Dan Colen and Mel Ottenberg Are Normcore Kings At Heart
This one’s for the thick ones. After over a decade of addressing food insecurity through his nonprofit, Sky High Farm, and its offshoot clothing line, artist Dan Colen tapped his friend of 30 years and Interview editor-in-chief Mel Ottenberg for a capsule collection. Launching this Friday, it’s a core wardrobe of suggestively sloganed, sustainable basics, modeled in our Winter 2023 issue by gymfluencer Steven Kelly. From juicy thighs to American flags on fire, the pair hop on FaceTime to get into the inspiration behind Mel Ottenberg for Sky High Farm Workwear.
MEL OTTENBERG: So Dan, thanks for doing a collaboration with me.
DAN COLEN: No, thank you for doing a collaboration with us. You’re the talent. Let’s not forget.
OTTENBERG: Wait, let me get some things straight. Dan and I have known each other for 30 years, and Dan has an amazing clothing company. Do you run a nonprofit?
COLEN: Yeah. I founded a nonprofit. I’m the president of the board of Sky High Farm, which is a 501(c)(3).
OTTENBERG: And Sky High Farm does a lot for the community of New York, right?
COLEN: Definitely. We support pathways towards food sovereignty, so we grow vegetables and raise livestock, all through regenerative farming practices. 100 percent of that is donated to communities without access to a nutritious diet. But we’re also an educational and arts organization, so we do a lot of community youth programming. We have a fellowship program for young adults, and we also distribute a grant to other farmers globally who support sovereignty within their own communities.
OTTENBERG: When did you start the farm?
COLEN: I started the farm in 2012, and for eight years ran it through my studio. Not as a nonprofit, as a part of my art studio. So in that way it’s part of my art practice. We actually just purchased a 560 acre new farm property, so we’re really expanding. We’re moving from a 40 acre farm to 560 acres.
OTTENBERG: And you also have a clothing brand with Dover Street Market.
COLEN: Yeah, an important part of the way we do our work is always acknowledging that traditional philanthropy is problematic in many ways. It can really be an ivory tower. It often preaches to the choir. It can serve the donors more than the individuals that its mission is meant to serve. So one of the ways we’re doing things differently is creating our own revenue stream so we don’t have to solely depend on donor support. We created this clothing brand as a way to generate revenue and advocate for the farm’s work, and Dover Street and Comme des Garçons were our first partners.
OTTENBERG: Sick. Why the hell would you do a collaboration with me, of all people?
COLEN: I happen to know that you went to school for fashion design, because I was there with you.
COLEN: It actually has nothing to do with that. You were just the person that came up with “Thick One,” and the rest unfolded on its own.
OTTENBERG: I was just looking at the original references. I think we came up with “Thick One” on New Year’s Day in Mexico, right?
COLEN: Yes. But let’s be real, you were there on day zero. We designed a collection together before we even existed.
OTTENBERG: Oh my god, yes. Before Sky High had done anything.
COLEN: It was like you came up to help me imagine what it could be. We made drawings, we made samples.
OTTENBERG: I gave you some of my clothes to rip off.
COLEN: We had crazy ideas that weekend. There were references to the movie, The Witch. It was getting there, but it wasn’t there yet, and you were always so supportive. We always talked about working with you internally. The first few seasons we were doing these smaller capsules with people like Alastair Mckimm, Samira Nasr, Tremaine [Emory]. But it was only appropriate to do a full collection with you.
OTTENBERG: We were looking at a lot of different references. I was like, “Let me think of things that I usually can’t bring up.” There was that amazing reference that’s very taboo, but it’s my favorite.
COLEN: I think we can talk about it, right?
OTTENBERG: We were looking at contemporary American cultures that neither of us usually look at. Kind of right wing stuff.
COLEN: We were looking at this spectrum of Americana from very basic, liberal, dandy aesthetics, all the way over to right wing, and all through some consideration of working-class social cultures.
OTTENBERG: Yeah. It was about mashing it up. Dare I say, it felt illicit.
COLEN: Definitely. It felt really illicit. There were a lot of ideas that didn’t make it onto the moodboard, much less into the collection, but it definitely shaped our process. Things unfolded very naturally because we were willing to consider some of these varied lifestyles.
OTTENBERG: I think we’re both considering the future and the world that your son will inherit. We’re talking about global warming. So we also had some nihilistic and do-gooder vibes mashed up into some American flags on fire.
