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

An Interview with Margaret Maynard

by Nadia Buick Cover of Margaret Maynard's Out of Line: Australian Women and Style.

Associate Professor Margaret Maynard is one of Australia’s most respected dress historians. She has published widely in the field and taught for decades at The University of Queensland (UQ) at a time when dress and fashion subjects were few and far between. She continues to hold an Honorary Research Consultant position at UQ in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History. Maynard has contributed greatly to publishing on Australian dress and fashion. Her book Fashioned from Penury re-evaluated Colonial dress in Australia, debunked previously persuasive myths about the impact of the British Empire, class and gender while arguing for institutional acquisition of everyday clothing rather than ‘high fashion.’ In Dress and Globalisation she was one of the first to discuss clothing and sustainability and cross-cultural dressing practices. She also edited the Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands volume of the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion.

Margaret Maynard and I are both based in Brisbane (arguably quite far removed from the ‘centres’ of fashion) and I have been fortunate to work with her on a project about fashion in Queensland called The Fashion Archives. We spend a lot of time chatting via email and I recently took the time to ask her these questions…

You are a dress historian whose work has also occasionally examined fashion. What is your working definition for these terms?

Fashion for me is the highly volatile aspect of attire and behaviour—the latest look and comportment at any one time. It is a transformative concept or social ideal (not necessarily just reflective). Shaping and reshaping the body, it is an active and material demonstration of change, the nature of its visibility inextricable from social and cultural experiences. The other point is that fashion is inseparable from the industry in which it is made and more recently the commercialisation of its marketing and promotion.

For me fashion is a form of dress, so the term dress encompasses all attire, irrespective of economic factors or class. My view is that one can’t fully understand the workings and nature of fashion unless one takes into account wider processes of dressing. In fashion photography, for instance, one should bear in mind technical processes and the whole marketing structure of the industry. It has been said that fashion is where ‘costume’ and ‘dress’ converge but I don’t think that fashion should be thought of in this way. There are also degrees of fashionability dependent on class and economic circumstances as well as aspirations to look stylish.

Is ‘dress studies’ no longer fashionable?

Yes, I agree that ‘dress studies’ has the lower rating at the present time. Fashion studies today have cachet largely because they have become almost professionalised by the academy and the obsession with dense kinds of theory has lent to a sense of superiority amongst some practitioners. There are also convenient links to contemporary interests in design and lifestyle. And there is no doubt fashion benefits from its association with visual pleasure, aesthetics and artistic creativity.

Dress studies on the other hand seem intellectually less demanding and its subjects can give an impression of being mundane even drab. It is often downgraded as mere social or working-class history compared to fashion. It is interesting that second-hand dress rates more highly perhaps due to its association with self presentation as a creative form. The media loves fashion as allegedly newsworthy, with its links to the latest upmarket designs. Thus most newspapers have columns on ‘fashion’ where they seldom have on dress. The term ‘costume’ used to have the same low standing but somewhat upgraded now it has become the accepted term for theatrical performance attire.

Many theorists and critics interested in dress and/or fashion have observed the field’s relationship to women and femininity, and suggested that this close link is the reason that dress and fashion studies have often been overlooked. Have you also found this to be true? Do you think this is something that continues to happen?

I think that the association of dress/fashion with women’s interests was prevalent until the later 20th century. Historically fashion has been associated with vanity and folly, thus contributing to the perception it is not a serious study. The topic has been disparaged, written about defensively and considered frivolous. But this has certainly not been the case in the last decade or so. In academic circles the subject is flourishing. Publishers like Bloomsbury have catalogues saturated with books on the topic. This said exhibitions of women’s fashions are huge drawcards, suggesting women are still objects of desire as opposed to subjects of analysis. Countering this are the many women who have in recent times written seminal studies on the complexities inherent in dress/fashion and forged new pathways for the study

What does dress provide us as a tool for examining women’s lives?

With respect I think this is only half the question that should be asked. Dress provides an extraordinary useful method to explore the nature of any culture and to examine both the lives of men and women and their relationships. In place of the old single time line of style or cyclical change, dress provides an entry point into any culture, its social interactions, commerce, sexual mores and is a key indicator of identity. Dress allows us to interpret the history of men and women in a unique way.

