Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I learned to sew as a child.

I had no video game console at home, so to entertain myself, I either read books, drew pictures or traveled to old-fashioned arcades where coin-op games were still set-up in a type of electronic topiary maze. Once there, I would wander the labyrinth until I found a favorite and then waste whatever quarters I had on a few minutes of play.

Getting to the arcade was difficult, so I rarely went. I had a few friends with consoles, but visits to their homes were infrequent, and I felt like a bad guest or an awkward opportunist to insist upon playing every time I came over. Excited about the idea of games, if not the games themselves, I found other ways to play what I imaged the games to be. I would draw out worlds on long horizontal scrolls and rotate them using empty paper towel rolls to simulate side-scrolling games like Defender. I would attempt to create physical versions of the games, like vertical dodgeball, by dropping rubber balls from the top of the bleachers to simulate classics like Centipede or Breakout.

The best simulation, however, involved my mother’s sewing machine. I would draw maps of various race courses (usually turning my home town into a Le Mans route) and then load one of the drawings into the sewing machine like a very stiff piece of fabric. The sewing machine looked to me like a car; it had a gas peddle, a gearshift, and running lights. I would load the map into the machine, slam down the pressure foot, kick the gearshift into place, and then stomp on the gas. I was able to pull the paper through with gently guiding fingers to negotiate every curve and turn in the road. Difficult corners could be manipulated by stopping the progress with the needle still in the down position, lifting the foot, rotating the paper, engaging the foot again, and then roaring down the road. I could parallel park using the reverse gear, and simulated jumps by lifting the foot and pulling the paper to a new position and then re-engaging. My results were mapped by the dotted line of the stitching thread. I could see instantly if I ran off of the track or was soft or fat around a corner. With only a little practice, I found I could pull any curve imaginable. I was creating the arching loops that would become the foundation of my initial understanding of sewing. When our clothes would rip, I would mend them. I was always on the machine racing anyways, so why not try an “off-road” game and race the machine across a field of denim or corduroy?

Mending became sewing, and sewing became design. I would return cans for change and then bicycle to the used clothing store to buy essential equipment (old dress shirts, prom dresses, belts with decent buckles) and then use them as the raw materials for my collections.

No one wore what I created, the designs were too sexualized, or strange, or in poor taste, but I did not lose hope. There would one day be a place for my work, even if I hadn’t yet found it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conversational Ghost

Caught between the shadow of sleep and the light of wakefulness, I dreamt the sound of a ringing phone and sat up in bed to answer it. Upon waking, I realized the phone call was a phantom; nothing had woken me except my own mind. Tako lay next to me, blue in the moonlight and peacefully at rest. I went back to bed and took up the dream again. It was a call from a beautiful blue-grey cat with elongated, elegant limbs, short hair, and great posture. The cat could speak, and he immediately began to discuss an important development. He explained that he works at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library, technically employed as a mouser, but also serving in his spare time as a general researcher. While crawling around the stacks, he had made a discovery in the archives, something that would cause great literary and cultural excitement in both academia and popular culture. Just as he was about to explain the details of his newest find to me, his speech turned from English to French to the standard vocabulary of a cat: meows, purrs, hisses and wails. I woke again, unfulfilled in my hopes to hear the news of his great discovery.

Agitated, I headed downstairs to the workroom. I flipped on the light to my drawing desk and started to sketch the Beinecke Library cat as I had seen him in my dream: confident, mischievous, luxurious, and refined.

