Interview: Designer Lyz Olko Talks New Documentary About a Dance Crew on New York's 7 Train

Founder of Obesity and Speed brand discusses a new film documenting New York underground talent.


An intrigued crowd dressed in various degrees of all black gathered on the second floor of Space Ninety 8 in Williamsburg, where a projection screen and full band setup awaited a premiere and performance. “It’s Showtime,” a short film created by Lyz Olko, creator, designer, and owner of Obesity and Speed, Crystal Moselle, and Ruth Gruca, premiered ahead of a live performance by ASTR and a DJ set by Greg K of the Misshapes and Vashtie.

The short film focuses on Malik, a performer many New Yorkers have surely seen but never known. He dances on the train—almost always the 7—with his crew and friends. Over the course of a day and a half, Olko, Moselle, Gruca, and their film crew followed Malik and his friends through the trains until they got home. The resulting short film depicts what Olko aims to convey through Obesity and Speed’s clothing.

“My primary influences are music and film,” Olko told us after the premiere. “A lot of the graphics in the line are text-based, and a lot of the time it will be from a line I hear in a movie or a song.”

After the screening of “It’s Showtime,” the crowd danced to an energetic performance by ASTR, who also provided the soundtrack for the film. In the only quiet corner, we spoke with Olko about her inspirations, the experience of filming, and what she's doing next.

What inspired you to make a film?

Film has always been my primary interest, even before making clothing. I obsessively watch and quote movies. My entire apartment is filled with nothing but movies. Crystal and I went to college together at SVA and made a film before. When I was working on this new collection I was trying to think of what to do in terms of a presentation. I was inspired by movies and Cross Color, because they use breakers to go to Japan and represent the brand. They perform instead of having a typical runway show. I was like, “That’s such a sick idea. Should I do something like that?” But I was more into the idea of kids that I would see breaking on the trains.

How did you meet them?

Crystal is really good with making connections to people she feels inspired by, and she randomly happened to have the same idea, unbeknownst to me, before we had even talked. She talked to Malik when she saw them dancing on the train, and they exchanged information and became friendly. When I talked to her about the idea I had, she was like, “That’s so funny, because I just met this kid who’s insane and amazing and really talented. We should work with him and his friends.” We met them, then Ruth met them, and it became this collaboration between all of us.

So you said your apartment is filled with films. What are some of the most influential films for you?

There are a few different genres that I've gravitated towrads. Christiane F. is one of my favorite actresses. Mean Streets is another one. Let’s see…Boys in the Hood, Do the Right Thing, Home Alone. God, there are so many…Beetle Juice. Documentaries are another favorite genre of mine. I like Jonestown, Children Underground, American Hardcore. There are so many.

What draws you to documentaries?

With documentaries, it’s because you learn more about something that you are already specifically interested in, or you learn about something that you love and had limited knowledge of before. I’ll watch anything, because there is so much I don’t know. I’m not in school, so it’s another way of learning.

I watched that Donald Rumsfeld documentary that Errol Morris did, [The Unknown Known], and a friend of mine works for Amnesty International. One of his primary focuses is Guantanamo and human rights and torture. I texted him and he was like, “Now do you get my job?” It’s crazy, but I really didn’t know.

What’s one moment from the experience of making "It's Showtime" that you’ll remember going forward?

Filming with people—especially kids and people who aren’t actors—can be really emotional, because it’s a long day. No one really knows each other. It can go either way and who’s to say how everyone will interact? There were definitely ups and downs. Also, working with teenagers who were like, “Uh, are you guys kidding? Like, fuck you.” [Laughs]

How old were they?

They ranged from 15 to 24—some of them were 25 though. It was memorable, because it was a day in the life and everyone had fun. It was natural. Running through the subways, that air of getting in trouble and trying not to get caught, is so reminiscent of my youth. The kids are so fucking rad and cool and believe in everything they do. To see people take care of each other like that is really nice. That kind of loyalty, especially with guys, is really special.

How would you describe your philosophy toward design, film, art, and how they intertwine?

I think they’re super intertwined. There are certain movies I always look to for inspiration and will watch over and over again. Certain lines or lyrics will trigger something, either to look at a book or to look at an image.

Is there one specific song lyric you can point to?

In this collection, “Love Buzz” is one of them. It’s obviously a Nirvana reference, and then, “Chapter Zero,” which is the title of a chapter in the Nirvana book. Next season, spring ’15, is all musical references. It’s really specific music—the ’90s and punk, grunge references.

Do you think you’ll do another film?

Hell yeah. [Laughs] Yeah, oh yeah. 

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