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

Soon they were in Vogue and selling at Barneys New York, their clothes weird and beautiful (“gorgeous silk dresses cut to fall like the long petals of a gracefully wilting iris,” wrote one reviewer) and sometimes laughable (gold metallic bodysuits)—but also, perhaps, a little misunderstood. “It might look a bit out-there,” says Vogue’s fashion-news editor, Sally Singer, who helped judge the Ecco Domani competition. “I just wish people knew how to integrate a piece here or there, because they are actually really well-made clothes, more akin to something Madame Grès would have designed than something we might think of as kooky downtown hipsters. They’re more classical. Everyone knows who the As Fours are because of the way they arrive in a sea of sparkles and fabulosity. The tricky thing is converting that into something wearable that sustains the business.”

As Four's most recent show, February 2005.  

And it was made trickier by As Four’s relentless self-presentation. “It’s always good for designers to have some kind of stage presence,” says Singer. “Fashion is part of the entertainment business. It’s become more essential that designers be signposts for their work.”

But Kai, who at one point wore a beard on exactly one half of his face, wasn’t always the most reliable signpost. Most people in the downtown scene have a Kai story, from the silly to the violent. “At [the club] Happy Ending,” Quartana recalls, “Kai bitch-slapped me for no reason. A second later, some rock-and-roll guy that he was giving trouble to started beating the shit out of him. I wound up pulling the guy off Kai because I felt sorry for him.”

“It started out as just arguing, and it became worse. Four people can’t live and work together and share a bed.”

Nor was Kai the only As Four member with pugilistic tendencies. One night, Ange had an altercation with Chan Marshall, the rock-folk singer known as Cat Power. Ange says it was because Marshall’s boyfriend was “trying to chat me up and she pulled me to the floor.” Marshall says Ange was throwing drinks on her because “she thought I looked like trash.”

“The southern lady I am,” Marshall continues, “asked the Lord for guidance, and when she approached a third time, the Lord said, ‘Fuck it!’ and I grabbed her by the back of her skull, bent her backward down to the ground, and told her she just doesn’t do that to people. I still feel guilty, but anybody else would have destroyed her face and called Immigration.”

Soon enough, As Four’s combativeness was being directed inward. “It started out as just arguing,” Quartana says. “And it became worse. Four people can’t live and work together and shre a bed.” So, Adi and Kai started sleeping in a tent on the floor. Then came the first all-group fistfight, one of many. They won’t really talk about it (it’s part of the old As Four story). “Sometimes you need to fight it out,” says Ange.

Kai thinks that the trouble began once external relationships started affecting the core of As Four. “Adi fell in love for the first time,” he says. “The balance was off because me and Adi were very close. The magic of As Four was in that balance.”

Adi moved out, followed by Kai, but the group kept preparing for last February’s fall 2005 show, albeit with difficulty. Kai says he wanted to make the garments less like sculpture. “They don’t have to scream avant-garde,” he says. “His vision of commercial is much different from ours,” counters Gabi.

Things finally came to a head at a 2004 Christmas party for the fashion label Heatherette at Darklight. “The mood of the place was really outrageous,” an attendee says. “Björk was dancing on the table. And [Ange] accidentally set her own hair on fire.” Then Kai—wearing “a big shawl thing”—allegedly started swinging a ceiling light like a tetherball. It broke, cutting someone’s leg. The bouncer kicked Kai out. As Four retired to the Chelsea bar Passerby, where what happened next is something they still refuse to discuss. Reportedly, Kai dumped a champagne bucket of ice water over his head, drenching Björk, and the others decided they’d had enough. Adi and Ange dragged him out and beat him up. “We are not proud of everything” is Ange’s only comment.

Kai left the country. “He was in Brazil and Israel,” Cutrone recalls, “and the others started to feel very Cinderella about it. ‘We’re doing all of the work. Where’s Kai?’ ” He urged them not to have their February show. They did anyway. Kai, who showed up for it, “was shocked,” says Gabi. “He realized that we actually operated without him.”

“The revolution started,” Kai says, “and the king had to leave. The kaiser.”

“It was the seven-year itch,” says Adi. “We made it and Kai didn’t.”