A statement piece

Hyun Lee


BACKSTAGE AT A FASHION SHOW, designer Raf Simons is surrounded by a horde of media and journalists, patiently waiting for their turn with him. He speaks into a Vogue-branded microphone held by a wobbling disembodied hand, the light attached to the video camera is far too bright and pointed directly at his face. Squinting, Simons speaks with his thick Flemish accent about his inspirations for the show. ‘Right now in the fashion world, it’s so fast and it’s so much and I, … I see a lot of fashion which is kind of—doing things with a lot of embellishment, because it’s so immediately eye piercing and it’s so eye piercing on the picture but then I … I wonder how much people are looking, you know like, deep into it.’ He is talking about his second collection for Dior. Several interviews after that, he tells the next interviewer that it is his 24th consecutive interview of the day.

Four years later, in 2015, Simons had resigned from Dior and in yet another interview for The New York Times he is reminded by the same interviewer of how many interviews he had to do that day. Simons replies, mumbling, ‘It was really absurd.’ While at Dior, he was designing eight collections a year: six for Dior, and two under his own label. All shows, even couture collections, had to be completed within three weeks, a maximum of five, a schedule which allowed no time for the incubation of ideas. He would then be expected to take interviews immediately after each show and make statements about his inspirations despite being given so little time to develop them. The explanation that he provided to the media upon his resignation was that he needed time to focus on his own label and his interests outside of fashion, the fashion system had grown too fast.

It is a lesser known fact that the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes was very interested in fashion. So much so that he dedicated an entire book to a thorough analysis of the fashion system, entitled The Fashion System. Unlike his better known book on photography, Camera Lucida, The Fashion System contains no pictures. In the place of photos and illustrations there are charts and diagrams. Rather than the poetic lyrical prose used in Camera Lucida, there is dense academic language—which may be why it is not as widely enjoyed by readers. With chapter headings such as ‘The Assertion of Species’, ‘Inventory of Genera’, ‘The Semantic Units’ and ‘The Vestimentary Sign’ to name a few, Barthes’ treatise is a rather dry and serious interrogation of fashion: an industry that is so often dismissed as a meaningless semantic system, driven entirely by consumerist principles.

Barthes’ book holds a particularly critical regard towards the language used in fashion media. Arbitrary, vapid and hollow, he argues that the language surrounding fashion is a poor literary form which exists ultimately to sell products and often has little relation to the product itself. The book was written in 1967 and was referring specifically to the copywriting used to artificially manufacture trends in magazines like Elle or Vogue. The fashion press today moves exponentially faster than the print media of Barthes’ day. Cameras and microphones wait patiently in line to capture the statements of the exhausted and overworked fashion designers, who will be quoted in reduced snippets and out-of-context catchphrases, dispersed virulently, immediately, through the faster-than-ever modern media machines.


MEANWHILE IN AN ART GALLERY, the coded system of language is more sophisticated and subtle than that of the fashion industry. As is often custom, the artist makes a statement and it is printed on a small white plaque and mounted close to the artwork. Though the statement does not shout nor appear in one’s face like fashion’s advertising tends to, the artist statement has an understated authoritative power and is often louder than the artwork, especially if it’s an abstract painting. The abstract painting sits mute on the wall. No matter how big and bright it may be, it is the artist statement that does the talking. A woman wearing a big and bright dress listens. Her dress is not art.

Upon closer inspection, the woman is a mannequin and the dress is designed by Yves Saint Laurent, and even though it is not art, it is stored in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dress looks like art. The dress looks like the paintings of Piet Mondrian. It has been designed in a way so that it sits flat on the un-flat body of a woman. Maintaining the illusion of straight lines, each panel of colour is a separate piece of fabric and the dress itself is cut so that its shape is almost perfectly rectangular. Mondrian’s paintings were a part of the Dutch De Stijl movement, and its manifesto declared ‘ultimate simplicity and abstraction’ as its goal. The manifestos of Modernism serve as a sort of proto artist statement, but it only takes the handiwork of a fashion designer to divorce the painting from its artist’s intentions.

Yves Saint Laurent tended towards aesthetic fantasies in his oeuvre, sourcing inspiration for his collections from anywhere between the opium dens of China to the pristine gallery of Modern art. The design of the Mondrian dress borrows only the appearance of the artwork, and leaves its conceptual foundation behind. Contrary to the minimalist ideals of De Stijl, the dress is not the result of a minimalist design ethic, rather of complicated construction and complex pattern-making. Upon entering the fashion system, the artwork is stripped of its statements, manifestos and artistic context. Even the name of the artist is unnecessary in the fashion ecology, all that is required is that the artwork be refined and reconstituted until all that is left is its image.

