Review of Fetishism in Fashion, MOBA 2013

by Philip Warkander

“We are born in bondage, a cord wrapped around our baby body”, curator Lidewij Edelkoort stated in her introductory speech to this year’s Mode Biënnale in Arnhem, Fetishism in Fashion, open June 9 through July 21. During an interview, she tells me that the starting point of the exhibition is the trauma a child experiences after birth when it is separated from its mother through the cutting of the umbilical cord, resulting in a lifelong search after new unities to be part of. According to Edelkoort, this feeling of lack explains the charm bracelets around our wrists and crucifixes around our necks; magical substitutes for the physical connection between mother and child that was lost at birth. For the biënnale, Edelkoort has chosen 13 different perspectives on the theme of fetishes, presented in separate rooms along long corridors, ranging from patriotism to sado-masochism, the common denominator defined as attempts to reconnect and retrace what was lost at birth, to find meaning in matter.

Philosopher Sara Danius has claimed that when fashion evolved into a modern industry in the nineteenth century, fashion objects took the place of religious artifacts and became the new fetishes of the emerging consumer society. At the Arnhem biënnale, this is made especially evident in the rooms devoted to spirituality and shamanism, but also in the room devoted to high-speed consumption, labeled “consumerism”. Designers such as Written Afterwards (Japan), Luke Brooks (UK) and Kosuke Tsumura (Japan) have integrated a critique of fast fashion into their design, creating outfits out of worn-out shoes, plastic flowers and disposable waste products. On the theme of “infantilism”, designer objects are mixed with large plastic pacifiers and milk bottles found through online fetish sites, creating interesting hybrid expressions of fashion, innocence and pornography, in pastel colors but with a dark edge. According to a text in this room, this demonstrates how “the choice of baby clothes, diapers and coddling textiles expresses a need for being cared for and a wish to never grow up [...]”.

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Interviews

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A Review of “Punk: Chaos to Couture”

by Jay Ruttenberg

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware

Punk fashion, in its purest form, is a gawky Jew from Queens, resplendent in old jeans, snug shirt, long hair, and a chintzy black leather jacket that, depending on the viewer’s perspective, either masks or accentuates the wearer’s geekiness. Anything beyond this uniform—the safety pins, studs, or those storied Mohawks—has always seemed an affront to the music’s minimalism. Worse, it is cheesy.

Or maybe not. Whereas in New York, punk was a witty music and art movement, in London, it quickly became a deathly serious fashion and media one. The Ramones gave their first concerts at a 23rd Street loft and a not-yet-famous Bowery dive bar; the Sex Pistols began their stage life at Central Saint Martins College, the London fashion hub. Hence, despite existing in the city that both birthed and perfected punk, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition feels much more a piece of London than of New York. This is probably for the best: London punk never offered a rival to Joey Ramone’s pop persona or Tom Verlaine’s musicality—but then, New York did not produce image svengalis in league with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

Refreshingly, the Costume Institute’s exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, devotes itself almost wholeheartedly to the fashion inspired by punk, predominantly womenswear made in the music’s wake. It never attempts comprehensiveness and avoids Hard Rock Café-isms. (Best to ignore the show’s biggest misstep: a dead-on-arrival, by-now-obligatory recreation of CBGB’s bathroom.) Excepting a room devoted to Westwood’s work—the sloganeering t-shirts of old circling the fancier items that followed—most pieces are from designers not typically associated with punk rock: Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen…. Those punk aesthetes kvetching that the mere existence of this show somehow contradicts the music’s mission are missing the point (or, more likely, confusing the exhibition with Anna Wintour’s tone-deaf party). “Chaos to Couture” seeks to celebrate, not dabble in, cultural tourism. It is not about punk, but about fashion’s belated response to punk.


Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Rooms are divided by influence and material. “D.I.Y.: Hardware” represents the sordid mark of S&M, with gratuitous zippers, ominous padlocks, and other metals—bondage gear for the wealthy, basically. A snippet of the New York Dolls’s “Trash” spins in “D.I.Y.: Bricolage,” a room devoted to customization and recycled materials (i.e., a Margiela ensemble featuring foil and metal staples). The exhibition concludes with “D.I.Y.: Graffiti and Agitpop,” with the Clash as muse, and “D.I.Y.: Destroy,” which is inspired by Johnny Rotten and his awing collection of shredded grandma sweaters. For a viewer such as myself, far more schooled in songs than in garments, exploring how the genre eventually trickled into high fashion is eye-opening. In music, the best punk-influenced bands have always been those that channel elements of the genre into unexpected sounds (say, Beat Happening) rather than those producing mere facsimile. Ditto the more interesting clothing: McQueen’s skull and crossbones or a hokey Elvira get-up from Versace seem rote compared to, say, Moschino’s skirt of white plastic shopping bags, whose playfulness might have been appreciated by X-Ray Spex. A series of puffy cream Comme des Garçons dresses, at the show’s finale, reference the layers favored by punk kids only upon a second or third glance. The effect is striking.

As exemplified by that CB’s bathroom—and will some brave soul please take the Met’s bait and use the toilet?—the exhibition stumbles as it gets cute and veers away from fashion. The museum’s decision to identify famed designers laboring under multinational corporations as “D.I.Y.” is laughable. At times, the exhibition tries too hard to create a punkish aura—the “Graffiti and Agitpop” room resembles the menacing punk rock of a Hollywood backlot. And while it is impossible to be discontent while hearing “Blank Generation,” particularly along Fifth Avenue, the inclusion of background music diminishes the clothing it sets out to contextualize.

How this exhibition is received by New Yorkers remains to be seen. The show has yet to open, and already it has given us the cringe-worthy spectacle of insecure celebrities struggling to add hints of leather or metal to their wardrobes in order to qualify as “punk” for the Costume Gala. Perhaps such behavior flies in London; in New York…yeesh! It’s embarrassing just to think about it. For Chrissake, a punk wears what a punk wears.

A recovering rock critic, Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Reader and its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Spin, and Details.

Posted in Exhibitions, Museums, Performance

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Fashion Criticism Panel: A Report and Recording of the Event

by Gisela Aguilar


From left Francesca Granata, Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay and Stefano Tonchi. Photograph by Susana Aguirre.

For more reports on the panel, also see “Fashion critics defend their craft” by Kira Goldenberg in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as “Fashion Criticism: No Respect!” in style.com

In celebration of the fourth issue of Fashion Projects, a panel discussing the current state of fashion criticism was held on March 12, 2013 at The New School. The panel, moderated by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design and editor of Fashion Projects featured three distinguished fashion critics, Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Guy Trebay (culture and style reporter for the New York Times), and Stefano Tonchi (the editor-in-chief of W magazine), all of whom were also interviewed for the concurrent issue of Fashion Projects.

The frank conversation took many directions by addressing a number of otherwise avoided topics within the fashion press, from the struggle for fashion writing to be considered a legitimate topic of discussion within established periodicals due to its prescribed association to the feminine realm, to the cultural valence of aesthetics in America versus Europe and how this difference manifests itself in each culture’s appreciation or understanding of fashion. Trebay reminisced on a pre-millennial era when the fashion scene belonged to a small, contained world and where the knowledge of this niche community was not widely dispersed as it is today. Stemming from observations he made in his Fashion Projects interview with Jay Ruttenberg, Trebay remarked that the cultural force of fashion catapulted quickly after 2000 through strategic moves by the few multinational corporations that monopolized the fashion industry. Fashion stars were churned out, runway shows become these theatrical spectacles, and with the aid of digital media, the fashion scene became a globalized attraction. Givhan added that the alliance between Hollywood and the fashion industry has intensified the public’s interest in all things concerning fashion, yet she lamented that this now symbiotic partnership has damaged the credibility of the industry. As such, much of the fashion content published is dominated by celebrity and consumer driven stories that bank off the entertainment value of fashion while doing little to enlighten readers about its intricacies and creative nature.

