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.

How Can Fashion Create A Better Relationship with Africa?

August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

(L-R) Thakoon F/W 11, Louis Vuiton S/S 12, Thakoon F/W 11

Fashion’s conflicted love affair with Africa is on again. Louis Vuitton featured cobalt and berry Masai prints for its S/S 12 menswear show last June, while Thakoon fused Victorian tailoring with traditional East African patterns for F/W 11. Critics unanimously exalted both collections. Nicole Phelps of Style.com hailed Thakoon’s showing as “his freshest, most alive collection in a while,” and The New York Times Magazine proclaimed Louis Vuitton as the “winner” of Paris Fashion Week for menswear S/S 12.

Sure, the clothes were beautiful, as they tend to be from practiced and esteemed labels like Louis Vuitton and Thakoon. But the use of African aesthetics for the financial and cultural benefit of the West conjures a host of unanswered questions: Is this practice exploitative? What image of Africa does it create in the West? Should designers give back to the communities from which they benefit?

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; painting-analysis.blogspot.com)

Africa has served as inspiration in Western fashion and more expansively, Western visual culture, for decades. In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted two women with African masks for his magnum opus Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. More recently, in 1997, John Galliano featured a series of reinterpreted Masai warrior costumes for his debut couture collection at Dior. Over a decade later, for Dior’s S/S 09 show, he styled his models with vase-like hair resembling ancient Congolese head dresses. And in a similar vein, Jean Paul Gaultier used African hunter shields, African carvings, the patterns of Masai beading as the inspiration for his Spring 2005 couture collection.

Fashion critics have largely praised Galliano and Gaultier’s use of African aesthetics in the context of “diversifying fashion.” In a review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a retrospective of Gaultier’s work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Robin Givhan of The Daily Beast writes: “Gaultier looks outward at the swirl of life that engulfs him. And he is fully and optimistically engaged with it. Gaultier’s multicultural inspiration, which spans the entire breadth of his career, beginning in 1976, reminds us of the beauty of cultural diversity.”

Looks from Dior Couture '97

As a foil to fashion’s praise for using African aesthetics in Western design, art critics have debated the merits of this practice with more skepticism. Arguably the most famous debate arose in response to a show in 1984 at the New York Museum of Modern Art titled, “‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” which sought to elucidate the connection between the work of European artists like Gauguin and Picasso with African “tribal” art. The show’s most aggressive critique came a couple of years later from writer Thomas McEvilley whose piece “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” in Art Forum, sharply criticized the exhibit’s lack of information and context about the tribal objects:

“No attempt is made to recover an emic, or inside, sense of what primitive esthetics really were or are… The point of view of Picasso and others… is the only focus of MOMA’s interest… By their absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention… [the curators] have treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural – as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, the Otherness, wrung out of them.”

The New Yorker summarized this argument: “In other words… people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.”

A portrait of Senegalese women from the 50s by Senegalese photographer Seydou Keita (via origidij.blogspot.com)

Like the aforementioned MoMA exhibit, fashion shows that reference Africa can seem exploitative due to a lack of real connection to African culture or African people. The image of Africa on runways is almost entirely created by Western design teams that convey a shallow knowledge or appreciation for the communities they are referencing. To counter this, if designers want to utilize African culture in a responsible way, it must rethink the way it interacts with Africa itself.

One way Western designers could convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by offering adequate historical or cultural context of their designs when they reference aspects of African culture. If Louis Vuitton offered more background information on Masai prints for his S/S 12 show, for example, viewers would have a better idea of what Masai prints signify and how they became so prominent among Masai tribes. The information could be placed in a pamphlet that accompanies the show’s gift bags or sits on each seat in the audience. This, to me, would ameliorate the feeling that the label was exploiting African culture and give the sense that the label was celebrating it.

Another way fashion could start projecting a more respectful perception of Africa is by incorporating African textiles into their designs. Today, most African-print textiles are manufactured in Europe or Asia – they’re African-inspired, not African. As writer Maya Lau suggests in a Huffington Post piece entitled Senegal’s Accidental Hipstersthe African textile industry is largely foundering in countries like Senegal. Investment in textiles from these countries would 1) feed into the local economy 2) maintain traditional, or at least local, ways of producing textiles, and 3) cultivate a more human relationship between Western fashion and Africa. If Western designers continue to use African prints, sourcing fabric from Africa would give both Westerners and Africans monetary benefits (it would be cheap for Western brands to manufacture in Africa and it would power the African economy) as well as social benefits (it would begin a symbiotic relationship between the West and Africa).