You are also interested in the dress practices found in other cultures, such as Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. Does dress studies, as opposed to fashion studies, allow historians and theorists to take a wider, cross-cultural view? Fashion can of course be very Westernised in its focus.

I feel that reinforcing the notion of a gap between dress and fashion studies is not necessarily productive. Cross disciplinary research appeals to me as more useful. I also think the answer to the question lies in how one understands and uses terminology. Under the rubric of dress one can certainly include analyses of Indigenous clothing and associated practices, that of Islanders and indeed so called ‘ethnic’ attire. But non-Western dress also expresses wealth and status in its own ways. Fashion with a capital F is driven by Western interests, global commerce and creation of novel products in order to increase consumption. Fashion with a small f is closer to a fad or slight alteration and this latter does inflect both customary dress and less obvious kinds of wearing and bodily adornment. We know customary dress is not stylistically static and, to varying degrees, incorporates new elements and slight shifts in style. So nuances in both fashion and dress can be considered in non-Western attire.

I believe you grew up in South Africa and initially worked as a costume designer. Was clothing and dress something that you were always drawn to? Were there many opportunities in those days to pursue dress history?

Since a child in South Africa I loved clothes and dressing up—a passion was collecting paper dolls. I trained in so called ‘Fine Arts’ but was always interested in ‘the Decorative Arts’ which were less prestigious than the former. I was fortunate to get my first real job with the State theatre company mainly making theatre, opera and ballet props. I was catapulted into designing costumes for major opera shows in Johannesburg and teaching theatre design with no prior training. There were no opportunities at all to study ‘dress’. It was a question of teaching oneself. The only other person I knew interested in dress was a woman artist recording tribal African attire in remote areas. I admired her work and would have liked to have taken this further but felt her lifestyle too dangerous.

You left South Africa in the 1960s after winning a highly coveted place to study at the Courtauld Institute in London – this was one of the only formal costume history courses at the time. It was run by Stella Newton, who was pioneering in her approach to studying dress using paintings and art history. Can you tell us about that? What was she like as a teacher? Has her approach remained with you?

As a student of ‘costume’ I felt totally at home. Stella was a marvelous and inspiring teacher. Her focus was painting and sculpture as a source of information on dress. We started with lectures on the Greeks and progressed up to the 19th century. She was less keen on contemporary dress. The visual source was our primary evidence in her view. But she drew from a wide range of information, especially art history. She was interested to contextualize dress and used archival and other social and historical material as supporting evidence. We were alerted to all classes of wearers. (She was especially interested in European so called ‘peasant dress’). She taught us to date paintings extremely accurately, something I can still do. This technique was useful to art historians and dealers who needed to give art works (with limited provenance) as accurate a date as possible. We were also asked to determine if works of art were fakes or not. Stella believed that forgers often got the dress of a period wrong where they could calculate painting style and other things more accurately. There are art historical precedents for this in the work of a 19th century scholar called Morelli. She made us feel we had special abilities.

I have since taken a different path. Whilst I had a matchless education, I don’t like chronological approaches to high-end style and I like to integrate material culture to a greater degree. Surviving dress interested Stella but in a slightly limited way. Unlike her I see much value in theoretical approaches especially related to material culture, consumption, etc and I feel that ethnography and anthropology have much to offer the subject. I aim where appropriate to forge links between material objects, theoretical considerations and what I know of visual sources. I am probably more interested in the dress of everyday life than Stella. Perhaps one reason I took a different route was because Brisbane has fewer examples of early international art than were available to me as a student in London.

You came to Australia in the 1970s and began working at the University of Queensland. There you pioneered fashion and dress courses and began serious research about Australian dress. Even today dress and fashion research in Australia is still emerging, but I imagine it was really an entirely new field when you began. What were those early years like?

