Tonight the ICA is opening one of its little shows with a big resonance.
It’s called Dennis Morris: PiL – First Issue to Metal Box, looking at Morris’s design work and photography of the band’s early days.
Morris was responsible for the logo, as well as its early sleeves and advertising.
A flyposter from 1978.
The first single, Public Image, came in a fold out newsprint sleeve.
A fake advert on the inside.
The inside of that fold-out, in full.
An advert for the single from the New Musical Express.
The next cabinet is extraordinary and succinct.
The magazines that inspired the cover of Public Image: First Issue.
The resulting sleeves, from 1978.
The slickness a shock contrast to what was then the detritus of punk.
In another vitrine, an advert from Melody Maker for Public Image: First Issue.
The message direct to consumer.
“We think you the punters will be pleased”
An an advert from the same campaign, this time for the New Musical Express.
“AN ALBUM IS BORN”
Various bits of ephemera: armbands; a backstage pass; labels, and a copy of the ticket to their December 25 show at the Rainbow Theatre at Finsbury Park.
The Rainbow’s that massive venue in the fork of the road that’s now a pentecostal church.
The second album, Metal Box.
The first 60,000 copies of which came in a Metal Box.
In the accompanying text, Morris is quoted at length.
“One day John [Lydon] said he wanted to call the album Metal Box. As the words came out of his mouth I immediately remembered that across the road from my secondary school was a factory called the Metal Box Company.”
Among other things, they manufactured the boxes for film cannisters – the same size as for a 12″ record. The box itself was relatively cheap to produce, just now stamped with the PiL logo.
The show is so so so so good.
Tiny – it’s in the ICA’s Reading Room under the bar – but a total must.
Such an inspiration for what can be done with word and image and message and intent.
On the walls are many of Morris’s photos, including those he shot of Lydon on their trip to Jamaica with Richard Branson in February 1978, just after the split of the Sex Pistols.
ME: [As I press record, I was asking Olivia a non-question question, of which she understood the meaning]
OLIVIA LAING: Where did the book come from? Where did it begin? I’d had this relationship in 2011 and it fell apart, but I was going to New York, and I thought maybe I’ll go anyway. I had lots of friends there, lots of artist friends who I’d met through residencies. I had a community that I don’t really talk about in the book, but in particular Matt Wolf, who’s a filmmaker, he had talked to me about David Wojnarowicz at that point [Matt Wolf directed Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell in 2008].
I was lonely, and I had all these visual representations of different kinds of loneliness that I was getting obsessed with. I just had this idea. I was having an experience, and at the same time I could feel that it was a taboo experience. It was something really shameful that people didn’t like to talk about, and suddenly realising that made me think this is a whole incredibly exciting subject that isn’t touched. People haven’t gone there. People haven’t shone a light into it.
I think that’s how I work anyway. At the same time as having distressing experiences, I like examining them. I could see that there was a body of art that reflected on it in different ways that I was more and more interested in. And then as I started digging, it was like, hang on, there are lives as well. Artist’s lives are also going to let me explore this and pick this apart.
Loneliness hadn’t been touched on, but if you look, it’s there in the work.
It hadn’t been articulated. There were these victim-blaming, really pat explanations of loneliness. I was looking at people like Wojnarovicz and thinking about things like stigma, exclusion, homophobia, AIDS, all of these systemic forces. It was clear there’s a whole more political story to tell, a story of resistance, a larger story to get involved in. And that was what I felt like wasn’t really being said.
It’s rare to read about art and it be separated from a narrative of commerce – market value, or someone’s “success” defined by the price of their work. Here it’s about the reasons they made art, and the reactions of those that see it to the art.
And what the object does in the world outside. It’s interesting, I don’t talk about that at all, do I. There’s nothing about market in there I don’t think. Even with Warhol I’m not talking about it.
Or Edward Hopper…
No that’s true.
And the narrative of art is always about commerce, when actually there’s a whole experience of the making and viewing of art that is separate from the market.
I guess I just couldn’t give a fuck. It’s not something that interests me. The artists I know don’t particularly make work for those reasons. There’s other things going on and that was the side that seemed more exciting.
The writing can then become about people, and your experiences with them and their work.
