Allowing us to move from idea to action, experimentation is the metaphor of an invitation to a journey, disrupting the schema of the everyday. If, historically, it was the privilege of artists to initiate it, the universe of fashion has come to embrace it with designers like Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Hussein Chalayan or indeed Martin Margiela, grouped together under the term experimental avant-garde by fashion historian Caroline Evans.
This is the highway taking us through the subject of experimentation, for considering the exuberance, the performances and the eccentric gestures of the mad savants, raised to the status of nobility by the textbooks and exhibitions of the fashion world, perpetuating the idea that breaking boundaries is a spectacular act, the preserve of a few potent demiurges. Thus, the subject is done and dusted.
It would be foolish, however, to reduce fashion to a mere dominion of art, a place inhabited by languid subjects, where an unusual sartorial spectacle constitutes the only means of escape.
Fashion is complex: everyday and extraordinary, artistic and mainstream. Through its commercial and industrial activities, it is a vector for the democratisation of clothing. Its wide distribution offers each individual the opportunity to invent themselves, to experiment with their identity, and perhaps even go beyond the realm of the acceptable in small acts, the power of which is not always appreciated. Experimentation is on our doorstep.
Exhibition Magazine has met with 15 designers, artists, thinkers, of varying stripes. Our questions are as much about the unusual aspect of their work as their daily experience of time and space. We were treated to ordinary anecdotes and extraordinary memories.
Covid 19, sequinned thongs, soldering, humanitarianism and haute couture rub shoulders in responses which restore to the experimental act all its variety.
Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant, founders and creative directors of Coperni
If experimentation is first and foremost an apprenticeship, it remains also a test, an attempt at something. It can seem like a large and unlimited field. However, there are real limits, as much moral as physical and mental.
The idea that art is a form of escapism is obvious. Art, like design, is cutting one’s self off from the world and from monotony.
2020 will prove to have been a year rich in introspection – the catalyst for new ways of doing, concentrating, thinking. It was a challenge to create in such an uncertain time. Optimistic by nature, we were able to move beyond the very restrictive dimension of this health crisis and take certain risks (such as having runway shows during a global pandemic), whilst, of course, respecting the constraints that were imposed upon us.
This is clearly a propitious period for change, notably in the world of fashion: perhaps not drastic, but oriented in certain directions such as sustainability and the rhythm of the seasons. Design forces you to take sides now and then. A collection is also a dialogue. Coperni has always had certain social commitments – such as our partnership with OLPC, a non-profit organisation which seeks to help children living in developing countries to better connect to today’s world.
Robert Wun, founder and creative director of Robert Wun
In creating clothes for the film industry, I was able to observe how film directors manage hundreds of people. Budget limitations, tantrums and delays are par for the course. The obvious conclusion to draw is that the dysfunctional and the unexpected are constants in the creative process. In fashion, particularly for young designers, we reach a similar conclusion. Thus, you have to maintain your vision, keep on mobilising your passion and work with these restrictions. If nowadays existence is synonymous with interdictions, more than ever we have to take risks, rather than settling for comfort. If we’re struck by doubt, let’s change our patterns of thought.
Alexander McQueen had said he would prefer to ‘to be out on the street than present a boring show’. He had the right idea. When I look back, it’s the safest collections that I regret. The absence of risk-taking makes them banal.
Some of my collections have been described as linked to female empowerment, but I only make clothes. I don’t impose agendas nor propose political readings. If I did, I wouldn’t be a designer but a propagandist. I get asked why I am inspired by strong, independent women. The answer is, “because of my grandmother.” She passed on a few months ago and even if it’s hard to bear, I decided to turn this moment into a creative challenge and to translate my memory of her and love for her into a collection. In other words, to transform a set of emotions into an inclusive collection where the clothes leave space for the experience of freedom and independence that characterised her. Everyone can make what they will of these clothes, which look nothing like my previous collections. Be it in the way I went about it or the way I translated my inspiration, this was something new in my work.
