Fashioning the Object at the Art Institute of Chicago, showcasing designers Bless, Boudicca and Sandra Backlund, subverts any expectation you may have going into a fashion exhibition. These three names, known for their respective innovations in the fashion community, harbor different aesthetics that nevertheless ring similar in many regards. They all design conceptually; their clothes at first appear unwearable, created in uncomfortable shapes or with bizarre materials like cardboard and rubber. They all design intellectually, amassing ideas not from a mass-market audience, but rather from fine art, the avant garde and social or political movements. All three labels carry their aesthetics beyond the clothing itself, embracing unique forms of showcasing the pieces by engaging their customers with film or architectural choices unprecedented by their peers.
The first room, dedicated to the designs of the Paris-based Austrian-designed brand Bless, is a tunnel of floor-to-ceiling chain link curtains, which the viewer is welcome to touch and tug. Woven in to the curtains, so seamlessly you might miss them at first glance, are items from Bless’s collection: stilettos with rubber strings, sunglasses with metal decals on the lenses, belts created from braided USB cables. Other objects within the curtains include ceramic bells, bamboo wind chimes, electronic birds that chirp when walked past. With every touch of the curtains, a chorus of hodgepodge clanking and chiming overtakes the room. Behind the curtains, against the walls, are large photographs, plastered like wallpaper to give a feeling that you are stepping into a private room. In one corner, a lamp to turn on and off. In the center, a low sitting chair to sit in and revel at the amount of commotion that can be caused by fashion.
Through a doorway you enter in to Boudicca’s room, dark and brooding, with a drastically different ambiance than Bless’s. The walls are black, the lighting is muted and sparse. A video of the British label’s 1999 collection plays on loop, with disturbingly disjointed music booming through the speakers. The models in the video walk in circles in front of a projection screen, which plays images of dark forests sped up quickly enough to make you dizzy. The juxtaposition of the translucent-skinned models, circling slowly on a platform covered in tissue paper, in front of the mile-a-minute video spins your stomach. Surrounding the large projection are a dozen video monitors mounted within the walls, each showing experimental short films created by Boudicca’s designers, Zowie Broach and Brian Kirkby. One, from 1997, titled Hunter-Gatherer, shows models stomping about a mossy landscape in billowing pants and hooded jackets. Another monitor showcases the brand’s debut perfume, Wode, that is sprayed like an aerosol spray paint can, bright blue on to the skin, leaving only the clean woody scent when rubbed in. A third shows a limp model in Boudicca’s perfectly tailored wool trench coat, slamming her bony behind into the keys of a piano, her face obscured by her hanging hair. In the center of the room are a pair of mannequins, one slathered in bright blue paint and newspaper, the other adoring that perfect coat.
Finally, through the last door and into Sandra Backlund’s room, just as distinct and individual as the previous two. The most straightforward of the three, Backlund’s designs were displayed on mannequins, standing before banners hung from the ceiling showing the accompanying design in acute detail, or, from another angle, displayed in a different light. The designs themselves were boisterous—thick knits sewn in to backless mini dresses, silk dresses with pinched chests and huge hip appliqués. Shapes that, in theory, would accentuate the parts of a woman’s body most often concealed, end up celebrating the dips and dives found only in the female figure. The Swedish designer continues to honor the feminine shape with a woven vest resembling a blooming flower and an origami shirt made of coned paper. Highlighting and distorting the natural silhouette, even Backlund’s smoothest designs are voluminous beyond reason.
The show itself, perhaps, hits too soon and too similarly to McQueen’s at the Met last summer. Particularly Boudicca’s room, with its comparable color schemes, lighting and music, fades in comparison. This is a shame, as it is the strongest of the three, the most engaging, the most interesting. Bless’s room, though whimsical and enjoyable, is better suited in a children’s museum than it is as the entrance to a fashion exhibition. Backlund’s, though straightforward, is light and airy, an easy ending after the heavy assault from Boudicca. But it is sloppy. The doorway from Boudicca to Backlund stays open open, allowing the booming music from Boudicca to flow in to the freshness of Backlund’s room, distracting from the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, Fashioning the Object captivates. The show engrosses audiences as a catalogue of sartorial innovators of the new millennium. It focuses on individual style and displays the different materials one could call upon to create one’s own, whether those materials are physical fabrics or emotional inspirations. Fashion lovers will delight in both the straightforward and abstract displays, while casual museum visitors will revel in the unusual curation of the exhibit. One can’t deny the power of pulsing music and encouragement to touch. In the big and bright Modern wing at the Art Institute, these qualities are cool in and of themselves. Coupled with the diverse content provided by the three designers, Fashioning the Object becomes a true pleasure.
Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund
14 April–13 September, 2012
The Art Institute of Chicago