It’s that thing Wojnarovicz says about, “all I want to do with my work is make other people feel less alienated”. He talks about it like a ventriloquists dummy – you can’t speak, you’re not there in space or time, but you’ve left the work there to speak its version of reality to people who can hear it. That seems to me a fantastically interesting model of art. Whatever else it’s doing in the market, whatever else its doing in collector’s homes, its also got that function.
And however many millions of people going to Tate Modern each year, they’re having that experience with the art, even if they can’t necessarily vocalise it.
And not in that glib way of “art must uplift us” because I don’t think that at all, it can do whatever it wants, but it’s talking in some way.
Did you recognise what you were feeling as loneliness straight away? How did you understand what loneliness was?
I think because I was drifting around New York. I was living in all these sublets, just flowing through other people’s houses, other people’s stuff. I was really heartbroken and it felt pretty tangibly that this is… it felt like loneliness. And it was horrible as well. I feel like now I might get a bit, “oh it’s fine, it’s a really positive experience”. And there are positive things, I dredged out some positives, but I don’t want to underplay how painful an experience it is.
It’s so funny, books. I probably wouldn’t have said to my friends the things I’ve written down. I probably wouldn’t have called somebody up and said, because it is shameful. Somehow it’s easier to put it into a book, into an object, and then send it out. There’s a space around the confession then, there’s room around it.
You’re also not writing it as confession. You’re writing it trying to understand the thing itself…
Rather than “my story”, which I find so boring and tedious.
One of the other things I find fascinating with it is you don’t say what year it is. You don’t put it into a time or context.
And actually it’s over years, but I think people will read it and think, is that one year?, because I made sure the seasons moved as if it’s one year, whereas actually it’s over two or three.
It’s definitely post-9/11 because you mention that, and the internet exists because you sit in your room watching YouTube videos, but the narrative also exists in a separate place and time.
I’m really glad that comes across. That was quite deliberate. It’s a very displacing experience, that whole sense of slightly losing your ties to the social world puts you in a space that feels a little bit out of time as well, and then being somewhere geographically unfamiliar. Manhattan’s so like that anyway. It’s so got a sense of not really being anywhere, or people being from so many places. That thing where you’re in Chelsea and you look out of a window, and there’s a million windows around you. There are so many lives going on.
By not being specific about time, it makes it like W.G. Sebald. It allows your words to move easily into a discussion of art, or a discussion of psychology.
Also it’s interesting because I’ve noticed, when people review it, they fill in those gaps. Somebody said, “she moved from London”. I never say where I was from in England. Which is obviously uncomfortable for people. Some people will be like, “oh that’s the Sebald tradition, fine”, and other people are like, “why aren’t you telling me where I am? You’ve forgotten to tell me”. No, I haven’t forgotten. It also puts the reader into that sense of being slightly uneasy and that’s a good thing.
I don’t see it as uneasy. I see it as creating some sort of welcoming space because it can be about a shared experience. There’s also the assumption that when you write about loneliness it’ll be like,
“Oh it’s such a downer”.
Whereas it’s exhilarating.
I think there must have been some fear from my publishers here and in America about, how do we make this book look like people will want to read it on a train and not look like a freak.
It seems clever to start with Edward Hopper – heterosexual, super-accepted.
I mean he had to be there. It’s probably clear that he’s the one that I like least. I like and hate his work. His work is in some ways really crude. His work around women I don’t particularly like. But at the same time I think what he’s doing in terms of representing loneliness is completely fascinating. I find it really exciting. He was the necessary door through. I couldn’t have written the book without having him in it, but I was quite glad to move deeper in.
It fascinating, because I can’t stand him, but it made me look at him with an understanding of him himself.
Why can you not stand him?
I find the work to be banal, the craft of it, the idea behind it. It’s never really spoken to me. But its like you give yourself authority straight away by dealing with someone who is…
The most canonical. It’s funny because if you go in really close on tiny bits of the canvases, and you almost make them into abstract scenes, they’re so beautiful. Some of his handling of paint is so exquisite, these rose pinks and these sour greens. They’re beautiful. The actual what’s happening, it’s not my cup of tea.
But it’s identifying that Hopper’s work is about loneliness.
And it’s the architecture of loneliness that I’m really convinced by. I think that is what’s happening [in the book, Olivia writes in depth about Nighthawks, and how the individuals in the diner are all so visible through the glass, and yet there’s no door. They are contained and yet also exposed].
