fashion after Fashion: A Total Experience

“The artist-designers of fashion after Fashion stretch the body politics of feminist, queer, post-colonial and disability theorists, asking how fashion can be more performative than perfect, more fun than functional”, writes Wendy Vogel. Finnish Cultural Institute in New York invited the New York-based writer and curator to visit and reflect on the fashion after Fashion exhibition—a co-production of the FCINY, Parsons School of Design, The New School—on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York from April 27 to August 6, 2017.

SSAW Spring Summer 2017. Alana Zimmer photographed by Bibi Cornejo-Borthwick and styling by Roxane Danset. Courtesy SSAW Magazine. 

It’s a truism to say that the digital age has wrought profound changes to self-expression. While individuals have transformed themselves into products—in age of social media, self-presentation has become self-branding—businesses have shifted from selling products to marketing experiences. B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore first defined the “experience economy” in 1998, positing it as the next step in the evolutionary “progression of economic value” after the commoditization of services. This was a bold assertion, as theories of the shift from an industrial, Fordist economy to a more specialized, service economy developed only from the ‘60s onward. While some of Pine and Gilmore’s language about the experience economy seems outdated nearly 20 years after publication, other passages remain current: “While prior economic offerings—commodities, goods, and services—are external to the buyer, experiences are inherently personal, existing only in the mind of an individual who has been engaged on an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level.” They group experiences into four categories: entertainment, education, escapist and esthetic.

More conceptually-oriented designers and artists have understood that as the fashion industry has transformed, its questions about how to represent the body hew closer to the dialogues of visual and performance art.

The shift in focus, from goods to services to experiences, has profoundly affected lifestyle industries like fashion. Some fashionistas have turned literally inward, making wellness a booming business. (Consider actress-slash-lifestyle-guru Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Wellness brand of vitamins and health treatments, or Intermix founder Khajak Keledjian’s new Manhattan meditation studio, Inscape.) Other brands have acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all (or rather, one-size-fits-model) approach is no longer sufficient for aspirational luxury in a cultural landscape that embraces gender, sexual, bodily and racial diversity. More conceptually-oriented designers and artists have understood that as the fashion industry has transformed, its questions about how to present and represent the body hew closer to the dialogues of visual and performance art.

The exhibition fashion after Fashion, presented at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) from April 27 to August 6, 2017, poses a provocative question. As the capital-F Fashion Industry loses its stranglehold on culture at large, how can fashion reinvent itself?

ensæmble, INSIDE, detail of an installation, 2017. Photo by Sanna Lehto. Courtesy ensæmble. 

Curators Hazel Clark and Ilari Laamanen take the work of six designers as case studies. Rather than presenting their clothes on mannequins, these designers embrace the mediums of sculpture, video and performance. Lucy Jones presents personalized clothing prototypes for seated individuals. Ryohei Kawanishi stages a showroom with a Duchampian twist. Henrik Vibskov imagines an otherworldly experience for his clothes through video and installation, while the team of ensæmble create sculptural displays for garments that forefront the interstices between body and clothing. SSAW Magazine builds out an immersive domestic environment for their pages. Finally, Eckhaus Latta abandons three-dimensional space for the screen, presenting their clothes in intimate video interviews with friends and associates.

fashion after Fashion opens a new dialogue between fashion and art. Since the year 2000, a number of photographic exhibition have surveyed a fluidity between the realms of fine-art and commercial image making. Artists like Petra Collins, Roe Ethridge, Viviane Sassen and Wolfgang Tillmans not only create images for fashion brands, but also make such images a self-conscious aspect of their artistic practice. The 2004 exhibition Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990, at the Museum of Modern Art, provided an early template for this type of exhibition. Including over 90 artists, from Cindy Sherman to Juergen Teller, Fashioning Fiction asserted a reciprocal influence between art, cinema and fashion branding. (As recently as May 2016, Artforum revisited this theme, in a special section titled “The New Look: Art and Fashion Photography.”) Meanwhile, exhibitions like Not in Fashion: Fashion and Photography in the 90s, curated by Sophie von Olfers for the Museum der Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (2010–11), charted the creative exchange between artists, designers and photographers at the end of the 20th century. With avant-garde garments and styling strategies that defied gender norms and disciplinary boundaries, this exhibition argued that the “anti-fashion” work of designers and photographers—from Walter van Beirendonck and Comme des Garçons to Mark Borthwick and Susan Cianciolo—formed a transgressive counterculture.

