A Review of “David Bowie Is”

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


by Jay Ruttenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Review of fashion after Fashion at the Museum of Arts and Design

by Anthony Palliparambil, Jr.

Note the capitalization: fashion after Fashion makes an important distinction between “fashion” in the lowercase, and “Fashion” in the uppercase. While the big F connotes the commodity-driven aspects of the industry, “fashion,” with its little f, represents the processes of creativity and reflection that are not determined by commerce. “We wanted to bring a different sort of fashion exhibit to New York,” says curator Hazel Clark (Parsons School of Design, The New School). Indeed, the show (one of three fashion exhibitions currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design) does not feature a single mannequin. Rather, Clark -- along with fellow curator Ilari Laamanen (Finnish Cultural Institute in New York), commissioned six works, each of which challenges and redefines how fashion can be experienced, interpreted, and subverted.

SSAW Magazine,  Now My Heart is Full  installation, 2017 (Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

SSAW Magazine, Now My Heart is Full installation, 2017
(Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

The exhibition opens with an installation designed to mimic a teenager’s bedroom in which every surface, from the walls and floor, to the bedspread, to the rug and table – is plastered with images from SSAW Magazine. Inspired by the ways in which the fashion industry is heavily image-driven, the installation suggests that you no longer need to be dressed to be considered fashionable. Through imagery, particularly through the unedited photos of SSAW, fashion extends from a privileged few to everyone.

Ryohei Kawanishi,  "NEW" Collection  installation, 2017 (Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

Ryohei Kawanishi, "NEW" Collection installation, 2017
(Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

Just outside the bedroom, Ryohei Kawanishi has constructed a designer showroom, complete with a look book, pattern samples, as well as a collection of garments on a shopping rack. An homage to Marcel Duchamp’s famed Fountain (1917), which questioned notions of authenticity and the very nature of art, Kawanishi asks the viewer to do the same of fashion.

From the Seated Design collection 2015. (Courtesy of Lucy Jones)

From the Seated Design collection 2015.
(Courtesy of Lucy Jones)

Lucy Jones makes a compelling case for the importance of inclusive design with “Seated Design,” a video outlining her design ethos, and “Seated Sleeves,” a collection of twenty-six free-floating sleeves designed for wheelchair-bound bodies. Rather than designing for the standing body as is typical of the industry, Jones chooses instead to focus on bodies that are confined to wheelchairs or are otherwise differently-abled. The sleeves – each one different from the next – at times resemble armor and are incredible testaments to the many innovations being made for those who experience fashion in alternative ways.

ensæmble, INSIDE, detail of installation, 2017. (Photo by Sanna Lehto)

ensæmble, INSIDE, detail of installation, 2017.
(Photo by Sanna Lehto)

Helsinki-based design-duo ensæmble asks viewers to consider the ways in which fashion is experienced with their installation, INSIDE. Designed to highlight not the exterior appearance of fashion, but rather the interiors of garments, the delicate sculptures of INSIDE comment on the intimate ways in which bodies shape and are shaped by clothes. A pair of polyurethane shoeboxes created in collaboration with Nathaniel Lieb shows the ghostly impression of the interior of a shoe, outlining the spaces our bodies must conform to when we decide to participate in fashion.

Henrik Vibskov,  Harmonic Mouth . (Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

Henrik Vibskov, Harmonic Mouth.
(Photo: Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

The most visually arresting challenge to fashion comes from designer Henrik Vibskov in the form of Harmonic Mouth, an installation which asks viewers to enter a blood-red cube containing four suspended, amorphous, yet elegantly designed red forms filled with sand. The cube is intended to represent the various spaces of fashion, though an accompanying film depicts haunting scenes of figures dressed in the nebulous forms, slowly disgorging their sandy contents within the cube, illustrating the ways in which bodies can bring life to clothing.

The exhibition concludes with a video by design team Eckhaus Latta in collaboration with Alexa Karolinski. A montage of interviews with individuals discussing issues of love, life, and identity while dressed in Eckhaus Latta’s fall/winter 2017 collection, the film is a moving and deeply intimate glimpse into the lives of individuals who represent a broad range of gender expressions, racial identities, ages, and body sizes. Interestingly, fashion plays a seemingly secondary role in the film, illustrating the ways in which fashion can become so inextricably linked with identity.

Alexa Karolinski and Eckhaus Latta, Coco, 2017. Still from a video. DP Ashley Connor. Featuring Juliana Huxtable. (Courtesy Alexa Karolinski and Eckhaus Latta.)

Alexa Karolinski and Eckhaus Latta, Coco, 2017. Still from a video. DP Ashley Connor. Featuring Juliana Huxtable.
(Courtesy Alexa Karolinski and Eckhaus Latta.)

fashion after Fashion presents an alternative version of fashion that exists outside of a system that favors the lithe, gendered bodies who have the financial means to participate in Fashion. The exhibition highlights the ways in which fashion practices have expanded beyond commerce, touching upon how designers have become more critically and culturally informed. Moreover, it highlights the need for designers to continue to question the powers-that-be within the fashion industry and further to challenge how the very industry operates.

fashion after Fashion is on view through August 6, 2017 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, NY.

Experimental Fashion Lecture at the Somerset House, London, April 6th

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

Fig. 12 Merce Cunningham, Scenario, BAM, Brooklyn, 1997, photograph by Dan rest. Courtesy of Louie Fleck at the BAM Hamm Archives

by Francesca Granata

I will be giving a lecture on my book "Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body" April 6th at the Somerset House in London organized in partnership with the Fashion Research Network.

