Saturday, 24 March 2018

Again from Jakarta #1

I am back in Jakarta after two and a half years. I will not stay as long as last time,  I have altogether four weeks in Indonesia, most of which I shall be spending in the capital, at the very least until Indonesia Fashion Week is over. I arrived on Thursday afternoon and am slowly getting used once again to the heat (it's very humid as it's the rainy season, so it is easy to get dehydrated)  and the traffic, which I hoped had improved but no, the construction of the subway has not been completed  yet. So it's back to calculating not just distances but also how long it might take to drive through traffic and the best time to go. I am also reconnecting with people I met and worked with last time. Some have moved away, some are still here but working on entirely new projects. I am thinking of going to Bali again to the nature reserve I so enjoyed last time and which will probably look completely different as it must be lusciously green, whereas in November it was completely dry.
I am here to finalise the research I have been doing for my book on contemporary Indonesian fashion - I am using Indonesian fashion as a case study of Asian fashion and a mirror through which I can examine fashion as a global phenomenon. The book will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020 as part of the series  'Dress and Fashion Research' edited by Joanne Eicher.  It's very much a labour of love. I was funded with a generous fellowship for the initial research  which I did while hosted by the Jakarta branch of  École française d' Extrême Orient. But on this occasion I am back as a visitor.
I will be participating in Indonesia Fashion Week (IFW) and will give a talk on March 31st, on the penultimate day of the festival which begins on 28th. My talk is about fashion and concepts of beauty and I will be discussing the forthcoming documentary film Timeless Beauty (2018) for which I was interviewed together with Stefanie Lange, another Grey model, and Rebecca Valentine, founder and MD of Grey Model Agency. For once my academic and modelling persona can come together, I often feel very split but not on this occasion.

Timeless Beauty is a co-production between China and France, a fact that is in itself very significant, as it points to the attention  that China is paying to newer concepts of beauty, defined as non-stereotypical, and also to age and ageing  issues.  China is in fact taking the lead  which might come as a surprise to those that are convinced that innovation begins in the West and then spreads to other corners of the planet. I believe that the notion  that fashion is European and white is crumbling and every time I am in Asia I am aware of how deeply ethnocentric fashion has been and still is.  Even when progressive, the subject of fashion discourse is a white woman (or a white man). The endless articles written about 'style for the older woman' might be entitled 'style for the older, middle class white woman' (some might even be intended, quite narrowly,  for the older, middle class British woman alone).  And talking of ageing and agelessness I saw this article in Marie-Claire which made me cringe. It says (roughly translated from the French) 'Forever 20 years old'. Oh dear, here we go again.

Anyway, the discussion at IFW will no doubt be interesting and engaging, I hope to learn much from it. This year IFW has launched two competitions, one for young designers,  the other a competition that is in fact a model search. I asked Musa Widyatmojo -senior fashion designer active since the early1990s, my discussant for the seminar as well as an active member of one of the two Indonesian Fashion Designers Associations -  how different this model competition was from, say, the 'Miss Indonesia' pageant. "Totally different" he  answered. The model search, in conjunction with some of the top model agencies, is to source new talent, new fashion models that better represent on the runway and in fashion editorials the diversity of Indonesian women and men. There are still some criteria that are being followed about height, size and age (I am not sure what they are , will definitely find out) but in an industry that has been so far been dominated by imported Eastern European girls,  finding Indonesian models is an important step forward - of course there have always been Indonesian models but they have tended to conform to specific beauty standards. I am looking forward to this, it is an exciting development.
Musa also told me that many Indonesian designers are now relying on older models. They tend to be 'returning' models but they are very active. One of them is Wiwied,  represented as a special bookings by Grey Model Agency, one of the Indonesian 'supers' of the 1980s.
It's just stopped raining so I think I shall go for a walk. I will pick up the thread of this conversation in the next few days.

