The Bay Area Fashion Designer Giving Masks to Essential Workers
INTERVIEW with Christina Molcillo BY DEREK TOBIAS
Christina Molcillo of Black Lotus Clothing: The story of how an Oakland designer found her footing doing costumes and set designs for Beats Antique and when COVID-19 shut down the events industry she shifted her focus to making free masks for grocery and food service workers.
To hear the audio version of this interview with Christina & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where each week you will hear a new interview with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.
Ausform: Let’s go ahead and start with talking a little bit about your upbringing and where you were raised.
Christina: I’m from Fremont, California. So total suburbs and an only child, So I guess I was really creative to deal with not having brothers and sisters and stuff like that. I used to draw a lot, but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized, Oh, I’m not that great at it. I can get my point across in some sort of fashion, but it wasn’t till I went to art school that I realized, Oh, you’re not really that good at illustration. I was always making stuff and my mom was super crafty, so for me, thrift stores and glue guns and taking clothes apart to make them fit was a normal thing. it didn’t hit me until later in life but that’s definitely where I picked up a lot of my crafty side was from my mom.
Ausform: Did you always want to be an artist when you were a kid or did you have a secondary dream job?
Christina: I wanted to be a concert pianist and a professional golfer when I was a kid. Those were my two top choices. And then I think around when I turned like 16 or 17, I realized I wanted to be an artist. But I didn’t know what kind I just knew I wanted to go to art school. And I did. I dropped out. But I still went.
Ausform: I think art school for actual creative people really just teaches you how to do art efficiently. It doesn’t necessarily give you much skill in the actual creative and talent department?
Christina: No, I feel bad saying this but I did read somewhere that you can’t really teach talent. You could only hone in on it or help people develop their talents. So it was learning how to strengthen your creative muscles is how I see it a lot. it’s just like working out so when, I’m creative a lot. I can tell my brain functions a little bit higher. and I get more ideas all the time. And then when I switch gears and I’m not doing art, then that slows down just like the way. you’d get sluggish if you weren’t going to the gym. So it’s always there it just depends how much I work it out.
Ausform: When you went into art school you shifted majors around. What did you focus on when you realized that you weren’t necessarily going to be an illustrator?
Christina: I went into an art program for high schoolers. It was right before I was going to graduate. It was actually to help you pick which direction you wanted to go, and you got to pick three. And I picked illustration, photography, and then I had to pick one more. And I picked fashion actually as a last resort.
It just so happened that fashion was the one that I realized encompassed everything. It gave me a creative outlet for my illustrations. Because I can draw fashion illustrations pretty decently. But when I went to live drawing classes, I would see everyone else’s drawings and I was like, well I’m not really that talented. And when I would go into photography I struggled with the technical side, and I still do. but fashion let me do all of these things moderately well and be okay at it. And it all kind of goes towards the same thing. So fashion is my first love and then it’s spread out to photography and then now set design and event planning. But to me they all kind of tie together.
Ausform: What first inspired you about fashion design?
Christina: I just really enjoyed the design class, We were taught to gather inspiration and it was the first time the teachers pushed us to not look at other fashion magazines.
We were taught to focus on natural design. So If you are inspired by the rain forest, you go and look at jungle spiders and like plants and how do they grow and what their tree trunks look like. And it was the first time I looked at things a lot differently. And I saw the textures and the patterns and the color palettes and the emotions that come out of just looking at, and it can go into anything.
And I think it just shifted. I was like, you could look at any era. You could look at a room, you could look at a piece of garbage on the ground and it was a fun game to be like, okay, how can I look at this weird thing and build a whole collection off of this inspiration? And I just fell in love with doing that.
And then I was like, Oh, I can use photography to shoot my fashions and I can illustrate my ideas. It was something that actually brings all of the things that I love together.
Ausform: What inspires you most when you’re working on a new piece?