Yet another way for Western designers to convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by giving back to the communities from which they borrow. After using Masai prints for his F/W 11 collection, Thakoon has done just this. According to Thakoon.com, the label will donate all proceeds from a particular Limited Edition Masai Plaid Scarf to an international children’s relief organization working to reduce rates of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa – the area where Masai Tribes are located. The donor-benefactor relationship isn’t ideal; however, it is one way for Thakoon to give back to the community that offered him so much for his latest collection.

The relationship between the West and Africa is long and complicated, and because of this, there are no real answers as to how to create a healthy relationship between Western fashion and Africa. Here, I’ve tried to offer some solutions and have highlighted others that are currently in the works. More than finding the best solution, however, I hope that designers start thinking more critically about their relationship with Africa and the best way for them to face the conflicts inherent in utilizing African designs. This way, at least fashion can begin to celebrate cultural diversity in a way that feels new, thoughtful, and genuine.

Is the Black Dandy the “Civilized” Black Man?

August 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

Nivea's "Re-civilize Yourself" ad campaign

Late last week Nivea set the Internets atwitter with an ad showing a black man, with a shaved head holding a mask with an afro and facial hair à la Cornel West. The image was emblazoned with the tagline: Re-civilize yourself. A study in contrast, the white version of the ad had the message: Sin City Isn’t an Excuse to Look Like Hell. Other Nivea ads also show other white men – some with facial hair with clean edges, some without – with the simple slogan: Look Like You Give a Damn. Why does Nivea think that the slow crawl towards civilization for a black man requires shedding an afro and facial hair?

The problem, as many bloggers have pointed out, is that the ad relies on the trope of the savage black man, an idea as old as the nation that has only changed rather than disappeared over time. Today, there are “good” and “bad” black men – the former are what then Senator Joe Biden thinks are “articulate and bright and clean” and the latter are probably what he sees on the Music Television. It must have been quite a shock for Biden to see that then Senator Obama did not end his campaign speeches with Yo yo!

The recent Times piece on black dandyism, “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style,” which ran just a day before the Nivea controversy, has received a favorable reception. And yet for me, raises feelings of unease not unlike the Nivea ad. While the article is a celebration of the style and savvy of the bloggers of Street Etiquette, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, the article takes on a slight tone of wonderment I imagine Biden experienced when he saw this young, black man whip him during the Iowa caucuses.

I should be clear: Street Etiquette is one of the best personal style blogs out there. It has everything that any reader interested in fashion would want: history, know-how, cool, and lots of shiny photos of beautiful people. And yet, I found the language they used to champion black dandyism to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the Nivea ad. Speaking about his blog, Kissi says, “It shows people of African descent in a good light…Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense.”

An image from "The Black Ivy" (via Street Etiquette)

Throughout the piece, “dandyism” is posited as classy, refined, and aspirational, while “hip hop style” is imprecated as unrefined, coarse, and well, uncivilized. The black dandies are constantly trying to get away from the paradigm of hip-hop, but in doing so, embrace another, arguably more dominant, paradigm. As if there were any further indication needed, their largest photo shoot, “The Black Ivy” is a not-so-subtle embrace of “our kind of people.”

Furthermore, this “self-refinement” is expressed not simply as an evolution of style, but also one of growth. “I used to wear size 42 jeans. Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way,” says Kissi. He isn’t wrong. Those baggy pants have been quite a site of contention; in 2007, cities across the South passed anti-sagging pants ordinances. Legislators weren’t just trying to police fashion, but specifically, what they saw as an expression of a dangerous black masculinity. Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin said such laws are a “remedy” for “a prison mentality.” Other lawmakers believed the style invoked fear in others. Ooga booga, indeed.

