It is truly difficult to come up with a name in fashion more synonymous with innovation than Asher Levine. After launching his eponymous label in 2009, Levine went from a leather jacket line to making a huge name for himself with elaborate, larger-than-life, high technology-infused, and most of all time-consuming costumes for the world’s biggest music stars like Lil Nas X, Beyoncé, Doja Cat, and most recently, Grimes. Even since early client will.i.am first requested a jacket with lights in it, Asher took on the challenge and then some, diving deep into his fascination with natural word, and combining it with the technological one to create an identity all his own.
With a team of 40 people for any given undertaking, Asher meticulously spends time on every detail, perfecting the massive garments he produces for events like the VMAs and even Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas residency. Asher is constantly raising the bar and introducing never-before seen tech into his work, like his latest endeavor, augmented reality fashion, which was on display recently this year and last for runways at New York, Kornit (Tel Aviv), and Arab (Dubai) Fashion Week. In addition to dressing Grimes head to toe in a custom look from his Tetra collection, he also launched his latest (and long in development) venture, the Asher Levine Terrelli Clutch, infused with all the cutting-edge elemental technology his brand is known for.
For The Untitled Magazine‘s latest print edition, The “INNOVATE” Issue, Asher drew back the curtain on how his crazy mind works, and just how he plans to keep pushing himself and the entire fashion industry.
Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with creating battery-powered clothes, prior to your more recent work with CGI and AR, and how you started out.
My collection is always a testing ground. It’s the Guinea pig for emerging technologies. Shortly after I launched the label, I started doing a lot of work for Lady Gaga, and then I got will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas as a client. Will was great at pushing my capabilities, and he started requesting jackets with lights in them — this was in 2012, almost 10 years ago. And of course I’m a person that loves challenges, so I said yes. And since 2012 it’s been so exciting to develop my techniques at embedding hardware, software, LEDs, and illumination into clothes. To me, my challenge is how can I always make it when people think about Asher Levine, they go, “wow, this is the future. This is the 21st century.” And to me, what does that product encapsulate? That’s new materials, new exotic skins. I love exotic skins, but I don’t want to kill animals anymore. I want to use design and technology as a way to create new types of exotic skins to fill that gap that the market which is this: no one’s buying fur anymore. So if you’re not spending $100K on a sable coat, what is your impetus to spend $100K on something? To me, that’s embedded technology. We can put all of this cool new tech into pieces.
When I started the label in 2009, I was looking at microscopic pictures of bugs. I was looking at natural geometries in space. And I was just doing that because I love that. And it’s really exciting to see how biomimicry and biofuturism – in terms of design – is actually a global trend. Being inspired by nature, but then using that and combining that with technology; for instance, the prints that I used for Grimes in her newest video, “Shinigami Eyes,” is from my Tetra design that I’ve been working on for the new collection. And I worked with my buddy [on] that nervous system. They’re MIT media graduates, and we developed a computational pattern to emulate dragonfly wing scales. And that’s what you see on the dress. That is what she is wearing.
That’s so cool. How was it working with Grimes?
Grimes is so cool. We’re both nerds. I like to be a nerd, and she gets really into it all. And she was down for scales all over her body, and it’s like, “hello, that’s what I love.”
I see you, Asher, as one of the most innovative designers out there. I have to tell you that. There’s not that many people doing what you’re doing!
It’s a daily struggle. You have to be extremely passionate, but I feel like I know I’m on the right track. The way I look at it is I dress these pop stars and these icons, and that is like an education. What we see on the stage makes its way into the streets. And so we’re showing the world what the future of fashion is, and it’s not really the future anymore. It’s the present. The pandemic has almost burned this over-dense industry of fashion to the ground. All the big established leaders are trying to figure out what to do. But this is like the perfect moment for me and what I have been crafting over the past 10 years. The moment is now. The internet of things, IOT, that’s been the next big thing. Computers will be in everything very soon, and everything will have computer chips, and what I’ve been doing with fashion is the next integration of IOT. And really at the end of the day, I just want people to look sexy and feel good in my clothes.