Christina: I guess any artists from the beginning, you just have this idea and you get really excited about seeing it come together. I actually have a theory about what having your art project feels like to me. It’s similar to having a baby, which sounds a little out there. But in the beginning you’re really excited and it’s easy cause it’s just the idea of it. And then you start doing all the research on the baby and know what it’s going to be like, but somewhere around the end of your project slash baby, you’re really tired of looking at it and you just want it out of you and you’re done.
that’s usually the last week of any project I’m in. I’m usually sick of it and I hate it and I want to just get it out so I can move on. But then once it’s done and you see the whole thing, you forget how painful it all is and then you want to do it again. it’s like how I feel about all of my creative processes where the beginning is just super fun and exciting, but some around the end, before it’s about to be done, there’s a cross section, like I’m so over it and I’m tired. but then when you see it on stage or you see the final product, or it’s all lit up, or it’s on a person, then it just makes everything worthwhile and you forget and then you’re just like, cool. And then I just do it again.
Ausform: What processes do you go through to spark ideas, and do you try and set regular schedules for when you’re working on new projects?
Christina: If it’s for a client or if it’s for me, they’re different things. For inspiration, I probably use Pinterest way more than any normal human being does, because it’s just a way for me to look at images.
One of my last set designs was a Tiki bar. So I did a ton of research on looking at Tiki Bars and images, and then I would go to any local Tiki bars that I could find. And I’m just looking at everything I’m looking at what authentic things do they use on the wall? What treatments do they do? and it’s the same thing for any fashion. If I’m making a costume that’s inspired by 1910 Matt Hari. I’ll look at her costumes endlessly and try to find all the images I can to see what shapes they use, what types of materials.
And as far as having a work schedule, I’m really not great at keeping schedules, but I do a work exchange program here where people come and they live with me and they work on whatever projects I have. It could be helping me do Beautifications around the house. It could be sewing, it could be whatever. And that keeps me on track because it’s like having an employee. Like right now, we actually did a set schedule for the masks because when it was just floating around, it was kind of unsure what days were working. And now we work, Monday through Friday, starting from one to about five hours. So it creates structure for me and her, which is something I normally don’t do, but I actually have been really liking it cause I know exactly when I’m supposed to go in the studio. And if I work longer, I work longer. If I’m in the grove, if I’m like, Nope, I did my five hours, I it try to take a break so I don’t burn out.
Ausform: When you first moved into your house did you always plan for it to be part workspace, part art exhibit, part work exchange program?
Christina: No, I just got through a divorce and I’ve already lived at my old house, but I had a house in Fremont that was like super boring and never felt like it was mine. I never decorated it. And then when I got “we call it the Haunted Mansion”, it’s this old Victorian. And it was me all over. So then I just kind of exploded with buying stuff. And I was single, so I didn’t have to consult anybody. I can do whatever I want. And then I met my friend Michael, who actually passed away in July. But Michael was a huge inspiration because he taught me set design and we became best friends. So everything that the Mansion became was because of him, because he taught me all that stuff.
So no, I didn’t plan it. I knew that the house was cool and I was going to do cool stuff with it, but how far we took it, I could’ve never ever imagined that we were going to do things like that. We’ve built some really crazy, outlandish things that we’ve gotten a lot of trouble for, but we’re worth it.
Ausform: You were doing Halloween parties every year where you transformed the house into a new theme. How did that start?
Christina: I wanted to have a party to celebrate our first year, and I got the keys on Halloween so I thought it was a cool anniversary thing that we do is have our first Halloween party a year later, and Michael didn’t live here at the time.
He still lived in Antioch and I would pick him up and I was just excited because it was new for me because. He had always made these amazing sets around his house. But here we had this big space and he lived with his parents, so I was like let’s do whatever we want.
And the first party we did, was kind of all over the place. We had a circus area. We had a fortune teller. I used to have an old Ford Falcon and we pulled it up to our shack. and we made a movie screen projected inside with hay bales and pumpkins and stuff.
And then we ran speakers into the car. So you felt like you were at an old drive in. It was just really fun and cute. And we probably spent about a month and about a thousand dollars. Doing all these like spaces and probably a hundred people showed up and everyone was like, “wow, what the fuck? This is amazing”. And then it just became like, well, what are you going to do next year? And I knew immediately that I wanted to Nightmare Before Christmas. So we probably spent five grand building, that. And we spent like three months building it. By then, Michael was living there. And we had two other friends that were amazing artists and builders.
