Mechanical Couture

Eschewing their mass-market traditions, new designers are increasingly looking towards the machine to invade the realm of haute couture, and reassess the idea of the unique.

Last year Aesthetica featured Decode: Digital Design Sensations, the V&A’s groundbreaking exploration of digital technology and its movement and influences in the world of design and art. In 2010, it’s fashion’s turn to be inter­rogated by machinery as a new exhibition, Mechanical Couture, at the Design Museum, Holon, challenges the deeply traditionalist realm of haute couture and enacts the unthinkable by introducing machines to the craft. The concept of uniqueness is central to haute couture, and by virtue of being handmade, is re-assessed: “There are so many ways in which quality and individuality can be defined. The designers in the exhibition each present a new set of definitions.”

Established in the Parisian ateliers of the late 19th century, haute couture is synonymous with wealth and prestige. A highly labour-intensive, and necessarily unique art form, the world of haute couture remains an exclusive, secretive section of fashion today. Comprising a tiny proportion of the fashion industry, haute couture is nevertheless hugely significant in terms of trend setting throughout the industry, despite its diminishing size. In contrast, the 20th century saw exponential growth in mechanical manufacturing of clothing, with the dawn of the 21st century witnessing the most aggressive exploitation of machinery and cheap labour to create an influx of disposable, catwalk copy clothing, at chillingly low prices. Whatever you may be wearing, chances are it was machine-made. As the high street competes to satisfy customers’ ravenous appetites for new clothes, the assets of handicraft are rejected in favour of the far cheaper advantages of labour-light, machine-generated mass production in factories across the world.

The exhibition is described as “an intersection of strides in thinking about the expanded role of the designer with the prevalence of technology that surrounds us.” At both ends of the fashion scale, the highly qualified seamstresses of couture houses appear to have little in common with the behemoths of Asian garment factories, but Mechanical Couture seeks to align the cutting-edge of machinery today, with the high quality, commissioning prestige of couture. Curated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of Curatorsquared, Mechanical Couture explores the phenomenon of “mechanical luxury”. In their mission statement, Curatorsquared argue that these new machine-led works are not an easy solution to the high costs of creating handmade couture, but a new frontier in innovation that defines fashion: “The machine is not simply a means to an end, but the driving force behind the process and design. This exhibition will feature designers who employ machines and technology not for their streamlining capabilities or to boost production, but as a means to realise completely new forms and products – so signalling a completely new interpretation of luxury design. These designers are inspired by machines as concepts, turning to the machine as collaborator in the design process.” The works are provocative, and representative of more to come as the designer’s imagination, coupled with extensive technological progress, means the works and their continued growth know no bounds. In creating the exhibition, Curatorsquared bore witness to a “number of designers working with a shared approach,” and predicted a future for this type of work: “We are always looking at art and design, assessing what is going on and how it reflects or predicts larger issues in the culture [and] an exhibition of this work is pertinent.”

This is an accurate assessment. An overview of the works engaging in these aspects of machinery quickly becomes extensive, overly technical and overwhelming, and at times the exhibition can reflect this. However, the role of the curator is to make sense of their works as a coherent whole and so the exhibition and catalogue are broken down to four different approaches, each described in aptly economical language: Designer + Machine = Product, Concept = Machine = Product, Product = Machine, and Designer Through Machine = Product.

Most obviously, Designer + Machine = Product manifests our usual conception of the machine work involved in manufacturing, but with the work of Marloes ten Bhömer and Shelley Fox, the machine becomes inherently involved in the design process as well as the creation of the work itself. Shelley Fox seeks to make the fashion industry’s obsession with weight and size manifest in her dresses from the bodies of weight-loss volunteers. In collaboration with Nobel-prize-winning scientist, Sir Peter Mansfield, Fox scanned her subjects’ bodies to create a series of “fat-maps”, incorporating these fat-maps into the designs themselves they became a sort of blueprint, not only for the clothing, but also for the participants’ own journey and medical history. Each piece was re-worked and adapted by each successive scan, and as the participants’ bodies changed, so did the clothing created for them, while maintaining the memory of what it was before through excess fabric, vintage off-cuts and visible stitching – the history of the clothing (in a reaction to the mass-production of the new) and of the body are manifest in each garment. In focusing on weight-loss in a fashion exhibition, Fox’s work is immediately contentious – raising the sociological issues over body dysmorphia of which the industry is all too aware. The politicization of work is nothing new in the realm of art, and Fox’s work substantiates Curatorsquared’s calls for creative community without boundaries: “We don’t draw exclusionary lines around categories such as fashion, design, and art. They are all the same enterprise, presenting ideas and solving problems through thinking about and making objects,” and as such all designers are readily equipped to raise their issues, without being stigmatised by the perceived frivolity of fashion.

