Off the Runway: Print as Performance in Contemporary Fashion

Coming up on Friday, September 26th, I will be speaking together with K8 Hardy and Susan Cianciolo on a panel about art, fashion and independent publishing at the New York Art Book Fair taking place at MoMa PS1. The panel runs from 12:30 to 2:00pm. The talk is organized by James Mitchell and Susan E. Thomas, who will moderate.

Below is the full description:

"The fashion industry has long used publications as a means of marketing, typically in glossy magazines and coffee table books. Throughout the 20th century these print forms embodied complicated relationships among artists and designers, the fashion industry, and publishers. The punk wave of the 70s and the later rise of lifestyle magazines like The Face, i-d, and Paper Magazine marked a shift from presenting fashion for the affluent to promoting the anti-fashion of youth subcultures. By the end of the century, new serial publications like Visionaire and Purple had dispensed with any obligation to present fashion, per se. They adopted the techniques of artists’ books and zines to make print objects that investigated fashion subjects. At the same time, individual fashion designers and artists produced print publications and worked as guest editors or art directors for magazines. Other book artists have parodied the fashion industry. This session explores the intersection of art, fashion design, and independent publishing."

Francesca Granata

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.

Interview with Pascale Gatzen: Fashion + Sustainability—Lines of Research Series

by Mae Colburn

A student's response to Jean Luc Nancy's Being Singular Plural from Pascale Gatzen's class of the same name, Fall 2010.

Pascale Gatzen: Sustainability has to do with awareness, with love, with wellbeing, with the realization that we are creating this world together.  It’s about exploring what we can be and who we can be, about connecting to a sense of play, pleasure, love, care, to a place where we value each other, where we see and are seen by others, and where we are willing to share, to be vulnerable, to be courageous.  

Pascale Gatzen describes her position at Parsons' School of Design Strategies as that of a facilitator, nourishing “a productive flow of energy” between students.  She isn’t interested in perpetuating disciplinary distinctions, social constructions, or the capitalist paradigm.  She’s motivated by love, which for her involves movement, exchange, and relationships. Her logic stems from the realization, after years working in fashion and art, that creative production is too often motivated by insecurity and the need to prove oneself.  Her focus now lies on the relational aspects of fashion, on alternative models of exchange.  She describes student projects that include gifting, bartering, trading – models that explicitly forge a sense of proximity, immediacy, mutuality between people, between materials.  For Gatzen, sustainable fashion is about nourishing a productive flow, motivated by love, of clothes, ideas, and identities.

Mae Colburn: You, and others, often use the words ‘love’ ‘play’ and ‘beauty’ to describe your practice.  How did you develop this relationship to fashion?

PG: Growing up, I was interested in the idea of clothing, and fashion eventually became the focus of my education.  I didn’t understand the notion of fashion practiced at that time.  I didn’t see any real progress, or any movement.  I didn’t see the difference between a shirt that was produced in one kind of cloth one season, and in another kind of cloth the second season.  For me, they were the same shirt.  I can’t say that my work was necessarily playful at that time, but I did at that time become aware that love was very important to me, that it brought me the most life energy, and that the closer I stayed to myself and to my own fascinations, the more vibrant my work would be.

Later, when I started teaching at Arnhem [ArtEZ, Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, Arnhem], I discovered that with the introduction of H&M and Zara, students had stopped touching their own clothes.  There was this illusion that because they had access to fashionable clothes (which they could buy, because they were cheap), they were participating in fashion.  So I started doing assignments with students that were very much about dressing.  They had to dress themselves; they had to dress each other.  They had to experiment with the notion of clothing, the power of dressing, which is a very vulnerable process.  We have a lot of investment in how we dress and how we see ourselves, but something beautiful happens when we move beyond our comfort zones and everybody starts to feel vulnerable at the same time.  Things become less absolute, less fixed, and people begin to feel a sense of play with their clothes and identities.

MC: On the Parsons' website, you're quoted as saying that you want students to “test the intersection between fashion and reality.”  What do you mean by this?

PG: If I said ‘reality,’ I was probably referring to habituated reality.  We live in this seemingly fixed reality, or at least we think we can trust certain things around us.  With clothes, most people identify with a certain style, and they gain confidence from what they think they are and how they present themselves to the world.  I did a workshop once where I compared the work of Coco Chanel to the work of Yves St. Laurent.  If you really look at the work of Coco Chanel and see how it’s made – her attention to the make and finishing of the garment was amazing; how the lining was quilted into the jacket, the small metal chain against the back hem to weigh the jacket down, ever so lightly, the lack of interlining and shoulder pads, the way the sleeves fit into the body of the jacket allowing for movement and comfort – it’s very much about the person wearing the piece of clothing rather than the clothing as image, which is what I see on the catwalk and what Yves St. Laurent never escaped.  Even if it’s an image of comfortable clothing, his clothing remains mostly image.  Catherine Deneuve is quoted as saying that that you can wear Yves St. Laurent under any social situation because you’re protected, but I think Coco Chanel would say that clothing shouldn’t take up all the attention, that it should allow a woman to emerge as herself.

