5 November 2011

The Garment Says All?



Citroen, Rick Owens, Spring/Summer 2004



Queen, Rick Owens, Fall/Winter 2004



Moog, Rick Owens, Fall/Winter 2005

I am not sure who reads my ramblings these days, so feel free to just comment on how pretty this or that piece is.  But if you should so happen to have the time to read this, thank you.  I would bake and send you a cake of your choosing if I could (unless you, like me, are allergic to egg, or do not have a particularly sweet tooth, in which case we can have tea).

Once creativity becomes commodity the possibilities for the thinker to freely explore are inevitably reduced.  Audiences have expectations, and money matters, especially where fashion is concerned.  The media and buyers (what Kawamura called the 'gatekeepers of fashion') need to be catered to with every collection.  Whilst it is easy to have the romantic vision of designers creating without limits and presenting a collection they love each and every season, the reality is never quite so smooth.  You need balance - the balance between what sells and what risks you want to take, the balance between spectacle to drum up the press and something substantial that will actually make it to the stores, and so on.  As Takeji Hirakawa said "Designers make three types of clothes: things they want to make, things they want to sell, and things that they think will sell well."  This balance understandably produces compromises.  But there are some designers who seem to find the balance quite naturally, and as such can show an articulate and fully coherent vision most seasons. 

I suppose the most obvious example would be Yohji, a designer consciously looking to the past whilst walking backwards into the future, allowing his buyers to pick up pieces from almost any season and combine them.  A jacket from a season over a decade ago can be paired with trousers from the current season, and a shirt from next season, and somehow it looks easy and natural.  I find myself most drawn to designers who have this confidence and coherence in their design.  I suppose it shows that they know themselves, and as such, you know the vibe to expect when you approach their work, even if every new season is full of surprises.  And when your thoughts align with those of the designer in any moment, then the result is clothing that has all the more meaning for you.

There has always been something about a designer who jumps around from season to season that, although I find it impressive, sits a little uneasily with me.  That is however just my own feeling and pretty much at odds with the way the majority of the fashion industry works, but I would rather support a designer (when it comes to what I actually buy and wear) who I can see is working to refine their voice, rather than one who simply tries to follow the zeitgeist or set a trend.  It would seem today that mass market is the buzzword, and so a designer who has a certain dexterity with executing multiple aesthetics is perhaps more appreciated than one who works on a more focused path.  I suppose the former is required at houses where the namesake is no longer designing.

Back to that sense of strong personal aesthetic, I am reminded of the Nomenus Quarterly retrospective on Ann Demeulemeester, a beautiful editorial showing how she has worked at refining her aesthetic over the years.  Indeed Ann herself stated that "each collection tells a different story and projects a different mood. Yet, the Ann Demeulemeester style is clear. Whatever we want to express, we do so within our own aesthetic. This enables our clients to gradually construct their wardrobe. You can wear something from ten years ago with something from today, and it will work, because the soul is the same."  I like the idea of the same soul being present throughout a designer's work.  It reminds of something Yohji said, that he is not worried about people trying to copy him, because he designs using his own voice, and nobody can truly copy that.  Originality is not so much in the clothing, although it is apparent therein, but within the skill of the designer. 

A strong personal aesthetic on the runway is usually mirrored by a strong personal style of dress with the designer themselves.  Whether it be Yohji's uniform, or Rei's uniform, or Azzedine's uniform, there is often a palpable connection between a designer who is secure in their vision with regards to both the runway and what they themselves wear.  I have always been fascinated by the idea of personal uniform, which I would argue is simply a very refined visual sense of personal style.  We all have a personal uniform, however broad it is, for there are garments or stylistic elements we will return to time and time again.  I suppose it is a matter of identifying what those elements are and refining it to our own body and tastes.  I think a personal uniform in these cases is far from being restrictive, because it is not a denial of style, but merely a concentration of it.  This in turn allows that personal uniform to be natural and reflective of the individual.