I am particularly excited to discuss the work of Rei Kawakubo, whose exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is forthcoming. Most of my research on Kawakubo's work was, in fact, conducted at the Met's Costume Institute while I was there as a Polaire Weissman Research Fellow. Equally exciting was to research Kawakubo's collaboration with Merce Cunningham for Scenario at the Cunningham Archives, then located at Bank Street, and at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.

For anyone interested in coming to the lecture and chatting afterwards about experimental fashion while sipping wine, please visit the Somerset House website, as advanced reservations are required.


Experimental Fashion's Book Launch on March 16th at Parsons School of Design, New York.



Please join us for the launch of Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body by Francesca Granata, Director of the MA Fashion Studies in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, the New School for Design.

The author will be in conversation with German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm and Charlene K. Lau, Parsons Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual and Material Culture.

The event details!

Thursday, March 16th, 6:30-9:00pm
Parsons School of Design
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building
65 West 11th Street
New York, NY

This event is free to the public and a reception will follow.
RSVP by clicking here.

Experimental Fashion (published by I.B. Tauris) is a study of designers and performance artists, including Leigh Bowery, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, and Bernhard Willhelm.

The book argues that the proliferation of bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion at the turn of the 21st century was influenced by feminism's desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. This proliferation was also tied to the AIDS epidemic and mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive policing of bodily borders that characterized the period.

A Review of "Black Fashion Designers" at The Museum at FIT

by Anthony Palliparambil, Jr.

“We are not ‘black’ designers, but American designers, the way Bill Blass is an American designer,” visionary designer Arthur McGee once declared in a 1992 article for Newsweek, “…as soon as you categorize us, you can erase us.”[1] McGee, the first African American to run a Seventh Avenue design studio, is just one of the notable figures whose works are currently on view in Black Fashion Designers, the latest exhibition at the Museum at FIT (New York). Curated by Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way, the show is comprised entirely of pieces from the permanent collection of the Museum, and explores the contributions of designers whose works span the last 70 years.

The Fashion Institute of Technology prides itself on being one of the first schools in United States to present an integrated fashion show, so it is not surprising to see the Museum take on the challenges of using race as a lens through which to view fashion. McGee’s dissatisfaction at being categorized as a black designer first is a common thread that ties together many of the individuals and garments on view. Moreover, the contemporary designers on view find inspiration among their predecessors, creating garments that often reference themselves in dialogue with the history of African dress and the African American experience.

The exhibition is divided into ten sections, the first of which, “Breaking Into the Industry,” focuses on designers who rose to fame during the 1950s when the fashion market was still heavily segregated. This section features two designs by Ann Lowe, one of the first prominent black designers in the United States. The ensembles not only stand as a testament to Lowe’s ability to revolutionize the way in which black designers were understood and praised within the fashion industry, but also highlight the extraordinary relevance of Lowe’s designs within fashion today.

Set in front of a traditional kente cloth pattern from Ghana, the “African Influence” section of the exhibition seeks to contextualize western black fashion designers within a greater historical framework of traditional African textiles and dress practices. This is perhaps best exemplified by a dress from Stella Jean’s fall 2015 collection, a vibrant celebration of African wax print textiles, though the curators have been quick to point out that the technique was originally developed in Holland and not Africa as many assume. Mimi Plange offers one of the most intriguing moments of the exhibition, a pink leather dress from her Spring 2013 collection in which the leather is sewn to mimic scarification traditions of West Africa. Plange, in a very contemporary mode, has designed a dress that speaks to and also challenges the dress practices of the cultures from which she descends.

Kerby Jean-Raymond’s designs for his label Pyer Moss are the focus of the “Activism” section of the exhibition, a politically charged glimpse at the ways black designers have used fashion as a form of protest. Though this section constitutes the smallest portion of the entire exhibition, it is undoubtedly the most powerful segment of Black Fashion Designers, particularly within the context of the current Post-Inaugural political climate. Following around-the-clock coverage of protests that have burgeoned throughout the past month, this brief portion of the exhibition speaks to issues that are urgently relevant to the contemporary moment.

Perhaps the most significant garment on display, however, is the one that stands beneath a spotlight at the entrance to the gallery: a dress from Patrick Kelly’s fall 1986 collection whose bodice is covered in a variety of buttons. In a 1987 profile of the designer, journalist Bonnie Johnson wrote that Kelly decorated garments with cheap buttons as an homage to his grandmother, who, when mending his clothes, often used the technique to “detract from having to use mismatched buttons.”[2] The garment acts as a celebration of black excellence, reflected throughout the entire exhibition. In many ways, the garment sums up the experiences of many of the designers on view in Black Fashion Designers: to turn their histories – however diverse, however challenging, and however complex – into art.

Black Fashion Designers is on view through May 16, 2017 at the Museum at FIT in New York, NY.

Images Courtesy of the Museum at FIT
[1] "The Rainbow Coalition." Newsweek, July 12, 1992. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/rainbow-coalition-200178.
[2] Johnson, Bonnie. "In Paris, His Slinky Dresses Have Made Mississippi-Born Designer Patrick Kelly the New King of Cling." People, June 15, 1987. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://people.com/archive/in-paris-his-slinky-dresses-have-made-mississippi-born-designer-patrick-kelly-the-new-king-of-cling-vol-27-no-24/.