Stephen knew quite clearly that he intended to be an artist
and in the purest sense: a fine artist. In choosing to have children and a family life, one of his objectives, which I shared with him, was to create an environment where there would be room for creativity in our family life, in our daily life.
Little did we know, how much creativity!
– Susan Posen
FLATT Editor at Large, Nico Iliev had the chance to sit with one of Manhattan’s most charming and visionary families, the Posens. Stephen and Susan parents to Alexandra and Zac, collectively share thoughts about their creative beginnings, artistic process and the power of raising a family with love and awareness.
NICO ILIEV: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you share what your earliest memories were that connected you to what have now become your individual creative visions?
STEPHEN POSEN: A career is something that I never focused on — it was being creative, which really compelled me on how to conduct my life. But since you asked what my initial memory was of being creative, I thought of something when I was a child. I was maybe five or six years old when my initial impulse to do something creative came to me. In the 1940’s I inherited a metal miniature golf set, which had all these tunnels and slides and all sorts of ridiculous things that you could put around in your yard. (To family) None of you have ever heard this (the Posens’ eyebrows raise). So there I was arranging things in a relative fashion. And it forms my earliest memory of thinking or being aware that there was enjoyment to be garnered from the relationship between things. That notion, searching for those relationships of form, can be extended into every stage of my creative life.
SUSAN POSEN: Stephen is one of those fortunate people who knew what he wanted to do from a very early age and didn’t go through the angst of “should I be a doctor or a lawyer.” He knew quite clearly that he intended to be an artist and in the purest sense: a fine artist. In choosing to have children and a family life, one of his objectives, which I shared with him, was to create an environment where there would be room for creativity in our family life, in our daily life. Little did we know, how much creativity! (laughs)
STEPHEN POSEN: I want to add another event that was significant. Growing up in St. Louis we lived very close to the St. Louis Art Museum. When I was 10 years old they had a show in 1949 called “Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums.” I could walk to the museum by myself and was astounded by looking at Titians and Rubens. It was the kind of experience that remains with me to this day.
SUSAN POSEN: So, years later we dragged our children to every art museum and provided them with the opportunity to look at great art in great places. We traveled as a family because I especially felt that one of the parental things that you can provide to children is to make them citizens of the world. They should be comfortable in all kinds of settings. On one of our trips to the Dordogne we went from cave to cave looking at 30,000 year-old art. It puts things in perspective.
STEPHEN POSEN: Where does it begin?
SUSAN POSEN: During all of those years, you were photographing and videotaping. We have, I don’t know, a zillion hours on tape of family life. This was at a time when video cameras and battery packs weighed probably 10 pounds. You would take all of this equipment into a crypt in Sicily where there were fossils and skeletons hanging off the walls. Alexandra, you tell that story.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Oh, the Sicilian catacombs! Well, we went down into these labyrinth-like catacombs in Palermo where all of the skeletons were meticulously arranged by profession, hanging side by side, still dressed as in life. Painterly arrow signs read “Fabri”, “Beccaio”, “Avocato”, “Professore”. We walked through corridor after corridor. I remember that my father and I were nervously giggling the whole time. Mom had an instant migraine and had laid down, overcome on the marble floor. Dad was voraciously video taping every last detail of the place…probably fodder for a later painting. At some point my father’s camera stumbled on a skeleton’s hand orphaned on the floor in a corner. He coyly beckoned me over and said…
STEPHEN POSEN: I said “Alexandra, could you lend me a hand?” (laughs)
ALEXANDRA POSEN: We were hysterical. I am not sure how this relates to the creative evolution of our family — though I guess it illustrates our sense of adventure and our way of relishing the wild peculiarities of life (and death!)
NICO ILIEV: Alex, just on Friday when I was at your show, you were talking about creativity. What you do with your work is almost magical…there is a process of letting yourself play and feeling that magical moment…where you feel connected to the work…
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Yes, play is key. In my work, play means being entirely present, mindful and receptive to possibility. It is an important and beautiful concept, and one that I find essential to the transporting process of creation.
When Zac and I grew up in Soho, it was a village of bohemian painters and sculptors. Half of our loft was a sacred art studio. That artistic microcosm was the world we knew. So, it follows that art was the religion that we were raised with. Playfulness, creativity and imagination were highly prized and regarded as the ultimate value and ultimate joy.
SUSAN POSEN: Yeah, ultimate (laughs)
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Creativity is deep in our bones — it is fundamental to our state of living and being. It reminds me of how in Balinese culture (which is abundant with dance, sculpture and art and theater), there is no specific word for “art.” The reason for this is that art is utterly entwined in everyday function, belief and ritual: as a concept it cannot be separated from the fabric of life.
