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GREATEST: Eli Russell Linnetz

The creative wunderkind is aiming high with a little help from his friends.

Photography and Styling by ERL Studio Interview by Maya Singer

If you know about Eli Russell Linnetz, you know about his origin story. A former child actor, he encountered playwright David Mamet at 15, landing a job as an assistant. During his college years, Linnetz was discovered by Kanye West, who brought him into his DONDA creative agency for a one-year artist residency. Linnetz soon asserted himself as a key player within the Ye universe, directing the music videos for “Fade” and “Famous,” and designing the floating stage and merchandise for the Saint Pablo tour. From there, his creative endeavors expanded beyond the DONDA realm, working with Comme des Garçons on a film created to celebrate Andy Warhol’s You’re In fragrance and designing the stage for Lady Gaga’s ‘Enigma’ tour.

In his mid 20s, burnt out on celebrity, Linnetz turned his endlessly roving eye to fashion—“as a break,” he says—from his home in Venice Beach, which once belonged to Dennis Hopper, another figure of West Coast bohemianism. What began as a personal project and hobby quickly found an influential audience in high-profile creative director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse and CDG impresario Adrian Joffe. Shortly, he’ll set to work on the latest collection for his label, now sold at more than 200 stores worldwide.

“I don’t really perceive boundaries,” says Linnetz, capturing his magpie-like fearlessness in approaching cultural luminaries and his appetite for unlikely collaborations. These aspects of Linnetz’s approach to creativity are perhaps most visibly demonstrated in Spring 2023’s Dior x ERL collection. The partnership came about because, as Linnetz recalls, he sent an Instagram DM to Dior Homme artistic director Kim Jones, who shot a message straight back saying, in essence, “Let’s do something.” The something they did was a splashy splicing of the ERL and Dior DNAs: luxe tailoring mashed up with ERL’s nostalgic, candy-colored take on California streetwear.

Linnetz handpicked the models at the Dior show and shot the campaign himself. “Whatever I’m doing, it has to feel authentic to me. That’s why I don’t like using ‘professional’ models,” he notes. “It seems crazy that you work so hard as a designer to build this world, and then for the show or campaign you bring in these people for one day, and they don’t have anything to do with you or the story you’re telling.”

Linnetz goes on to hypothesize that it’s the “authenticity” of his work that connects with people, and admits that his greatest challenge, as his business grows, is retaining the audacity and sense of discovery that brought him such success in the first place. “It’s got to come from me, from my own curiosity,” he says. “If I’m not interested, why should anyone else be?”

Here, Eli Russell Linnetz ruminates on these questions, revealing his curiosity-filled collaborative process and the sui generis outlook that has made him the chief of California couture.

ERL Clothing and Accessories (Worn Throughout)   

You say you don’t see boundaries. What do you mean by that?

It comes from growing up in LA, around the movie business. My mom always made me watch musicals, classic stuff like West Side Story, and I was always really taken by the fantasy of that, the larger-than-life world on the screen. I’d also walk around my neighborhood seeing movies getting made, so, in a way, the fantasy seemed very obtainable—it’s just a bunch of people making something happen. Maybe that’s why I didn’t perceive a boundary between me and the people I wanted to learn from.

I’ve just always been super curious, always chasing new things. When I was in high school, I’d get up at 5 AM to go to wrestling practice before school, and then I’d stay until 10 PM because I was in the choir. If I wanted to do something, I’d do it. I’d find the time and energy, and I never worried about other people’s reactions, because my desire to explore was so strong, it kind of blocked out any sense of judgment or rejection.

I used to design costumes in high school, too, and that was my first real interest in making clothes. Freshman year, I looked up a list of top designers and made up a fake resume and sent it to people like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford. Of course, no one replied, but it didn’t faze me. It was like, they’re doing their thing and I’m doing my thing. Sometimes I wish I was more like my younger self now.

ERL's first-ever footwear design. Inspired by ’90s skate silhouettes, the Venice Beach-based brand debuted the sneakers at its SS24 runway show in Florence.   

