Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stuff: Torture couture.

I visited NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology yesterday. Their museum is currently hosting a wonderful exhibit on goth fashion: Gothic: Dark Glamour. At first, I was a little hesitant to go. I was worried that I was basically going to walk into a slightly upmarket showcase for Hot Topic-grade junk, but I was honestly blown away. The exhibit's relevance as a historical overview is secured by its scope and depth, while the artistic merit of the show rests on the fact that the designs and items collected are truly beautiful and fascinating.

The show tracks the development of the gothic look back to Victorian mourning clothing – notably the fashionable widow's weeds worn by young women: a look Victorians wittily referred to as "the trap rebaited." From there, you get a flowering of "dark" looks from the 1980s, with a second boom at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century. The exhibit's focus is on high couture designers and their works, but some room is made for examples of youth streetwear and a couple of examples of the "elegant gothic Lolita" look the developed in Japan.

There's a ton to discuss about the exhibit. The show covers the role of Japanese designers in redefining the gothic with a distinctly non-Western flare (interestingly, despite the gothic's Euro origins, the show is dominated by brilliant work from American and Japanese designers), the figure of the dandy, the role of the French Revolution in the development of the gothic novel, proto-vampiric imagery in fashion discourse prior to the publication of Dracula, and so much more that is really is a must see for anybody interested in what horror tropes do once they leave the confines of literature and film.

Given the scope of the show, I'll focus on a single element – the work of Japanese designer Kei Kagami.

Let's start with a comparison.

First, a movie poster:

Second, a fashion photo:

The former is, of course, a poster for Saw. The latter is a picture of a dress designer by Kei Kagami. Kagami's first solo runway show and the premiere of Saw both occurred in 2004. Apparently, while the folks behind Saw were developing their film's look, Kagami was developing a similar look based on his training at the Bunka Fashion College of Tokyo, Central St. Martin's College of Art & Design in London, and a stint as a studio assistant for John Galliano (one of the few non-Japanese or American designers heavily represented in the goth exhibit).

Here's more Kagami.

Interesting, despite the general tendency of horror bloggers – including myself - to go to great lengths to distinguish the nakedly industrial aesthetic of works like Saw and Hostel from the more Romantic look of traditional gothic fare, Kagami firmly places his work within the gothic tradition and sees no contradiction. He has referred to his look as "neo-gothic" and, more entertainingly, spins gothic tales about himself and his work. When singer and fashion reporter Diane Pernet asked Kagami about the inspiration behind a particular line of shoe designs, the designer gave the following story, with Kagami's caps-free writing style preserved:

let me tell you the story of ' a ghost rider that took me to a cemetery in North London '. this ghost story is not scary at all but what happened was true .

let me tell you the story of ' a ghost rider that took me to a cemetery in North London '.
this ghost story is not scary at all but what happened was true .

one day i went to a biker's cafe called ' Ace Cafe' in north London .
on the way home i found a beautiful vintage bike , maybe it was one called ' Vincent black shadow '( sounds already spooky ) , so i decided to chase it. it was a fast bike , i could not really catch up with it but i kept chasing it as long as i could see it .

but when i turned at the last corner , i could not see it anymore , it just disappeared .
i stopped my bike and what i could see was only the entrance of Highgate cemetery .
so i visited this cemetery in the weekend .
there was not the Vincent black shadow there but a beautiful world in shade of Highgate.

Kagami currently operates out of Milan. He has showrooms in London, Milan, and Hiroshima.


Anonymous said...

I do kinda wonder, goofy crazy gothic crap like this or not.. Who buys the stuff I see in the WashPost Style section ? I read the section for the comics, but the run way picture just look absurd. I don't care if they are $8k dresses, they look silly. Who buys them ?

Then this gothic look.. Well, didn't Monty Python did that about 30 years ago, I believe.. ("A nail through the head. Very fashionable.." something like that)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Haute couture pieces, like what you see here and in your bigger runway shows, are essentially artworks and they are bought up by collectors and museums. Few buyers, if any, will actually wear any of the pieces they purchase. In fact, I doubt that some of the pieces - like Kagami's corset that it actually made of surgical clamps and a shattered mirror - are wearable for more than a few moments.