The discussion brought to the fore a highly debated phenomenon amongst contemporary fashion journalists – the emergence of fashion bloggers. Indeed, the public access and participatory nature of digital media has opened the floodgates to an exorbitant amount of fashion interpretations, criticisms, and narratives, but it is precisely this lack of moderation that concerns the panelists. Between the three fashion critics there was an overall less than sanguine opinion of the fashion conversations found online. Givhan and Tonchi implied that the overt marketing objectives of certain popular fashion blogs compromised the ethics of journalism in that fashion houses and brands utilized these online personalities as PR tools, often times flying them out to Fashion Week or gifting them merchandise to promote on their personal blogs. In regards to the writing found in these digital spaces, Trebay and Tonchi not so subtly stated that the majority of the fashion conversations on blogs lacked a “compelling” factor and were subpar in that frequently the references to fashion history were inaccurate or the observations contributed no original perspectives to fashion discourse. Pointing to the main difference between print and digital media, Givhan observed that online there was no such thing as a correction – mistakes were rectified as “updates.” She went on to explain that because the barrier to entry is so low with digital media, Internet culture has cultivated a value to be placed on timely delivered and easily digestible content rather than well-researched information.

The panel ended on a more personal note with a question from the audience asking the critics to reflect on peers whom they admired. Givhan praised the author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell as well as The Wall Street Journal’s fashion critic Teri Agins. Tonchi paid tribute to his fellow Italians, the late fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi and the author and Vogue Italia art and fashion critic Mariuccia Casadio. For Trebay, the work of author and fashion historian Anne Hollander was paramount in cultivating his perspectives on the intimate relationship between the body and clothing. Ultimately, the panelists’ critiques and observations advocated for fashion to be integrated and accepted as a part of a more informed cultural dialogue. Perhaps, the takeaway from this critical discussion could be best summarized by Tonchi’s obvious yet critical advice for the future generation of aspiring fashion writers in the audience – know your history!

Gisela Aguilar is completing her MA in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design. Her thesis explores the evolving modes of consumption and production of fashion discourse specifically within print magazines and online fashion media.

Posted in Fashion & Technology, Issue #4, Lectures, Publications, Research/University Programmes

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A Panel on Fashion Criticism featuring Stefano Tonchi, Robin Givhan, and Guy Trebay to celebrate the new issue

by Francesca Granata

NB: Change of Room Update: Due to high demand, we changed the location to the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th on the second floor. Again to RSVP, please visit eventbrite (more seats have been added!).

Coming up this Tuesday March 12th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th Street at Parsons the New School for Design is a panel on fashion criticism to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects on the same topic. The panel features Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Stefano Tonchi (editor-in-chief of W magazine) and Guy Trebay (New York Times culture and style reporter) and will be moderated by me.

If interested, please RSVP here as space is limited.

The issue, the journal’s fourth print edition, features interviews with Givhan, Tonchi, and Trebay as well as Judith Thurman (New Yorker), Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), and other leading fashion critics. Praised by the Columbia Journalism Review for covering “the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective,” it includes contributions from alumni of Parsons MA Fashion Studies and MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. It was designed by Sarah Smith, a graduate of Parsons BFA in Communication Design.

The panel is made possible by the generosity of the School of Art and Design History and Theory and the MA Fashion Studies.

Posted in Issue #4, Lectures, Publications, Research/University Programmes

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Fashion Projects #4 Editorial Letter

by Francesca Granata

This issue explores fashion criticism through a series of interviews with leading contemporary fashion critics. It was conceived as the result of a genuine curiosity to delve into such a rich yet understudied area of culture—a curiosity which is in part personal. The other member of my household—Fashion Projects contributor Jay Ruttenberg—worked as a music critic for the best part of his 20s and 30s and, thus, discussions about the way in which certain areas of culture are so extensively covered vis-à-vis others (as well as more general discussions of the changing face of journalism) made for f requent dinner conversation. It seemed to me that, in the last decade, fashion criticism has been going through a phase of legitimization that other realms of popular culture criticism, such as rock and film criticism, had undergone decades earlier,when critics such as Greil Marcus,Robert Christgau, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris emerged.What also made this issue particularly timely is that with the establishment of fashion as an academic field of study, one runs the risk of forgetting the important work done by critics, who often represent the first line of scholarship on a subject.