When I first started at the University I was employed to teach art history. I did not teach dress studies for some years. The topic was seen as quite bizarre but it soon gained a bit of a following especially when I leaned more toward teaching fashion. Many people felt and perhaps still feel that they are qualified to discuss dress/fashion where they do not talk about other specialist areas such as archaeology. People wear clothes and thus consider themselves experts. This led to the perception that the subject could easily be dismissed as light on and also to a sidelining of dress/fashion expertise.

I was extremely lucky to feel I was the ‘first’ to look at certain archival material, literature and imagery from this new perspective. But it was isolating and my work was something of a curiosity. I did give papers at art and history conferences but I did not have the reassurance of a particular discipline behind me. On the other hand coming new to Australia from a conservative country, I found a critical openness in students that was refreshing.

I think you even had a radio program on the ABC? I often think there should be more radio and television programs about fashion and dress. What kinds of things did you cover?

Beginning in the 70s I was asked to do question and answer programs with one of the local announcers. They were comments on current trends in dress, or I answered questions on the origins of different types of clothes. I did one series of six on dress and identity. It was taped and one ran each week. I also did a taped radio program on dress of PNG where I had lived for a year. Over the years I have done a great many interviews on current dress. Some were round table interviews with different ABC stations and other experts. If some unusual dress was worn in Brisbane for the first time, perhaps new uniforms for Queensland Rail employees etc, I would be asked to comment. I worked on a film shown on the ABC a few years ago. It was very disappointing as it skated over the interesting issues in Australian dress. I also think far more should be done, but there is a tendency to go for superficial issues, rather than the really significant aspects of dress/fashion which I consider more interesting.

You’ve published widely. I wonder which books or articles you have been most proud of?

My book Fashioned from Penury (1994) did fairly well at the start but interestingly it has had a bit of a revival in the past few years. I am proud of this as there has been no equivalent publication. I am also very proud of the volume I edited for the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010) which was extraordinarily challenging. I am also proud of Dress and Globalisation (2004), the first book to discuss dress and sustainability, and the essays ‘The Fashion Photograph: An Ecology’ in Fashion as Photograph Viewing, and Reviewing Images of Fashion ed Eugénie Shinkle (2008) and ‘The Mystery of the Fashion Photograph’ Fashion in Fiction. Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television eds Peter McNeil Vicki Karaminas Catherine Cole (2009) – a transcript of my keynote paper given at the ‘Fashion in Fiction’ conference in Sydney.

It is fairly hackneyed territory, but you also have a fine arts and art history background. I wonder what you think of the art versus fashion debate. Do you see fashion as art? What about dress? This is quite a fraught area of debate for which there are no simple answers, as with the art/craft debate. Consumers certainly experience art and fashion differently and they have different value systems but many artists, for different reasons, have been designers of fashion. There have been frequent slippages and synergies between the two practices but also antagonisms. Both fashion and clothing/dress can be exhibited as installations in art galleries but does this make either ‘art’? ‘Putting oneself together’ in terms of dressing the body is akin to a personal art, and fashion and art have at times found themselves mutually useful. The answer to your question is not straightforward in any way. You’ve been working with fashion and dress across a period of dramatic growth within museums, universities, libraries etc. I wonder if you could comment on how the study of dress and fashion has changed? When I started out the study of dress and fashion was a great novelty. It was as if one could research in any area and opportunities were endless. Today publishers have almost overdone the subject and it is difficult to carve out an entirely new specialist area. Naturally the internet has made a huge difference to image access as well as access to other forms of information. In my early years of teaching there were practically no articles or books I could recommend to students. Now there is a huge range of material which is wonderful. Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Material Culture Studies, Women’s Studies, Ethnography and associated Critical Theory has lifted the bar in studies of dress and fashion. Without interdisciplinarity the area would have remained limited and esoteric. In Britain after I had completed by study, there was a strongly conservative attitude but this has changed dramatically. What do you think the future is for fashion and dress studies? What are you currently working on?

I hope that fashion and dress studies has a great future, especially in links with Material Culture Studies and Ethnography, even Archaeology. In some ways I feel too much has been published too quickly but many books are of a very high standard. Fashion is extraordinarily popular. One can see this in the crowds who visit fashion exhibitions and clearly museums use fashion as a draw card. I think that this is excellent, especially if displays are inventive. But it is important to also stand back from the glitzy aspects of fashion and look for other narratives that clothes can offer.

