Book Release—Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body  

by Francesca Granata

Leigh Bowery, July 1989, Look 9, Photo Fergus Greer, courtesy of the Artist 

Leigh Bowery, July 1989, Look 9, Photo Fergus Greer, courtesy of the Artist 

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my book, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body  (I.B. Tauris)Experimental Fashion is a study of designers and performance artists at the turn of the twenty-first century whose work challenges established codes of what represents the fashionable body through strategies of parody, humor, and inversion. The book argues that the proliferation of bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion during this period was influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic and mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive policing of bodily borders that characterized the period. 

Rei Kawakubo, "Body Meets Dress", Spring/Summer 1997. Courtesy of Firstview

Rei Kawakubo, "Body Meets Dress", Spring/Summer 1997. Courtesy of Firstview

Starting in the 1980s, the book investigates the ways designers such as Georgina Godley challenged the masculinized silhouette of the power suit and its neoliberal exhortations, while Comme des Garçonss Rei Kawakubo questioned the sealed classical body of fashion, in part thanks to her collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Cindy Sherman. Fashion designer, performance artist, and club figure Leigh Bowery upended gender codes and challenged fears surrounding the bodies of gay men through the decade. The book also examines Martin Margiela’s “deconstruction fashion” of the 1990s and the way his work challenges norms of garment construction and sizing. It enters the new millennium through the work of Bernhard Willhelm, which shows the increased cross-pollination of fashion and performance art and the renewed interest in upending codes of masculinity. The book concludes by examining how experimental fashion—particularly in its grotesque and carnivalesque variety—moved from the margins to the mainstream through the pop phenomenon of Lady Gaga.

Naturally, there are countless people to thank for helping me with the book. These include Caroline Evans, Alistair O'Neil, and Elizabeth Wilson (my dissertation advisors at Central Saint Martins); Philippa Brewster at I.B. Tauris; Kaat Debo, who allowed me to do research in the ModeMuseum Collection in Antwerp; and  Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, who granted me a one-year fellowship to do research in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume. I could not be happier with the book! It can be ordered here.

For those in New York, save the date for the book launch on March 16th at Parsons School of Design at 6pm in Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building  65 West 11th Street, where I will be in conversation with fashion designer Bernhard Wilhelm.

Martin Margiela, Enlarged Collection, Autumn/Winter 2000, courtesy of Firstview

Martin Margiela, Enlarged Collection, Autumn/Winter 2000, courtesy of Firstview

On the Beauty of the Already Known: A Review of the 'Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia' Exhibition at MoMu Antwerp Fashion Museum

Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

Installation by 'Honest by' Bruno Pieters in collaboration with Marie Sophie Beinke. Photo: Stany Dederen

by Roberto Filippello

In the face of current accelerationist tendencies in political and social theory pointing toward an intensification and repurposing of capitalism, the exhibition "Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia," on view at MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp until February 26th, auspicates the return to a slow temporality that allows for the exploration of intimate connections with oneself and with others, suspending the pervasive mediation of the virtual into our everyday lives.

Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Christian Wijnants. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

The exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of Rik Wouters's death. This Belgian fauvist painter (1882-1916) devoted a large part of his oeuvre to the exploration of serene and intimate domesticity through portraits of his wife Nel. His longing for a bucolic way of life, detached from urban frenzy, was informed by David Thoreau's transcendentalist inquiry into simple living as a conduit for personal introspection, and took artistic form in a series of unfinished canvases depicting scenes of harmonious homeliness.

 The exhibition, thanks to a multi-disciplinary curatorial philosophy, combines different media to dissect ideas, phenomena and aesthetics. Paintings and sculptures by Rik Wouters are displayed alongside ceramics, interiors and clothing by a number of Antwerp contemporary artists (BLESS, Atelier E.B., Berlinde de Bruyckere, Ben Sledsens) and fashion designers (A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester, Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann, Bernhard Willhelm, Walter Van Beirendonck, Christian Wijnants, Dries Van Noten, Jan-Jan Van Essche, Martin Margiela, Marina Yee, Bruno Pieters, Anne Kurris) who have each in their own way addressed the desire to regain the secure intimacy of domestic life. Unfolding through seventeen thematic sections, such as 'Indoors,' 'Looking Outside,' 'Sculptures and Ceramics,' and 'Handicrafts,' the exhibition traces a visual narrative of how simple living has been translated into figurative and applied arts by artists and designers seeking shelter in an intimate creative environment, away from the turmoil of contemporary urban societies.

Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Dirk Van Saene's ceramic from Essaouira (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 A renewed interest in artisanal techniques such as weaving, ceramics, and dyeing, as well as the usage of materials found in nature, are the key principles of the so-called "slow movement" to which this exhibit gives voice. As a reaction to the industrialization of fashion and its often unbearable hectic pace, the designers featured hereby make objects that are imbued with affective potential insofar as they result from a pondered and lived-through handcrafting practice. Their personal corporeal interaction with the matter reflects a utopian longing for an authentic way of being, living, and doing in the world. Antwerp-based fashion designer Christian Wijnants, for instance, dyes wool by hand and assembles collages of fabric using various application techniques such as knitting, embroidery and crochet. This hints at a bodily doing that disentangles fashion-making from the maze of corporate regulation and outsourced production to focus on the intimacy of affective engagement with fabrics and textures.

Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Ensembles by Walter Van Beirendonck (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

Reframing one's life in Thoreau's woods or in Thomas More's fictional island society, however, is not the only way to materialize utopic living. Throughout the exhibition, utopia comes to coincide with the beauty of the already known, figured through the making of Dirk Van Saene's home crafts, Bernhard Willhelm's crocheted accessories, or through the night silk gowns of A.F. Vandevorst, Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackerman. In a sensationalist era where technologies set out to design posthuman bodies, the familiarity with domestic attire conjures a sense of safety and tranquillity freed from the obsession with aesthetic futurism. According to Roland Barthes, the mark of the utopian is the quotidian (Sade, Fourier, Loyola).

Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Installation by Marina Yee. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

It is this kind of utopia that the exhibition ends up exploring: rather than advocating the 19th century idealist project of going back to nature, which was indeed dear to Rik Wouters, who moved to the edge of the Sonian Forest to live together with like-minded utopian artists. The exhibit seems to embody the concrete possibility of finding beauty and joy in the domestic setting. Utopia, as an affective structure, can be materialized through the regaining of what we already know in order to propel its yet undisclosed potentiality into the future. It consists of living with pragmatic and optimistic imagination: using the past, or the pre-existent, to act presently at the service of a better future.

Marina Yee, a member of the historically renowned fashion collective 'Antwerp Six,' which laid the foundation for current Belgian fashion culture, began to turn away from fashion's cyclical consumption in the 1980s and since then has worked at her own pace, focusing on sustainability and artistic development. In the exhibit, an oil painted replica of a 19th century camisole and a sculpture made of glass, silver, copper, wire and leather by Yee are on display. Bruno Pieters, with his collective ethical label 'Honest by Bruno Pieters' questions the norms and regulations enacted by mainstream fashion by sharing with the customer how the garments are manufactured, the hours required for their completion and the pay received by the seamstresses. These details constitute the core of his utopia for a sustainable future.

Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

Maison Martin Margiela's blanket becoming one with the interior. (Photo: Roberto Filippello)

 

These designers share a creative practice grounded in the ambition to redesign clothes, interiors and all the objects of the everyday life beyond the unethical limitations posed by industrialization, imagining a future in which applied arts contribute to human and environmental well-being. Such a perspective is invested with the optimism of finding beauty in the creative process and of letting the consumer participate in it: while acceleration has failed to produce a collective sense of accomplishment, slow movement and sustainability foster a sense of belonging in which harmony may be intimately felt and shared.  

Roberto Filippello is a fashion editor and writer whose academic expertise lies at the intersection of fashion studies and queer theory. He is an alumnus of the Master of Arts in Fashion Studies at Parsons The New School, where he has taught courses on the history of fashion and critical analysis of fashion photography. His current research focuses on the articulation of queer affectivity in fashion and pornography.

A Review of ‘Mode In Flux’ at Roca London Gallery

by Alessandro Esculapio

Left to right: THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarowski’ (2014); Cheng Peng, ‘Normal-In-Normal’ (2015); Michino Koshino, ‘Inflatable Jacket’ (2015); Nikelab x Sacai, ‘Tech Fleece Dress’ (SS 2015).

Left to right: THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarowski’ (2014); Cheng Peng, ‘Normal-In-Normal’ (2015); Michino Koshino, ‘Inflatable Jacket’ (2015); Nikelab x Sacai, ‘Tech Fleece Dress’ (SS 2015).

Fashion is known for always being in flux, but the expression is commonly used to describe the fleeting nature of trends. By contrast, the exhibition ‘Mode In Flux’, curated by White Line Projects studio and on view at Roca London Gallery until the 27th of August, focusses on ‘notions of adaptability in fashion design.’ In doing so, it redirects the conversation towards design innovation and conceptual approaches.        