They are about this dual thing of, you’re separated from somebody, and yet you’re hyperexposed – walls and glass all the time, the shifts of perspective, all these ways he generates that. It seems to me whether he was doing that deliberately or not, that is what he’s producing, that is the effect that comes across. And I think it is something that he experienced in his life, for all that he’s like, “loneliness isn’t my subject, well alright it is”, he keeps denying it, then confessing to it. I think its something that he struggled with and thought about an awful lot. Even if he wasn’t like, I feel lonely all the time, which who does anyway.
[I show Olivia my copy of the book] I’ve marked so many pages with bits of paper. This line really got me: “Stiff, polite, apathetic and emotionally withdrawn, their behaviour made them easy to neglect, further entrenching them in acute, unspeakable loneliness and isolation.” It completely speaks to me of how the 20th century English male was brought up to be seen as a silent gentleman, but that’s not something to aim for, it’s actually the result of emotional neglect.
It’s so British as well. That’s such a model of 20th century British masculinity. My father went to boarding school, It’s something un-met as a child that you can’t get back, and it does leave this level of loneliness, because something isn’t able to be contacted later.
And also the loneliness is never ever spoken about. You wouldn’t even begin to think you had the right or the ability to speak about it or think about it.
The defending around loneliness creates further loneliness. You’re getting further and further away with all the politeness. Social conditioning in men is very isolating often.
Was it clear which artists to pick?
I knew Hopper had to be in it. I knew Nighthawks had to be something I talked about very early on. Henry Darger I was sure about. [Darger was an empoverished hospital custodian from Chicago who secretly created a whole body of work and writing, including the longest known novel ever written. It was all discovered on his death in 1973] I wanted to talk about somebody who was the stereotype of the complete isolated hoarder, and the whole thing of him being separated from his artworks and his reputation, and that all happening without him. That made him really interesting. Wojnarovicz was the heart of the book, I knew that before I even started, for lots of reasons.
Andy Warhol I had absolutely no idea he was coming in it at all. I wasn’t expecting to have so much stuff on him. But partly it was I fell in love with him the more I worked on him, and the more I looked at. And I’d not realised what a huge body of work he’d made about intimacy and isolation. It’s this thread that runs through so much of what he’s doing.
It never gets talked about. It’s not the standard read on Warhol. It was so fascinating to me. The book is called The Lonely City, it’s about how loneliness is more than just somebody being completely solitary. And then there’s this person that’s the icon of 20th century sociability, who was also so removed and so alienated and so terrified of intimacy and longing for intimacy. And then all the things that he does to use technology to handle that [in the book she cites the tape recorder he always carried as a means for him to gain intimacy with others]. It just seemed like he really speaks to our time in a way I can’t think anyone else does.
And normally he’s written about in a really glib way.
Or as if he’s dumb. As if he’s stupid. As if he’s just gadding about as a socialite. And there is that aspect of him for sure. But there’s serious depth in his work. I was so excited to find that. It’s so great to come back to an artist who you think, I’ve dismissed them years ago, that’s not my thing, and see that there’s so much in there.
I’m really interested in different people’s read of him. It’s so easy to do a terrible Warhol show. There was one in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne late last year that was so bad. It was so obvious: here’s a Mao, here’s some wallpaper. Here’s a really depressing room with two inflatable silver balloons that are deflating.
Oh no! And that’s such a lovely work. That’s really sad!
It seems really easy to read him in the wrong way.
In a lazy way. That greatest hits idea of any artist is a failure of a show, but especially with him.
Maybe the idea of him being lonely scares people off. They don’t want to see him in that way.
I don’t want to see those bloody cows ever again. Or the Mao’s. The moment I see them, my eyes shut down. There’s something so repelling about it. But looking at the Death and Disaster series, or all those early silver Elvis’s and Marilyn’s, they’re just incredibly weird. He’s not just screenprinting anything, he’s screenprinting very specific things.
Also the thing is he’s his own worst enemy – in Holy Terror, Bob Colacello’s book about editing Interview in the 70s, Warhol sounds hideous. The legend around him is easy to turn in a negative way.
And the diaries don’t help, because in some ways they’re completely. I think they’re one of the great diaries of history, but they’re super vacuous as well. But actually if you read them more carefully, there’s all kinds of strange stuff going on.
