January 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
On a recent visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., I was struck by a small collection of asymmetric pyramids that were sitting in a courtyard between the East and West Buildings. The sharp, triangular forms were designed in 1978 by I.M. Pei, the architect who would over a decade later dream up the iconic glass pyramids for the Louvre in Paris.
The pyramids had a number of interesting qualities – a mirror-like reflectivity, a playful composition, a propensity to create geometric shadows on the ground – but the most fascinating aspect of the angular forms was the way they conjured fashion motifs from recent runway collections. Goth-minimalist designer Gareth Pugh’s Spring/Summer 2007 collection, for example, featured a black, open-knit dress with giant, triangular sleeves. Two years later, Pugh played with the same silhouette, using white plastic to create pyramid-like shapes along the arms of a duo of minimalist looks.
Lady Gaga has also found sartorial inspiration in Pei’s pyramids, as evidenced by the sequined geometric ensemble she wore for her Monster Ball Tour in 2009. The angular style echoed in the mirrored panels behind her.
After spanning the architecture, fashion, and music industries over time, where else is this motif going to turn up?
December 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The difference between American and European fashion is undeniable. Zac Posen acknowledged this a few seasons ago when he moved his runway shows from New York to Paris where he claimed people “better understand his clothes.” In a way Posen’s move made sense – Paris is the Mecca for over-the-top glamour while New York is best known for more egalitarian sportswear.
It recently came to my attention that the difference between American fashion and European fashion has roots in the history of each respective place. The first American settlers lacked time to amass or design rich clothes or accessories, whereas their European contemporaries (the aristocracy, at least) built upon a rich history of sartorial identity that involved jewelry, tailoring, and craftsmanship.
The aesthetic (and indirectly political) differences between the U.S. and Europe can be seen in historical paintings of the late 18th century. One of the most recognized and canonical American paintings of this time was Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (1796) which showed a modest image of our founding father in a simple white shirt with black blazer. The incompletion of the work and the thin brushstrokes echo the overall pared-down mood of the time.
Compare this work to a French work of the same time period – Francois Boucher’s Madame Bergeret (1766). The subject is decked out in a silken ball gown adorned with freshly cut flowers. It’s set in an elegant salon and her arms are healthily plump.
The sartorial differences between the subjects of American and European paintings vary a bit, and these two examples illustrate general, overarching aesthetic and political mentalities pervasive at the time. In some ways, we can still see this dichotomous mentality when we compare Diane Von Furstenburg’s wrap dresses to Lanvin’s silk ensembles, or Ralph Lauren’s rugged workwear to Dior’s couture gowns.
Last season, Zac Posen moved his runway shows back to New York – Paris was a bust, apparently. Perhaps this just means that the French didn’t really understand Posen’s clothes. He is, after all, American.
September 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Thanks in large part to their abundance (and flamboyance) at last July’s epic Royal Wedding, designer hats are definitely having a fashion moment. Little-known Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie made headlines with their opulent Philip Tracey creations, one of which conjured an upside down octopus, the other which resembled a cross between a rose garden and a gaudy Vegas Showgirl costume. And for the last few months, the media has photographed recent style darling Duchess Kate Middleton with headwear resembling everything from a giant dumpling, to a Calder sculpture, to a vinyl record, to a very flustered bird. New York Magazine picked up on the trend last month, having a handful of its writers don garish hats and record the mostly confused responses of passersby in New York City, and for the first time ever, thanks in part to the fancy pants hat trend, London has surpassed both New York and Paris as the fashion capital of the world.
But despite London’s seeming domination of the hat sphere, the most impacting headwear statement of the season came from the Paris Couture shows last July. For Armani Privé’s controversial Japanese-inspired collection, legendary milliner Philip Treacy designed a small yet powerful set of hats that embodied the dually sculptural and delicate nature of the clothes. Some of his creations conjured high-fashion propeller hats, while others brought to mind origami forms sculpted from gobs of pink taffy. Among all of the beautifully crafted and evocative headwear from that collection, however, the pieces with the most resonance were a series of oversized tangerine curls that recalled both hair curlers and elegant ribbons resting on a present. They had an expressiveness in the way the ends reached outward as if they were being pulled by invisible strings or forcefully exploding.
In his work for Armani, Treacy found clear inspiration from the monumental sculptures of American artist Mark di Suvero. Di Suvero, who began his career at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 50s, uses bright orange I-beams and scraps of steel to create multi-story sculptures recalling mechanized spiders, ancient measuring devices, nebulas, and industrial explosions. His work defies conventional ideas of movement, lightness, and beauty, and although they weighs tons, they have the visual lightness of plastic toys and the delicateness of a stack of toothpicks. This summer, the New York City government is staging a show of di Suvero’s sculptures to revitalize (and some say exorcise) the lush landscapes of Governor’s Island. The show features a collection of 11 di Suvero sculptures from as early as the 70s, including “For Chris,” (1991) an homage to artist Chris Wilmarth in the form of a highly-stylised bell, and my favorite, “Old Buddy (For Rosko),” (1993-95) a minimalist interpretation of his deceased dog. In punctuating the developing island’s greenery with di Suvero’s playful sculptures, the city hopes to breathe life into the somewhat spiritless space and shape a local identity that celebrates art, ideas, and the beauty of creation.