This issue does not aim to provide an exhaustive look at contemporary fashion criticism, and is clearly New York–biased, however, common threads do arise. One of the recurrent themes that transpires is fashion criticism’s struggle for legitimization. As Robin Givhan, previously of the Washington Post and currently at the Daily Beast, points out, “The fashion industry is a victim of terrible sexism,” which comes “from both men and women.” Significantly,  Givhan was the first fashion critic to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize—something which only happened in 2006. Perhaps more problematic was the statement that the Puli tzer released in conjunction with her award, claiming that Givhan’s writings, “Transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”—thus implying, unwittingly, that fashion resides outside the realm of culture.

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This is Not A Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay

by Jay Ruttenberg

Illustration by Nathan Gelgud

Guy Trebay, of the New York Times, defines himself as a cultural critic and even when working the traditional fashion beat, allows his attention to wander into that broader realm. Although he operates without a column, Trebay’s articles are easy to spot. Like some debonair newsman of Hollywood lore, he reports from exotic corners of the globe. He is cynical without being closed-minded or small, and writes about glamour with neither aspirational veneration nor wanton bloodlust. His writing on style betrays a love for the fashion world, yet he does not hesitate to shiv those who have it coming. Most conspicuously, his every sentence is spun with a panache that seems perhaps too opulent for newsprint, even that of the Times. “The lush mane was ratted and back-combed into a frowsy beehive, the kind in which hoodlums of legend used to conceal their razor blades,” he wrote about Amy Winehouse shortly after her death. “Her basic eyeliner became an ornate volute, a swath of clown makeup, a cat mask.”

Prior to landing at the Times’ Sunday Styles section, in 2000, Trebay spent two decades at the Village Voice. Where his current post finds him traipsing between Miami art parties and Milan menswear shows, his Voice column—anthologized in the 1994 book In the Place To Be: Guy Trebay’s New York (Temple University Press)—sent the writer to more humble quarters, often up in the Bronx. If his change of landscape follows the New York zeitgeist, Trebay’s history also lends his fashion writing an unavoidable socioeconomic undertone. “Once it starts to be just about clothes,” he says, “I’m out.”

Trebay met Fashion Projects in a small conference room at the New York Times building, sandwiching the interview between reporting trips to Europe and Los Angeles.

Fashion Projects: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a fashion critic, but a cultural critic.

Guy Trebay: That’s right. First of all, what is a fashion critic? What is that? I mean, it’s not a very developed critical discipline. It seems to me that for decades, it was a kind of business reporting. But somewhere along the line, in a very wholesome way, it evolved into getting some critical discipline. I guess it’s like movies. In the beginning, there were no movie critics. At a certain point in our period, fashion developed something of the valence, culturally, that movies had.

FP: When?

GT: I’d guess the ’80s, but I really don’t know. When I first started writing about this, it was in a much broader context. I was writing about the city for the Village Voice—I wasn’t writing about fashion, per say. But fashion shows would come to town like the circus, and it would change the atmosphere of the streets. You were aware that there was this population of people coming in from who knew where, and models like gazelles were leaping over sidewalks. And you were like, “Well, this is interesting.” But in those days, it was a small and very contained world. The knowledge wasn’t widely dispersed. That has changed so radically. I came to the Times in 2000 and by then, IMG had gotten into the business. IMG was a sports promotion company, as everybody knows. But Mark McCormack, the founder, looked at the landscape and said, “Where am I gonna find another thing that is as translatable across cultures and—without the necessity for language comprehension—can sell as an image language. That’s when they got heavily into fashion and started these fashion weeks. They bought into New York Fashion Week and it became this global plague of fashion weeks.

FP: Before that was it simply an industry event?

GT:
It was a trade week. For all that I’ve poked fun at the proliferation of fashion week—the Bulgarian Fashion Week and whatnot—it’s very useful. There’s a circuit that people routinely follow in this business: New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Over time, people have talked about how it can all be done online, but that absolutely isn’t the case. The longer I’ve been around it, the more I’ve become aware of the way that information is transmitted through the tribes or the pack. It’s quite beautiful, actually.