The fashion system today allows designers to cut and paste images as they please, and nobody really is expected to credit the ‘original’, should one suppose such a thing still exists. Mondrian was dead long before Yves Saint Laurent could even ask him for permission anyway. In the fashion system, the nature of names is somewhat different to that of the art world. Names represent a brand primarily, and then the namesake, the person, their body of work, and sometimes their body. Designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior may be long dead, but their labels and companies still exist and continue to release new collections every season without them.


BEFORE DIOR, Raf Simons was the chief designer and creative director for German minimalist brand Jil Sander, as well as being at the helm of his own menswear label which was founded in 1995. His work at Jil Sander proved to be at a pace somewhat less demanding than Dior and its aesthetic heritage more in line with his personal interests: minimalism and art. The minimalism of Simons’ fashion design is not simply to avoid embellishments, but to abstract clothing itself: a jacket is made with only five seams, with no closures, lining or hems. Pattern pieces which are conventionally separate are fused together; a sleeve, the front and back bodice are cut in a singular piece. Simons also often appropriates imagery from abstract art and incorporates them into his designs, much like Yves Saint Laurent, only more prolifically. Unlike Saint Laurent, his sensibilities are not so flamboyant or founded in fashionable fantasies, he does not approach the gallery with the intent to fetishise its contents. Simons is no enemy or stranger to the art world; he is an avid art collector, curator and has been acting as a consultant for the Cigrang Freres art collection in Belgium since 2000.

An art enthusiast sits in the audience of a Jil Sander fashion show, looking at a new collection designed by Simons. It evokes in him a feeling of familiarity; he is sure he has seen it before, at a gallery perhaps, but he can’t be certain if it is a coincidence that the striped pattern, muted colours and fuzzy needle punched felt wool of a sweater were intended to allude exactly to the colours, shapes and textures of a Paul Klee painting he saw at the Museum of Modern Art. A few seasons later he sees the iconic bright striped floors of the MoMA on a T-shirt. This one is definitely a reference to the work of Jim Lambie. Simons doesn’t mention these artists in his statements to the press backstage, but the art enthusiast knows. He can sense that Raf Simons is a fellow art enthusiast and he in turn becomes a Raf Simons enthusiast. He goes to the department store to buy the Jil Sander Jim Lambie T-shirt.

On his way to the department store, he finds a surprising new addition among the rows of fashion boutiques. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has opened a gift shop outside of its institutional bounds. The art enthusiast walks in to check it out. It is more or less the same as the gift shop in the museum, and offers more or less the same products, images of artworks are printed on various templates: T-shirts, books, tote bags, tea towels, umbrellas and mugs. The only difference between this gift shop and the one in the art museum is that it is in a department store. But then again, shopping centres and art museums can be rather similar: expensive objects are displayed in pristine, well-lit environments, images and text cover walls and at the end of it all, things are for sale.

A Raf Simons enthusiast walks down the street, dressed head to toe in Raf Simons. Simons often designs for other brands, but has presented two menswear collections a year under his own label since 1995. The Raf Simons enthusiast exclusively wears clothing from the Raf Simons brand but in 2014 a second name appears on the label. The second name does not belong to a celebrity, it is not a public relations marketing ploy. Rather, it belongs to an artist, Sterling Ruby, for this collection has been equally designed by Simons and Ruby, as a collaboration. The two had previously collaborated unofficially and indirectly: in Simons’ first couture collection for Dior, he developed fabrics based on Ruby’s abstract paintings. The Raf Simons enthusiast walks down the street, covered in Sterling Ruby’s paint. He is now also a Sterling Ruby enthusiast.


AT A FASHION SHOW, a fashion model walks down the runway wearing Raf Simons’ Spring 2017 collection. There are no seats at the venue and so the members of the audience stand clutching their bags, crammed tightly together. A cavalry of camera phones are poised to shoot the model when he walks past. The runway is not elevated, it is simply a cleared pathway on the unpolished floor which cuts through the crowd. The model approaches wearing a striking red jacket, and underneath is a white T-shirt with a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph printed on it. Each model’s outfit features Mapplethorpe’s photography, some of which are his most iconic and recognisable works. Others are from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc. archive which have never before been presented to the public. They make their debut at this fashion show. The model with the red jacket passes and turns, revealing another print on the backside of the jacket, a profile shot of an erect penis. From many mobile screens, photos are taken and uploaded, silently and immediately to the internet.