But when someone sees some of my pieces, they’re a little bit off-put because it feels new and there’s a natural, organic quality to it. And it’s like this awareness of nature. I really feel that if people totally understood everything from subatomic particles to the expansiveness of the universe, how DNA works, how every living thing in the world is connected, there would be less problems in this world. It’s just such a mindset and a feeling when you can visualize how we literally share like half of our DNA with these plants. That’s how I look at fashion, it’s mind-opening. And my favorite reaction is “whoa, what is that? It looks beautiful and I’m attracted to it, but what is that?”
Let’s talk a little bit about the piece you did for Lady Gaga. Tell me about the fabrication and the teams that you have to put together to make some of these special pieces?
When someone comes to me and they’re like, “Asher, I need future alien cyborg” I’m like, “let’s go!” This was for her Enigma residency in Las Vegas. Unfortunately it was cut short due to the pandemic, but I’m super honored that her fashion team came to me for, in my opinion, the most climactic performance of the show, with flames. It was incredible. In terms of how we use the technology: I immediately was like, “I need to scan your body and make replicas of your body one to one. And so I went to her rehearsal space and I went around her whole body, scanned her body, generated a form, did some just general scan touch ups, and then we had it made in foam — her entire body.
There’s three different departments at the studio. We have fashion and construction, which is all of the sewing and cutting and fabrics. There’s the sculpture studio, where we do sculpture, molding casting, new materials, all different types of polymers, plastics, metal plating. And then the technology department where that’s all of our hardware, software, LEDs, motors, things like that.
And so all these three different departments had to be working on the same thing. I had to make multiple bodies for her so that the technology department can do the wiring because this has to be 12-and-a-quarter inches and this has to be this and this has to be this. And then that has to live under a sculpture piece that’s being done in the sculpture department. And then at the same time fashion has to be dealing with the whole geometry. And on top of that we had to do the dancers, and all the dancers had to have lights with unique things on them.
How long did it take and how big was your team?
It took five weeks and we had 40 people.
And – ballpark figure – what was the budget on something like that?
It was in the six figures. But you’d be surprised that we almost broke even. And they didn’t believe me, but it’s like, that’s why I have someone who helps me manage the business and manage the books; you need to communicate that. Cause it all adds up, and honestly I want to pay my people living wages. And even after this pandemic, I gave everyone a $10 wage increase an hour, and I’m a small business!
Thank you! Since then we’ve refined the process and I’m just making it more efficient and you get better. I don’t need 40 people anymore. But that was an amazing life experience. [Lady Gaga] is so cool to work with. When she first saw it, it was amazing. She was like “that old thing?” And it was just hilarious because it’s this futuristic thing, but she puts it on and she’s like “can everyone give a round of applause to Asher?” And everyone’s clapping, and she looks you in the eye and it was just like this moment. And I was just like, so tired. We just drove there. It’s the day after Christmas, I am exhausted. And then we go into rehearsals and the show starts in an hour, the opening show. At that point I’m like, “everyone just hands-off, it needs to be me. I need to be on this. I’m finishing this.” Because I want the responsibility. And so everyone’s off, and literally 45 minutes before curtain call Sandra Amador comes up to me and she’s like “Asher I need to take this right now.” And opening night happens and it works flawlessly!
Bravo! I’m so happy for you. I saw the photos and videos of that robot costume and it’s sick, like totally insane! What are you working on at the moment?
So there’s an interesting ecosystem between music and fashion and my collections developments. Right now it’s augmented reality overlays on top of your body, which to me is fashion. It’s this new emerging tool that we can use to express ourselves to add new tools in our life that haven’t existed before. Different companies build their whole company around one thing. I put hardware systems and illumination software into garments and accessories, and some people are just like, “this is my one product.” But my product’s goal is to encapsulate all of the different things. Cause that to me is like the future. Number one, the product should look cool and look modern and be made in cool materials, and integrated with computer hardware and software and augmented reality technology. That’s what I’ve been working on up to this point and what we’re going to be launching during New York Fashion Week.
We can apply the technology to anything. So we were just playing around with some things here and putting them on Grimes. This is for one look, but imagine owning one shirt that has so many different types of options to wear it. I mean, talk about sustainability, right? We all know that fashion’s in this unsustainable lens right now, and no one really needs to buy new things. So how can we imbue products with new types of attributes that haven’t existed before, that allow us those literally infinite options through one tangible product. That’s the kind of philosophy I’m trying to sell to Snapchat: We’re not trying to replace fashion. We’re trying to augment it.