FP: Why do you think it couldn’t work online?

GT: The same with everything else that has to do with person-to-person contact. It’s over mediated. For all that it’s so global, it’s pretty hermetic. Particularly with fashion, a lot of the cues, being visual, are too subtle.

FP: Do you mean not being able to see the texture of garments in fashion week slideshows?

GT: No, I think those are great. But I’ve always been interested in the sociology. And that’s a little more opaque online, which is more garment-based. Also, there’s another thing that happens online, which is the super narrativization around sites like the Sartorialist. That’s a very editorialized site. It’s one guy’s idea of what some kinds of people look like or should look like. It’s very successfully put across. But at the same time, when I look at the Sartorialist, I’m much less struck by the clothes—or whatever people think they are putting across with the clothes—than by the strings. The degree to which people want to create narrative around you based on a picture of you and your clothes is very compelling to me. People are telling themselves stories about other people based on the way they tie a scarf. Which we probably do in real life, but it has a little more practical utility in real-time encounters than it does online. There’s a little whistling in the dark happening, where everybody’s telling themselves a story that doesn’t really have to do with the other. And fashion is about the other—you require social interaction for it to get off the ground. [Pauses] God, I hate those.

FP: Tape recorders?

GT: Yeah. I never use them. When I was a kid, I wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview

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“Women’s Work”: An Interview with Judith Thurman

by Francesca Granata


Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

It is an humbling experience to write about Judith Thurman—her beautiful and succinctly crafted sentences haunting one’s imaginary. I vividly remember reading “The Wolf at the Door,” her profile of Vanessa Beecroft linking the Italian performance artist’s work to her bulimia, which she published in 2003 and discussing it animatedly with art friends and colleagues. However, it was her profile of Rei Kawakubo and the unique lyricism she employed to cover a subject so elusive such as fashion, that imprinted her name in my consciousness. Thurman started writing about fashion for the New Yorker, relatively late in her career, as an extension of her interest in femininity and women’s subjects—or what she calls “women’s work.” Previously, she wrote primarily about literature and the arts for the New Yorker and other publications, in addition to two biographies: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (a recipient of the National Book Award) and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. The latter book, on a controversial literary figure and sexual libertine—which Philip Roth described as an “essential biography by a stylish writer of great sympathetic understanding and intellectual authority”—clearly foreshadows Thurman’s interest in fashion and its relation to gender and sexuality. Similarly to other critics interviewed, she sees fashion’s and fashion criticism’s relation to femininity as the reason behind its dismissal as a serious pursuit—a reception that her beautifully crafted and rigorously researched articles stand to rectify.

On a pleasant summer day, I sat in her well-tended garden in Manhattan to discuss her thoughts on fashion criticism and her own fore` into it for the New Yorker. Many of her articles on fashion and other “women’s work” can be found in Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, published by Picador.

Fashion Projects: I was wondering how you came to your current post writing about fashion at the New Yorker?

JT: It was sort of happenstance. I followed fashion, but not professionally. I had worked at The New Yorker before I left to write the biography of Colette. David Remnick, who had just taken up the editorship of the magazine in 1999 said, “Why don’t you come back and work for us? I know you can write about books and art, but what else can you do? Is there something else you really want to do?” To which I replied “Actually I would love to write about fashion. I think I would always be an outsider; I am not going to write about it as an insider, like my great friend Holly Brubach a wonderful fashion critic who covered the collections. I said I don’t want to do that and you don’t want me to do it.”  He said, “You are right.” So that’s how I started.

FP: So you started writing about fashion, somewhat recently, in the last decade or so. What drew you to the subject?

JT: I see it as an important element of culture and itself a culture. That really interests me. It is a form of expression, a kind of language dealing with identities. And the aesthetic of it also drew me to it. I love clothes and couture and its history is very interesting to me. For instance, I have always gone to museums and studied the clothing in the paintings. However, I don’t particularly like the fashion world and I try not to write about the business side of it.

FP: So you see yourself more as a cultural critic writing about fashion as opposed to a more traditional fashion critic covering the collections?

