A Conversation about Skin + Bones

An architect and a fashion designer discuss career commonalities at an exhibit at MOCA.

It’s a strange season for fashion. After a long post-minimalist, post-9/11 period of frills and sequins, where pretty was the only goal, the last couple of years have seen an explosion of experimentation. Suddenly dresses are belled and tuliped and bubbled – shape trumps embellishment and fashion writers increasingly use the word “architectural” as both descriptor and compliment. And architects often say that they’re inspired by fashion designers, who put out new work on a twice-yearly schedule that can seem like a kind of luxury when you’re mired in building codes and construction delays.

The timing couldn’t be better for Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. Curated by Brooke Hodge, the Tsao and McKeowan-designed exhibit spiraled through MOCA’s Grand Avenue location, encompassing over 300 works from an international group of 46 avant-garde designers. The vast show, which closed earlier this month, was a conversation between the two disciplines, organized under topics like body, identity, shelter, geometry and tectonic strategies, which encompasses an arsenal of shared techniques like draping and folding. Despite the careful curation, it could be overwhelming. To see how the fashion designer/architect conversation played out live, we enlisted a young practitioner of each discipline to accompany us through the show.

Meet Rachel Allen, an architect who trained with Frank Gehry and now has an independent practice based in Los Angeles, and her friend, fashion designer Lori Schlachter, who has been designing her own successful line, Edward An, since she left Kate Spade.

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Rebellious duo Viktor and Rolf’s Russian Doll dresses are the first things you see. Arranged in a circle against a video projection of model Maggie Rizer being dressed in the gowns, they create a striking welcome to the show. The dresses, meant to be worn one on top of another, begin with a woven jute slipdress (not seen in picture) and layer on influence and structure until they are topped off, six pieces later, by an oversized jute cloak with a sculpted flower sprawling across its front. “That’s a building, right there,” says Allen, the architect, admiringly.
The next room features three spotlit Ralph Rucci gowns (photo background) in cream, black and forest green, that really make an argument for the dress as a structural creation (Vertebrae Infanta Gown).

“It looks like Proenza Schouler,” says Schlachter. “Or maybe I should say that they look like Ralph Rucci. It’s all that deconstructing and putting back.”

“It’s interesting,” replies Allen, “you talk about those dresses exactly the way modernists talk about buildings.”

“Well,” answers Schlachter, “the materials are all old, that sort of thinking is how we make them new.”

“It’s true,” replies Allen, “this is really all concrete and caveman labor.”

Many of the designers in this show – innovators like Issey Miyake, Martin Margiela, and Hussein Chalayan – doubtless read the same philosophers as their architect contemporaries, an amalgam of post-modern ideas on body and space that led to both a intellectualizing of fashion and a breaking down of classical architecture.

The Identity section shows architects playing with fashion and fashion designers playing with architecture. Pausing in front of Diller + Scofidio’s Bad Press: Dissident Ironing, white button-down shirts that are creatively ironed into a series of origami structures, Allen says, “it’s conceptual art by architects, though it feels kind of ‘80s now.” We pass J. Meejin Yoon’s Defensible Dress, a piece of medieval armor-meets-futuristic defense-meets-puffer fish contraption that expands aggressively when its sensors suss out a threat. Right now the whole display still feels like a show without the tell – we get the sense that Hodge, the curator, is preparing us, giving us a little easy-to-digest spectacle before launching into the connections.

The Identity section also features pieces from designer Hussein Chalayan’s Afterwords collection. Created in 2000, this grouping of furniture becomes both clothing and carrying case, so that you can conjoin shelter, travel, protection and style. Chalayan is the fashion philosopher who has the current generation of architects really paying attention. His 1998 collection, Between, which shows variation on the chador that leave the face veiled but the body naked, still feels prescient and timely.

We bypass the only architecture at the beginning of the show, not even noticing Jean Nouvel’s camera shutter-like building facade, a section of which is displayed here, from the Arab World Institute in Paris. But Shigeru Ban’s paper tube structures make us stop.

