I am very proud to write and illustrate for The New Inquiry, a rare home for fashion writing without a commercial agenda. In this essay, I attempted to express a big idea – how 21st century fashion is different from 20th century fashion, using my own observations from New York Fashion Week this season.
After I moved back to Toronto, I lost the habit of shared self-reflection. In London, I had a lot of time to myself and spent a lot of time in the office. Money was tight and I was thinking about my work a lot, and what I was trying to accomplish, and how to overcome so many obstacles. And I was sharing my journey on Final Fashion. Then when I moved back in Toronto, I stopped.
In Canada again, I realized how much I missed my family. I felt so much joy in being a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a grand-daughter, again. I spent as much time with my relatives as I could after two years of being so far away. My cost of living had decreased so I found myself feeling somewhat comfortable, relative to the reduced circumstances I had become used to in London anyway. And early in the year, I met a handsome Canadian carpenter and fell in love. It has been wonderful to indulge in being a girlfriend again after being single for a few years. I felt more whole and content than I had in a long, long while. Being content doesn’t provide much content, though. Posts on Final Fashion began to space out, and as the summer wore on I experienced a slow season.
One of the things I love about fashion is its cyclical nature. I’ve come to recognize the recurring ebbs and flows as my career picks up and languishes in step with the seasons. At the beginning of my career, when I experienced slow times, I used to panic. It felt like my career was a fragile thing, and rejections and empty inboxes made it feel like being a fashion illustrator was attempting a doomed mission. Later, slow times became an opportunity to reflect and reinvent. I would revise my blogging practices and edit my portfolio. I’ve always found that when you share energy, it comes back to you. Doing things and making things is the best way to get out of a rut. A creative career is all about giving the best you can and trusting that someone out there is going to get it.
This time, I knew why the deceleration was happening. It was my own doing, because I was too absorbed in real life, I had let my online identity slide. Things have changed a lot in the blogging world since I started, and I felt ideological resistance towards the development of two vastly different extremes in the form. I didn’t want blogging to be all about status and appearances – being an object of admiration and envy just for being pretty and having nice things. Not that I can afford luxuries. And though I’m comfortable with my appearance, I don’t feel compelled to use my own image as a creative outlet. I also didn’t want it to be all about confessions – performing a virtual psychological striptease to win sympathy or provoke controversy. There’s no sense in using sex or psychodrama in my work – I’m a fashion illustrator, not a diarist. The middle route? That’s where I am now, the middle route is obscurity, becoming lost among so many voices. I felt posting paralysis this year – I wasn’t sure what I wanted to share anymore. Yet it had become clear that I needed to put more of myself back into my work, somehow.
The other major consideration I was thinking about during the downtime was the wonderful New York Fashion Week I had experienced in February. Attending amazing fashion shows, seeing my sketches in WWD, getting my picture on the New York Times website with the caption, fashion illustrator! I was living the dream, my dream! I knew I had to go back and capitalize on that momentum. What had I learned, and how could I possibly have a better season after such a high note? I realized I have to pack a bigger, better thriving kit than ever.
One thing that I learned last season, is that I am not just an illustrator any more. I am a performer. The act of illustrating is becoming just as important, if not more important, than the illustrations as products. And more and more I was finding myself in front of cameras, doing my work, but also presenting my work in person to people whose recognition matters. I realized that downplaying my own looks, as I had tended to do out of fear or contrariness or idiotic ideology, was a pointless form of denial. Of course how I look and what I wear matter! If fashion had taught me any lessons, it’s that you can use your appearance as a form of game theory – that looking good gets you where you want to go. My life is like an adventure – I’m the hero – and I need to dress for the part I want to play.
So instead of redesigning my blog, this time I decided to redesign myself very deliberately so I could put my face back on the blog to best advantage. I decided to take all my good features and just amplify them slightly – so I made my hair blonder, had my eyebrows done professionally, and selected more modern frames for my glasses. I upgraded my makeup routine to help me feel more confident in photographs. I very belatedly opened an Instagram account and started earnestly practicing the art of the self-portrait.
