Artists' Retreat

Gilles and Louda Larrain left behind their legendary SoHo salons for the creative freedom of Kaua‘i
Story by Brittany Lyte.

At the Kapa‘a home of Gilles and Louda Larrain, following a midafternoon feast finished off with a pan of cognac-laced banana flambé, Gilles, the chef, settles into a wooden chair at the head of the table. As usual, he is flanked by guests. On this occasion they include models who have come to take part in a new creative project, old friends flown in from New York and new friends from Kaua‘i.

Beside an herb and cherry tomato garden, a young woman whirls a hula hoop. A white-haired woman from Naples clears the table of flatware and plates. Louda pours cups of French press coffee, while a lone rooster parading the lawn lets out a raucous screak.

“I don’t move much,” says Gilles, who wears loose-fitting camouflage pants and a partially unbuttoned aloha shirt. “People come to me.”

For the benefit of those in attendance who aren’t privy, Gilles chronicles the history of suppers held at the oak dining table around which most of the group is seated. When its legs stood on the bottom floor of the Larrains’ home and art studio in New York, all sorts of cultural luminaries dined there. Years later the table, along with 740 boxes of film negatives, fabric swatches and sentimental tokens, traveled with Gilles and Louda as the couple trans-planted themselves from the concrete jungle of lower Manhattan to the real thing in east Kaua‘i.

The art salons that Gilles and Louda Larrain once hosted at their home in SoHo were among the great New York City art parties of the late 2000s and early 2010s. The Larrains have since transplanted themselves to the quieter environs of Kaua‘i. At left, a detail from Gilles’ photography studio.

Their new home is adorned with daft, immodest things—a naked mannequin in the shower, a wall-hung tobacco pipe given to Gilles by a Sioux chief, hundreds of posable superhero figures neatly ordered on the bathroom shelves. “This is a house of meeting and discovering and fun and food and music and misbehaving,” Gilles says.

As Gilles holds court in the alfresco dining room, a pair of redheaded sisters blacken their eyes with gothic makeup for an after-lunch photo shoot. Louda says, “Our goal is make images that grandma would hate—unless she is a punk rocker.” Her words embolden the sisters to further besmirch their faces. “It’s going to be fantastic!” Louda says. “It’s going to be ugly,” Gilles says, adding, “I love ugly.”

With a Chilean father who was a diplomat and a French-Vietnamese mother who was a painter and pianist, Gilles was born into a world of wet nurses, pet tigers, boarding schools and around-the-globe jaunts for the sake of collecting art. When his plans to study architecture or mathematics in college collapsed, he poured his energy into photography. In 1973 he published Idols, a book of raw and racy portraits of New York transvestites. The book was as controversial as it was acclaimed, and celebrities were soon coming to Gilles to have him do their portraits. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sting, Norman Mailer, Miles Davis, Robert Mapplethorpe, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Glenn Close and Salvador Dalí are among the notables who appeared before Gilles’ lens.

Louda and Gilles collaborate on a number of creative projects at their home on Kaua‘i. In “The Birth of Fashion Revisited,”
 Louda dresses island residents in spontaneously assembled costumes 
of twigs, moss, bark, fronds and flowers. Gilles photographs the results, seen here and in the opening spread.

With a belief in the power of photography to “capture the landscape of the soul,” Gilles insisted on photographing his subjects in his studio. Pulling people out of their element and thrusting them into the alternate universe he created in his studio was the signature of Gilles’ creative process. On the set there is music, dance, horseplay and teasing. The only control is the lighting, manipulated by Gilles to expose the emotion buried in the creases and contours of the face.

Gilles’ studio in a building he bought at 95 Grand Street in SoHo, eventually became a venue for art salons, monthly parties hosted by the Larrains for artists to perform, fraternize, imbibe, spectate and dine. Over Gilles’ culinary creations and copious amounts of white sangria, attendees enjoyed live music, improv theater, art raffles and life drawing with mostly unclothed models. The forty-six salons the Larrains hosted in the late 2000s and early 2010s exemplified the environment in which they wanted to live—one that’s lively, informal, untamed and collaborative.“It’s not a formula,” Gilles says. “It’s mischief. It’s a party.”

At the dinner party in Kapa‘a, Gilles launches into a story about the making of the portrait that became the cover art for Billy Joel’s Innocent Man album. “He was not this way onstage, but Billy Joel was very insecure in front of the camera,” Gilles says with great showmanship. “He was one of the most difficult clients I had. He didn’t like his eyes. His hair was receding. We had three appointments and he canceled them all. I charged him for every one. I made a lot of money off Billy Joel.” Around the table eyebrows raise. “Here on this island we aren’t making the big money,” Gilles says. “Now we are creating to create. The only person I have to please is me.”

Gilles earned a reputation as a celebrity portrait photographer for his ability to “capture the landscape of the soul.” Above, portraits of musicians Miles Davis (left) and Joe Cocker (right).

In fashion circles Louda Larrain is known simply as “Louda.” A product of Brezhnev-era Russia, she left Siberia for Paris as a young woman in 1996. She was poor as a street rat for her first six months in France, but when a sample of her hand-stitched-and-painted fabric wound up in the hands of Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, he hired her on the spot. That launched what would become a magnificent career in which Louda designed custom fabrics for Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Christian Dior, Thierry Mugler and Emanuel Ungaro, among others.