So this, in your mind, is not just something you want to utilize for the more avant-garde looks you do for celebrity clients. You want this to be for anyone?
Yeah, totally! That’s been my hurdle and challenge over the past decade, and it’s nearly impossible when you’re independent. I’m really blessed to have supporting parents, not in the monetary sense, but one’s who are like “just do it.” I used to get kind of envious of kids with rich parents, especially moving to New York. My parents are from New York; my dad’s from the Bronx and my mom’s from Long Island, and they’re both musicians. And then they were like “now we’re going to stop being musicians and have a family and get straight up jobs.” But they were always supportive, they saw that I had talents with my hands and eyes, so they always put me in all these great classes, and I’m really lucky that they were just like “go and do it.” They’re not like “this is what you should be doing or should not be doing.”
But I would be getting my coffee, and then there’s Joseph Altuzarra and I’m like “oh God, his parents are Goldman Sachs executives,” or seeing Alexander Wang and I’m like “your parents own factories.” But now it’s all good, because I feel like I’ve crafted my lane and that’s all I need to focus on. And there are no rules anymore in fashion. It doesn’t have to be a certain way. Even with this thing coming up for New York Fashion Week, you don’t have to have a bazillion looks. You just have to have cool, innovative pieces that tell a story.
My story is that I like to imagine I can be Dr. Frankenstein, and create new types of skins that blend different species. Because we have this natural fascination with exotic skins. In 2011 I was using exotic skins, and then I was like “wait, hold up. With all of these new materials, we can invent the creature. We can make our own chimera. We could take scales from reptiles and crustaceans and merge them together. We can create whole new types of exotic skins. So my niche is high-tech exotic.
And you’ve certainly carved out that niche in a big way. Hearing you talk about all this science and nature, it’s clear this is something you’ve been passionate about for a long time, and I understand you’ve even patented some of your techniques. So what’s the experimentation process of trying to create these new textures and technologies that you patent? When do you decide something is ready and can go on a client?
In 2016/17 I started working with Davis Wright Tremaine. They’re a national lawyer group, and they have an interest in working with innovators for the future in fashion. They saw my new leather molding technique, which is so unique. That is my first patent that we’ve begun filing, and that’s a whole other world and it’s very pricey to patent and file and maintain the patent around the world.
But that’s my first goal: innovative material. Boom, new ways of molding leather up to 360 degrees. I can make a leather ball with texture on it. As for other types of technologies that we’re actively filing… I go through the process of wearing a high-tech jacket and with various patents — cause when you’re doing patenting, one patent can also have micro patents within it. So it’s everything in the jacket, from how it’s illuminated to how you interact with it. I don’t want to say too much because we’re still in the process, but I ask what is that future jacket? If everyone has electricity in their jackets, how does that integrate into how we use the jacket from day to day? My goal is to use the collection as the testing grounds where we go “Oh wow. We discovered something new and cool, let’s patent it.” To use what we’ve learned and bring it into the market in larger ways.
Sounds like a ton of moving pieces.
It’s a lot, you know. I have that large, long-term view. But the long-term view takes a long time, and a lot of people get scared about it. I have some powerful investors, and the ones that have invested understand this is going to take time. I’m not trying to get the investors that are like “where are the returns going to be here and here and here?” That’s not how this works. I’m not developing one thing. But what that has taught me is focus and strategy. So my strategy is just incredible pieces that blow people’s minds that are really expensive.
I want to talk a bit about a specific project that made huge waves last year, which was the “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video with Lil Nas X. I’d love to know how that collaboration came about and what the process of working with Lil Nas was like?
We started talking with Hodo Musa, his stylist, maybe two years ago. We started talking to her after Lil Nas’ VMA performance lights failed, I don’t know if you remember they were smoking.
I do remember that!
