Challenging the Orthodoxy of Fashion from Within


Caroline Evans & Susanna Strömquist in Conversation

Thirteen · Challenging the Orthodoxy of Fashion from Within

Critical Fashion Project

In this conversation, fashion journalist and critic Susanna Strömquist talks to Caroline Evans, Professor Emerita at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) about criticality in fashion through the lens of Evans’ groundbreaking book Fashion at the Edge. Published in 2003, it deals with radical designers in the 1990s, often labelled “conceptual designers”, such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Martin Margiela, who – from within the fashion system – questioned the very definition of fashion. As Evans writes: “Many of the designers of the 1990s discussed here regarded it as hypocrisy simply to present happy, shiny images, rather than exploring the entire range of human emotion and experience. For them, it went without saying that fashion was an appropriate arena in which to investigate the complexities of modern life.” By re-visiting Fashion at the Edge, it becomes clear that even though critical fashion practice wasn’t a concept in the 1990s, it definitely existed as a phenomenon.

Fashion historian and theorist Caroline Evans remembers exactly where and when she decided to write Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness (2003).1 A seminal book contextualizing a generation of radical fashion designers that defined the 90s. From Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela to Hussein Chalayan.

Caroline Evans: I was in an exhibition at the Barbican in London and I was really tired, so I just sat looking at a looped film of Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape show, again and again. Originally my intention for the book was to cover a much wider sweep of contemporary culture, based on the idea of the medusa. But this was the exact moment when I realized that there was no point in writing about what was going on in contemporary art as it had already been done, but that no one had written about how those same ideas also permeated fashion. I found it a real challenge, and ended up writing three different drafts before finding a way of placing the designers in the foreground, while simultaneously threading historical and theoretical references throughout the text.

Susanna Strömquist: What was it that was going on in contemporary culture at the time that caught your imagination and sparked the idea of writing a book about cutting edge fashion?

CE: Well, it’s not like anything happened really suddenly. But I certainly had a sense of the culture nearing the end of a whole bad century, a sense that the terrible things that had happened, sometimes decades earlier, had piled up and were still with us. The idea of historical haunting was central to the book, and I drew on the literary theorist Jean-Michel Rabaté’s idea of “the ghosts of modernity”. There was a sort of millennial feel to things, a sense of the end of a century, and of apocalypse, that you found in fashion as well as in the contemporary art scene at the time.

SS: In the introduction of Fashion at the Edge you write that “From ‘heroin chic’ to Alexander McQueen, the distressed body of much 1990s fashion exhibited the symptoms of trauma, the fashion show mutated into performance and a new kind of conceptual fashion designer evolved.”.2 How would you define this new conceptual fashion?

CE: It is true that I did write those words but, looking back, I don’t feel so confident in designating that generation of designers as “conceptual”. It was just one type of design I was writing about and it was particularly apocalyptic, or you could say gothic. It was full of very dark themes, a preoccupation with death, trauma, alienation and decay, but not exclusively, because I also wrote about designers like Hussein Chalayan, who looked at social and political themes like migration. But I find it a little difficult now to think of it as conceptual fashion, because that could incorporate so many other things.

SS: Maybe today we would use the term critical fashion?

CE: Yes, I relate to that more. One of the things that really interested me about the designers I was writing about was that they were so firmly embedded in the system. They were not anti-fashion or anti-capitalist. And yet they were making this work that was very dark and that seemed to go against the prevailing idea that fashion has to be happy and frivolous, and should not concern itself with anything that is social or political. Particularly with Alexander McQueen, I wrote quite a lot about the combination of sex, dress and money, because I think commerce is really present in that mix.

“There was, as I remember it, a feeling of contemporary fashion gaining in cultural legitimacy in the 90s.”
— Susanna Strömquist

SS: As you mentioned, the fashion and art scenes of the 90s were part of the same apocalyptic zeitgeist, but as I understand it, in your opinion fashion is never to be confused with art?