At present I am working on a project on Dress and Time. I am considering how the cultural phenomenon of time explains dress practices around the globe, given the vastly different socio/cultural, political, religious and imaginary concepts about it existing over millennia. Reflecting on the temporal in the widest sense shows how time has been coextensive with how, when and why humans design, fabricate, wear and preserve all forms of garment, fabrics and accessories.

Nadia Buick is a fashion curator, writer and researcher based in Brisbane, Australia. She recently completed a doctorate in fashion curation and is currently Co-Director of The Fashion Archives.

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 [...]”.

Ana-Rajcevic, photo by Fernando Lessa

Many of the objects at the biënnale are created by emerging designers rather than by established fashion houses (even though Prada, Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier are represented, and a film of the Dior couture show S/S 2007 is showed as a sign of “nipponism” being a contemporary fetish). Edelkoort tells me that this is because the traditional fashion houses did not live up to the requirements of the exhibition, but the lack of designs by brand such as Givenchy, Versace and Maison Martin Margiela, otherwise a given considering the theme of fetishism, nevertheless raises a few questions concerning the selection process. Also, curating a theme of “nudism” by “using the colours of our own skin” but only including beige objects unfortunately enhances the Caucasian norm already strongly prevalent in Western society, as does the naïve statement (returning to “nipponism”) that, “Japanese people have an innate knowledge of how to package and fold geometry into form [...] it can possibly be considered the most fetishistic culture in the world, where each rule and move is codified and all aspects are about attachments.” This kind of simplification of an entire culture obscures the important Japanese presence in fashion rather than elucidating and explaining the many interesting interrelations between western and eastern influences and actors within the industry.

Edelkoort has been aided by a number of other designers, curators and artists – all in different ways connected to Arnhem and its ArtEZ Institute of the Arts – who in different ways have contributed to the biënnale. Under the fitting rubric “Elevation”, footwear designers Marijke Bruggink and Marlie Witteveen have investigated the central role of high heels in fetishistic fashion. In particular, their exploration of stilts and clogs is worth mentioning, demonstrating beautiful and intricate wooden constructions, with particular care given to displaying shoes that are actually possible to walk in. In a centrally located church in downtown Arnhem, the design duo People of the Labyrinths have been given free hands to construct an art installation, investigating the fetishistic position of fashion objects in comparison to relics, traditions and rituals within various religions. For example, a Catholic monstrance is placed next to Hermès’ Kelly-bag at the end of a long red carpet, while a neon sign spells out the words “make-believe” in the church ceiling. And in the Zypendaal Castle just outside of the city, menswear designers Ravage have curated an exhibition based on their fascination of style codes in menswear, focusing on objects such as underwear, shoes and neckties.

To briefly summarize, the 2013 biënnale combines an international perspective on mainly emerging designers with an explicitly Dutch team of curators. This gives the exhibition both global and local dimensions, creating tension in some areas while in others presenting humoristic approaches and in-depth explorations of how fashion can operate as a research tool in order to understand Western society’s ultimate fetishes.

Philip Warkander recently completed his PhD in Fashion Studies, and is currently working as a freelance fashion writer and consultant, while also teaching fashion theory and gender studies in Stockholm.

Yu Otaku, Clogs

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

FP: Well, you must have used one there.

GT: No! Can you believe it? At first I did. This was like the dawn of time—the center of the earth cooled, and Andy started [the magazine]. And I was working there—I was, like, 19. Somehow, I had forgotten to finish high school. I did an interview with Christopher Isherwood. I tape recorded it and then my mom very helpfully typed it up, because I couldn’t type as fast as her. He had a very grating voice. When she transcribed the thing, it was almost like out of a John Waters movie, where the person throws a typewriter out the window and runs screaming from the house. I thought, Maybe I won’t use this tool anymore—it drives a very patient mother crazy.

FP: How old were you when you left high school?

GT: About 17. I mean, I just dropped out.

FP: You grew up in New York, right?