Like the bit you quote from his Diaries where he responds to someone who’s died as “the news from Los Angeles”
And that was his love. That was somebody he really really loved. The whole thing where, when I trace through the different accounts he gives of AIDS in the diaries, you’d read that and you’d be like, this massive homophobe. But he’s not, he’s gay. The terror that seeps up through them is amazing. That’s one of my desert island books, Warhol’s diaries. It’s so blissful. Anytime anything happens, anytime someone dies and I’m writing a piece, I always check what Warhol said, because he’s almost always encountered them, like that bit I’ve used about Garbo, where he follows her down the street and she’s browsing in a TV shop. He’s seen everyone. He knows everyone.
Was it clear then to go to Valerie Solanas [the writer and activist who shot Warhol – Laing writes about how the two had been close before the shooting, and that their loneliness mirrored each other]?
I wasn’t planning on doing that either. That whole chapter didn’t even exist, there was some other chapter about “Paris, Texas” which was totally shit. It was so bad. It was thinking through some of the thoughts around communication and technology in a really clunky way. I realised there needed to be more on Warhol and I was reading “A”, I think the first draft of the chapter was just about him writing “A” and his childhood, and then I suddenly realised the Solanas stuff was the mirror image of that and she has got the same hankering for being heard, but her story is the counter of it. She can’t make herself heard. And where that ends up. That death where she’s in the hotel room and she’s been there four days and the Super finds her, I found that really haunting [Olivia describes the death in the book – it’s so sad]. And that she tried really hard to get her words heard and she can’t speak at all. And she’s mumbling and she won’t let her words out, it just seemed to fit, it seemed like those two stories were talking to each other, and I hadn’t seen them put together like that. I’d heard the story of the shooting a million times…
In which she is cast as villain and freak…
But actually there’s so many similarities between them. I think at the beginning when they were friends they saw that in each other. They have that really cute conversation where she’s asking him all these questions and he’s laughing. He liked her. A grim story.
[Here’s Solanas being escorted from court to jail]
It’s also a story of how the female lesbian artist or writer in the 20th century who’s not able to rise in the same way as a gay male is.
Completely. And what she’s trying to say, a lot of the SCUM Manifesto is really violent and crazy, but some of it is really sensible and sane. There’s no context for that to be heard. There’s no context at that time for anyone to understand the sense in it. That seems so lonely as well. It’s somehow being ahead of the game and not having people understand what you’ve got to say. Which has happened to so many brilliant women through history. I felt like her story was quite central in the book, even though she doesn’t appear a lot. It’s a frightening story. I felt for her.
You let her speak.
When her story is told normally, I don’t think she does speak. I think people dismiss SCUM without having read it. It’s wild, it’s an amazing piece of writing, and some of what she says is just straightforwardly right.
Breanne Fahs had done a biography of her for the Feminist Press in 2014, and to give credit that’s the thing that really rehabilitated her. I relied on that a lot, because that felt like that the book that pulled her back, that said, hang on, this is where she came from, this is what she was aiming at, this is what was happening to her. It’s a really dignified book. I think it’s amazing when people write that kind of biography.
David Wojnarovicz – its so weird that he’s still so unknown to me [When Olivia starts her chapter on him, she begins with an image of him in Times Square, then full of X-rated cinemas and rent boys, wearing a Rimbaud mask]
Did you him before?
I know his name. I know of him. I know the sewn lips image. I know Paul Thek because I was lucky enough to see the Whitney show in 2011. From Paul Thek I know Peter Hujar and therefore I know David. But I was at The Broad in LA the other and I saw two canvases by Wojnarovicz. I had no idea his work was so magical.
Yeah. There’s obviously a whole zeitgeist thing around him at the moment that he’s just coming back into. But in England I don’t think people know who it is. It’s really rare when I’m talking to audiences that people are like, oh yeah I love his work. That’s the whole grim story of AIDS: the artist is lost, the audience is lost, the context is lost, it’s like the thread is cut. I feel there’s a big movement right now through all kinds of artists, critics and biographers who are all trying to reach back and rebuild those links. I think that’s something both me and Matt Woolf have talked about a lot, about trying to reconnect with that generation and our artist links with that generation.
And create a link that should have always been there.
That’s the lineage that would have been there. Trying to restore that and trying to take those artists and bring them to a new audience. That feels such a huge part of this book. If I can introduce people to his work, then that’s something that I really want to get from it.