COLEN: Yeah. I think there were two key moments in the collection. One was when we saw the sign that said, “Truck One,” and it’s an amazing, powerful logo. You looked at it and said, “What about ‘Thick One’?”
OTTENBERG: And we were laughing so hard.
COLEN: So hard. I think we saw the entire collection in our heads in that moment. But the other moment was the helmet of a construction worker. It was a flame graphic in the American flag motif.
OTTENBERG: Yes. And from there, we were looking at some incredibly beautiful signs and slogans, and it got really smutty in my hands. Although, for the record, it was still in your hands. You were creating smut on my behalf. I was your muse.
COLEN: You were. You definitely had a hand in shaping it, but you were also a muse. We know each other well enough to know what we were getting into. We didn’t have to name it. We just let the natural process unfold.
OTTENBERG: We also have a lot of basics, because you and I are normcore kings at heart.
COLEN: I mean, that’s the star. Just to go back a little bit, the reason why we’re doing this together isn’t because we went to school together or because you helped me with the first collection. It’s because of the time in between—let’s say 2008 to 2018—where we would see each other and be like, “What’s the sweater? What’s that belt? What’s the haircut? How long is the stubble?” We’re close enough, but different enough where we had these conversations that anybody else might find painful to even be a part of. They’re so specific.
OTTENBERG: Thank god we found each other.
OTTENBERG: I’m wearing a pair of boxer shorts from the collection now. It’s too soon to share them, but they’re so good.
COLEN: We’ll come out around February.
OTTENBERG: I really wanted to drop the picture of me wearing the boxer shorts that I sent you, but then my grandmother on her 100th birthday told me to stop getting naked on the internet, which was really annoying. I was like, “What about this picture of me in my Dan Colen shorts?”
COLEN: Tell her this is the last one ever.
OTTENBERG: This is business, grandma. I think I’ll drop them on the finsta today and see how I feel. But I really like them. I think they’re the best pair of boxer shorts in New York City.
OTTENBERG: There’s also great denim, great sweaters. Of the stuff that we already dropped, what are you going to wear?
COLEN: I think we’re both really excited about some of the undergarments.
OTTENBERG: Yeah. I mean, they look so good. I want to show you.
COLEN: Let me see. Are you coming into view?
OTTENBERG: Am I not in view?
COLEN: You’re in view. Oh my god, they’re incredible.
OTTENBERG: Look at these fucking shorts. They look great on my legs. Wait, let me take a picture of the screen.
COLEN: They really do. They’re the perfect fit for you. And then we have the undershirt.
OTTENBERG: The undershirt is important.
COLEN: “Ready Raw.” I don’t even know how we came up with that, but it’s so good. I think it’s a trucking company, which works so well for us. A lot of our ideas came from trucking and construction and that whole culture. The undergarments have the message and the smut, but I’m really excited about Sky High Farm’s first classic denim jean. We make a lot of work pants, like double knees and carpenter pants. Dickies or chino style work pants. But this is our first classic denim. And the sweater that we made is the perfect sweater. What sweater are you wearing right now?
OTTENBERG: I got it like four years ago at Celine.
COLEN: That looks pretty good, but I think our dark blue cashmere blend is the perfect sweater. And then we have the button-down shirts, which are all made with deadstock Comme des Garçons fabrics. The denim is also deadstock fabric, and the cashmere we use is recycled. That’s our look.
OTTENBERG: I want to see motherfuckers in these jeans on the streets.
COLEN: I know. I’m going to have to figure out how to wear “Thick One,” because it’s just too good. Maybe the “Thick One” trench coat. But I guess I’m not really a thick one. There’s so many different kinds of thick ones, but the outfit is really a dedication to a certain type, and I’m really excited to see them in it.
OTTENBERG: One of those types reached out to me today like, “I need those jeans.” I’m like, “Yeah, you’re the inspiration, babe.”
COLEN: Let me ask, are you a thick one? What’s your relationship to that?
OTTENBERG: I mean, look at me. I’m extra juicy right now, baby. I think this jean is a 36.
COLEN: I would be.
OTTENBERG: I’m really a feeder right now. I don’t want to go to the gym. I can be a thick one in many different ways. I’m definitely obsessed with the thick. But we also did a vintage collection, and we did flames.
OTTENBERG: The world’s going up in flames. 2024.