A Vogue Idea /

Fashion is Not a Revelation: An Appeal for Critical Curation

The current exhibition at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), titled “fashion after Fashion,” promises a bold new definition of critical fashion. As curators Hazel Clark and Ilari Laamanen explain, “Fashion” with a capital F is “an inherent system of short-lived trends, idealized body types, and the presentation of gendered stereotypes, all conveyed with authority through the names of brands…”

The exhibition intends to show that fashion practice can possess intellectual value outside market forces. This hypothesis, which posits fashion criticality as a nascent reality, curiously neglects decades of scholarly and curatorial work dedicated to fashion’s various experiential, social and multidisciplinary relations. Sidestepping this vast history of critical fashion practice and theory, “fashion after Fashion” purports to show “some of the most innovative work being produced” as alternatives to an otherwise oppressive system.

The exhibition brings together six practitioners who deal with the lowercase phenomenon known as “fashion.” SSAW magazine presents a teen bedroom interior completely covered in spreads and campaigns from their past issues. Designer Ryohei Kawanishi creates a faux wholesale showroom with bought garments redolent of Zara pieces; hoping to jam the value-relationship of garment and branding, he has supplanted existing logos and labels with his own. Henrik Vibskov has constructed transparent fabric cubicles with gelatinous Ernesto Neto–style blobs suspended in them. This, we are told, points to “how bodies are enlivened by their garments” and how fashion “references the passage of time.” Lucy Jones crafts ergonomic cross sections of garments that enhance body joint movability for wheelchair users. This suggests fashion’s potential for inclusivity. Sculptural works by the collaborative duo ensæmble expose the innards of garments, highlighting their construction to illuminate our everyday interfaces with clothing. Eckhaus Latta and Alexa Karolinski’s video features downtown New York art characters responding to questions of love and identity while wearing the brand’s clothing. The exhibition claims this demonstrates how fashion can facilitate community.

Unlike the more traditional fashion exhibition approach of isolating a specific time, place, author, style or medium to position a thesis, “fashion After Fashion” denies this curatorial threshold as proof that this new “fashion” practice transcends mere collections and catwalks. While the exhibition format need not remain didactic, the act of selection is also an act of restriction, an indictment made all the more critical for a museum. The question that becomes immediately apparent is: What makes these six key practitioners so illustrative of this new “fashion” frontier? Are the above tactics of imagery, brand jamming, immersive environments, disability design, deconstruction and community truly novel to fashion? Or, have these practitioners canonized once-niche concerns into systemic industry changes?

Within the curators’ vague paradigm shift of “Fashion” vs. “fashion,” profound contradictions are evident. Take for instance the work by SSAW Magazine. The exhibition argues that SSAW is a repudiation of fashion magazines and their proclivity to “present stereotypes of beauty, gender, and age, which they [SSAW] found restrictive and unrepresentative of their interests.” Expecting an insightful shift, I instead discover the magazine almost exclusively depicts tall, youthful, waif-like models, many of them represented by major agencies, wearing the latest in luxury designer fashion. The professionally crafted visuals are virtually indistinguishable from those of mainstream fashion magazines. Fashionably alternative models may appear, but recent campaigns by corporations such as H&M, which present body diversity under the banner of brand identity, question the collusion between representation in the fashion industry and Foucault’s concept of biopolitics. Is this a highly attuned form of institutional critique? Could this be an update of Stéphane Mallarmé’s1874 La Dernière mode, an interventionist project in which the poet, acting as a ficto-critic, published a fashion magazine using a host of pseudonyms to construct a simulation of the discourse? All research points to no. Fashion remains Fashion.

Ultimately functioning as a frivolous curatorial exercise, there is a dearth of any intelligible attempt to expound a theoretical connection between these six practitioners. Yes, they all somehow challenge cultural norms or luxury economies, but this could be described as fashion tout-court. Even high-end “Fashion” designers have been historically known to subvert corporeal and corporate expectations, creating platforms for new gender roles, championing minorities, obfuscating their financial imperative though philanthropy, collaborating with artists and advocating for the individual. Why aren’t they included in the show? This lack of discernment is worrying for a museum exhibition that declaims a manifesto of the “new”; clearly the exhibition does not interrogate the complex marriage of the culture industry and the corporate world. Instead, “fashion after Fashion” offers the nebulous assurance that “fashion” is “more complex, critically informed and socially relevant.”

