Yarn Bombing Hits the High Street


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London Kaye at her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Credit
Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

Not long ago, a street artist named London Kaye became embroiled in an unexpected controversy. A flea market in Bushwick, Brooklyn, partnered with her to create a large-scale installation. So Ms. Kaye crocheted a portrait, measuring 15 feet by 10 feet, of Sam Shakusky from Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” holding hands with the creepy twins from “The Shining.”

“It was about young love,” she said.

Not everyone was charmed. Though Ms. Kaye did not know, the flea market hadn’t secured permission to hang her work on an adjacent building. Anti-gentrification activists took their frustrations against her to social media. Gothamist reported that one aggrieved person equated Ms. Kaye and her work to “colonizers who claim indigenous lands for themselves.”

“I was the perfect scapegoat,” said Ms. Kaye, who is 28. “It was three white kids holding hands — it was huge.” She took the installation down.

There may be a double standard here. Few would call Banksy’s work gentrifying, but Ms. Kaye’s genre of street art, known as “yarn bombing,” has been widely derided as a hipster fad or dismissed as cutesy, mere “women’s work.”

But Ms. Kaye is proving it to be much more. In her hands, crochet is both an outlet of creative feminist expression and a lucrative career. Her boundary-unraveling work is appearing throughout the culture, from high fashion to the heart of the mass market.

There’s no question that the needle arts are having a moment. “It used to be that a lot of people didn’t like crochet or relegated it to your mother’s afghan, but there’s been a big renaissance,” said Trisha Malcolm, editor in chief of Vogue Knitting.

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Ms. Kaye installs a piece across from the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the Conan O’Brien show.

Credit
Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

She pointed to designers like ICB, Ryan Roche, Rosetta Getty and Tommy Hilfiger, who are “updating traditional techniques,” moving around sweater cables, creating big holes and crocheting bikinis.

This year also saw the release of the critically acclaimed documentary “Yarn,” about international yarn bombers, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York is exhibiting an elaborate crochet coral reef.

Vogue Knitting has just begun a redesign and expects to turn out 8,000 people at its Vogue Knitting Live symposium in Times Square in January. Ms. Kaye is crocheting 10 historic Vogue covers for the event.

“You’ve still got the core crocheter who buys acrylics in Walmart,” Ms. Malcolm said. “But it’s a big trend in the younger kids. London is almost like a spokesperson for that group. She’s the super-creative crocheter who will cover anything.”

Among Ms. Kaye’s projects this year were the facade of a school bus for a Gap holiday commercial and a 5½-by-15-foot installation of Conan O’Brien with four Rockettes to promote his recent show at the Apollo.

She also designed 18 window displays for Valentino and a five-piece capsule collection for the brand, featuring a crochet appliqué of herself: big blue eyes, bright yellow hair and languid, spaghetti-like limbs. (Ms. Kaye attended New York University on a dance scholarship and jokes that all her crochet girls have perfect technique.) The aesthetic is a bit South Park-y, but skews sunny, not snarky.

“I love dressing my crochet girl up, making her fun and fabulous and putting her in weird situations,” Ms. Kaye said. One piece, hung on a fence under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, featured the girl swooning over an alien; the girl’s face also appears on the Valentino sweater, and Ms. Kaye revels in the strangeness of wearing the design. “It was like I had two heads,” she said.

Ms. Kaye quit her day job, at an Apple Genius Bar in downtown Manhattan, a year ago, but still seems awed by the demand for her work. She’s been knitting since middle school in Agoura Hills, Calif., and keeps a book of yarn samples in her studio from that time.

That — and a collection of bags she crocheted in college and failed to sell at a SoHo street fair — are reminders of how far she’s come. She learned about yarn bombing four years ago, when she happened to sell a computer to Agata Oleksiak, one of the world’s most pre-eminent yarn artists. “She had a crazy crochet bag,” Kaye said. “I started Googling her.”

After reading about Ms. Oleksiak, Ms. Kaye grabbed a scarf she had made and wrapped it around a tree outside her apartment. She assumed someone would rip it down, but nobody did. Ms. Kaye then gave herself a challenge: Yarn bomb something new for 30 consecutive days. She made it to 50.

Though Ms. Kaye said she has been stopped by the police four times, her work quickly attracted positive attention. In 2014, a Starbucks store designer happened upon 10 “Nutcracker” dancers she had hung on a fence. Soon, the company hired her to yarn bomb around a new Brooklyn store location. Valentino contacted her after seeing a video of subway poles she had adorned. Then Miller Lite asked her to crochet a billboard in Times Square.

In the last three years, Ms. Kaye has created a textile collection for ABC Carpet & Home and worked on social media and commercials for Isaac Mizrahi Craft, Delivery.com, TBS and Progressive car insurance. (Flo, it turns out, makes a terrific crochet girl.)

Akin McKenzie, the production designer for Gap spot that is currently running, said Ms. Kaye manages to both embrace and subvert the stereotype of the grandmother knitting on the couch. “When you merge that image with a new imagining of it, you get something special that doesn’t have a defined demographic,” he said.

Of course, not everyone applauds the appropriation by corporate marketing departments of a once-subversive practice. “Some street artists think working with brands is selling out,” Ms. Kaye said. “But I don’t think ‘starving artist’ should be a thing.”

Indeed, making money from her work arguably augments its feminist impact. “In a male-dominated art form,” she said, referring to street art, “I like being able to have my two cents. I hope I can inspire people to do something daring. Ladies, get out there!”

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