The curve of his tail and the side of his body created a shape that at first was hard to see. It was a curving slice of negative space, a non-space that was created by everything around it, but consisted of nothing; it was defined by its boundaries, not by itself. The shape was long, curved, and ingenious. I placed a second sheet of drawing paper on top of the first one and re-drew the negative space, this time leaving off the rest of the image that had previously constituted the cat. I stared at the shape for a few minutes. I had seen it before, but I was not sure where. I closed my eyes and traced the shape in space. If a falling object had created it, then the bends and curves would have resulted from the object intersecting with a second shape and then gliding along its surface. I concentrated on this imaginary second surface. I felt like I could see it. I took out my pencil and sketched along the paper as I imagined the curved shapes in my mind. I know this sounds like some type of higher mathematics, or scientific visualization, but this type of surface bending is just like draping for pattern-making, and at this point, I feel like I could bend a piece of fabric around a women from across the room in my sleep. Sloping curves are my first language. Drape is my primary utterance. When I opened my eyes, I had drawn something that seemed to be the path a single tear would take if it fell from a woman’s eye and ran down her cheek, only to drop into the well created by the hollow of her clavicles.

I took out a third sheet of paper and drew a woman’s face, neck and shoulder correctly sized for the tear-path. The image didn’t line up. I tired again, this time tilting the woman’s head every so slightly. It was a perfect match. Like an archeologist recreating the face of a long dead ancestor by molding muscles onto a found skull, I had drawn a woman from the negative space between cat’s body and tail. The imaginary cat had brought me to a discovery.

But why was the woman crying? Was it a tear of joy or weeping sorrow? What more can I discover? Is there another secret in the design?

I moved the shape lower along her imagined body. The same pathway created a gorgeous curve just interior to the hip. Could this be a new cut line for swimwear? An alternative to the low-rise and the "french" cut? I drew the rest of the standing woman's figure and sketched a suit on top of it. The new cut line was bold - but was it based on pathos, empathy, or simply exploratory discovery?

I went back to bed, promising myself that I'd try out the new cut on an actual suit in the morning.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Two of me

Sometimes I feel like there are two of me; one that commands to jump ahead, and the other that holds me back. When I see something that holds my attention, that causes a little piercing in my memory, I want to strike out in a new direction and create a new thought with this new punctum as my seedling. Other times, new thoughts are a distraction, like so much extra noise in a room otherwise quiet and perfect for reading. I am both me and the idea of me. As a brand, I am both a call and a response. When chasing my own tail, I have only the changing shadows of night and day to keep me renewed.

Tako is a terrific shopper, but also a terrifically elusive target. She always gets me the perfect gift, and I am always less than satisfied with what I find for her. I am a professional, this should be easy, but it is harder than it seems when it really counts.

The pop-up shop is coming along. I found a nice space in the right place and just about have all of the permits and permissions done. Retail is a carnival of mirrors. I'm getting more comfortable as ring master.

I've been looking at the history of illustration. It is a complete and separate art history that parallels traditional art history, and even shares a few names, but exists wholly on its own. J.C. Leyendecker is a God among illustrators, but doesn't get even a paragraph in the annals of fine art painting. Where will I be remembered? As an aquatic couturier? As a curious side note? Fashion has no memory. Art cannot even pronounce the word fashion, even though it is just as fickle with its trends. I have only today, this season, this idea, this showroom, this fitting, this cut, this drape, this wrap, this moment to get it right. Every attempt always comes down to this.

So do I jump? Do I hold myself back?

Tonight I can hear the symphony of my ideas ringing as clearly as church bells. So yes - I jump.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Every Action

Living on a boat is glamorous, sure, but it is also like living in a floating sewer. All of the pipes and vents need cleaning or the circulatory system becomes a hothouse for a smell that should only exist on military submarines. As a consequence, we are dry docked, and getting a full cleaning. Maybe this type of work could be done in the water, but I also wanted to check to make sure that everything was working after the storm. We were off by a small percentage from our normal navigation, and I want to make sure that nothing critical was damaged. Plus, I like the feeling of having a completely tuned boat. While the ship is out of the water, however, I feel disquieted, as if I’m crossing into an unnatural world; ships should be in water, not up on stilts in a warehouse.

While homeless (which isn’t really true, I also have a beachfront house that doubles as a second studio), I’m taking the chance to go shopping for the holidays and to remember what it’s like to be adrift.

