Custom Evolution

Can fashion create a better future? A new show surveys the inspiring possibilities that emerge when creativity and technology join forces.


The past few years have been rich in fashion-based exhibitions: from the sell-out Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty (2015) and the comprehensive and prescient David Bowie Is (2013) at the V&A, to The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Barbican (2014) and Dries van Noten: Inspirations (2014) at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. The popularity of these shows demonstrates an entrenched interest in high-end fashion and its increasing accessibility. Utopian Bodies, an exhibition of over 200 objects, images, and videos at Stockholm’s Liljevalchs konsthall, explores both the wide-reaching appeal of fashion and its future. Technology has facilitated new methods of production, such as 3D printing, as well as new ways of incorporating such advances into the garment itself. Complemented by an emphasis on sustainability and craft, the interdisciplinary nature of fashion and design is presented through 11 specific themes set by curators Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov.

Hedman and Martynov have worked together for several years, a partnership which has garnered them scholarships and awards. Their understanding of the most prominent and innovative designers of the day is reflected in the wide range of artists included in Utopian Bodies. From films directed by Nick Knight/SHOWstudio to Viktor & Rolf’s Hana Bedtime Story ensemble from 2005, to Issey Miyake’s zero-waste King & Queen installation from the Spring/Summer 1999 A-POC collection, the featured work is impressive and engaging.

The themes of the exhibition cover every conceivable aspect of design, save for perhaps functionality: Sustainability, Change, Technology, Craft & Form, Craft & Colour, Resistance & Beauty, Solidarity, Memory, Gender Identity, and Love. Certain designs that are allocated to one theme could very easily translate into another. Hedman describes Love as an engagement with the senses: “Sonia Rykiel’s delicate, ostrich-inspired dress reveals the soft, dreamy look that has historically been associated with romanticism, while Lucy McRae’s swallowable perfume suggests a new, biological future for fragrance. When the viewer approaches H&M’s interactive dress, its audible heartbeat begins to beat a little faster, bestowing upon it an almost human temperament.” McRae’s perfume and H&M’s dress could very easily be exhibited in Change or Technology; fashion is a multidisciplinary, changing art form, and this exhibition “aims to inspire visitors to search for their vision of the future.”

Hedman and Martynov by no means shy away from selecting designs that confront the less-than-utopian present, or past. Walter van Beirendonck’s Stop Racism headdress (Crossed Crocodiles Autumn/Winter 2014), caused a stir when first exhibited at Paris Fashion week, with most critics reflecting on it as a response to the American Indian headdresses shown at the Chanel pre-fall show a few months before. Van Beirendonck says he was inspired by traditional garments from Papua New Guinea, and he denies that they were a response to the Chanel show, despite his famously political and socially engaged stance. Hedman describes van Beirendonck’s designs as “a brilliant example of fashion that can make a di erence. His work often tackles complex issues such as AIDS, religion, mass-consumerism, environment and capitalism. While his undertones are very serious, he uses wit and humour to open up the audience.” The use of fashion and design to educate is exempli ed in the designs of Maja Gunn. One of the 16 Swedish designers commissioned for Utopian Bodies, Gunn produced a number of prosthetic breasts for the audience to try on. Her work is strongly entrenched in gender and sexual politics, and she describes her participatory commission as: “The corporeal experience creating memories that are archived in our bodies. If we allow ourselves to try things out, dress up, transform and experiment, we create possibilities for change. Perhaps there is no change the first time, nor the second, but through repetition, we can feel, experience and see things differently.” Previous bodies of work, such as Collection L, took as their basis a group of bisexual and homosexual women. After lengthy discussions with the women, Gunn made designs specific to each person. A visual interpretation of their individual personality, her work explores the very idea of “identity” and how ultimately it is a performed aesthetic. Designers’ attempts to go beyond the purely aesthetic in engaging with important issues are often misconstrued:

Alexander McQueen is a key example. His Highland Rape collection of 1995, its very language reflecting on violence against women, featured (in the words of the Independent’s Joan Smith), “models tottering along the catwalk in ripped dresses, looking like blood-stained rape victims.” The question remains as to whether it was a critique or a glamorisation of violence, one that will stay unanswered. McQueen’s work features strongly in the exhibition, with pieces from one of the world’s largest private collections on show. Included is a dress from his final Angels and Demons collection (Autumn/Winter 2010), which was completed by Sarah Burton after his passing. Despite the controversy surrounding his designs, McQueen has left an enduring impression on the collective imagination of art and fashion.