NICO ILIEV: Right, and Zac, I’m going to turn to you in terms of creativity and how that also relates to fashion design and how that has affected your work…
ZAC POSEN: Well, I think that growing up in our home with creativity surrounding us, together with the dialogue of living with our dad and sort of living part of his creative process was important. His studio was adjacent to where we lived in the loft. He encouraged us — my sister and I especially — to have our own creative dialogue together. As individuals that was really powerful and we were allowed to express and celebrate it from the beginning. I think that our house had a quality of freedom to it and it was definitely a nurturing environment. I think that friends, who would come into our world here, sensed that. From a really early age, I had a big sister who was incredibly creative and imaginative. I also think that, as well as the creative process, our parents exposed us to sort of cross-cultural influences from, say, film and sculpture. Our dad and mom are avid readers, so that always provided references as well as theater — these were all really big influences on my work.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Mom had an amazing library…full of great classic novels, poetry and essays. The scope of her knowledge is incredible. And her intelligence about art….
ZAC POSEN: Mom’s amazing library, and Dad’s massive video collection. My sister and I watched so many great movies over and over! The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain… hugely influential.
SUSAN POSEN: You guys could do karaoke to those films…word for word (laughing).
ZAC POSEN: Yeah pretty much and I think that the play between creativity and performance was influential in my work. And many of dad’s early paintings involved fabric and so it was those kinds of materials that were around to work with. My dad’s early work – he was grouped with the photo-realist painters – were paintings of cloth on top of boxes painted in trompe l’oeil fashion. So there were lots of cloth scraps and my sister’s love of magic, surrealism and glamour were really big influences. I played with her dolls and made them clothes. Her masks and dolls and theater fed me.
SUSAN POSEN: The two of you would make theater together.
ZAC POSEN: Yeah, we played. I think play has that raw, creative freedom to it.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I have a prized memory of making my first mask with my father when I was about six. Halloween was a big deal in our family — sort of a Christmas for the Posens. I remember that I wanted to be the witch from Snow White. My father and I set up a workspace in his painting studio and began building the core form of the witch’s face. Two halves of a tennis ball became her bulbous scouring eyes. A pickle-shaped piccolo (whistle) became her protruding nose. Glue gun galore. After we had the bones of her face, we applied paper mache in a fast and easy-going kind of way which gave her surface a tactile and imperfect quality. We painted it and topped it off with a nasty mole with some telephone wire hairs popping out, as well as some crisp stringy twine falling on the sides of her face. She was fabulous, one of my favorite objects to this day. That free approach to materials and their expressivity was profoundly influential for me. A fluidity and lack of boundaries in terms of what materials can do with each other and what they can create.
ZAC POSEN: And I think form. Seizing form and extracting it through the use of materials is in all of our work.
STEPHEN POSEN: I think the abstract aspect of the both of you is somehow related to how both of you were very good at math in creative and different ways. Zac cornered the market in tessellation theory and Alexandra’s talent in advanced mathematics was astounding to me. I think that there is an abstraction, a sense of using form, that is not only literal or representative of an object or a named thing. You both have the strength to do that whether it be draping or whether it’s pouring wax. Each of you has a confidence in doing those things.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I think in addition to physical form, we have an appreciation of poetic form. As Zac was speaking, I was flooded with a memory of our listening to T.S. Eliot’s reading of “The Naming of Cats,” which is a fantastic reading and an example that a word can be abstract and at the same time have meaning and resonance.
STEPHEN POSEN: I would say that each of you in different ways has informed me of poetry. You know I think that Alexandra feels poetry in a very deep and profound way and I think that Zac’s imagination grows with each of his collections in ways that I always find awesome and inspiring.
ZAC POSEN: And I think that our mom comes from a very creative background and also has an appreciation of craft in a different way. Not only from doing craft, but also in appreciating cultural crafts as seen during our many travels. Having the experience of seeing the reference in the same day from craft to fine art. It’s really interesting and sort of breaks down barriers.
SUSAN POSEN: Well I’m laughing because if anyone saw my Instagram account right now they would see pictures of tiny design elements that delight me. On a recent trip to Turkey, I posted all of these images as we traveled from east to west and Alexandra said it looked like an ant had crawled across the country taking photographs through a pin hole. I love design and detail and I love fabrics and textiles. I think that comes from my grandmother. I think there’s a whole line of extremely influential people, from a grandfather who was a jeweler to another grandfather who was a tailor in New York. You feel embedded in it. Zac’s work with fabric feels sort of preordained. It makes sense. Alexandra is working with various materials, including tulle and chiffon, in her current artwork and I’m thinking, my goodness, it’s all part of one piece!
