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Sculptural Objects

By Minami Furukawa

Philip Treacy

“High fashion”, or, in fancier terms, “Haute Couture” is most commonly associated by the likes of us regular folk in terms of extravagant, impractical garments.  Designers such as Alexander McQueen  (designing many of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe), Philip Treacy, and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo are a few of the better known examples of this artform.  These clothes express the designer’s creativity, concept, and technical skill in a mode that allows for freedom of expression.  In fact, these couture runway shows could more easily be understood as the equivalent of an art showing, rather than in terms of commercial advertising/preview; these garments are conceptual, and sculptural—moreso visual objects(vehicle for creative display) rather than utilitized objects for the everyday person (much like gallery art—meant more for the fellow artist rather than for one outside of the art scene, no?).

The stress in these garments is strictly visual—reflections of architecture and other forms that drive their concept (shape and theory), focus and stress of the manipulation of the body’s movement which displays the work, as well as the movement of the fabric itself as it works its way across the runway.

Cat Chow

Here in Chicago, the School of the Art Institute’s fashion programs in both undergrad and graduate divisions encourage the development of conceptual fashion design.  As one of the only art schools in the U.S. that heavily encourages and nurtures idea development and experimentation over technical skill and commercialism throughout all of its departments, the garments presented in the school’s annual fashion show are almost never “wearable”—most garments are oversized, stiff, sculptural, and hard to walk in—but rather succeed in provoking thought and a fresh way of experiencing visual art.  After experiencing such intriguing and “different” designs as these, the average commercialized fashion show tends to become a bit ordinary and drab. SAIC’s fashion program is modeled after the world-renowned fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.  Just visit their website, and you will see the sculptural quality of all of the students’ work; globular sleeves, layered and draped shapes protruding off of the body, obscured vision, stiff fabrics.  The key here is not comfort, but artistic representation.

Nick Cave Soundsuits

A few examples of these designers combining art and fashion are present in Chicago; Cat Chow’s “January” is a circle skirt that employs sculptural elements hung flat against the wall.  Presented in this way, the emphasis is not on the garment as a worn material, but as an object of art itself—to be looked at and considered.  Nick Cave stresses shape and imagination by creating garments out of curious materials while also employing performative aspects (Soundsuits) with excessive shape and embellishment.  The blocky, stifling shape of these suits would make for an impossible article of practical clothing—the wearer is unable to bend their limbs without difficulty, while all sensory qualities are obscured and confined.   The Semi-annual “Fleurotica” at the Garfield Park Conservatory is another example of this idea as a runway event employing various Chicago designers to display designs made from flowers and plants.

Issey Miyake

Within the world, contemporary Japanese designers are often regarded when spotlighting the sculptural designs.  Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe, and Tao Kurihara display architectural angles, edges, and curves within their clothes, reflective of architecture.  Bumps and cuts in the fabric create unnatural shapes, begging for closer inspection.  Aforementioned Alexander McQueen of the UK characterizes femininity through over exaggerated elegance; swooping shapes, huge bell curves, and delicate materials that subtly move with the body.  Lastly, one of my personal favorites, Philip Treacy, the hat designer from the UK.  His hats created for friend Isabella Blow are extremely impractical: giant boat and castle structures– heavy and probably unstable, representations of Andy Warhol’s commercial imagery in incredibly non-commercial headwear pieces, spiky pieces suggesting discomfort, and dramatic shapes obscuring vision.  All of these garments emphasize form and the imaginative with little regard for usefulness.

Though it is inspiring to see designers display their artistic vision, it is only because of their already-developed success that they are able to enjoy this sort of freedom.  Within my time spent in SAIC’s fashion department, it was troubling to me that I was being encouraged to focus on a form of clothing design that would not reach, nor be understood by the general public.  Couture fashion is interesting and exciting—however, without having the name of a well-established designer to work under, these works would remain under the radar, and only be enjoyed by the small community which stays tuned into such events (even the self-proclaimed fashion officienado in regular culture would not find conceptual fashion appealing unless they had spent enough time with it to appreciate its idea).  For me, this segregation only establishes the divide between art and its lack of invitation to the average Joe.  I did not want to be an “artist”, but someone who could make things that everyone could enjoy.  Famous designers are able to do this by offering both useful, as well as artistic forms of the same thing…if only visual artists could find a satisfying way to do this as well.