The exhibition includes the work of fifteen practitioners and studios from the U.K., China, Japan, Italy, South Korea and the Netherlands. The displays feature garments, images, and videos which are accompanied by explanatory text. Where garments are not available, access to additional content is provided through a QR code. By scanning the codes with their phones, viewers are able to watch videos and read in-depth information on the practitioners and their work. While this curatorial stratagem in no way substitutes the material presence of clothing, it nonetheless allows to see the clothes in movement as well as to gain an insight into the design process. This is particularly helpful as collaboration and multidisciplinarity are central to all of the projects featured in the exhibition.

Mason Jung, Sleeping Suit from ‘Transformation Series’ (2009).

Mason Jung, Sleeping Suit from ‘Transformation Series’ (2009).

‘Mode In Flux’ is divided into four sections. The first one, ‘Transformative’, presents multi-purpose garments that change according to the wearer’s needs. Among the showcased projects are Mason Jung’s 2009 ‘Transformation Series’, which includes ingenious suits that double as sleeping bags and blankets that double as trousers, both inspired by Jung’s experiences in school and in the army. The name Sleeping Suit conveys the designer’s witty approach to tailoring, which aims to ‘awaken’ the crystallised conventions of suit-making. The concept of transformation is further explored through a multi-functional polyester shawl from Issey Miyake’s ongoing ‘Pleats Please’ collection which can be worn as scarf, top or dress, and Eunjeong Jeon’s Jigsaw-Puzzle top which, as the name suggests, can be reconfigured by the wearer into different shapes. More radical approaches to the concept of metamorphosis are presented through visuals from Hussein Chalayan’s 2007 collection ‘One Hundred and Eleven’, an exercise in sartorial remembrance for which he designed transformational dresses that evoked silhouettes from various historical eras, and a 2016 project by a group of students from the Royal College of Art called Refugee Wearable Shelter, which consists in a coat that doubles as sleeping bag and temporary dwelling and is reminiscent of Studio Orta’s celebrated Refuge Wear series.

Signature utility-wear by London-based brand Maharishi, established in 1994 by Hardy Blechman. 

Signature utility-wear by London-based brand Maharishi, established in 1994 by Hardy Blechman. 

The following section, ‘Versatility’, focuses on clothing that adapts to different users. The military-inspired garments by Maharishi studio recontextualise functional details such as camouflage, internal carry straps and adjustable elements into modern urban garb. The concept of size-free clothing is explored by Chen Peng’s ‘Normal-In-Normal’ collection, whose oversized designs are created through 3-D body scanning and Michiko Koshino’s signature unisex inflatable jacket, a waterproof, transparent jacket in PVC that can be worn both inflated and deflated according to the wearer’s mood.

The third section, ‘Responsive’, features garments that respond to stimuli from the wearer’s body or the surrounding environment. Smart textiles dominate this part of the exhibition. Among the objects displayed are Grado Zero Espace’s prototype for their ‘Shape Memory Shirt’, whose woven titanium threads allow it to shrink up when heated and return to its original shape when cooled, Massimo Osti’s ski apparel for Stone Island, which changes colour at low temperatures thanks to thermo-sensitive microcapsules and Maria Blaisse’s 1996 ‘Moving Back’ top in EVA foam, a flexible material that stretches to create numerous silhouettes and returns to its original shape when unworn.

THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ headdress (2014).

THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ headdress (2014).

The fourth and final section, ‘Evolution: Adaptable Bodies’, explores future scenarios that challenge the limits of our body. The projects in this segment are speculative and diverse in approach, but all of them engage with the idea of an adaptable second skin that enhances, protects and expands the dermis. Ying Gao’s ‘Neutralité: Can’t and Won’t’ consists of two interactive dresses that react to the on-looker’s facial expressions. The two garments stop morphing as soon as the on-looker manifests an emotional response, thus forcing them to maintain a neutral expression if they wish to see the dresses change. The process was unfortunately shown only on video, which was a missed opportunity. ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ turned the attention back to the wearer. Designer Lauren Bowker created a headdress covered with 4000 Swarovski gemstones which responds chemically to the wearer’s brain activity inducing different colour changes on the surface of the piece. The most forward-thinking project featured is perhaps Lucy McRae’s ‘Future Day Spa’, a personalised treatment that simulates the experience of being hugged by delivering controlled vacuum pressure to the body. The viewer can follow the one-hundred participants who signed up to take part in the installation in Los Angeles in 2015. Originally created to prepare astronauts for space missions, the Future Day Spa may be used in the future to help people who suffer with depression.

