The eye doesn’t always know where to settle.
On the purple-and-orange wicker purse in the shape of a frog? On the rhinestone horns stuck to the tops of lime-green sneakers? On the protruding, heart-shaped hips of a pink velvet gown, formed by old-fashioned side hoops?
Visiting the set of a Collina Strada shoot is not unlike being greeted by a delegation from another planet. The models, in their layers of mismatched candy-colored clothing, are a new species, bred from goth mall rats and granola girls. They don’t strut and pose. They frolic and stomp.
On this Monday in February, they have been plucked from their grungy fantasyland and dropped into a rented film studio in South Brooklyn. Here, the brand is working on a project bridging our world and theirs: a parody of the mid-2000s reality show “The Hills” (Collina translates to “hill” in Italian) with some “Real Housewives” energy.
“The Collinas,” which debuted a week later, on Feb. 16 at New York Fashion Week, is not the company’s first fashion film. In September 2020, when the pandemic forced labels to swap their runway shows for online presentations, it released a video titled “Change Is Cute.”
At the time, the digitization of fashion shows wasn’t ideal for many designers, who may depend on traditional in-person formats to reach buyers, editors and influencers. Collina Strada, however, saw an opportunity to fully express the world it envisioned for its clothes — something only really possible in digital form.
“Change Is Cute” opens on a white bull (dyed purple and covered in orange squiggles) and cow (painted in rainbow florals) roaming a hilly landscape (except the hills are covered in hand-drawn fruit wallpaper). It only gets weirder from there.
This season, Collina Strada decided to continue its world-building through video. (After “Change Is Cute” came “Collina Land,” a video game funded by Gucci as part of its platform for emerging designers, and “Collina-mals,” a project that enlisted David Mattingly, the artist behind the science fantasy series “Animorphs.”) The difference this time is that the film is scripted.
Hillary Taymour, the 34-year-old founder and creative director of Collina Strada, said she wanted to make a “pure fashion comedy.”
Ms. Taymour didn’t keep up with “The Hills” when it aired on MTV from 2006 to 2010. She was around “The Hills,” though, living in Los Angeles and going to the same clubs as its stars, who were also around the same age. Ms. Taymour dressed somewhat similarly, too, though more “indie sleaze party girl,” she said: tube tops, heavy eyeliner, American Apparel jeans and Marc by Marc Jacobs heels.
“I didn’t even wash my hair,” she said. “I still don’t.”
While she founded Collina Strada in 2009, the brand’s visual identity (upcycling and tie-dyeing; using natural materials like “sylk” made from the waste of rose bushes; casting models who are not willowy white women but nonbinary people, disabled people, sexagenarians) didn’t crystallize until about 2019, she said. That was the year she was named a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a prestigious award for emerging American designers.
Just as the first episode of “The Hills” revolves around its star, Lauren Conrad, embarking on a fashion internship, “The Collinas” tells the story of a new intern starting at Collina Strada.
That intern is played by Tommy Dorfman, whom Ms. Taymour had in mind when she wrote the script. Ms. Dorfman is an actor and filmmaker who, last September, became a front-row fixture and guest of honor at runway shows and parties. In a process she likened to dating fashion designers, Ms. Dorfman was experimenting with clothes after clarifying her identity as a trans woman.
She and Ms. Taymour bonded almost instantly. Ms. Dorfman, who is generous with both compliments and improvisations on set, was drawn to the designer’s thoughtfulness; other brands would send her unsolicited, excessively packaged gifts, as they often do with celebrities and influencers, hoping they’ll post the free bags or clothes on Instagram or be seen wearing them in a paparazzi photo.
Ms. Taymour would ask, “Do you like these socks?”, Ms. Dorfman said, then give them to her over dinner.
In the original script for “The Collinas,” Ms. Dorfman’s character charges naïvely into the New York fashion world, showing little interest in actual work. Her reaction, in an early version of the script, to getting the job: “Sustainability is so hot!” The other employees of Collina Strada are snobbish, judging her, for example, for not toting her own crystal-encrusted refillable water bottle (a real product made by the brand).
The joke seems to be on any fashion brand that considers itself sustainable, including Collina Strada, which takes the position that there actually is no such thing.
“The best way to get the point across is through humor,” Ms. Dorfman said in between takes. She wore a chartreuse blouse over a periwinkle silk skirt over graphic floral pants. The oversize layers were cinched with a studded belt, affixed with a little strip from a kilt skirt. She was about to film a scene in which she is asked to steam a pair of shiny silver pants and fails at the task. Charlie Engman, Ms. Taymour’s longtime collaborator, was reminding the actors not to look at the camera.
On the table next to Ms. Dorfman was a list of “Housewives”-inspired tagline ideas: “I love to post and to compost,” “The only thing unsustainable about me is my haters,” “How much do I care about the environment? Even the bags under my eyes are reusable.”
“If you can’t make fun of yourself, who can make fun of?” Ms. Taymour said on the phone a few days after filming. “Fashion takes itself so seriously. Like, ‘I used 50 percent less water in this one garment, this one time.’ Come on, guys. We can care about things and do our part, but no fashion brand is saving the world. I don’t care what they say in the press. They’re not.”
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There was a high-pitched whooshing on her end of the line. “Sorry, my dog just sneezed,” she said. (Powwow the Pomeranian shot a confessional scene in “The Collinas,” too.)
When the pandemic hit, fashion’s institutions were looking for ways to support small brands, which led to a few breakthroughs for Collina Strada, like inclusion in Gucci’s Vault program for young designers and the Met’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition. Gucci also paid for Ms. Taymour to attend the Met Gala. On the red carpet, she wore lime-green cargo pants and a large horse head neckpiece hanging from her shoulders, a look that made her feel armored and reminded her not to take the industry so seriously.
“It’s just fashion,” she said. “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point? At least with getting dressed.”
It’s the small size of her brand that allows Ms. Taymour to think this way, she said; she doesn’t answer to a board or parent company, and it shows in how she presents her collections. Projects like “The Collinas” or “Change Is Cute” aren’t about creating the perfect image to sell new clothes but capturing the right “vibe of the image.”
“Which I think would be totally taken away if it were a bigger company,” Ms. Taymour said. “Would I be able to cast the people I’ve cast if there were hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the line? I don’t know because they all are wild cards, and that’s what makes it fun.”
But smallness has its disadvantages, too. The budget for “The Collinas” was $100,000 (paid for by Cash App), which meant a tight filming schedule that barely left Ms. Taymour with time to eat during the shoot. She did, eventually, while standing up.
She wants to expand into shoes, but it would cost a prohibitive $250,000 to start production on the design she has in mind, using the most sustainable practices available to her. And that’s the challenge: growing a business while staying true to the “Collina girl,” the environmentally-conscious anarchist, within.
This season some new cargo pants were dyed using sprinkles. While she was dyeing them, “sitting in the studio, heating sprinkles up with a hair dryer,” Ms. Taymour realized, she said, “I’m, like, actually a psychopath right now.”
“It looks cool,” she said. “But how do you scale hot sprinkles?”