Experimental Fashion Lecture at the Somerset House, London, April 6th

  Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

by Francesca Granata

I will be giving a lecture on my book "Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body" April 6th at the Somerset House in London organized in partnership with the Fashion Research Network.

I am particularly excited to discuss the work of Rei Kawakubo, whose exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is forthcoming. Most of my research on Kawakubo's work was, in fact, conducted at the Met's Costume Institute while I was there as a Polaire Weissman Research Fellow. Equally exciting was to research Kawakubo's collaboration with Merce Cunningham for Scenario at the Cunningham Archives, then located at Bank Street, and at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

For anyone interested in coming to the lecture and chatting afterwards about experimental fashion while sipping wine, please visit the Somerset House website, as advanced reservations are required.

 

Experimental Fashion's Book Launch on March 16th at Parsons School of Design, New York.

 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 

Please join us for the launch of Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body by Francesca Granata, Director of the MA Fashion Studies in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, the New School for Design.

The author will be in conversation with German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm and Charlene K. Lau, Parsons Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual and Material Culture.

The event details!

Thursday, March 16th, 6:30-9:00pm
Parsons School of Design
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building
65 West 11th Street
New York, NY

This event is free to the public and a reception will follow.
RSVP by clicking here.

Experimental Fashion (published by I.B. Tauris) is a study of designers and performance artists, including Leigh Bowery, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, and Bernhard Willhelm.

The book argues that the proliferation of bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion at the turn of the 21st century was influenced by feminism's desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. This proliferation was also tied to the AIDS epidemic and mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive policing of bodily borders that characterized the period.

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

   
  
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     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.

   
  
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   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.

   
  
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   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).

   
  
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   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.

   
  
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     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.

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

 Sansone1_CHC_8045_edit_color

Sansone1_CHC_8045_edit_color

by Mae Colburn Indigo dyeing workshop at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery. Photo: Chris Hyun Cho

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies: Design Incubator with Green Eileen’ (March 30-April 5, 2015) in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was a little like a game of Twister. Students, designers, farmers, and members of the public maneuvered around a portable loom, a knitting machine, an industrial sewing machine, and various other hand-crafting implements stationed throughout the gallery to examine the interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, testing areas of contact and overlap. Throughout the week, design samples accumulated on walls, tables, drying racks, and even on the radiators, whether de- and re- constructed sweaters, needle-felted fleece, or indigo dyed garments. Some were made in advance of the exhibition and others at workshops held throughout the week on topics ranging from fiber processing to bengala dying to machine knitting. A sense of purpose coursed through the exhibition, and so did a sense of excitement, the kind that emerges when people and materials meet.

Laura Sansone

, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with some of the broader ideas at work. What motivated you to put on the exhibition?

Laura Sansone: Well, I’m interested in this interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, specifically agrarian businesses, and specifically how those things can work together […] I think it can really help to create economic diversity and grow these smaller enterprises. That’s what motivated me to do this project and what motivates me in my own work as well. […] It’s not always appropriate for them to work together, but I think that it’s a way to start to see a shift, those moments when these two entities can come together - it can shift the economic power and be a good way to rethink how things are structured.

MC: And the idea to shape this into the ‘Design Incubator’?

LS: This started off as a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the students here at Parsons. The Green Eileen program is an initiative with Eileen Fisher where they take back clothing from their consumers, so they have people send back clothing and they resell it in green Eileen stores but the secondhand clothing that they can’t resell they call ‘third life’ and they ask designers to repurpose it. So I had been working on that, and in my quest to repurpose her clothing, I was mixing it with materials from the Hudson valley, from Upstate New York, […] so I started using those materials in combination with the repurposed secondhand clothing, and that became the parameter for the course I teach at Parsons, and also for this partnership. That’s really where this all began.

 Sansone2_CHC_8051_edit_color

Sansone2_CHC_8051_edit_color

Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi

MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?

LS: The prototypes were from students, and then we added to them during the exhibition. We had lots of workshops going on, and as we generated work we would hang it - so it was kind of an incubator where things were growing. The printed matter came from someone that I had met at the Textile Society of America conference in 2014, Helen Trejo, who is a PhD student at Cornell University and is writing her dissertation about the feasibility of a Fiber Shed in New York State. So we’ve been exchanging information over the past year and I asked her for permission to display some of her research and so a lot of the diagrams that were included in the exhibition were from her. She had some really great maps that showed where the mills and fiber farms are in New York, so that sort of located those for people who came into the gallery to see the work.

MC: What was a highlight of the exhibition for you?

LS: One highlight for me during this exhibition was having people from the farming community come and actually speak to the students about their experiences as farmers and fabric producers. We were talking about the supply chain and one of the farmers who came actually said, ‘I’m going to start right at the beginning of it, and I’m going to tell you what I feed my sheep,’ and I thought that was so incredible to have fashion and design students sitting there and listening to this and making that connection, that it starts with the fiber that comes from the animal, that it starts with the diet, and how that effects the quality of the fiber and the form – I think that’s a great lesson.

MC: To encourage designers to consider other variables beyond say, color and drape?

LS: That’s right. So for me, waste is essential. It’s something that I’ve always cared about and wanted to consider as a designer. Like, where do my cutoffs go? If I’m generating product, what kind of impact does it have? And with the natural dyes as well, we use the waste from farms, we use the carrot tops and concord grapes that you can’t sell – there’s this link to the origin of where things come from, and how that can be integrated into the design process. […] So [at the workshops] a lot of students were deconstructing sweaters and we were re-knitting them and I thought that was really exciting. I also have students who are working deconstructed sweaters into felted pieces, which is really great – mixing the fleece with the Eileen Fisher’s mohair and merino and cashmere materials.

 Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 6.38.22 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 6.38.22 PM

Map of New York State Fibershed showing fiber farms and mills. Helen Trejo Fiber Science & Apparel Design, PhD Student, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University.

MC: I thought it was interesting that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t appear in any of the material related to this exhibition.

LS: I was trying not to because what happens is that if things get overused – language – they become diluted and people start to dismiss it as something that isn’t important. So I think it’s really useful to always be rethinking things and reframing them. I think that’s part of growth in general. […] I was also trying to steer away from this word ‘artisanal’ because I think that’s also becoming diluted, but that it’s actually really important because ‘artisanal’ can talk about a smaller way to produce things, you know. It can talk about localizing things.

MC: But you did use the word ‘fashion’?

LS: Of course, absolutely, because I really want the fashion industry to play a critical role in changing things. I think it’s so important, because they’re responsible for a lot of the waste that we see in the supply chain – where we’re diminishing value where we could be increasing it. So yes, but I also see what I do as being completely cross-disciplinary. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with interiors. It’s dealing with architecture - we’re starting to think about how wool can be used as insulation, wool that is waste wool.

MC: So how do you envision the project moving forward?

LS: Well, I would like some designers, especially those who are located in New York and who are on this large-scale level, to build ties with some of these local artisans. They’re doing it globally, but I would really like to see it happening here in the U.S. So that’s something that I would like to see, and for me as a professor, I try to get my students to take on the responsibility of educating consumers. I think that trying to encourage them to design ethically and then to sort of take on this role of educating - I think it’s really necessary for designers: to take on this big task of shifting consumer behavior. You know it’s huge; in a capitalist system, it’s a huge thing to take on and designers need to take on that role.