Sky High Farm Takes Fashion Upstate


There are certain things the fashion industry will always love: The young and beautiful. Art and money. Nostalgia. A comeback. From time to time, it also loves to throw itself behind a cause.

By those metrics, Dan Colen is giving fashion a lot to love right now. A blue-chip artist represented by the mega-gallery Gagosian, he founded a farm called Sky High that donates 100 percent of its food to local pantries in upstate New York. But 20 years ago, Mr. Colen, now 44, was a main character in a cast of beautiful broken boys (nicknamed Warhol’s Children) who became the art world protagonists of New York City’s peak indie sleaze moment — an era for which fashion is currently throbbing with longing.

Among the infamous work from that time were the “hamster nests” Mr. Colen created with Dash Snow. (The two did copious amounts of drugs, then rolled around naked in shredded phone books.) Mr. Snow ejaculated on newspapers while Ryan McGinley photographed the whole scene, including Mr. Colen’s oft-mentioned genitals. But that was then.

Now, in addition to the farm, Mr. Colen is the chief creative officer of Sky High Farm Universe, which sells merch and can be found on many fashion hounds who may also be seen wearing luxury brands.

The Sky High Farm Universe logo features a girlish strawberry sitting on a boyish crescent moon, which serves as the common thread across a host of Sky High Farm Universe items spanning hoodies, T-shirts, knits, socks, hats and underwear. Some pieces are classic, like a denim chore jacket. Much of the collection is made from deadstock or upcycled materials. All of it is standard streetwear fare, ranging in price from $30 to $2,500 and sold at places like Ssense, Nordstrom and Dover Street Market.

“It’s cute,” Olivia Kim, the senior vice president for creative merchandising at Nordstrom, said of the collection. “It’s cool. But then there’s naturally the inquisitiveness of ‘Why is this called Sky High Farm Universe?’ There’s the automatic question of ‘What does this actually mean? Who’s behind this?’”

Located on a 40-acre property in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, Sky High is an earnest operation fueled by a mission of “food sovereignty,” which basically boils down to people growing and eating fresh, locally produced food, but which, in its founders’ telling, is also a lofty vision tackling philanthropy, capitalism, climate change, social justice and education.

“It’s really a model,” said Mr. Colen, now sober and prone to sweeping philosophical answers and big ideas. “We’re trying to support the next generation of farmers who farm in the way that we do so that everybody can eat the kind of food that we grow.”

Mr. Colen bought the land on a quest to get out of New York City and, he said, “commune with nature.” He was also looking for more space to create art.

“I had no relationships in agriculture,” he said. “It became clear that if I was going to have an intimate relationship with this place, I was going to have to cultivate it.”

Sky High Farm Universe is a separate LLC accounting for all the clothing, accessories, food, beverage and beauty projects and collaborations. It operates like a traditional for-profit company, except that a portion of profits are donated back to the farm. “Every customer is a donor” is its tagline.

Mr. Colen and his team come up with the designs, while Dover Street Market Paris handles production, sales and distribution as part of its brand agency.

Like the strawberry to the moon, the fashion and art worlds have curled up tight on Sky High’s lap. Since Sky High Farm Universe’s inception in 2022, it has done $5.5 million in sales and is now available at 60 retailers. It has attracted a roster of in-crowd collaborators, including Samira Nasr, the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar; Alastair McKimm, the stylist and former editor in chief of i-D; Mel Ottenberg, the editor in chief of Interview; the photographers Quil Lemons and old pal Ryan McGinley; and Heidi Bivens, the costume designer for “Euphoria.”

Balenciaga, Bogs, Dickies and Denim Tears have partnered with SHFU. There’s also an ongoing collaboration with Converse that includes Sky High Chuck Taylors, as well as with Nike and the artist KAWS. Last year Sky High introduced its first beverage, a Honey Pop gluten-free, probiotic sparkling water produced by FedUp Foods that was sold at Erewhon. This month, Sky High ventures into beauty with a hand cream in collaboration with the clean beauty brand and fellow farm owner Tata Harper.

In May, the glamour flock will descend on Tivoli, N.Y., when Sky High hosts its Spring Picnic fund-raiser for equity in the food system. The Roots are performing, and the host and advisory committees read like a seating chart for the front row of a fashion show: Chioma Nnadi, the editor of British Vogue, Kate Young, the celebrity stylist, Derek Blasberg, Tommy Dorfman, Marc Jacobs, Kim Hastreiter, Chloë Sevigny, Laila Gohar and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. The corporate sponsors for the event include Chanel, Champion, Gagosian, JanSport, Levi’s and Nike.

On a tour of Sky High Farm’s grounds in late February, nothing was growing in the dead of winter. About one-and-a-half acres of the land are devoted to vegetable production with another 25 as pasture for cows, sheep and chickens.

Mr. Colen’s home, where he lives with his partner, the bread artist, writer and model Lexie Smith, and their young son, sits at the end of a driveway near a renovated barn that houses his art studio. Mr. Colen has never considered himself anything but an artist. He sees the farm as one of his sculptures.

If not a household name, Mr. Colen is one of the best-known and most successful contemporary artists of his generation.

“We were all functioning junkies,” said Javier Peres, the founder of Peres Projects, the gallery that represented Mr. Colen from 2003 to around 2011. “But Dan’s ideas were just flowing. They were grander than what he could do on his own, but he had it in him.”

When Mr. Snow died of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 2009, the party was effectively over. Mr. Colen got sober and embarked on life upstate. The market for his art was flourishing, and he funded the nascent stages of Sky High himself.

“The art world was like, money was falling out of the sky in 2010 and 2015,” he said.

The beginning of the farm was a blur. Mr. Colen called a graphic designer named Jordan Rosenblum who had done an internship at a farm. “Literally, he came up here, and we tried to make a farm, whatever that means,” Mr. Colen said. “We had some shovels.”