GT: My parents had an apartment here, but I basically grew up on Long Island. But by the time I left high school, most of my life was already here. In those days, I wanted to be a painter. So I came here and got an apprenticeship. I started painting and making videos. And I wrote plays. I’m not sure exactly why, but they were produced at WPA. In a world that no longer exists, you could kind of have that life.

FP: Did you get introduced to journalism through Interview?

GT: I backed into it through Interview. I went on to be their so-called Paris correspondent for a year. I was 19, maybe 20.

FP: Did you know Warhol?

GT: I knew Andy, but I can’t say I was an intimate of his.

FP: That must have been amazingly intimidating. GT: No.

FP: You were a teenager, hanging around the Warhol crowd. How was that not intimidating?

GT: It wasn’t an intimidating scene. I know that sounds weird. I think people have trouble understanding it because of the mythologizing of him, which is so extensive now. But the fact that Valerie Solanas could walk in there and shoot him speaks to how porous that world—and all the worlds in New York—were at the time. You could get in. In New York now, I don’t think it’s about how easy it is for you to get in. Anywhere.

FP: When did you start working at the Village Voice?

GT: Late ’70s, around the same time that Jim Wolcott went there.

FP: That must have been one of the newspaper’s real golden periods.

GT: I can say it was. It affiliates itself very naturally in my mind with the problems that I have with the general cultural relation to Occupy Wall Street. Of course people feel like it’s nothing and they have no goal: Nobody knows what a counterculture is [anymore].

FP: Your subjects at the Voice differed from your Times work. What was the thrust of your Voice column?

GT: I think I did the column for 20 years. I don’t know how you can characterize it. It was urban anthropology, maybe. The thing is, I was just going out and reporting on stuff that the mainstream media hadn’t gotten to. It sounds very self-aggrandizing to say this now. But I was talking to a friend the other day about having been in the Bronx project houses with [Africa] Bambaataa. And ABC No Rio, the Times Square Show, and also a lot of gay culture…there was a lot of emergent culture. There was a lot to write about. It would just be the normal part of what you would be reporting.

FP: In the Place To Be, your book collecting many of those columns, focuses a lot on the Bronx. Were you living there at the time? GT: No. Although when I worked for Andy, I did live in the Bronx. I’m kind of a Bronx nut. I just like the Bronx. I did some really early stuff about crack, which came after I was brought to meet the mother-in-law of Eric B., of Eric B. and Rakim. She lived in a certain housing project. She was a hard-working woman, and her life was being destroyed—as many people’s lives were—by crack all around her. I was really compelled by that, and went back and back and back.

FP: In the introduction to your book, you write about how the unhinged New York of that period differed from the buttoned-up town of your youth. It’s funny reading that now, when so much nostalgia is essentially the opposite—today’s New York being sedate compared to the wild city of the ’70s and ’80s. GT: There’s a definite arch. I’m not a fan of nostalgia at all. But I don’t  think my memory is falsifying to say it was a very yeasty period. Maybe not to everybody’s taste, and there were plenty of problems. But as I said, there was a porosity, culturally, that has been replaced by a kind of cultural paucity. You could move in and out of worlds.

FP: But weren’t you able to do that easier because you were a reporter?

GT: No, no, no. I always looked preppy, and people used to say to me, “Oh, you go [to the Bronx]—it’s so scary.” But as long as I was respectful to people, I was treated respectfully. In my experience, the city had a greater degree of openness. There was a mixture of uptown/downtown that’s gone out for real estate reasons—as usual. We all know that there’s a general trend to cultural conservatism. At the same time, everybody essentially got remarginilized.

FP: When did you join the Times? GT: In 2000. I came to the Styles section. I kind of morphed into doing more fashion as I came here. It was at a moment when fashion was really emerging as a cultural force.