Her meticulous, kaleidoscopic patterns layer elements of silk, sequins, cuckoo feathers, fur, toys, caution tape, marine debris, ribbon, wool, lace and other materials. Using a self-developed secret technique, she structures these inimitable fabrics into, say, headpieces adorned with X-Men characters, or whimsical tulle gowns resembling spools of cotton candy. A single, bespoke piece takes weeks for Louda to produce. Along the way she embraces what she calls the “divine mistakes” that make her fashions distinct. “I have this capacity to get into something impossible, but I do accomplish it,” she says.

While Gilles is adept at candid shots, like this 1972 photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (above middle), he prefers bringing his subjects into the “parallel universe” of his home studio.

Louda’s run in France, which encompassed work abroad with Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, spanned a decade. In the fall of 2005, fatigued by the Parisian runway culture and newly separated from her second husband, Louda decamped for New York. Before long she had a one-night exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art attended by the mayor, as well as a burgeoning creative partnership with a French-American artist she met on New Year’s Eve. Before the next New Year’s Eve, she and Gilles were married. “I am her third husband,” Gilles says. “She is my fourth wife. Practice, practice, practice. It gets a little expensive because of all the lawyers, but it works.”

With Louda’s encouragement, Gilles grew interested in fashion, something he had long dismissed as superficial. The couple collaborated on several projects centered on Louda’s fabrics and textile sculptures. With Gilles’ encouragement, she began to draw away from the taxing work of feeding the world’s biggest fashion houses. Her new projects—such as a gown made with the fabric of 150 broken umbrellas scavenged after rainstorms from city streets—fit better in a museum than on the catwalk. “With Gilles,” Louda says, “creating is like a psychological adventure.”

Eventually the Larrains began to feel constrained in the city. For Louda the first sign of dissatisfaction arose as an insistent yearning to roam the city streets barefoot. For Gilles, who had been to Kaua‘i on a photo assignment in the 1970s, a long-held impulse to return to the island began to flourish. So in 2013 the Larrains bought a small, dilapidated house in Kapa‘a that had been on the market forever.

After meeting Gilles, Louda reoriented herself toward creating textile art more suitable to museum exhibitions than runway shows. But she hasn’t lost touch with her roots in fashion. Her recent work includes the dresses seen above.

It took them two years to turn it into a livable home. During the construction, Louda sometimes questioned the soundness of their choice to leave the epicenter of the art world behind. But she has found that eating a tropical fruit grown in their own yard or keeping a social calendar uncluttered by runway shows and museum galas can be almost absurdly pleasurable. In place of art salons, there are dinner parties under the stars, with Gilles on the flamenco guitar. A sluggish internet connection means fewer distractions from their creative projects.

In “The Birth of Fashion Revisited,” a collaboration inspired by Kaua‘i’s exuberant botany, Louda dresses island residents in spontaneously assembled costumes of twigs, moss, bark, fronds and flowers. Gilles photographs the results. Their models include gardeners, scientists, tattoo artists, grandmothers, hula dancers, martial artists and all sorts of other people, most of whom have no prior experience posing for a professional photographer.

Gilles playing flamenco in his Kaua‘i home. “Here on this island we aren’t making the big money,” he says. “Now we are creating to create. The only person I have to please is me.”

At the Larrains’ home I witness the creation of one example of this verdure couture. Louda shears a tuft of greenery from a scrubby, uprooted shrub and marries it to a bundle of sticks blooming with scarlet buds. She fastens the tropical bouquet to a wire cinched around the waist of a 17-year-old girl and fans it out like a skirt, building a fragrant apron of spider lilies across the girl’s pelvis and positioning the petals so they can barely be seen through the Swiss cheese-like holes of a glossy green monstera leaf. Around the girl’s neck she places a necklace of pale pink peonies layered against violently blue, claw-shaped flowers dangling in clusters from a vine.

“Wow!” the girl gushes, twirling before a full-length mirror on the lānai, a masterpiece of skin and flora. Louda clasps her hand and leads her across the yard to the photography studio, where Gilles awaits with his camera. The model tiptoes, careful not to shed any stems or leaves. “In fashion the way you move your body is a language,” Louda says. “When you fix a pose it’s as if you say a phrase, so you want it to be meaningful. And it has to be a phrase about the pieces that you’re wearing.”

A single piece can take weeks for Louda to produce. She uses a self-developed technique to structure unconventional fabrics into anything from a headpiece to a tulle gown.

Inside Gilles’ grotto-like studio, flamenco music spills from a speaker, and the photographer lends the familiar song his gusty tenor. “Luna lunera, cascabelera!” he croons. The model takes her place in front of a glittering drop curtain, arching her back, tilting her chin and ascending onto her toes. The camera clicks. A bulb flashes. “Do what you want,” Gilles says in a low, rumbling French accent. “Be provocative. Be very free. Olé!” Like a matador taunting a beast with a red cloak, the girl seizes a giant jungle leaf, holds it out at her hip and flashes her teeth. Gilles cheers her on: “Olé!”

For a fraction of a moment, Gilles parts his eye from the camera’s viewfinder to deliver a tender look at Louda, whose hand is at rest upon his shoulder. “Spectacular, Lulu,” he says. HH