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The Photographers Disrupting New York’s 1980s Fashion Scene

The Photographers Disrupting New York’s 1980s Fashion Scene

Guzman unearths rarely seen photographs made for the Village Voice that capture the innovative, anti-fashion ethos of the times.
Doubleknit coat and turtlenecks by Betsy Johnson © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

Long before photographers worked as a team, Constance Hansen and Russell Peacock decided to join forces as Guzman as a way to introduce their own innovative, iconoclastic approach to fashion and portraiture in the mid-1980s. They adopted a moniker far from their own to care out their own path, far away from the classic formalism they were doing for luxury clients like Bergdorf Goodman, Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, and Barney’s.

“We weren’t thinking about defining ourselves but people tried to define us,” says Hansen. “They associated ‘Constance Hansen’ with still life photography but our backgrounds were more artistic. When we took pictures it didn’t matter what was in front of us because we would bring out own style to the situation.”

With the creation of Guzman, Hansen and Peacock forged a new artistic identity that allowed them to freely venture into new realms, using large format photography to capture the burgeoning downtown New York scene. Enamored with nightlife culture, they started hosting test shoots in their lower Fifth Avenue studio long after the day’s business was done.

Clothing by Matsuda © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio
Denim dress and hat by Isabel Toledo © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

Hansen remembers, “We would be at clubs like the Palladium for half the night, and then we’d bring some people like it-girl Dianne Brill, singer Marilyn, and makeup expert Paul Goebel back to the studio and take pictures. We did all this networking after hours. It felt magical.”

True Faith

By the mid-1980s, the mysterious Guzman was making their name known in the fashion world, offering a delectable antidote to the hyper glamorous excess that defined the styles of the times. In Reagan’s America, the gaudy glitz of Tinseltown had gone Main Street, and fashion became enamored with sequins, frills, fringes, poofs, and bows. Big hair was everywhere, while athleisure and branded clothing made its debut. Consumerism became a religion, best typified by Barbara Kruger’s 1987 work, I Shop Therefore I Am.

“Looking back now, mainstream fashion was aggressive (all those shoulder pads!) and gaudy,” says fashion illustrator and writer Carmen Varrichio, who got his start in fashion a decade earlier, working as a sketcher and assistant to the legendary designer Geoffrey Beene before going on to join Women’s Wear Daily, first as an illustrator then market editor in the early 1980s.

“This gave me a first-hand look at the burgeoning fashion scene in the East Village, where young designers operated out of tiny boutiques, a world away from Seventh Avenue,” Varrichio recalls. “I loved searching for new talent in the E. V. Designers like Pedro and Alejandro, Norbury and Osuna, Isabel Toledo, Bayard, Michael Leva, Robert Molnar, Diane Pernet, Sally Beers, and Stephen Sprouse.”

Plaid pants with cotton mesh waistband by Sally Beers © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio
Meg wears a “dollar bill” button-front dress and tied shirt by Bayard © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

Varrichio left WWD in the mid-80s to work for designer Kent Valenti, who had a shop on Avenue A. As fate would have it, Russell Peacock dropped by the shop, introduced himself, and asked to borrow clothes for test shoots in exchange for prints. “He invited me to come to see a shoot and that’s how it all began,” says Varrichio of the collaboration with Guzman for the Village Voice, one of Constance Hansen and Peacock’s first major forays under their new nom de photographe.

Bizarre Love Triangle

When thinking of cutting-edge fashion editorial, the Village Voice might be one of the last places on your list — but for one brief shining moment in 1988, it embodied everything that was chic about the downtown New York scene.

“When I applied for a freelance position at the Village Voice, Mary Peacock, the head of the fashion department, was dubious of me, given my staid Women’s Wear background,” says Carmen Varrichio.  “But when I told her I could get Guzman to shoot the stories, she gave me a chance. I am sure that without Guzman, I would have been turned down. This was the beginning of what I think was my happiest time in the business. I would bring in clothes and we would just play.”

Varrichio created the concepts, themes, and titles for the stories, and then Constance Hansen and Russell Peacock would cast the shoots. Inspired by magazines like The Face, which departed from mainstream aesthetics and embraced the newly emerging street style, Hansen remembers looking for models from all walks of life who were genderfluid, long before such a term was used.

Sweater by Joan Vass © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

“We were putting guys in dresses and girls in suits, just mixing it all up,” she says. “We weren’t interested in models everyone thought were gorgeous. We wanted visually striking people — stronger men, softer women — in non-model poses and oddball shapes. Nothing sexy. That’s why the Voice worked for us. They were going in the same direction.”

Although Guzman acknowledges they did not have a specific plan, they recognized that the Village Voice was the perfect space to experiment and share their own vision of the New York avant-garde. “Fashion became a political statement,” says Peacock. “It was very glamorous and we tried to make it a little gritty to create something unique. We would find things on Canal Street, like a pesticide container and use that as an accessory at a shoot. We wanted to disrupt fashion before we knew about that as a technique.”

Everything’s Gone Green

“Atom bomb” hooded dress and backless “flag” dress by Baryard © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

In the final years before globalization would forever redefine the course of fashion, culture, and business, Guzman’s photographs immediately caught the eye of international media. From Swedish magazines to Japanese TV, many found inspiration in downtown New York style. Perhaps that’s because they don’t readily fit into a specific aesthetic used to sell clothes. “The photographs don’t look like American in the 1980s – they look like some mystical time, like Berlin in the 1930s,” says Russell Peacock.

Constance Hansen agrees, adding, “We were outsiders, and we could hang with different eras. It was a time when individual designers could have a little shop, have 20 dresses on a rack, and make a living. You can’t do that in New York right now unless you have a big company behind you.”

Model is wearing his own clothes © Guzman – Stylist: Carmen Varrichio

Indeed, these photographs mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new age to come. For Guzman, this distinctive foray into fashion would bring about a new direction in their career beginning, after singer Janet Jackson commissioned them to shoot the cover for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989. Soon thereafter Varrichio introduced them to Geoffrey Beene, sparking a fruitful collaboration that takes the innovative style of these photographs to extraordinary new heights.

“Nothing I did for the Voice after early 1989 had the impact of those pages,” says Varrichio. “Guzman now seems to be a chronicler of a specific time in fashion when established ways of dressing were, at last, being challenged. Looking at these test shots anew, I am struck by their elegance and attention to the facade, but also their bravery and uniqueness. There really are no traditional model types in these shots; instead, we get the faces of the ‘80s New York downtown scene, relishing their new roles as fearless fashion icons. How lucky I was to play a small part!”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

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