The Fashion of Relations

from the Reign of Visibility to the Realm of Possibilities

For several years now, academic programmes in Fashion Studies have offered an increasingly diverse variety of teachings on the most abstract and conceptual aspects of fashion. There are courses that dissect its imaginary, analyse its iconography, study the psycho-sociology or semiotics of clothing, or explore the emerging practice of fashion curating to explore the controversial subject of the cultural and industrial death of fashion itself.

As though the mere materiality of the garment were no longer a concern for fashion intellectuals today, more and more publications in this field appear to reflect this shift, such as the illuminating Critical Fashion Practice (Geczy and Karaminas), which analyses the work of the most openly conceptual fashion designers of recent decades, or Fashion Tales (Mora and Pedroni), which discusses the potential for fashion to produce collective cultural narratives. This double tendency in academia and in publishing other is not that the reflex of radical mutations happened in the fashion imaginary over the last two centuries.

Following the birth of modern fashion with the arrival of the haute couture during the nineteenth century, the garment’s cultural status has become increasingly complex, shifting from an exceptional artisanal product to a cultural artefact, the identitarian significations and social and aesthetic meanings of which carry greater importance than its physical characteristics. As the Dutch researcher Femke de Vries (also a contributor to the conference Searching for the New Luxury, where the research at the origin of this paper was presented) has recently argued, in contemporary society, fashion presents itself as a complex entity capable of producing multi-dimensional value (De Vries): from the commercial dimension of the ‘product value’, to the individualizing dimension of personal and collective ‘identity value’, and not forgetting the dimension of ‘appearance’ that fashion has transformed into an essential communicational interface in our highly aestheticized society.

Amongst the most inspiring studies on contemporary fashion, Thinking Through Fashion by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik deserves special attention. Beyond offering a theoretical reading of the main themes that have nourished fashion culture over the last 30 years, this book demonstrates that most contemporary clothing production has the primary effect of connecting us to experiences that we would otherwise not have had. According to Rocamora and Smelik, fashion can be viewed as a relational agent that enables us to alter our perception of reality and apprehend the body, space, and people around us.

Art masters including Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Horn can be considered pioneers in these experimental speculations through clothing. Nonetheless, it is only since artists began to analyse pop-culture through an artistic lens (as Andy Warhol did) that these explorations have acquired direct relevance for fashion, due to its hybrid status between art and commerce.

The artist, performer, clothing designer, and club-kid Leigh Bowery (1961-1994) embodied this emerging profile. When designing outfits for his performances in art venues or clubs, he aimed to distort sensorial perception rather than enhance it. Through proprioceptive displacement (many of his outfits were designed to block one or more senses, or they constrained parts of the body as if flesh could be sculpted) and a radical alteration of bodily appearance (through prosthetic dysmorphic body-members, or oversized body parts), he demonstrates the social capacity of fashion to rewrite the codes of our presence in the world. Where is the boundary between beauty and taboo, between fashion and the self, or between the human and the unhuman? Through raising these unanswerable questions, Bowery’s work provocatively suggests that there are no such boundaries.

Although he developed his work between some of the most renowned London art institutions and the unofficiality of the club scene, Bowery was not exactly considered a player on the fashion market and is primarily remembered as an artist. His approach to clothing and the body would be even better framed in terms of the “relational aesthetics” that Nicolas Bourriaud recently theorized (Bourriaud Esthétique relationnelle)— that is to say, characteristic of artists aiming to transform individuals’ connection to their living context rather than producing material artworks.

There are traces of Bowery’s influence in the work of ready-to-wear fashion designers attesting to, amongst other phenomena, the overlapping problematics between fashion and art. Specifically, Hussein Chalayan became known in the 90s for his vision of fashion as a tool to define the elaboration of human identity. For example, in his video and installation project Place to Passage (2003), the garment is “metaphorised” by a spatio-temporal vessel likely to accompany the female character during her inner metamorphoses as well as in her physical movements from Istanbul to London—two important cities for the designer, the former symbolizing his mother-culture and the latter the culture he currently lives in—syncretically determining multiple forms of displacement: spatial, socio-cultural, political, and emotional. These aspects are also central to contemporary art speculation regarding the erratic nature of both identity and aesthetics in our ‘altermodern times’, in which the fragmentation of the self and the multiplication of experiential opportunities lead individuals to perceive their being as mobile, unstable, and in progress as a life-long itinerant journey (Abruzzese; Bourriaud Radicant).