Mark di Suvero has changed the way in which we appreciate and interpret sculpture, and by extension, other sculptural forms like headwear. His forms and their emotive power led to the creation of Treacy’s ribbon hats for Armani, which have in turn, expanded the dialogue and creative boundary of hats. Both of these artists have pushed the visual and conceptual limits of their respective fields, and in doing this, they have given us new sight.
August 15, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Prabal Gurung’s latest collection for F/W 11 spun a tale of destruction. Centered around the spiteful and tragically faded Miss Havisham from the Charles Dickens epic “Great Expectations,” it featured a macabre parade of women that appeared hastily put together and left in various states of undress. Like Miss Havisham, who let her intense shaudenfraude toward men dictate her main life narrative, the women on Gurung’s watercolor runway evoked a sense of coming undone. Gurung showcased a number of seductive and covetable looks: a scarlet off-the-shoulder cocktail dress with black drivers gloves, a voluminous fur coat with a white-to-red ombre effect, a floor-length gown embezzled with a combination of ebony bird feathers. But the look with the most impact was a licorice red knee-length dress that appeared sliced down the center and tenuously held together with a slender black belt. It channeled a feeling of desperation, haste, and fragility in the way it threatened to fall and reveal the model’s most intimate spaces.
The red, bisected look recalls the “anarchitecture” of artist Gordon Matta-Clark from the 1970s. Matta-Clark once studied architecture at Cornell, but eventually paradoxically focused his career on demolishing the very structures he had once sought to create. In a spirited review of a Matta-Clark retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2007, writer Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times described his process as “chop[ing] up buildings, making huge, baroque cuts in them with chainsaws, slicing and dicing like a chef peeling an orange or devising radish flowers.” The process, documented by drawings and photographs, provoked a number of seemingly contrasting emotions and ideas. They were at once chaotic yet precise, sturdy yet delicate, and simple yet immensely complicated. For what many art critics and lovers consider his magnum opus, “Splitting,” (1974) Matta-Clark bisected a cubic suburban home in Englewood, N.J. with a chainsaw, allowing a stream of light to flood inside and unite the severed interior spaces. Critics’ interpretations of the work have taken several different trajectories. One of the most salient, however, is that Matta Clark’s “cut buildings” offer an incisive critique of the state of neglect of American infrastructure – a neglect that resurfaced most devastatingly in the ongoing, labored reconstruction of post-Katrina New Orleans.
While the process of splitting objects has in the past encompassed destruction and decay, the recently completed Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University uses splitting as a way to build community and celebrate the act of creation. Designed by the cerebral architecture firm Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, best known for conceiving the controversial and iconic renovation of Lincoln Center, the building references Matta-Clark’s “Splitting” in its conspicuous misalignment in the center. It divides the building in roughly two equal halves, with the right half sinking into the ground as if it were built on a patch of quicksand. But rather than having the effect of separation between the two sides, the misalignment encourages connection, offering clear views of different floors via glass walls. Of the abundant interaction the structure promotes, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times writes, “you can sometimes watch work taking place on three different floors at once, an effect that imbues the building with an unusually strong spirit of creative solidarity.” Ouroussoff continues, praising the building’s “insistence that curiosity – about different ways of thinking as well as different artistic mediums – is at the heart of any creative act.”
As Matta-Clark’s “Splitting” revealed the dilapidated interior of individual homes and by extension, American infrastructure, Gurung’s bisected dress exposed the broken state of Miss Havisham’s internal world. The dress, with its generous slit and barely connecting hemlines, recalls Miss Havisham’s unrequited love and reminds us of heartbreak’s power to break us.
August 7, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The highlights from Neil Barrett’s S/S 12 menswear show took form in a series of looks printed with a black and white herringbone pattern. The prints had a surreal quality, leading viewers to think the items were constructed from a herringbone twill weave when in fact they were merely white lines inked onto black cotton. The herringbone effect also evoked a dreaminess in the way the herringbone pattern unraveled. As your eyes moved toward the hems, the disciplined lines of the faux weave became long and wayward, crisscrossing and bouncing around like strings from a web spun by a drunken spider.
Barrett’s unraveling herringbone print recalls the exterior of Rem Koolhass and Ole Sheeren’s recently completed CCTV building in Beijing, the headquarters for China Central Television. Long, intersecting beams glide across the surface of the structure, exposing how much support it needs and where. Unlike the aggressive filters in Chinese media, these beams evoke honesty in how they reveal the skeleton of the building like an x-ray. The beams also create an interesting visual texture, recalling a new take on monochrome plaid or a distorted version of Burberry’s signature check.