CE: I have always been extremely impatient with those arguments that people made back then that fashion is art. For me, these designers’ work was highly creative, very thoughtful, and I guess you could say critical or questioning; but just because it was creative did not mean that it was art. I think the economics and the capital of art and fashion were different, and when I say capital I mean it in a Bourdieuian sense, to imply economic and cultural capital – the circuits of how art and fashion work are different. It does fashion a disservice to have to validate it by saying it is art, as it is already plenty interesting enough.

SS: There was however, as I remember it, a feeling of contemporary fashion gaining in cultural legitimacy in the 90s. Museums and art galleries started taking an interest in fashion, and the academic journal Fashion Theory which was launched at the time established a forum for theoretical discussions. Do you think this new interest in theorizing and contextualizing contemporary fashion influenced fashion design practice at the time?

“It does fashion a disservice to have to validate it by saying it is art, as it is already plenty interesting enough.”
— Caroline Evans

CE: Yes, I would say so. I think perhaps contemporary fashion became more visible overall through these new structures, with exhibitions in museums, and prestigious publishing houses becoming interested in fashion titles. When I first started teaching in art schools in the late 1980s, 80 percent of the students’ degree would be fashion design and 20 percent would be cultural, contextual or critical studies. Often, there was a real hostility to theory, and the design tutors in particular thought it was stupid and pointless. There was sometimes even a bit of a war between the tutors on both sides. I think the designers sometimes thought the cultural studies side of it was pretentious and over intellectualizing. That really changed over the 1990s and early 2000s.

SS: Would you say that there was a specific aesthetic that defined the critical or conceptual designers that you were analysing?

CE: In Fashion at the Edge I only wrote about extreme extravagance or an aesthetic of contrived poverty, but there is also a whole other strand of 90s designers. The Belgians like Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester were very important. I would not say that they were oppositional but they were certainly critical as designers, perhaps in terms of ideas about taste and what is appropriate for fashion, with a sort of anti-glamorous aesthetic. Then there is also a whole strand of minimalism in 90s fashion, with people like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander who are interesting, the kind of designers that architects wore. It’s a modernist aesthetic, very anti-decorative. It’s often about the beauty and quality of the materials. I wonder if that very austere aesthetic can be perceived as a kind of critique of the excess and decoration of other types of fashion. Perhaps that brings us to the critique of ideals of fashion that now feels very stereotypical: fashion as fun, decorative and superficial.

SS: Talking about critique of ideals, would you say that the critique can be embedded in the garment itself?

CE: It is a great question, and yes – I think so. But perhaps in answering it we might have to historicize things. I certainly think if you look at the first Comme des Garçons collections, or if you look at Helmut Lang, the clothes were very definitely a critique; and following on from that, also the make up. I remember a Comme des Garçons make up that was all smudgy, lipstick that was not on the lips, or eyeshadow that looked like a bruise next to the eye, as though it had fallen off. I would say that this is a design-led, practice-led challenge to the orthodoxy of the fashion industry. A challenge to the idea of what is sexy, or what is feminine, or even what is glamourous. And let’s not forget the Belgian designer Martin Margiela, he is really important.

SS: What about Martin Margiela?

CE: One of Martin Margiela’s most incredible innovations, besides his conceptual collections, was the way he showed. He really took himself outside of the institution, critiquing the whole idea of a fashion week and a fashion show, and of being on schedule, by sending out invitations that did not look like invitations and showing in unexpected, off locations. Actually, the way of showing was important for the “conceptual” designers in London as well. You had the official schedule organized by the British Fashion Council, and then you had an alternative that was called off schedule. The BFC was really criticised in the 90s as offering no support at all to young, emerging designers. All those designers I was writing about initially showed off schedule because they could not get on to the official one. They had to show in weird places like, in the case of McQueen, a church in East London. Today the East End is super fashionable, but it really was not at the time.

SS: Besides the lack of support, what other factors informed this new, influential generation of London fashion talents and their critical perspective on the establishment?

CE: To start with – there was a recession, no infra-structure, no support. There really was nothing. The designers had to work to make their offer stand out to get press, and backers. There is a great quote in Fashion at the Edge by the designer Fabio Piras who said “There was no money so we were all fashion desperados”: an analogy with the Wild West, and getting on your horse and just sort of making it all up.