I also wanted to adapt my wardrobe to my work. Last season I had the chance to attend the Oscar de la Renta show, and while it was incredibly exciting just to be there, it threw into stark relief my biggest problem at fashion week – I never know how to dress. Surrounded by a crowd of people with money, taste, and access the the best clothing in the world, I very much felt like a scruffy interloper, and being very pointedly placed behind a pillar so I wouldn’t be caught photobombing inside the photographer’s frames made it clear that I needed to overcome this problem. It felt at that moment like there was a glass wall between me and the world I was sketching, and yet somehow, I need to walk among the fashion elite. How am I going to do that?
Buying designer clothing isn’t an option. However, I know how to sew and I have a studio at my disposal, so I decided I would design my own solution. I made a shirt-dress inspired by artist’s smocks. The idea was, I wanted to look as much like a fashion illustrator as possible. Most people have no idea what that looks like, so to a large extent, I get to define it for myself. I thought, why not look like an artist, but a bit more chic? I like the idea of wearing a working uniform – as far as fashion goes, I’m not a natural born peacock, and I love simple, practical clothing. I took my cue from people like Karl Lagerfeld and Bill Cunningham – creating a single signature look that can be repeated, until your image itself becomes a kind of logo. Above is the first prototype. The idea is, it is a versatile garment that can be worn belted or loose, open or closed, as a dress or as a shirt. It has lots of pockets for all my pens and stuff. This is just the first one, but I want to make many more variations in several colours. I like careful cuts and crisp, classic details, and though it was labour intensive, this project felt incredibly satisfying. This is the beginning of something.
I also made a purpose-built portfolio case for live runway sketching. I’ve decided on my ideal format after much trial and error – 12 x 16. So this bag is meant to hold paper of that size, but the main feature is a plexiglass window on one side that allows me to display my latest and greatest drawing to the world. Plus, the plexi keeps my papers from getting bent or damaged and offers a firm surface for me to draw on if I need it. I should have made this bag ages ago, I can’t wait to take it out to the field.
The upside of lean times is that I need them to grow. As an artist, I can’t keep a relentless momentum and produce consistent work constantly – sometimes it’s time to step back, live a little, take a long view and refocus. I feel more ready for a new season than I ever have before. I’m back in New York for the Spring 2014 shows, and ready to show my best work – and my best self.
I’m a fashion illustrator who dabbles in trend theory, not a gamer. When Jaime Woo asked me to interpret five female video game characters through the lens of fashion for Gamercamp, I approached the project as a total outsider. Video game heroines, to a fresh eye, are very peculiar indeed. The way they behave and dress reflects the male majority of their beholders. So how would they appear if they were style icons, appealing to a female gaze?
When I did my research, I found that video games and fashion share much in common. They’re both idealized universes full of strange characters, hierarchical in nature. Both are based on different notions of status; in one world, power is conferred by violence and skill, in the other, by snobbery and creativity. Just because fashion is perceived as “female” does not make it any better or fairer than “male” video games. The two are in many ways, more similar than dissimilar. Not the least is the way they are both demonized as a corruptor of youth. More positively, they offer safe virtual spaces where people can dream and act out their fantasies.
For each character, I have chosen a “Style Icon” as inspiration for their look, and chosen a designer collection to dress them in. What follows is my reasoning behind each illustrated interpretation.
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Chun-Li, Street Fighter
Style Icon: Anne Hathaway
Collection: Burberry Prorsum Spring 2013
I’ve chosen Anne Hathaway as iconic influence for the Chinese character Chun-Li because she is consistently popular in Chinese media for her clothing and appearance. Her porcelain complexion, large eyes and sophisticated yet conservative red carpet style resonate with contemporary Chinese beauty standards. Modern Chinese fashion favours familiar luxury brands, however the overtly logo-ed branding of Louis Vuitton is now falling out of favour for the more subtle (and more difficult to procure in China) Burberry. The Chinese conception of glamour is hyper-feminine, wealth-driven and yet also understated, and you never see Chinese actresses wearing “oriental” fashions on the red carpet. Therefore I’ve taken a departure from Chun-Li’s traditional look to one that is more about saying “money” as demurely as possible, with a British accent. Conveniently, the Spring 2013 Burberry Prorsum collection featured a variety of booty shorts to accommodate Chun-Li’s high kicks.