They didn’t get very far, but Mr. Rosenblum introduced Mr. Colen to the concept of food deserts, meaning places where there is no access to fresh, nutritious food, like certain parts of the Bronx. Mr. Colen grew up just across the Hudson River in Leonia, N.J.

“As somebody who loves to create things, the idea that I could create a tool to serve this issue seemed really fascinating to me,” Mr. Colen said.

Through his art studio he found a real farmer, Joey Piecuch, a fellow recovering heroin addict, who moved to Sky High and actually got to tilling the land and raising livestock. Together he and Mr. Colen came up with the farm’s name.

“It was a bit of a joke,” Mr. Colen said. “We were two junkies who were kind of doing this very kind, benevolent work.”

From the beginning, Mr. Colen did not want the farm to be a traditional business. Instead of selling its bounty, the farm would give it all away. He enlisted his childhood friend Joshua Bardfield, who worked extensively in public health. They started working with the Food Bank for New York City.

“There was no budget, there was no plan,” Mr. Colen said. Nothing was papered.”

Yet the inkling for branding was there. Mr. Colen commissioned the illustrator Joana Avillez to come up with a logo. She drew on the Disney icons that have been a recurring theme in Mr. Colen’s work.

“The farm is very Walt Disney, having all these animals,” she said. It’s idyllic.”

The strawberry moon was initially used for jams and vegetable salts that Mr. Colen bottled and gave as gifts. “People liked it,” he said. “It was all homemade. The jars were cute. It was like, What else can happen here?

“Dan always had bigger sights,” said Melissa Bent, his first gallerist at Rivington Arms, the small but influential gallery then on the Lower East Side. “He had a photo of Picasso nailed to the top of his work area at his grandfather’s junk shop in Brooklyn. He wanted it all.”

Sky High Farm first got its 501c3 status, making it a nonprofit exempt from federal taxes, in 2016, but it was mostly dormant until 2019. Mr. Bardfield joined the farm full time and is now the co-executive director. Around that time, Mr. Colen approached James Gilchrist, an old friend from his Warhol’s Children era, who is now vice president of Dover Street Market USA and Comme des Garçons USA. They came up with Sky High’s first fund-raising project: an assortment of vintage T-shirts and hoodies bearing Ms. Avillez’s logo and a selection of jams and honey that were sold at Dover Street Market Los Angeles and New York. All of the proceeds went back to the farm.

It did so well, Mr. Gilchrist decided to develop Sky High as one of Dover Street’s brands. “It’s been a crazy success,” he said.

Where Mr. Colen goes, people follow. “He’s always been someone who has taken a little bit more initiative, a leader within the group,” Mr. McGinley said. “I remember when we were young, he said to me, ‘We need to be real artists, and we need to get a studio.’ I was just kind of content living in our little tiny apartment in the East Village.”

Indeed, a lot of taking initiative goes on up at Sky High Farm. Also, a lot of talking about initiatives. (They call it “dialoguing.”) Other buzzwords invoked repeatedly are “beneficence,” “equity,” “capitalism” and “philanthropy.” Their north stars are companies like Newman’s Own, which has donated more than $600 million to charitable causes, and Patagonia, whose founder Yvon Chouinard transferred ownership of the company to a specially designed trust and nonprofit to ensure that the company’s profits go to climate change and environmental causes. Mr. Colen deems Patagonia “the coolest brand in the world.”

Between all of Sky High Farm’s merchandise, collabs, big program plans and fancy friends, it’s easy to forget that its primary mission is providing food access for those who don’t have it. In 2023, Sky High Farm donated 19,306 pounds of vegetables and fresh herbs, including broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes and cilantro, 56,880 eggs, 6,408 pounds of chicken and 1,750 pounds of beef and lamb.

The majority goes to hyperlocal partners, including Sweet Freedom Farm, Dutchess Outreach, Long Table Harvest, Willow Roots and North East Community Center. “About 95 percent of the food we produce stays within 15 to 20 miles of the farm,” Mr. Bardfield said.

Lisa Zayas co-founded Willow Root, a food pantry in Pine Plains, N.Y., four years ago, serving about 20 families. During Covid, that number jumped to 70 families.

“Sky High was right there, giving us produce, chickens, eggs,” Ms. Zayas said. “Their chickens are beautiful, huge. They feed a family with leftovers, no problem.” She’s mostly unaware of Mr. Colen’s profile outside of Pine Plains. “I don’t know Dan as the artist,” she said. “I’ve heard things, but that doesn’t interest me.”

The pandemic brought the urgency of food scarcity into sharp relief. “With Covid, people saw their neighbors lining up at food banks to get food,” Mr. Bardfield said. “The issues that we’ve been addressing for the last many years were at the forefront.” It was the catalyst for Sky High’s expansion, activating the 501c3, staffing up, expanding the brand and raising money.

Sky High Farm is in the process of moving from the 40-acre plot in Pine Plains to a 560-acre spread a few miles away. There’s room for bigger pastures, more vegetable production, 40 acres for a farm business incubator and a lot of land. Plans for how it will be used are TBD, but its founders hope they will involve climate-related research, including habitat biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil health, water quality and air quality.

Sky High runs a grant program that distributes funds to small regenerative farms with a focus on marginalized groups.

Education is a big focus. This fall, Sky High Farm Universe is collaborating with Champion for a collection of merchandise destined for the bookstores of universities with robust farming and agricultural programs.

Over the years, people have often asked Mr. Colen how he has been able to pull this whole thing off.

“I made it using my art brain,” he said. “As an artist, really, it’s hard to actually pursue this, but in theory, what I want to make, nobody would ever know was art.”

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