I saw that and I was like “why are they not using me? This is what I specialize in!” So Hodo came to the studio like “I wish we knew about you before.” It’s difficult, especially when the artist is new and they don’t have multi-platinum record sales, which then carry high budgets; people don’t understand how much work is actually involved in these pieces. So it’s hard to get the right budget to even manifest any of these pieces. So we were just waiting until the timing was right. The first time we worked together was for his “Holiday” show with Amazon and it was like this cyborg super suit. It was amazing! He felt so good and Hoda said it’s what he’s always dreamed of. It was Amazon, they had the right budget.
I think also what happens too, is that lifestyle is so frenetic and so crazy when they were working on [the “Montero”] video. [Lil Nas X] wanted to wear a muscle suit. He basically wanted to be nude and sparkly with a muscle suit. We cast out all the main muscles of his body. When I met with him, I put the bodysuit on and I drew where all of his musculature is. And then we made all these custom self-skinning muscles that matched his skin underneath. The hard part of that was that when you’re wearing those nude illusion meshes, you see through it. So I thought “how am I going to disguise a muscle suit underneath a thing that you could see through?” So that happened really fast. I would say we had a week and a half to two weeks to do that, which is now the average amount of time that you get in the music industry, which is terrible. So we already made a muscle suit for the Amazon plays, and we then just made the next level one for “Montero.” And that was the nude version.
And this was at the height of COVID. Usually I would have everyone in the studio laying crystals around the table, but we couldn’t be next to each other. I also digitize the pattern and have a computer fill in the dots [that represent where to put crystals] in the form automatically, but then of course it was Mercury retrograde and all of my computers died! So we put dots manually on every. Single. One. Then I cut up the pattern and I sent these Lil Nas print kits to eight people on my team, each with a couple of sheets of paper. When it all came back I bonded all of the crystals on…. and he loved it! He was like Mr. sparkle man! It was cool.
The thing though that really gets to me is: that suit comes alive when there’s direct light on it. There was no direct light on set. I literally could have stood there with my phone and it would have sparkled, but if you see in the video, it’s lit in a way where you can see every crystal and it’s not really sparkly. That was probably because they needed really soft light for the green screen and no shadows. I went right up to the director to say it needs light, and the director didn’t like that. And then there was no light put on it. So I watched it for the first time and Hodo calls me up and she’s like, “Asher, are you happy?” And she’s like, “you hate it!!” But everyone says it looks amazing, and I’m like, that goes for every project, you’re going to have an expectation of what it’s supposed to be like, and it comes out in a different way. And that’s just the creative process. But it was cool! [Lil Nas] is super smart. He’s comedically blasé. He’s super chill.
You’ve definitely got a really good attitude about it. So you were based in New York and relocated to LA. Have you found the city of LA has influenced your work in any way? How has that move changed your outlook?
That’s a good question. I was in New York for 12 years. I went to school downtown, launched my collection in my last semester of school, and I became busy literally right out of school. I continued to grow the business. At first I worked out of my apartment, then I moved into my friend’s photo studio, then I moved to the basement of this fabric warehouse in Tribeca, and then I moved into this other basement in Tribeca, which Indira [Cesarine] went to! I constantly kept growing the studio and it was always my dream to have a whole floor of a building where it’s a whole making space and we’re all making stuff. And I eventually got that dream! We found this incredible space in East Harlem, it was converted from a parking garage into a fabulous loft. I had car elevators, 18-foot ceilings. It was fabulous. But then I’m like, “wait, why am I killing myself? I haven’t even left New York for more than two weeks in the past 12 years.”
To survive in New York, you have to have a certain mindset. And when I came to Los Angeles I found the New York mindset does not really work here. In Los Angeles you have to be a chill person. So it’s really taught me how to just be chill. And also, here in Los Angeles, it’s more like everyone is in their own little bubble. We’re in our own little bubble here in the studio. Especially with how Los Angeles is spread out. It’s super massive, so there’s no intermingling, there’s no crossing over. In New York, you hit the streets. If you’re on a high rise or if you’re living on the street, you’re all walking next to each other. That kind of bubble mindset really allowed me to focus on my lane.