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Commander Shepard, Mass Effect
Style Icon: Daphne Guinness
Collection: Gareth Pugh Spring 2009
Daphne Guinness is both an aristocratic authority figure and an artistic iconoclast; I think her style is suitable for Commander Shepard because she champions individuality over ‘robotic’ sameness (paralleling Shepard’s mission), while at the same time affecting costumes that are aggressive and strong. One of the designers Guinness favours is Gareth Pugh. I’ve chosen Pugh’s Spring 2009 collection because of a stunning series of armour-like outfits in black and white. I used some artistic license and rendered the design in red & white, to reflect the character’s original design. The earrings are loosely based on the Laruicci designs worn by Beyonce with another Gareth Pugh outfit in her “Run the World” video.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider
Style Icon: Sienna Miller
Collection: Saint Laurent Paris Spring 2013
Lara Croft’s antecedents are aristocratic, yet she chose the adventurous career of an archaeologist, so I’ve chosen Sienna Miller as her icon because that actress came from a very wealthy background but became known for sporting a very “bohemian” style that plays down her own privilege. Miller is also known for her braided hairdos which is likewise a Croft signature. For the collection, I’ve chosen one of the controversial Saint Laurent Paris collections by Hedi Slimane – his rich girls also reject their European blue blood by dressing inspired by “the streets” of California, and notoriously not even carrying handbags. They also wear broad-brimmed hats which seem to be occasionally sported by Croft.
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Mileena, Mortal Kombat
Style Icon: Lindsay Lohan
Collection: Balmain Spring 2011
Mileena’s unhinged aspect immediately suggested Lindsay Lohan as her icon – Lohan’s got this scattershot fashion sense that occasionally veers towards the overly-revealing. She’s often also unashamedly dishevelled, with overprocessed, unkempt hair and a disregard for details. Balmain SS11 is the perfect collection for Mileena because it’s essentially made for a hot mess of a rich girl, outrageous tastelessness rendered uber-fashionable by the fact that it’s very, very expensive.
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Princess Zelda, The Legend of Zelda
Style Icon: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
Collection: Alexander McQueen Fall 2008
The Duchess of Cambridge is the ultimate fashion princess of our times, and is often seen wearing Alexander McQueen in his posthumous, polite incarnation as a national hero. However, for Princess Zelda, I’d like to dress her highness in the more subversive designs of the designer while he was still alive. McQueen has often been characterized as using violence against women as an emotional and creative instigator. McQueen’s clothing plays on ideas of female submission and corrupted power which I think makes it suitable for a permanently kidnapped heroine. The Fall 2008 collection, appropriately inspired by British colonialism, features some spectacular diadems which I understand are Zelda’s signature.
Fashion is the devil in the mirror. Fashion is a signal of antisocial behaviour – the sins of vanity and excess, deviance, raising fears of false appearances. Fashion in ancient woodcuts is demonized.
Throughout history, there are always small groups of fashion extremists and individual eccentrics who take fashion well into the moral panic zone, occasionally even risking their lives for it. We consume a lot of breathless media outrage about these outsiders, even as we forget that the vast majority of ordinary people just aren’t fashion nuts and just don’t find freakish fashion victimhood appealing enough to be corrupted by it. As Valerie Steele argued in her book, our perception of corsetry through illustration and other propaganda is (surprise!) revealed to be vastly exaggerated when the physical evidence is examined.
Since medieval times, women’s predilection for fashion has been cast as a form of moral and physical weakness. And in a way, it is. Historically prevented from competing fairly in the arena of work or sport or ideas, the most accessible competitive edge for most women was (and often still is) their appearances. The adoption of forms of fashion, occasionally to extremes, is a social stepping stone for the disenfranchised.