And so it just became this project that we all worked on as a house all the time. It was really fun. And, that party, the Nightmare Before Christmas one. I don’t even know how many people we have, but like every inch of my house and backyard and front yard, was just covered in people. We definitely tipped the scale. I’ve never done it that big ever again because that was a little too much. but it was actually really great and no one got hurt and everyone was safe. And it was amazing. So it happened kind of on accident but not. But Michael really was the driving force behind a lot of those. Even though he never went to the party, he just liked making set design and I provided the space and the money, so it was a way for him to make his art projects. And then for me to go along with it and learn and do event planning.
Ausform: You also did a lot of set design for your live art installations. Can you talk to us about how that came up and what the concept for that is?
Christina: When I was doing this place called sub-zero, and I’d done a fashion show where it went down the runway on one of their things. And then the next year they said, “we really want you to have you back”. and then I started creating the collection. And they didn’t have time for me on stage and they felt really bad and they said, “we really, really like your work. We want to make it up to you. What if we gave you a booth to showcase your designs and they can sell next to it or something.”
And at the time I was pissed because I wanted to be in the runway show. But then it clicked. Because when she said that at first, like the model lounging around or something, I was like, that’s stupid. And then I thought about, I was like, no, actually it’s mixing my passion of set design and my costuming in one area, and then instead of on a runway show where you have to be at this festival at the right time and for five minutes and it’s so much work for me to do these costumes, this was like, here’s the whole thing and it stays in place for hours and people can take pictures with it and they can really look at the artwork. It was actually brilliant. It was the happiest accident that we’ve ever had.
So the first one we did, Michael, again helped me with the set design and I had another idea that I had started, which was going to be like really crazy patterns and color, and I only had a week to do it because it was a last minute thing that they switched on me. I freaked out and I was like, we’re going to go all white. it’s going to be super easy if we just keep the color palette really simple. And we use recycled materials and all that stuff. So we busted that out. I had like so many people helping and they’d be outside building the set in our backyard, and then inside the house we’d be, sewing all the costumes.
so the white booth is the first one we did. And the next year we did the decaying forest, which was inspired by things that could be dying in the forest, like mushrooms and carcasses and cobwebs and stuff like that. So I kind of went back to the roots of art school where they taught me how to pull inspiration from a thing.
So I pull inspiration from the forest and, Michael helped on that one too. And then we try to do something that was a little more modern, which is really difficult for me cause that’s not really my aesthetic. But I wanted to challenge myself and we did a light installation and that was technically super fucking hard to get the big walls to light up took us a long time. And then the costumes were decent. I feel like if I had another month to work on it, I felt like I would’ve liked that collection a lot better. I wasn’t a hundred percent happy with that one, but I tried.
Ausform: You recently did a lot of set design work for Beats Antique and you’ve done costuming for them before. How did the costuming transition to a set design role?
Christina: After I went to art school, I didn’t do anything with it for a long time. And then I somehow got involved in the belly dance community. And so that’s where I got my start in costuming. And Zoe was the superstar of belly dance, and I kind of treated when I did photo shoots that the dancers were the movie stars. and if I could get my costumes on them or get them to do photo shoots. Then other people would buy my regular stuff and it worked.
But, I waited a few years until Zoe finally came into my booth at one of the festivals and I had been waiting for her to come. it was really embarrassing but I really didn’t want to go up to her. I wanted to make something good enough that she finally came to me and it took us about four years.
And then she finally came to my booth and I tried to be cool, and act like I wasn’t freaking out inside, but I totally was. And then after that I started making costumes for Zoe for years. And then when beats antique was getting bigger, I just kept saying, “Hey guys, I like set design. I’m not totally professional, but maybe you want to use me?” And I can’t remember what the first project they used me on, but I think it was one of their tour sets. But I had no fucking clue what I was doing, and I still don’t. But they started giving me more and more jobs and they give me a lot of creative freedom.
