In the back room of a sneaker store in Wicker Park, four of the five founding members of Cliché, a Chicago-based female artist collective, are seated on stools hastily grabbed from between stocked shoeboxes. They’re electric when in conversation with each other, perched in a semi-circle and talking female empowerment, artistry, and speaking their ambitions into reality. It’s characteristic of the momentum that has colored the collective since its inception a year ago. In that time, the group has showcased at SXSW, begun an all-female DJ-performer series called Pussy Control, and most recently collaborated with Chance the Rapper’s new nonprofit organization, Social Works Inc., at his Magnificent Coloring Day music-activism-festival-fair-extravaganza held at US Cellular Field.
Chanté Linwood, the woman responsible for orchestrating the first founders’ meeting, is a DJ. The other co-founders Olivia Goodman, Sahar Habibi, Shahrnaz Javid, and Lauren Fern, are stylist-designers, DJs, photographer-writers, or, as Habibi says, people who “handle shit.”
After sharing grievances regarding gender-based discrimination in their respective artistic fields, Linwood pitched the idea to form an all-female collective: “I would see certain people supporting all these things that men were doing and then not supporting the other women who were doing great things. And then I would go to DJ at places or show up for work and they would assume that I was there with a man, instead of assuming that I was the person that was working or DJing,” Linwood says. It’s an experience that resonates with the other women in the room—the felt lack of support, or the humoring of their creative work. “Sometimes they’d come up to me and be like, ‘Oh you take pictures now? That’s cute,’ ” says Javid. On the other hand, she’s quick to point to signs of female solidarity: “Women had no problem liking each other’s pictures. They had no problem commenting on each other’s pictures, but as a matter of actually coming together and doing something, it was like, everyone’s still kind of timid.”
To address this lack, a meeting was held, and Cliché was born. It’s “an exclusively inclusive” female collective: a nebulous group of female artists collaborating with each other and putting up events that showcase, celebrate, and give a platform to women and their art.
Regarding the origin of the collective’s name, Habibi has this to say: “We were bouncing ideas around and Olivia was like, ‘We’re all so cliché’, and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cute!’. And we just moved on from there.” The self-aware moniker stuck, and the tongue-in-cheek mood is now central to the collective’s branding. That includes attention-catching wordplay (their “Pussy Control” nights, music and art events with all-female lineups, have likely drawn a couple of confused individuals with expectations of racier fare), the women’s ability to throw humor into an otherwise weighty purpose—female solidarity—and, most importantly, the electricity of the group.
The gung-ho spirit of the collective and its members has seen them through a variety of successful events, all put together in near-miraculous amounts of time. Fern and Linwood both point to their Bowie tribute party to show just how quickly Cliché could jump into action—from proposal to execution to police shutdown, it took only three days. Their proposal for the SXSW showcase, “Woman Crush Wednesday #WCW,” took only two days to be confirmed by House of Vans.
Organized chaos is perhaps the best way to describe the collective’s working style. Between its shifting membership—the artists associated with the group are an ever-changing mix of women who, depending on their personal workloads, are more (or less) involved with the collective at various times—and the guerrilla rapidity of its events, the group eludes clear hierarchical structure and definition. But it works.
That isn’t to say it’s been effortless.
“A lot of it came down to time management and budget. We didn’t have a ton of money. We still don’t have a ton of money to put into it,” said Goodman about some of their more ambitious (and eventually nixed) plans. Most of Cliché’s early events therefore, revolved around parties, their “Pussy Control” series held at the East Room, and other one-off events like their David Bowie tribute party held in January.
The events had overwhelming success with attendees: the latter event had to be shut down prematurely, says Goodman, “because it was packed. But also, a fight broke out.” But the finances were still a challenge. “When we do any events or anything, anybody who pays for anything, any cost, those get paid first before anyone makes any money. So sometimes the events will be really cool and great, but you’ll walk home with little to nothing because there were so many costs involved, and so many people involved,” Linwood says.
The independent collective has managed to work around their newness and limited promotional range with judicious sponsorship collaborations: their first all-women showcase at SXSW was a cross-promotion with House of Vans, and with almost 1500 RSVPs to the event and the work of 13 performers and artists, it came a mere four months after the collective was founded.
But while Linwood says that brand collaborations are definitely still on Cliché’s horizon, the group wants to be discerning about who they work with. “I think we’re in a time where you can’t really use the excuse of not knowing something. It’s so easy to find out online now, so for me, it’s so important to research companies. Even if other people wouldn’t notice that, it’s important to stay true to what you believe. So I’d rather stick to working with women and women-centric companies that are empowering women, and are not on some bullshit,” she says.
These days, the collective has also pivoted towards building an active online space that puts female artists in touch with one another. Their website, featuring an extensive list of female artists ranging from musicians to filmmakers, with categories like “chefs,” “activists,” and “performance artists,” forms a catalogue that Linwood hopes will lay the foundations for future woman-to-woman collaborations.
“The type of women we include is just exponential. It goes on forever and ever. If you come to us and you’re like, ‘Hey I like what you do,’ or, ‘I wanna do my own thing and bring it to you guys’ We’re like come on! Hop on the train!” says Javid.
To Linwood, Cliché’s mode of inclusivity “basically means that if anyone hits me up at all, if anyone contacts us or reaches out in any way, I’m never going to say no, unless I absolutely can’t for some reason.” It’s a congenial vision that seems almost too idealistic to be true, but according to Linwood, Cliché hasn’t needed to turn anyone away yet.
However, Linwood herself admits that “right now it’s easy to manage because, although there’s a bunch of people who know about Cliché, it’s not so many people that we aren’t able to filter. At some point the guidelines will evolve and there will be a more…I don’t want to say selective because that kind of goes against what we’re about, but…slightly more selective maybe [guideline].”
Some of this selectivity will likely come in the form of approaching individual artists instead of the current crowdsourcing method. It’s something that Javid has already been actively doing on a personal level. “I’m constantly trolling and commenting and DMing people who I have no idea who they are,” she says about getting in touch with other art-women. For now, though, they’re content with letting the collective grow organically.
For the core members of Cliché, the collective has adopted a slower pace, a natural slowdown after the initial rush of activity.
Says Habibi, “We definitely don’t want to be overly-stressed with what we do, but we want to make sure that we’re all settled, happy and making sure and understanding that we each have individual things that we’re trying to focus on.”
And while this focus has been trained on their personal careers—Fern working in fashion, Goodman building up her menswear line, Javid photographing and writing, Habibi DJing, and Linwood DJing while also expecting her second child—the women are quick to point out that the collective spirit of Cliché hasn’t waned even in their individual endeavors.
“We’re all really willing to help each other outside of Cliché with our personal brands. Like, Chanté and Sahar have both DJed my events, Shahr does majority, pretty damn near all of my photography. So we’re all bouncing off of each other within and outside of the collective which I think strengthens our relationships,” says Goodman.
In conversation, the women are unfailingly supportive of each other’s talent and achievements, punctuating their descriptions of each other (and themselves) with “beautiful,” “explosive,” and “talented.” The optimism and confidence seems second nature for the women of Cliché.
“It’s the law of attraction,” says Javid, “we’re just speaking everything into existence. It’s like we’ve created a vision board in our head and we talk to each other every day about these ideas, and we say every day how much we want women of all places to work with us. We’re putting this out in the world, and then it’s coming back to us.”
Photos were taken at We Are Cliché’s Woman Crush Wednesday event