I would also have to send an assistant to Los Angeles on a plane to meet a deadline for a Los Angeles shoot. And once that happens like two or three times a year, I was just like, “just go to LA. It’s right here.” And it was so perfect: I moved to LA and maybe two months later, I get a call from Sandra Amador, who is styling Lady Gaga for her Enigma residency, and they’re like, “we want her to be a circuit board Gaga, and we know that you do lights.” So it’s so good to be here, especially when you work with a celebrity clientele. And that’s been my specialty over the past 10 years working with these musicians. When you’re building really complicated things, you have to go through multiple revisions and make sure that something fits, so being here honestly has been fantastic.
You mentioned crossing paths with our Editor-in-Chief Indira Cesarine. You’ve done a couple of editorials for The Untitled Magazine before, and I would love to hear how the two of you first started working together.
While in Tribeca, I was a couple blocks from where she is. And so she would come over and hang out. I remember she just knows everyone and she grew up in New York, so she knows a lot of people. We were just going out, and she’s super passionate about newness. I remember she was at my birthday party when I was 25. Like damn, eight years ago. We were working on something for Beyoncé then. She’s covered the fashion shows, and I remember being in either London or Paris, and seeing The Untitled Magazine right there on the stands! And I was just like [claps] go Indira!
So this is our INNOVATE issue, and I want to end off by asking: how do you plan, now and in the future, to keep pushing yourself and stay continuously innovative?
You know, I am a very competitive person. I think my competitive nature comes from being the baby of three brothers and it’s just innately in me to be competitive. Number one, it excites me to see other players in the industry focusing on biomimicry and hardware and software and augmented reality. I love Iris van Herpen. Iris and I were at Blow Presents in London in 2012/13. She was doing these strands of plastic and I was doing all these insect prints. There’s definitely a movement of what we’re doing.
I’m pushed by – number one – my passion to expand. My favorite thing to do is to show people what they’ve never seen before. When people see something that they’ve never seen before it’s a little bit off-putting, especially when it’s on a human form because something looks different hanging on a rack to when it’s put on. It gets people outside of their comfort zone. And so that is my fuel: to make people curious and question, and integrating new types of technologies, new types of materials, new types of design. It’s about newness. When things are just permutations of the past, like what’s going on in the French brands right now; it’s literally just like put into a blender everything from the past, and then put back out there, and it’s like, “really, we need to see new embroidery of this?” That is newness in terms of regurgitating what came before and creating a new mixture. But to me, newness is using new materials or digital materials that haven’t been done before. It will always be a constant endeavor for me and the studio to always be pushing, to always be using new types of tools and to perpetuate that vision of science and nature–inspired modern design that people haven’t seen before.
What do you have coming up next, aside from the unveiling of your new collection at York Fashion Week at The Untitled Space?
My plan is to continue to expand people’s minds of what fashion can be, using all of my techniques and designs. My strategy is to focus on accessories, and we do a lot of the leather molding and embedded tech. You know, having this light up jacket is cool, but I understand it’s not for everyone. I want to encapsulate that coolness, that edginess, that futuristic chic edginess into a piece, that someone can carry around. They can have their black dress, but then they have their Asher Levine clutch. So we’re working on this high-tech clutch, that’s going to be so cool. There’s this fabric printing sponsor, Kornit, from Israel. They want to sponsor designers around the world using the printing technology. And I’m like, “Henny let’s make a show!” And so we have a show coming up later in November. So what I want to do is launch the bag at the show, and next year kind of go around the world and show people the bag and the clutch. This clutch mind you – we’ve been working on it for almost 2 years, it’s going to be plated in rhodium and gold and we’ll put it on a string.
I interviewed about a hundred people. I did nine designs, showed them to a hundred people, isolated this size, and this is what I’m really excited for. I’m excited just to make incredible outerwear pieces, incredible accessories, and cool collaborations. I’m very excited about the new frontier of digital fashion. Because that is true sustainability. And you know I love putting tentacles on things and doing things that defy the physics of this world. Now people can participate in wearing my crazy designs literally from their home, and they don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars.
Asher Levine @asherlevine
Photography by Indira Cesarine @indiracesarine for @theuntitledmagazine
Fashion Editor Indira Cesarine @indiracesarine
Styling Assistant Daniela Correia @daniela__correia
Hair & Make-up by Alisha Bailey @alishahairmakeup
Photographed on location at Sofitel Los Angeles @sofitellosangeles