Eckhaus Latta and Alexa Karolinski, Coco, 2017. Still from a video. DP Ashley Connor. Featuring Lee Maida. Courtesy Eckhaus Latta and Alexa Karolinski. 

fashion after Fashion considers the collaborative, even clubby legacy of the ‘90s on today’s designers. Eckhaus Latta, an American label founded in 2011 by Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, has been featured in such exhibitions as MoMA PS1’s Greater New York (2015) and the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2016: a, the though, only. For this exhibition, Eckhaus Latta and filmmaker Alexa Karolinski present a 49-minute film titled Coco (2017), shot in the corner of a small, mirrored bathroom. Coco showcases friends and associates of the designers, discussing everything from favorite smells to their childhoods. The interviewees span generations and backgrounds, from model Jonas Kessler and writer Chris Glazek, to art advisors Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich Wagner, to artists like Juliana Huxtable and Lee Maida. Clothes become secondary to the aspirational sense of a diverse community—it is easy to forget that the slouched figures are even wearing Eckhaus Latta’s corsets and other garments. But this marketing of images and personalities reflects the way we come to know, “like,” follow and “friend” both individuals and brands through social media. 

Claustrophobic intimacy factors into SSAW Magazine’s installation Now My Heart Is Full (2017), in which the page, the screen and domestic space are playfully conflated. The Finnish magazine has constructed an installation the size of a teen’s small bedroom, complete with a desk, chair and bed. The entirety of the space, including the floor and bedding, are covered with images of pages from the magazine—an avant-garde imprint featuring an intergenerational mix of stylists and designers. The magazine takes a well-worn trope of the teenager’s bedroom walls as a privileged space for display and fantasy, and makes that space completely immersive. The bedroom is a life-size exaggeration of the inundation of our image-saturated culture. The papering of every surface with fashion pages imagines the gallery-style layout of Tumblr or Instagram as an engulfing, three-dimensional experience. 

SSAW Magazine, Now My Heart is Full, site-specific installation, 2017. Photo by Jenna Bascom. 

SSAW’s installation not only can be read through a lens of fashion, but through a history of installation and performance art. Their work hearkens to such precedents as the late American artist Mike Kelley (1954–2012), who incorporated memories and ephemera of childhood and adolescence into his work. His practice explored such themes as trauma, abjection, and a history of American vernacular culture. In works such as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), a quilt-like assemblage of used toys and blankets found at thrift stores that he knitted together by hand, Kelley asks the viewer to reassign not only aesthetic value, but sentimental value, to discarded “everyday” craft objects. Kelley’s work often also incorporated feminized forms of handicraft, without the straightforward appropriation of “women’s work” as a masculine art product. Thinking more literally about the spaces and places that shape one’s sense of being in the world, Kelley’s 1995 sculpture Educational Complex is a tabletop architectural model reimagining every home and school he lived in as an interlocking set of buildings. A life-size replica of his Michigan home, Mobile Homestead, installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit since 2013, acts as an exhibition and community space.

SSAW Magazine, Now My Heart is Full, site-specific installation, 2017. Installation view photo by Jenna Bascom. 

Artists who came of age in the ‘90s and early 2000s, from Sue deBeer and Anna Gaskell to the surrealist video impresario Ryan Trecartin, also incorporated teenagers (or teen characters) and domestic installation elements in their video works. More recently, a generation of artists (often young and female) have taken the aesthetics and performative potential of social media as the basis of their work. Some lean into the expectations of sexuality for young women—as in Los Angeles–based artist Ann Hirsch’s online “camwhore” performance project The Scandalishious Project (2008–09) or Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s A Personal Project of online erotic videos. Other artists subvert these expectations, as in charged, poetic videos by the British-based artist Hannah Black or the online works of Jennifer Chan. Both bring a Marxist, antiracist perspective to the question of growing up online. Initiatives such as the Tumblr site GIM girls of the ~internet museum catalogue these practices; the curator is unabashedly sincere in her fan-like appreciation for the artists. But as writer and musician Johanna Fateman wrote in an influential article from 2015, many artists of this generation find themselves as “skeptical inheritors of the third-wave pro-sex torch,” in the predicament of having to claim their online images in dialogue with or opposed to the norms of Internet pornography. 