While arguing for a flexible boundary between fashion, design and art, Mechanical Couture also focuses on the interactivity and increased user-participation popularised by children’s museums in recent years, now in vogue in galleries across the world. The Designer Through Machine = Product segment of the exhibition challenges the role of designer as the only creative in the process – as the user and wearer’s own interactions with the clothing create a completely new collaboration between designer, machine and customer. Simon Thorogood’s label Phaison (signifying phase transition) has created SoundForms, whereby the images projected onto the body correlate with the music selected by the participant, who becomes a de facto designer themselves. In contrast to Phaison’s prescription to involve the participant in the design process itself, Cedric Flazinski’s work is theoretical and research-based, indicating a more pragmatic use for the machine in the design processes of the future. Flazinski’s work occupies a compromised state between conglomerate-led customization (as illustrated by sportswear giants and their lucrative processes of manufacturing “uniquely” customized shoes) and the do-it-yourself ethic that has been discussed at great length since the eco­nomic downturn. Flazinski sought a user-based, as opposed to user-generated product, and through his visual questionnaire, he is equipped to couple the responses with his own research into signifiers and icons regarding certain personality traits and shoe shapes. Although each sub-category must necessitate a generalisation of sorts, the sheer volume of the research and the questionnaire process enable an unprecedented level of customization, by making the wearer central to the process, and creating a new definition of exclusive whereby, “the fact that clothing can be so very specific and reflective of and suited to its owner, is much more exciting than the idea that only a few people in the world have access to the most interesting and prized design.”

User interaction in the arts is becoming increasingly popular as a way to broaden appeal and democratise the works for less culturally-literate audiences. However, the works of Mechanical Couture, in creating user interaction, risk pricing designers out of the market. Curatorsquared describe this as “the traditional place of product-creator,” which gives way to “this newer place of process-creator,” and the idea of the designer-genius, so central to innovation and experimentation, particularly in London’s fashion industry, could become obsolete. Curatorsquared argue that Mechanical Couture is in fact re-structuring the boundaries and definitions of the creative genius: “As conceptual thinkers (though they are also traditionally trained designers) they are proposing a new place for the designer in the sequence of design and production, relocating it to the very core and inception of the enterprise.” The issues raised by Mechanical Couture allow for a multiplicity of markets, expanding beyond those of today. By democratising the once elite arena of design Curatorsquared do not see a new identity for fashion, but rather “various approaches that co-exist, each one bringing something different of value to the market. There will still always be the designer genius and those who will not abandon the traditional market.”

Moving into Concept=Product=Machine the designs are inspired by machinery and incorporate machines into the final product. Ying Gao’s Living Pod and Walking City projects utilise micro motors and sensors to detect stimuli from their environment such as breath, light and visitors’ proximity. Each stimulus initiates a transformation into new forms for the interactive garments, with shape and size altering in a unique attempt to rectify the invasions of privacy of our CCTV society. By rendering the garments unrecognisable from one hour to the next, Gao’s work creates a playful game of hide and seek out of an issue that has encountered massive criticism from artists across the globe. Continuing the subversive playfulness of Gao’s work, in Product=Machine Patrick Killoran’s simple navy T-shirt enables the wearer to look down their own front, inside the T-shirt, and see their outside surroundings reflected on their body. With a small metal device inserted onto the T-shirt’s front, the garment becomes a camera able to reflect our surroundings back onto ourselves. It is a witty and simplistic interpretation of using technology for entertainment in clothing, similar to the heat and light colour sensitive T-shirts so beloved of children of the 1990s. Coupled with the work of design-duo Kobakant however, Product=Machine is the most gimmicky part of the exhibition. Kobakant’s use of a step-by-step guide, utilising easily available equipment, enables the wearer to transform their simple cotton T-shirt into a “wearable piano,” an idea both enticingly hilarious, and arguably purposeless. The point of course is not to fill the gap in the market for wearable pianos (under-supplied though they are), but to demystify the idea of the technological, and to align itself with a notion as simple as the plain T-shirt. With, at times, ludicrous ideas, the exhibition risks falling into farce, but Curatorsquared recognise the need for fun and frivolity in the works: “Technology does not have to be as complex as we might think.”

The exhibition’s setup also identifies the work as new, cutting edge, and slightly gimmicky, at a risk of undermining what can be serious issues raised by the designers. For example, Alyce Santoro’s and Shelley Fox’s use of discarded material, audio cassettes and vintage fabrics respectively, address the very real issue of waste and landfill in the fashion industry, and provide an interesting contrast between the old and the new that could allow us to address these problems. Defending their display Curatorsquared explain that “in many cases the mannequin forms are part of their display and actually reinforce the idea of the continuity from concept through process and into runway show,” and so in a sense, the curatorship illustrates the real world use of these pieces, albeit with a futuristic aesthetic.

By holding this exhibition in Israel, away from the very European traditions of couture’s roots, Mechanical Couture engages with the zeitgeist of fashion, challenging its role as the less-challenging form of art. It’s a notion that Hussein Chalayan has been working with for years, his recent exhibition at the Lisson Gallery is just the latest indication of the cross-over between genres. And, as Chalayan has been a pioneer of the futuristic, the technological, and the boundary breaking of fashion for the past 15 years to the point of domination, it is fascinating to witness the myriad of approaches by designers across the world and from Israel in particular, where Curatorsquared commissioned designers to emphasise Mechanical Couture’s sense of place, and its relevance to fashion internationally, alongside a potential to bring couture around the world.

Mechanical Couture was showing at the Design Museum, Holon, Israel from 14 October to 8 January 2011.

Ruby Beesley