JT: Yes, although I have written about the collections. I used to go once a year to do one collection, whether it was menswear or couture or Paris or New York. I kind of stopped doing that. They were very hard pieces to write, since I wasn’t actually critiquing the clothes, I was trying to find some sort of zeitgeist that was coming out of the collections. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t.

FP: It can be oddly tedious to read about the collections, simply because there are so many. In the introduction to your most recent book, Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, you wrote that what the various essays had in common, including the ones about fashion, was that they were about “women’s work.” You write a lot about fashion and gender. I was curious how you see the relation between fashion and femininity, considering that, for women of your generation, fashion was thought of as somewhat anti-feminist?

JT: That’s exaggerated. In the 1970s when I was young and starting my career, there was a kind of hard-core feminist view that fashion was frivolous. I never shared it, because I think the impulse to decorate your body and adorn yourself goes back in time: men do it; birds do it! I always thought it was legitimate and interesting. Having lived in Europe for a long time, I also think of this resistance towards fashion as an American rather puritanical thing that has to do with the Eros of fashion and the relation between fashion and sex. I think that those relations are interesting and legitimate, just as they are in writing.

FP: So did you ever find any resistance to the fact that you were writing about fashion?

JT: Yes there is resistance. Not really at the New Yorker. In a certain sense, it is a magazine that is often criticized for not having enough women’s voices. There is a tendency that I disapprove of and resent, not just at the New Yorker, that still thinks of fashion criticism and fashion writing as a woman’s page activity. Part of that is the fashion world—this bubble-headed non-sensical thing. But of course, it is very serious, when you think of the kind of resources, the oxygen that it takes in the culture, [fashion] is actually a really important pursuit and certainly as important as some of the idiotic political discourse. I am not saying all of it, but with something like Weinergate, are you following the story as a serious pursuit? More serious or less serious that a brilliant designer, like McQueen who is challenging a set of conventions? No. But there is a kind of feeling that fashion is a soft subject that is a woman’s subject, that is a frivolous subject, that is a lesser subject. I disagree with that.

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Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

On occasion of her new book on fashion design education, Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process (AVA, February 2013), Fiona Dieffenbacher–director of the BFA in Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design–reflects on new and exciting approaches to fashion education:

by Fiona Dieffenbacher

The main question to be asked of fashion education today is “Are we training students to design clothes or to create fashion?” To be makers, creators, or both?” At Parsons The New School for Design we have re-approached our curriculum to address these questions, which has led to innovative, new pathways for our students to develop as designers.

In order to understand the difference between the spheres of making and creating fashion, we have focused on design thinking as a method of envisioning a reality that does not yet exist, and as a means for achieving innovation. Fashion thinking involves harnessing the vast array of skills at the designer’s disposal, while embracing the chaos of the process itself. This might include upending traditional approaches or reapporpriating them to unearth new ways of creating and making clothes.

“Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process” highlights the work of nine students, documenting their responses to a variety of design briefs and their process: from idea to concept and design. These projects demonstrate that there are multiple entry points into that process and a million ways out. In between there are some consistent doors that each designer will go through (albeit in varying orders) and there are consistent tools they will utilize to accomplish the end result, but the rest is up for grabs. Emerging designers must learn to develop both their own personal philosophy of design and a particular way of working, which involves taking ownership of the process itself.

Traditionally, fashion design texts have tended to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the design process: research – sketch – flat-pattern – drape – fabrication – make. While this order works for many designers, and are essential building blocks of the design process, this does not work for all. At Parsons we have developed a curriculum that encourages a variety of approaches to design versus heralding a formulaic method. If we persist in training fashion students to design via a process that is rote and mundane, we have missed the point entirely.