Eva Verwicht, sculptor, Finalist at the 35th International Festival of Fashion and Photography of Hyères – Prize for Accessories.
In this health crisis, the greatest limit upon creativity is the impossibility of meeting people. More than ever, this severance forces us to confront the lack of human exchange, exposing how essential it is.
In my work as a designer and sculptor, experimentation consists of going to meet fellow artisans and learn from them in a dynamic of constant discovery. It was when I was studying at HEAD in Geneva that I started experimenting with different methods, including meeting people locally with whom I could work and collaborating with local talents. Back then, I asked an artisanal glass maker based near the school to help me develop my project on leatherwork. “We’ll give it a go!” he said, when I told him my unusual idea. After going through all of the constraints, we moved to the making phase, and we managed to create my glass handles and heels. Through this adventure, other students met this artisan and a number of collaborations developed as a result. These unexpected connections imbue experiments with a profoundly human value.
Whilst the lockdown disrupted things, it did also give me time; I trained under a friend who is a leatherworker which allowed me to go back to concentrating on technique, deepen my knowledge and become more autonomous – in other words taking me one step closer to my dream of a workshop. This unexpected turn of events was the opportunity for me to re-think my practice and enable me to prove to myself that I was capable of developing the whole gamut of accessories from A to Z.
One of the challenges most in evidence today is sourcing ethical materials. That challenge is at the heart of my own aesthetic. We have to educate our gaze and see eco-responsibility through the prism of design.
Lamine Louyaté, founder and artistic director of Xuly Bët
Fashion gives itself limits. Through its power and its competitive dimension, it is often normative. I forced myself to skirt around this territory, stumbling onto fertile soil, where unexpected life flourished. It’s more enjoyable.
Clothing is linked to the experience of life and can’t be thought of outside that context. It accompanies it, preserves it. Unless the designer is all powerful, they owe it to themselves to listen to every little element in a gesture of humility: this is the only way of envisaging immensity. As if equipped with radars allowing them to hear the shrieks of alarm in social space, designers must remain sensitive to the world and encourage experience. A simple dress thus becomes the site of multiple possibilities. It’s the raw material of an infinite number of stories. I imagine my clothes as sites without limits, promoting mobility. In practice that means dresses which hug the body and yet have pockets and zips so women can experience urban space with confidence and autonomy. Experimentation is also taking into account the monopolies and the stereotypes that are present in our society, in order to create with them... How to approach a life determined by the gaze of others upon you? This question is even more relevant when you are black or a woman. You cannot remain neutral when faced with the experience of minorities. The experience of alterity pushes us towards developing clothes which are micro-protections, cloaking us in optimism. Even if in this period, when the things that are wrong with our system are being exacerbated, and we are on the alert, we still have to live!
Bethany Williams, founder and creative director of Bethany Williams
As the environmental crisis unfolds and social hardship is increasing, we have to give meaning back to experimentation in fashion and in doing so connect every action to the different social issues that it raises. Since 2016, each of my collections has been the fruit of a collaboration with a charity, but for me it’s been about proving that it’s possible to produce new creative systems in fashion which are socially engaged and environmentally virtuous.
If, at first, the exclusive side of the fashion world seemed like a barrier to me, I learnt to work with it. To point the finger at the things that are wrong with fashion, you have to experience them from the inside.
The experience of the designer? Solving problems. Each step forward is an experiment, and every mistake is a step towards progress. For example, to develop a prototype of an eco-friendly textile, you have to accept a lengthy protocol, with very precise readjustments, but it’s always rich in learnings.
I see fashion as a tool enabling me to communicate bigger ideas. As a student, I was interested in the link between creative activities and political engagement. The works of authors like Walter Benjamin, who described, at the start of the 20th century, the loss of the aura in works of art with the arrival of mechanical reproduction (see The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) find an echo in my practice where I privilege an artisanal aesthetic, conserving the errors, bearing witness to the presence of a hand and not a machine.