Fashionable moral panics directed at women are always concerned with authenticity and purity – the cultural majority is obsessed with the biological implications of women who appear more fertile than they in fact are, or who allow fashion to interfere with their apparent fertility. These days, female-focused fashion moral panics are concerned with plastic surgery, age- and sex-appropriate dressing, and dieting. Whether it’s a woodcut or a tabloid, the essential message from the mainstream is a biological directive, not a rational one: “don’t misrepresent or impair your ability to carry on the human race.”
Ever since youth culture emerged in the mid 20th century, the establishment’s moral policing is often directed at youth. Fashion is often the scapegoat, the shorthand, simply because it’s a visible phenomenon and that’s all most people have time for. The fashionable moral panic of the time, is a symbol if its time. These days, it’s hoodies.
Youth often choose their fashions to deliberately provoke panic. As this documentary points out, the demonization of deviant youth culture only serves to make it more attractive. The media moral panics directed at youth are particularly poignant because in the struggle for control of the media, youth always lose the battle but win, insidiously and inevitably, by eventually becoming the media. The corruption of culture is the evolution of culture.
Participating in mainstream outrage is a waste of time when the panic is focused on a superficial image rather than an actual problem. Fashion is a self-correcting phenomenon – as it reaches the extreme limits of physical possibility, or approaches mainstream ubiquity, it loses its power and the trend will turn on a dime. Sumptuary laws across time and cultures have failed again and again to control fashionable excess as effectively as fashionable excess curbs itself. As for causing human extinction or destroying civilization, fashion has been an utter failure.
No one’s willing to pay for reality. Why should they? We all get it every day for free. Reality is not an industry. Fashion is. Every time I read an argument for why fashion should more accurately reflect reality, my gut reaction is What? Why? No! But of course I would say that, I’m a fashion illustrator.
Above on the right is an iconic photograph of fashion model Alek Wek by Herb Ritts. Wek is already an unusual example of a human being, with exaggerated features and proportions. She represents a type of beauty which is so extreme, she seems like an otherworldly, fantastic creature. Despite this already outrageous figure reference, when I interpret the same image in illustration, I exaggerate her look even further. Even a bizarre form of beauty isn’t quite extreme enough for me. This is why I’m an illustrator and not a photographer – I resist being limited to the way things are. My drawings are a fantasy, processed through the distorted lens of my own imagination.
Sometimes, I attend life drawing classes for practice, but I find I can’t ever seem to represent the model as she actually is, even if I try. My lines always remodel the model into whatever I want her to be. I guess I’m most interested in trying to interpret the current fashionable ideal – because that is what fashion illustration is. If fashion illustration reflected the way people actually looked, it would just be… illustration.
The most challenging brief for any fashion image creator is to produce something that is both “realistic” and “aspirational” because these two concepts cancel each other out. This is why I find media artifacts like the so-called “real beauty” campaign more unsettling than reassuring. They confuse the viewer, calling a subtler, more insidious version of idealization ‘reality’. A realistic ideal is an oxymoron. I much prefer to see a dramatic divide between ideal and reality, because the corrosive effects of a beauty ideal seem to occur when impressionable minds conflate fantasy and reality. I desire a beauty ideal that is so extreme, it is clear that it is a form of entertainment, a dream world, as distinct from the real world as an action movie or a video game.
Like any form of glamour, fashion doesn’t owe reality anything. If you want to see reality, you can find it elsewhere, everywhere, free of charge.
Why are there no recognizable new fashion critics? You would think, with an abundance of free media for the taking, one or two strong fresh voices would rise to challenge the established names and push this type of writing further. I can only think of a few who have more recently made a strong impression with personality and flair, only to abandon the form. Alexander Fury did consistently insightful and contextual reviews for SHOWstudio – he has now moved into an editorial position at LOVE. Sarah Nicole Prickett brought a sharp eye and sharper pen for a few memorable seasons in Toronto and New York. Now she no longer writes about fashion. Further off the radar, I enjoy the brief, sensitive, poetic reviews on Fashion156 by John Michael O’Sullivan of 1972 Projects – his unique work does not enjoy the attention I think it deserves.