Not everyone begins with a sketch; indeed some don’t sketch at all. Isabel Toledo is one such example, “I don’t start new things at the sketch pad or the drawing board. For me, fashion design begins at the sewing machine and the pattern-making table. I know that I am creating a design when I make things with my hands, giving them form and shape, often inventing new techniques to fold and manipulate cloth as I experiment with my designs and perfect them over time.”[1]

Dissatisfaction with a particular way of working can also lead to a breakthrough in the design process and this was true for Rei Kawakubo, two years before her first presentation in Paris in 1979. I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.” Speaking of her decision, Harold Koda commented on her process, “…‘to start from zero’… has become a constant of her design process. Season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo obliterates her past… Liberated from the rules of construction, she pursues her essentially intuitive and reactive solutions, which often result in forms that violate the very fundamentals of apparel.”[2]

In the BFA Fashion Design program here at Parsons, we have witnessed a distinct shift away from a right/wrong philosophy of teaching toward a more problem-based approach to learning. A student-centric model now exists where the fundamentals of design, construction, digital and drawing are taught in tandem with a full roster of studio electives and liberal arts that students select from a wide variety of options open to them across our university, The New School. Students learn traditional techniques and immediately apply them within the context of their own approach to design. In doing so they begin to articulate their own aesthetic and visual vocabulary from the outset of their experience in the program. Additionally, students are now encouraged to develop a central body of work that is re-contextualized across their suite of electives, which informs their work in new ways.

There is no “right” way to approach design; there are no “wrong” turns. Everything matters. Designers are problem-solvers and problems present challenges that often lead to creative solutions that could not have been conceived of any other way. Within the unpredictability of the process ‘mistakes’ transform into new ideas, yielding fresh concepts that drive silhouette and form forward. Innovation happens on the heels of error in the midst of chaos and complexity.

Jie Li, “Knitting and Pleating”.


[1] “Roots of Style, Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion” by Isabel Toledo

[2] “ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo,” MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art], Detroit, Exhibition catalogue, March 2008

Fiona Dieffenbacher is Assistant Professor and Director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons The New School for Design. An alumna of the program, Dieffenbacher has served as a faculty member since 2005. Prior to being appointed director of the BFA program, she served as the director of external partnerships for the School of Fashion, where she oversaw projects with Coach, Louis Vuitton, MCM, Swarovski, LVMH and others. In her current role, Dieffenbacher has led the program though the development and implementation of a new curriculum. Dieffenbacherholds an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textiles from the University of Ulster in the UK. At Parsons, she was the recipient of a Designer of The Year Award (1993). In 1998, she launched a ready-to-wear label Fiona Walker, which was shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and sold at select retailers in the U.S and internationally. The collection was featured in WWD, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Lucky, and Cosmopolitan

Posted in Designers, Publications, Research/University Programmes, Textiles

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Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo 1971-1991

by Francesca Granata


Veruschka wearing Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Vogue 1972, Photo: Richard Avedon

As part of my newish position at Parsons, I taught one of the most interesting and stimulating classes I have ever taught. For a course I developed, called Fashion Curation, graduate students from various programs–Fashion Studies, History of Decorative Arts and Design and MA in Architecture–curated an exhibition of the work of the late Italian-Argentinean designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo in the Parsons Gallery at 66 Fifth Avenue, which is due to open December 4th. Focusing on his use of innovative stretch fabric, “Designing the Second Skin” is the first exhibition of the work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in New York. A special thanks goes to Martin Price, di Sant’ Angelo’s partner and collaborator, as well as to Tae Smith.

Below is the press release and a sneak preview of some of the garments that will be on view:

On Tuesday, December 4, the opening reception for “Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991” will be held from 6 to 8 PM at the Aronoson Gallery on 66 Fifth Avenue. The exhibition is curated by graduate students in the MA Fashion Studies, MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design, and Master of Architecture program at Parsons under the supervision of faculty member Francesca Granata. The exhibit will be on view until Friday, December 14.

Parsons presents the first New York exhibition of the work of designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, an innovative Italian-born American designer from the 1960s through 1980s who explored the ways in which garments truly become the wearer’s second skin. Playing with texture, transparency, and newly discovered fabric technology, Sant’Angelo examined the relationship between exposure and concealment. A highlight from the exhibition is a nude sequined jumpsuit worn by Naomi Campbell and featured in an editorial shoot for Harper’s Bazaar in 1991.