The echo of Bowery and Chalayan’s research is also visible in the work of other contemporary designers such as Rick Owens. A recurrent theme within his approach to clothing is our relationship to otherness, understood as much as that which can be found within ourselves (one’s dark side or the unpredictable aspects of personality) as that derived from a ‘humanoid’ rather than ‘human’ physical appearance. Owens pushed his statement as far as a provocative reconfiguration of the relation to the other, whose body was literally used as a fashion accessory on models’ outfits in his 2016 spring-summer show.

In addition to the question of identity, the number of fashion designers involved in reviewing the codes of representation and gender construction today could not be greater. As one of the least known and most original designers, the Jordanian-Canadian Rad Hourani, based between Montreal and New York, chooses the axis of ‘neutrality’, which is investigated as an aspect inherent to the human species, to determine both the emergence of our gender traits and our interpersonal relationships of seduction and communication (Geczy and Karaminas). In Hourani’s vision, neutrality is what all humans have in common. It is a starting point from which one can relate to specific experiences that ultimately determine differences and appearances which define us as individuals. Indeed, these are not intrinsic to human nature and remain superficial occurrences.

The gradual extension of fashion discourse to such existential issues is likely the consequence of its social role in collective taste formation. In contemporary culture, every aspect of life seems to fall under the influence of a diffuse aesthetics (Mecacci) in which every object or human production is ostensibly designed to communicate a certain content and appearance that is anything but superficial. Through his research on the shop window and the artistic display, De Stijl artist and theorician Frederick Kiesler became aware nearly a century ago of the pivotal role appearance would soon play in modern society as its sole possible “essence”.[1] The emerging research field of everyday aesthetics studies posits that appearance can be considered the only possible form of essence left to us (Matteucci). Although it may seem ephemeral, in contemporary urbanized societies, appearance shapes individual self-construction, organises our self-perception and psychology, and determines the roles we can or cannot play in social life. In this context, the ‘feeling of being oneself’ also has a relational nature. The ‘feeling of being oneself’ is not only elaborated through continuous intersubjective practices (amongst individuals, and between individuals and their surrounding artefacts) which are made of deeply socialized gazes and exchanges; these continuous intersubjective practices constitute the very condition of its existence. Out of this relational play the bare existence of the contemporary self is hardly imaginable (Iannilli).

The conception of the contemporary sense of being as diffused and inherently rooted in environmental aesthetics also sheds light on the reasons for the significant role fashion exhibitions increasingly play in both the culture and the economy of museums worldwide. It is only in the exhibition that the aesthetic scope of contemporary fashion considered above can be displayed and studied in its material, visual, conceptual, sensory, and emotional aspects (Marchetti). This is true for both exhibitions in artistic contexts and for exhibitions taking place in stores and other commercial spaces. Even when exhibitions are presented as non-profit initiatives, they sketch in situ an aesthetic frame within which products for sale acquire cultural relevance and—finally—monetary value (Coccia and Grau 44).

Due to the semiotic function (of producing and organizing meaning) based on the ostensive mode of communication that fashion and the exhibition have in common, both meet the definition of ‘apparatus’ given by Giorgio Agamben after Deleuze and Foucault[2]: “anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings” (Agamben 14; my translation). This point is particularly relevant since, following this perspective, garments, accessories, or any other fashionable accoutrement as well as the exhibition itself function as ‘relational machines’. While the former fashion-related aspects condition the perceptive and affective status of individuals, the exhibition conditions the public’s presence in the spatio-temporal environment defined by their visit, as the art critic Emanuele Quinz reminds us.  The fashion exhibition Dysfashional, co-curated by Quinz and me from 2007 and 2011,[3] is a clear illustration of this principle. Conceived as relational machine, it featured ‘open artworks’—some of which were interactive—the content of which could only be derived from the multiple, perpetually renewed relationships the visitors establish with and between themselves during their visit.

Exhibition Dysfashional

Seen as an aesthetic apparatus, the exhibition more generally represents the most accomplished form of embodiment of fashion’s capacity to consolidate the relationships we need to establish to our surrounding environment (be it physical, spatial, or symbolic) on a daily basis. Thus, the appearance of numerous foundations in the name of large luxury houses[4] presenting museum-like programmes straddling fashion and the arts comes as no surprise. Even when such initiatives present programmes that aren’t directly devoted to fashion, they still qualify the brand’s commercial offer through indirect and symbolic relationships with the brand-specific world vision they project across art.