There are many possibilities for fashion criticism that haven’t yet been played out, but for all the critics’ protests about the encroachment of the bloggers, isn’t it odd that so few bloggers are actually challenging them with direct competition? What does that mean for the future of fashion criticism?
Fashion has changed. Fashion criticism has stayed the same. Same names, same game. We often forget that fashion criticism in its narrowest form is a fairly recent development – in the 1990s. Fashion criticism emerged just as more academic and intellectual interest was focused on fashion for the first time, while at the same time supermodels legitimized fashion with popular attention. Most importantly, newspaper journalism had not yet been transformed by the media revolution. Fertile ground for fashion criticism existed for less than a decade. Since then, no new seeds have taken root.
The internet, for all of its many benefits, is a terrible environment for fashion criticism. The paradox of free speech is that it’s more in the sense of free market than it is like actual freedom. Horyn, Menkes, Alexander, McDowell and their contemporaries all have the tremendous subsidy of a major media corporation that protects their freedom of speech for them. Freelancers and bloggers, on the other hand, have to look out for themselves. Being critical isn’t good business in fashion. There are no economic advantages to it. It’s also tremendously difficult to do well, and be popular doing it, since it is a somewhat intramural, confrontational pursuit. Fashion is wary of words. For fashion criticism to survive and thrive, it needs at least one degree of separation between the creator and the money required to support their work.
A great fashion critic needs to be an outsider’s insider. They need to be obsessive and knowledgable about fashion history, recent and past, and also be well versed in the culture at large as well. Able to grasp the technical language of fashion as well as being able to interpret an expressive, visual phenomenon using words, without falling into the claptrap of cliches. Ideally, the critic needs to be able to write about a narrow topic in an expansive way that would also draw in the casual reader. A strong personality is a major plus. It is no wonder so few bloggers or young writers have such a unique combination of exceptional talents, not to mention the encouragement to pursue criticism as a career.
When I was reading the fashion criticism on offer this season, I was frustrated. The old guard seemed far older than usual – griping about bloggers and email invitations, bemoaning the digital influence on design. Many missives seemed to be pining for the glory days of fashion criticism rather than keeping up with ever-changing fashion as it is NOW. There were two insights in particular that I was looking for and never found – a dispassionate, up-to-date commentary on the effects of the media revolution on fashion, and a cool consideration of why, exactly, Hedi Slimane is offending the fashion establishment so much right now.
It’s clear that if I want to read these things, I will have to write them myself, and this post is a stab in that direction. Perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I think I’m in an ideal position to experiment with fashion criticism. Since my writing is wholly un-monetized and somewhat distanced from my business as an illustrator, I have more freedom in what I choose to write about than most. I also have the freedom of time – unlike a newspaper reporter, I have the privilege to ponder, research and wait for a genuine insight to emerge rather than racing to cover a particular event in a timely fashion. I also want to stretch fashion criticism beyond its traditional format of runway reviews and designer profiles, because really, it could be so much more.
Are you aware of any fresh voices in fashion criticism? I’d love to learn their names. What do you think the future of fashion criticism should be like?
What’s your culture to metaculture ratio? I think I consume about 1:1. To be honest, I don’t understand the academic explanation for metaculture. In my own simple way, I think of metaculture like an eddy formation, where culture turns in on itself like a whirlpool.
Metaculture is when something is about the thing that it is. So like, a movie about making a movie. I saw a gallery show once which was all black paintings. No colour, no narrative, no context, nothing but brushstrokes. The paintings seemed to be about nothing, except the act of making a painting. Or a book that calls attention to itself as a book, like a novel with footnotes. Or a tuxedo t-shirt – trompe l’oeil is nothing but clothes with clothes on. A tweet about tweeting. And so on.
Since metaculture is culture about culture – that also includes criticism, comment threads, panel discussions, blog posts, academic writing, and so on. The culture out there is now so massive and complex, I need help to understand and navigate it all. Sometimes I listen to reviews of books and movies I have no intention of viewing or reading, just so I can feel like I’ve got a handle on the cultural zeitgeist. I’m consuming secondary culture in a primary way.