What actually gets sold and worn is more likely to be either a less expensive and elaborate version made for the mass market or a custom piece made specific to be worn by a single client.

If you think about it, it isn't really all that different from any other art medium. We don't expect every painting sold in the art market to be pitched at working class prices so people can hang it up in their bathrooms.

But there's always been a strain of populist hatred against high fashion that I assume has to do with, among other things, class and gender issues.

I don't know the Python piece your referring to, but I do remember a similar bit from the Kids in the Hall involving a high fashion spike through the head and shoes that are boxes full o broken glass.

Oddly enough, despite the torturous look of Kagami's work, the metal pieces actually adjust the outfits to fit the body of the wearer. His clothes - especially his shoes - also incorporate design elements from medical tech that help support the body and correct posture. Despite its look, it's designed to wear easy. Reportedly, it's pretty comfortable stuff.

spacejack said...

Good lord, five Saw movies in as many years. I can't believe the franchise only started in 2004. They're like a factory.

I guess there weren't any Jason Voorhees/Michael Meyers-inspired fashions in the early 80s?

Anonymous said...

Kids in the hall.. You're right.. Funny of me to get some canadians confused for monty python.. hahah.. That is the right answer for the skit I was thinking of..

It was never clear to me that the runway shows were about art.. I mean, it's a runway, they are fashion designers, so isn't it about selling clothes ?

Guess I'm too pedestrian for that world ;) (or populist as the case may be..) I stick to "if it's cold, wear something warm" type of practicality that doesn't seem to be a part of high fashion..

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

To be fair, trying to make a living doesn't disqualify you from making art. Painters don't try to NOT sell paintings, you know?

The runway shows might directly lead to a sale or two, but it is really a showcase of talent and ideas meant to increase the visibility of the designer (or their house, in those cases where they work for somebody) among taste makers. This then translates to increased sales of their regular products. So it is about selling, but not really about selling the pieces you see.

You're right though: Practicality is not in it. Trying to walk through a crowded room in some of Kagami's outfits could very well lead to injuries for the wearer and several innocent bystanders.

Eh. Not all art is for all folks. We've all got our bags - ain't no shame in it.

My wife and I go to the opera a lot. Every time we go to the Met, we pass all these posters for ballet and modern dance performances. Though I have no problem spending several hours (three and a half, generally) watching folks sing their way through some pretty silly plots, I cannot imagine suffering through a modern dance performance. I'm sure dance is art and I'm certain everybody involved is working their asses off to produce something beautiful, but that sounds like torture to me. That said, I can understand how opera must have the exact same affect for somebody else.

People dig what they dig.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I don't think Saw inspired Kagami so much as it was something in the air that both folks picked up on. The less sinister version of the same impulse might be what drives all this steampunk stuff right now. Maybe it's a rebirth of what Neal Harris dubbed the "operational aesthetic," the Victorian love of clockwork, visible seams, and overly intricate design.

As for slasher chic, I don't know. Hockey gear never became a must have item, but who knows?

Anonymous said...

I guess I share the populist hatred against high fashion, not sure what my underlying class and gender issues might be though - I always found that stuff just fairly laughable because any "intended statements" just seem so hopelessly simple-minded or poorly expressed when compared to other "avenues of art".

Anyway, slightly offtopic, but I found the idea that anyone would drive a Vincent Black Shadow in London fairly amusing - it's a bike that's infamous for its handling and probably the last thing a sane person would choose to drive in a city like London.

CRwM said...


I guess I've never found the ideas expressed in haute couture to be any inferior to the ideas expressed by other artists. At least, the actual clothes themselves are deeply resonant and complex to me.

Admittedly, when designers are asked to explain their work, I find designers in general to be a profoundly inarticulate group and that, I think, often contributes to the idea that what they do must be equally dumb. Though, honestly, I think artists who can explain their work as well as they can do it are pretty rare in any medium (if rock music's power depended on the the ability of the rock musicians to explain it to us, it would be a long dead genre), so I don't really hold it against anybody.

As for the bike, I don't know crap about motorcycles, but now I can't get over the idea that a VBS must be how this guy ended a ghost in the first place. Far from being gothically appropriate, perhaps the rider's like "Oh, great, now I'm stick on this death machine forever!"