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The Crack-Up—and Future—of Downtown’s Kookiest Fashion Collective

The three remaining members of As Four (Ange, Gabi and Adi) in their studio.  

A native of Bremerhaven, Germany, Kai studied economics in Hamburg, with the idea that he would take over the family oil business. “After my first statistics class, I decided, ‘No way. I will take my flight-attendant boyfriend and go to the Caribbean,’ ” he says. Eventually his parents “cut off the allowance,” and he came to New York.

All four swear they felt a sort of insta-synergy. Gabi was getting separated from his wife, and he and Ange fell in love. He was working on the look book for his first solo collection and enlisted the others’ help. The results, he says, were phenomenal, and his last name started to seem like a good omen.

He moved in with the girls. Then came the next lucky break: Kai’s apartment burned down. “It was a sign from heaven,” says Ange. “Fate.”

“It was a blessing,” adds Gabi. They were to become one Borg-like entity. Housemates, partners, friends. “We were this family,” Adi says, a family that decided to sleep together on a giant communal mattress. “I never had the guts to ask them what went on in that bed,” says one friend of the group. “I didn’t want to know.”

They insist nothing went on. “It was like we were children,” Kai says. “After a long day, we all collapsed into our big bed.”

Still, having two other bedmates did put a crimp in Gabi and Ange’s romantic life. “It’s very hard trying to be intimate,” notes Ange. (Though she and Gabi would wed in 2003, theirs is an open marriage, and Ange now has a boyfriend.)

“Basically, it was a cult,” says Gabi. “We had our own fun, from making clothes to drinking.” The quartet say they never thought of what they were doing as a business venture; it was their own mini-kibbutz, or what they called “the Future Planet of Style.”

They moved into a loft on Forsyth Street, and when they weren’t going out to lots of parties, looking like a glittery street gang, they did a lot of entertaining at home. “They always had people over, stylists and photographers, musicians and D.J.’s,” says Joseph Quartana, owner of the boutique Seven New York, which carries As Four. “I think they fancied it a new Warhol’s Factory. They even painted it all silver.”

“We call it the silver cage,” Ange says. “Gabi says it’s the Hotel California.”

“I don’t think they even went to the grocery,” says Quartana. “Whenever people would come over, they’d ask them to bring something. ‘Do you mind picking up strawberries, celery, and a dozen eggs?’ ”

As a lifestyle, it was contrived but not unproductive. They were always “working,” everyone doing a little of everything, even if it was work as play. “The first time we really participated in the fashion circus,” Ange says, “was when Paper was doing a show and we dressed up mechanical dolls in As Four outfits. They sang, ‘I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world.’ We had 44 of them. It was a nightmare, the sound they made was like a war almost. That was our first show.”

But it was the “circle bag”—a space-age flying saucer of a purse, which also “started out as a joke”—that would bring them downtown fame. “We made a circle and cut a hole and were like, ‘Ha ha, it’s a bag!’ ” says Ange. The bag would go on to be knocked off by such designers as Helmut Lang.

“We realized [designing] wasn’t just a hobby,” says Ange. Paper touted them as mavericks, and Björk became their most visible champion. (Mariah Carey is their latest pop-star acolyte, wearing a gold As Four gown on her new album cover.) In 2002, they received a $20,000 award from Ecco Domani for new designers. But they also had their detractors.

“There were very mixed feelings about them,” says Kelly Cutrone, owner of the PR company People’s Revolution. “Half of the people I love and respect thought they were brilliant. Another half thought that they were a joke and went out too much.” Cutrone decided to rep them for free in 2003, with some caveats. “I said, ‘Listen, if I’m going to do your show, then we’re going to do it in the tents, not in a subway station.’ It was their big breakthrough season.”

But the buildup to the show was exasperating. “When you have four people that are, quote, equal, the communication process is agonizing,” says Cutrone. “ ‘What time is the show?’ ‘We want to start it at 4:44.’ ‘You can’t.’ ‘Why?’ Just what you have to go through to make an invitation, you have no idea.”