FP: Was it strange to go from writing about the Bronx’s crack problem to fashion shows?GT: In a way—except not if you’re inside my head. I’ve always had these interests. I was talking about this with Judith Thurman. We were pissing and moaning, as people do who have an interest in these degraded subject matters and culturally disfavored subjects. She was talking about a certain correspondent for the New Yorker who writes about child soldiers in wherever. She was saying that that kind of thing—if you have the skills, the stomach for the work, and can stand all the risk—is like taking gold out of streams with your hand. It’s all there. There is something slightly perverse and masochistic about applying yourself to [fashion] and having to rehabilitate things that are considered culturally beneath regard. That’s been the most challenging part of this for me. Because it isn’t taken seriously, and never has been taken seriously. I hope to live to see the day when it is. Which can be done without sacrificing what’s beautiful and delightful about the ephemeral and frivolous part of it. Those are not opposing ideas.

FP: Do you think the disparagement comes from the tradition of fashion being in the women’s section of the paper?

GT: Of course. It’s women’s work. It’s feminine, it’s not worthy of masculine attention and regard. [When I started here], people said, “You’re throwing your career in the toilet to write about fashion.” Not that it’s such a big career.

FP: Oh, please. But do you think they would say that now?

GT: They may well.

FP: But you did say you noticed a cultural change in the last few years.

GT: The culture changed. I think people are interested in [fashion]. I was a contract writer at the New Yorker for quite a long time, paralleling the Voice thing, and I wrote for lots and lots of magazines. You never saw anyone in those mainstreamy magazines writing about fashion. I mean, Kennedy Fraser and then Holly Brubach did [at the New Yorker], but it was pretty much about the collections or the occasional profile. They didn’t have a style issue at the New Yorker. It wasn’t what we serious people—that is, people with testicles—do.

FP: Do you think that fashion writing needs a Pauline Kael? GT: I don’t know what fashion writing needs, frankly. It’s not one of my main concerns. I think writing just needs better writers, period. I could hope for the liveliness of Pauline Kael—kind of crack-brained opinion-slinging. Remembering back to the Voice, and that whole auteur/anti-auteur world, it was so micro, but so essential to groups of New Yorkers. That conversation is long gone. I haven’t encountered tons of people dissecting fashion writing. It’s pretty much been hijacked by the visuals, as it probably ought to be.

FP: In many ways, is fashion writing most similar to sports writing?

GT: That’s probably the closest analogy, yes. It’s specialist. I read the sports section very, very avidly. It’s one of the few places left where you find human interest. It’s very narrative, not to say novelistic, to follow sports teams and sports in play. Fashion is a bit like that, because the personnel set is not that changeable. It’s one of the weirdest and most contradictory things about fashion. It’s based on novelty, but in many ways very little is new. It’s such a stable population. All the editors have been the same forever. All the designers have been more or less the same forever. The only thing that changed was when Anna Wintour saw that nobody was developing a farm team, and got in gear. Because everybody was aging out and there was nobody to replace them. Because she’s a great HR person, she literally made it her business to make another generation to cultivate and anoint.

FP: Why do you think fashion is so stable? GT: It’s a very conservative business. And it is a business. [In the past], the city could support somebody who didn’t get into the business with a business plan and a backer. You can no longer do that—that’s out. You better arrive with a business plan and maybe an MBA and, whatever your design skills are, hope that Anna Wintour will take you up.

FP: Do you think that fashion from New York designers has suffered?

GT: I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who do what they’re meant to do here. It’s a commercial center. It’s hard for me to pronounce on this, because I don’t know if my lack of interest in what’s going on in New York—across the board, culturally—is my problem or New York’s problem.

FP: Do you still cover the shows in Europe?

GT: Yeah, though not as much as before. I’m mainly writing about menswear. I’ve [always been] more interested in menswear. When I started, I felt like there were more ideas in play in menswear. Masculinity was much more up for grabs. There was a lot of gender play, when I started.