Among non-fashion art projects initiated in the field of luxury, the Fondazione Prada in Milan has perhaps most radically interpreted the relational nature of a contemporary fashion brand, beginning with the conception of its headquarters. Rather than merely creating ‘a building’, the Fondazione chose a more fragmented option, consisting of a series of micro and marco pre-existing structures, sewn to each other by minor interventions such as bridges, tunnels, or inclined ramps. Considering the prism of its programming, the form of the Fondazione works like an architectural mirror of its artistic content which is also meant as ‘relational’. While the architect of the project, Rem Koolhaas, strives to organize a network of independent locations connected to each other by fitting joints, the artistic directors of the project imagined a programme based mainly on collaborative projects, performances, participatory activities, and original commissions, where the role of the traditional exhibition, intended as a curated selection of material artworks, is less relevant than the polymorphic relationships established between invited artists, the public, and the creative genres themselves.

An interesting counterpart to this choice is the Louis Vuitton Foundation of Paris, opened in 2014 in the monumental building designed by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne. Contrary to the exploded configuration of the Milanese project developed in total continuity with the texture of the city, the Parisian foundation stands out in its environment by a rupture effect, as a monolithic object placed in the landscape to be contemplated. Interestingly, the programming of the institution also follows an objectual logic based on artworks exhibited in its interior landscape.

© Iwan Baan / Fondation Louis Vuitton

With the purpose of understanding the impact of such initiatives on brand identity, we can easily recognize here the same relationship between a non-superficial surface and essence previously discussed regarding individual identity. Assuming these brands’ art foundations and commercial productions are emanations of their brand vision, this hypothesis would lead one to seek the brand-value of Louis Vuitton in its prioritization of the product and its appearance, and that of Prada in its focus on an broader aesthetic resulting from a relational bricolage of remarkably diverse materials. According to a comparative analysis of Louis Vuitton and Prada’s websites, this conception seems rather realistic. Louis Vuitton’s website homepage includes a lexicon addressing manual fabrication (savoir faire), latest product collections (les parfums pour la maison), and the physical sites where these are fabricated (la maison, Asnières), focusing on craftsmanship and their material artisanal heritage. Conversely, by stimulating the visitor’s curiosity through contents that are not immediately obvious (Pradamalia, Scopri di più, “special projects”), Prada introduces itself via the more imaginative ‘Pradasphere’,[5] in which the notion of the ‘sphere’ refers to complex cultural environments such as the ‘biosphere’, the ‘blogosphere’’, or the ’semiosphere’, in which the interconnections amongst the different components solely guarantee the cohesion and coherence of the whole.

A more extended inquiry shows how, far from being anecdotic, the relational logic proposed by the Fondazione Prada is intrinsically inscribed within Prada’s brand equity. I recently had the opportunity to analyse (Marchetti and Segre-Reinach) a similar relational approach, which also defined the brand’s flagship store in New York, which was ambitiously announced as the brand’s ‘vision manifesto’ following its opening. The flagship store includes a number of technological devices created by the design studio Industrial Facility, such as various projection screens, plasma screens, intelligent labels and changing rooms, terminals for getting personalised product information, and a tactile interactive ‘Prada atlas’’. These elements were explicitly developed to support the “relationships between the environment and the individuals, the product and the tables, the chairs, the building and even with the surrounding city” (Colin and Hecht 88). The store itself was conceived as a hybrid “augmented space” (Manovich), in which layers of virtual digitalized information are superimposed (thanks to technological tools) on visual (colours, images, texts) and material contents (the products and the interior design components) within which visitors could experiment in a close network on relations and playful interactions. The Prada augmented store “no longer presents the products of the brand, but its fashion [imaginary], broadly speaking, as a ‘way of relating’ to oneself, to how one feels, to clothing, image, the experiential context of the store and—by extension—the world” (Marchetti and Segre-Reinach 84-103).

Although the relational orientation of the fashion imaginary may seem surprising due to its immateriality and somewhat abstract language, this phenomenon seems logical following the interpretation of contemporary culture suggested by the New York-based artist and brand strategist Lucas Mascatello.[6] In an article published on the SSENSE editorial platform outside of any academic context, he applies the notion of ‘aposematism’—the strategy that allows living organisms to adapt to their surroundings by emitting relational signals for their peers—to fashion. Fashion, the expression of individuality par excellence, would then be used by individuals to put in logical relation the overabundance of identitarian stimuli conveyed by the environment in which they live to maximize the possibilities of being understood and to establish relationships with the context of their lives. In addition to the author’s analogy between sartorial culture and the biological nature of living organisms, the main source of originality in the article lies in Mascatello’s anti-social reading of aposematic fashion. In this sense, by inducing multiple deformations of the appearance, it would succeed in de-identifying individuals rather than forging an identity for them. While these assumptions remain debatable, as they are yet to be supported by specific research, a rising tension between identitarian phenomena (e.g., the public debate on cultural appropriation) and the claim for a higher degree of privacy—and in some cases of ‘social invisibility’—seems inherent to contemporary culture and the meaning of contemporary fashion (e.g., ‘normcore’ street style or the genderless trend).

