This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand. Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.
With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov. I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before. I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.
On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing. Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem. What was I looking for? A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations? Well, yes, sort of. Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject. This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond. However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001.
Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures. His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.
A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts. However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here. Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.
There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001. There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins. However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.
Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print. Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas. Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.
A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection. Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds. Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out. It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally. So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!
However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process. I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.
The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion. This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design. There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process. This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.
I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums. I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009. Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range. This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.
To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries. This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist. There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity. Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate. The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.