There was a time when I didn’t ever go home. Does this make sense? While I was interning, not yet working for myself, I would go from the studio to the club, to the shoot, to the performance, to the political action, to the breakfast meeting, to the client retreat, to the sample-maker, to the fitting, to the party, to the hospital, to the conference, to the airport, to the hotel, to the taxi, to the chateau, to the carriage, to the party, to the fitting, to the notions shop, to the cobbler, to the lace-maker, to the goldsmith, to the photo shoot, to the digital lab, to the print shop, to the ice cream store, to the boutique, to the bus stop (for a photo shoot), to the train station, to the luggage lost and found, to the pet store, to the client’s Brownstone, to the hotel, to the concert, to the coffee shop, to the bookstore, to the makeup counter, to the trim-tailor, to the crash-pad, to the tree house, to the back bar, to the early morning sunrise shoot, to the sanitarium, to the thrift store, to the prop house, to the garden supply shop, to the hardware store, to the paint shop, to the fabric supplier to the place that sold wooden propellers from WWII planes like the one used in Blow-up, to the museum to the opening, to the dinner party, to the silent auction, to the hair salon, to the after party, to the lingerie shop, to the take-out diner, to the watch-maker, to the overnight shipping depot, to the accessories maker, to the team that made cutom boxes, to the engraver, to the graphic designers, to different graphic designers, to the falafel shop, and back to the studio where I had just a few minutes to get ready to do it all over again.

One month I saw my apartment exactly three times, each visit for only a few hours, but I never felt more connected to the dream of design. The pulse of the city was not an abstraction, but was a result of my every action.

Walking around again today, I heard in my footsteps the echo of that drumbeat. Am I making the city move again? Or am I just in the way? I don’t care about anyone else's answer – I feel like I am making a difference, and right now, that’s all that counts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


This spring I’m opening a pop-up shop in San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Why not Capri, Nice, Cinque Terre or at least somewhere a little warmer? The reason is personal - Tako has family in San Francisco, so it seemed like a nice way to get away while still working.

For the shop, I’m creating a few pieces that are Prêt-à-Porter. The first look just came upstairs from sample room and I threw it on a mannequin and snapped a picture. What do you think? Very Julia-Roberts-wins-oscar-and-wears-vintage-Valentino meets Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity, meets white icing on a chocolate cake, meets old-fashioned men’s athletic supporter. Now to work on the wrap…

Also - for all of you FB users out there, you can now become a fan just by clicking this link.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Mathematics of Doubt

What is it like to design couture swimwear?

In between the insults and praise, I block out the distractions and find a hole to climb inside where text becomes design and the body becomes text. There is no palimpsest here, no scars, or nurtured sorrows; there is no history or back story or baggage or old wounds - just solutions, apparitions, harmonics, evocations, rhymes/rhythms and the mathematics of doubt.

We take a chance, and succeed! Or we take a chance and fail. Either way, we are in a rumble with numericus. The numbers will tumble and align or disperse, and we will catch the slope or miss it, and we’ll only know once it’s done.

Yesterday afternoon, I read an old detective novel by a famous poet who normally wrote poems, but just this once attempted literary pulp. I liked the idea of the novel much more than the novel itself. Does anyone ever say this about my swimwear? Does anyone like the idea of buying a Serg Riva suit more than the actual suit? They must! Everyone who buys one must love the idea more than the thing itself. The idea is what enables a garment to transform the wearer. Without the idea, even the best garment goes flat. Transformation requires both the garment and the wearer. The idea of me is the “silent e” at the end of the word that changes the meaning and the resonance. The idea turns the plan into a plane.

Each time I sit down to design a new swimsuit, at first I am lost, but then I start to find a way. When it feels like I am getting to a new place unseen by others, there is always something un-quiet going on in my head, a little surprise that gets stuck and repeats itself until the form of the repetition replaces the original meaning of the thought. The little surprise could be almost anything, a gesture, a phrase, a color, a scent, a joke, a transgression, a stammer, a typo, a perfectly natural adaptation - whatever it is, once it begins to loop, the pattern of the loop presents its own vocabulary. Looking at a finished design, I sometimes think: my vocabulary did this, I just listened.