I chose to look through a few past collections from Rick Owens because of how strong and easily identifiable his design aesthetic is.  I always enjoy looking back at past collections of designers I admire, both in order to see how they have changed and sought improvements, but also to see the threads that connect the tapestry they have created over the years.  Rick is particularly interesting in that respect because of his view that everything he will ever create is already there in his mind, he just needs to edit it.  I think that idea lends itself quite naturally to self-referential work, especially once a designer has a large body of work.  Indeed I enjoy seeing designers referencing themselves and going back to earlier ideas, just to see how they transform those ideas to make them relevant to today.  With Rick it is clear to see that his work today contains references to these earlier collections, just as I am sure his collections in the future will contain references to his work today.

I initially looked back at Rick's earlier work after the presentation of Naska (Spring/Summer 2012), seeing immediate references in the men's robes to the long knits of Dustulator (Fall/Winter 2006).  Whilst the self-referential nature of his work is something one finds in the work of a number of designers, where designers reference more specific ideas rather than broader themes is at once both more subtle yet more apparent.  I suppose to appreciate these references, or as I put it earlier, coherence of aesthetic, it is about knowing the designer.  Someone who sees a single collection may form an opinion of the designer that is quite accurate, but one who has seen twenty collections will undoubtedly have a better image of that same designer.  Of course one could argue that everything you need know about a designer is contained within a single piece, but I mean in terms of what they are trying to express as a whole, rather than a snapshot of their personality.  Although perhaps the latter is more common in an age where we buy pieces from here and there, from a number of designers, whereas previously people would buy into the vision of a designer. 

But how does one better understand a designer?  Is it simply a matter of having seen collection after collection?  Perhaps an even more pertinent question for the modern consumer is whether the designer even needs to be understood?  I would say that even if a collection as a whole is not understood, the individual garment needs to be understood, especially when seeking what to wear.  This would naturally follow one learning more about a designer and their references.  But gaining an understanding of the expression in terms of information alone is problematic.  With modern criticism and analysis of the creative arts, the intention of the designer is merely one interpretation amongst many.  What the writer had in mind when he wrote the book is on equal footing with what the reader understands of it.  You can express yourself using whatever means you have at your disposal, but it may never necessarily be interpreted in the manner in which you intended.  Yet that is the beauty of language and art, it is why a painting or a poem may entrance the viewer or reader.

In much the same way I would argue that where fashion is concerned, it is more about the experience of the wearer, rather than some fixed notion of a designer's intentions.  We exist in a very real dialogue with our clothing, for the material expression does not end on the runway, it is then bought and sold, and thus used in any multitude of contexts by the wearer.  Yohji says that his work is only 90% of the clothing, the other 10% is up to the wearer.  It is the way in which we wear the garment that impacts its ultimate meaning.  But at the same time, it is the way in which us wearing that garment is interpreted by others that has a greater impact of its meaning, for it never ends simply with us.  We take the material outcome of a designer's expression and use it as a tool for our own expression.  But perhaps by aligning both of these ideas something more powerful can be expressed.  Think of it as using the right tools for the job.

Another reason I say that it is down to the experience of the wearer is because I think understanding fashion in abstract can only get you so far.  Words and images are used to represent a very real garment, and yet they are perhaps the furtherest thing away from that tangible reality (here I suppose I ought to recommend Barthes' linguistic study The Fashion System).  I can look at a designer's collection through static imagery, or even video, but that never really gives me a full understanding of the clothing.  And yet it is the way in which the majority of fashion is constructed and consumed - a series of visual identities laden with multiple meanings far removed from the material object.  I would argue that fashion needs to be approached through its functional reality in order to be fully appreciated.  Just as words and images about food can never capture the way a certain dish tastes, words and images about fashion can never capture the way a certain garment feels.  You have to wear it in order to fully appreciate it, otherwise there will always be a piece missing in your understanding and appreciation of it.  I think this applies to all creative expression, whether it be a play (you have to watch it) or a painting (you have to see the original).  It has to be experienced as intended in order to be properly appreciated and understood.  