While the brand expanded a lot during 2019, lockdown enabled me to take some time to think about the direction of the project and to dedicate myself to community-oriented problems. Holly Fulton, Phoebe English and I formed the Emergency Designer Network, manufacturing 50,000 masks in Great Britain. Experimentation is about interconnecting experiences and thinking about the effect they have on each other.
Tom Van Der Borght, fashion designer, winner of the 35th International Festival of Fashion and Photography Hyères – Fashion Prize
The only limit on experimentation is gravity: that’s what I tell my students. I like volume and constructing clothes with a certain grandiloquence. What I do may be on the boundary between fashion and performance, but I don’t feel any need to define it. Maybe my clothes aren’t made to be worn. They could be hung up on a wall, exhibited in a museum, doesn’t really matter. They are personal visions which belong to the public who see them.
The young generation lives in a world with greater access to information and opportunities for media-based self-promotion, sketching out a universe which is rich in experience. You can be several people at the same time and make the choice to no longer make choices. At the same time, we live in a polarised world where forecasting and marketing are placing limits on experimentation. My work is of a performative nature: the objective is to provoke emotions in people. That’s the only condition for bringing it into being.
In this period, retaining our freedom and allowing ourselves to be surprised through art and crazy ideas is so important. This period of crisis is ripe for escapism.
Olivier Theyskens, artistic director and founder of Olivier Theyskens, artistic director of Azzaro
Over the years, fashion designers build territories of fabrics and volumes, linked to specific techniques, with which they get used to creating new things. Over the course of this adventure, the thought process and questioning develops.
I began, very early, by observing a lot. I learnt by allowing myself to be guide by professionals to whom I entrusted myself entirely. Then I went into a control freak phase, wanting to oversee the slightest fitting, the smallest alteration, the tiniest positioning of pins. With time, I learnt to let go and appreciate the act of passing something on, by inviting other people to enter this creative framework.
The creative person is ambivalent: caught between exuberant desires and moments of caution. Personally, I alternate between the calm and the storm.
The experience of creative time is paradoxical: if the regularity of cycles of renewal in fashion can act as a prison, it does, ultimately, stimulate people. In August 2005, in two months, I drew and prepared the entirety of a couture collection. In this act of research and discipline, in a short period, I started to tergiversate.
Designers have to have the right to more flexibility and to presenting their collections when they’re ready. Azzedine Alaïa paved the way by flouting the calendar. However, though it seems paradoxical, the framework is exciting. The collective dynamic orchestrated by presentations creates adrenaline. After all, every milieu has a calendar. That’s just the world turning. Why didn’t I go further? It’s only once it’s happened that you can ask yourself that question. Often, I put myself in the place of the client, asking myself if the piece works for her and her desires.
When examining my archives in the context of exhibitions on my work, I noted that some things that seemed very clear to me in the past are no longer clear to me now. You develop, and the pieces of the past become another self. Nowadays I’m experimenting in different houses: articulation allows me to oxygenate my brain. It’s like having several different loves!
Victor Weinsanto: founder and artistic director of Weinsanto
I haven’t signed up to pure experimentation, like, for example, Rei Kawakubo, the artistic director of Comme des Garçons, whom I admire a great deal. Since I am a bit “soft”, I like the freedom offered by the space that is fashion. As a student at Atelier Chardon Savard, I was experimenting with volumes, and the materials I based the pieces on could be hair, or CDs, etc. Today in my collections it’s more like Gogo dancer thongs that I’m putting together.
The world of fashion is sometimes archaic due to its hierarchies. It lacks irony. People take themselves too seriously – let’s not lie to ourselves – we’re not saving lives!
Basically, fashion is an everyday pleasure and a really important way of having fun. I’m not sticking to pre-defined styles – I prefer to imagine the Weinsanto woman jumping out of a hoodie and into a corset dress. I hope that some people find it fun to look at my runway shows or the images from my collections.