McRae’s project is a good conclusion to the exhibition as it brings together the many aspects explored in ‘Mode In Flux’, namely technology, the body and well-being. As a venue Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Studio, amplifies the future-oriented trajectory of the show. The dialogue between the practitioners’ shared desire to create a safe architecture for the body and the curvilinear, maternal elements Hadid is known for makes one hope that the future will be less cold and impersonal that most sci-fi fiction would have us believe. 

———

Alessandro Esculapio is a fashion writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK. He holds an MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons the New School for Design. He co-authored the books Just Fashion: Critical Cases On Social Justice In Fashion (2012) and The Fashion Condition (2014). His current research looks at contemporary fashion practices that articulate the mnemonic function of clothing

Bill Cunningham: Multimedia Man

by Jay Ruttenberg

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

For the fourth Fashion Projects print issue (Fashion Projects #4, 2013), Jay Ruttenberg wrote about how Bill Cunningham's work foreshadowed today's multimedia journalism.

Recent years have not exactly been a walk in the park for print journalists, a comically beleaguered species plagued by technological hurdles both real and imagined. Yet of all the indignities the modern newspaperman faces, perhaps the most absurd has been the lunge toward corny multimedia reporting. Publishers love to trumpet their hyperactive ventures into unfamiliar mediums. But from a reader’s perspective, most of this content proves inane. Wading into the website of even the strongest magazine or newspaper can be entering perilous territory: Music journalists natter endlessly over streamed songs. Slideshows tick on interminably, like the unedited vacation photos of a bore. Pasty film critics surface onscreen as if trapped by the light of day. Gifted journalists turn up in wacky videos that can verge on hack comedy routines.  

Of course, in rare instances this multimedia content can prove riveting. One suspects that as publications open their ranks to a generation of journalists who came of age under the Internet’s spell, such reporting will flow more naturally alongside its print foundation. In the meantime, readers must make due with sporadic triumphs. And when it comes to the realm of the web extra, few journalist heavies flourish like Bill Cunningham, the famed New York Times fashion photographer. 

Cunningham is an unlikely master of this medium. He is in his 80s—a dinosaur even by Times standards—and a suspected Luddite wed to actual film. He is said to have come by his Times web segment, a spinoff of his weekly On the Street article, reluctantly. His bedrock remains the two columns he mans in the Sunday Styles: the print version of On the Street (a patchwork of his street fashion pictures) and, to a lesser extent, Evening Hours (the society photos that encompass his less exciting beat).

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:

 

On the Street is an unusually whimsical column—among the quirkiest and most personal features in the Times. Both its print and web versions are devoted to the photographs Cunningham takes of women (along with the occasional man or dog) stepping out in Manhattan, generally in parts north. Each column centers around a loose trend that develops in Cunningham’s eye as he putters around town on his bicycle: a sudden wave of plaids, vests, shirtdresses, stripes, young people walking the High Line’s ad hoc catwalk, Upper East Side dowagers who have made bold millinery selections, or women emulating Holly Golightly. In the paper, the pictures run small—he squeezes over 20 shots into half a page—with no captions or IDs. A brief paragraph at the center explains the week’s theme with classic Times sobriety. “Echoes of Ms. Hepburn’s boat necks are reappearing,” the Breakfast at Tiffany’s column states. “One wondered what Holly would look like today.” 

The multimedia version of On the Street takes this framework and blows it up. As the same photographs progress in a slideshow, Cunningham speaks of his week’s gleanings in a funny voice juiced with an old Boston accent and the infectious glee of a cultural enthusiast. “Something mahvelous has been happening when I’m out photographing people going to work on Fifth Avenue,” his Holly Golightly segment begins. “I saw young kids leaning against Tiffany’s façade, and they were having breakfast. And I thought, Wait a minute! … Look at these people! They’re reflecting Holly Golightly, 50 year later. It was very curious! And then I started to wonder, Well, what would the present-day Holly Golightly wear?” As the segment ticks on, he posits about a contemporary Holly’s continued affection for black while commenting on the specific looks of select subjects. 