Metaculture feels necessary and inevitable. It can also feel like a downward spiral. Like a trap. The scary thing about metaculture is that it doesn’t open up possibilities – it shuts them down. For instance, literature about literature is appealing to writers and critics who spend their lives immersed in literature, but totally fails to connect with people outside of that small, rarefied world. While metaculture is often acclaimed within its own sphere, it has little universal appeal. Metaculture sections off and isolates its participants.
This has a homogenizing effect, creating stagnant pools of static culture. I’ve noticed this in personal style blogging, clustered around websites like IFB. Since all of these fashion bloggers are following each other, along with the same set of media outlets, and using the same resources for advice, that particular niche is suffering from a certain pervasive same-ness. This is one of the reasons that my advice to young people interested in fashion is to consume a broad and varied cultural diet (and to be wary of advice). In fashion, there are many people who only take inspiration from within the realm of fashion itself – the result is a dearth of novelty and a certain tone-deafness to the rest of the world.
I think all culture moves in spiral formations. For myself, I am now trying to avoid inward-facing metaculture spirals and move toward spiralling out. There’s something that unites great culture – it takes on the big, universal unknowns – what is this life? Why are we here? The things we all share – love, hate, joy, pain, beauty, death, loss and discovery – that’s where the real stories are. Great culture is inclusive, not exclusive – it offers something any human being can access. There’s something so much more exciting and expansive about culture that attempts to be bigger than itself. Culture about itself delivers diminishing returns – taken to its inevitable conclusion, it becomes absurd.
Another quasi-metaculture trap that seems to trip up female creatives in particular is turning themselves into the subject. How do you make your work bigger than yourself, when the work is yourself? Even as a blogger, I’ve noticed that posts about myself attract much more attention than posts about abstract ideas, or the visual work (where I am not the subject) that I spend most of my time creating. It’s easy to see the temptation to put yourself on display in some way, if it gathers more eyeballs and reactions than anything else. And yet, I resist it, for two reasons. One – just because the mainstream culture rewards women for being contained (or chained) to their physical bodies, doesn’t mean I have to pander to it. Two – because it can turn you into a parody of yourself, quicker than you’d think. The end game is not pretty.
There are so many reasons why we are living in an era of metaculture. We’re still grappling with a new communications technology revolution, so it makes sense that much of what we create is so concerned with the particular devices we’re creating it on. The sheer volume and complexity of culture, now so easily accessible, makes referencing like a medium unto itself – the mash-uppers, the collage artists, the curators – all necessary and interesting developments.
I don’t think metaculture should be feared – even if it does seem like a harbinger of our own end-times. Just as we are consuming the planet until there’s nothing left, perhaps human culture is mirroring that entropy by turning inwards and consuming itself.
Toronto welcomed me back with warm hugs, a sweet solo sublet, and a polished new surface. Being back in Toronto is like seeing an ex years later and they’ve had a makeover and look better than you ever remembered, and guess what, they’re sweet and steady and still like you too. London is like the more recent, exciting, high-maintenance ex who looked so sophisticated on your arm and made all your friends jealous of you while emptying your wallet and playing football with your heart.
Perhaps it’s obvious that I’ve been reading Great Expectations.
When you’re going through a transition is everyone wants to know what your plans are. I’m not great at planning so I was reluctant to announce them, but initially my intention was to apply for a French visa so I could spend 2013 in Paris. This plan was not conceived with any real idea of how I would accomplish it. As I took the first steps to assemble the paperwork required it became clear that the combination of two national bureaucracies was creating tangled logjam of arbitrary requirements that would take almost a year to sort out.
This discovery was somewhat discouraging, and yet overall I felt nonplussed. I’ve noticed something in myself as I get older, that I don’t understand how I really feel about anything while it’s happening. Realizations that explain my own behaviour tend to unfold in my consciousness a few weeks later at the earliest. This also reveals why I can’t write about topical things in a timely manner.