Colombe d'Humières, jewelry designer
Creating mechanisms to accept the boundless play of the imagination is the chief duty of the artist. The other side of the story is the work needed to circumvent the physical barriers which hinder experimentation. I’m referring to the conditions for accessing a suitable work environment that apply to all artists, regardless of discipline. When you rub up against institutional constraints which prevent you setting something up, they seem so severe that it can be very discouraging. I’m currently getting to grips with understanding those obstructive mechanisms, conditioned by cutural policies but also by an ideal of urban space which sketches out a vision of a clean, controlled city, filled with profitable start-ups in offices decked out with computers and not taking up too much space.
This organization of space – highly policed, shaped by power – prevents the development of artistic spaces which are the sine qua non of experimentation. Today, we have to occupy a position of resistance, remaining informed and thus equal to the task of negotiating with this reality.
This is a pressing matter, because with or without Covid-19, everyone should have a space where they can create and produce. Of course that’s utopian, but the act of production in and of it itself is reassuring. Something as simple as baking a cake is an example of making – an admirable act of realisation that helps people feel better.
I like huge, stupidly ambitious projects. With hindsight, some seem ill thought through to me, or motivated by what I now think were the wrong reasons. To be able to appreciate that I had to experiment and to discover that this condition helps me to conceptualise my process. Before, my creations seemed risky because of the aesthetic of my jewelry, which is sometimes difficult to wear. Today, I want to make higher quality pieces. For three months I’ve been soldering small chain links by hand: a pernickety job made possible by a new relationship to time. It’s a new experience of extravagance that is allowing me to see my practice in a different light.
Morna Larning, professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons Paris School of Fashion, author of Picturing the Woman-child (Bloomsbury, 2021)
In the context of my research in Fashion Studies, experimentation consists in bringing theory into dialogue with empirical experience. Take the example of the experiment which involved studying the different ways women look at fashion photography. I showed a selection of images to a group of female participants and gave them the opportunity to talk about what came to mind. In asking them open questions, in a relaxed atmosphere, I wanted to allow them to be free to express their thoughts with minimal self-censoring. These benign conditions allowed the participants to express themselves without fear of being judged, facilitating the emergence of new ideas. I like the metaphor of ideas as woodland creatures: ‘Treat one of them kindly and others will come’.
I try to teach in the same state of mind. I think a seminar is successful when we manage to construct knowledge collectively. The trick is to create a space where we can be whimsical enough to pursue lines of thinking that may lead nowhere, to make connections that at first sight may seem tenuous or improbable. It’s about having the freedom to waste time.
Fashion is based on novelty, which means that the system is especially well placed to respond to the kinds of changes we saw in 2020. If we are witnessing an acceleration of changes that were already underway, in terms of the growth of the digital and the decline of retail, we’ve also seen a new emphasis placed on social justice in the global media, as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. The increase in diversity is a reason to be hopeful, but it remains to be seen whether this will remain a long-term priority, given the system’s tendency to seek out novelty and change for its own sake.
I recently finished a long project on the representation of the ‘woman-child’ in British fashion magazines. A theme that came up in interviews I conducted was the idea of nostalgia for childhood. This does not necessarily correspond to a desire for youth, or for adolescent beauty; on the contrary, for some participants the idea of childhood represents a space to find ‘forgotten’ pleasures once more. Like reading stories just for pleasure or entertainment. I was fascinated, therefore, when I came across the June 2020 edition of Vogue Italia, dedicated to the theme of ‘Our New World’. This issue is filled with children’s drawings. Emanuele Farneti’s editorial describes children as being the least visible victims of the pandemic, given the loss of education and the psychological effects of this period, not to mention the socio-economic effects on the world our children will inhabit. I’m interested then in what the analytic separation between adulthood and childhood can tell us about where we have gone wrong in our thinking about the environment, sustainable development and social justice. And in what role, even a paradoxical one, magazines can play in offering us a broader vision of adulthood, one less linked to the neoliberal way of life.