Right now, the loop repeating while I’m working is the comedy of the fig leaf. I wish I could describe it more completely, but you can only catch the laughter if you can somehow recreate the loop of it yourself, and then you can watch the shadows emerge like the increasing errors in a re-photocopied image. The comedy of the fig leaf is a language poet's dream. As for design, I’m starting to think that I create nothing else.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Best Swimwear for Women

Dear Readers,
Here is an article I wrote for a new fashion magazine that went under just two months after launch. It’s tough times all around for print media. I thought you might enjoy the article, so I'm posting it here.

The Best Swimwear for Women
by Serg Riva

As a designer of swimwear, I am constantly asked about the best swimwear for women. Often this type of advice is geared towards women between the ages of 30 and 55, the reasoning being that women who are younger than 30 look fantastic no matter what they wear, and women who are older than 55 either have it all figured out already, or couldn’t care less. I think this is nonsense, and that women of all ages can equally benefit from the following few ideas. Here are my best five suggestions for hitting the beach:

1) Buy a robe. This is not to cover up your body, but to reveal it. I don’t care if you are a soccer mom, a 19 year-old supermodel, or the fittest, most beautiful cougar in Saint-Tropez, the key to gorgeous beachwear is all in the reveal. So pick up a fantastic robe and think of it as the curtain that opens before the show. Your leg will appear and disappear under the robe like a rhythmic, seductive, Siren’s call. Remember that narrative creates a fantasy, fantasy activates the imagination, and imagination is the key to all fashion. Don’t have a robe? Then wear a men’s dress shirt. Steal, swipe or borrow one from a man you know and you’re ready to go. Do not roll up the sleeves, however, instead push them up. The resulting shoved-up sleeve is sexier and more sophisticated. Just shove and go. Try a blue shirt, as if you have just had a romantic liaison with a very wealthy banker who is also trim, thoughtful, and a patron of the arts. The look works best if the shirt was previously ironed, but is now wrinkled. So there should be a crease down the sleeves, a sharp collar and placket, and then wrinkles on the tail and possibly a lipstick stain, depending on how dramatic you want to make it. Unbutton it a little more than you normally would. You’re wearing a swimsuit underneath – so what’s the harm? Enjoy the walk from your cabana to the shore, or from your car to the bar, or from your carpool to the kiddie pool. Summer is fun and you should enjoy yourself.

2) Pick your feature. Are you showing off your uptown or your downtown? Is your best feature your firm arms or your fantastic feet? Pick something and feature it. Get a pedicure, buy some sunglasses, wear a necklace, whatever it is - feature your feature, make it the star.

3) A swimsuit is essentially several clasps held together with the smallest amount of fabric. If you don’t want to spend serious money for a swimsuit with gorgeous, beautiful, clasps, then buy something inexpensive and swap out the claps with a vintage find, or something from the bead store. Just remember, some clasps heat up more than others. Choose wisely.

4) Get a hat. The right beach hat keeps your face out of the sun and provides a sense of mystery. Who is that gorgeous women in the mysterious hat? She reminds me of a movie I wish I’d seen.

5) Walk like you mean it. The most appealing person on the beach is never the person with the fittest body, but the person with the happiest, most confident, most playful, creative, encouraging, intelligent, humorous, and intriguing personality. You can see this in her walk, in the way she fearlessly tells a joke, the way she yawns at pretension, the way she handles both pleasure and annoyance, the way she drinks her water, reads her book or responds to a phone call, and on the happy faces of friends or children near her. Relaxed gestures unfold from her body like the long poetic exhale of a piece of scandalous literature. Sounds like you, non?


Serg Riva is an international swimwear designer. You can follow his life at http://sergriva.blogspot.com/