Introducing Mae Horak And the Taiga

Questions by Andy Conley

Series: The Taiga

‘The Taiga is a photography series initially inspired by the Decemberists Hazards of Love album. It tells a story of destructive love, heartbreak and rebirth through handmade clothing, sets and photography. The story takes place in an ancient mysterious forest and is inspired by European fairy tales. The Taiga reminds us that nature is vastly more powerful than any individual.’ ©Mae Horak

“Her Domain” ©Mae Horak
Model: Kimmy Cunningham

How did you get into fashion design? Where was your start?

I started making clothes as a child, I remember learning to sew when I must have been 12 years old. The first clothes I ever made was a Halloween costume for me and a friend in sixth grade, and in high school started buying used clothes at GoodWill just to tear them apart to use as pattern pieces. I’ve never followed a store-bought pattern, so that’s how I learned to make my own patterns!

I studied fashion at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and graduated in 2018. Two of my favorite classes at fashion school were Couture Techniques and Tailoring where I learned about high-end clothes making, and I think those techniques of making very structured garments is evident in my work.

I love how unique your work is, how do you feel you fit into the overall trend of modern day fashion photography?

I’m not sure it does, I can’t say. I’ve never had my finger on the pulse of modern fashion or pop culture. I hope that there is a place for what I do in the modern art world. I try to use social media to show my work. I don’t think I’m great at it but I try. I’m doing a gallery show with this series in the summer, hopefully the first of many!

“The Rake” ©Mae Horak
Model: Charli Summers

Your work is very dark, both emotionally and physically. Is there a meaning or reason behind the tone?

I think it’s important to be comfortable with darkness. Without darkness there would be no light. That’s true of everything, it’s about balance. There’s a lot of beauty in dark things.

For me this project has been an escape from my life. In the good times, a celebration of creativity and the wonderful people who help me create each image, and in the bad times, a way for me to channel my energy and escape from the bad into the Taiga, a world I created in my head.

Like I say in the project description, nature is more powerful than any one person. It’s humbling. That humbling feeling can be terrifying, or it can be freeing. It’s up to you.

You mentioned this series was inspired by European Fairy tales. Which tale would you say you pull the most inspiration from and why?

So the original story of the rock opera “Hazards of Love” was meant to take sort of archetypal folk tale characters and tell a sort of twisted story of their doomed love. When I read that it sparked the idea of using elements of folk costume in my work. I am especially drawing from slavic tradition, as I think you will see with some of the clothing I am making right now for the shoots in the spring.

It started with the “Cranberry Witch” character, the first photos I did for this series (in a Cranberry Bog, read about that here!) Where I made her a headdress inspired by a Ukranian vinok.

“Cranberry Witch” ©Mae Horak
Model: Alana Grace

You make all the clothes for this shoot? How long does it take?

Yes! Everything worn by the characters in the photos is completely handmade by me. I start from scratch making each piece. I start by sketching silhouettes and little details. I learned to sew while I was in school by replicating historical garments in my free time so I tend to be very inspired by historical garments from Europe and Asia specifically.

“The Queen” ©Mae Horak
Model: Kimmy Cunningham

How do you conceptualize what you want the clothes to look like?

I like to work on a series around a story because I find any art that tells a story fascinating. The first full collection I did was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Now that I take the photos myself as well, I design the clothes specifically with a photo in mind. That means a lot of the clothes are cumbersome or impossible to be worn in “real life”, like the Winter Witch’s skirt which is about 4 feet too long, or the Queen’s gloves made from real tree branches.

About half of the clothes I have made for the Taiga are made for specific “characters” from the story that inspired the project, and the others are characters that I have created to fit into my own imagination and my own version of the world that makes up the entire project.

For example, the Cranberry Witch is a character I came up with while driving through the south shore towards Cape Cod.

The project started out 4 years ago when I was listening to the Decemberist’s ‘Hazards of Love’. The album is a concept album that combines many folk tale archetypes into a story of doomed love. The thing that drew me to the story was this sense of doom, and the overall sense that nature is more powerful than all of us. In fact, the most powerful creature in the whole story is a part of the forest herself, made of tree branches. She is a character I had a really fun time creating, and can be seen in “The Queen” and “Her Domain”

I have worked in the past in theater doing costumes and the stuff I design for the Taiga is done in a very similar way to that. I sketch a lot. What I’m really looking for in a sketch is the silhouette. From there, I source fabric and drape each garment to a dress form.

“Snow Witch” ©Mae Horak
Model: Carter Pierre

From an outsider perspective, your work seems very primal and yet has royal and medieval aspects. Would that be right? How do you achieve this balance between two very different themes?

Thank you! I get so wrapped up in my own head that it’s always really interesting hearing feedback from people viewing my work!

I would guess that the “primal” emotions you’re getting from the pieces comes from what I was talking about earlier, the connection with Mother Nature as this humbling force. I love designing characters that are beautiful but fierce, especially my female characters. Alexander McQueen once said “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”. I love that.

The more refined details are things I picked up from the historical clothing and couture designers that inspire me!

You had mentioned that the series “The Taiga” reflects ‘destructive love…’ to a ‘rebirth’. Is there a specific order these pieces are to be viewed? Is the work guiding use through the theme from piece to piece or is each a whole story in its entire image.

Yes, there is a specific order that the series is supposed to be viewed in and the passing of time is something I’ve been very conscious of throughout the series. I am planning to shoot in every season. So far I shot in early and late autumn, winter and plan to do another midwinter shoot, with the main bulk of the series being shot in the spring. It’s funny to be answering questions about it before these significant images are shot, because I know exactly how I want them to look, but no one else does!

I plan to make the final series into a photo book, which should be sometime later this year!

Which is your favorite from the series?

The ones I am in the process of working on right now! They don’t exist yet, only in my head. Those are always my favorite.

Are there any artists or designers who inspire you? How did they influence you? Did they influence the series at all?

I mentioned Alexander McQueen. I think he’s my biggest influence as a designer. All of his collections tell a story.

As I get more into photography, I am learning about the work of photographers who do sort of similar things to me. I like people who take editorial fashion to a creative way, and people who build sets and costumes for their photos.

What kinds of reactions do you think your art gets? How do you feel about that?

Mostly people are shocked that I make all the clothes, and that we do the smoke and special effects live. I don’t photoshop the images beyond basic color correcting.

Honestly I think that people tend to like the more classically “pretty” images best, the ones of pretty girls in dresses, or ones that look more like traditional fashion photos, but that’s ok. I don’t expect every person to like all of my work.

My wish for this series is that it affords people a little bit of the escapism it has given to me. And that it sparks imagination.

“Haunted” ©Mae Horak
Model: Chali Summers

Last question: Is that a real skull, and if so, do you still have it or do you let the models keep the clothes??

Ha! It is a resin cast of a deer skull! I actually had to use a dremel and shave off the back of the skull to have it rest properly on the models head – it was still very hard to balance, that was a stressful shoot!

I don’t give the clothes away, as a lot of them are the product of 50+ hours of hand work, and I am going to be showing them off in a runway show, and actually show some of the costume pieces in the gallery show of the photographs as well!

Mae can be found on instagram @maehorak and her website is maehorak.com

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