To celebrate the release of our second collaboration with Vans, launching this weekend, we connected with four Chicagoans whose work brings people together. Each has their own approach, their own medium, and their own style, and they all inspire us in their own way.
Alicia Gutierrez wears almost as many hats as she has tattoos — which is to say, quite a few. With Soho House, she guides membership and community building, exploring new markets and bringing their spaces to life with programming and events. She works with Chicago’s own cultural catalyst Easy Otabor as project manager at his Anthony Gallery, one of the city’s most exciting new artistic spaces. She co-founded Muerte Studio, a publisher of photo books and zines, with her fiance, Nicholas Lipton. And, somehow, she finds time to take on other exciting projects as they come — right now, for instance, she’s working with Beyond the Streets, a travelling exhibition showcasing graffiti’s great artists and telling the form’s story, and NTWRK to produce a digital festival curating works and products from legends like Futura, CB Hoyo, and more.
The thread connecting all of Alicia’s projects is her keen understanding that although major artistic moments might seem to manifest organically, most require a ton of foresight and planning — and that’s where she excels. She sees herself as a problem-solver first and foremost, adept at building things from scratch.
Right now, Alicia’s focused on helping clients navigate the ever-shifting pandemic landscape, reframing what community looks like for a social club like Soho House and helping shape exciting digital-first projects like the collaboration between Beyond the Streets and NTWRK.
“How do we shift everything to make sense with today's world, knowing that it's not going back to normal?", she asks. “We're going to be very different coming out of all of this. And there's so many opportunities for so many brands.”
Let’s start from the beginning. Could you tell me a bit about your early life, what you were into as a kid, and how it connects that to what you're doing professionally today?
I was born in Chicago. My parents are from Mexico, so, growing up, I didn't quite belong to the American culture, and I quite didn't belong to the Mexican culture that I knew my parents wanted me to follow, in a sense. When I was in eighth grade I discovered punk rock and hardcore. That really shifted my life and made me realize that there was a place for people that didn't want to follow the norm. In high school, my life was all about going to shows, hanging out with interesting people in the city, and trying to figure out how to get tattoos without my mom getting pissed off.
How'd that go?
She’s still bummed on them to this day, but she's learned to accept it. I think hardcore and punk are such entryways to other worlds and cultures. I went to Columbia College and decided I wanted to go into the business of creativity, and I took everything from accounting to admin—anything that supported the business of art that was offered through their curriculum. In my senior year, through the connections I’d made, I really started to get into the streetwear scene, and the music scene in Chicago that was hip-hop-based at the time Kanye was blowing up. Don C and Virgil were opening RSVP Gallery, and I somehow got asked to work there for a couple years, and obviously was able to really meet people and connect. One of the most amazing friendships that I built at RSVP was with Easy Otabor, who is now the founder of Infinite Archives and who I work with at Anthony Gallery.
Being around people like him who were constantly telling me, "You need to drive for the best, you need to work hard, you can do better," that truly motivated me to figure out my place in the world. I started freelancing, spending a lot of time in New York, and got hit up by Soho House. I was like, "Oh, dope, I definitely want to get a membership," and they were like, "No, we want you to work for us. We want you to connect us to people and things and ideas and program events, and really figure out how to tap into our under 30 community here."
How has your role evolved there?
So, I was in Chicago for two years, then I went to New York to open up their Lower East Side location. Knowing the history of the LES, I was just so excited to meet the locals there and really unearth its connection to the greater culture that we all know today.
Then, I moved into a larger role essentially overseeing new markets, building up connections for the brand, connecting to communities and doing events. Now I oversee all of North America and Latin America for my department. My job is to build our community and brand presence all over, and the greatest gift is that through that I've been able to extensively travel through Latin America and build my network there. Being Mexican, being able to produce events and experiences and meet some of the most creative people in Mexico City has been such a gift.
Tell me about working with Anthony Gallery.
Easy kept talking about opening a gallery, and I was finally like, "If you want to do this, I'll help you build it.” We opened Anthony Gallery and it's just been a whirlwind being able to work with artists like Nina Chanel Abney, Ryan Travis Christian, Tyrrell Winston. It’s amazing that the gallery has positioned itself as a cultural hub for Chicago in such a short time.
What do you think the opening of Anthony Gallery has meant to Chicago?
I think what it's proven is that Chicago is much more than what we've built it up in our own heads. For a long time, Chicago was really a city where people thought about sports, for example, and I think that now it's shifted to art, it's shifted to streetwear, it's shifted to all these other areas of culture that normally were so reserved for New York and LA. I think what's so great about that is that the world comes to Anthony Gallery. We had our biggest show during All-Star Weekend and the people that walked through the door, it was astounding. I think what it's done, too, is it really proves that black and brown creatives are capable of greatness, and they're able to do it as entrepreneurs. I think that’s such a gift.
Absolutely. Is there a common thread that unites all the work you do? A certain goal you try to reach in each of your roles?
First and foremost, creativity is often seen as something that is easy to achieve, but I think it's quite hard. I think it requires discipline, and what I'm able to bring to all these projects is discipline. A lot of strategic planning, dot connecting, finding resources and connecting like-minded people that will help better the project. And I'm really good with budgets. No one wants to talk about money, but at the end of the day, if you can manage a budget, it's something that people will seek you out for.
On the topic of connecting with community, you and your fiance have done some work with Off the Street Club, the oldest Boys & Girls Club in Chicago, right?
Nick works at Havas Annex, and they were doing the creative direction for them through his agency, so, through that, we said, "Hey, they're a great organization. Let's raise some money to donate for one of their causes." He introduced us to the organization, and in turn Anthony Gallery raised some money for them through a t-shirt release. It’s great for us to work creatively together when worlds intersect.
You and your fiance also started a print company together, Muerte Studio. Could you tell me a bit about that?
My fiance and I are big collectors of art books—anything in print, we're obsessed with. So, we started a company called Muerte Studio, which is essentially us working with our friends, community and our network to publish zines. We've published a couple of zines and books so far, which we're super excited about. What's great now is that artists are coming to us and saying, "I want to put a zine out or a book, how do I do it?"
Congratulations! Collecting printed matter is something I can’t quite shake, either.
It's really hard. When you have the space for it, you become a hoarder. It's also something that I love to buy and give people. Who's their favorite artist? Who’s their favorite photographer?
Any recent reads you'd recommend?
One of the books that I really liked that I just finished was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was really heavy—I cried—but I found the writing to be absolutely beautiful. Skin Cleanse by Adina Grigore really shaped the way that I saw skincare and the industry that has consumed all of us. Then the other book I would say that I really liked was by Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. I ended up reading all of her other books, as well. I found her to be such a refreshing, new artist.