A Review of “David Bowie Is”

Jay Ruttenberg reviewed "David Bowie Is" for Fashion Projects in January, 2015, as the show was concluding its run at the MCA in Chicago. On the occasion of the exhibition's takeover of the Brooklyn Museum, here is the review once more….

6033d9bodysuit
6033d9bodysuit

by Jay Ruttenberg

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

“David Bowie Is,” the museum retrospective of the singer that recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featured virtually every artistic medium imaginable. Included works extended to music, film, video, fashion, and, in Bowie’s portraits of his Berlin running buddy Iggy Pop, painting. One display case featured the star’s long-retired cocaine spoon—a redundancy, considering the exhibition’s inclusion of his “Life on Mars?” video.

The show originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and made its sole U.S. stop in Chicago, where it was greeted with the crowds and fanfare of a blockbuster. The outpouring of interest seems sensible: Absent from public performance for nearly a decade, Bowie is pop’s missing man. His mark remains everywhere; he is nowhere. “David Bowie Is,” which was produced with the subject’s cooperation, if not curatorship, made a resounding case for his significance. To view the exhibition’s many rooms detailing his work in the 1970s was to peak into the 1980s. The phlegmatic British vocals that would dominate a corner of ’80s pop and the nervous mutability of music and media that would define Madonna (to say nothing of Gaga) have roots here; arguably, so does Michael Jackson’s cheesy white Thriller suit. In one displayed video, 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as his own backup singers, garbed in the elaborate gowns and wigs of female drag. What seems shocking about the video, however, is the main image of Bowie ostensibly as himself, clad in the dark suit of a prototypical mid-80s yuppie. It’s this look—which, for the record, predates Bret Easton Ellis’s debut by six years—that appears to be the video’s true act of drag.

A museum show about a pop star inevitably runs into limitations. In an exhibition of a painter, visitors directly confront the subject’s primary source: the painting is the ultimate art. Even for a multidisciplinarian such as Bowie, the true art lies in his records and performances; the stuff inside display cases can seem secondary, if not trivial. But the aim of this exhibit, where headphone-clad visitors roamed as an army of enthralled zombies, was immersion. It was presented with high-minded care and, at least when covering the years that matter, the exhaustiveness of a box set. Over 400 items were on hand: photographs, handwritten lyrics, a monstrous set of keys from the musician’s Berlin apartment, even an old pocket map for the West Berlin subway. There were also more than 60 stage costumes, most fetchingly the pear-like black-and-white jumpsuit that Kansai Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour. Even all these years on, we discover new sides to the pop star: Meet Ziggy Stardust, the world’s most glamorous hoarder.

But the exhibition’s showstopper was drawn from nobody’s closet. Rather, it was the famous video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live, in the waning days of the 1970s. The video deserved greater prominence at the MCA, if not an entire museum to call its own; it also would have benefited from the other two songs recorded for the episode. Nonetheless, the clip could move mountains. Bowie is accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, vanguard figures from the nocturnal club world, both clad in monochromatic Thierry Mugler dresses. The men carry Bowie to his microphone as if he is a children’s toy. Wearing a cardboard tuxedo that was designed by the singer and Mark Ravitz under the spell of 1920s Dada, Bowie sings with the bemused detachment of a Martian. Space alien analogies always fit Bowie—after all, we are talking about the Man Who Fell to Earth—but they seem particularly apt for the SNL appearance. At the taping, he was newly returned from self-imposed exile in West Berlin, introducing irrefutably avant-garde notions to a mainstream arena. (Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain cover this song in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set.) The ’80s—which thwarted the world’s rock stars where no drug or label chicanery ever could—were mere days away. Bowie seemed intent on ending his decade of dominance in spectacular style. The appearance is not an act of subversion so much as it is a sterling media performance—pop as art and back again.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Readerand of its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. He has written for The New York Times,The Boston Globe, and other publications.

2d11c1aladdinsane
2d11c1aladdinsane

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photo: Brian Duffy. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive.

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.

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.

   
  
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   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

Interview with Bridget Donahue of Bridget Donahue Gallery

 Cianciolo_1

Cianciolo_1

by Mae Colburn

Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City

Bridget Donahue Gallery, which opened in Chinatown in February 2015, can definitely claim a two-for-two. The New York Times described the Gallery’s inaugural show, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Origins of the Species’ (February-April 2015) as ‘prophetic’ and the New Yorker named its current show, Susan Cianciolo’s ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)’ (May-July 2015), ‘enchanting’ and the gallery ‘terrific.' Congratulations are in order, both to the artists and to the owner, Donahue herself.

Meanwhile, the show goes on. Donahue describes opening and closing the gallery five days a week, flipping on the lights and clipping the little flower. During this interview, which took place over Jessi Reaves’ ‘No Reason Work Table’ (2015), a delivery arrived, a pair of shoes to be placed among the costumes, quilts, and kits (which Donahue describes below) that comprise Cianciolo’s show. The shoe’s bag, an actual shoe bag, was noted. Only Cianciolo, Donahue smiled, would have one on hand. In the kits, most of which are boxes, are slippers, sketches, sneakers, and much more. A film, played on a laptop peeking out of a cardboard box, presents conversations about fashion, some with Cianciolo’s former students. Fashion is here, but it is bundled and wrapped, stitched, transformed. Cianciolo is a constellation artist and fashion is one of her many stars.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with the gallery. What prompted you to open this space?