ZAC POSEN: I think creativity is hereditary. I believe it’s there. I think every person has a form of creativity in them and it’s about nurturing and harvesting…to be given your sort of own creative ambitions. To be able to express yourself.
STEPHEN POSEN: Mom and I think of creativity as intelligence.
SUSAN POSEN: It is emotional intelligence in a way but I was also going to say that there is also another element. You can have lots of creative freedom but unless you use it, it doesn’t really much matter. Stephen particularly believes that. When Alexandra or Zac would come up with some idea, he would say “I believe in the Do It University.” You would say to them, “Don’t talk about it. Go do it.”
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Just the other day, as I was taking my two children home from school on the bus, we started a conversation with my son who is passionate about comics and graphic novels. I was explaining the concept of storyboards for film as they relate to comics. My six-year-old daughter (who has big ears!) picked up a Sharpie the moment we got home. She proceeded to knock out a fairly thorough storyboard for a movie she wanted to make. As soon as she finished, she was desperate to film it, and despite the fact that it was dinnertime, bedtime etc., I just said “OK , let’s do it!” And we filmed all 16 scenes that she had outlined. She directed. It was fantastic. So, the tradition continues…
NICO ILIEV: Yeah, just doing it.
STEPHEN POSEN: In the tradition that Susan was speaking of with her family, I just want to add that we happened to meet in Florence where she was studying art history and I was on a Fulbright after Yale. It was both romantic and filled with art!
ALEXANDRA POSEN: And you were a dancer. So there is a lot of creativity
SUSAN POSEN: I took a different turn professionally, but it’s there.
STEPHEN POSEN: Law can be creative too.
SUSAN POSEN: I made it creative…but obviously all of these things take passion and support of those around them to see that passion and see it through.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I want to add something. We’re talking a lot about the liberty of creativity. But it’s also worth saying that this is a critical family as well – tough and analytic.
ZAC POSEN: Self-critical.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Yes, self-critical at times…and of one another! Intellectual evaluation and deconstruction made up much of our dinner table conversations. This goes pretty much hand-in-hand with the freedom of play.
STEPHEN POSEN: And that continues to this day (laughs). A little more on my tippy toes now (laughs).
ZAC POSEN: Yeah, I feel that kind of creative empowerment. We started the fashion company together here in my home and it has been a big part of our company to try to understand the creative process and teach that creative freedom to lots of people who come through our studio. I don’t consider fashion an art form: it is a mix of commerce, media and extreme creativity. But the purpose of it originates from something utilitarian, whether or not you take it there. I think that for me, that’s sort of an interesting combination of different left and right side of the brain attributes. Also growing up in Soho, fashion was entering into the artist community here and that was definitely a big part of the neighborhood. You sensed the end of the garment factories and that was sort of a big eye-opener. There were only a few stores selling fashion in Soho. Having those things around us, it was pretty abstract when we blindly jumped into the fashion business.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: But fashion does have a transformative quality about it. Clothing can really, like a mask, bring out things in a person. New things, new physical body language. It can be very, very empowering, which for me was one of the most exciting parts of our business together, realizing how clothing can empower women.
ZAC POSEN: That’s still a big part of the work.
SUSAN POSEN: It’s an internal process, where you wear the clothing and the clothing doesn’t wear you. When we started, Zac had an amazingly clear idea about how he wanted to go forward and what the inside of the clothing needed to do, as well as the outside. I really think this helped the three of us when starting the company. Zac mentioned that there are a lot of people we work with, young people who had never been in business before. From my perspective, I have been able to show them how I think business should be done in a proper and ethical way.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: You’re an amazing mentor.
SUSAN POSEN: Well it’s been a part of my joy to be a mentor to various people including those who are now out in the world of fashion and are doing really good things. There are people who still work closely with Zac on his collections. One of our sewers has been with us from the start. You know, that is very meaningful.
ZAC POSEN: And I think there’s also the understanding that creativity is a lifelong journey. It’s not something that stops. The purpose of creativity is about creating. It’s something that hopefully transcends your life because of the work you’re putting out and it’s emotional. It’s a lifelong pursuit.
STEPHEN POSEN: I agree 100% with what Zac just said and it’s that sense of creativity that we talk about in the family. The most critical part is that it is always the potential that you have, that you have to realize. That we try not to do anything repetitive in the sense of making repetitions out of ourselves. So that every experience and every day is a new challenge or a striving for something — not necessarily more — but a variation on how we’ve reached the point that we’re at today.
