New York Style Stories is a series of short documentary portraits by Maaike Holvast. The different episodes portray various New Yorkers with distinctly outspoken styles and document not only their vivid visual expressions, but also the personalities that motivate such display. We showed you one of those exciting short films last year, now we finally found the time to catch up with Maaike and discuss everything style and her latest project +1 Significant Others.
S2S: Before becoming a documentary filmmaker you studied Fashion, worked as a stylist, brand consultant and fashion editor. What is it about fashion that fascinates you and why did you choose documentary film-making to explore the subject more in depth?
Maaike Holvast: I was always more interested with the WHY, then the HOW of fashion and style. People spend so much time, effort and money on appearances, yet many of us never really think about what motivates us to choose our clothing, hairstyles etc. At the same time we all categorize and judge others by it. During my education this was already obvious. I was most interested in the classes that dealt with the psychology of style and the influences of societal trends on fashion. After graduating and working in the industry for a while I realized, not many people in the fashion world share my fascination.
Maybe because when you really start to look behind the exterior, you’ll find that the underlying motivation for style can be quite vulnerable: like insecurity, fear, shame, etc. Not very glamorous anyway. At a certain point I realized that if I really wanted to talk about these things and tell the stories, I was interested in telling, perhaps I should do so outside the framework of the fashion industry. Documentary film seemed to be the obvious choice, because it can convey so much more then a picture can.
S2S: How do you personally define style and how did you pick the subjects of New York Style Stories?
Maaike Holvast: For me style is always the synergy between clothes and the person. And therefore it can be anything. As long as it is congruent, I don’t differentiate between good style or bad style. However, I prefer to think that what I study is Visual Identity more so then style. The word Style just works better in a title because people have an immediate association with it. The characters I picked for New York Style Stories all have a strong Visual Identity. However, in some cases (like Luzer for instance) one could argue they don’t necessarily have style. For me he fits that selection because his story is about the struggle he has in redefining his Identity and his clothing is a representation of that story.
S2S: Was it easy to persuade them to be filmed or were there people you approached who did not want to participate?
Maaike Holvast: Interestingly enough, no one I approached for this series said no. (And there were many more that I asked then the final 16 you can see in the two different seasons). I think most people who dress extravagantly are in some way or another looking to get attention for their appearance and so they also like the idea of being filmed. Of the people that are in the episodes now, I didn’t really have to persuade anyone either, except AA Bronson a bit, who is somewhat of a famous artist and I think he was concerned with his professional image. Interestingly enough he is also one of the least extravagant dressers, and the story is really more about his partner Mark, who is quite the peacock.
S2S: Each of the individuals in New York Style Stories is unique in his/her style. Do you have any favorites among your subjects? What were some of the situations that you enjoyed the most?
Maaike Holvast: Honestly, I can not say which one of the characters I like best. After spending time with them and getting under their skin, I ended up caring for all of them. However, I do have favorite episodes, which I think are just stronger as stand alone short documentaries in themselves. Like Luzer’s episode in series 1 and Keri & Bella in series 2.
As far as situations I enjoyed, it’s hard to say, but I definitely liked the shooting part. I think the most fun I had were the events we shot at, which, I would normally not have gone to, like the Beard and Moustache competition in Coney Island with Michael, or the Ice Cream Social with Supercute.
S2S: Obviously these stories are not only about style but lifestyle choices. Your subjects speak very openly about why they dress the way they do and their lives in general. I think viewers feel very close to these characters and wonder what happens next. It’s been a couple of years since. Do you keep in touch with your subjects
Maaike Holvast: Like I said, I feel personally very close to the different characters as well. However I didn’t become friends with them in the way that we hang out or call each other on the phone. I do try to keep updated on their lives though, mostly through Facebook and email, which is how I know that Zelda has passed away, Luzer now works in an upscale men’s wear shop and has lost his beard and pe’ot, and that Supercute has separated. Keri and Bella have moved to LA, and Mark and AA are now in Berlin.
S2S: Do you think there is a style that is specific to New York?
Maaike Holvast: These days I don’t think you can say there is one style that is unique to any place. You find hipsters in Williamsburg but also in Kreuzberg or Amsterdam Noord. What I do think is specific about New York style is that all style is way more expressive and ‘out there’ then in other places. I think this is probably because New York is such a diverse and visually overwhelming place, in order to make an impression, people have to put more effort in to their look than they would in smaller, less diverse towns.
S2S: You are from Amsterdam and recently moved back. How would you describe the style there?