How do you engage the world?  Do you engage in the world from a position of curiosity or do you engage in the world from a sense of fixed reality in which you have to protect yourself from everything that can happen?  For me, of course, the first is more interesting and has a lot more potential for growth.

MC: Could you describe a workshop or project that you’ve done that encompasses these notions of curiosity, play, love – one that you’re particularly proud of?

I’ve done many projects and I always feel they’re very special.  For instance, I worked one summer, as part of the Parsons' DEED project, in Guatemala, with five students and two artisan women’s cooperatives, Ajkem’a Loy’a and Barco in San Lucas Toliman.  The beauty of that was being together for a month and seeing those students for who they are, completely.  There was so much love between all of us.  They were so focused – taking care of each other and taking care of me – and very responsible towards the work we were doing.  There was a fullness of experience, of exchange.

That’s something that I also felt when I did an intensive program in DasArts, a post-graduate program in The Netherlands for theater and performing arts.  They don’t have a fixed program; they have a sequence of different artists come in and do three-month intensive workshops with twelve students.  We spent whole days together.  We cooked together, ate together, and were living and learning together.  I structured our days so that we did yoga together in the morning and had singing lessons three times a week.  There was a real exchange of knowledge, of experiencing together, of going through rough moments and very amazing moments.  I love the notion of life becoming part of teaching, teaching becoming part of life.

I also created a sequence of core classes, what is now known as the Fashion Area of Study in the Integrated Design program in Parsons, and the third core class, Love, is really about this, about students recognizing that fashion is not an isolated practice.  It’s about integrating that practice in your everyday life, where they live, how they eat, and in exchanges with friends.  That’s the most important thing I can imagine teaching to my students, and teaching with my students, because a lot of them just naturally understand these things.  […] The traditional notion of learning involves a hierarchy between the teacher (who has the knowledge) and the student (who doesn’t have the knowledge).  I think that’s the first assumption that we have to abolish if we want to grow a different type of world.  Everybody possesses knowledge, which is of value to us all.  I know knitting, I know sewing, I know patternmaking, but I’m much more interested in seeing students teach each other how to knit.  If the students are teaching, then they understand that they have the ability to teach and grow and that’s what will support them when they’re out in the world.  I think that’s the most important lesson: that they can always learn, always grow.  And teaching and learning, growing are definitely not confined to the classroom.

A "singing blanket" that student Daniel Anesiadou made for a public event at DasArts in Amsterdam in spring 2005.

MC: What kind of theoretical background do you share with your students?

My teaching is very much about experience, but I do include some theory in class.  Last semester I wanted my students to understand the capitalist paradigm, so we read Marx and Being Singular Plural by Jean Luc Nancy, and now we’re looking at Hannah Arendt.  We read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and we read The Gift by Lewis Hyde.  We also read and look at the work of Sister Corita.  Those are a few texts that I definitely use, but I don’t overwhelm them with theory.  What I’ve learned in the past is that theory is more easily understood when there’s an experience to accompany the theory.  The most successful theorists speak from a deep engagement with the world around them, and I think that’s very important.

Other people that are very influential to me – the way I think, teach, and practice – are people that I invite to teach. Susan Ciancolio is a very big inspiration for me.  She has been teaching in the Fashion Area of Study for four years.  I also have a very lively connection and exchange with Caroline Woolard, who teaches the barter class [at Parsons], and I’m very happy that Otto von Busch has joined our team.  I’m very inspired by the people that I’m surrounded by.

MC: What do you hope to see your students to achieve in coming years, in fashion and beyond?

PG: At the moment, I think it’s about creating hybrid types of practices, hybrid types of life.  Some of my students who graduated last year formed a business and living cooperative, building a business and growing their own food in a community garden nearby.  If you support students in what they’re strong in, in what they want to do, they become more confident, more capable, more able to master their lives and make informed decisions.

I know from working, and many of my students know from working, that if you are really immersed in a dynamic relationship with your work, you will come up with unexpected insights that will result in unexpected outcomes.  For me, it’s important that we constantly re-invent the forms that we engage with and relate to in order to give other possibilities for life.  That’s what practice is about – constantly advancing the forms, because the forms are only ever temporary, limited, never sufficient for our ever-changing nature.  We are always changing and always in a state of flux so we need to re-invent and continuously open up new possibilities for life to continue.

MC: What do you enjoy most about teaching?

PG: I love the exchange of collaboration, of growing together.  I just think that cooperation is a much more natural way to live than practicing individually.  It’s about care, and love, appreciating and respecting the things that we live with: the people, the objects, everything.