**I wrote a series of posts numbered #1 to #12 and entitled 'From Jakarta' back in 2015. I am therefore prefixing this newer series with 'Again' to avoid confusion.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Italian fashion and 'made in Italy'

Book cover Uni-look 'Lui, Lei' (He-She), 1971, L'Uomo Vogue

Italiana- Italy through the lens of fashion 1971-2001' is an exhibition on Italian fashion, curated by Maria Luisa Frisa and Stefano Tonchi, currently shown at Palazzo Reale, Milan.  Its opening coincided with the start of Milan Fashion Week on 21st February and the exhibition will continue until 6th May 2018.  I am not quite sure whether it is envisaged as a touring exhibition, it was not clear from the information given, it would be great if it were. I was in Milan last week and went to see it;  I even bought the book that goes with it (not a catalogue as such), edited by Frisa, Tonchi and Monti.  It is bulky, being hardback only, and as I was travelling on EasyJet without Speedy Boarding, I had to use my ingenuity to carry it back as it would not fit into my 'only-one-allowed -on-board'  bag.
Italiana  is an important exhibition, for reasons that will be clear as you read on. It complements and  develops another exhibition, also curated by Frisa and Tonchi, Bellissima. Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968 which was shown at MAXXI (Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo)  in Rome, from December 2014 to May 2015.  I did not see 'Bellissima' (and very much regret it) but in 2014 I visited  a competing exhibition in London  The Glamour of Italian Fashion at the V&A, now touring.  I even wrote an enthusiastic blog post about it - in hindsight I wish I had taken more care and time over it.
Italiana and The Glamour are at variance, belying a different ideological approach. The V&A exhibition is all about exploring the sartorial glamour of Italy, somewhat overdoing it. Italian style is generally perceived as very glamorous outside Italy but in fact, as a reviewer noted in  Corriere della Sera, glamour is something one would be better advised to associate with French fashion rather than  the  'made in Italy', whose hallmark is elegant style and design.

Maurizio Cattelan, Il Bel Paese, 1994, wool carpet
Il Bel Paese is Italy (the beautiful country) but this is the iconic image of a very well known Italian cheese, by Galbani, called 'Formaggio Bel Paese'.

Fashion exhibitions are still rather unusual in Italy, unlike the UK and the US, where the scholarly study of fashion has thrived for some years, generating a range of curatorial projects. Thus this exhibition at Palazzo Reale is attracting a lot of attention in Italy and outside Italy as it brings together fashion, art and design, an approach that is still rather novel in the Italian context. With a thematic display rather than a chronological one, Italiana  attempts to give a clear picture of what the 'made in Italy' really was about.  It highlights the peculiar function of the stilista, a term totally untranslatable as it refers to a role of mediation between design and lifestyle that is unknown in other fashion systems and which constituted the backbone of the 'made in Italy'.
Even Sonnet Stanfill, curator of the V&A The Glamour in the catalogue of the exhibition (a traditional catalogue with a list of objects on display and augmented with essays, unlike the book of  Italiana, which does not list the exhibits)  leaves the term stilista in the original Italian. The V&A catalogue of The Glamour is still available. It is a true must-have, as it contextualises the exhibition, through a range of stimulating essays penned by international scholars of fashion, including Frisa.  Without it one would come away enveloped in glamour and lacking true understanding , like I did when I visited, as I skipped buying the catalogue there and then seized by a penny pinching urge, only to realise later I really had to read it - thank god for Amazon.

Antonio Marras

Despite its dazzling display and curatorial deftness The Glamour of Italian Fashion overlooked to clarify the economic rationale of the 'Hollywood on the Tiber' which marks an important moment in the birth of Italian fashion - Cinecitta' was cheaper, that's why Hollywood films were made in Rome in the 1950s.  Nor does it really explain in depth the nexus of design and industry at the root of the 'made in Italy' and why Milan was its epicentre.
Italiana acts as a corrector, presenting a more nuanced narrative, with more than tenuous links to the world of art and film - the full title of the exhibition, Italy seen  through (the lens of) fashion pays homage to Pier Paolo Pasolini's  The earth seen from the moon (1967).   Each room  of the wing of Palazzo Reale which houses the exhibition  explores a range of interconnected ideas, emphasising the process of democratization of fashion and its  'glocal' reality. Whereas The Glamour ended with some wishy-washy statements made by designers and stilisti about the future of Italian fashion, Italiana focuses on the iconic fashion objects of the 'made in Italy' and leaves the viewer to ponder on the new relationships arising from the globalisation of fashion - 'made in Italy' actually made in China - and the increased mobility of Italian fashion creative directors,  a new role replacing that of stilista, who was  inextricably linked with  the 'made in Italy' -  think here of Maria Grazia Chiuri, currently at the helm of Dior, in Paris.

