Notes on "Fashion"

The Artipelag in Gustavsberg, Sweden has devoted its winter and spring season to a retrospective of one of fashion’s most celebrated collaborations: when Belgian designer Martin Margiela was appointed creative designer of French fashion house Hermès. Margiela, The Hermes Years (on display until April 28, 2019) was originally curated by Kaat Debo for the MoMu, the Fashion Museum in Antwerp in 2017. The exhibition delves deep into Margiela’s contribution to Hermès, exploring the parallels between the designer’s namesake label and the renowned luxury house, and his overall oeuvre. Its recurrence at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and now at the Artipelag is reflective of the collaboration’s relevance, especially during a time when luxury fashion’s status quo is once again disrupted by contemporary iconoclasts.

Margiela’s tenure at Hermès from 1997 to 2003 marked a turning point in the relationship between fashion and luxury. As notable fashion writer Suzy Menkes notes in her preface in the exhibition catalogue: “It was the maverick side of this designer that gave him fashion status. This was fashion’s arch-radical, facing off the noble French house.” But despite being widely celebrated today, Margiela’s appointment was not without criticism. In a 1998 Straits Times article by Cat Ong, the journalist observed how the “haute, hip crowd clutched their Kelly bags in horror at the vile revolution that was about to invade their favourite bastion of Parisian good taste.”

Left: Hermès, Spring-Summer 1999. Right: Maison Martin Margiela, Spring-Summer 2009. Scans from the exhibition catalogue for Margiela: The Hermès Years.

Left: Maison Martin Margiela, Autumn-Winter 1998-99. Right: Hermès, Autumn-Winter 2000-01. Scans from the exhibition catalogue for Margiela: The Hermès Years.

The reaction recalls the mixed reviews incited by Virgil Abloh’s appointment as menswear designer at Louis Vuitton. Critics were quick to dismiss the appointment, citing the dichotomy between Abloh’s streetwear focused aesthetic and Vuitton’s status as a luxury fashion house as antithetical to each other’s style and values. Despite initial resistance, Abloh’s ability to cross-pollinate between industries has demonstrated the need to create a broader, more fluid definition of luxury fashion. This fluid, multifaceted approach to creating marks a defining characteristic of his practice, which is mapped out in Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech” (on display from June 10 until September 22, 2019), the first museum exhibition devoted to the work of the American artist and designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Organised by Michael Darling, the exhibition will provide an in-depth exploration into the designer’s cross-disciplinary vernacular, mirroring his range of interests across music, fashion, architecture, and design.

Left: Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh, Pre-Fall 2018. Right: Moschino, Spring-Summer 1991. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018.

From left to right: Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Fall-Winter 2016. Moschino, Fall/Winter 1989. Thom Browne, Spring-Summer 2017. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018.

Another significant aspect of Abloh’s wide-ranging vernacular is a sense of irony and humour that can be comprehended under the umbrella of ‘Camp,’ which is observed at The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Spring 2019 exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion (on display from May 9 to September 8, 2019). Take the use of “quotation marks” on Abloh's designs. The detail is an act that echoes Susan Sontag’s point in her text ‘Notes on “Camp”’, where the author attributes a part of “Camp” as a sensibility that “sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”.” In other words, Camp forces its viewer to question the object by making it a parody of itself. While its essence is said to be “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, its characteristics are far too fluid and variegated to be defined in words, as reflected in the diverse styles on exhibit, which includes works by Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Thom Browne, amongst others.

As a sensibility that “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement”, Camp “doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good”, but rather offers “art (and life) a different — and supplementary — set of standards” ultimately reminding us that nothing in life, as it is in fashion, is ever as it seems, and a new lexicon is always in the making.