In SSAW’s bedroom, the possibilities exist of leaning into dominant culture, or creating a new, intensely personal expression in a private space.

SSAW’s installation exudes an undeniably girly form of intimacy sentiment informs the installation, from the “millennial pink” paint on the walls, on which the magazine pages are pasted, to the fact that the bedspread and pillows are adorned with images of boyish young men, flashing slices of their hairless torsos. The idea of sleeping with a magazine tucked under one’s pillow is brought closer to life. While not only girls, of course, have attractions to boys, the omnipresence and preoccupation with bodies suggests a specificity to (and reclamation of) the culture of girlhood. As Catherine Driscoll has written in Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture & Cultural Theory (Columbia University Press, 2002): “Girlhood is represented across various forms of girl culture as a process of containment. The most significant of these appears to be her containment in relation to her own body.” She adds that the idea of “bedroom culture” remains coded in terms of gender: where the youth culture of rebellion is often associated with young men, girl culture is produced in internal spaces closely associated with the nuclear family. “But if bedroom culture is highly determined by its location—indexed to the personal, the ornamental, the popular, attenuated to the nuclear family—this does not have to be harmonious,” Driscoll adds. “Bedroom culture can be a form of isolation from or resistance to family authority.” In SSAW’s bedroom, the possibilities exist of leaning into dominant culture, or creating a new, intensely personal expression in a private space.  

Like SSAW, the New York–based Japanese designer Ryohei Kawanishi also sees fashion as a site of play, but his approach is lightly irreverent. His “NEW” Collection (2017) installation comprises appropriated vintage garments that he has modified, by replacing the original designers’ tags with his own labels. If he uses the actual garments as ready-mades—a tradition going back to the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp—the elements surrounding the collection are authentic, from photographic contact sheets for his marketing campaign to line sheets detailing pricing and design sketches. He also shows “How to Experience a Designer’s Showroom,” a funny one-minute how-to video with jagged wipe transitions. The video hearkens torecalls the fashion-meets-art-meets-anarchist collective Bernadette Corporation’s steely early work, like The B.C. Corporate Story (1996). But Kawanishi’s warmer approach seems tailored for the Instagram generation.

Lucy Jones, Seated Sleeves, installation, 2017. Installation view photo by Jenna Bascom. 

Ryohei Kawanishi, "NEW" Collection, installation, 2017. Installation view photo by Jenna Bascom. 

Equally warm is the inclusive collection of Lucy Jones, born in Wales and a recent graduate of Parsons School of Design. Her Seated Design installation features twenty-two sleeve prototypes—Seated Sleeves (2017)—for individuals using wheelchairs. In a video, she promotes a “user-centered approach” to fashion, explaining that she was drawn to designing for seated individuals after discussing the challenges of clothing and getting dressed with a cousin who uses a wheelchair. Her sleeves, suspended in a gridded formation, recall different eras of design, from Victorian dressing to modern cutaway garments. She explains that the sleeves are functional as well as beautiful, offering therapeutic support for seated individuals.

Henrik Vibskov, Harmonic Mouth, still from a video, 2017. Courtesy Henrik Vibskov. 

The site becomes kind of a utopic nest for these post-gendered creatures.

Danish designer Henrik Vibskov also takes a sculptural, timely approach to fashion. Influenced by designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Vibskov’s installation Harmonic Mouth (2017) includes red mesh dresses adorned with nonfunctional teardrop-like forms, as well as black and white lace. The life-size droopy shapes look as much like tonsils or testicles as punching bags. They recall Ernesto Neto’s biomorphic sculptures filled with sand, or Senga Nengudi’s erotic sculptures made from pantyhose and other materials, pulled and fastened into place. Vibskov’s dresses, for their part, are suspended in a red leak transparent cube, leaking sand onto grates below as hourglasses. An evocative video, almost like a horror movie, show faceless individuals with mesh shields over their faces moving through a dark forest into the red environment. The site becomes a kind of utopic nest for these post-gendered creatures.

