Comme des Garcons by Paolo Roversi (source)
"There's no such thing as bad taste. Just different."
This is fashion designer Christopher Kane quoting Louise Wilson, the formidable and influential former head of the Central Saint Martins' MA fashion course - from 1992 to 2014 - who passed away in May of this year at age 52. Along with Kane, Wilson shaped much of today's most influential talent, including Alexander McQueen, Sophia Kokosalaki, Peter Jensen, Emma Cook, Simone Rocha, Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda Ilincic, Marios Schwab, Jonathan Saunders, Eley Kishimoto, Jens Laugesen, Bora Aksu, Marios Schwab, Basso & Brooke, Lanvin's Alber Elbaz and Phoebe Philo. (image)
The fact that over 90% of her graduates were employed immediately upon leaving the safety of school is testament to what Kane calls her "magic inbuilt radar for talent." But it takes more than just talent and hard work to make the kind of mark Wilson's chosen have.
In a letter to playwright Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev penned in 1889, Chekhov famously advised: One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. So it is with these designers: they set a sartorial stage that contains a rifle that we all know is loaded. As we wait for it to get fired - and remember: this is a posse of designers that deliver on their promises - the tension builds. And where are they finding tension in a world drowning in 3D-print-on-demand beauty?
In the ugly. "Offering something that is, even in fashion terms, a little skewed or off, is dangerous," observes fashion writer Ana Kinsella about the deliberately unsightly designs of Christopher Kane (like this sweater from F'14). "But volatility and forced ugliness alone mightn’t be enough to generate the kind of hype and sales that Kane is capable of. So maybe we’re not talking about straightforward ugly, like the chintz curtains of the deeply passé café at the end of your street that you’ve never stopped into (its ugliness means it doesn’t even register on your radar). What designers like Kane...are most adept at is the false ugly."
False because beneath the homely exterior beats the heart of something extremely comely. The faux ugly, says Kinsella, is a way of dealing with what Freud dubbed uncanny or unheimlich, "that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight." When that which should remain hidden comes to light, we recognize it as uncanny.
"What Freud is getting at," continues Kinsella, "is that notion of contrasting layers, the cognitive unease we can feel when approaching that which is both one thing and its opposite at the same time." The way nothing is 100% ugly or even 100% pretty, for that matter; both contain elements of the other. The lingering question, of course, is how much of each. "The real draw lies in the margins, that space between certainties, which gives us pause and maybe forces us to look again." Which, in a world of fashion that is hellbent on being fast-faster-fastest, should be applauded. And not called rude names, like Quasimodo or the no less judgey Lumps and Bumps, a thought-provoking and visually striking collection Rei Kawakubo herself called Dress to Body when she designed it for her Comme des Garcons label in the mid-90s. (image)
However, unearthing and examining that which we otherwise would prefer kept safely out of sight does more than just give us pause to smell the fashion roses. No, the mission is more vital. More meta. It's a charming way, I think, of defanging monsters that flourish in the darkness of our willed ignorance and thrive on shit. And like so many mushrooms, they're poison. Letting these toxic fungi continue to grow on the soil tilled by looking the other way is a luxury we can no longer afford. If nothing else, there are too many mushroom-monsters that, if left ignored, threaten to destroy our climate, our social bonds, us. Instead, the faux-ugly, or better, Fauxgly(!) is like a hazmat suit that makes it possible to handle the otherwise untouchable.
Handling the unhandleable is what the Apocalytical fashion tribe* specializes in. Unlike the Folkspun tribe and their role as keepers of memory, the Supremium tribe which is busy shopping its well-heeled way through the Endtimes and the Futurenetic tribe which is dreaming of ways that technology can save us, the Apocalyticals like to brawl. With bogeymen. "Monsters are encapsulations of the human feeling of vulnerability—the monster stories offer us the "disease" of vulnerability and its possible "cures" (in the form of heroes and coping strategies)," notes Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press, 2009) And although they're scary, few monster stories remain indefinitely in the threat phase. When the fear hits a fever pitch, the story then shifts to the hero phase. "By showing us examples of dignity and depravity without preaching or proselytizing, good monster stories can transmit moral truths to us," continues Asma. "In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling."
*NOTE: IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT EACH FASHION TRIBE, START HERE.
(Lee McQueen and stylist Isabella Blow famously smoke out some dreaded demons in Vanity Fair - photograph by David LaChapelle - source)
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott
(image of Uncanny Valley - source)