It’s something I think about all the time in fashion. But in fashion, people don’t want to hear it. It seems really clear this idea of strength and identity through clothing, it was an ideal, was completely lost, and not just because of designer, but stylist, window dresser, hairdresser, consumer, New York menswear loses everything from which it’s never recovered. People say, why is there no New York menswear, and its because this world has gone. You have to rebuild it yourself.
It has to be done consciously. First of all, you have to acknowledge that it’s happened, and I think that’s traumatic in lots of ways for people to acknowledge, and so it doesn’t get acknowledged, and you can’t make the link. You have to first of all say, there’s a gap. Something has to be done.
Their death has to be talked about in the present tense as an actual tragedy that needs to be addressed now, rather than, they died, we’ve moved on from it, it’s fine. It’s living, and the effect of it is still living.
You will love it. That’s about this, its about the great forgetting, what happened and why? One of her things is, why is there not an AIDS memorial in New York? How many people died? Way more than 9/11. Why don’t we remember it in those formal ways? How the gentrification of New York and the AIDS deaths went hand-in-hand. You just lose this entire oppositional community. It’s just gone. Once they’re gone, the history is gone. A lot of her work has been trying to rebuild that. She runs the ACT UP oral history project, which is just interviewing every single person involved to try and build this physical sense of, this is the loss, here it is. All these people will testify to this loss, you can’t ignore it. It’s such important work.
There’s more to hold onto with art, because the work they were making addressed the crisis, was addressing homophobia, violence. Fashion designers at the time was attempting male idealism away from homophobia, that men could have strength and power and find that in their clothing.
And so then it’s more prone to that kind of forgetfulness, if it’s already working along those lines.
Wojnarovicz shows how much creative act can be so much more than just on canvas.
He’s got that whole renaissance man thing going on of he’s a painter, he’s a photographer, he made films though he didn’t really finish them, he was a performance artist, he wrote that wonderful memoir Close To The Knives. He’s working in a lot of different places, and he’s also from the off also so politically astute, that coming from a background of violence then being a streetkid, all those sort of experiences gave him such a strong sense of how the political machinery of America worked. That’s been lost as well, that capacity to articulate and resist is the thing I find most inspiring about him. I think it’s incredible. I just want everybody to read Close To The Knives because I feel we’re back in those times. It’s not about AIDS now, but there is this incredible cruelty to the poor, to refugees, and that’s what he’s talking about. He talking about how those mechanisms work.
It’s art which is not there as commerce.
It’s a force of expression, or as a force of magical resistance, which is so unfashionable now. The idea that you can make these magical paintings that are communicating in a mythic language that’s very aware of itself as running counter to ordinary discourse, ordinary ways of speech. Who would do that now? It seems so wild, and a very 80s tradition, but I find it really exciting. Kiki Smith, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, there is a really conscious sense of trying to develop some other kind of language that’s working to some other order of things. It’s powerful.
When you’re writing about your own experience, is it a thing of, I have to write what’s true for it to be able to exist?
Yeah. I hate writing memoir. I really don’t like writing about myself, which is why it’s always a very minimal aspect of my books, it’s always as little as I can get away with. Publishers always want more of that, tell your story, and I’m not very interested in it. But it has to be there. It had to be there in the book about alcohol [The Trip To Echo Spring, about writers and alcohol, which came out in 2014] because why did I care, what was my investment if it wasn’t that I grew up in an alcoholic family and I needed to understand it. I think it’s the same with this one. Why am I prying around in people’s lives if I don’t have an investment and if I’m not laying myself bare on a similar level. It would have felt really unethical. And also weird for a reader, you’d be like, what connects all this stuff? What’s the drive to find out? It’s a battle between knowing something has to be there and really hating the revelation. I just don’t like it.
It’s interesting you see it as a thing of ethics.
I think it is ethical. This one, it’s not that this book particularly reveals unpleasant stuff, but the last book I was saying all sorts of unpleasant stuff about what people had done as alcoholics. It felt like there has to be some level of willingness to shine that light on myself. Or it seems unfair.
