Joyful fashion: Viktor & Rolf’s Picasso-inspired SS16 Couture

1 February 2016

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One of the most striking features of humanity is our propensity for turning necessities into pleasures. From our need for shelter, we’ve created wildly divergent styles of architecture. From our need for nourishment, we’ve developed a rich, exciting culinary industry. And from our need to meet and mate, we’ve seen the rise of many arts of courtship: flirtation, kissing, and swiping left and right.

Fashion is perhaps the most lush and extravagant example of this phenomenon. Being hairless apes, it’s a given that we’ll need to cover our bare skin with something. But the creativity and cleverness devoted to garments that are rarely affordable and even less wearable is intriguing. At the far edges of any aesthetic endeavor, be it food or fashion or something else, there is a sense that the medium is just a jumping off point from which to swim out beyond the shores of pragmatism and into wide-open waters of possibility. At which point the concerns of wearability or edibility or habitability are irrelevant. But fashion designers seem to be particularly adept swimmers.

All of which is an overblown way of saying that I don’t much mind that Victor & Rolf’s clothes never seem like something I could actually wear, because the Dutch duo tends to bring such joy to the art of thinking them up. I often complain on this blog that fashion, a pursuit of such wonderful fluffiness and frivolity, always seems to be presented so seriously. (Heaven forbid that a model should crack a smile on her way down a catwalk. She might be banished from the industry for life!) But Viktor & Rolf bring a playful exuberance to the clothes that undercuts the seriousness of fashion week and at the same time shows how fashion can cross the line from clothing to art.

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This collection, for Spring-Summer 2016, is the first since the fashion house decided to drop its ready-to-wear lines to focus on couture. The inspiration is Cubism, and the influence of Picasso in particular is apparent. The dresses start out tame enough: a little white polo dress with the profile of a face down the front, an eye pressed into relief pasted on top. But as the show progresses they become increasingly sculptural, with giant fans or swirls of fabric resembling hair obscuring the faces of the models, and then huge abstracted faces covering over the faces of the models completely. Instead of dresses, they become sculptures walking around on human legs.

I love these designs, and yet I understand how some might not find them joyful. Cubism has a violence to it, it disrupts the harmony of a symmetrical face, and turned into garments, it severely distorts the symmetry of a healthy body. In some ways, it is grotesque. At the same time, it tells a story of the relationship between the senses and the mind, rendering the image not as it is seen but as it is felt. For example, the human brain devotes far more energy to searching for and analyzing faces than the rest of the human body. The giant faces seem to me to amplify the significance of the face in line with the way the human brain naturally perceives it. The faces become avatars of the girls themselves.

Viktor & Rolf often choose to walk the line between discomfort and joy. My previous favorite collection of theirs was full of tulle ballgowns that looked as though they had been hacked into with a chainsaw. I know that sounds violent, but the bright candy colors and fluffy skirts compensated for the hard edges, making for a pretty delightful vision. Looking back, it strikes me that that collection launched in the wake of the recession, when we were all feeling a hollowed out by the unforeseen loss. Meanwhile, this current collection appears at a time when violence is surging, breaking into once-peaceful places, rupturing the frameworks that help us understand our place in the world and how to move through it. Which makes me think of Picasso’s own words: “The world doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” Perhaps distortion is a way to flow with the anxiety, a way to signal that in tough times we bend but do not break.

Or another way to look at it: if clothing is the layer between our vulnerable nakedness and the world, perhaps uncertain times call for a bit more volume, a buffer of space between ourselves and the rest of the world, and some masks to hide behind. That could (and often does) manifest as spiky, metallic armor. Given that, ruffles and curves and faces seem like a far more joyful way in. And many of the details are charming: the stick-like eyelashes that make the eyes seem so alert; the abstracted breasts, one shaped like a cinnamon roll, sitting by the model’s knees; the curlicues of hair, particularly the one on the round-faced piece that looks like the corkscrew of a piglet’s tail. Done all in white, there is a sweetness that modulates the distortion of these Cubist forms.

Over to you: Do you find this collection joyful or disturbing? What do you think makes it so?

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Images: via Dezeen

Craving wonder

17 April 2012


In the summer of 1997 I went to Switzerland. I was seventeen and awed by everything there: the impossibly green mountains, the richness of the food, the brightly colored money. But by far the most magical experience I had was ice skating through a cloud.

The peaks of the alps are so high that clouds at times will huddle in small hollows on a mountain’s surface. (Little do we suspect, from a distance, this intimacy between clouds and mountains – that despite their seeming aloofness they are passionate lovers sharing high-altitude secrets.) In the town of Leysin, the skating rink sat in one of these catenaries, past the town on a downslope. A covered structure, open on the sides, the rink was positioned so that a breeze would draw wisps of cloud through the space. We looped through them, in and out of the whiteness, enchanted.

To be so close to a cloud, to be literally inside it, is a fleeting kind of joy. Artist Berndnaut Smilde brings something like this to galleries, carefully controlling the humidity and temperature to bring real clouds into being for a few minutes. Watch this video to see the process in action. Indoors, the cloud seems to be many things at once. It’s a luminous piece of sky, yet also an interloper. It feels more precious than it would “in the wild.” And yet it also feels out of place, confused even, like a lamb split off from the flock. It teeters on the edge of joyful and eerie, a conjurer’s trick that we embrace cautiously, with visceral awe.


Joyful and eerie: it’s an odd pairing. How is it possible that joy can come to us bound together with fear? And what determines whether what we end up feeling is wonder or trepidation?

