February 21, 2013

One of the unexpected standouts at London Fashion Week was an intriguing collection of presentations given by seven different designers in the Portico Rooms at Somerset House. The international set of designers—who were brought together by the avant-garde PR agency Bloody Gray—described the show as an “interactive digital installation,” which was radically different than anything I’ve previously encountered at any fashion week.

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JAYNE PIERSON

The first presentation I encountered was Jayne Pierson’s theatrical performance. It featured two ballet performers dancing with in an unusually jerky, yet classical technique on small, white cubic podiums, alongside four models passively lingering by the walls. The models wore coordinated collared tops and fitted, high-waisted skirts in muted tones of blue, gray, cream, and lavender which were reminiscent of a hybrid of the French Regency era’s streamlined silhouette and the Victorian era’s love of puffed sleeves, conservative necklines and MASSIVE hair.

Once I managed to pull my gaze away from the engaging (and by now profusely sweating) dancers, and examine the details of Pierson’s collection, I noticed amongst the bows and frills that the neck pieces (worn in the style of cravats) were actually made of what appeared to be human hair. The bizarre accessory could perhaps be a reference to the hugely popular trend amongst the fashionable demi-monde women in the Victorian era of wearing false hair pieces, which caused moral outrage from the press and public. Elize Lynn Linton (the first female salaried journalist in Britain) famously denounced the false hair pieces as a “sacrifice of cleanliness” in her canonical “The Girl of the Period” essay for The Saturday Review in 1868. Other fashion journalists of the time speculated that the “grossly artificial aids to beauty” were made from the hair of corpses, fever patients, and female prisoners. Hence Pierson’s use of human hair in the creation of a traditionally masculine accessory like a cravat, could be interpreted as a clever, yet subtle comment on modern femininity’s relationship to public morality… Or maybe she just thought it looked cool.

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TOM VAN DER BORGHT

Only two of the Bloody Gray designers had an entire room dedicated to their individual presentations. The first was Gent-based Tom van der Borght’s total assault on the senses. With foot-tall bars of abrasive industrial lighting, gothic models wearing black manes of hard spikes and psychedelic paint-splattered/ digitally printed oversized clothing, it felt like a nightclub in hell that the Devil had commissioned Kandinsky to curate. Apparently this was sort of the point, as Van der Borght describes his inspiration as “a vision of apocalyptic gaucho-farmers”. Mission accomplished, dude.

It should be noted, however, that once you give your eyes some time to adjust to the lighting and the threatening, demonic eye contact from the models, there is great technical merit in Van Der Borght’s designs, which were additionally inspired by the engravings of Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer.   Upon closer inspection, the handdrawn digital prints depict what the designer describes as “an apocalyptic tree of life and herds of ponies on the run”– which explains of the name of the collection: APONYCALYPSE.

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BAS KOSTERS

The AW/13 collection of Dutch designer Bas Kosters unquestionably provoked the most “WTF????!!”- looks of any of the Bloody Gray designers and quite possible at all of London Fashion Week. The models were diverse in every dimension possible, from race to stature to uh…species (there was a 7 ft. tall creature standing upright with a horse head and hooves with the prefix “ANTI” scribbled across the chest).

The general aesthetic was contiguous with that of van der Borght, i.e. dark and gothic, but went a step further by offering what collectively looked to be a protest, e.g. partially obscured faces, graffiti-like writing on clothes, picket signs, and bodies, with singular words like  ”WHY.” However, it was far from obvious what the protest was about.

I got a sinking feeling that this whole thing might be a total sham. Ice masquerading as fire. As I looked at the model sitting in the corner wearing a giant sports-team-mascot-sized head that resembled the frowning face of a golliwog doll (or perhaps frowning Zwarte Piet—the black assistant to Santa Claus in Dutch folklore), I also frowned. I couldn’t escape the overriding intuition I had that this “protest collection” wasn’t about anything at all. I started to think about what this whole thing would look like to someone outside of the fashion world. Basically Zoolander, albeit a really racist version.

At that moment I was handed a magazine that Bas had made to accompany his exhibition. Without even looking at it, I reactively asked the PR woman who handed it to me what this whole presentation was about, and skeptically waited for the trite B.S. that would she would spout out that would confirm my suspicions.

She said something roughly along the lines of, “It’s about empty forms of protest. The idea that today, especially in Holland, the notion of the protest is an empty one. That in the modern world, the idea of protest that remains is a shadow of us. People are lazy. They think by signing a protest online or ‘liking’ something on Facebook that they are really participating, but they won’t actually leave their computers and take to the streets to stand up for themselves and their rights. It’s about this modern shadow of the protest aesthetic.”

Needless to say, these thoughtful words began to allay my previous concerns to some extent. My intuition was right: the collection was indeed concerned with empty protests. But, of course, it does not follow from this that the collection is intrinsically empty, nor even that it is itself a form of protest.

Luckily Bas Kosters himself was around and more than happy to elaborate. Bas confirmed Liz’s statement that the collection is about empty protest, and explained how various elements of the collection comment on this theme. Some words are intentionally left lingering, without specific content or context (e.g. the aforementioned “Why?” and the isolated prefix “ANTI” on the guy with the horse head). Bas also translated some of the other Dutch words in the various digital prints on leggings and jackets (prints actually recycled from his 2006 collection), explaining that many of them said contradictory things, e.g. “Yes” with “No”, or “I know” with “What do I know?”.

There are also ways of interpreting the collection which are more culturally specific to Holland that I hadn’t been aware of. I brought up the fact that in England, when the government had instituted cuts on student funding, that British students had in fact taken to the streets in protest, occupying buildings from University College London to the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. However, it was pointed out to me that even more severe cuts to student funding had been made by the Dutch government. “And they did nothing! No Dutch students did anything about it at all. They didn’t say a word,” explained a clearly frustrated Kosters.

Kosters stated he viewed his collection as more of an art installation, than so-called “fashion.” However, by this point it was already salient to me that in the spectrum of our understanding of fashion as an artform vs. fashion’s existence as a purely commercial entity, that Koster’s AW13 Collection was fixed firmly in the former. This was not fashion of Zoolander-level vacuousness, but rather quite opposite: one of bravest steps at this London Fashion Week toward fashion being taken more seriously as an artform.

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