Phnannatiq. LFW 2017
As I write, London Fashion Week is in full swing, it started last Friday and it will involve the usual frenzy of runway shows and also, increasingly so, fashion installations. I see the latter as part of the 'artification of fashion', artification being a process whereby heterogeneous things and events come to be seen as art in the cultural imaginary. But fashion installations are also a way to counter the lack of support provided by the British Fashion Council to emerging designers and as such they are a political statement. The London Designers Collective was founded to help emerging designers and, increasingly, the designers that belong to the Collective tend to eschew the runway presentation and opt for more imaginative ones, at the same time pairing the installation to a pop-up shop. It is 'guerrilla retail'.
But let's proceed in some order. Let's begin with the artification of fashion, something that needs to be considered as distinct from the immediately political statement of the installations presented by emerging designers. I believe the artification of fashion as such is linked to the rise of fashion museums and the popularity of fashion exhibitions which unmistakably signal an interest in fashion as a cultural phenomenon. From here it’s only a short step to declaring fashion an art form.
Fashion museums have tended to be design oriented, in other words, applied art or craft museums, in the tradition of the Victoria &Albert Museum in London. But neat categories such as fine and applied art become blurred when august establishments such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose mission is ‘to present significant works of art across all times and cultures’ happily mix fine art and design, mounting, to date, forty-six exhibitions either exclusively about, or inclusive of, fashion.
Gustave Caillebotte. From the Impressionism, fashion and modernity. Metropolitan Museum 2013
Alexander McQueen, forever the precursor of newer trends, and a well established designer, embraced the format of a fashion installation when he presented his Voss collection in 2000, in a disused bus depot in London. According to his biographer Andrew Wilson, Voss was “ a fully formed art installation that interrogated attitudes towards beauty and ugliness, sex and death, sanity and madness”. It featured towards the end, a large nude model, Michelle Olley, in a dark box breathing through an apparatus, in a tableau inspired by the 1983 photograph ‘Sanitarium’ by Joel Peter Witkin. Olley subsequently wrote of the experience that she represented, in McQueen’s imagination, the death of fashion and beauty, reflected back at the viewers, who earlier had been staring at their own image through a two way mirror, before the models wearing McQueen’s clothes began to emerge, unable to see their audience and walking on the other side of the space demarcated by the mirror. It is a disturbing and rather controversial image. To my mind it begs the question of why the death of fashion and beauty would be represented by a large model? In a milieu such as that of fashion, in which size certainly matters, I do not see McQueen's choice as being felicitous.
Whether you agree that fashion is art or not, there is definitely a common ground between current ways of presenting fashion as an installation and visual art installations as such. Indeed the runway show as seen during Fashion Weeks is now deemed by many designers to be boring to watch.
Fashion designers today are seeking other ways to present their work, going beyond a conventional trade show, something that can offer a fuller sensory experience, in which location, sets, clothes, styling and models come together to offer the opportunity to view the clothes more up close, paying greater attention to the way they are structured and the details of craftsmanship, and giving further meaning to the concepts that inform a collection. They are also, as mentioned earlier, seeking ways to counter the politics of the fashion week, supported in London by the British Fashion Council.
Striking here a personal note, I can say it was really interesting for me to participate in the fashion installation by Phannatiq on 17th February this year, coinciding with the start of LFW . The installation was combined with a pop-up shop at 44 Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum, in a building which formerly housed an oriental art gallery (I remember it quite well, as my university was only a couple of streets away).
Phannatiq is the label created by Anna Skodbo, a Norwegian designer now based in London. She always has unconventional models, including hijab models, as some of her wraps can be turned into hijabs. I worked with Skodbo in the autumn of 2016 for a Vogue UK online shoot and I was delighted to be part of the installation, which was also combined with a photoshoot, again for Vogue UK online. I shall post images nearer the time.
The inclusion of hijabs at fashion shows is very important, politically, going beyond issues of identity.
We live in very troubled times, where political choices inform more than ever all our life decisions. Only yesterday I joined the lobby for the EUs right to stay in the UK, following the hard Brexit bill presented by the May government, which when debated in the Commons, most disgracefully, had all amendments, including that guaranteeing the right to stay for EUs already in Britain, rejected by all MPs. Now we are waiting for the House of Lords to review the bill. The lobby was to put pressure on MPs, and also the Lords, not to endorse a hard Brexit that would leave Britain in chaos.
The lobby coincided with the anti-Trump demonstration in Parliament Square, with thousands of people asking the government not to extend to President Trump the honour of a state visit, opposed through a petition signed by over 1.8 million people. This too was debated in Parliament yesterday afternoon and many MPs seemed 'to be pouring scorn on Trump' (as the Guardian put it) even though the government is adamant that the state visit will go ahead.
Phannatiq installation LFW
You may wonder why I am discussing all this in a post that is after all about fashion. I am making the point that fashion is waking up to the need to make political statements. At NY Fashion Week fashion creatives came together to make the video statement "I am an immigrant" in the wake of the controversial travel ban of President Trump, which incidentally caused a British muslim teacher on a school trip to be removed from a US bound flight as an undesirable (and he was not from any of the seven states mentioned by the now legally challenged ban, only 'guilty' of being a muslim) .
Acclaimed Indonesian muslim designer Anniesa Hasibuan presented her second hijab fashion collection in NYC with models who were immigrants or second -generation children of immigrants. Hasibuan however tried to avoid making any direct comment on the ban, saying that her fashion is aimed at muslim women, thus endorsing a political statement of identity and avoiding any direct confrontation with the Trump administration. Nevertheless, her show seemed to be a statement about immigrants. Or not?
At the photo booth, Westminster, in support of OneDayWithoutUs and the 3Million. Dual national , 100% European
Fashion is important to our lives. So it is important to make it our own and use it to make statements. In my view fashion cannot ignore politics, it is totally entwined with it, it is up to us whether we use it actively or passively.