‘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.

A Review of the Exhibition "Fashioning the Body"

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Double_Panniers

by Rachel Kinnard Double panniers with pockets. France, 1775–80. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

“There is no natural body, but rather a culturally-defined body that reflects the social requirements of the period in which it exists,” Curator Denis Bruna notes in the accompanying exhibition texts to "Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette." The exhibition, at the Bard Graduate Center, tells the history of western fashion through the undergarments that provided its foundation. The collection includes such varied items as 400-year-old “Spanish doublet,” corsets for children, and the contemporary push-up bra. During the curatorial tour for the show, Bruna insisted that the exhibition was about “the body--not fashion.” While the exhibition narrates the history of the western body through shaping undergarments, "Fashioning the Body" brilliantly demonstrates how fashion and the body are inextricable from each other. This is an exhibition about the fashion and the body.

Situated in the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s six-story townhouse, the exhibition spans three floors connected by a spiral staircase. Considering the prudish nature of the items’ original owners, the intimate gallery setting feels appropriate for examining garments that were never meant for public view. The show traveled to New York City from the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. It was originally shown in 2013 under the title "La Mécanique des dessous," which translates to "The Mechanics of Underwear."

Displayed on mannequins hidden under black velvet, these shells from past bodies seem to float in mid-air. The exhibition design is perfect, allowing an unusual intimacy between viewer and object. A whalebone stay is displayed at the particular angle which reveals its internal architecture, the side that was once pressed up against its wearer’s flesh. It’s a rare chance to see the complex skeleton of these bodily casings usually seen only from the exterior.

The ancient underpinnings are brought to life through animated reconstructions placed throughout the galleries. Deliberately displayed on white, full body mannequins to differentiate them from historical garments, the mechanized reconstructions serve as ghostly tour guides wearing self-animated clothing. An articulated panier slowly collapses onto the mannequins hips, demonstrating how a woman would flatten her wide silhouette to pass through a narrow doorway or board a carriage. On another reconstruction, a hoop skirt rises from the floor to encase the frozen mannequin’s lower half.

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Bridal_Corset

Bridal corset. United States, ca. 1860–70. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

Like most fashion exhibitions displaying historic dress, "Fashioning the Body" commissioned unique mannequins to fit the garments. The mannequins themselves are important to this exhibition, receiving their own portion of a gallery dedicated to viewing them undressed. Shown bare, we can see the variants of the ideal western body through the centuries. The forms are displayed chronologically to illustrate the changing shape of the idealized female form. It’s an unusual and ingenious approach to displaying the body in the context of a fashion exhibition. Instead of relying on period ephemera such as paintings or photography, the exhibition exposes the bodies directly from the display cases. In this approach, the viewer can interpret the garments on display and the bodies shape these highly structured garments would have called upon and helped construct.

Experiencing the transformation of the corset through its various incarnations is a powerful demonstration of how the female body has been forcibly controlled by western fashion. Corsets are generally known by most as uncomfortable and restrictive undergarments of history. But the experience of "Fashioning the Body" strips the corset of any romanticism and presents the harsh physicality of the contraption. It’s made clear in the exhibition that a women’s stay was her second skin. As noted in the accompanying exhibition text, there was a time when a gentlemen might present “a rod made of metal, horn, wood, ivory, or whalebone that is inserted at the center front [of a women’s stay] in order to stiffen the torso,” as a gift to his dearest. A gift that at once is held close to the heart (literally) and acts as an aggressive torso stiffening device for his beloved.

Today, undergarments such as the metal caged crinolines and whalebone corsets on view seem archaic to the contemporary body. But although the contraptions have changed, the need to fit a fashionable ideal through a controlled body remains to be a powerful aspect of western culture. On the same day of the exhibition opening in New York City, the French National Assembly approved a bill that would punish modeling agencies for hiring malnourished models. If passed into law, the measure would also require labeling on photos using retouching to alter a model’s appearance. The fashionable silhouette is ever changing, but the pursuit to control and shape the body into an ideal is timeless.

"Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette" is on view at Bard Graduate Center Gallery from April 3–July 26, 2015.

Rachel Kinnard is Assistant to the Chair of Fashion Design at Pratt Institute. She holds her BFA in Fashion Design and MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons The New School for Design. Rachel’s research interests explore the boundaries between fashion and body, specifically within technology and medicine. www.rachel-kinnard.com

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Bustier_Bra

Bra (and bustier). France, 1920–30. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

A Review of "Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive – Couture in Colour" at MOMU

by Philip Warkander Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.

In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.

Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.

Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive

The textile supplier worked closely with Dior haute couture throughout the 1950s, and when Christian Dior passed away, the company’s leader Gustav Zumsteg met Yves Saint Laurent at his funeral, marking the beginning of a partnership that would hugely influence contemporary fashion, ending with Yves Saint Laurent’s last couture collection and the demise of Abraham Ltd, both in 2002.

Abraham’s technical possibilities for producing blow-up prints had a huge impact on the fashion of the 1960s, while the company’s talent for creating animal prints enhanced fashion’s “playwith abstraction and illusion”, as stated in the exhibition texts. Monochrome fabrics show the complexity of the materials, sheen surfaces and raw structures creating unexpected and organic patterns. The exhibition creates a narrative through a textile archive of the recent past, but with a new perspective on the creations of some of the most established and iconic designs. The works of Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci and Pierre Balmain are exhibited here as products of collaborations, the result of successful partnerships between textile supplier and fashion house. These relationships are explored to their fullest in the small exhibition room named “Abraham Revisited”, in which five contemporary fashion designers (Akris, Peter Pilotto, Dries Van Noten, Heinrich Brambilla and Diane von Furstenberg) selected their favorite fabric and prints from the Abraham archive and then projected these onto mannequins wearing their own iconic designs. The result underlines the power of fabric and patterns, altering the appearance of the fashion designs with each new projection.

Focusing an exhibition on a fabric company unknown to most people outside of the fashion industry might sound like a niche strategy, targeted mainly on those already in-the-know However, the beauty of the materials is overwhelming and the story of this company fascinating, so much so that I was brought to tears as I walked through the exhibition space, in awe of the understated elegance and vivid display of craftsmanship. Also, the mapping of how the fabrics were once shipped to over forty countries (detailing quantities, dates, cities) worldwide chronicles the complexities of the system of high fashion while momentarily bringing back to life all the many individual but largely anonymous actors, without whom the iconic designs of the large couture houses would never have come into existence.

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.

Silk and Prints from the Abraham Archive. Couture in Colour. Photo: Boy Kortekaas

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

A Review of "Punk: Chaos to Couture"

by Jay Ruttenberg Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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