ZAC POSEN: I think Alexandra and I also talk about that as a blessing and a curse because…well, you can talk about that…
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I was going to go somewhere else, so you say it.
ZAC POSEN: Well, I think that there is something about crafting or honing one idea or concept, but it’s sort of eternally in us. There is a part of creativity that is a struggle and I think that it’s something that is challenging too.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: Oh yeah, we do occasionally suffer from too many ideas or barrages of inventiveness. Truly, this presents its own challenges (light laughs).
SUSAN POSEN: Well, I’m also thinking of maybe on a more temporal level…we all had careers early on. I mean, I went from being a lawyer to a business woman in midlife and that certainly was a change. Alexandra went from being a visual artist / performer with puppets and then became Zac’s creative director for eight years and now has gone back into her studio to make art. So you can take your creativity in many directions. You can continue to evolve throughout your life. That is really the joy of it all.
ZAC POSEN: It’s a celebration.
STEPHEN POSEN: I think I would agree with that but I think part of the process of how what one knows externally is expressed because there isn’t always the vehicle to express it. You may feel it, but don’t know how it will find its place and that is part of what the whole process is. It makes you what you are in the end.
NICO ILIEV: That was amazing. Thank you very much. We at FLATT are very interested in art and its power to bring forth change and I just wanted to get your ideas currently within New York City and even the entire world. Do you see any direction in which you would like to see change as far as art and creativity?
SUSAN POSEN: I’m not sure what perspective FLATT has on this, but if you’re asking from a political sense, certainly our efforts as a family philanthropically or charity, however you want to say it, have been focused on arts and education and it follows that children should have arts education in the classroom early on. There should be public art all over the place and these are things that we want to see happen. That’s sort of a local, political answer I would say.
NICO ILIEV: Yes, that’s obviously something you have done within the family…
SUSAN POSEN: I think as a company that was our mission statement early on and Zac certainly has, we all have, contributed and continue to contribute in many ways to art and education. But I think art has the power to change. I mean it makes us look at things differently. You see something visual or you hear some extraordinary music and it’s going to change how you perceive something within the next 24 hours differently. It’s very powerful.
ZAC POSEN: I think there’s an interesting evolution — from early cave painting to art being a tool of religion, to it being funded in architecture and design by royalty and then I think there’s an evolution to where art has become a commodity. And designers, after all, have only been recognized as creators in the last 150 years. And I think that we increasingly see creativity as a commodity. I hope that the actual creativity itself is valued rather than its value as a commercial commodity or the idea of a career. I think that there is so much over-emphasis in culture today on fame and on money and at the end of the day, that is not what creativity is about. Those things can definitely be nice and helpful, but it’s not the purpose of it. I think that our family has always valued the creative process, the dialogue, more than the idea of what is defined culturally as success right now. That’s not how we have valued success and I can only speak for myself but that’s why I’ve been able to survive in my industry.
SUSAN POSEN: I think that we’re in a culture that values massive wealth and everybody seeks celebrity and fame. It’s a strange time.
ZAC POSEN: You want to be recognized and have a dialogue with the public about your work.
SUSAN POSEN: If you want it public, some people don’t want that kind of public interaction. There are choices to be made obviously.
ZAC POSEN: You have to own them.
SUSAN POSEN: That, too.
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I also think that we are privileged to be living in a time where things are changing so rapidly and this cultural acceleration is a door to a world of new possibilities, reinvention and creative entrepreneurship.
STEPHEN POSEN: I think that now that art and creativity have become commodities, it is almost impossible for the individual creator to alter the forces of the culture. Because there are so many great creative people, so many voices, it becomes something of a group concept and the individual is somehow of less significance. Do you agree with that?
ZAC POSEN: No
ALEXANDRA POSEN: I actually do agree with you, though it surprises me that you feel that way.
STEPHEN POSEN: I mean, it’s very hard now. Huge amount of creativity but it functions collectively.
ZAC POSEN: I think that now there is a collective dialogue internationally that allows different influences. I think we’re living in a time where people have the ability to self-create themselves. They have that dialogue through the Internet, through the culture we live in. And I think that’s pretty spectacular. And cool. It gives the opportunity for people who have that creative germ in them, to find it and be able to create.
NICO ILIEV: Thank you very much.
STEPHEN POSEN: I want to compliment all of you. That was wonderful, guys. To be continued…
I think that our family has always valued the creative process, the dialogue, more than the idea of what is defined culturally as success right now.
That’s not how we’ve valued success and I can only speak for myself but that’s why I’ve been able to survive in my industry.
– Zac Posen