Today fashion is consumed mainly through imagery, but no image can tell you how a garment feels against your skin, how it feels when you move, or even just how it looks on your body.  I am not saying that you need to try on every collection just to appreciate it, but rather that doing so allows you a glimpse that you may never otherwise get - into the garment and into the designer.  Appreciating aesthetics is one thing, but appreciating an individual garment is another thing entirely.  Sometimes people forget the latter. 

13 comments:

  1. I always have the time to read your lovely ramblings. It is one of the most substantial and eloquent blogs I know, and I always gain some insight into a concept of art I still struggle to understand. The photos are only a supplement for your posts.

    I feel compelled to comment on this post mainly because I want to have something to say if I do write. Sometimes, I feel that the boundary between fashion as utility and art is blurred. I would love for all clothes to be beautiful but unwearable works of art, but the marketability of a piece limits that creativity. I find so many parallels between the fine arts I study and fashion design that I do see fashion as a serious form of artistic expression, even down to the levels at which society is willing to accept it. Your comment on the aesthetic of a designer contrasting with the personal interaction with a person reminds me of this and also makes me question whether fashion is really audience oriented performance art. Considering the individual garment is a departure from fine arts as it forces a more flexible form of design; a designer must also be aware of each piece by itself and how this stands in a viewer's eyes.

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  2. I read your ramblings! And I would bake a cake for anyone else who does! Though my cakes are usually awful!

    The message of this post is so appropriate in the context of fashion now- just how many of the intended audience is actually going to read it??! (I hate to say it but the people who need to read this the most will most likely tl;dr...But then again they weren't likely to respond to it to begin with.)

    But I appreciate your writing very much and I hope you know that!

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  3. I felt like I understood the Rick Owens aesthetic more when I bought that drkshdw hoodie. For example the way he even cuts his tank tops made sense to me as I found it was complimentary to the way he cuts his jackets very tight in the arms that if there was any excess fabric at the arm it would bunch up. I like to see designers that have a consistent aesthetic—I think of Ann Demeulemeester and yes even Ralph Lauren are good at this.

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  4. I love reading your posts. Though I unfortunately do not always have the time to comment.

    Thankfully that is not the case today!

    There's something comforting about a continuity within the work of an individual. Be his medium fashion, painting, or music.
    Comforting much more so than when with every spark of new art it feels as if an entirely new artist was behind it.
    There's also a fluidity that, even as time goes on, lessens the age of a piece of work, and as you mentioned with fashion, allows work from a decade ago, and work from yesterday to comingle gracefully.

    Also, tea sounds lovely.

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  5. First of all, I have a tremendous sweet tooth and am not allergic to eggs (and I adore vanilla cake with vanilla frosting), in case you want to send a cake my way ;)
    I adore your posts - you write with so much conviction and honesty, and you voice your opinions so well.
    I've been reading/hearing so much about Yohji lately, and I always think of you, since I was first introduced to the designs on your blog :) I love the way that the pieces can be worn together from seasons past - they're timeless, but not in a stiff way.
    I think that designers should be aware of individual pieces and how they present themselves as one item, rather than as an entire look - so continuity between designs definitely comes into play with that.
    I could go on forever about this, but I'll try to avoid something novel length ;)
    Lovely, lovely post, dear! xo

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  6. i am so glad you have a long post up! your writing is always so amazing. i've never seen anyone write about fashion like you do. it's almost scholarly - but interesting and real. i just don't think i could ever say enough good things about you.

    and also... i want the leather jacket in the second look. (;

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  7. i did read it in the end, safari held out. you seem so passionate about subjects like this, this way of thinking and challenging makes me think you should write proper dissertations and papers. just in general, not just on this subject. when i'm reading your ramblings (even if i don't totally agree/understand/relate) i do get transported to somewhere in my head, just like when you can't put a new book down.

    it's not quite the same but i'm finding buying online less appealing currently, i'm longing for the individual retail experience.

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  8. Nice to see the trajectory tracked like this, and I love the description of Yamamoto "walking backwards into the future". There's something really compelling about a language being remorselessly focused and honed: and I think Owens very much reflects that idea of fashion as something more mute, and something gradually uncovered as he carves away at the same block from season to season. It's a rare approach when the web demands such relentless novelty, but the results have a real depth and resonance.

