Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
The second ‘In Conversation With…’ during IFFTI this week was centred on ideas of the garment and its social responsibility. It’s widely agreed that fashion has a strong reciprocal relationship with society, economics, anthropology, politics, and the environment, and yet this subject doesn’t have the best reputation in fashion circles because things like ‘sustainable fashion’ or ‘eco-garments’ have been done so poorly in the past, that the whole topic has become unappealing and basically ruined for everyone. So how can we realign this?
Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion and Chair of IFFTI, explained how fashion isn’t a narrow definition and because of this, education has a responsibility to find different ways to use fashion. The Art of Dress, an installation in Santa Croce by students from Corner’s College, hung conceptual clothing in front of full length mirrors, inviting the public to engage with them in their own way; finding their own method of dressing and thereby bringing different ideas together within one garment.
Corner sees that we need to ‘bring individuals into institutions that bring a different perspective’. This couldn’t be more important when within fashion there’s more of a consensus towards boredom than enthusiasm. Tony Bednall from Manchester Metropolitan University saw that ‘we're removing whole sections of society in engaging in the cultural process so it risks becoming very elitist.’ His honestly and lack of pomp was encouraging and made all the more sincere when he spoke of his installation; a sculptural object in the form of a giant jacket called Stories without Stories. It is made predominantly of cardboard that could completely disintegrate at the first moment of rain, but these natural effects are exactly where the beauty lies. ‘It’s a way to engage with garments…by embedding your story within.’
The installation from Andrea Cammarosano, Fragments, also used this idea of the intervention of natural processes, but in his case in the descent of memory. His beautiful panels were slightly translucent, and when the sun shone through them in the mid-afternoon, the figures on the large-scale hangings became almost indistinguishable. It was the perfect effect.
This brings me to the work of Ou Ning. I mentioned him yesterday as a Chinese activist and artist, who started something called the Bishan Project in 2010. Ning theorised in a Moleskine notebook about a utopic society, removed from urban living. He sees radical problems with China’s rapid urbanisation that has lowered the quality of life in cities due to pollution and lack of space, and in the countryside as many villages are practically deserted. He wanted to reset this balance and not long after this initial work, he in fact realised his theories that now exist as four rural communities with almost 2000 inhabitants.
The Bishan Project is part of the ‘new rural reconstruction movement’. It combines ideas of permaculture, shared housing, and healthy public life; ‘the idea of common wealth’. Stridently anti-capitalist and openly anarchic, Ning explained the complications of this in the context of his country. ‘Anarchy is a sensitive word in China. In Chinese it's translated as ‘anti-government’… My use of anarchy is about just helping each other without larger political agency.’
‘Anarchy is about mutual aid.’
As part of his project, Ning designed garments for the Bishan commune, along with a beautiful photo story and a film in an effort to engage young people with his ideas. This holistic arrangement with the land, dress and the body was incidentally echoed in the honesty and presence of Aki Choklat’s project that I also mentioned yesterday. He sees a disconnect between humans and their depiction in fashion magazines and so ‘we decided not to Photoshop any models and kept these beautiful people as they are… we thought the revolution of fashion starts with the body.’ The real body; sharing a similar aesthetic with Anna-Maria Sadkowska’s winning ASVOF x Polimoda film, Dis-comforting.
Adele Varcoe also spoke of truth and imagination during this conversation, using ‘The Emperor and his New Clothes’ as a larger analogy for how we experience garments and the world. Varcoe is trying to 'amplify the invisible things that are at play’; the greater meaning embedded in every detail of dress. The New Body by Saumya Pande was an installation also exploring the idea of ‘cosmic thread’ or in this case, Brahmasutra, with handcrafted crafted yarn and fibre.
In the end, we all know that fashion is an integral part of society, and needs to contribute in a positive way in order to lift its own cultural value. As Frances Corner said, ‘we have a great tool that we have a great responsibility to use.’ Though since fashion integrates so many different fields, the complication here is in the implications for education. To improve, 'do we make courses more broad or more narrow?’ Corner asked. This wasn’t really answered in the conversation, though inevitably the answer lies in the middle space; the space of specialisation and sharing information; collaboration between activists and designers, for example, who can together realise how fashion can positively fulfil its responsibility.