Pascale Gatzen is Associate Professor of the Body Garment Track at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons the New School for Design.

Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.

Interview with Otto von Busch: Fashion+Sustainability—Lines of Research Series

by Mae Colburn

“In your skillful hands, the sewing machine is a tool for liberation!” reads a passage on Von Busch’s website, where users can download everything from ‘zines, to toolkits, to recycling "cookbooks" such as the one featured above.  Cookbook by Otto von Busch.

Otto von Busch is a craftsman, researcher, and activist.  He joined Parsons’ Integrated Design Program (IDC) this past September and has since become the natural cynosure of a lively conversation about fashion and social engagement.  His website,>SELF_PASSAGE<, features essays on topics ranging from mending, memory, and mindfulness, to spirituality, cyberspace, and sustainability.  He speaks English with the lilting, faintly lyrical accent of a highly spirited Swede and has the remarkable ability to detect and demystify subtle metaphors buried in otherwise familiar words (fashion-able, sustain-ability).  He is, in short, a master of remastry.

Mae Colburn: You completed your PhD, “Fashion-able: Hacktivism and Engaged Fashion Design,” at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg in 2008.  Could you describe how you arrived at that topic?

Otto von Busch: I started studying different crafts at craft schools in Sweden after finishing high school.  I really wanted to become a guitar builder, so I was studying carpentry and cabinet making, building guitars, restoring mandolins, banjos, and those sorts of things.  Then I decided I should try something else, so I went to another prep school for printing and weaving and started taking patternmaking and sewing classes. But after a while it all felt very introverted, so I started studying art history.  I thought ‘ok, I can try this for a while,’ and I got sort of stuck and studied art history for many years.

Later, I studied at a program called Material and Virtual Design (sort of interactive design and industrial design coming together) at Malmo University in Sweden, and that’s how I got into more ‘computer-ish’ thinking.  That came together in trying to understand how open source, hacking, and open platforms could apply to fashion.  I was recycling clothes and thinking about how I could produce fashion recycling programs (I called them 'cookbooks') that people could download, where people could follow my simple instructions but apply them to their own projects, like what was happening in hacking, Wikipedia, Linux, where the user was suddenly engaged as a collaborative knowledge producer – where the user’s knowledge is acknowledged.

So the question became, how could designers encourage people to become designers themselves, so that fashionable meant not only dressing people fashionably but also making them fashion-able – how could that engagement happen?  And as a designer; how could you merge that sort of network thinking about open source with fashion?  That’s how it came together at the end of my studies, which also became the theme for my PhD.

MC: You discuss Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education in your PhD.  Could you go into more detail about how educational theory influenced your approach to fashion?

OVB: Of course they were influential as I tried to see how fashion could be turned from a phenomenon of passivity, or of very limited choices funneled through our socio-economic position, into a more liberating or capability-building process.  I’m especially fascinated by the heritage of sloyd, the heritage of craft education, or shop class, and how that emerged in the mid 19th century – Friedrich Fröbel and the Kindergarten movement, and the birth of the Montessori school and these sorts of alternative pedagogical models that are very much about producing craft skills, hand-eye coordination, having agency in the world, agency because you are learning how to produce things, how to fix things.

It comes down to basic freedoms: if I know how to fix my bike, I have a choice that I didn’t have before.  Knowing how to do something also produces another attendance to the world, another attention, another awareness.  If I, as a designer, teach people to reclaim the sewing machine, they can also learn to see the complexity of the details of clothing – they can recognize good craftsmanship, and that’s an agency of empowerment, I think.

MC: I've noticed that you're often described as a heretic, demagogue, hacker, subversive – kind of a ‘bad student.'  And, indeed, much of your work in fashion is about subverting, questioning the system.  How does this role translate into your experiences teaching at institutions such as Parsons?

OVB: Those terms are a little provocative of course, but at the same time, as I write in my thesis, a heretic isn’t necessarily an infidel.  It’s somebody who uses the system to give way for liberation.  Also with demagogue, hacker, I try to put the emphasis on constructive critique, or positive change.

From a pedagogical perspective, working with social engagement in general can be very tricky within the academic industrial context, but that said, you have to create your own free space.  I think it was a student of Georg Simmel who wrote about his lectures that he felt as though he was at a place where thought was being born, not where thought was being repeated.  I love to do projects like that, where I’m as curious about something as my students, and I hopefully manage to convey that curiosity in a structured way.  I’m lucky at Parsons that some of the courses in Integrated Design allow that space to happen.  Currently, I’m leading a course called “The Gift,” where students set up Etsy stores, but also challenge the borders of what’s sold on Etsy.  Could you sell services?  How can you find your own independent voice within a standardized framework like Etsy?