The works on view are drawn from the Parsons Fashion Archive—a collection of nearly 10,000 garments, including a number of pieces donated to Parsons by the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Sant’Angelo works were originally donated to the Met by Parsons faculty member Martin Price, Sant-Angelo’s design assistant and partner, who has been an instrumental force in keeping Sant’Angelo’s spirit alive.
Event Details:

Designing the Second Skin: Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991
Dates: Tuesday, December 4 to Friday, December 14
Opening Reception: Tuesday, December 4 from 6 to 8 PM
Gallery Hours: Open daily from 12 to 6 PM, open until 8 PM on Thursday
Location: Parsons The New School for Design, Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue
Admission: Free and Open to the Public. Wine and Hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Textiles

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Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950

Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 19 May 2012-6 January 2013

Contemporary Ballgowns

by Jeffrey Horsley

‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950′ is the first temporary exhibition to be held in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s newly restored Octagon Court, a spacious gallery with a high, domed ceiling, long the home of the Museum’s Fashion Galleries. Curated by Oriole Cullen, Curator of Modern Textiles & Fashion, and Sonnet Stanfill, Curator of Twentieth Century & Contemporary Fashion, the exhibition comprises over 60 outfits by British-based fashion designers from the 1950s to the present day, combining items drawn from the Museum’s holdings alongside loans from designers. The exhibition is staged in two sections; ‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ on the ground floor, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ on the mezzanine level. The press release proposes that the sections evoke respectively ‘the excitement of preparing for a ball in a grand country house’ and ‘the glamour of the red carpet or a couture presentation.’

‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ is staged in a low-ceilinged space defined by large, fixed vitrines. Exhibits are organised chromatically, with cases themed to gowns in black and red, black and emerald, acid yellows, fawn and pinks, blues and ivories. This is a particularly effective strategy, exerting a visual harmony across garments from different periods designed for different occasions. Case interiors are painted a sympathetic pastel tone with either a matching carpet or black and white tile-effect flooring. Several vitrines have backgrounds of photographic reproductions of gilded panelling from the Music Room of Norfolk House, London. Many cases present two-dimensional, cut-out images of furniture and fittings evocative of eighteenth century English town house décor, with rear-mounted LEDs casting a glowing aura around each image.

On the mezzanine level, a floor-plan unencumbered by fixed display cases and circumscribed by an open railing creates a gallery that appears to float beneath the expansive dome of the Octagon Court. Here, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ is arranged on three runway-like podia, each set under skeletal metal-framed cupolas clad with white net that echo the architecture of the gallery and hint at the bell-like skirt of the traditional ballgown. Inside each construction hangs an illuminated stylised chandelier, composed of flat, fret-cut panels. The podia are surrounded by strings of giant pearls with slowly revolving mannequins poised on several of the pearls.

Ballgowns Since 1950

Retail-type mannequins, finished in a pale-grey colour, without indication of make-up or hair-style, are used throughout. The mannered poses of the mannequins, often incongruous in exhibitions of more humble attire, appear fitting in the presentation of these extravagant outfits – their affected gestures conveying a sense of artifice that reflects the theatricality of the situations for which the gowns are intended. Notably, a striding mannequin, head held high and arms spread wide spectacularly displays a kaftan-like dress by Yuki, in raspberry-pink silk chiffon from 1972. Two further tableaux (reminiscent of the fashion photography of Tim Walker, who shot the image for the exhibition poster) are particularly effective; a mannequin in strips of red and grey silk chiffon, by Amanda Wakeley straddles a chandelier which has seemingly crashed to the floor; a figure wearing a pink and dark fawn silk satin gown by Hardy Amies languishes over a sofa which is represented as a photographic cut-out, with a pair of similarly rendered greyhounds adding to the chic elegance of the scene.

Ballgowns - Yuki

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Posted in Exhibitions, Museums

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Fashion Projects began in New York in 2004, with the aim to create a platform to highlight the importance of fashion — especially “experimental” fashion — within current critical discourses. Through interviews with a range of artists, designers, writers and curators, as well as through other planned projects and exhibits, we hope to foster a dialogue between theory and practice across disciplines.

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