While studying history of art and museology at L’Ecole du Louvre, in Paris (the city I was brought up in by a French father and an English mother), I already knew I wanted to specialise in fashion history after graduating, and I can remember how this ambition would make eyebrows rise! It seemed that, only five to ten years ago, I was quite an avant-garde.
France, and Paris in particular, has always been profoundly associated with fashion and history in the eyes of the rest of the world. However, the cultural study of dress was quite a marginal discipline here: no specific courses (the reason why I fled to London to study Fashion Curation!), rare exhibitions, and a lack of professionals to look upon…
Has the situation really evolved?
L’Ecole du Louvre has since opened a class focused on the history of fashion, dress patrimony is increasingly highlighted by couture brands, and currently, there are no fewer than six fashion-oriented exhibitions in Paris. Therefore, it seems that the discipline is ready not only to expand, but stand out.
This cultural emulation perfectly coincides with my new thrilling role as a Worn Through contributor and I am glad I have such a rich program to share.
I am starting right away with a display that caught my attention by its original tone in the midst of the more traditional approach Parisian dress exhibitions accustom us to.
Arrrgh! Monstres de Mode (Monsters of Fashion) takes place at the Gaîté Lyrique, curated by the Greek visual arts collective, ATOPOS CVC, that had previously presented the display, in 2011, at the Benaki Museum, in Athens.
The Gaîté Lyrique is a Parisian space dedicated to digital culture and Arrrgh! Monstres de Mode intends to explore how the character iconography and monstrous figures derived from digital culture have inspired today’s fashion designers.
The contemporary characters phenomenon first appeared in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century before booming intensively in Japan. From the 1980s onwards, contemporary characters have flooded the artistic production in street art and video games, toys, animation and cinema, object, product and graphic design, always questioning the established norms of aesthetics.
Fashion has not escaped the phenomenon and this exhibition is the first international display to highlight the radical or grotesque creations inspired by character design and the Gaîté’s first fashion oriented project.
The visitor is welcomed by a disturbing installation specially designed for the exhibition by the artist, Paul Graves, who imagined a dismembered body emerging from a bin and wearing iconic Alexander McQueen shoes. The tone is set!
It was my very first visit to the Gaîté Lyrique so I had no previous reference concerning the space. I did find the location very dynamic and youthful which was certainly an appropriate venue for such a presentation.
In the main exhibition space, within a very white and neon-lit scenography, the curators present an eclectic selection of designs created by established designers as well as emerging talent. The first level displays an installation imagined by the Parisian activist collective, Andrea Crews, which features a figure brandishing a chain saw upon an array of recycled clothing.
The main space is infested with a large number of monsters placed on the same level as the visitors. I appreciated this concentration of figures as it created a very strong visual impact, the impression of a real invasion.
No glass panels protect the mannequins so that the visitors can approach very closely with a mixed feeling of curiosity and timidity. Captions are simply pasted on the floor beside each object. There are no explanatory panels but they are, honestly, not missed.
The entire visit is accompanied by thumping bizarre sounds that never distract but, on the contrary, truly enwraps us in the atmosphere of the display. I am usually not a huge fan of soundtracks in exhibitions as I find them tiring but in this case, I was hypnotised.
Characters displayed are most often abstract figures, with bold, graphic silhouettes. They give birth to hybrid bodies resembling avatars and mutants.
Fables and fairytales are a strong inspiration and the anthropomorphic metamorphosis is expertly highlighted through the designs of Kim Traeger’s rabbit woman, Erika Mizuno’s womanly bear, or Issey Miyake’s monkeys.
There are also echoes of science fiction with Alex Mattsson’s robotic creation, and Alexis Themistocleous’s cocoon like figure.
The literal frightening feeling is not left aside: Mareunrol’s designs clearly nourish a certain anxiety, whereas Rick Owens’ silhouette is a subtler gothic reference.
The scary is also evoked through humoristic figures, like an amusing red monster dress, or Bernard Wilhem’s ironic draped ghosts, reminiscent of childhood Halloween costumes.
Animation, toys, and pop culture are united within the farcical silhouettes of Hideki Seo or Piers Atkinson’s teddy accumulation.
I also took notice of some futuristic eco-warriors in the designs of Manon Kundig and Filep Motwary.
No themes separate the objects and they are all mixed and diffused in a rather disorganised and chaotic environment which, I believe, was an intentional mise-en-scène.
Besides the digital inspiration, the common thread within the display is the human body. All designers here mutate the human body by hiding it, distorting it, using atypical shapes, vibrant colours, unusual textiles, and extreme abstract elements.
Such transformations sometimes evoke art installations rather than genuine fashion design.
Often, the mannequins have a hidden face when it is not simply abandoned. A new reality, an alternative self is created. It also enables the viewer to focus their attention on the clothing only.
The monsters here are not scary in the genuinely frightening sense. The designers provoke disgust, curiosity, admiration, surprise or disturb but barely frighten. The only true feeling of fear I experienced was within the large, claustrophobic, dark room where a video created by Bart Hess was presented.
It is clear that formal fashion, the idea of the wearable and traditional aesthetic norms were not the subject here. This exhibition highlights the transformative nature of fashion and the freedom in expressing oneself through clothing.
I also found it very interesting that such an important number of young graduates and students’ creations were presented. It enabled me to reflect upon this new generation eager to propose new ways of designing fashion, new shapes, and new identities.
Dress often becomes a costume, a disguise that enables the wearer to play with the self and the persona: who are we? What do we hide beneath our clothing? The borders between the beautiful and the ugly are also constantly questioned.
What I missed in this exhibit was contextualisation. I would have appreciated videos, drawings, or stills representing the uncommon characters that have inspired the fashion designers. Those (like me!) who are not experts in character design would have valued understanding the various influential phenomenon the exhibition is based on.
However, this display is truly a welcomed, adventurous, refreshing, and imaginative project far from what we are used to seeing in Parisian museums.
Arrrgh! Monstres de Mode is on view until the 7th April, at the Gaité Lyrique, in Paris.
Duggen, Ginger Gregg, Hoos Fox, Judith and Polhemus, Ted. Not a Toy: Radical Character Design in Fashion and Costume: Fashioning Radical Characters. Berlin: Pictoplasma Publishing, 2011.
Klanten, Robert. Doppelganger: Images of the Human Being. Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag, 2011.
ATOPOS‘ website is also a fantastic source for those interested in the exhibition’s making-of.
You can also find out more about Craig Green who is the superstar revelation of the display.
Finally, for the L.A based readers, the LACMA is organising a conversation between the provocative fashion designer, Walter Beirendonck (many of his designs are on view within the exhibition), graphic designer, Paul Boudens and curator Kaye D. Spilker.