In Otto’s Community Repair Project at the London College of Fashion (2011), students explored the social dimensions of home sewing by collaborating with community members to repair unused clothing.  Garments by Rachel Clowes (top) and Renee Lacroix.  Photos by Otto von Busch.

MC: You use two phrases throughout your writing that seem to define a certain pedagogy – ‘small change’ and ‘action spaces.’  Could you give us some examples of how these ideas come through in your teaching?

OVB: You’ll have to come and see.  Some of the latest projects have turned out really well, such as the Community Repair project with MA students from Fashion and the Environment at London College of Fashion.  We used garments in need of mending as probes for students to get to know their neighborhood and their neighbors.  Instead of leaving it to the tailor or just throwing it away, how could you engage your neighbors in the repair by barter service in a site-specific way?  It produces all these histories, sort of a narrative litmus paper, and brings out local qualities.  Of course it’s a small change, but as a fashion designer, how could I set up a brand that would actually work exactly like that? A brand that produces new local action spaces rather than only happening within the commodity economy?

MC: Could you say a few words about how your work relates to sustainability?

OVB: I don’t talk about sustainability in my work, and if I do, I usually talk about abilities and the ability to sustain values.  I think that we have to disseminate abilities, whether it’s the ability to repair, or the ability to have attention to detail, or the ability to use the sewing machine.  It’s about building those capacities rather than disseminating the commodities.  How do we produce the ability, the courage, to dress and interact with the fashion system differently?

Otto von Busch is Assistant Professor of Integrative Fashion at Parsons the New School for Design.  He holds a PhD from the School of Design and Craft, University of Gothenburg.

Mae Colburn is an independent textile researcher based in New York City.

Interview with Tiziana Cardini-LaRinascente Fashion Director

by Simona Segre Reinach

SSR La Rinascente has often hosted events during the Salone del Mobile of Milan. This year it looks as if you want to be more involved in the actual co-production of an event. How did this develop ?

TC: This is the first time laRinascente is totally in charge of a big event. Before we just had partnerships with the likes of Interni.This time we thought that the time was right, we were ready to be part of the excitement of the city during the Salone. We have a strong heritage of relationships with the Milanese designers starting with the 50s and 60s Compassodoro and we have worked in the past with big talents like Bruno Munari, Gio Ponti etc.

SSR: Why hack?

TC: We wanted to choose a concept which crosses art, design and technology and is part of the language of design today and could be understood by today’s design community. It is also a concept that is very of the moment for the artistic community in general. Transforming a reality into something else. It’s a tool. A way of being in a relationship with the creative process.

SSR: Why Beatrice Galilee?

TC: Because she is one of the coolest and most relevant young curators today. She has a great knowledge about today’s trends and design, not to mention she’s very well connected within the design community.

SSR It is a shared idea that the Salone del Mobile (and more generally design) is an open system, which endorses participation from the public – whereas the fashion weeks are the very opposite: elitarian and selfcontained. Is the Hacked event meant to bridge/connect the two worlds – fashion and design –both very well represented at la Rinascente?

TC: No, not really. We wanted to do something really specific about the process of creating design. And we wanted to do something where people can really participate. We weren’t really thinking about working on a different scale, or creating a new relationship with fashion. That wasn’t the aim.

SSR: What does such an event mean for la Rinascente?

TC: We would like to become a place where these kinds of events, which are interesting on many different levels, take place. We want to be a platform for new designers and and to become an important place for the city where people can experiment and be creative. Milano doesn’t have this at the moment.

SSR As I read in the programme, Hacked is stressing the interaction with the public during the event. Is this just ‘one shot’ or la Rinascente strategy is looking for more interaction and connectivity with its customers? If this is the case could you tell us how you plan to develop more interactions with your customeres?

TC: Of course, we would love to do something like this again, because in the end we want to open the creative process to the public, so they can understand better and understand the exciting things that young designers are doing. We don’t know how exactly yet, but we’ll definitely continue to host these kinds of events and become more and more relevant during the Salone for the interational community.

SSR How has the Milanese fashion system changed since you became fashion director and what in your view should be the role of la Rinascente in the new scenario?

TC: There’s definitely a different customer for fashion, because the markets are enormously open now. We have a world wide audience for fashion, which wasn’t the case even 5 years ago. So, the new markets have a great influence in how fashion is thought of and designed by designers themselves and so the language of fashion has changed, for sure. Chinese, Russians, people from the Middle East and Brazilians consume fashion in a different way. The fashion industry has, naturally, adjusted to their needs.

This change has been felt by laRinascente especially. Today 50% of our customers are tourists, many of whom are used to shopping in department stores, unlike the Milanese who are used to shopping in a much more inimate way, in small boutiques and with personal relationship with the owner and a very personalised service. For tourists, laRinascente is easy and familiiar.