Finally, the Helsinki-based duo ensæmble (Alisa Närvänen and Elina Peltonen) remove fashion completely from the realm of wearability. Their installation INSIDE (2017) examines the places where the body meets clothes, emphasizing such details as seams, linings and hidden structure. Of course, designers have accessorized edgy looks with exposed zippers, laces and seams since the 1960s. More cerebral methods of “deconstruction” have informed high fashion for the last three decades, from Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons punkish “lace” sweaters of the early 1980s that seemed to be eaten by moths, to artist and designer Susan Cianciolo’s RUN collections, including her DIY denim skirt sets sold in the ‘90s. ensæmble, however, seem more focused on a haptic sense of fashion than a representational model or a deconstructive one. In other words, their clothes do not intend to communicate a fixed style or subcultural affiliation. Rather, in their installation, fabric is used as a way to explore such qualities as balance, restraint, and weight. That is not to say that there isn’t a surreal aspect to their work as designers and artists.

ensæmble, INSIDE, still from a video, 2017. Courtesy ensæmble. 

INSIDE includes a short digital video where clothes seem to speak. In the work, a camera zips along sleeves or pant legs, whose rustling appears to be amplified by a contact microphone. Modified with digital effects, the video approaches such genres as horror or science fiction, as the clothes take on a life of their own, in conversation with a body that inhabits them. The majority of ensæmble’s installation features fabric sculptures, in which clothing becomes rigid as it is encased in shells of plaster. Individual elements are isolated, like sleeves or pant legs, which are suspended from frames. The effect is one of a disjointed mannequin or a ghost body. Other elements of their installation include soft fabrics wrapped into giant bundles, then suspended in midair. 

ensæmbles’s video approaches such genres as horror or science fiction, as the clothes take a life of their own, in conversation with a body that inhabits them.

ensæmble’s display methods upend conventions both of fashion and sculpture. For example, a pair of jeans are cast in white plaster and broken apart into around a dozen pieces, delicately laid out on a packing blanket. The plaster surrounds the denim, highlighting the internal stitching. While artists such as Math Bass (based in Los Angeles) have cast the forms of a pair of legs wearing jeans as a kind of queer approach to sculptural monuments, shifting the focus from a recognizable figure’s bust to an anonymous butt, these denim sculptures of ensæmble no longer echo a human form at all. They instead emphasized the labor of fabrication. And yet, they also refuse any narrative of wholeness or success. The jean pieces look like a kind of artifact, laid out on a blanket by an archaeologist or conservator, trying to understand a civilization through its material culture.  

ensæmble, INSIDE, detail of an installation, 2017. Photo by Jenna Bascom. 

In another sculpture, a patchwork of fabrics in the form of a jacket is surrounded in a hug by a sturdier twinned form in plaster—an odd combination of embrace and restraint. This sculpture, like others, are shown suspended from open-sided wooden structures by a complicated series of straps and pulleys. In the center of the installation stands a translucent mold encasing the design for a pair of shoes, open at the ankles. This sinister sculpture could be an outtake from a Matthew Barney film, or the fossil of a human foot in the distant future. The way that clothing functions as a support for the human form in the work of ensæmble could be viewed through the lens of anthropomorphism—the quality, that is, of assigning human qualities to inhuman forms. On the other hand, it could suggest a non-hierarchic view of humans’ place in the natural world, alongside plants, animals and inorganic materials. The fields of object-oriented ontology and ecofeminism argue for a more nuanced understanding of the mutual influence and symbiotic relationship between humans and other types of matter. Such theories as cyborg feminism also examine how the boundaries between human, animal and inorganic matter have broken down, due to the advents of medical, agricultural and cosmetic technologies. ensæmble’s work, however, remains open to critical interpretation, rather than illustrating a particular vision of the world.

ensæmble, INSIDE, detail of an installation, 2017. Photo by Jenna Bascom.

For ensæmble, as well as the other artists in fashion after Fashion, clothes are more than just adornment. They represent a new frontier in sculpture and performance art, and indeed, an “experience” that can be at turns esthetic or immersive. If clothes are to be the backdrop of selfies, they seem to ask, why can’t they do something more transgressive, more political? These artist-designers therefore stretch the body politics of feminist, queer, post-colonial and disability theorists, asking how fashion can be more performative than perfect, more fun than functional.


Text by Wendy Vogel

Wendy Vogel is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. A former editor at Flash Art International, Modern Painters and Art in America, she has contributed to, art-agendaArt Review, BOMB, Brooklyn RailfriezeKaleidoscopeMousse and The New York Times, among other publications. Wendy’s research interests include legacies of feminist and identity-based practice, as well as the performative and ethical questions around contemporary art production and criticism.