The fact is that this type of revelatory exhibition of fashion’s expanded field has been mounted countless times: “Biennale di Firenze” (1996), curated by Germano Celant; “Fast Forward: Mode in den Medien” (1999), curated by Ulrike Tschabitzer and Christian Muhr at Künstlerhaus Wien; “Dysfashional” (2007), curated by Luca Marchetti and Emanuele Quinz at the Luxembourg Rotonde; and “The Future of Fashion is Now” (2014), curated by José Teunissen at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, to name a few.

It has become remarkably evident at this point that fashion’s sensorium is involved in creative processes that transcend market forces (although I would argue that all fashion practice, luxury to niche, remains intrinsically entangled with the market). An exhibition declaring a new fashion must do more than explicate this fact. This is not to say all fashion exhibitions need to adhere to specific themes and cannot tackle fashion as a methodological conundrum. In 1944 Bernard Rudofsky curated “Are Clothes Modern?” at MoMA, a show that infiltrated the broad annals of fashion, challenging its genetic makeup, through Veblen and other anthropologists, as a grotesque semiology of class politics. In 2005, “Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back,” curated by Judith Clark at the V&A Museum, addressed fashion as analogous to Benjamin’s concept of the tiger’s leap, as the discursive image where past and present cyclically meet. Unlike “fashion after Fashion,” these exhibitions used pointed propositions to curatorially challenge our understanding of the fashion system.

by Matthew Linde

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A Vogue Idea /

Promesse du Bonheur / ___fabrics interseason

___fabrics interseason was founded by Wally Salner and Johannes Schweiger. Since 1998, they have produced twenty-two collections, initiated a bachelor’s degree program in fashion design for Kunstuniversität Linz, and have participated in more than twenty exhibitions, including the third Berlin Biennale and Manifesta 7. The term “interseasonal,” which refers to clothing that falls outside the two major annual shows, is suggestive of design’s liminal space. 

Their work, along with labels like BLESS, has been canonical for opening new interdisciplinary models for fashion. While haute couture challenges wearability through the spectacular, ___fabrics interseason instead explores clothing codes through a sociopolitical approach to fashion rituals. Although the label ended in 2011, their nuanced criticality still echoes today, in contrast to the hyper exposure of the fashion industry.

___fabrics interseason was a curious example of a label that existed on the periphery. Your work dealt with installations, performances, music and material studies. What was your interest in anchoring this practice in fashion?

Johannes Schweiger: We had no background in fashion studies, but we both, Wally Salner and I, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. During my studies, my artistic projects already dealt with issues of clothing and fashion. It was not really about making garments or wearable props, but more about an institutional critique of the system of fashion — modes of presenting, mediating and consuming fashion.

In the beginning, ___fabrics interseason had a strong focus on the performative aspects of fashion, literally using the method and form of a fashion show as a tool to communicate social issues and phenomena. Even then the garments of our collections were not necessarily designed under a fashionable/wearable aspect. I would say this started when we founded the company and went to Paris to present our collections during fashion week and further sold them to shops worldwide. ___fabrics interseason had a broader brand philosophy, and its approach toward fashion combined design, fine arts, music, film and text in a simple and natural way.

Working from and at the periphery allows you to stay in focus. It might also mean that your gaze at the center is critical and objective, if the center represents a corporate-run brand whose only aim is to have a huge turnover by the end of the year.

The collection descriptions are often long, impressionistic explanations of cultural phenomena, functioning as ficto-critical analyses to frame the collection. Topics have ranged from Tupperware, Japanese consumerism, masculine anxiety, etc. What was one of your favorite collections/works?