Matthew Harding et Levi Palmer, artistic directors and founders of Palmer/Harding
Fashion has the ability to provoke and inspire conversation and story telling. Its experience, however, is ultimately obstructed by the limitations of functionality within each person’s needs. Necessity is the mother of invention and in uncertain times, the need to create can often inspire the most profound ideas.
2020 was a time to reflect on the reasoning behind our business and has provided an opportunity for us to re-focus on story telling and creativity. For instance, we have restructured our collection deliveries to allow more time for us to develop designs and we have also put a lot more emphasis on creative experimentation which is much more exciting and fun for us as designers. Of course its always risky to change methods that previously proved successful, but we think now more than ever it’s important to take risks as mindsets will have changed completely due to this past year’s experiences.
The idea of creation as action is vital. The gestures we have taken have been: more story telling through our designs and re-focusing on a narrative of creation that offers fashion that is not only beautiful but authentic and deep.
Marie-Christine Statz, founder and artistic director of Gauchère
I can imagine that physical and imaginary limits may differ for every individual in certain moments, but art and beauty are the aspects that help me to overcome challenging moments.
In these unusual times, looking at one thing at a time, listening to one sound at a time and allowing the experience to resonate was the key mood to me. The urge to connect with ourselves, with what is right in front and with nature is a sensation that I felt and found it was shared by my community. Developing the collection with limited resources, mobility and social distancing was defiantly challenging this year. The current situation pushes us to rethink and change our work methods and communication within the brand as well as with our partners.
Creative engagement is always present in my process. This year I was inspired by Doug Aitken’s installation ‘sonic pavilion’ with its more than 200 meter deep cavity that brings up continuous and constantly-changing live sounds of the earth that are rich in frequencies and textures.
The curved glass of the prism-like architecture creates an optical distortion that visually blurs everything except what is directly in front of the viewer. This living artwork is a space for introspection and deeply touched me.
This strong feeling of a common intrinsic concentration is translated into the Spring Summer 2021 collection. In order to bring this feeling to life during the runway, I invited John James to initiate a decompression ceremony – himself and the vibrations of his drums set the rhythm for this experience.
Gary Gill, Hair Stylist
I don't set limits on creativity. As long the beauty and taste level is still achieved there should be no limits.
With the current crisis state, I personally don’t feel it’s time for a creative process: it’s a time for survival.
As I see it we don’t know what lies ahead and I feel it’s time to consolidate. I have focused on keeping myself and my team safe.
I’m hoping 2021 will bring better things and I can plan a big creative project.
Otto Von Bush, design professor at Parsons New York
I think one of the fundamental questions to ask about fashion is how it comes that we love to dress up as children, as superheroes or villains, witches or knights, monsters or robots, and then in our teens we are all following the standards of dress. And most of us end up in jeans and a t-shirt. What happens along the way? What are the social mechanisms that take that experimental and adventurous spirit of dress out of us?
Fashion is related to emotions such as pride. These are emotions we often are not comfortable discussing - and perhaps this is also why we are uncomfortable talking about our choices of clothes. We realize that we are continuously judged, we are drawn into social games we have little control over, and we know, even though we are told we should not judge others by what they wear, we still do. The emotional depths of fashion are dark and troublesome. There is both pleasure and pain simmering under the surface of our clothes, if we take them seriously.
With the Covid lockdown many of the social occasions for which we dress up have been shut down. We do not go out for social events and we are not dressing up with the same sense of purpose as is common in more “normal” times. Many may be missing the opportunity to dress up, this simple everyday ritual of taking oneself seriously, presenting oneself as a public person, a person that a wants to be seen in a specific way, not staying home in pajamas. This social situation is what fashion normally thrives on: the desire to feel in control over one’s life.
Now, none of us have much control, and choosing new clothes only keeps up the illusion to a certain degree. If you cannot display them, and celebrate a moment of shared attention between people, there is not much use.
