“I just kept getting closer and closer to the actual thing that I wanted to do,” says Lily Kwong on a recent afternoon from a booth at Caffe Dante on Macdougal Street. “Which is that instead of using fashion as a means to an end to make an environmental impact, I wanted to do something generative and make things grow.”
The former model, who is first cousins with Joseph Altuzarra, has been working in landscapes since she was 23. Now 28 and with a degree in urban planning under her belt, plants have become her life full-time. On June 21, she’s taking on her biggest project yet, with a quarter-mile long installation on the High Line in partnership with liqueur brand St-Germain.
“People know me from working in the fashion industry, but I feel like it’s all been an evolution of getting closer to arriving at my true path, and what I’m meant to do, which is this work with plants,” Kwong says. “I grew up in Marin in the Bay Area, so I grew up in the Redwoods, outside, and Joseph Altuzarra, who is my cousin, our great-grandfather was an herbalist. Part of my chores growing up were always working with the farmers and working with plants. I feel like I always had an intuitive connection to plants because of my family.”
Kwong studied urban planning at Columbia, where she became interested in sustainability. “I happened to be working with Joseph when he launched Altuzarra, so I was working with all these brands like Calvin Klein and Nike, but I’d never made this sustainability connection with fashion,” she says. “When I found out that fashion is the number-two polluter in the world after oil, I just got really committed to working with sustainable fashion brands.”
When tapped by St-Germain to do the High Line project, she took her lead from the brand’s French influence. “I did not want it to be a literal take on a French maze, but layered with performance and other art forms,” she says. “I recently did an artist residency at Summit Series out in Utah, and I drove around and saw a lot of land art. So I’m trying to bring some of those land art ideas into the maze — we’re using botanicals and plants as paint, basically, to create a more comprehensive landscape, other than just something you’d see in a French garden.”
The maze will be filled with performers of ballet and modern dance, in costumes evoking pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Kwong was new to the brand when approached, but signed on at the chance to work on the famous New York structure. “The High Line, to me, is the most profound urban intervention in recent history,” she says. “One of my main missions as a New York is to reconnect people to nature. And I feel that a lot of people are pretty landscape-blind. I think [this project] is something that is really going to shock people into seeing the beauty of the plants and the plant life.”
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