House music all night long
Top image: Alex Olson
A few years ago, Alex Olson’s friend told him he should skate to disco. Skate to disco? In a board world dominated lo-fi, grunge and hip hop charged videos it was a wild card of a suggestion. But you’ve got to wonder whether without that funky nudge we’d today be being treated to the rising phenomenon that is Bianca Chandon.
Pro skater, photographer and designer Olson’s attitude towards skate, fashion and music oozes the same kind of attitude that gave early Punk the violent electricity that shaped generations. When your dad’s none other than Punk Rock skate legend Steve Olson it probably comes relatively naturally, only that what Olson is doing takes the thrill of Palace and the small board movement and applies it to a complex brew of influences that are Alex and Alex only. Named ‘Bianca’ for the Studio 54 Bianca Jagger connection, Olson’s output draws from disco, house, NYC ball culture and the 70s and 80s LGBTQ music and dance scene to form a thick cut, heavily textured slice of creative history, one that to now has barely touched skate’s sides.
Tempe Nakiska: I’m most interested in the music references that come into what you’re doing with Bianca Chandon, I wanted to ask how you originally came across Paradise Garage and the likes of Larry Levan. How did you get into house and disco in the first place?
Alex Olson: From coming out here and skating I met my friend Andy Brown, he’s a DJ, and he was always talking about disco and saying I should skate to disco. There’s the whole ‘disco sucks’ thing so I discounted it but I went to this party and they were playing all this old school house which made me really curious about the history of it. Andy said I should check out this documentary Pump Up The Volume which gives a great breakdown of the whole thing, it’s brilliant.
TN: It’s such a great documentary hey.
AO: Yeah! The first part shows what happened in America then travels to the UK. I watched it and thought wow, I thought house music and techno came from Europe but it was from Chicago originally, learning about it I was like ‘wow, I had no idea about the history’ and it really reminded me to the uprising of Punk Rock in a way. It was a pivotal moment. It was such a massive movement and the history is incredible.
TN: The subcultures it bred as well.
AO: Yeah you’ve got the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll and Woodstock and then looking at the emergence of house and disco is just fascinating. I started asking questions about it to Andy and started making more friends that knew a lot about it.
TN: You play a bit of vinyl yourself yeah, there are a few mixes floating around the internet…
AO: Yeah I do, I have a play around with it. I just did a mix that has just come out online actually. But yeah, I was already into Soulwax and that kind of music, which was derived from all that. So I guess I just went deeper into figuring out where it all came from.
Bianca Chandon. Courtesy Dover Street Market
TN: It’s interesting looking at the likes of EDM, people don’t necessarily know where it all originally stemmed from.
AO: And that’s OK you know? Like, let people have that, you’re not necessarily special because you know where it comes from but you can’t get mad at people for liking a certain genre, let them have it. It’s completely separate to an extent.
TN: I had no idea until watching that dock that Chicago was where it all stemmed from, it’s fascinating. Then you have the house ball scene in New York, the LGBTQ side of things, which in itself is so incredible. Paris is Burning and all that.
AO: Yeah exactly. The owner of West End Records helped fund Paradise Garage and support Larry Levan… I’m not going to give you a history lesson now though I’ll butcher it! [Laughs]
TN: So you went pro in 2008 and it was a while after that you founded Bianca Chandon. Was there a moment that you thought, ‘right I can use this interest and funnel it into a creative outlet that’s a brand’?
AO: I guess I tried to turn friends and people onto it but through a company you can just put it out there, and hide behind the company. I think it’s more about those deep interests and pulling from various things like that. When I had the idea of the company I had the idea of pulling from the fashion element and introducing kids to that and trying to do the opposite where you introduce skateboarding to fashion people or a certain element of skate to them. Then the music element naturally came into it. It wasn’t really a thought out plan, it was more like, ‘this is what we’re into, let’s do something with it’.
TN: The fashion set are really taking to what you’re doing like wildfire. What was the reaction from the skate community? Because with Bianca Chandon what you’re doing is something quite new, there’s never been a big connection made between all these elements – disco, house, ball culture, the LGBTQ community – and skate. It’s such a positive thing especially when you’ve got proceeds from some of your pieces going to a non-profit AIDS organisation.
AO: No there hasn’t been a big connection before yeah, not at all. I don’t think anyone is ever going to say anything negative about what we’re doing, I think everyone’s response to it has been really great. When people are buying something that’s going towards a greater cause it’s hard to knock it, it’s really positive.
TN: I think more than anything it’s great that you’re opening up this information for a different audience.
AO: That was the idea to, to turn people onto stuff that they may not have been aware of before. Companies try to align themselves with a lot of things and push stuff out, it doesn’t seem like there’s much integrity there. So we’re trying to do it differently.
TN: Are you having a lot of fun with it?
AO: Now that we’ve made enough money to put into cut and sew we have more time to work on the designs, it’s finally got to a point where we can really make clothes, actual garments. We’re connecting ideas and can bring in pages that you find or things you’re influenced by, even someone you saw wearing something on the train… Now it’s an actual reality. It’s gotten to a really fun point. There are still hurdles to jump over but right now it’s really exciting.
Bianca Chandon. Courtesy Dover Street Market
TN: You’ve had a great response in terms of your stockists, you’re in Dover Street Market which is huge and generally you’ve got a great line up globally already. How did the whole process pan out originally?
AO: Obviously being in Dover Street Market really helps and gave us a platform to grow. The first store was in Australia, Supply Store, and he’s done a lot in terms of helping us work out where we need to be placed. He really helped us and still does, he was really instrumental. But yeah obviously being able to see something in physical form is much better than online shopping, though obviously there’s a place for that always. It’s about balance.
TN: With how it’s going it must be pretty much full time now?
AO: Yeah I’m in my office every day now, 9 to 5! I mean it’s not but I try to be there every day and it’s a lot of fun. I look at a lot of Issey Miyake stuff, it’s really inspiring.
TN: That was my next question, the fashion side of things. Where are you getting your influences from and were you always interested in the fashion movements of the 70s and 80s?
AO: Yeah my mum and dad were both into it in some way, which had a big impact on me as a kid. My father skateboarded and my mother raised me, then I moved in with dad when I got older. She had me at a very young age like 20, she wanted to be a stylist and I remember when I was a kid there’d always be sketches around. She follows fashion pretty strongly. So I had that then there’s my dad who was part of the Punk Rock scene, he likes Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and that style, it heavily influenced him and so was around when I was growing up too. My dad had these pleather hot pink pants and would never wear them but, he had ‘em! We’d try them on and laugh. He had all these Punk Rock clothes in his wardrobe that didn’t fit him, we’d play around with them and have a laugh, it was pretty funny.
TN: That’s awesome.
AO: Yeah, I guess it just graduated into me wanting to make clothes but not having a platform to do it via. And then it just kind of accidentally took off. I never thought it was possible though because there’s this idea that you have to go to fashion school and know how to sew. But everything’s changing nowadays.
TN: I think if you’ve got the idea there, and it’s not like you’re designing couture or anything…
AO: [laughs] Yeah it’s a whole different ball game.
TN: It’s about a feeling.
AO: Couture I mean you’d definitely have to go to school, I mean, maybe! Never say never…
TN: Skate couture.
AO: Yeah exactly.