They just throw an idea at me and then I do research and come back and show them what I have. I was supposed to do a really big show in Denver right before Corona hit. So I was in the middle of designing that set and everything just went to a halt. And, I also missed their last show in Seattle because I was really, really sick. So that’s basically how it started, I just bugged them, and weaseled my way in. And now they give me everything, which is awesome.
Ausform: I think it’s pretty amazing how many artists and producers in general have worked their way up from getting that one chance where somebody says, Hey, can you do this? And you don’t actually know what you’re doing, but you’re like, yeah, sure I can do that.
Christina: Yep. I feel like so many people do that. Now I don’t mind saying that I don’t know what I’m doing. I would have lied a lot more in the past, and now that I at least have a portfolio that proves I kind of do know what I’m doing.
But with Beats, I tell them all the time when they give me some weird shit, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’ll figure it out”. And they always trust me. So I think that comes with the time. But yeah, most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out until it’s on stage, which is also really nerve wracking because there’s certain things like for events where I build everything here in my backyard. I don’t know what it’s going to look like set up until I’m actually at the venues. So a lot of times I’m with the stagehands at the venues saying, “Sorry guys, this is my first time trying this out.” And everyone’s always really cool about it as long as I’m honest and I’m confident in my inability.
Ausform: What was the biggest challenge that you faced when going on tour?
Christina: Ooh, those are long hours for me. I actually go from load in to load out, and then trying to sleep on a bus that’s moving. On the first tour I was really, really tired. I couldn’t sleep and then even though I knew the band, I wasn’t used to living with them nonstop all day long and I can get kind of introverted. So I felt a little uncomfortable the first tour because I was shy, and I didn’t know fully what I was doing for my job. So it was the learning curve and the shyness. But by the second and the third tour, I was totally comfortable. I got the rhythm down. I knew how to do everything and it felt really comfortable. I was way closer to the band by that point. I keep thinking about how much I miss tour right now. And wish I can go back on the road with them.
It was really fun to be on those shows. But lack of sleep would be one of the challenges, I joked with Tommy once where, I was like, Tommy, I work 12 hours some shifts. And he’s like, no you don’t. I’m like, I’m not complaining but yes I do. And then he paid attention for the next few days and he would see me from load in.
And then once we load in I set the whole stage. And that sometimes can take a couple hours depending on the stage. And then I would do their merch. So then I have to set all the merch up which takes a lot of time. And then I have to go get myself ready and maybe grab something to eat. And by that time doors would be opening. Then I have to sell all night long. And then I have to be there to break everything down. The stage. And the merch, and then get on a bus and try to sleep and then you get up and do it the next morning. Yeah. It is a lot of work. But I miss it.
Ausform: A lot of your business both from the costume making and from the set design revolves around events and performance, with the future of live events up in the air right now, how has your business shifted during the lockdown?
Christina: I’m doing charity work, which feels amazing. I had a few friends that are nurses start to bug me to make masks. And I didn’t at first because I knew that they weren’t protecting people. they protect the other people. But until I could grasp that concept, I didn’t want to make false protection for people. And then once I understood how they worked or how I could make them a little bit safer I started making a few for people in the house and then I just made them really fun and cute, and I thought as a designer, If I have to make shitty pandemic masks. if I could make them fun or make them fashionable so that people who have to wear them to the grocery stores feel good about it, then I feel like I’ve done my job. And I’ve done a lot of research to make sure that they’re safe and comfortable.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that they are (comfortable) ,and they feel really nice, which that’s the best compliment. But business-wise, right now, I don’t know what the future is. What I’m doing currently is, I’ve been taking donations from random people or my friends who want a mask.
Then I say, just give me whatever you feel is reasonable. And I take that money and I buy all the supplies (the tools and the fabric and everything I need) and then I give them a mask. But in return, I’ve been doing bulk mask drop-offs. We made a bunch for a COVID ward at Kaiser, we did a trader Joe’s. I’m currently working on another trader Joe’s by the Lake. And then, Dollar Tree. I did Sprouts. Yesterday we did this place called World Famous Hot Boys, which is a hamburger place that I’d never heard of, but we made them a bunch of hamburger masks and they brought us food.