Technological experimentation has become a dominant blueprint for avant-garde fashion. From the t-shirt designs of CuteCircuit, which enable wearers to send hugs via a mobile app, to BeAnotherLabs’ virtual reality technology, there appears to be a shift away from handmade and craft based techniques. Hedman argues that one does not necessarily exclude the other: “We live in a post-digital time, where one can harness the machine and combine it with the power of human creativity and craft.” Iris van Herpen, currently the focus of a retrospective at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, is perhaps best known for her use of 3D printing, but her work integrates couture techniques, marrying the old with the new.

The merging of the futuristic with the traditional heralds a new era in fashion, and the collaborations between Dutch designer Jolan van der Wiel and van Herpen exemplify this. Magnetically grown dresses and shoes, a collision of physics and fashion, bewilder the audience: the spiky pieces of resin that shoot out of the surface of the shoe appear dangerous: in reality, they are soft and forgiving to the touch. For the shoes, van der Wiel takes a base, shapes a mixture of resin with iron filings around it and then, before the soft material sets, takes strong magnets and pulls the material out into vertiginous spikes. The heels show a direct merging of science with fashion, seen also in the designs of byBorre’s BBsuit O.2, which cleans air through a portable ltration system.

The world is dominated by consumerism and technological advances, yet is becoming nostalgic for this very reason. There is a sense of trepidation, because of our increasingly fragmented, intangible records of the past: most photographs are digital, existing in a sphere only accessible via our phones or computers. Hedman and Martynov recognise this, and in Memory, they asked well-known figures such as Hamish Bowles, European editor of American Vogue, and Twiggy to write a short text describing their most treasured garments. Hedman states: “We wanted the audience to also think, albeit in a different way, about their relationship to their possessions and consumption.” Memory can be a powerful thing, overriding the aesthetic or monetary value of a garment or object. Hedman argues that though technology may have brought us to this stage of mass over-production, it is the very thing to bring us back: “Interdisciplinary collaborations between designers, engineers and scientists are the keys to solving many of the problems we face today.”

Swedish designer Bea Szenfeld is known for her experimentation with unusual fabrics and contexts. Her designs are the antithesis of mass-production: the uniquely sculpted garments made from paper are both fragile and distinctly irreplaceable. Szenfeld has been working with paper as a material for a number of years, despite its difficulties: “I think it’s a wonderful and important challenge that the paper has its own will. I can’t think of any other material with which I can create such unique things.” Specially commissioned for Utopian Bodies, she created Mini Miki (2015), which can only be described as a number of lifeless paper bodies hanging down from the mannequin’s neck, almost like a multi-limbed, descending slinky. A continuation of a project about the grief of losing a child (commissioned through the Swedish Church), and following on from her Haute Papier collection of 2014, Mini Miki consists of 13 paper dolls, made entirely by hand, hanging from a fake-fur collar. Included in Resistance & Beauty, Szenfeld’s designs could easily feature across several other themes, but as Hedman explains: “The paper babies come to form a re-imagined fur coat. Objects are displaced and things inverted. This piece can be seen as a comment on the fur industry.”

The many political and social issues raised by designers in the exhibition are staggering. This Is Sweden, a collaborative project between two Colombian-born siblings, takes a very timely theme – immigration – as its subject. In Hedman’s words: “This Is Sweden’s work is a protest against the way many people rank each other’s human dignity by colour, culture and origin. Their work asks ‘How can human life be reduced to a package in the postal service, where some parcels are held up at customs if they are suspected of having the wrong origin?’”. Relatively unknown, having launched their rst collection in 2014, this duo illustrate the evolving direction of fashion: a more socially, environmentally, and politically aware world that strives towards positive change.

Utopian Bodies raises many questions. New issues continue to arise out of developing technologies, including licensing concerns, such as with 3D printing: will couture houses license out their patterns? Hedman sees a future where our bodies will be scanned and we will be able to print garments at home to spec, stating: “What if we want to customise the designs so garments fit better or adhere more to our individual taste?” How should the designer and the consumer negotiate this grey area? A central theme that emerges from this exhibition is that of an examination of what fashion can achieve for individuals and society, and how these possibilities might be harnessed for the common good in a utopian future.

Niamh Coghlan

Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward, Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm.

For more information, visit www.liljevalchs.se

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