I recently spoke to the Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine about Yohji Yamamoto, who many of you will know is one of my favorite designers.
“Yohji will describe himself sometimes as a dressmaker, but I would say in many ways he is the last of the great couturiers. In the early 1980s, he and a whole cohort of Japanese designers – Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo – came to Paris and really challenged what fashion was about. People just didn’t get what they were doing, deconstructing and re-thinking what clothes are. They moved fashion on from something that was about status and allure, to something more intellectual, more empowering and experimental. Yohji is the epitome of that.
He’s been at the top of his game for all these years, and yet he is still able to surprise. He will take classic things – at tuxedo, a bomber jacket, a wedding dress – and turn them on their head. But he doesn’t force designs on the body, he works with it. His clothes are not really tight, though they will be fitted around the waist if he wants them to be, or fitted in the sleeve. He balances innovation with the fact that clothes need to have a relationship with the person wearing them. If you’re wearing Yohji, you’re not having to struggle to pull your skirt down, or sit in tight trousers. He doesn’t like stilettos or very high heels – it’s about freedom. That’s the thing I really like: it feels like you are empowered by his clothes, because yo’re not being restricted. And it doesn’t only apply to women. The film-maker Wim Wenders is a great Yohji fan: He says put his clothes on and they will feel like second skin.”
My trip to New York this month was as always fast paced and stimulating. Meetings with academics, bloggers and curators were interspersed with visits to galleries, new retail outlets and people watching.
The Charles James exhibition demonstrated what a significant couturier he was. All his clothes from the toiles, the day-wear to the spectacular ball gowns were wonderfully constructed and more architectural than almost any designer’s work that I’ve seen. His drawings were strikingly sculptural and the many quotes that were used throughout the exhibition, demonstrated his architectural and sculptural influences.
“In fashion even what seems most fragile must be built on cement.”
But it wasn’t just the Charles James exhibition that made me think about how structure, form and scale are such an integral part of creative practice.
The push these days, whether you are interested in fashion or art, always seems to be dramatic, large scale, and to a greater or lesser extent, shocking. But although James’ ball gowns were extraordinary in their size and construction there was a balance and symmetry based on careful and patient construction. What struck me wasn’t just their spectacle but their beauty.
“I spent my life making fashion an art form.” – Charles James
It was this quality that I found curiously resonant in ‘Small’ an exhibition by nine artists the premis of which was that small, instead of trivalising the subject, can achieve the reverse. Like James these artists understand the power of materials and scale. These, at times tiny drawings, were intimate, intense with a power that belied their scale. Like James these artists showed how an understanding of the relationship of an art form to the human body is a crucial part of artistic practice whatever your medium.
In ‘Here and Elsewhere’ an exhibition of 45 Arab artists, all about the body politic, this quality was overwhelming. It presented our humanity; whether physical as in the tales of migrants by Bouchra Khalili, or mental, as in The Purple Artifical Forest a film by Amal Kenawy. This was a challenging, relevant, poignant and at times angry and shaming exhibition.
The installation by Wafa Hourani, the works on paper by Mazen Keraj and Rokni Haerizadeh were particularly memorable for how they seemed to epitomise the purpose of the exhibition – that is:
“a complex reflection on the ethics of representation and the status of images as instruments of political consciousness”.
It was notable too for the number of female artists such as Kenaway and Anna Boghiguin, the directness of the materials and mediums used; photography, video, strong immediate drawings, the use of everyday objects as with the matchboxes of Mohamed Larbi Rahali, and the power of words and image together. ‘Here and Elsewhere’ alone was worth my trip to New York.
The Sir John Cass’s Foundation grant has helped the College continue to develop a unique collaborative project with HMP Send and to produce ‘The Beauty’s Inside’ magazine. Bringing together the skills of our staff, the enthusiasm of our students, and our unique industry contacts, the grant has allowed us to run a series of educational workshops for the women of HMP Send such as design, photography, beauty and styling. The grant has allowed us to produce a magazine; a process which teaches women prisoners collaborative ways of working and communications skills, and by showcasing their talent, helps to empower them to think more positively about their future.
We interviewed the Director of the BBC 2 documentary ‘Clothes to Die for’ about the people affected by the Rana Plaza disaster.
