September 14, 2006
Which came first: the building or the dress?
A model at a Parisian fashion show sports an enormous collar that almost hides her head in an aureole of stiff, folded cloth. So stiff does the cloth appear, in fact, that it could almost be mistaken for concrete. Meanwhile, in Yokohama, Japan, architects have covered the ceiling of a port terminal with a folded material that looks very much like pleated fabric. Are these chance coincidences, or signs of some odd convergence between fashion and architecture?
"Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture," opening Nov. 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown, proposes that building design and haute couture have increasingly begun to overlap and borrow ideas from one another. Even if the premise seems thin, the show's parallel images of buildings and clothing suggest that meaningful connections can be found between these two very different kinds of design. Indeed, "Skin + Bones" turns out to have much to say about the current practice of both building design and fashion design, not all of it positive.
Skepticism is a legitimate starting point. Clothing and shelter have different purposes, different materials and different methods of assembly. Why should they be compared? Well, for starters, because designers are always searching for fresh ideas, and architects and fashion designers apparently check each other out on a regular basis.
In an essay for the show's catalog, Brooke Hodge, MOCA's Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously organized shows on the architecture of Frank O. Gehry and Peter Eisenman, as well as the fashion designs of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, identifies some obvious and not-so-obvious commonalties between the two mediums.
"A vocabulary derived from architecture has been applied to garments, describing them as 'architectonic,' 'constructed,' 'sculptural,'" she writes. Architects, on the other hand, have borrowed some "sartorial strategies," such as "draping, wrapping, weaving, folding, printing and pleating architectural surfaces and materials."
Although Santa Monica-based Gehry may not be a "dedicated follower of fashion," to quote the Kinks, he has undoubtedly boosted the cross-pollination between construction and tailoring with the biomorphic curves of buildings like the Disney Concert Hall, referencing to the human body and other natural forms. Gehry, Eisenman and Preston Scott Cohen are among the Jewish American architects who have contributed work to this international collection of design.
The complementary opposite would be clothing that looks hard and structural, such as a tulle dress from the spring/summer 2000 collection of Hussein Chalayan that appears to be a rigid structure, inflating by four or five sizes the shape of the woman who wears it.
Another structural-looking garment, this one from Chalayan's autumn/winter 1999 collection, is the "Aeroplane Dress," which appears to be a smooth, hard shell. A portion of its form seems to be slipping away, like a panel of airplane fuselage that has not been properly bolted, revealing the wearer's navel and a seductive slice of abdomen.
Some architects are interested in exploring fabric-like materials, sometimes called extreme textiles. The "Carbon Tower," an unbuilt project by Los Angeles-based architects Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser would be built with a lightweight carbon-based material that curves and bends much like fabric. Although the method of construction on the building is not visible from the images in the show, some so-called "technical textiles" can be woven or sewn together.
The "Inside Out 2way Dress" from the spring 2004 collection of Yoshiki Hishinuma, for its part, seems inspired by the glass "curtain walls" of high-rise buildings. The garment is a tight-fitting transparent tunic (think glass) held in place by a white band (think steel structure) wrapped in a crisscrossing band of cloth around the model's body.
The relationship between buildings and clothing is not new, according to Hodge. In her catalog essay, she identifies some parallels, both ancient and modern. In ancient Greece, the flutings of classical columns may have been suggested by the folds in the chiton, a garment worn by both men and women. In the Middle Ages, the "propensity for extreme verticality" can be found in the "sharply pointed shoes, sleeves and hennins [conical headdress]" that seem directly related to the "ogival arches and soaring vertical spaces of Gothic architecture."
Not all of Hodge's examples are equally convincing, however, such as the analogies to fashion design in the soft curves of the landscape elements of the Yokohama International Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects. Or the comically oversized collar of folded and feather-like white fabric from Junya Watanabe's fall/winter collection for 2000/2001.
What is convincing, however, is the degree to which architectural style has become as attention seeking, and in many cases, as short-lived as fashion design. Here the commonality between architecture and couture is the quest for spectacular display. While display as a value in itself is not new, the degree of importance placed on display -- so that buildings can make an impression in two-dimensional media such as magazines, newspapers and the Web -- has undoubtedly increased.
If the result of fashion design dipping into architecture is not profound, neither does it seem harmful, because couture is ephemeral, fading away quickly into the next sensation. Architecture, however, is about permanence (or relative permanence), and most buildings are expected to last for decades and to serve many different users. Building design that is guided by momentary fashion, can lose sight of its purpose in search of the values of celebrity culture. "Skin + Bones" hints at the degree to which the runway mentality has influenced architecture for the worse.
"Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture," Nov. 19-March 5, Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 90012. (213) 626-6222.