It’s a contradiction many have wrestled with. The philosopher Edmund Burke called it the sublime, and wrote of conflicting impulses towards attraction and fear. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner describe it as awe, an emotion combining the perception of vastness or great power with a need for accommodation, a need to understand the phenomenon and bring it into line with our worldview. Awe creates an awareness that something forceful is at play, something with uncertain mechanisms and consequences, and our natural instinct at encountering such unknowns is to feel fear. But because we are human and inherently opportunistic, and because we are not certain if the unknowns are threatening, we also feel curiosity. It is a state of repulsion and attraction all at once.

Aesthetics have a big say in which force wins out. Imagine you are standing in a field, alone and far from shelter. A great black cloud-like apparition looms on the horizon. It is coming towards you, and doing so abnormally fast. How do you feel? Now imagine yourself in the same field, but replace the cloud with a colorful double rainbow. How would you describe the difference in how you feel? Both are strange events, both vast, both require accommodation. But through the color, form, and mass of each, your unconscious assesses threat level and tips your emotional state towards anxiety or towards wonder.

It’s easy to see why we would feel awe and fear at potentially dangerous things – this feels sensibly adaptive. An emotion that primes us to take cover has probably saved enough necks to earn its right to a spot on the genome. But why have wonder? Why have an emotion specifically attuned to things that are strange and intense, yet benign?

I believe we have wonder because it lets us know when the laws and limits of our world have been transcended, and opens the way to new frontiers of possibility. Wonder is a signal that there has been magic in our midst. It pokes a hole in our worldview, and tempts us to investigate, becoming a powerful spark for curiosity that paves the way towards new discoveries.

As a culture we tend to undervalue wonder, but the craving for it is deeply valid. It is not a distraction from purposeful work – it may instead be the catalyst for starting it. A desire to witness magic is an impulse towards the expansion of the mind, towards the improvement of the human condition. At the root of our love for rainbows, comets, fireflies, and miracles is a small reservoir of belief that the world is bigger and more amazing than we had dreamed it could be. And if we are to be creative and hopeful, then feeding this reservoir is vital.

So go look for impossible beauty, implausible joy. Seek it out even if it doesn’t seem to have an immediate purpose. And then just be curious. You don’t have to control wonder; you only have to seek it, and be open to what it shows you.

Via: Smilde’s Nimbus II spotted by @brainpicker

Images: from here and here


Anticipating the snow…

11 January 2011

I missed the last blizzard, so the forecast title “Major Winter Storm Set to Clobber Northeast” holds a certain kind of poetry for me. I’ve written at length on the joys of snow in the past, from my own personal memories to its more universal attractions, so I’ll try not to be repetitive this morning. I love snow for the very reasons practical people dislike it – it slows things down, confounds our rhythms, accumulates without regard to all the Very Important Things we have to do. It creates new patterns. It opens spaces for indolence, daydreaming, and rediscovery. Yes, it will get wet and grey, it will slosh into your boots, it will calcify into unmelting, inconvenient drifts. But before it does that, it will fall pure and light from cold clouds, and it will be perfect.

Anyway, it’s coming, so you may as well find a way to enjoy it! I’ve been wanting to share this piece for awhile. Called Snow, it is an installation made from feathers by Tokujin Yoshioka exhibited at the Mori Art Museum in Japan. It amazes me how beautifully the feathers reflect the movements of snow, and how deep the simple sensory pleasure of those textures and movements feels. There’s also a video, here. I hope it stirs up some joyful anticipation for the slow, snowy days to come…

Neutral canvas, pops of color

9 September 2009


This house is a great example of the way pops of color on a white or neutral canvas create an aesthetic sense of joy. Writer Douglas Coupland’s polychrome collections could look like a circus in a house with a lot of color. Showcasing them against a mostly white or otherwise muted background creates moments of intense color with enough room to breathe.

In this way, design should mimic emotion. You don’t want to be feeling intense joy all the time — it would be exhausting, and it wouldn’t be possible to appreciate it. As one wave of joy recedes, you want a little bit of stillness, the rest that allows you to rediscover the joy and feel it all over again. This principle echoes the Japanese aesthetic idea of ma, the white space that is essential to any composition or design. Ma can be spatial or temporal, visual or textural, and in all cases results in an emotional feeling that allows a design to achieve the right level of poignancy.

Another joyful aspect is the unexpected nature and placement of these collections. Mundane spools of thread are elevated to high art by their gridded placement on a white wall. Dice, when laid out above an entryway, become a surprising lintel. Taken out of their usual context, these objects become fodder for unanticipated moments of delight.



NYT: The House Next Door, via Ouno

Joyful home: Frazier & Wing mobiles

17 August 2009


I love the contrast between these two mobiles, illustrating different aesthetics of joy. The one on the left is celebratory — vibrant and effusive, a cloud of color. The one on the right layers two aesthetics in one: lightness and surprise — the floating, elevated feeling created by the spacing in the pure white linear structure, coupled with the whimsical burst of texture at the bottom.

And yet there are also commonalities: curvilinear, symmetrical forms, based at root in the circle; harmony and balance inherent in the idea of mobile; light, dancing movements; and of course, intense bursts of color. It continues to amaze me, as I work through this project, how consistent and yet how diverse the elements are that give rise to the aesthetics of joy.

Mobiles by Frazier & Wing
Via Daily Candy

Daily magic

15 August 2009


This calendar works like magic, drawing just the right amount of ink each day to fill out the date. Each month is colored to fit the seasons.

Ink Calendar by Oscar Diaz via New York Magazine