So I’ve been slow to sum up this change in my life. I’m still not sure yet how I feel about where I am, and where I want to be. I’m in the rather wonderful position of having created a ‘location independent’ career. I have zero familial, social, financial, or professional obligations to be at any particular place at any particular time. I am reluctant to squander this unprecedented level of freedom that has been granted to me by circumstance and technology.
I do still want to go back to Paris, whether for an extended vacation or for a bit longer if possible. I also want to spend more time in New York. I don’t have the intention to settle in either of these places, but I feel that the experience of London was an expansive one, and a necessary part of my continuing education. Spending a longer period of time in a fashion capital genuinely changes the way that you think about the subject. Being in a international, culturally dominant city makes you up your game as a creator and a careerist. I feel that I escaped a certain provincial ignorance and developed greater humility by abandoning my local identity. My work is more sophisticated and confident now than ever, and now I have a much more realistic sense of what level I am at relative to my contemporaries, my craft, and the total arc of my life and career.
Continuing to pursue the unknown, to throw myself into the milieu of fashion capitals will always be a necessary part of defining my career. I will do this; I just need to figure out logistically, how.
Another upside of being location independent is that there is no need to sacrifice all the comforts of life to location either, especially as I enter my thirties. Fashion capitals are exciting, and also expensive, snobby, exhausting places to live. I don’t want to live life trapped in a platinum champagne bucket full of pretty perfect popular people. All I need is a modest yet gracious space to work and sleep, and a variegated social life full of many types of friendly people who don’t take fashion too seriously. All of these things can be found in places much less competitive and demanding than London, Paris or New York.
The downside, if it could be called that, of location independence is the overwhelming array of options available. Having so many choices open to me doesn’t make figuring out what I want to do any easier. I’m following my own advice now – embracing the void, and letting the answer reveal itself in the absence of anything else. How profound, to be in the powerful position of designing my physical life to accommodate a career that has become utterly intangible.
The Spring 2013 season skidded to an awkward finish with a bitter aftertaste. The breathless anticipation suffocating the collections at Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior ensured that whatever walked down the runway was bound to disappoint. There’s no way the designers could satisfy our collective imaginations with mere clothes. The louder the hype, the fainter the hope.
In the end, both Simons and Slimane delivered what they were hired to deliver, as best they could in high pressure corporate environments. Two professional, polished, on-point, collections. No rough edges, no surprises.
The notorious feud between New York Times critic Cathy Horyn and Hedi Slimane that ensued, to me, wasn’t just a spat; it was indicative of fashion’s ongoing tensions with the world of words.
The axis of images and words is of particular interest to me as an illustrator who loves to write. Images are the id; words are the ego. Fashion is a visual world – images always come first, and they’re always stronger. Words are an upstart force in fashion – but they have their own pugnacious power that cannot be denied. Especially now that the discourse of fashion takes place online, words matter more than ever before.
Fashion designers have to have tremendous visual intelligence to do their job well. They process their world in pictures; they produce appearances, not analysis. If you’ve ever seen an interview with a fashion designer, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re not as smart or interesting as you thought they were. The truth is, most designers don’t thrive in vocabulary-demanding environments like panel discussions. They’re not usually very articulate people. But that doesn’t mean they’re not smart – fashion design is too difficult, you need be a near-genius polymath just to keep your head above water in that business. Literary abilities aren’t necessarily a requirement, however.
The rare fashion designers that do have a way with words possess a kind of superpower as brand builders. Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford are the outliers – fashion designers that can turn a phrase as deftly as they can turn heads can consistently deflect their critics. The rest of them, when they’re confronted with the written word, are operating at a significant handicap.
Fashion criticism is a recent development – Horyn herself dates its genesis to the 1990s. It was that decade when fashion started to get intellectual – for the first time fashion was deemed worthy of academic study and critical analysis, and fashion writing became something more than elevated ad copy. Up until that point, fashion designers almost never had to deal with any kind of intelligent discussion of their work – that’s why most of the fashion designers who balk at being written about – Armani and De La Renta come to mind – belong to an older generation. But even for younger designers, the sense of entitlement to keep the power of their images from being trivialized by mere words runs deep.
