22 March 2012

Useful Design

Do the Yamamoto
Photography by Nielsen & Omvik

Possessions that stayed with us for decades could be understood as mirroring our own experiences of time passing. Now our relationship with new possessions seem so much emptier. The allure of the product is created and sold on the basis of a look that does not survive physical contact. The bloom of attraction wilts so rapidly that passion is spent almost as soon as the sale is consummated. Desire fades long before an object grows old.
Fashion is the most developed form of built-in obsolescence, the driving force behind cultural change.
Deyan Sudjic, The Language of Things (2008)

Design is useful, art is (in and of itself) useless.  Thorstein Veblen argued that we value most that which proclaims its uselessness, for it that proclamation we, by virtue of ownership, demonstrate our ability to be above the need for pure utility.  Take for example the comparison of a painting and a chair.  A painting is a painting, and for the most parts it serves no other function than being exactly what it is.  You do not need a painting in your life, you can not really use a painting for any specific activity, it is but a painting.  However a painting engages the senses, just as it engages the mind, it supposedly has a meaning, thus its real purpose and value is intangible.  Now consider a chair.  The chair has a definable purpose and an inherent value based on that purpose - you can sit on it, thus it fulfils a function, and you value that function.  Even when the chair is beautifully designed, aiming to fulfil the function of art, it is impossible, because it is still but a chair.  A chair on which you could not sit ceases to be a chair, it would become sculpture instead, and in that uselessness it would become art. 

However the value of the beautifully designed chair in monetary terms can be just as capricious as that of a painting, in that the style of its design can fall in and out of favour (that is to say, fashion), and so its price will always embody something beyond its pure functional purpose.  It is more so when the object of design is limited in numbers, say an original design, or a concept design, or a mistake - these tend to increase the price in order.  What is the consumer then paying for?  Surely not just a chair.  Where objects are concerned we invariably pay for more than the sum value of materials, work, and purpose (or ostensible lack thereof).  We pay for the ideas, the meanings and the symbols more than we pay for the actual physical object.  And yet the painting is almost always sold for more than the chair, for whilst the chair serves a function, and is thus ultimately an object of design, the painting proclaims its lack of utility, and thus enters the prestigious realm of art.  The truly useless supposedly has the most value.

And so we consider fashion, uniquely positioned between the realms of art and design.  It has a function and a purpose, to cover and protect the body, thus it is design - a solution to a problem.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in outdoors and sports clothing, for both seek to fulfil a specific role, the result of which is that form usually follows function.  But fashion can also be an expression, something created to be beautiful rather than simply functional.  Sometimes in its pure uselessness (that is to say when at its most unwearable, and therefore at its most conceptual and purely decorative) it can be seen to enter the realm of art.  But truly it belongs to neither category, or perhaps it belongs to both.  Indeed whilst fashion has collaborated with just about every art form out there, to the extent that other arts have begun to mimic its industry, it is still not truly considered as art.  Fashion may feature in exhibitions, or feature in art galleries, however it is only when the object in itself becomes fetishized and transformed into an object of reverence.  The dress is enshrined in glass, softly lit, looking to all the world like a religious icon, far removed from the base association of actually having been worn by somebody.

Fashion edges close to pure design when it is truly functional, just as it edges close to art when it is truly useless.  A pair of shoes that are exquisitely and painstakingly decorated, to the extent that they can only ever be worn on special occasions, becomes something that can be easily appropriated by the art gallery - something to be mounted upon a pedestal and enjoyed by the viewer.  A jacket that uses the latest fabric technology and construction to allow one to climb a mountain is designed in such a way that function necessarily dictates design.  In its brilliance it may enter the design museum, but rarely the art gallery.  However the majority of fashion lays somewhere between these two extremes - carefully designed garments that serve as clothing but also as something beautiful with which to adorn ourselves.

In the search for fashion to fulfil the function of everyday clothing, as well as fashion to fulfil the function of clothing for special occasions, this balance between useful and useless is interesting to explore.  The mantra that you have to suffer for fashion seems to fit quite happily into the category of fashion edging towards the useless - it is too uncomfortable for everyday wear.  It is a mantra with which I absolutely disagree - if it is not comfortable, it is not worth wearing.  The discomfort will show and that is far from attractive or pleasant to see.  Beautiful design for me lies in a unison between function and aesthetic.  Garments that are thoughtfully designed to function and serve the everyday occasions for which we need them, but also garments that are beautiful to behold when worn.  Looking spectacular on the hanger or pedestal alone is useless, it has to look beautiful on the body.  Fashion has to be worn, not simply collected and put on display.

