A Vision of Gareth Pugh at the National Gallery

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.

Gareth Pugh S/S '07

Gareth Pugh S/S '09

Gareth Pugh S/S '09

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?

The Historical Roots of American and European Fashion

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.

Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (1796)

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.

Francois Bouchert's Madam Bergeret (1766)

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.

Fashion’s Mad Hatter Philip Treacy Takes a Cue from Mark di Suvero

September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice sporting Philip Treacy creations

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.

Headpieces from Armani's Fall Couture show

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.

Di Suvero's "Homage to the Seed (Hommage a la Semence)" (1987-94; via akiraikedagallery.com)

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.

Bisected Imagery in Fashion and Architecture

August 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Look #12 from Prabal Gurung F/W 11 (via Style.com)

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.

Matta-Clark's "Splitting"

A photo of the interior of Matta-Clark's "Splitting"

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.

Granoff Center at Brown University

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.

Rem Koolhaas and Neil Barrett Envision the Future

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.

Power Execs and Saggy-Boobed Hippies: Portraits of Everyday Women

August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

After several seasons of flying under the fashion radar, Donna Karan released an ad campaign for F/W 11 that has people talking. Fashionista exclaims that they “love the story in this campaign” while Made in Brazil toots that it’s “the best Donna Karan ad campaign in a very long time.” What’s ironic about this campaign’s widespread praise is its somewhat banal narrative and down-to-earth imagery. It’s not edgy and eye-catching like Versace’s F/W 11 campaign, which depicts Saskia de Brauw posing in a disco-meets-Seventh Seal landscape. Rather, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin shot Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana conducting a series of mundane activities: meeting with executives at the office, testifying in court, lounging in the back of a car, attending what could be a chichi charity event, and looking after her children. All the while she wears quietly elegant Donna Karan dresses and suits constructed from fur, wool, and silk in shades of creme and grey.

The power of this campaign lies in its ability to speak to the everyday woman. Seeing Fontana in familiar roles like business partner, date, and mother, leads viewers to easily identify with her and the American dream she embodies of having it all. Unlike fashion campaigns set in highly conceptual or digitized spaces that bear little resemblance to mainstream American life, Donna Karan’s ad campaign allows consumers to see themselves in the fictional, yet seemingly accessible space where the ad takes place.

Feminist artist Cindy Sherman has explored the idea of the everyday woman in her photography-based work since she debut her series “Untitled Film Stills” in the early 80s. From then on, she has utilized a modest set of costumes, wigs, and makeup to photograph herself as a range of satirical characters – an entertainment mogul’s wife, a desperate hitchhiker, a mousy librarian, a still corpse, a supine catalog model, a rustic cowgirl, a Renaissance courtesan. At first glance, Sherman’s characters seem like mere satires of familiar, American female figures. But closer inspection reveals their reflection of the hopelessness and longing that women can feel in our image-obsessed world today.

For a show at the Gagogian Gallery in 2000, Sherman assembled 12 photographs of herself as a washed-out biker chick, an aging Upper East Side lady-who-lunches, a jogger pruned from the sun, and a dreadlock-donning hippie with boobs sagging to her knees, amongst others. There is an blatant humor in these images, seen in the conspicuously artificial costuming, the awkward poses, and emphasis on sagging breasts. But the women also convey a sense of  sadness and longing in their empty smiles and dated sense of beauty. In a profile of Sherman for the New Yorker in 2000, Calvin Tomkins comments that Sherman’s figures “projected a kind of desperation that went beyond parody. They weren’t losers, exactly, but you couldn’t help but see how hard they worked to hang on to things- youth, glamour, hope. Although the women might appear shallow, with their silicon implants and gaudy makeup, their stories ran deep.”

We initially laugh at Sherman’s characters’ attempts to fulfill an aspirational beauty ideal, but we soon empathize with them as we become aware of their seemingly pathetic inability to achieve it. We feel their powerlessness.

V Magazine‘s current “Transformation Issue” features an interview with Sherman. The introduction reads:

“What Sherman captures with her physicality, costuming, and performance posing is a rendering of what it means to be a woman. And that means being everything a woman can be – with the constant fear of collapsing into nothing. Sherman’s work recalls Berlin’s song ‘Sex (I’m A…),’ in which singer Terri Nunn’s refrain is an increasingly frantic plea declaring her uberwomanhood: ‘I’m a slut, I’m a geisha, I’m your babe, I’m a dream divine.’ The list goes on.”

While the Donna Karan ads created an aspirational ideal of the everyday woman, Cindy Sherman’s work constructs an image of the everyday woman that’s impressionable, aesthetically insecure, and closer to the reality of how many women (and men) live. Sherman’s range of characters, at once sad, joyous, and mysterious, show a diversity of identity with which women, and more extensively all people, can express themselves. But her work also elucidates our vulnerability to hegemonic beauty ideals and our constant temptation to be people we are not or can ever become. In exposing the bizarreness of straying from one’s true self, Sherman teaches us to acknowledge our shared human experiences and at some point, to laugh at our own attempts to be what Donna Karan would say is just “everyday.”

McQueen’s Art Nouveau Heels

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.

McQueen shoes at Paris Fashion Week (via Jak & Jil)

And some more (via Style.com)

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.

Balconies at Gaudi's Casa Mila (nahowell222.blogspot.com)

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.

A staircase in Musee Horta (via design2share.com)

Light fixtures at Musee Horta (via farm3.static.flickr.com)

Columns from Musee Horta (via essentialarchitecture.com)

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.

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