That’s difficult to answer after such a long time, but it might be a trilogy of collections dealing with the subject of normality projected on the surface in different fields (Spring Summer 2002, Fall Winter 2002/03, Spring Summer 2003). The series was called “constructed normality” and had the subtitles #PromesseDuBonheur, with the focus on “New Poverty;” #ModernNervs, dealing with psychic (ab)normality; and #clubMed CHLOR, in which we concentrated on the idea of gated holiday resorts and female sex tourism in the 1980s.

Your collections often addressed a loose fabric that, as an abandonment of the anatomy, is also explored in your installation work. This provocation of fashion’s boundaries was also being tested by another label, ffiXXed, who approached fabric’s multiplicity in translating non-garment outcomes. What is your relationship to fabric in your installation work — for example the piece for Manifesta 7?

For Manifesta we continued with a project we realized a year before (tapestry #1). In this open-air installation we worked with handwoven rugs and carpets that were made of the leftovers from all the previous collections, cut into thin strips and woven in the most simple way you can imagine: warp and weft. The idea behind it was not really a recycling aspect but more the leveling of different collections (with all their concepts) into a new design product. The carpets/textiles can also been seen as a form of painting and have different dimensions, the biggest ones measuring two by twenty meters.

One of my favorite collections was “Adhocracy f/w 2004/05,” which was also featured in the third Berlin Biennale. Could you explain this work?

“Adhocracy” was conceived both as a collection and an installation piece that included a performance for the third Berlin Biennale. Then, almost fifteen years ago, the rise of smart technologies and the phenomenon of the flash mob was quite virulent, and we linked this idea of Dadaistic nonsense gatherings with the Surrealists, who handed out heads of lettuce to passersby to bring some fantasy to the course of standardized, everyday life. But do not forget: the surrealists were an elitist group. Anybody who acted against the imaginary disordered rules was quickly conjured away!

The principle upon which these ad hoc groupings came together was simple: sometime, somehow, somewhere. We questioned if this phenomenon could be the future of democracy, a kind of a high-speed variant of democratic consent-formation in the age of wireless communication. For its presentation during Paris fashion week, we organized a fake flash mob at the Louvre/Union Central des Arts Decoratifs, where the group of models lip-synched Kevin Blechdom’s interpretation of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”

What was it like heading a fashion course at the university in Linz? What was your approach to fashion pedagogy?

Working with students is a matter of giving and taking. Of course there are specific curricula to which you have to stick to, but the most important thing with teaching is to stimulate and promote independent thinking: free thinking is for free! I am still doing design seminars in Linz and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but I mainly teach at the Technical University of Dortmund, at the Institute of Art and Material Culture/Anthropology of Textiles. Wally Salner is teaching in Munich.

Are you still interested in fashion today?

Of course, I follow fashion. I still think it’s an interesting and powerful tool to communicate with your surroundings and mediate certain issues via fabrics and garments.

by Matthew Linde

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A Vogue Idea /

Dress, Body & Culture / Valerie Steele

Valerie Steele is among a handful of individuals across the world that work as fashion exhibition makers. She is the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

The Museum at FIT predominately deals with a traditional exhibition framework: clothes hung on mannequins propped on plinths. Steele operates as a visual anthropologist revealing to us historical truths. While this in itself is a didactic method, the fashion exhibition is also an imaginative space of the social. If the exhibition is a social project, and fashion is concerned with the production of social experience, this makes the fashion exhibition a doubly relational experience. I talked to Steele about her trailblazing role as a fashion academic and curator.

I’d like to start off with the journal you founded in 1997, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, of which you are still the editor-in-chief. Can you explain the history of the publication and how we might understand its influence within the field?

Fashion Theory was the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal in fashion studies, which really helped establish the field, which is both interdisciplinary and international. Without a peer-reviewed journal, it is difficult to say that a scholarly field really exists.

It was so successful and the field of fashion studies has grown so much that now there are several other journals (although I think Fashion Theory is still the best). I’m especially pleased that Russian Fashion Theory has flourished for ten years; it’s an independent sister journal, which publishes original essays as well as some translations from our journal.

Do you think the profession of “fashion curator” has its own unique set of rules or parameters in contrast to other types of curating?