Fashion and design  on display

As Frisa and Tonchi comment in their opening essay in the book, aptly titled Useful Beauty , the 'made in Italy' label is often thrown about without really questioning its relevance today, in our contemporary world. Its narrative needs updating. The history of Italian fashion, write the two curators, is open to a partial understanding, founded on "an underestimation of the value of the cultural actions to be carried out  at the political level to construct a mythology of Italian fashion". Glamour is indeed part of that mythology.
I think that anyone who is really interested in fashion and Italian fashion in particular should visit this exhibition and definitely get hold of the book - pricey, I know, but worth it.  And here is my grievance: a list of exhibits would have been really useful.  Next time, perhaps?

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Gracefully or disgracefully?The age old problem of ageing

How would you like to age? How do you age?
Two magazines have recently made me reflect, yet again, on the whole idea of ageing.  One is Italian Glamour, March issue, which I bought a couple of days ago from a news stand in Milan, after noticing on its cover 'Ageless Beauty' written in large letters, followed by  'i 50 anni sono i nuovi 30' (50 is the new 30).  I need to read this, I thought. Gracing the cover was Letitia Herrera, an American top model who is apparently 51 years old.  The editors of the magazine felt the need to write on the cover, under her name,  that she is actually 51 because in truth, no one would ever imagine so. She looks indistinguishable from any thirty /thirty five year old.
Ms Herrera is a very beautiful woman and epitomizes the kind of ageing that the mainstream media, fashion and the beauty industry by and large are  keen to promote. You can grow old but you must look much younger.  Age is something you have to wage a war against.  Enter a whole system of beauty regimes and maybe treatments such as micro-needling or even home made remedies which sound rather fanciful (ice cubes everyday on your face till they melt) or even the surreptitious use of derma-fillers, and old fashioned cosmetic surgery - the famous model Carmen Dell' Orefice, now 86 but looking infinitely younger than her real age, once said that after all if the roof of your home were about to collapse you would do something about it, the same goes for your declining face.

Frances Dunscombe for The Impossible (instagram repost)

Then yesterday, as I returned to London,  I saw the pictures of a bunch of Grey models, all known to me in real life, photographed by Rankin for The Impossible magazine. Those pictures are spectacular, a celebration of ageing. The models were game and were happy to be photographed with all their imperfections, wrinkles and other 'faults', in what could be regarded as unflattering images. Through a visual effect the smoother, manipulated  version is briefly superimposed on the unretouched one (on instagram) or, in the print version, half of the face is smoothened, the other half is left unretouched. The make up is very extreme (see images below).
 What Rankin says about this latest effort resonates: 
"I want to be more about creating the aesthetic where the lines on your face, the way you’ve aged, is positive and something you should be perpetuating and not trying to hide with an app on your phone.”
Sharon Morrison for The Impossible

 Indeed. The problem of retouched images is not something that pertains only models on the cover of magazines, retouching or filtering is something everyone engages in. I have seen pictures of friends and relatives modified by Insta filters so that they can get a dreamy, flawless look, presenting an image of themselves as they think it should be and as they would like it to be. I have often had to look away, to hide my displeasure when I was shown such images.
I don't want my age to be disguised. I am all for keeping healthy, having strong bones and  good teeth, good posture and well exercised muscles, but I want my wrinkles and my natural grey hair  because I do not want to hide my age. I have made it to this age, why should I be full of regrets about my appearance?
When I was a young girl I was miserable because I was not beautiful enough. I compared myself with the women I saw in magazines and I knew I did not resemble them, my hair was coarser, my complexion  far from flawless, I was chubby for a while and then at some point I was skeletal, because I refused to eat and was hospitalised. I have overcome all that. Now I don't need to feel inadequate again because I have aged.

Barzini for Simone Rocha, 2017. Photograph: Niklas Halle'N/AFP/Getty Images

With all due respect for those women who have invested time and money to make themselves look ageless in a classic way, I beg to differ. My choices are different. My inspiration is someone like Benedetta Barzini, whose wrinkles and grey hair have turned her into an icon - she never stopped being one, anyway. She does not care about looking young nor beautiful, yet she succeeds in looking amazing and is loved by fashion designers and brands because she projects her forceful personality and intellectual vivacity.
Today, on International Women's Day, let's vow to reject this form of ageism that glorifies youthful agelessness and only results in  feelings of inadequacy.