I come to a designer who for me, as always, strikes this balance of function and beauty to an extent that transforms their work to something beyond most fashion.  The work of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo has often been described as fashion for people who hate fashion, an oddly contradictory idea to be sure, but one which I find quite fitting.  In their denial of what is commonly viewed as beautiful, most notably often obscuring rather than revealing the body, as well as subverting traditional styles whilst maintaining traditional craft skills, both designers hint at a more cerebral side to fashion.  However what I find most engaging about Yamamoto's work, in particular, is his belief in useful design.  His clothes truly are clothes to live in.  Take for example the way in which he describes his jacket in the video embedded above - it is a travel jacket, one feature of which is an extended front pocket for storing a boarding pass, so that it does flap over the top as it would were it held within a traditional breast pocket.  This attention to detail is something that most would miss, however it is something I really enjoy.

Yamamoto states that the functionality of clothing makes it beautiful, for it allows the clothing to act in unison with the body and the wearer.  When it is designed in such a way to facilitate the comfort and needs of the wearer fashion goes beyond simple surface design to something to be truly lived with, and that is what I want from my clothing.  I am not a fan of clothing that serves only to be a surface decoration, something extravagant but ultimately thoughtless as a garment or accessory.  For me it has to have that added element of functionality and thoughtfulness of design, which takes it beyond a beautiful piece to look at, to a beautiful piece to wear.  Whether it is the attention to fabric, the attention to button placement, the attention to pocket placement, the attention to interior lining, the attention to detail meant only for the eyes of the wearer, it all adds to a sense of intimacy and usefulness of the clothing.  If it becomes an inconvenience to wear and is impractical then, whilst it may constitute beautiful design, it is not useful design. 

What I have always found attractive about Yamamoto's work (as well as Kawakubo's and other designers whose work I admire) is the way in which collections seem to operate outside of the traditional cycle of fashion.  A garment from a collection twenty years ago could be mixed with a garment from this season, and it simply works.  It is a practical feature that means that not only can their work be enjoyed for longer (and indeed the quality of construction is such that it often lasts for years), but it also seems to me as fashion done right.  Designers today seem to all be crying out that fashion is moving too fast, and indeed Yohji's lamentation of the fact that people have started to waste fashion (with the particularly amusing metaphor of toilet paper) is something I greatly empathise with.  Society is slowly realizing that fast fashion is both unsustainable and unfulfilling.  I am opposed to fast fashion for a number of reasons, but removing the ethical factor, it encourages lazy design - the desire is not to create good or interesting design, but merely something flashy and new to encourage the consumer to part with their cash.  It is materialism and mindless consumerism driven to excess.

I prefer designers and brands who seek to create good design.  The constant refinement of craft and exploration of silhouette and fit is something I find far more engaging than the constant search for a new trend that others offer.  To seek to design outside of time, that is to say to create a timeless garment, is perhaps antithetical to the operation of the fashion industry today, but I think it is a pursuit that is far more interesting and profound in its implications.  Fashion becomes in this way an exploration of time, just as it becomes an exploration of tradition and craft, yet in both of these instances it becomes something that can be applied to the here and now.  Looking to the past he steps backwards into the future, and on that journey he creates clothing to be worn and to be cherished.



  1. Very brilliant. It will spark one's creativity too.

  2. interesting, I was watching A Notebook on Cities and clothes for the second time today as it was being screened in a film studies class in the art school I go to.
    I've been thinking about this dynamic between use/uselessness in design lately, and made me consider the possibility with Hussein Chalayan's work, that even though his earlier more artistically inclined (consequently some almost entirely impractical) collections were more interesting than the stuff he does now, this doesn't mean he's degenerated into a sell-out wearable clothing designer.
    I would imagine his clothing would also be very interesting to experience wearing and feeling, and using practically- something which I have yet to try.

  3. Definitely hits the bulls eyes ..of function and beauty.

  4. It's funny, growing up I had friends who went through clothes like water... each season bringing in new trends, only for the old garments to be donated or discarded.

    Yet, I have clothes in my closet--that I still wear--that belonged to my dad when he was my age. As I've grown I've come to appreciate the beauty of certain garments, sometimes you get what you pay for. Better to invest in pieces I could pass down to my daughter (something I always wish my mother had done), than to spend money on disposable clothing.

    As always, Syed, you've made me think...


  5. Long essay and long video.I enjoyed both:D

    Yohji Yamamoto's interview,he is not only genius designer but very charming.down to the earth.humorous.

    I agreed with his philosophy about his fashion.I was so inspired . And I agree about his thinking for fast fashion too(I don't criticize he called fast fashion is like toilette paper!).But I think his clothing and fast fashion are totally different things even though they are in same industry.They are located opposite ends.

    My daughter's all clothing are from fast fashion. I feel it doesn't make sense she buy better clothing and wear long time instead.She want to wear trendy clothing.

    Yohji Yamamoto,Rei Kawakubo's clothing are stunning beautiful. That why people buy even though very expensive.Also I can say you get what you pay. Their clothing are truly good.

    Anyway,fashion is so enjoyable thing for me.(but I am not very fashionable person….average:D)

  6. Every word a reflection of my thoughts, but you put it in a more eloquent manner. A thoroughly enjoyable read, Syed.