Fashion curators need to have expertise in the history of fashion and in the theories and methodologies regarding fashion. Some curators are more knowledgeable than others, and it can sometimes be helpful if the curator works together with a professor or other scholar in fashion studies.

Sometimes art or art history curators put on fashion exhibitions, but they really don’t have the expertise to do a good job unless they work with collaborators who can help them. “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” was a great show, because it brought together both art historians and fashion historians.

Even just in terms of mounting a fashion exhibition, you need specialist knowledge that only trained fashion conservators and installers have. Putting a painting on the wall is easy. Dressing and mounting a mannequin is not. Some fashion exhibitions have the silhouettes all wrong.

I’m interested in how the exhibition can break from history and into new relational qualities. I’m thinking of germinal exhibitions such as Judith Clark’s “The Concise Dictionary of Dress,” which prefaces a psychological approach to dress. As you yourself have lamented the hegemony of the blockbuster, how do you see the fashion exhibition form opening up?

Judith Clark is brilliant. I did not see “The Concise Dictionary of Dress,” but I loved “Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back.” That set a whole new paradigm for creating fashion exhibitions. It had an immediate influence on my work — for example, on “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” I’m sure that “Utopian Bodies” was also influenced by Judith.

The rise of labels that refute the fashion system while at the same time taking its reigns (I’m thinking now of Hood By Air and Vetements) seems to reflect the contemporary condition of the inextricable and mutual relationship between centers of power and the periphery. Working in the paradigmatic city of this dichotomy, who do you see as energizing voices of dissidence within New York fashion?

In fashion, designers on the periphery can often move suddenly into the center — with Vetements, for example, becoming almost instantly an obsession with fashion people. Hood By Air also has energized New York fashion. But fashion people are fickle; you can be THE hot new brand one year and old hat the next. It’s really hard to maintain avant-garde status: Margiela did it, and Comme des Garçons.

You have previously stated that the FIT Museum should not be understood as a Kunsthalle. I’m interested to know how the Museum collects new works by designers. What are the criteria for acquisitions?

The collection of the Museum at FIT encompasses more than fifty thousand garments and accessories from the eighteenth century to the present. We acquire contemporary looks every year. Obviously, our criteria is ultimately based on which designers and which collections we think will have a significant influence on fashion history. However, as with purchasing contemporary art, this is a bit of a guessing game (and, perhaps, a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy). Art museums make “mistakes” all the time, but they also help establish lasting reputations. And sometimes their “mistakes” are reassessed in later years. Realistically, we have limited funds, space and time, so we also focus on acquiring looks that we plan to use in a particular upcoming exhibition. I believe that Comme des Garçons is extremely important, for example, and we regularly acquire CDG, but we really ramped up our acquisitions of contemporary Japanese fashion in the years just prior to our exhibition “Japan Fashion Now.”

You often refer to the style of reactionary individuals, not just designers, as a way to decode fashion. It returns fashion back to its relational roots, iterating, as curator and fashion researcher Robyn Healy argues, fashion as the production of experience. A crucial exhibition at FIT to address this was “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk.” Could you tell us how you came to co-curate this show and how you approached it?

My colleague Fred Dennis and I were going out to lunch one day when he said, “We should do a show on gays and fashion,” and I was immediately convinced that this was an incredibly important and under-researched idea. We put together an advisory group of scholars who have worked on LGBTQ studies together with designers and other LGBTQ individuals to get a really wide perspective. By putting together information from LGBTQ history and fashion history, we got a new perspective.

What would be your dream subject matter for a show?

I’m always most enthusiastic about my current projects, in this case, “Pink” (2018) and “Paris, Capital of Fashion” (2019).

by Matthew Linde

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A Vogue Idea /

On Style / Chloé Elizabeth Maratta

LA-based artist Chloé Elizabeth Maratta’s work reflects her participation in everyday life. In 2015, Maratta’s solo show “Vintage Clothing” at Ladybug was primarily situated around three arresting spaghetti-strap-tattered dresses hung from suspended poles in the modest-sized San Francisco gallery.