Bridget Donahue: I told people I never wanted to have my own gallery. I thought you had to be a rich person to do it. I really respect galleries, the tradition of it, and I learned from people who take it seriously. That was the hardest thing about the transition – I actually loved where I worked. It was my dream job in many senses.

My three jobs were Gladstone Gallery, D’Amelio Terras, and Gavin Brown's enterprise. And Cleopatra’s, but that wasn’t a paycheck. That was me tithing my own wages with a group of people.

There are different models, but if you stand to make money from an artist, in my opinion you should be working for that 50% and constantly promoting them. That’s the biggest contribution I can make, is the fact that I do run my mouth pretty energetically when I’m into something. With a gallery, you invest in things, you help produce artworks, you help move them around, you photograph them, et cetera.

MC: You really support your artists. It sounds like you’re moving into the market with a lot of integrity.

BD: That’s the hilarious reality is that the first couple shows here are not particularly easy sells, the joke being that my commercial gallery starts off being wildly anti-commercial. But I believe in them so much that it doesn’t matter. And things are paying for themselves. There’s a great tradition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise of doing seemingly non-commercial shows, but he’s just this incredible person who can actually turn that around.

This [space] is a little more of a humble comparison, but it’s funny too. Sometimes people come to this show [‘If God COMes to visit you...’] and are like ‘Ok, is anything here for sale?’ They can’t believe that Susan would be willing to part with some of this stuff. It’s so meaningful and impossible to make again or get back. She’s cared for these things for sometimes up to twenty years and part of the whole exhibition is about that letting go, which blows my mind.

When Alex Fleming, who curated the archival work in the back and the costumes [in front], introduced me to Susan, he thought I would be interested in the photo archives. And I think this is absolutely part of the story, but I never for once saw an exhibition of framed photos, framed watercolors, and framed paintings. And at the same time I never saw an exhibition with clothing.

It was the second I saw those boxes that I was blown away. And then when I found out that the kits were actually part of her fashion line and that she actually continues to organize and think about and collect things in these tailored boxes, I was like, ‘we have to show these, they’re unbelievable.’ It was that idea that the paintings and pictures and archival clothes and all these other precious things are just taped together.

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27e96a006c03e474b85237d989852330-1

Susan Cianciolo, Large Doll Box, 1995-2015, Photo by Katya Reily

MC: That’s the thing. Both of the artists you’ve shown work across media: paintings, photographs, cardboard, tape. How do you approach the labels that often accompany these different ways of working?

BD: I’m thankful that I don’t see such categories existing - that could be in part because craft education was one of the first art-education experiences I had - via the social sciences, I studied Anthropology, within that category, craft is art. A more euro-centric, academic appreciation of Art helps me to understand a socialized history of forms and predecessors but it does not aid me in understanding when I feel work is important.

Nothing about this project is about trying to import craft or fashion or design into an art context. I’m not thinking, ‘this is where craft meets art.’ I’m not interested in that position. It’s like if you label anything, like when somebody says they’re vegan and then somebody busts them for wearing a leather belt. I don’t want to say, ‘I’m just going to show good things that I care about,’ because that sounds almost self-righteous or even naive, but that is more genuinely what I want to do. It will be interesting to see what I’m interested in, but it will take a while to define that.

For now, with Lynn and Susan, as much as people want to assume the program has a strategy, it was also an easier reality. I got the space and moved in in October 2014 and opened in February 2015 and it’s really hard to ask an artist to make a show in that amount of time. It’s easier to show people that have existing work and are a little more confident in what that work is, and also that are eager and willing to participate. That’s a huge thing. It’s about collaborating with a really exciting, relevant person in my mind and learning from them.

MC: Is there anything you would like to add about this show, maybe in the context of Fashion Projects?

BD: One thing in the context of this publication was how much I thought Susan’s show would attract an audience that I hadn’t met in past experiences, and it did. It’s kind of like living vicariously.

Also, the opening was really young. That’s my first and favorite person to impress - an art student or a young working artist. If those people are into a show, that makes me most happy. Then of course everybody else will be psyched because those are the people who are leading the discourse, or where all the energy kind of bubbles from. So it’s that audience, I’m eager to impress. After that I was really interested in meeting different people from fashion, because Susan embraces that world. And yet I also feel really strongly that the works in Susan’s show stand-up to any kind of hard line capital ’F’ fine art.

For people who consider themselves designers, maybe their project is made better by tons of funding and bigger production lines, but I think that in many ways for Susan that never felt like the right move. It wouldn’t better her project. That to me feels like an artist’s decision, not a designer’s decision. It’s really courageous. You couldn’t have created a better ascendency within the context of fashion, but she didn’t take that sort of golden road laid out for her. It’s incredible to me that someone can keep up that devotion to making something.

MC: That’s true, but I have to hand it to you. You’ve made something great here, too.

BD: And that’s still totally mind-boggling to me. To come into the gallery, flip on the lights and, clip the little flowers for the day. I show up every day like it’s my job. It’s refreshing to slowly realize I know how to do it.

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Cianciolo_3

Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

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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.

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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.

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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.