FP: You mean when you started at the Times? GT: Yeah. When I got involved with this as a full-time thing, there was a lot of change. It was a bracketed period. I didn’t realize it at the time. Starting around 2000, the multinationals saw what was happening. They realized that this was really gonna blow up—that this fashion thing that had been niche and not fully exploited could be globalized. And they invested heavily. Three of these multinationals—LVMH, PPR, and the Richemont Group—got heavily into reviving old marks and houses, then buying and creating stars, [in order] to put this thing across globally. We were all beneficiaries of that. That’s how Alexander McQueen happened. That post-mortem show at the Met, which had these staggering 600,000 visitor numbers, was a tombstone for an era in this business. Galliano being discredited, McQueen being dead, Tom Ford having morphed into whatever he has morphed into…. These were all showmen who were heavily funded by multinationals. Now, the multinationals have gotten what they were after, and there isn’t so much need for [showmen]. You don’t need the showpieces anymore—the marks themselves do the work. We’re in a new era. All the showmanship, which is very costly to sustain, can be reduced. They’ll have fashion shows, but you don’t have to pay $25 million salaries.

FP: Was the money there in the end?

GT: For the multinationals? Without any doubt.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader and its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader(Drag City, 2012). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Details, Spin, and Flaunt.

Titania Inglis: Fade From Green

By Sarah Scaturro

A favorite look from Titania Inglis' F/W 2012 collection.  Photographer: Dan Lecca

Fashion Projects has been a fan of Titania Inglis ever since she launched her eponymous label a few years ago, so it was such great news to hear that she had won the 2012 Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for Sustainable Design.  While I initially thought of Inglis as an "eco" designer, it quickly became apparent that the term "eco" was simply too reductive for her design philosophy. For her, sustainability is not a gimmick, or just about sourcing yet another ecotextile. Rather, she is moving towards a concept of sustainability that emphasizes longevity, quality, and thoughtfulness.  We are very pleased to present this interview with Inglis, coming on the heels of her recent F/W 2012 fashion presentation at Eyebeam.

Fashion Projects: Congratulations on your recent Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for Sustainable Design.  How has winning the award affected your business?

Titania Inglis: Thank you! Receiving the Ecco Domani award is such a dream come true — I didn’t believe it at first when I received the email telling me I’d won. It’s opened a lot of doors for me already within the fashion industry, and I was able to put together an incredible team for my show this season, including stylist Christian Stroble, makeup artist Lisa Aharon and hairstylist Ramona Eschbach, photographer Aliya Naumoff, set designer Ryan Crozier of Forgotten City — and collaborating on a series of leather body accessories with Bliss Lau, a designer whose innovative work I’ve admired for years.

Inglis making adjustments before her F/W 2012 presentation begins. Photographer: Georgina Southen

Your F/W 2012 collection presented a very cohesive vision, with a strong design vocabulary.  Having followed your work ever since you began designing, I’ve noticed that you’ve developed signature elements. Your garments exhibit a strong affinity for geometry, asymmetry, and minimalism and you also create an unexpected sense of architectural space through your precise pattern-cutting and juxtaposition of rigid and supple fabrics. Can you explain a little bit about your inspirations, techniques and processes? Where did you hone your skills?

My father is an architect, so I grew up steeped in his lessons about architectural movements and polyhedra. As a math major in college, I was fascinated by topology, which studies surfaces and transformations — and I see fashion in much the same way: a transformation of two-dimensional fabric into three-dimensional forms, but forms that interact with the wearer’s body and personal style, and at the same time reference fashion history. Or to put it in less-nerdy terms, I find it magical to be able to go from a flat piece of fabric and a flat paper pattern, to an empty garment on a hanger, to a dress absolutely coming to life when its owner puts it on and imbues it with her personality.

I studied industrial design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco; conceptual design at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands; and fashion design at FIT. I learned my patternmaking skills from Prof. Evan Blackman, the outstanding menswear department head there, and through internships at Jean Yu and Threeasfour, both designers I loved for their ingenious and endlessly creative patternmaking.

One of Inglis' amazing coats from her F/W 2012 collection.  Photographer: Dan Lecca

You continue to revisit designs, like your circle skirt, from previous seasons.  Is there a reason for this? I personally think that by doing so you are reinforcing the well-designed, thoughtful process behind your clothing – they are so well-made, and “beyond” fashion that they don’t seem to go out of style.

I find that the most stylish women are those who sharply define their personal look and keep it over time, perhaps evolving gradually to stay current, but not changing constantly with the trends. I see my collection in the same light: adding interest from season to season in the form of new colors, patterns, and fabrications, while always retaining its underlying character. And part of that consistency lies in creating signature pieces that carry over from season to season.