The dresses featured ad-hoc jewelry made from found materials such as playing cards, fabric scraps and lace. The front of one of the dresses, Hme Sweet Hme Dress (For N.F. and J.B.), carried a large beaded panel alongside a hand-drawn cardboard sign flung over the dress with a chain, giving it the look of a handbag. The sign featured a note from “DJ Dog Dick” proposing some sort of musical collaboration. These crafty materials, sourced from Maratta’s environment and tacked onto the already distressed dresses, suggested a sort of mending process. It was one of those great shows that was somehow both incredibly diaristic as well as universal in its stylistic accessibility — as if the artist’s life could be mapped via a trajectory of bric-a-brac, anecdotes, venues and social relations, all glued to unclean figures. The show literally manifested her collaged subjectivity. At this point I still hadn’t met Maratta in person, but I felt I could relate to her narrative through this symbolic dirtiness with style.

I knew of Maratta through her band, Odwalla88, in which she plays with fellow artist Flannery Silva. I was already a fan of this hardcore spoken-word noise act. When infatuated with a band, it’s a fan’s duty to start researching (or trolling) their entire obscure online existence. Their blog chronicles Odwalla88’s life on tour. I clicked through images of them playing at small bars and house shows, crashing with different punks and accumulating detritus in their car along the journey. It was through music and this sense of a fragmented countercultural community dispersed across the country that I understood how Maratta lived and negotiated the construction of her own self. Sitting comfortably alongside her music is her zine Rock&Rose. Reading this accumulation of thoughts, images, poems, interviews and flyers from within her “scene” feels like being on tour next to her while simultaneously sitting in my bedroom. Even though collage is such an obvious zine trope, it’s this cutting and pasting of experience that makes you feel at once intimate and directed by Maratta. She lets you stalk her.

When I finally met Maratta I saw just how embedded her practice is within her daily activities. She collects apparel constantly — from thrift stores, eBay and designer boutiques. Matching a shirt that is beyond disintegration with a recycled Westwood and shoes from Maryam Nassir Zadeh, she literally performs the role of a fashion-magazine editor, drawing a mood board of disparate references to coerce a style. Susan Sontag reiterates the words of Cocteau in her essay “On Style”: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Maratta adopts this as a political stance. Her use of subcultural imagery, mostly grunge, in both her work and life is a stylized message of dispossession from — and armor against — the mainstream. She uses the ploy of style to interrupt the transmissions of normative lifestyles through their own networks. Engaging rather than rejecting fashion and its commodities, and photographing subcultural subjects (echoing the production of muses), Maratta frustrates these paradigms through a dirty lens.

For her booth at Centre for Style at Paramount Ranch 3, she presented three panels. Each panel has a photographed central figure in the frame with clippings from dated fashion magazines and craft books glued across the borders. Abrasive jewelry made from stones, twisted wire, glass shards, children’s bracelets and her own silversmithing is mounted over the figures, adding a three-dimensional collage affect. One of the photographed subjects is her own chest (her face is not visible), which shines with the visible scars of her breast-reduction surgery. Here her process of collaging identity is reified in her own flesh. The other subjects, her female friends who also play music, are similarly obscured so as to avoid a sense of palpable protagonists. Instead, she uses these characters for their stylistic qualities, or what Philipp Ekardt calls “style as technique” in his essay “Fiorucci made me normcore.” Ekardt critiques the method of appropriating socio-aesthetics for works of idolization, but champions style as a technique to address the implicit expressions of marginalization associated with whatever subculture or scene the artist is presenting. Maratta’s world is that of a female working under patriarchy, working in a macho noise scene and commanding her own image and her own weird look.

The editors of many clickbait fashion magazines understand the cachet of identity politics: “See how this new label is redefining gender!”. No longer does subversive fashion necessarily translate a subversive politic, as Dick Hebdige’s structural analysis of subcultural style once purported. The current climate of abject aesthetics sees many young artists and fashion editors reproducing junk as a platitude. Maratta’s work offers new methods of reacting or rebelling by displacing, what Cocteau would call, her own soul.

by Matthew Linde

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