Closets often hide the parts of ourselves we are most loath to show the world. Whether they hold skeletons or sexuality or sweaters, closets are spaces of concealment. They’re where we shove a mess before guests arrive, where we store that embarrassing collection of band T-shirts, where that bridesmaid dress we wore just once sits in a dry cleaner’s plastic bag for eternity.
For Les Sewing Sisters, they’re also spaces for performance. The experimental band consisting of Lun*na Menoh (who spells her name with an asterisk) and Saori Mitome has been playing in and by closets throughout Los Angeles, lack of ventilation be damned. Typically, the two play more traditional venues such as El Rey, where they opened for synth-pop cult band Sparks, as well as the Brooklyn-transplant Zebulon Cafe in Frogtown and even art galleries such as Kopeikin in Culver City.
Their only instruments are sewing machines. The syncopated clicks and whirs of the machines are run through sound devices and computer programs to create the melody while Menoh and Mitome perform the vocals. The result is Kraftwerk meets musique concrète — an eclectic assemblage of electronic pop with clothing as its primary subject matter. Song titles like “I Am Sewing” and “Needle Is Damaged” are unsubtle indications that the artists are focused on dressmaking and fashion.
The music is a natural extension of Menoh’s visual art, which offers a critique of the history of clothes.
“The reason I’m interested [in clothing] is that it’s our second skin,” Menoh said. “It’s how we face society.”
The idea of clothing as a visible marker of social identity is woven through Menoh’s paintings, her sculpture, the clothes she designs and her sound creations with Mitome, who works as a costume designer and wardrobe stylist.
Menoh wanted to take the band into a setting that’s even more intimate than the clubs they usually play.
“I thought it would be interesting to visit closets and improvise,” Menoh said.
The first closet concert was in her own home in July. Since then Les Sewing Sisters have played 22 shows from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Claremont, concluding with a show in an Atwater bungalow in October. Most of the hosts are friends with the band or part of their larger social circle.
The band plays the closet concerts for free. Homeowners can invite whomever they want. Friends, neighbors, children and pets are all welcome. Les Sewing Sisters’ largest closet performance had 13 adults and eight children in the audience. The smallest was just the band and one of Menoh’s neighbors.
Menoh and Mitome have played in all kinds of configurations, from spacious walk-ins to sliding-door closets. They’ve even staged a show in a bathroom closet, where the guests gathered around the toilet to watch the performance.
Menoh and Mitome’s only condition is that they be allowed unencumbered use of the contents of the closet during the concert. As they perform, they pull out the host’s belongings. Dresses, boots, linens — whatever belongings are available — get incorporated into the performance. Menoh and Mitome wrap themselves in beloved heirlooms and unseemly detritus. The diminutive Menoh might be swathed in a favorite scarf and wear boots she’s found while another pair of shoes peeks out from the neckline of her dress.
“Clothes are so personal. Some people are embarrassed to show their closets. Some get mad, some are surprised,” Menoh said. “But most have a sense of humor.”
Silver Lake artist Bettina Hubby, who hosted Les Sewing Sisters in September, had seen them perform in more formal environments and had collaborated with Menoh in previous art exhibitions. They’re also avid karaoke buddies. Hubby invited a small group of musically inclined friends to her show. The ensuing performance resulted in “pure delight,” she said. “People were mesmerized.”
Hubby was prepared for the stagecraft of Les Sewing Sisters: matching outfits, including a headpiece that features a pin cushion, dramatic lighting and heavy machinery needed to perform their music.
What she was less prepared for was the intimacy of a concert in her closet. “So charming, personal and humorous,” she mused. Hubby attended another performance at a friend’s house, experiencing the familiarity of the band’s style while the performance was completely different.
Menoh and Mitome hope to stage more closet concerts next year. Although each performance is unique, Menoh’s aim remains the same: to explore the accumulation of belongings and what the hosts have “cast off from their past,” she said. What has remained hidden in the back of closets no longer has to bring shame. It can become art.