The Rana Plaza Factory collapse site in Bangladesh Photo: Taslima Akhter
I wrote about this in my book in an article called ‘The Real Fashion Victims’ here is an excerpt:
The majority of new clothes, whether luxury or mass-market, are manufactured in Asian factories. Doing so keeps costs low and margins high. Bangladesh has a minimum wage of $38 a month making it particularly attractive to many retailers and brands. It also has appallingly lax health and safety laws. Vulnerable garment workers – eighty per cent of whom are women – work long hours in substandard facilities, without benefits and for little compensation. According to a 2012 report from the International Labor Rights Forum, over one thousand garment workers have been killed since 1990 in preventable factory fires. Corruption is rife and since factory owners make up some ten per cent of the Bangladeshi parliament the consequences for criminal negligence are few. On 24 April 2013, just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing over 1,100 garment workers and injuring over 2,500 more. Extensive media coverage and outrage around the world helped the Clean Clothes Campaign and global union Industrial convince many Western brands and retailers to sign the enforceable Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which should improve the working conditions in all Bangladeshi factories. More than seventy foreign companies, from Primark to Abercrombie & Fitch, signed the accord in the three months following the accident, a huge step forward in creating better working conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers. But other companies refused.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Vestoj, The Journal of Sartorial Matters. Anja gained her BA in Fine Art, knitting and embroidering at Central Saint Martin’s, and her MA, with distinction, in History of Design, at the Royal College of Art where she became an expert at the vintage phenomenon. Shortly afterwards Anja began working as the editor of Acne Paper in Stockholm, where she worked until she decided to set up Vestoj. Today Anja works as a Senior Research Fellow in Fashion Theory and Practice at London College of Fashion. I decided to ask Anja to share her thoughts on fashion writing.
“I recently hosted a dinner as part of the Fashion Space Gallery’s Relaunch programme, themed around writing on fashion. Together with a group of journalists, editors, bloggers and scholars we spent the evening debating what it is that makes a fashion writer good, what ‘integrity’ means to a fashion writer, why criticism in fashion writing isn’t encouraged in mainstream fashion publications and if it is fair to expect an unbiased view of the fashion industry from publications dependent on advertising for their survival.
Getting members of the fashion industry to speak candidly and on the record about the often-fraught affiliation between journalists and fashion brands is not an easy feat, and the ambivalent relationship that many writers have to the fashion system was evident already in the responses I received to my dinner invitation. ‘Will we be recorded?’ was a question asked more than once. One very well known fashion journalist declined by saying:
‘I feel that we are now just garnish for fashion PRs and designers. Few people read what we say, we are not the gatekeepers any more, and none of it matters. So I am feeling bleak and don’t want to talk about it.’
In this environment it’s apt to ask what role and importance those writing about fashion have. How can we make what we do matter?
It’s an open secret in the industry that advertising brands dictate editorial content, sometimes explicitly, often tacitly. Stories of reporters being banned from shows after unfavourable reviews belong to fashion folklore, but accounts of PR people demanding final approval of articles, interviews being cut short after an uncomfortable question and designers bringing their own recording devices to interviews are surprisingly common. The PR being a silent witness to a designer interview is today so routine that it fails to even raise eyebrows. What journalists tend to talk less about are the generous gifts sometimes bestowed upon us after a favourable article (sending it back would be rude, keeping it feels like an implicit understanding that more good reviews will follow) or the difficulty many of us find when it comes to writing critically about someone you know and like (and will be bumping into at the next industry event).
‘Fashion advertising and editorial complement each other. Fashion is all about creating desire, and both advertisers and editors want to seduce the consumer; after all, that’s our job.’
While it’s no doubt true that fashion editorial content is enmeshed with advertiser interest, it’s hardly the only industry where advertising plays a vital role in sales, or where PR machinations have an ever-increasing role in the business. It is however worth pointing out that, as opposed to a music or film critic, a fashion journalist or editor barred from participating in industry affairs is, in effect, prevented from doing their job. Being black listed in the books of a specific brand often means not only being barred from fashion shows but also being blocked from potential interviews and even the borrowing of garments for fashion shoots. A few of those embargos and a publication can very quickly become, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant in terms of fashion capital. To write credibly about the fashion system you need to operate within its parameters. Fashion values exclusivity, it is hegemonic and self-reinforcing. As the editor of a much respected biannual recently wrote to me in response to the request to participate in Vestoj’s issue ‘On Fashion and Power’:
‘Surely you realise that people in the industry are there not only because they understand these power structures but also because they love to know about them (though not necessarily approve of them, as you say). Why on earth would they then jeopardise that vantage point? Surely they value participating in them (whether subversively or not) more than communicating about them and thereby shutting themselves out?’
