Erica Dunk of Hyper Haute jewelry creates chunky, fierce pieces that have been featured in British Vogue Magazine and on MTV, VH1, and several celebrities, including Ke$ha on the cover of the October/November 2012 issue of Vibe Magazine. “That was crazy. That was probably my most exciting moment–the Ke$ha one,” she says today. “Walking into a Walgreens right by my house and seeing my necklace–it literally brought tears to my eyes. There’s nothing better.” She crafts the bold statement pieces in her home, materials splayed out all over her dining room table and a soldering iron in the basement. She keeps a picture of her dream house on her refrigerator as motivation, rather than inspirational mantras sewn onto keepsake pillows or framed quotations.
Dunk works with glass, metal, wire, chains, broken jewelry, hardware, door handles, stones, and plastic tubing, a smorgasbord of materials poised to take over her house. “I have so much random stuff. Basically I make a huge mess,” she says. “Men really like this stuff–they know the hardware.” Her photographer often helps her identify the original purpose of the materials she chooses. “He’ll be like, ‘That’s a conduit.’ I’m like, ‘A what?’ He tells me about my own jewelry. I’m like, ‘It was a thingamabob to me that looked good with these rhinestones,'” she says, laughing. “I just see what I like, and if it strikes my attention it’s probably going around your neck.” Today, she wears heels and a sleek black jumpsuit that contrasts her train of hip-length blonde hair, wheeling several suitcases of jewelry behind her into Rung, a consignment shop in Maplewood where she works part-time. Looking at the tape recorder, she grimaces. “Is that thing on?”
Her foray into jewelry began after a creative dry spell. “I had stumbled across Words With Friends and I became so addicted to it. Like, severely,” she remembers. “My friends had this little intervention and they were like, ‘We think you need to design something or do something creative.’ My cousin’s like, ‘Why don’t you just come over? I’ve got a ton of beads–I’m making friendship bracelets.’”
While stringing beads awakened the creativity that lay dormant within her, Dunk was after something bigger. She remembers smashing a full-length mirror, the unordered pieces scattering like a crashing exhale. Satisfied, she gathered up a few of the broken shards and pressed caulk into their edges to soften them (later, she learned craftsmen often filed glass to soften the edges instead of using caulk), and painted over the clear caulk with an 18-karat gold leafing pen, stringing the final product together on a gold chain. “It was big and hanging, with all these mirrored pieces. I think I sold three of those right off the bat,” she says. It was the first jewelry design of her own she sold.
Growing up, Dunk painted, drew and worked with her hands as much as possible out of creative necessity. “I’m not going to say I was the best at painting, or drawing. I did it because I wanted to,” she says. It was her dream to one day be a fashion designer, but she enrolled at St. Louis Community College to acquire general transfer credits instead. “In my head I was just like, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be a big fashion designer in a big city,” she says. Her perspective changed when she took a two-credit seminar called Career Choices. “One of the first assignments was to write down, ‘If you could do anything in the world, even if it seems like it’s a job that would be unreachable, what would it be? What’s holding you back from it?’ Then you had to answer, ‘How can you overcome these things?’”
Soon after, she took out student loans and bought a one-way ticket to LA, where she began studying fashion at American InterContinental University. “I think I took my struggles through college–the things that were really embarrassing me. You know? I’d look at the person next to me, and I’d be like, ‘How does she do that? How did she just look at that and all of a sudden she’s done and onto the next thing?’ It really made me doubt myself a lot.” Despite her uncertainty, she still finished the program. “Anything else wasn’t an option. I felt really strongly that this is what I’m supposed to do,” she says, and ended up staying on the West Coast for a good portion of her 20’s. “I still love LA. I do want to get back there one day–it’d be nice to have a house there, and here,” she says, breathing wistfully. “Dreams.”
At her portfolio show in 2007, she was stopped by Elizabeth Mason of Paper Bag Princess Vintage Couture, who has dressed celebrities like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. “I was just running around in this crazy dress I made … it was like this big tutu thing,” says Dunk. “She grabbed my arm and was like, ‘Where did you get that dress?’ I said, ‘I made it.’ She was like, ‘You need to come work for me.’” Dunk worked for Mason as an associate designer while working on her own collection, until she decided to give it a shot as a solo designer. “I shouldn’t have, probably–I was like, ‘I’m just going to try and make it on my own.’ Probably should have thought that out more,” she says. The line took up much more time and money than she had originally anticipated, and didn’t attract as much interest in the fashion scene as she’d hoped. “I really don’t exactly know what happened and what went wrong,” she says. “I jumped the gun.”
