Designing fashion

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Marvielab (Maria Vittoria Sargentini) progetto U/U/U/, P/E 2016

The search for a pertinent and updated definition of fashion leads to the perusal of what architects, designers, philosophers and historians have had to say. The centrality of design remains a clear focal point in the complex relation between clothing and body  

The word “design” is so omnipresent in our Italian lives, that we have stopped feeling the need to translate it. The English word design sounds like the Italian word disegno (drawing). Both terms share the same etymon, but while disegno refers to an action that places a mark or an idea on paper, the semantic field of design is not limited to the materiality of pencil and paper. Design means a project, and has no particular tie to the physical making of things (objects, buildings, structures). Rather it refers more to breaking down an idea into its constituent parts, and comprehending its real and potential developments. The route leading from ideation to production and consumption of fashion items follows a design logic that inserts fashion into the disciplines having to do with design. But being a complex system, fashion has its very own way of relating to the idea of design’s variations and forms.

What makes the definition of fashion design unique, or at least gives it a crucial value, is its intrinsic connection to the body. The body is living material. It disobeys. It is subject to the passing of time and the fraught perception we have of ourselves. Fashion is the instrument we have to control the body and render its nature and culture. The first person to consider the relation between clothing and body from a design viewpoint was the architect and designer Bernard Rudofsky. He showed the results of his considerations in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1944. The title “Are Clothes Modern?” is a research question, a kind of academic convention required from everyone who embarks on a research project. The answer given by Rudofsky is not simple or immediately comprehensible. The exhibition, a three-dimensional representation of the designer’s thought process, shows that the body is the raw material that the clothes have the task of modifying, for better or worse. They must transport the body’s classical and natural forms into the contemporary instant.

Bernard Rudofsky, "Are clothes modern?", MoMA, New York, 1944

Bernard Rudofsky, “Are clothes modern?”, MoMA, New York, 1944 

In a certain sense, when the garment is worn, it is the representation of modernity as an eternally present quality. According to Rudofsky, what transports clothing and bodies into modernity is fashion – with its unreasonableness, contradictions, arbitrariness, cyclicity, incomprehensibility and “profound superficiality”. If we consider the contemporary fashion system as a globally radiating field of forces, one of the virtual focuses that determinates its fluctuations and revolutions is the designer. The designer pinpoints the problems, acts on demands that require answers, and resolves the problems with creativity and intelligence.

A curious fact is how Charles James, who went down in fashion history as a creator of marvellous evening gowns, decided to quit medical training to become a designer because “the female figure is intrinsically wrong and can only be corrected by good posture and fashion.” For James, fashion was a way to remodel, rethink and improve the body. His silhouettes were extraordinary sartorial creations that resulted from measuring and studying proportions in order to correct what was so imperfect about the body. Although they are far removed from James aesthetically and especially ideologically, the spiritual descendants of his need to redesign the body are the designers defined as radical in the 2001 exhibition “Radical Fashion” organised by Claire Wilcox at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London: Issey Miyake, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakubo. Although highly diverse personalities, what they have in common is their consideration of fashion as a tool to give shape to a precise design philosophy.

In the end, this design is the negation of entropy, the establishment of order, and the need for control. given a daily shape to the revolution of bodies following the movements of the 1960s. His design makes those desires explicit and provides the means for new needs of expression. Above all, he surpasses the stereotypes of gender identity. Armani changes the proportions of the male and female figure. He brings them closer together, and exchanges their materiality and definition: soft fabric for men and destructured jackets, powerful shoulders and crisp definition for women. With him, design succeeded in giving a new expressive form to men and women of the post-1968 era. Yet fashion cannot act only on the body. Clothing has the potential to construct the identity (of gender, of ideology) of the individual and the community.

A designer’s work is not only to redesign the body and make it a contemporary body, but also to exalt the physicality of the garment in its imaginary image, giving life to style. The same definition of style originates in design thinking, but it is of a different nature. It is based on material questions having to do with the construction of the garment (cut, volume, length, material and colour), bringing them to the immaterial dimension of fashion, where they are turned into fantasy, desire and legend. By being a territory on the borderline between the materiality of the clothing and its theoretical translation, style is more linked to the process of assembly, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call accrochage. The stylist’s profession is connected to a production context that is very specific in its time and space. The stylist is born as an assembler who collects impulses from different territories and makes them coherent in the final image, his signature. The most successful styling operations are generated from the search for elements of diverse meanings that are sometimes consistent, sometimes in conflict. The result is the construction of a composite image in which each part functions in relation to the message or messages that the whole must communicate.

As Mario Lupano notes, the difficulties encountered when speaking of the relation between fashion and design are generated by problems of a moral order. Fashion has been trying for decades to be considered more of an artistic discipline than a design discipline, hoping to be recognised as having the value of artwork. This might make sense when it comes to haute couture, but certainly not if it relates to prêt-à-porter and fashion as a daily clothing experience. So what model is needed to interpret fashion and the meaning that the word design takes on in the context of fashion? In 1991, the historian and curator Richard Martin suggested that the design paradigm of the clothing industry is linked on one hand to production innovation, and on the other to personal studies conducted by the designer, who shifts from being an artist (as couturiers used to be considered) to being a creator. And, I’d add, looking at today, he then shifts from being a creator to being a curator. Curators are the designers of the new generations when they take on their project, which often goes beyond seasonal or other types of habits. Their project is decidedly personal because it is fuelled in an explicit way by a biographical datum. I am thinking of designers such as Arthur Arbesser, Fabio Quaranta and Mariavittoria Sargentini with her brand Marvielab.

The practice of the creative director, around whom the definition of the fashion project has been constructed ever since the 1990s, is similar to that of the curator. It’s research, comprehension, selection and repositioning. For the creative director, design means mapping out all the regions that constitute his terrain of action. There is heritage, innovation, material quality and the immediacy of the image. Here I am thinking of what Alessandro Michele is doing for Gucci, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior, and Raf Simons for Calvin Klein. In this context, designing means creating a vision, a dreamworld with a fluid and continuous line, like a drawing. Here the word disegno re-emerges, claiming its rightful place when we speak of projects and design. The etymology returns, the origin returns, and is proof that the (contested, denied and opposed) movement at the basis of ffashion as design is circular.  

This article was originally published in the supplement Moda, Domus 1014, June 2017


Maria Luisa Frisa

Frisa is a critic and curator. She directs the three-year bachelor’s course in fashion design and multimedia arts at the IUAV in Venice. She is the author of Le forme della moda (Il Mulino, Bologne 2015). She organised the exhibition “Bellissima. L’Italia dell’alta moda 1945-1968” (Rome, MAXXI, 2014-15; Brussels, BOZAR, 2015; Monza, Villa Reale, 2015-16; Fort Lauderdale, NSU Art Museum, 2016). She is the editor of Desire and Discipline (Marsilio, Venice 2016). She is an editorialist for the magazine D La Repubblica.

Last modified: 9 June 2017