Yet you’re still cold-calling designers! The whole Dior thing happened because you messaged Kim Jones, right?

Yeah, totally, and then a week later the whole Dior team is at my studio. [Laughs] I learned so much from Kim. He has such command of his ship—he really is a “director,” in that he’s directing thousands of people to execute his vision. And that entails knowing what you want but also being open. The way Kim works, it’s not egotistical, it’s all about the team. I was shocked by the amount of freedom he gave me. There was never a moment he said “no.”

Working with that level of luxury craftsmanship must have had an influence on your Pitti show.

Yeah, that Dior experience got me interested in tailoring and working in a more elevated way. I wanted to see what would happen if I took some of the color away and worked through hues like silver. It was so sober compared to what I normally do, so much cleaner. And because there were complicated suiting and couture-like embellishments, I had to let other people into the process. It was a whole undertaking. Normally, here in Venice, I’ll have one design assistant. For Pitti, it had to be a big team.

ERL's upcoming collaboration with Coca-Cola features the label's signature wave motif. Checkerboard patterns are another recurring visual statement.   

You started out as a teenager making costumes. Do you still see yourself as a costume designer in a way?

I’m 100% still a costume designer because everything I design is part of a story. For Pitti, it was this crazy idea I came up with: A hundred years from now, Florence is underwater and the city is occupied by the American military. These surfers show up one summer to surf and sneak into a fancy party given by one of the generals. I liked the idea of these surfers pretending to be rich for the night. The way they’d twist it, like wearing jackets backward. But I was also into the idea of, “What does ERL look like in a hundred years?” “What does nostalgia look like?” “What are we nostalgic for?”

So the desire to move in a more elevated direction, for Pitti, was what? A one-off? An experiment?

Like I said, I watched a lot of musicals as a kid. That’s an aspect of nostalgia, too. I have this really 1950s idea of glamour. You’ve got to be a golden-age movie star to wear a suit. And someone I work with was like, “You know, normal people wear suits, too. Surfers wear suits sometimes.” I was already brainstorming the collection around Freaks and Geeks, back to high school and prom and jocks and nerds. After that conversation, the idea of this normal guy going to prom became the prompt. I’ll still be incorporating those couture elements—why can’t that be part of what a high schooler in my head wears to a dance in the ’90s?

Like the brand's apparel offerings, ERL's accessories are rooted in the codes of Southern California surf and skate culture.   

Will there be blankets?

It’s funny you bring that up. My dad literally just sent me this photo. I’m little and I’m wearing my baby blanket the exact same way I show them on the runway, clenched up around me. There’s something so human about that gesture. Everyone does it. Little kids, surfers who just got out of the water. Or if you’re just walking around your house with your duvet when it’s cold. It’s universal.

My all-time favorite collaboration is my blanket A$AP Rocky wore to the Met Gala. I’m always finding these horcruxes and odds and ends at the flea market. Rocky came to my studio to talk about his Met look and I jokingly pointed to the quilt on the sofa, suggesting he should just wear that. He was like, “Let’s do it.” He was so game. But I knew if it was going to be a Met Gala look, I had to find some way to make it my own, so I reached out to this artist, Zak Foster, who does quilting, and sent him a bunch of stuff like my dad’s old boxers, family heirlooms. That got incorporated into the underside of the quilt, which no one really got to see. But the reason I love it is there are so many layers of collaboration: Rocky, me and Zak, and me and the anonymous quilter who made this beautiful quilt originally. It’s like an endless conversation.

Unveiled in September 2023, ERL's collaboration with Levi's brings ’90s sensibilities to a selection of faded and distressed denim styles.   

What does the future look like for you? Do you see yourself moving away from your origin story as you continue to imagine new worlds? Or will beaches always be the backbone of ERL?

I’ll never get away from my Venice roots, the surfers and the streetwear—there would be no point running away from it. It will always come through my work.