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  9. "You need balance - the balance between what sells and what risks you want to take, the balance between spectacle to drum up the press and something substantial that will actually make it to the stores, and so on." - Working for the company I'm at right now I have truly been learning this. Unfortunately I feel so many consumers (at least the ones with spending power have little taste for true design. Most of the time it is the new wealth who, because they have new money, assume that they must dress in expensive clothes now. It is a sad thing to watch the uber-commercial, 0 design, 0 thoughtful products fly off the racks whilst truly beautiful pieces that reflect a unique designers opinion are left swinging forlornly until sales season.

    Yohji - All the fucking way dude! (there we go my attempt at americanization ha!). "A jacket from a season over a decade ago can be paired with trousers from the current season, and a shirt from next season, and somehow it looks easy and natural." - It goes the same for Issey, Comme, And Ann D to some extent too. These designers design within their own headspace and even are there own genre/time period. It's why you can buy something from one of these designers and wear it every day for 30 years and (barring potential effects of smelling…) look new and fresh and above all at that point, personal.

    "There has always been something about a designer who jumps around from season to season that, although I find it impressive, sits a little uneasily with me.  That is however just my own feeling and pretty much at odds with the way the majority of the fashion industry works, but I would rather support a designer (when it comes to what I actually buy and wear) who I can see is working to refine their voice, rather than one who simply tries to follow the zeitgeist or set a trend." - THANK YOU! HOLY SHIT fuck the fashion industry in all it's BS trends and flash in the pan designers. I think we are the same here. We both know exactly what is going on in the industry, watch the shows and are highly aware to a point at which we accept it, but reject it totally.

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  10. "because the soul is the same" And this right there is the crux of the matter. There are designers who design from the soul and designers who design from their chequebook. THE majority of consumers are blinded by the brands and the smart packaging and slick advertorials to the point that they don't see what they are buying is expensive manufactured produce. When one finally comes across the pieces designed from the heart and soul does one finally get it.

    "It reminds of something Yohji said, that he is not worried about people trying to copy him, because he designs using his own voice, and nobody can truly copy that." - Tell that to Louboutin the dude (shit! I think I caught it!) who has decided to trademark the colour of his soles (oh irony!) because he has lost all sense of creativity.

    "A strong personal aesthetic on the runway is usually mirrored by a strong personal style" - I was literally just thinking of this on my way home today. We are post the recent CFDA awards/Wintour sucking up dinner to find out that Altuzarra won the award. Not to knock any of these designers but who are the ones designing with soul of the lot? Pamela Love and Suno! The designers behind these lines all reflect what they design. Why was I thinking of this? Because I had just seen the Proenza boys walk by on the street and thought, my god for such a focused style they have no real sense of personal style. Now that doesn't diminish their skills, but, how as a designer can you create clothing and yet not be effecting the way you dress yourself?

    "I would argue that fashion needs to be approached through its functional reality in order to be fully appreciated." - I have always found that the best clothing has nothing in the way of hanger appeal. I talk about my love of Japanese designers who's garments almost never look good, even in video. But then once you go into the store and try a piece on, you find yourself transformed. Your heart beats faster, you've found home. It's also one of the reason I could argue that the majority of the fashion world is so vapid: everyone takes everything at surface value. The most rewarding pieces are deep and can't just be glanced at on a runway in 10 seconds or flipped through a rack. People NEEEEEED to experience true fashion and design to see why we're so damn bonkers over it.

    Another gorgeously written post that I'm so glad I took the time to read and dissect and potentially quote from in the future (If that's alright?)

    PS: How is the hair growing going? I think it's time I need to tattoo WWRD? (What would Rei do?) on my forehead everytime I see the mop in the mirror….

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  11. That by the way, was the first time I have gone over teh 4000 something character limit to a comment. Enjoy!

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  12. Pretty helpful material, much thanks for this article.

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