Maaike Holvast: Amsterdam style is in some ways the opposite to New York Style. It is more subtle, quieter, less outrageous. I think this is a direct result of the fact that Amsterdam is relatively small and life is relatively quiet and simple. People know each other. And there is a cultural aversion to being attention seeking. There is a Dutch saying that goes “Be normal, because you are crazy enough already.” Which kind of says it all.
S2S: Do you think there is good and bad style, or are there people who have no style?
Maaike Holvast: As I mentioned earlier I don’t think about style in terms of good or bad. Some people have more intuition for which things fit them or look nice together. I would say such people have a better sense of style. But everyone has a visual identity, and therefore a personal style. I once had a discussion with my uncle who considered himself too intellectual for fashion. And I argued that in choosing to wear Birkenstock sandals (then not yet trendy) and John Lennon glasses he was also making a strong statement about himself visually, and in that way he was also making a style statement. So ‘no-style’ in my eyes doesn’t really exists.
S2S: What has been one of the most outrageous styles you have encountered?
Maaike Holvast: Wow, that is a tough one to answer. I have seen many outragoeus people, since I’m always people watching. Individual extraverts are not that hard to find.. However, an interesting gathering I went to recently, where everyone was outrageous in the same way, (and clearly trying to out-do each other) was a fundraiser for wealthy ladies in Accra, Ghana. I described it afterwards to someone as: the Oscar’s on Acid. Rhonestones, bright colors, embroyderies, prints, everything mixed. Really cool and fascinating in not just the indivudal outrageousness, but the fact that it seeemed to be a group-code.
S2S: Your latest project is called +1 Significant Others. What is this series about?
Maaike Holvast: Most of us know the meaning of Significant Other as the sex-neutral term for romantic partners. However, its original meaning comes from sociology where it is used to mean ‘a person that is close to us, and helps us form our identity’. As children, these are usually our parents, as we grow older usually friends, or peers. When you look around you, you’ll see that best friends (more often then not) have similar tastes in clothing, mothers dress their daughters like Mini-Me’s, and couples usually start dressing more and more alike the longer they are together. So ‘Significant Others ‘ also seem to play a big role in the forming of our Visual Identity.
After studying individuals in New York Style Stories, I decided in the second series I wanted to study the interaction between an individual and his/her Significant Other.
S2S: What is your observation in regards to couples? Do you think it is true that the more time two people spend with each other, the more alike they look? Any idea why that might be the case?
Maaike Holvast: Yes, I think this is true. However, it is more extreme in some, and more subtle in other couples. I think we all like to feel that we are cute, attractive, cool, sexy, smart, or whatever positive reenforcement is important to you personally. When our partners values certain expressions of those charteristics, we will emphasize those aspects of ourselves. This is how we gradually adjust our identities, and the visual representation of that is what is most noticeable for outsiders.
S2S: Before returning to Amsterdam, you also spent some time in Ghana to research the use of wax-printed fabrics. How did that come about? Was this your first time visiting a country in Africa and what were your findings?
Maaike Holvast: Coincidentally, I had been to Ghana once before on vacation. However, that was 10 years ago, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the city then. This time I was only in Accra (the capital), while making research video’s for Vlisco, The Dutch Company that makes the wax prints that so many people now consider part of the African visual identity. I was amazed to see how booming the city was, how driven, cool and confident the women where that we followed and spoke to, and how optimistic everyone seemed to be.
The reason I originally approached Vlisco to suggest a collaboration was because I was thinking about making a documentary on the role of style in upward socio-economic movement. And I had the idea that a large African metropolis, where the economy is booming and many people are newly moving in to a middle class situation, would be the best place to show this in action. However, not having any experience in filming in Africa I though before deciding on this I should first work in the field with an already existing structure, like Vlisco’s, in place. The trip was very educational in that I realized I could never be as unobtrusive an observer as I can be in Amsterdam or New York. Simply because of the color of my skin, and my cultural background. This is going to be a big hurdle to overcome when I do want to make my own independent documentary project.
S2S: What is your next project?
Maaike Holvast: I am currently doing a print document (photo+ interview) on Afropolitans in The Netherlands for a Dutch newspaper. And my next documentary assignment is for the Amsterdam Organization for Volunteers, for whom I will make some short portraits on people who do volunteer work. As far as my next independent project goes, I would love to make the mentioned documentary on style in the changing urban environment in Africa. However, there are some real hurdles to overcome before that film can become reality. Most importantly I will need to find a local partner that can be my guide in negotiating cultural difference and at the same time understands what I’m aiming for. Such a person I haven’t come across yet.
To find out more about Maaike Holvast and her future projects click here.