Friday, April 02, 2010

Voices in American Fashion at Cooper-Hewitt

Last night was a true privilege. First , Sarah Scaturro, a textile conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, gave me a private tour of Design USA: Contemporary Innovation. Sunday is your last chance to see it so go! And why does Sarah's name ring a bell? With Francesca Granata, she curated the beautiful Ethics + Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion. She also contributed a paper to the special issue of Fashion Theory dedicated to sustainability in December 2008. And more. Thank you, Sarah; such a delight to meet you properly, and thank you for the look-see!

Then, Voices in American Fashion (video above), an event organized by the Cooper-Hewitt with Yeohlee Teng, Maria Cornejo and Francisco Costa. The panel was moderated by Washington Post Style Editor Robin Givhan - she did a tremendous job. The discussion topics ranged quite broadly, keeping the audience focused throughout the 90 minutes. What follows is based on my somewhat disjointed notes, which some of you may have seen. You see, earlier today I was working on this post, had to stop, went to save and instead pressed publish. Oops! I wouldn't care so much but the published draft still appears on my Google Reader, despite me deleting it nine hours ago. Anyway, here goes, and not necessarily in the order it occurred, as is clear from the video above. Oh and as anyone with Google Reader would know, yes I did use the loo at the same time as Francisco Costa. Truly my greatest fashion moment yet. There may have been a compliment about one of the panelist's legs in the notes, too. Please ignore such forwardness.

There was talk of model size. Francisco made a point that using 'real' women would probably be good for business as less adaptation would be necessary to take the sample patterns to production. Yeohlee provided a reality check by saying that showing a collection with variation in sizes would be more expensive because of the extra time required for fittings and pattern changes; anyone who has ever done a show knows this. Using models in one size is incredibly efficient as much as it doesn't reflect reality. Most of us evil fashion designers know this is not perfect but it is how it is. Creating the sample collection is stressful and complex enough without an extra criterion so kudos to every designer who has ever experimented with this. Maria said that fashion editors don't want too much reality on the runway. When in her first show she used 'real' women with only one model, the response wasn't great. She's used the same fit model for nine years, by the way. I love that; Materialbyproduct back in Australia are on a similar journey. Maria's point about the conventional seams (sides, shoulders and so forth) defining the body so much when each body is different was fantastic. Fashion students everywhere, take heed.

Organisers of the L'Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival, take note. Francisco Costa paid a huge compliment to you, by describing what you do. His point basically was that showing the public what is in store now is great for business. "A trunk show?", a colleague whispered to me. "A trunk show that looks like fashion week" was my response. I'm not sure how Costa's Aussie adventure came about but Malcolm Carfrae, the Executive Vice President of Global Communications at Calvin Klein Inc. is Australian and was in the audience at the Cooper-Hewitt. Costa's comment and the discussion that followed reminded me of what Donna Karan was saying at the talk at Parsons, about the distance in time between showing the collections and when the garments actually hit retail. As Maria said last night, by the time clothes arrive at retail they are so overexposed - magazines and blogs tend to shoot the same things - that they seem old.

Sustainability was a big part of the night's discussion, explicitly and less so. Here's what I've thought for a long time (and this came through in the discussion and I had a chat with Sarah about it on the subway after, too): the three designers address sustainability in their work in a profound way, even if it may be easier to grasp with Zero + Maria Cornejo and Yeohlee. If you were to buy a piece from any of the three tomorrow, more than likely you could wear it in five, ten years from now without your appearance screaming Spring 2010. These designers create things to last; not just physically but aesthetically as well. The dress from Costa in the exhibition was a beautiful example of this; the cut was ingenious yet so simple you missed it at first. All three talked about designing clothes that complement and work with ones from previous seasons. Robin asked a great question, about how does a designer reconcile with trying to create desire for things people don't have yet. Maria did note how there is just too much stuff out there, this time reminding me of Julie Gilhart at the Pratt talk. The idea that as much as we're living in a financial crisis, we're living in a moral one, came up more than once. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss a group of fashion designers getting into a 'trendy' topic but all three showed a genuine concern, a cause for much personal hope.

Yeohlee brought up her dedication to zero-waste a number of times, and it was great to hear, considering how many fashion students were in the audience. She said it's fun - "what the heck!" Go for it, dear reader - it truly is liberating. On a personal note, I've always loved an interviewee that begins to interview the interviewer - it's an entertaining change in dynamics. Yeohlee called time the ultimate luxury: "if you design something really well, you save time for the client". She regards her sarongs - a repeating motif throughout her collections - her most successful designs: sarongs are versatile, (in Yeohlee's case) zero-waste, one-size-fits-all, unisex and so forth - a true Yeohlee leitmotif. When designing, she asks,"How many wears will the client get out of this?" Yeohlee stated she wants people to wear her clothes to death, quipping that Susan Sontag was buried in Yeohlee. She brought the house down.

One final point that I will dedicate some space to is the idea of local. I'm professionally involved in a project, Sidewalk Catwalk, with the Fashion Center BID; although new to New York, I do believe in preserving local skills, knowledge, employment, networks and culture. Not preservation in the sense of turning something into a museum exhibit, but preservation in the sense of helping a community to adapt and eventually flourish again. Yeohlee is passionate in this respect. Last night she passed me a flyer for 'Made in Midtown', "a look at the Garment District, its relationship to the fashion industry, and what it takes for creative industry to survive - and thrive - in New York City". She mentioned an open directory that's in the works to help businesses connect with whom they need to. Another step away from the paranoia and secrecy of old. So, while Zero + Maria Cornejo knitwear used to be manufactured in New Jersey and is now made in Hong Kong because the kinds of manufacturers the company needs no longer exists here, perhaps the situation will change one day. I do need to clarify that by no means do I object to off-shore manufacturing - it wouldn't be realistic anyway - but the loss of local skills and knowledge is a concern, and an economic loss in the long term, too. With the price of clothes as low as it is, however, I don't know how we will ever re-educate consumers that locally made will also cost more - at least as long as off-shore means countries with cheaper labour costs. Who knows, one day there won't be a division between a developing and a developed world. Who will make our clothes then?

I really could go on - my notes do - but the video is up above so please take the time to watch it. And what happened next? As it turned out, Sarah and I had a shared engagement: Caroline Priebe's rodeo-rich birthday. An amazing night, all in all. Thank you and congratulations to the Cooper-Hewitt, and thank you to the four people on the panel for their generosity.


Sarah Scaturro said...

It was so much fun! I enjoyed meeting you Timo. Your post really serves to clarify and bring out the important parts of the lecture, as well as pointing to other information out there. I hope to see you again.

ginevra / occasional glimpses said...

Thank you so much for the opportunity to listen in, even though I live far away ;-)

So many interesting topics to think over, react to, agree with & yeah, also disagree...thanks.

Timo Rissanen said...

Thanks Ginevra; if I ever forget about the distance that Oz and NZ have to deal with, please remind me. I know a lot of my visitors come from home, hence the recent spate of events listings and reports. It was so much harder to find out about them when there.

It's great that the Cooper-Hewitt and other organizations are making good use of YouTube. Those events have the potential to be quite ephemeral so having a more permanent record is fantastic.

titania said...

thanks, timo! still wish i could have made it to the event, but your fantastic summary gave me a lot of points to mull over.