“He’s the first architect that we’re seeing, and it makes a lot of sense,” says Allen. “The structures are temporary, they’re made from fabric, they’re moveable.”

“You know, the building is like a body,” muses Schlachter. “It has a top and bottom, it has bones. In architecture you’re building the body – it seems like that’s the big difference.”

“I used to not care about color and material – architecture really stresses structure instead,” says Allen, “but now I am more aware of it, maybe because I’m more aware of fashion.”

Of course, fashion as a badge of identity has always mattered to architects, even if they’re trying to eschew the frivolous. “For a long time architects would only wear Issey Miyake and Comme de Garcons,” says Allen.

“Those architect glasses,” laughs Schlachter.

We moved onto Tess Giberson’s Structure 1, more an art installation than a piece of fashion design or architecture, that tries to join the two by means of a sort of deconstructible maypole that holds a series of outfits and itself becomes a yurt. Far less heavy handed is Isabel Toledo’s simple, beautiful Packing Dress. Created in 1988 by the cultish New York-based fashion designer – who last year took over as head of the conservative Anne Klein sportswear line, to the puzzlement of many fashion watchers – the circular dress is the show’s most graceful example of the parallels between the two disciplines.

Now the architectural models begin to appear, but in the midst of the resplendent gowns they feel inaccessible. In part it’s the show’s avoidance of heavy wall text. Usually that’s a good thing, but when even people used to peering at architectural models and renderings are bypassing them in favor of the dresses, it may be something to reconsider.

In a section labeled Process there are at-work photos of fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, a New Yorker known for the body-flattering geometry of his dresses. In front of these sit early models of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, a project that Allen worked on while at Gehry’s office, and a video of the designs.

“The actual process was a lot messier,” says Allen. “Most offices don’t build models until they’re finished with a design, but Gehry does them as part of the design process, kind of like draping a dress on a mannequin.”

As the show begins to make a more overt case for the similarities in technique between fashion and architecture, connections start feeling more natural. In a section titled Structural Skin, photos of Toyo Ito’s Mikimoto Ginza and Rem Koolhas’s Seattle Public Library make the point that buildings sometimes don an outer layer, too. In a section on Constructing Volume, Schlachter notes that, “we’re seeing a lot of tulle and a lot of taffeta and duchesse satin because they hold their shape more, they’re materials that have inherent body and weight.” Then there are pieces like Junya Watanabe’s Techno Couture dresses – honeycombed outfits that turn the wearer into a walking play on form and volume.

Clothing and buildings both involve the construction of a three-dimensional shape using two-dimensional materials. This kinship is explored in the oversized Tectonic Strategies room, which has been separated in methods like folding, draping, pleating, printing and weaving.

“When you’re building models like these,” says Allen, looking at a Jakob + MacFarlane sinuous house, “all the methods are from fashion and car design, it’s more like pattern making.”

Schlachter is especially taken by this section, saying, “I love looking here,” at the pleated glass façade of architect Winka Dubbeldam’s Greenwich Street Project, “and then looking at that.” That, being one of designer Yoshiki Hishinuma airy, twisted confections.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the show is a copper and wood model of Herzog & de Meuron’s Central Signal Box, a utilitarian railway building in Basel that they sheathed in twisted copper strands. Behind that an entire roll of Issey Miyake’s pleated lightweight polyester, from his Pleats Please collection, hangs across the wall. It is a lovely juxtaposition, but a few intellectual leaps are required before the pairing feels like more than an astute aesthetic choice.

Looking at a photo of Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall house in Tokyo, Allen and Schlachter realize that they’ve been engaging in a fashion and architecture dialogue for months.

“That’s what we were trying to channel for your husband’s office,” exclaims Allen. (Schlachter’s husband is the co-founder of Buzznet, a content sharing site.) “Yes, they’re boys. We had a hard time convincing them on the curtain wall. It turned out to be kind of like designing a men’s collection.”

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