The photographer delivers these pieces with a charming off-the- cough air. Apparently, this is no put-on. In Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’s fine documentary about the photographer that opened at Film Forum last year, Cunningham is depicted taping his weekly segment. He sits at a table, takes a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and then starts riffing into the microphone in apparent stream of consciousness. Whereas at other points of the movie the photographer is portrayed torturing his designer with painstaking layout decisions and deadline-bending edits, he approaches the online narration nonchalantly, as if he is gossiping with a friend. The effect is wondrous: Suddenly, the website of the world’s greatest news organization appears hijacked by an elderly eccentric, sounding off in a highly idiosyncratic manner about his field of expertise. In discussing his pictures, the photo journalist becomes part professor, part artist, part radio DJ, and part town nut. Digesting the segment is a wholly unique experience. 

Perhaps more pertinently, with his web columns the octogenarian achieves a goal that has eluded sundry younger journalists, availing himself of new technological possibilities without abandoning his original print mission or submitting to wanton Internet glitz. Rather, Cunningham uses the web to illuminate—and, arguably, improve upon—his work for the newspaper. The On the Street columns that run in the Sunday Times (and are faithfully archived on the website alongside the videos) speak to the fashion cognoscenti. To readers such as myself, unversed in the trade, their significance can grow fuzzy: What, exactly, unites these photographs? Why does it matter that this hodgepodge of Midtown office-workers are wearing scarves? Aside from the fact that they appear to be loitering outside of Tiffany & Co., how are these women channeling Truman Capote? It is with his web performances that Cunningham draws out the map. Within a few minutes, even a fashion ignoramus fully understands the week’s spread of photographs and is dosed with the photographer’s teeming zeal for his subject. The segment offers the perfect application of a multimedia feature. It is cultural criticism at its absolute finest.

Bill Cunningham on Deconstructivist Fashion

BILL CUNNINGHAM, PHOTOGRAPHS oF MARTIN MARGIELA, SPRINg/SUMMER 1990, "The COLLECTIONS" DETAILS, MARCH 1990

BILL CUNNINGHAM, PHOTOGRAPHS oF MARTIN MARGIELA, SPRINg/SUMMER 1990, "The COLLECTIONS" DETAILS, MARCH 1990

In remembrance of the great fashion photographer and critic Bill Cunningham, we are showing some of his lesser-known work, which he did for Details magazine in the 1980s and 1990s. During those years, Details was strikingly different from its later Condé Nast incarnation as a men’s style magazine. The magazine centered on fashion and featured extensive coverage of the Paris shows, often exceeding 30 pages—both written and photographed by Cunningham.

It is in these pages that Cunningham coined the term “deconstructivist” fashion to refer to the work of Martin Margiela. Against commonly held beliefs that tie the term to Japanese designs from the early 1980s, it  was first used in the English language by Cunningham to refer to fashion, in an article he published in Details of September 1989 to describe Martin Margiela’s autumn/winter 1989/90 collection, which was shown in Paris in March 1989. Only retrospectively was the word used to refer to Japanese designers of the 1980s. (Francesca Granata, "Deconstruction Fashion" The Journal of Design History, vol. 26, 2)

BIll CunninghAM, PhOTOGRAPHS Of MArTIN MArgiela SPRING/SuMMER 1990, "The Collections" Details March 1990

BIll CunninghAM, PhOTOGRAPHS Of MArTIN MArgiela SPRING/SuMMER 1990, "The Collections" Details March 1990

Cunningham used the term in its literal sense of undoing, taking apart a garment and accompanied his written articles with beautiful images from the collections:

Martin Margiela, formerly a Gaultier assistant, in this, his second collection on his own, provided quite a different vision of fashion for the 1990s: a beatnik, Existentialist revival … The construction of the clothes suggests a deconstructivist movement, where the structure of the design appears under attack, displacing seams, tormenting the surface with incisions. All suggest a fashion of elegant decay.

    Bill Cunningham, ‘The Collections’, Details, September 1989, 246.

BILL CUNNINGHAM, IMAGES AND TEXT ON MARTIN MARGIELA, AUTUMN/WINTER 1989, DETAILS, SEPTEMBER 1989

BILL CUNNINGHAM, IMAGES AND TEXT ON MARTIN MARGIELA, AUTUMN/WINTER 1989, DETAILS, SEPTEMBER 1989

 

BILL CUNNINGHAM, IMAGES AND TEXT On MARTIN MARGIELA, SPRINg/SUMMER 1990, DETails, MARCH 1990

BILL CUNNINGHAM, IMAGES AND TEXT On MARTIN MARGIELA, SPRINg/SUMMER 1990, DETails, MARCH 1990