Put more plainly – you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
In this climate it’s hardly surprising that magazines like Gentlewoman or Acne Paper are often listed when insiders are asked to name ‘good’ fashion publications. Sophisticated-looking and full of lengthy articles, these are magazines that appeal to our urbane side and that flatter our view of ourselves as discerning fashion consumers as well as participants. But what is it that distinguishes a gushing profile of Prada’s Verde Visconti in the recent issue of Gentlewoman (not far from the ubiquitous ad by the same label) from an obsequious review of the brand on Style.com or an editorial full of ‘total looks’ in any one of the current crop of fashion glossies? To paraphrase Hamish Bowles, publications about fashion today are primarily in the business of seducing the consumer, and of selling clothes. Be it in the straightforward manner of advertising or the more insidious approach outlined above, the result remains the same: the editor’s freedom is nominal, and big brands rule the roost.
The fashion industry today is a place where most insiders are keenly aware of the lack of autonomy afforded reporters and critics, and the neutering influence that status and prestige has on critical thinking. Like a legion of Janus-faced cohorts we make use of our professional face when necessary and switch to our private face when the proverbial tape recorder is finally turned off. Though fashion is not the only industry where its practitioners have great difficulty seeing their own part in what they don’t like, it is one where we aren’t often held accountable for it. Instead we make concessions, come up with excuses and, when that doesn’t work, we simply learn to live with the discrepancies. So whereas I’m greatly tempted to continue and turn this into a further rallying call for disgruntled fashion professionals, I will stop here. Fighting the system, after all, isn’t for everybody. What we all can do however, is to look for cracks in it. The chinks and fissures of any structure is where the most intriguing things are often found, the fashion system is no different. So scratch the surface, question the perceived knowledge and bring a critical eye to those admired uncritically. Only then can what we do begin to really matter.
For me, Helsinki is all about light. It’s what I noticed most during my recent visit, whether streaming through my window at 4:30am, or making the evening seem like the afternoon at 10 pm. I found it hard to know the time of day: insomnia was never far away. But the light it gives clarity of vision. The world is clearly defined. Along with nature and landscape, light seems to play a vital influence in this land of just five million people. Since its independence in 1917, Helsinki has been defining its identity within the world with design proving to be a key element.
Installation at Helsinki Design District
Often likened to Japan for the purity of its design aesthetic, there is a dedication to beautiful materials and simplicity. The domination of light evokes a clarity of vision and definition of form that translates itself into design.
During my visit to Helsinki in May, i visited the studio and house of Vuokko Nurmesniemi. Now 82, she is a seminal textile designer whose work since the 1960s exemplifies the qualities of simplicity of surface design and form. With her house on the shores of the river, 10 minutes from Helsinki, you could have been miles away. She showed us examples of her work and discussed how she had always been about design not fashion.
Finland’s isolation until quite recently had led to few outside influences. This has perhaps allowed designers to focus and develop their own aesthetic and unique approach to design. Globalization has changed this.
I had been invited to Helsinki for the Pre Helsinki fashion event, which promotes fashion through discussion, networking and showcasing. Supported by Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education and Culture this four day event helps to promote the discipline of fashion withing Finnish design, which has historically tended to emphasize other design disciplines such as ceramics or textiles. Now it is Finnish fashion which is gaining influence. From the biannual fashion and culture magazine ‘SSAW Magazine’ to the work produced by the Aalto University fashion students, the understanding of the relationship between form and function, materials and light, gives Finnish fashion a distinctive quality.
I was taking part in the seminar “FOR FA$HION’S S@KE” hosted by Dan Thawley editor in chief of A Magazine Curated By with Lou Stopppard of SHOWstudio as co-chair. The other panelists were Michel Gaubert sound designer, Ryan Aguilar Music Consultant, Lutz Huelle designer and milliner Stephen Jones. Taking an essay by Simon Critchley and a manifesto by Buirge and Bacher, we explored the consequence for fashion when it has itself become so fashionable that at times it is a dirty word. The wide-ranging discussion emphasized the effects of technology on all aspects of the fashion industry and the problem of being original in design when, at the click of a button, one is faced with so much information and creative possibilities.
Having the opportunity to see the work of students who are creatively using textiles and design dynamically related to the human form, and the discussions, visits to galleries and museums, this trip reminded me of a quote from Simon Critchley’s essay used as a starting point for our discussions:
“The human being is the fashioned animal and fashion is the key to understanding the human being”.