For the last decade, China has served as the world’s central incubator for experimental architecture. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics alone produced a handful of iconic works, most notably Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron’s monumental Beijing National Stadium, which recalls a giant rubber band ball or sculptural bird’s nest. In Guangzhou, Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid recently completed construction on a new opera house with rigid angles and an ultra white exterior that recall a melting glacier. But amidst the hullabaloo around architecture in China up to this point, the CCTV building has drawn the most fanfare. In a jubilant review in the The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff hailed the CCTV building as possibly “the greatest work of architecture built in this century” and went further to say that it positions Beijing as “the city of the future.”
The CCTV building gives China a new identity of power and innovation to project to the rest of the world. And in a similar vein, Barrett’s surrealist herringbone bone pattern gives a new aesthetic identity to the brand. Like China, Barrett has positioned himself as a force to watch.
July 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Two pairs of Alexander McQueen shoes caught my eye from Tommy Ton’s street style photos for Style.com. They were rough and carried a heavy visual weight – their heels and soles appeared sculpted from bronze – yet they channeled a femininity and elegance that’s seemingly essential to womenswear today. McQueen designed them for his F/W ’10 collection, reflecting his dark spirit in a whimsical way.
The shoes struck a resemblance to art nouveau metalwork from the turn of the 20th century architecture. Antoni Gaudí, one of the forefathers of art nouveau, often molded steel into organic, vegetal shapes to form columns, stair railings, and balconies, as he did at Casa Milá in Barcelona. In doing so, he hoped to create buildings that looked and felt connected to nature.
The gold, vine-like heel in the first pair of McQueen shoes calls to mind columns seen in the work of Belgian architect Victor Horta, who pioneered the art nouveau movement alongside Gaudí. In his most famous building, Horta House (now Musée Horta), Horta used what look like gold ribbons to form dynamic columns and light fixtures. The motif was echoed on the walls, ceiling, and floor, where the forms were painted or recreated with mosaic tiles.
The invention of reinforced concrete (concrete supported by steel beams) toward the end of the 19th century allowed architects to construct buildings at larger scales, eventually leading to the skyscrapers that dominate skylines today. Some interpret art nouveau as a response to this. While technology brought people further away from nature and toward dehumanizing concrete jungles, art nouveau’s vine-like forms brought people a bit closer to it.
July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
One of the biggest statements of the couture season went unheard. It came from Maison Martin Margiela, who made a clear comment on our gaze of the female body through a collection of transparent looks juxtaposed with black face coverings. It wasn’t your average couture show – there are no Oscar gowns or Royal Wedding numbers here – and it wasn’t a show that appealed to editors or critics. Style.com, the go-to site for runway pictures, neglected to post images from the collection (these are from NYMag), and Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn didn’t even bother to mention it in her reviews of the couture season. I get it – these clothes weren’t made to dazzle in magazine editorials, nor do they carry the grandiosity most people equate with “couture.” They are, however, an incisive comment on the female body and our perception of it.
The Margiela design team introduced the idea of transparency, quite literally, by opening the show with three transparent head-to-toe looks. While these pieces – blazers, pants, long skirts – create a classically conservative silhouette, the transparent fabric reveals the most intimate parts of a woman – her belly, legs, panties – and infuses the looks with a sexual edge. Another look, a transparent trench coat, turned a familiar figure – the flasher – into an object of voyeurism. A draped khaki dress exposing the model’s shoulders, midriff, and legs followed directly after. The look appeared constructed from one large swath of fabric and drew to mind a woman frantically covering herself with a blanket the morning after a one-night stand.
The stockings covering the models’ faces are, at first, jarring. One could read the collection as misogynistic because it reduces women to faceless pieces of flesh. After some thought, however, I realized that the collection transformed the viewers into voyeurs in a raw and uncomfortable way. As fashion admirers, we often play the role of voyeur, turning our gaze towards models in editorials and on runways; we see them, but they can’t see us. The Margiela collection highlighted this practice by preventing us from seeing the models’ faces and even forcing us to look past the clothes and directly at their bodies. The heightened sexuality of this gesture made us more aware of our gaze.
The face coverings reminded me of Junya Watanabe’s F/W 08 RTW show, when he sent models down the runway in knits of various shapes and tones of gray. This collection could have invited a similar accusation of misogyny; however, the opaque stockings, filled with random geometric shapes, emphasized the collection’s focus on draping, cut, and silhouette. Furthermore, for the last 10 looks of his collection, Watanabe sent out models with their faces exposed, wearing the same grey knits, only this time covered in bright, lush floral patterns. The collection sprinted towards a spirit of liberation.
Both the Margiela and Watanabe collections worked with a “shock and awe” tactic. Viewers are initially surprised by the absence of personhood in the faceless looks, but eventually, other questions begin to emerge around silhouette, draping, the female body, and our own gaze.
It’s disappointing that such remarkable works of art and thought like the Margiela collection can pass by so quietly. For me, it’s often not glamour that speaks the loudest in a collection.