‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

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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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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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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.

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 "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

Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

On occasion of her new book on fashion design education, Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process (AVA, February 2013), Fiona Dieffenbacher--director of the BFA in Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design--reflects on new and exciting approaches to fashion education:

by Fiona Dieffenbacher

The main question to be asked of fashion education today is “Are we training students to design clothes or to create fashion?” To be makers, creators, or both?” At Parsons The New School for Design we have re-approached our curriculum to address these questions, which has led to innovative, new pathways for our students to develop as designers.

In order to understand the difference between the spheres of making and creating fashion, we have focused on design thinking as a method of envisioning a reality that does not yet exist, and as a means for achieving innovation. Fashion thinking involves harnessing the vast array of skills at the designer’s disposal, while embracing the chaos of the process itself. This might include upending traditional approaches or reapporpriating them to unearth new ways of creating and making clothes.

“Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process” highlights the work of nine students, documenting their responses to a variety of design briefs and their process: from idea to concept and design. These projects demonstrate that there are multiple entry points into that process and a million ways out. In between there are some consistent doors that each designer will go through (albeit in varying orders) and there are consistent tools they will utilize to accomplish the end result, but the rest is up for grabs. Emerging designers must learn to develop both their own personal philosophy of design and a particular way of working, which involves taking ownership of the process itself.

Traditionally, fashion design texts have tended to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the design process: research – sketch – flat-pattern – drape – fabrication – make. While this order works for many designers, and are essential building blocks of the design process, this does not work for all. At Parsons we have developed a curriculum that encourages a variety of approaches to design versus heralding a formulaic method. If we persist in training fashion students to design via a process that is rote and mundane, we have missed the point entirely.

Not everyone begins with a sketch; indeed some don’t sketch at all. Isabel Toledo is one such example, “I don’t start new things at the sketch pad or the drawing board. For me, fashion design begins at the sewing machine and the pattern-making table. I know that I am creating a design when I make things with my hands, giving them form and shape, often inventing new techniques to fold and manipulate cloth as I experiment with my designs and perfect them over time.”[1]

Dissatisfaction with a particular way of working can also lead to a breakthrough in the design process and this was true for Rei Kawakubo, two years before her first presentation in Paris in 1979. I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.” Speaking of her decision, Harold Koda commented on her process, “…‘to start from zero’… has become a constant of her design process. Season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo obliterates her past… Liberated from the rules of construction, she pursues her essentially intuitive and reactive solutions, which often result in forms that violate the very fundamentals of apparel.”[2]

In the BFA Fashion Design program here at Parsons, we have witnessed a distinct shift away from a right/wrong philosophy of teaching toward a more problem-based approach to learning. A student-centric model now exists where the fundamentals of design, construction, digital and drawing are taught in tandem with a full roster of studio electives and liberal arts that students select from a wide variety of options open to them across our university, The New School. Students learn traditional techniques and immediately apply them within the context of their own approach to design. In doing so they begin to articulate their own aesthetic and visual vocabulary from the outset of their experience in the program. Additionally, students are now encouraged to develop a central body of work that is re-contextualized across their suite of electives, which informs their work in new ways.

There is no “right” way to approach design; there are no “wrong” turns. Everything matters. Designers are problem-solvers and problems present challenges that often lead to creative solutions that could not have been conceived of any other way. Within the unpredictability of the process ‘mistakes’ transform into new ideas, yielding fresh concepts that drive silhouette and form forward. Innovation happens on the heels of error in the midst of chaos and complexity.

Jie Li, "Knitting and Pleating".


[1] “Roots of Style, Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion” by Isabel Toledo

[2] “ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo,” MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art], Detroit, Exhibition catalogue, March 2008

Fiona Dieffenbacher is Assistant Professor and Director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons The New School for Design. An alumna of the program, Dieffenbacher has served as a faculty member since 2005. Prior to being appointed director of the BFA program, she served as the director of external partnerships for the School of Fashion, where she oversaw projects with Coach, Louis Vuitton, MCM, Swarovski, LVMH and others. In her current role, Dieffenbacher has led the program though the development and implementation of a new curriculum. Dieffenbacherholds an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textiles from the University of Ulster in the UK. At Parsons, she was the recipient of a Designer of The Year Award (1993). In 1998, she launched a ready-to-wear label Fiona Walker, which was shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and sold at select retailers in the U.S and internationally. The collection was featured in WWD, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Lucky, and Cosmopolitan