It’s like with the pop artists in the 60s. There is a story that when the artist Peter Blake was still a student he didn’t have a subject matter, and his tutor said to him – why don’t you just paint the stuff that’s all around you? That’s when he started looking at advertising and popular culture and things that were not a subject matter for the arts, supposedly. And in a way, perhaps the British fashion designers of the 90s just looked at the world around them and didn’t see a reason for not including it. There was a sense that you could make work about the wider world, and perhaps to those designers that felt more truthful.

SS: Going back to Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, what would you say made her design so influential?

CE: I would say that all the Japanese designers of the early 80s were definitely doing something very radical and questioning, but again, like the London 90s designers, always from within fashion. Issey Miyake put on exhibitions and installations but he still wanted to sell his collections as fashion. And Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto did extraordinary things, not least in menswear. But then again, they didn’t just want to do something arty outside of fashion, they really wanted to succeed within fashion, in an industry where you buy and sell things. That’s why they decided to show in Paris. Because they knew they would never have been taken seriously in Japan if they had just stayed there, so they had to go to Paris and show there as international designers to get the recognition they wanted.

When I saw Comme des Garçons for the first time in the early 80s it felt really new. I wished I could afford to buy the stuff. Having never really wanted Versace or whoever went before, I had been perfectly happy wrapping myself up in quite punky clothing, but Comme des Garçons was like a breath of fresh air. Although the press response was, in my view, really stupid and bigoted, I kind of understood it, because Comme was so different. Why did I love Comme so much? It’s hard to analyse but I guess it was partly to do with the fact that I identified as a feminist, and as critical of the dominant culture. But it was also partly to do with taste. It came after punk, and felt like part of its legacy. Punk was, if you like, critical design. There were Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shops, like SEX in the King’s Road, but punk was largely made by those who wore it. It was not really designer fashion, but there was a sense of real criticality in it, a sense of taking on the establishment.

“Why did I love Comme so much? It’s hard to analyse but I guess it was partly to do with the fact that I identified as a feminist, and as critical of the dominant culture.”
— Caroline Evans

SS: I suppose we are coming back to our main topic here – what do we mean by critical fashion practice?

CE: Yes, and as I see it, it does not necessarily mean “against the fashion system” because that would be more like the sort of ethical and sustainability debates you find in Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E. Hoskins. Hers is a very well conceived book but it is a critique of fashion as an industry, and of existing modes of production, rather than of fashion itself. And that is coming from a slightly different place; such an attitude, with a whole set of associated ideas, would certainly have to be looped into what critical design might be. But I guess you would also have to look at “fashion design criticality” as something that exists, or can exist, within the fashion design process itself, not as something that wants to take itself outside fashion in order to critique it. And it is really difficult, to think how to do that. But as we discussed earlier, I am convinced that design in itself certainly can issue a challenge; criticality can be constituted through a kind of practice or a design process, rather than through speaking, writing or other forms of verbal communication that obviously may be helpful in telling a story. But I am not sure about the situation nowadays – the culture is so much more heterogeneous today that it is hard to imagine design being able to be so powerful.

SS: Looking back, the 90s appears to have been a particularly experimental and radical time in fashion.

CE: Yes, the big luxury brands are more cautious today, not necessarily for the best reasons. They have to be seen to be doing it right, they don’t want anyone blacklisting them and not buying their things. On the other hand, there is a whole new generation of smaller, independent labels, like Pyer Moss whose designer Kerby Jean-Raymond made his catwalk a platform for political activism in his spring 2016 collection by showing a film highlighting US police racism that lost him a lot of sales. Since then, social commentary on the catwalk has become his signature and we have also seen many other fashion designers, and design itself, becoming similarly critical and provocative in many different, and expanded, ways. But, it’s hard for emerging designers today, because you are not designing in a vacuum, you are designing in an industry context and it is certainly more difficult with the corporate decisions that are being made. But I am a huge advocate of people who make creative work and I would like to think fashion design could still be very powerful. New debates are still emerging in the context of movements like Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and fashion is not immune to them. This is a moment of tremendous potential for critical design.

