Catinca Tabacaru didn’t take the predictable path toward becoming a New York City gallery owner. Born in Romania, she began her career as a human rights lawyer, working with the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. During that time, she founded the nonprofit Women’s Voices Now, which aims to empower women living in Muslim-majority countries.
She has since pivoted to a career in the arts. In 2014, Tabacaru opened her namesake gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side , where she has committed to supporting emerging and young artists, and on Aug. 20 she’ll open a second gallery space in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. She’s been working in the Southern African nation’s arts scene for several years through the artist residency CTG Collective, which she founded along with Rachel Monosov and Justin Orvis Steimer. The residency pairs international and local artists to create works in collaboration and conversation.
“The world, I think, doesn’t really need another big New York gallery right now, but the world does need a really cool gallery in Zimbabwe that has an external-internal program,” she says. The Zimbabwean gallery is to foster an international artists’ residency, and exhibit the resulting works.
“I think there’s a crisis globally around supporting arts,” she says. “My hope is that it bounces back, that there’s conservation about it, and that people realize that art is vital, art is the expression of what’s happening in the world right now in a way that can generally be understood by people.”
WWD: How do you dress for work now versus five years ago?
Catinca Tabacaru: Five years ago I was a lawyer, so I dressed in suits that were fairly boring. I’m way cooler now. I’m much more interested in unique looks and some element that is funky or cool; something that matches the aesthetic focus of the art world as well. It’s literally the difference between the desire to be normal and the desire to be abnormal. As a lawyer, you kind of want to blend it for so many reasons; in the art world you want to stand out for so many reasons.
WWD: What would you say is the biggest influence on how you dress for work?
C.T.: How I feel in the morning. I’ve been known to show up at work in high heels and a superprofessional suit, I’ve been known to show up in a flight suit. It really depends on my mood. Sometimes it’s influenced by the show itself.
WWD: How do you shop for work clothes? Is it pleasurable for you?
C.T.: No. [Pause] That’s not fair. I’m a bit of a creature of habit when it comes to these things. I kind of like pick a shop and that keeps me alive for a year and then switch. My current obsession is Tictail, which is four doors down. I made this decision awhile ago that I support young artists, and I encourage people to support young artists and buy young artists, so I want to reflect that in my fashion. I tend to buy clothes from emerging designers. I really like nice shoes though. I like good quality and I like young designers.
WWD: Is there much overlap between work and off-duty clothes for you?
C.T.: Yes. My entire life is overlapped — it’s definitely in my fashion, it’s in my friends, it’s in my time and energy. I don’t have a lot of separation between work and “nonwork.” At this point I have very few relationships or activities that are not somehow connected. In general, it’s kind of all intermingled, so the same thing with fashion. I’m obviously a little sloppier off work, and purposefully so. To some extent, when you come to work, you think more about how people see you and react to you, versus, “I don’t care what my friends think.”
Having an art gallery, in the end, no matter how you swing it, it’s still a sales position. While I don’t work my life that way or my community doesn’t necessarily feel that way, money is the blood of what keeps the gallery alive, and what keeps the whole system alive. So someone’s more likely to buy art from me if I’m looking put together. And I’m more likely to sell art if I’m looking put together. It’s a different mind-set. I dress the person that I am that day.
WWD: Do you have any favorite shops or designers?
C.T.: When it comes to shoes, I’m really big on Chanel and Prada. It’s the only time I’d drop those kind of labels. In shoes, they’re just really important, they’re masters of their craft. In terms of clothes, I’m varied. And it’s typical, I’m wearing two young designers and Prada shoes.
WWD: Would you say you follow fashion trends? Do you prefer to stay true to your style?
C.T.: No, I don’t follow fashion trends, although I don’t think any of us are immune to them. I definitely feel when something is out of fashion and no longer feels good to wear it. I’m not wearing bell-bottom jeans anymore. I kept one pair from the Sixties just in case. The trendy clothes that I have, usually my mom sends me. I have a mother and sister — my sister is in fashion, she works for Emilia Wickstead, and my mother’s really into shopping and fashion, so that helps my wardrobe, as well.
WWD: What’s your favorite purchase for the last few months and why?
C.T.: The shoes I just got from Tictail are awesome. Very comfortable, very cool, very trendy, pointy flats. I bought some winter shoes from [the same designer] as well. The other thing is my mother’s gotten super into costume jewelry, especially Oscar de la Renta, so I have all of these necklaces in all sorts of enormous shapes.
WWD: If you were given a choice, would you dress more formally or casually?
C.T.: I prefer an elegant casual. Especially when I can fix funk with elegance, I really like that. I really like a softness, and flowiness, a funkiness. I’m not big on what you should wear, and I’m not big on constraining pieces, I want to be able to move.
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