So many think this is a moment of reckoning for fashion. Well, it certainly is for the industry and on the economic side of things (the global injustices of cancelled orders, shutting stores, cancelled events etc.). If we are lucky, perhaps people can use the moment to also reflect about what pleasures of dress they miss? Perhaps it can help us also think about how to amplify what fashion is actually good for - how it energizes social relations, how it offers a sense of control over one’s life, how it may help us with social mobility and the pleasures of the everyday masquerade. If we are to reconstruct the fashion system, what have we learned on an emotional level from the current events? How do we make sure we sustain the right emotional possibilities of fashion as we try to reform the industry towards a more sustainable future?
Creation is a wellspring of life. It brings a sense of vitality and control into one’s everyday. This can be everything from art to just mixing ready-to-wear clothes in a way that I feel reflects how I want to be seen. Like creating ones own playlist, pretending to be a DJ for a moment, it offers a sense of artistic pleasure, mixing things according to one’s mood. But perhaps more excitingly, creating happens also in transgressions, in the unexpected and when breaking boundaries, getting into contested or “forbidden” territory. This also happens in dress: it can be a radical change or wardrobe and twisting norms, but it can also be small changes, such as having mixed socks or an unexpected tie. It adds an adventure to the everyday, a pleasure of playing with the expectations of others, but also revealing another aspect of oneself, breaking out of the shell that slowly forms around oneself.
Here, fashion is innocent, we seldom break the law by dressing in new ways, but by fusing the act onto our skin, in clothes, it becomes very powerful. We become shape-shifters, and it can feel like almost magical transformations, revealing or forming a self we did not know was there.
Once again, I think if fashion designers and brands took the emotional depths of fashion more seriously, we could rethink the fashion system far beyond the current industrial model. We can think of fashion designers less as artists or engineers, and more like therapists, coaches, doctors, illusionists, magicians, shamans - we have so much to learn! And also, rephrasing fashion from being a product or image to an energy or emotional affect also opens new questions for sustainability: it is no longer only about “fixing” products to be less harmful, but to rethink what fashion does in our social and emotional lives! We would need to rethink services, business models, production and consumption to search for much deeper and meaningful engagements with dress: what I have called “Deep Fashion.” It can be a whole new world opening in relation to dress. I suggest we go there and explore.
Mats Rombaut, founder and artistic director of Rombaut and Virón
Fashion experience is different for everyone. There are so many physical, logistical, organizational, economical limitations when making ‘real products’, especially if you’re trying to innovate.
We are moving towards more digitalisation where a lot of these limitations then become irrelevant. So if you want to wear a 3D garment to post on social media, and this digital fashion experience satisfies you, that’s great because you’re not polluting much. However I don’t think many people are ready to pay for this yet. And if the public doesn’t pay, the 3D-artists are not getting paid. However, maybe this is the sphere were ‘fashion as an artform’ has been pushed into.
In the physical world, fashion became so mainstream that it’s all about marketing, automation and margins. It’s a formula with little room for experimentation (as time is money). I’m also speaking from a personal experience: we are a company of ten now, with more responsibilities and bills, so there is less time for experimentation as before. Everything needs to sell and it’s a pity.
As for the ‘physical fashion experience’ I think it’ll take some time to wean ourselves off our ‘physical fashion’ addiction. We are still wired to hoard stuff and to be seen in fashion gatherings. Once it becomes more of a status symbol to buy digital clothes, more people will do it.
2020 offered a good time for risk taking. I launched a new brand – Virón - in September and it’s doing very well! If the concept is great and the time is right, you just have to jump.
Overall 2020 was a time of introspection for everyone. I realised I was doing too many things -CEO, creative director, office manager, accountant and cleaner at the same time… For me it hasn’t been the most creative period, just a time to realize what I was getting myself into, that Rombaut needs to become a business and not just a succession of ideas, and how to re-structure before crashing and burning.
I'd love to take more action on a creative level. I love a good crossover, for example between fashion, art and politics.