SS: In a way, the cautiousness of today’s luxury fashion industry that you mention seems almost like the opposite of the questioning and provocative attitude of designers like Martin Margiela and Alexander McQueen.

“If you look at critical design as a spectrum, maybe provocation is at one extreme, and perhaps at the other extreme is socially progressive or utopian desire, which is where fashion activism might fit […].”
— Caroline Evans

CE: Yes, you are right, and I think they even wanted to do something offensive sometimes. They had quite a lot in common with punk as it was in London in the late 70s. And a lot of feminists considered punk anti-feminist, so yes, it is design that perhaps doesn’t feel comfortable to everyone. It’s not progressive thinking (if you are a person of the left), but it’s more in your face, sometimes using offence as a strategy.

How would fashion be “offensive” today, I wonder. Sometimes it seems only in the wrong way, like Gucci or Prada’s recent black-face designs: what were they thinking? There is of course a degree of responsibility required in design. But looking at the bigger picture, I think there is also a polemical potential (and this is a complex issue) in stirring up society by being offensive, something that was a tactic in the Western avant gardes from Dada and onwards. So, whether that is critical design or not, it could still be a stratagem. I wonder how it could become a tactic to be harnessed in the service of social activism and challenging design today. I would definitely put it on the table to be considered. Because it’s sort of performative. It’s like a modernist tradition of street offence or performance, and I do see this as an irruption in contemporary culture too.

SS: Do you think that there is a connection between critical design and a certain set of values or ideologies?

CE: I think that most of the designers we have been talking about have some sort of sense of belonging, of being embedded in the society, enough to want to critique it. But the question of polemics is interesting. The question that we just came around to now, of design that simply challenges or provokes, is a kind of an anarchist stratagem, even if those designers would never identify as anarchists. But it comes back to intentionality, and there’s something important about provocation itself. As a stratagem, it is a difficult, sometimes troubling, position. If you look at critical design as a spectrum, maybe provocation is at one extreme, and perhaps at the other extreme is socially progressive or utopian desire, which is where fashion activism might fit (even if it is problematic to align social justice with utopianism today, when the righting of terrible wrongs seems the only imperative). Because we haven’t really been talking about utopias, but they have to be part of the discussion as well, even if today’s climate seems antithetical to utopian ideals. And I suppose you could go back to the Russian revolution and look at all those wonderful structuralist textiles and clothing and theatre designs that had a utopian element to them, like Rodchenko and his incredible boiler suit that was a revolutionary garment. It was amazing. The idea that art and design have the power to transform everyday life was a revolutionary ideal, and sometimes it is hard to believe in that power nowadays. Perhaps utopianism is one strand of this complex mix, and provocation could be another strand. And social critique, or socially-engaged design, could be a third. I keep coming back to this, but I really believe in the transformative power of design and art – and I do want to believe that you can still design something eloquent and game changing. ⬤

Written by Susanna Strömquist

Caroline Evans is Professor Emerita at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) and has lectured widely at international design schools and universities, including Beckmans College of Design. She is the author of Women and Fashion: A New Look (Quartet Books, 1989), Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness (Yale University Press, 2003) and The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900–1929 (Yale University Press, 2013) as well as several other publications. Her most recent book is the co-edited anthology Time in Fashion: Industrial, Antilinear and Uchronic Temporalities (Bloomsbury, 2020). Caroline Evans has also acted as specialist consultant on international fashion exhibitions and sits on the editorial/advisory boards of Fashion Theory and other journals. Between 2010 and 2017 she was Visiting Professor at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University.

Susanna Strömquist is a fashion journalist and critic. She has been the editor-in-chief of Swedish trade journal Habit and worked for numerous other publications, including Elle Sweden and leading national newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet. She is currently the fashion critic at Dagens Nyheter and working on a book about NK:s Franska, a Paris-oriented couture atelier which existed between 1902 and 1966 at the luxury department store Nordiska Kompaniet in Stockholm. Susanna Strömquist is also a recurring lecturer in Swedish fashion history at Beckmans College of Design.