I’ve raised almost $2,500 in donations which is crazy. I’ve spent most of it cause it does take a lot and somebody bought me a new sewing machine. So I have all the things creatively that I need and it keeps me busy. And then it’s amazing being able to use your craft to help people.
It probably doesn’t protect everybody a hundred percent but these people only get one mask per shift. So to have another mask that helps protect them, they’ve been saying is really, really appreciated it. And I have a friend that’s a manager at one of the trader Joe’s.
And a lot of his employees cant’ find masks that the fit them or they have to wear several throughout the week and you have to wash them all the time. So it feels great. And I haven’t asked, but everybody that I’ve donated to, the stores have turned around and gave me a gift card for food. The nursery, let me pick out a bunch of plants. Hot boys, brought us all food yesterday. So everyone’s turned around and given us something and it’s literally brought me to tears because it’s just amazing. People keep telling me you should set a price for the masks But I’m like, no, I feel like I’ve raised more money by asking for donations and by doing it for free. I feel great. And I know I love making stuff for events and stage, but right now this feels more rewarding at the moment.
Ausform: Yeah, I think at this point it’s not really about making a profit. Obviously you need to do what you need to do to sustain yourself, but it’s really about doing what you can do to help those around you. And Karma will come back.
Christina: Yeah. It already has. from losing my best friend and then being stuck in our house during a pandemic and him not being here it’s just ripped me apart and doing this really helped my mental state. It helped make me feel good about being an artist and being able to help strangers.
It’s actually been pretty fucking amazing. And it’s helped me tremendously. And money-wise, I’m a landlord, so I’ve also given breaks to all my tenants. Just whatever they feel comfortable with paying. So I still get a little bit from that but I’m not really spending any money.
I’m spending whatever I get from donations on fabric. And it keeps me happy because I get to get new fabrics and it’s not coming out of my pocket. It’s coming out of everyone’s and then I get to turn around and be like, this is what your money went to. Here’s your cute custom mask I made you. But then also like 20 masks just went to trader Joe’s and there’s nothing bad in any of it. It was really making me and a lot of other people happy. So for now, that’s just where I’m going to stay and try to just keep doing this and then if something shifts, I don’t know, we’ll Find out.
Ausform: We’ll go ahead and wrap up with some quick-fire questions.
What is your go to style of comfort food? And what is your favorite place to get that?
Christina: Tacos. I like Mi Rancho, it’s a truck by the Lake, (I actually just bought a taco fabric. I should totally go make them some masks). There’s another place that’s in Oakland, I don’t remember the name of it. It’s really, really fancy. But when I want really nice food I go there and they do upscale Mexican. So either like the taco truck or like the upscale hipster stuff
Ausform: Top three fashion designers?
Christina: Alexander McQueen’s number one, always. I would say John Galliano and Gaultier. All kind of similar, but definitely Alexander McQueen is my number one.
Ausform: Two other artists of any genre that you think people should follow?
Christina: Shrine. an installation artist. He’s just amazing and my hero because he goes around the world and helps countries make buildings really beautiful. Musically wise I love Chelsea Wolfe. I’ve been a big fan of hers for a long time and I wish she could work with her.
Ausform: First three places you want to go when everything gets better?
Christina: I really want to go to the woods. Really want to go camping. I want to just take a road trip in my van. I just want to go to like very secluded places actually, which sounds weird, but I think during the pandemic, I’ve been trapped in a house with seven people. So I think the idea of getting away from people and not worrying about seeing them all together sounds more fun to me. I just wanted to hide in the woods.
Ausform: Anything else you want to promote for yourself or any organizations?
Christina: Currently the mask making that’s my current thing right now. I’m on Instagram. I’ve been hoarding all the pictures from all the places I’m donating, so I haven’t really shown where all the money’s been going quite yet. I show people materials they bought me, but they haven’t seen all the drop-offs. Basically all my mask stuff is what I’m really excited about right now.
To hear the audio version of this interview with Christina & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where each week you will hear a new interview with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.