Mapplethorpe’s photography has often courted controversy—notably, a 1990 exhibition of his work in Cincinnati, Ohio, instigated a criminal trial of the museum in which it was held, with an indictment for obscenity. It was the first case of its kind in the US. Depictions of homosexuality, sexual fetishes and erotic nudity are prominent in his work and often overshadows his more conventional subjects: still-life flowers, portraits of celebrities, artists, friends, and of himself. In an interview for i-D magazine, Simons tells how he thought it was important to show it all, to juxtapose the well-known images with the obscure, the graphically erotic images with flowers in vases. ‘I really wanted to present myself as a curator. Many others have curated the work of Mapplethorpe, but always in a gallery exhibit, always in the same context, always in the same form.’ Simons would certainly be the first to present Mapplethorpe’s work printed on clothing, worn on bodies. While fashion may often be accused of taking its references out of context, Simons retained the context of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre while introducing it into the context of the fashion.

Unlike the Sterling Ruby collection, Simons did not approach Mapplethorpe for collaboration, nor did he simply appropriate the photos onto his clothes as he had done with abstract paintings. Rather, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation approached Simons and offered up their entire archive for use in his work, giving him the opportunity to act as a curator on his own terms, in his own environment. Like the artworks which find their way onto mugs and tea towels, and like the gift shop exiting the museum into the department store, Mapplethorpe’s photography finds its way out of the white cube, into a fashion show.


What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.
Roland Barthes


In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes photography using a style of language that is far more poetic, lyrical and personal than what he afforded The Fashion System. It is interesting to observe how Barthes uses such differing tones to approach a fundamental quality that fashion and photography share as mediums: their capacity for replication. In photography, repetition and replication is an existential anomaly, it is a mystical and emotional phenomenon. In fashion however, the same is considered simulacra, a cheap and degraded copy of the original, inextricably tied to commercialism. However, Barthes is ever aware of the limits of language, of written and spoken statements against the natural power of the image. In the foreword to The Fashion System, he acknowledges that though his book is comprehensive, it is by no means a complete description of the fashion system in its entirety. In Camera Lucida, he begins his book stating that ‘photography is unclassifiable’. Nonetheless, he attempts to classify photography for the remainder of the book, in his own way, without charts and graphs.

Mapplethorpe’s photos of the erect penis on the red jacket travel virulently online, ceaselessly without a destination. The images move much faster than the interviews that Simons gives backstage, though those are also incredibly fast-paced. The designer’s voice wavers with emotion as he tells the media that he feels honoured to have been given this opportunity by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, having admired his work for a long time prior. Despite leaving Dior and the intensity of the fashion world behind, Simons was recently offered a position as creative director at mega-brand Calvin Klein, and he accepted the role. Arguably, Calvin Klein is a better fit than Dior for Simons. Regardless of the multibillion dollar underwear and perfume franchises at its helm today, Calvin Klein’s design ethic is of a minimalist origin. It suits Simons more comfortably than the feminine extravagance of Dior. The fashion designer today is a sort of contemporary artist, whose work is presented under a plethora of pseudonyms and identities of commercial enterprises. While many treat him as an artist and are always interested in his statements regarding his work, the images of his work and the work itself, the clothing, reaches its audience further and much faster than his words.


MEANWHILE IN AN ART GALLERY, an artwork has been waiting in silence for an eternity. A fashion designer arrives and stands in front it for a long time, looking deeply into it. The artwork stares back at him. After a while, the designer turns to leave, the artwork watches him as he makes his way towards the exit. Waiting for a moment when the gallery invigilator isn’t paying attention, the artwork tears itself off the wall and escapes, leaving no trace except that little white plaque with the artist’s statement. It follows the designer, down the stairs and out the museum. The designer does not notice he is being followed back to his studio, nor does he notice when the artwork reappears in his work. The artwork is now a piece of clothing, passing through the hands of patternmakers and seamstresses. It is worn up and down a runway and photographed a million fold by press and audience members. After the fashion show, the artwork makes its way into public relations offices, samples are sent out to stylists and worn by models who are photographed for fashion magazine editorials and advertising. Six months later, the collection goes into production and it is passed through the many hands of factory workers. It is manufactured in mass quantities, shipped to warehouses, transported and delivered to boutiques and department stores where finally it hangs on a display, waiting. An art enthusiast arrives. They look deeply at each other and in a sort of warm embrace, the art enthusiast wears the artwork and takes it home with him.


Top image: © Hyun Lee 2016. Model wears Raf Simons. Model: Sean at Vivien’s.



Hyun Lee is a writer, director and photographer based in Sydney.


See more from 4A Papers, issue 1

Commissioned for 4A Papers Issue 1. © Copyright 2016 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and the authors, artists, photographers and other contributors. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission from the Publisher. The opinions expressed in 4A Papers are those of the contributing authors and not necessarily those of the Editor or Publisher. Permission has been sought to reproduce all images with appropriate acknowledgement where possible.