shallow's third volume, 'Wet Ruffles,' from 6 to 11 p.m. on Friday, July 20, at Melon Gallery, 200 Galapago Street. The magazine includes work not just by Ablola and MacNicholas, but Orenda Lou, Sammy Keller and Today’s Archives. Click here for more information.