Regarding the reflection on such tensions through fashion design, artist and designer Ying Gao presented a project in 2017 named ‘Possible Tomorrows’,[7] which addresses the issue of identity construction not as a fortuitous opportunity but rather as a threat of exclusion. The piece is made of two robotized garments connected to a fingerprint recognition system, which only becomes animated by unrecognized fingerprints. The garments are not made of fabric but of curved patterns comprised of unwoven threads, evoking the visual appearance of fingerprints. If these symbolize an individual identity that is not recognized as such, the unwoven threads convey the impossibility of constructing a viable social texture based on the notions of security and identity that the installation puts into question. ‘Possible Tomorrows’ seemingly confirms that neither the security promise nor the identity claim can guarantee the integration of each into a community. On the contrary, it is from the opening to all ‘possibles’ and by relating to ‘alterities’ that individuals can expect to build their tomorrow.

Possible tomorrows : interactive clothing with fingerprint recognition technology from ying gao on Vimeo.

Gao’s project echoes other studies of identity within the social body, from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler,[8] leaving us with the responsibility of deciding between the notion of identity as coercion and the idea of ​​availability to otherness as a guarantee of identitarian freedom. This ambivalence extends the focus of this brief analysis to the context of culture as a whole, where the relational approach that clothing helps to establish in the world may shape the near future of the entire fashion universe.

Fashion has built its own social language on ostentation, which is defined by the opposition between ‘showing’ and ‘hiding’. As mentioned above, this logic is typical of the exhibition space, with both the social exposition of the self and the artistic one of the gallery space. Similar to what occurs in the art gallery, fashion offers the public specific visual and material elements woven into a storytelling, conveying aesthetic and identitarian contents. While the image of the gallery may faithfully represent the functioning of modern fashion, it does not fully illustrate what happens in the contemporary fashion system. For this purpose, the image of the ‘playground’ would be a preferable analogy since here, the visible and material elements acquire content only once they are incorporated into the performative acts of the ‘players’. While modern fashion has grown in terms of visibility, relational fashion evolves in the realm of possibility and makes sense only through the weaving of relationships established within a given context.[9]

If design—and, therefore, fashion—is the skin of the culture, as stated by Derrick de Kerckhove more than two decades ago, then, in the culture of tomorrow that we are already building, the need to establish relationships between the innumerable diversities that the globalized world generates appears more as a necessity rather than as an opportunity. Relational fashion will play a major role in dressing the future in all its possibilities.

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Footnotes

[1] Quoted and discussed by Coccia and Grau (42).

[2] In the languages used by the quoted authors, ‘apparatus’ is translated as dispositivo (in Italian), or dispositif (in French).

[3] Luxembourg Capitale Européenne de la Culture 2007; La Rotonde, 21 April – 27 May 2007; MUDAC, Lausanne, 11 March – 8 June 2008; Passage du Désir, Paris, 29 October – 29 November 2009 ; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 24 June – 18 July 2009; Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, 12 November – 5 December 2010; National Gallery of Modern Art, Jakarta, 8 – 30 May 2011.

[4] Which haven’t ceased to multiply on the five continents since the creation of the Parisian Fondation Cartier in 1984 (www.fondationcartier.com).

[5] See https://www.prada.com/it/en.html

[6] “Aposématisme: la stratégie adaptative et antisociale de la mode”, SSENSE, September 2018, https://www.ssense.com/fr-ca/editorial/mode/aposematism-fashions-antisocial-adaptations?utm_source=ssense&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=magazine&utm_term=fr_aposematism_m_18_09_14.

[7] The video of which was also visible in the exhibition Searching for the New Luxury in Arnhem (cur. José Teunissen, De Melkfabriek, Arnhem, 1 June – 22 July 2018).

[8] For a concise and fashion-related review of the ideas on identity by these two fundamental thinkers, refer to “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic” by Jane Tynan (Rocamora and Smelik 2016, pp.184-199) and “Judith Butler: Fashion and Performativity” by Elizabeth Wissinger (ibid., pp. 285-299).

[9] I had the opportunity to develop this suggestion more in detail, basing my hypothesis on the generative semiotic model applied to fashion spaces such as exhibitions in museums or galleries up to fashion stores by Algidras-Julien Greimas. The analysed corpus was read according to the opposition between spaces of seeing and spaces of happening in which meaning can only emerge through the performative cooperation of playing visitors (“Meaning through Space: A Cross-Reading of Fashion Exhibitions and Stores”, Semiofest 2017 conference, 19 – 23 July 2017, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto, CA).