We first saw artist Malu Byrne’s favorite pale blue bell-bottoms via Instagram when her best friend, Siobhán Bohnacker (@siobhanboh) posted a picture of Malu (@maluabenibyrne) in them on New Year’s Eve. Taken from behind – of only her behind – the snapshot showed a high-high rise and a back tag clearly marked “Just Jeans.” These we needed to see. And Malu, who’d picked a fit so retro but that so perfectly flattered her tiny waist and petite-girl curves, we needed to meet.
At her boyfriend Will Squibb’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (he’s a documentary filmmaker), Malu served Chloe Doughy chocolate chip cookies and told us about Abeni, her collection of cool, glowing, diamond-polished crystal objects and jewelry, and the recent neon installation she did at New York’s new Dover Street Market. She wore her Just Jeans, a cropped top, a pair of Theory boots, and two necklaces that she made. Were these her only jeans, we asked? No, but they’re the ones she likes to wear in her studio, for their toughness and ability to protect her from on-site hazards like molten wax and broken glass. They’re also, she revealed, quite good on a horse (as is Malu, herself). Here’s how our conversation about jeans quickly turned into talk of Southwestern canyons, the Mayan calendar, and New Orleans on New Year’s Eve.
We love the name of your jeans. Where did you find them?
Yeah, Just Jeans. I got them in New Mexico when I was with my best friend Siobhan for her 30th birthday. We went there to go to the lightning fields. The jeans were maybe 10 bucks and they’re vintage. At the store – it was like a Westernwear outlet – there was a rack full of jeans, all with tiny, tiny waists and huge bells…like huge. Rodeo girl jeans. I got these about two years ago, so pretty recently, and I wear them a lot.
Sounds like a great trip – lightning fields and blue jeans. What else did you do?
It was the most incredible trip! Next to the lightning fields in Catron Country, New Mexico, is Pie Town, which is known for their pies. We just went hunting for cowboy boots, and turquoise jewelry, and jeans. And then we went horseback riding in Canyon de Chelly. Really, it was the best way to start out a life with a new pair of jeans [laughs]. I mean, I love that they’re called Just Jeans.
We do, too. Tell us more about Canyon de Chelly…
So, the only people that are allowed to guide people through it are Navajo people. There are Anasazi ruins in the walls of the canyon, they’re like caves with little cities built into the walls. It’s a relatively small canyon but it’s pretty wide, and there are people who still live at the bottom of it, even though there are flash floods. It divides into Canyon del Muerto, which is the canyon of the dead. The first time I went through Canyon de Chelly was with my mom and dad on horses. The walls are just this amazing terra cotta color with these black, raining streaks down the sides. They’re so beautiful, and there are the eagles flying above, all of that…you can just ride through as fast as you want, or as slowly as you want. I wore these jeans when I rode through the canyon with Siobhan. I mean, to bring it back to jeans, my ideal vision for life is being in the Southwest on a horse in shit-kicker boots and thick, bootcut blue jeans. That’s my look, my heaven.
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You’re quite comfortable on a horse, we take it?
I rode horses a lot growing up, all Western style. I’m most comfortable on a horse in the Southwest because I have nostalgia about it from when I was little. My god parents are out there, and the desert really appeals to me. I love Western riding, it makes me feel one with the animal. Plus, I don’t like too much structure in general, and in Western riding you can just let go of your reins and go with it. It’s really all about your legs and feeling what the horse is doing.
So are they just for riding, or do you wear them everyday?
No, I wear them a lot, all of the time. I wore them while I was in the Yucatan recently with my Will, who is making a documentary about the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. He spent four months filming there, and I went with him. Merida was homebase and we spent the turning over of the calendar in Chichen Itza. The Mayans don’t believe that the world ends when the calendar ends. It’s just the end of the calendar, and then it starts over again. The more spiritual people who came over to experience the turning believe that it’s not the apocalypse, but that everyone will be enlightened to a new stage. If they believe it, they believe it, and we were just there to witness.
What about the fit of these jeans do you like?
I generally prefer a man’s jean, but I do like the tighter, higher fit at the top just to show off curves a little bit.
So they’re good for traveling?
Yeah, I brought them to New Orleans for Christmas and New Year’s, too. I went with Siobhan just to hear good jazz, and because we’d never been. I also went to Iceland this summer where I wore these jeans with Converse and went hiking and got knee deep in volcanic mud. It’s so beautiful there, the landscapes are insane. You go from volcanic rock to blue ice…Icelandic horses everywhere. But really these jeans are great because they’re thick and durable, and I can wear them in my studio and not worry about getting hot metal or wax on them and it burning through to my skin. I do have other jeans but they don’t get too much use. I appreciate a skinny jean, but at the end of day it’s not what I’m most comfortable in. Most of the time I’m in my studio, and these are what I can actually get work done in.
Right – tell us about what you make.
I’ve been doing carved crystal sculpture for a few years – they’re sort of these hand-held objects. I call them tools, and they serve a sort of ritualistic function. It’s personal. You hold them. And they’re laminated with acrylic glass so they glow from the inside. And the more you touch them, the more they glow. The oils from your skin help to magnify the light that’s reflecting from the inside.
And you make jewelry, too. How do the two relate?
Well, my friend Greg who designs the line Assembly New York was really drawn to the sculptures and asked me to make wearable versions for his women’s collection. I sort of fell into jewelry because of that. But I keep the glowing acrylic to the sculptures, and make the jewelry with just the carved crystal, which I love for it’s simplicity. All of the carving is done with masonry tools and diamond polishing pads – the crystal is literally polished with diamonds because they’re the only things hard enough to affect glass. And then I do the hand-weaving for the cording so that you can wear them around your neck.
We love the one you’re wearing right now. What’s the other necklace you have on?
This is a piece of chewing gum – just a cast-bronze chewing gum [laughs]. I made them for my friends for Christmas. I thought they would be nice personalized gifts for people [laughs].
You also recently did an installation at the new Dover Street Market in New York. Tell us about that.
Yeah, so I did it with Proper Gang, which is my friend’s line. I also work with neon, and a friend of ours built these painted wall panels for my neon to live in – the install is just straight rods of bright pinks and greens and yellows that intersect panels of wood. What I like about neon is that you can sort of paint with lines. So the installation is made of all of these connecting lines that cut through corners and fly through pieces of wood and illuminate the clothes from behind. It’s hard to describe, it’s sort of an explosion of colored lines.
What do you like about working with neon?
Well, it’s really fragile, which I didn’t really realize – when you think of neon signs it’s mostly used for bars and strip clubs, and so you think it can’t be expensive and must be easy to work with. But it’s really difficult to work with, actually. Neon has an infinite lifespan. I think mostly I love the lighting up. You can make any squiggly line, and the second you light it up, it’s fancy, it looks so good.