Another advantage of bringing designs back is that it allows me the chance to refine them a little each season, as well as to experiment with different fabrications over time. I’ve discovered that my architectural silhouettes tend to work quite well in rigid as well as soft, drapey fabrics, and I love to discover them anew each time I source new fabrics.

Backstage at Titania Inglis' F/W 2012 presentation.  Photographer: Aliya Naumoff

A look from Titania Inglis' F/W 2012 collection.  Photographer: Aliya Naumoff

We often talk about the state of the eco-fashion movement in NYC.  One minute we’re exhilarated about all the new things that are happening, and the next minute we bemoan the fact that it seems like such a small world, where everyone knows everyone and we’re all preaching to the same choir.  Do you think the fact that you are considered an “eco” designer actually helps or hinders you?  Do you ever feel marginalized or misunderstood due to having the “eco” tag attached to you?

To be honest, at this point, the word “eco” really makes me shudder. It’s been so overused that it’s come to represent a marketing gimmick rather than a serious philosophy of doing business, and I wish we could just retire it. I prefer to describe my work as thoughtful design, taking into consideration all the cradle-to-grave implications of each design decision, from the origins of the fabric I’m using to the future use and care of the garment. Ultimately, I believe that a beautifully designed and manufactured garment is the most sustainable thing to make: a piece striking enough to stand out in the here and now, yet classically proportioned and so well-made that its owner will want to wear it for a lifetime.

The most difficult challenge in designing sustainably is finding low-impact fabrics that are high quality and that fit with my clean, androgynous aesthetic. I’ve already traveled to London and Tokyo to source gorgeous organic fabrics, and scoured the New York garment district for dead stock options. And I’ve found some beautiful ones, but the more I search, the more I realize that the production process of the fabric is less important than beautiful craftsmanship and quality that will wear well over time. Taking the long view, production is only one part of the garment’s life cycle. If a fabric is made from organic wool, but pills and wears out almost instantly, then the fact that the farmer polluted less in raising the sheep is completely outweighed by the fact that the end product is quickly headed for the dumpster.

Another difficulty with sustainable design is people’s narrow interpretation of what that means. It’s not possible to design anything to be 100% perfectly sustainable; we all have to choose our battles. Some designers choose to use local production, others organic fabrics, others yet use zero-waste cutting techniques. I’ve had people question my use of leather; but as a lifelong meat eater, I’m happy that the skin from the animals we slaughter is used to make something beautiful. Leather exists mainly as a byproduct of the meat industry, and it’s a beautiful, supple, and long-lasting material that perfectly showcases my simple, architectural designs.

Set design for F/W 2012 presentation. Photographer: Georgina Southen

You've been collaborating quite a bit lately, with people like Bliss Lau and Christian Stroble, and organizations like the Textile Arts Center.  Do you have any other dream collaborators you'd like to work with?

Working with Bliss and Christian this season was an absolute dream; in addition to having very strong fashion visions, they’re both incredibly smart and resourceful and really mentored me through the whole process of organizing a show and creating a larger collection. I’d never worked with a stylist before and was a bit hesitant to let somebody else impose their vision on my work, but Christian’s input really helped take the collection to the next level.

One of my favorite parts of running this line is collaborating with performers in other creative fields. My first season I choreographed a video with three Merce Cunningham dancers, and for last fall’s video I worked with a trapeze artist. Next up, I’d love to collaborate with a musician: There are so many dynamic, inspiring women in rock these days, from Alison Mosshart to Lykke Li to the Dum Dum Girls, and it’d be amazing to see them wearing my clothes!

What is next in store for you?

After all the excitement of the award and last week’s show, I’m taking it easy and waiting to see how sales go before I decide what to do next. Of course, taking it easy is relative; I’m also getting ready for sales, ramping up spring production, and in the back of my mind, starting to plan out the Spring 2013 collection and how I’d like to present it. I already have a couple of favorite new fabrics squirreled away that I’m dying to see made up in some nice architectural shapes. And I’d love to do a shoe collaboration next season...

Photographer: Georgina Southen