When Slimane chose to confront Horyn’s dismissal of his collection on her terms, he was stepping well out of his comfort zone. It’s even symbolic that he chose to format his defence as an image rather than text – subconsciously he must have understood that he was fighting a losing battle on uneven ground. In the word-dominant domain of blogs and social networks, it seemed unanimous that the ‘winner’ of this lost-in-translation bitchfest was clearly Cathy Horyn.
And yet, it seems that Slimane will win the war. Image is always far more indelible than words. Far more universal, too – unlimited by language barriers or differences in education. The relative influence of a New York Times column is minor compared to an expensive international onslaught of advertising. Horyn’s words might mean something within the fashion bubble for a week or so, but just one month later, the persuasive vision of Slimane’s dark Californian dream that is oh-so potent right now (it belongs to the same trend as pop phenomenon Lana Del Rey), is what the rest of the world is left with. Fashion criticism has no afterlife in our culture. The clothes – and the images – will echo through the collective consciousness long after the feud is forgotten.
I have been live sketching runway shows for a little over five years now. Above on the left is an early runway sketch, Jeremy Laing Spring 2008. On the right is a recent sketch, Jean Pierre Braganza Spring 2013. You can see the progress between these two examples by scrolling back through my archives – not that I would encourage that use of your time. To my eyes now, I think what I have developed over ten seasons of hustling my way into fashion shows in six cities and sketching what I see is a nascent sense of sophistication – an early iteration of elegance. After five years of trying, I’m just beginning to master this anachronistic art form.
A few weeks ago, I was revising my portfolio and looking through the work I’ve created over the past few years. I’m not the sort of person who looks backwards much – I prefer futurism to sentimentality – so this experience was both psychologically uncomfortable and eye-opening. I realized that it was only early this year – 2012 – that my work both as a writer and as an illustrator made a quantum leap. It may be barely perceptible to anyone else, but I felt that something profound had changed in the way I create, without me even being aware of it. Before that invisible transition, my work seems provincial and sophomoric, and yet of course, I didn’t realize it at the time I was doing it.
The shifting levels of ability and taste rarely match as you develop your craft. Usually as a young person, your ability will exceed your taste. You will create questionable work with naive facility, and be irrationally proud of it without recognizing its shortcomings. If you continue, an imperceptible reversal occurs, when your taste exceeds your ability. Education and experience will reveal to you where your lack of skills limit you. Everything you create will fail to satisfy you. This is the stage where you will be truly tested – discontent and discouragement will divide the dabblers from the dedicated.
I joked the other day about giving advice to struggling young creatives – “quit and get a real job, clear the field for stubborn perma-bohemians like me”. It is kind of mean and it is kind of true. We live in a time where the visual arts are saturated with young people who have been encouraged to pursue a creative career, all thrashing it out on the lower levels, resulting in all the ubiquitous internships and other forms of subsidized bohemia. Those who survive the economic necessity of mass attrition to become true professionals will only make it due to sheer persistence. Both the persistence to overcome the financial difficulty of getting through the beginning of a career, and the persistence to invest all the thousands of hours it takes to actually develop the taste, skill and intelligence to contribute something of cultural significance.
I just turned 30. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, even though I’m not as far ahead in my career as I thought I would be a decade ago. Back then, I vastly underestimated the challenges I would face and I overestimated my own talents and the modern viability of this specific niche. And yet, now that I have a much more nuanced understanding of what I’m attempting to do, I feel more determined than ever to continue, no matter how many years it takes.
When I investigate the masters of fashion illustration that I admire – especially the live runway illustrators like Joe Eula and Kenneth Paul Block – I notice that very few of them achieved acclaim until they had already banked decades of practice. Consistent elegance of line is a quality that the young do not have – barring the outlying cases of child prodigies – it is earned only with experience.
Mastering an art could be defined as that point where your abilities finally match your sense of taste. There’s only one way to get there.