She was managing a boutique in Orange County when she got a phone call about her mother, and immediately bought a one-way ticket back to St. Louis. “My mom was really sick–I don’t really want to get into that. It was definitely a big scare,” she says. She left behind her canopy bed, artwork, and an accumulation of awards she’d won for her undergraduate portfolio collection, and never went back for them. Sometimes she half expects to see her old things again on the reality television series Storage Wars. “I just didn’t know anything, really … like where you’re at a point in life where you’re just like, ‘I just don’t know. I don’t know anything really anymore. I don’t know if this is the right job for me, I don’t know if I like Orange County. Sure, it’s pretty, but it’s just so cookie-cutter.”
Other employees rustle around the back room of Rung as pop-infused, saccharin Top 40 radio plays in the background. One employee organizes a bright red circular shoe display table while another vacuums. Dunk’s thoughts shift back to her mother. “She–well. She’s actually an alcoholic. A really bad one. So to be honest, I don’t really know what was going on. There was talk of her possibly having cancer. I would always take off work and try to be there for her. I feel like there’s more to the story that I just don’t know. I don’t really communicate with her anymore.” Another employee walks in to ask her a quick question, and Dunk’s voice pops up an octave. “You look cute! Which one, Kirsten? You’re welcome! You look cute.” She lowers it before continuing again, after the employee has returned to the front of the shop to prep mannequins.
“Your natural instinct is–or I don’t know, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s just me–is to become Superman. You want to save that person so bad, because you love them. And you go through a lot of years of that not working, and it can really wear and tear on the people trying to help. Sometimes you’ll feel like, ‘Oh my God, is this my fault?’ It gets really difficult.” Dunk looks up, her eyes an unmistakable shade of blue-green, glinting in the fluorescent lights, accentuated with purple eyeliner and pink lipstick. Wisps of blonde hair settle around her face. A small stud, a Monroe piercing just above her upper lip, catches the light.
“She once told me she really liked when I called and just told her about my life. I would do that, but sometimes my life was super stressful and I’d be going through things that I think maybe–I don’t blame myself for her drinking or anything, but I feel like maybe whatever I was saying–” she trails off. “She’d be sober on the phone, but whenever she’d get off … I know she always drank when she got off the phone with me.” Recently, she decided to stop contacting her mother. “I’m out of time. I have to focus on me now. I can’t tell you how much I cried over that, because it feels selfish, but I’ve come to an understanding that it’s what needed to happen. And that was a hard thing– a hard decision to get to. A hard place,” she says. “I love my family.”
Upon returning home from LA, Dunk moved into her childhood house with her boyfriend at the time, an on-again off-again relationship that lasted over a decade. She still wasn’t making art. “I was definitely at a low. I was dying, basically, inside, without doing creative stuff. And once I started doing it again, all of this happened,” she says, motioning around at the mountains of chunky jewelry. It’s kind of like my drug, I guess.” Today, she lives alone in the two-story red brick house. “It’s a lot of house for a little girl,” she says.
Posing for photographs, Dunk tries on several of her signature pieces, prepping herself in the mirror. “I have wrinkles!” she exclaims. The pieces are chunky and sculptural, feminine, tough. Dunk has always loved the combination of pearls and hardware. “We all have our flaws and our insecurities, and it’s really hard to show those. People have this idea of what they want other people to think. Really, when you just let go … you’re in such a vulnerable state.”
She remembers working on a chain lock for one of her first pieces, which she needed to unlock for a clasp–she was sitting on the bed while her boyfriend watched TV. Once she got it unlocked, she lept up, put it on, and excitedly went to show him. “I finally figured it out, put it all together, put it on and was like, ‘Look at this!’” she remembers. I was like, ‘Do you think people are going to think I’m nuts? Should I not show it?’ He was like, ‘You are nuts,’” she says, laughing. “I wound up selling a bunch of those.”
For more information about Hyper Haute, visit www.hyperhaute.com.