Is it possible for multiple expressions and styles to coexist? Mos Def, also quoted in the article, probably has it closest: “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.” Multiple style paradigms – and relatedly multiple masculinities – are vital, especially in communities of color. But does the ascension of one necessitate the denigration of another? Can’t I have my high-tops and wear them too?

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.

Yves Saint Laurent: A Pioneer for Models of Color

August 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

Saint Laurent with Mounia, his muse (via fashionbomb.com)

“L’Amour Fou” is the latest film to feed the trend of fashion designer documentaries, joining Valentino’s acclaimed “The Last Emperor (2008),” the elusive “Lagerfeld Confidential (2007),” and the soon-to-be-released “The Guts of Duckie Brown (2011). It traces the life of the late Algerian-born designer, Yves Saint Laurent, as framed by his widower Pierre Bergé’s narration and the epic Christie’s sale of his expansive art collection at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2009. Overall, you get the sense that Bergé, who had a heavy hand in shaping the story, used the project as a cathartic release. Instead of celebrating the life of his partner, he and the director, Pierre Thoretton, focus instead on Saint Laurent’s intense bouts of depression, excessive drug use, and occasional philandering. It was sad, really. But despite the film’s unexpectedly dour angle on narrating Saint Laurent’s life and work, it joyously celebrates, perhaps unknowingly, Saint Laurent’s pivotal role in placing models of color in the world of high fashion.

The movie never explicitly discusses Saint Laurent’s penchant for models of color; however, its streams of archival footage from Saint Laurent shows in the 60s, 70s, and 80s show a range of black models that often stepped on his runway and posed for his ad campaigns. The YouTube clip below gives offers a taste of this, featuring a montage of black models he often used in the 80s specifically: Naomi Campbell, Iman, Sonia Cole, Dalma Callado, Maureen Gallagher, his muse Katoucha Niane, and others.

Although Saint Laurent’s avid support for black models eluded the general public, fashion insiders readily acknowledge it. In an article from NowPublic published shortly after Saint Laurent’s death to a prolonged disease, writer Adrienne Anderson thoroughly discusses the designer’s role in breaking down barriers for women of color, offering a quote from an interview with Naomi Campbell that illustrates how Saint Laurent generously launched her career: “My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man, because when I said to him ‘Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover’ and he was like ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did.” In August 1988, Naomi Campbell became the first black model to land the cover of French Vogue, which consequently opened the doors for jobs at Ralph Lauren, Versace, and Francois Nars soon thereafter.

Saint Laurent aggressively featured his designs in black magazines, a practice considered a precarious marketing risk at the time. In particular, he showcased his designs in the pages of Ebony Magazine as well as in the related Ebony Traveling Fashion Show. He was also known to cavort with Eunice Johnson, the producer of the Traveling Fashion Show and the reputed “black matriarch” of publishing.

Yves Saint Laurent once described his appreciation for black models in an interview with the French press, saying, “It’s extraordinary to work with black models.” His explanation takes an exotifying turn, however, as he continues, “because the body, the way they hold their head, the legs… is really very, very provocative.” His sexualization of black female bodies puts his motives into question. But perhaps he was merely using language that the fashion world often used at that time to describe models, a time when women like Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington ruled the runways with their curvaceous forms. In other words, Saint Laurent’s view of black models as “provocative” might merely reflect a mantra or standard way of thinking about models of various races at the time. (I know this is a pretty generous analysis, and I encourage you to comment).

Despite the pleasure in learning about Saint Laurent’s use of models of color, it’s disheartening to realize that YSL’s current designer, Stefano Pilati, has broken away from that tradition. The most recent YSL womenswear show, Resort 2012, cast only one model of color. The collection before that, Fall/Winter 2011, featured only 2 out of a cast of 37. Unlike Saint Laurent, who set the standard for model casting in his day, Pilati merely follows it.

As fashion writer Guy Trebay wrote in The New York Times in response to a particularly racially-homogenous fashion season in 2007, the current runways are “fading to white.” The substantial number of black models seen on Saint Laurent’s runway shows are nowhere to be seen, and Asians and Latinas struggle to get booked. Although the days of Yves Saint Laurent-staged runways shows took place lightyears from now (speaking in the hyperspeed world of fashion), perhaps they were actually a glimpse into the future.

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