But the other thing, the thing that I do like about first person, it lets you get in so close. If you’re describing yourself looking at a work, on a particular day, in particular shoes, in particular weather conditions, that’s so different, so much more immediate to read than if I just described Nighthawks neutrally. And particularly all the stuff I do in archives. I want to communicate what it’s like to have David Wojnarovicz’s magic box and open the lid and take the things out and what they feel like. If I don’t have an eye, I can’t do that. That’s the other side of the pay-off. I want to have that capacity to be able to get in really close, and I can’t do it if I’m not there in some respect. As long as I can ghost out again as quickly as possible. Or just throw in occasional responses to stuff as it’s going along. I think some of this is fairly heavy criticism, and if the reader feels there’s somebody there every once in a while having an emotional response too, then it allows, it sweetens along the level of thinking.
It’s interesting you see it as heavy criticism because to me it seems that way. It does that brilliant thing of disguising criticism as conversation. I think people wouldn’t be aware it’s art criticism. You’re writing about art that allows for criticism without it being…
Well it’s not artspeak, ever. I can’t stand that way of looking at art, let alone talking about it. A lot of it is written in resistance to that.
And it’s allowing for how people engage in art.
And certainly how people I know make it. How artists are often made to speak about their work right now is so awful, so dreadful, and they speil it out. They can talk and talk, and they’re saying nothing. They’re saying buzzwords that they’ve been taught to say. And they’re making work according to those buzzwords, and it’s appalling. What has been done in MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programmes is absolutely absurd. It would be better if people never spoke about their work than spoke about it like that. It’s so not real, it’s so not got anything to do with anything. It’s empty language.
And it makes bad work.
It makes such bad work. It makes work that can be reduced into those sort of statements. It’s pointless. It makes me so angry.
I found the Broad to be such a blank place – no humility to the display, no importance of historical context.
I’ll be so interested to see how the Whitney show [of Wojnarovicz] is done. All of those issues are so important.
It needs to be humble.
My god who ever uses that word in the art world! But it is. It is the way you should respond, especially to work like that.
I love how the book cuts through the idea of hetero-orthodox living. It’s about lives that find their own way.
No there are other possibilities. I think that was probably quite unconscious. As soon as you say it, I can see I was consciously looking for other ways of being. A lot of why I was in New York was that everybody I knew in England was getting married, having kids, and everybody I knew in New York were all queer, all living in very different ways, people who were prioritising making art over those things. There was a sense of a huge relief for me, as well as being a lonely time, I think one of the things that was driving the book was thinking of the different ways we can build our lives, and how much community matters, how much those political communities or artistic communities are actually antidotes to loneliness, and ways to live a life. Or different ways of navigating sexuality. It’s very 21st century that everybody is suddenly has to be married again, it’s just so offensive to me. We’re in a very fearful moment, and that’s what people choose to do in fearful moments. But I just wanted to say there are all these radical strategies in which you can live your social and sexual life, let’s remember that. That felt really important.
And find peace and calm and happiness within it.
Long-term happiness. Yeah.
And it not being consolation, or it not being, oh I’m different.
And it’s working for me. AIDS does happen to people like Wojnarovicz and Hujar, but before that they have a really happy interesting model of emotional lives. OK, maybe it’s a bit stretched to say that Hujar was happy, but Wojnarovicz was in a relationship with Tom Rauffenbart, but his soulmate/best friend was Hujar, and they had this complicated, knotty relationships that a lot of people have, and are stable. They’re fantastic, they’re rich. Why this pressure to make these relationships into cookie cutter shapes. I thought we’d got rid of that, and it’s back.
The whole thing in the book is about making cities, making lives as heterogeneous and complex and involving as much difference as possible. It is an antidote to loneliness, that’s how we get rid of it, and we’re in a moment where people are trying to make things more and more homogenous, shutting the borders of countries and stopping refugees coming in, and saying the dream of multiculturalism is over, we’re much safer if we’re all alike, it’s to me so threatening, and so dangerous. That is not the way to make peace and stability. It’s to have complicated societies that involve complicated different acts all the time. That is the underlying argument of the book. Everyone being the same is really lonely if you don’t fit in, and everyone being super diverse allows you to feel that you’re a part of stuff.
And also there’s the sense that no-one fits in. Everyone feels lonely…
And that everyone feels they’re the freakish one. There’s that thing of David Wojnarovicz going to therapy and goes, shit, everybody feels like this? I thought I was just a freak. And he’s really pissed off about it. It’s like, I had no idea.
We’d talked for an hour – enough of a grilling for her, enough to transcribe for me.
There is an assumed language in fashion right now.
It talks of the collapse in the fashion system. It uses words like “broken” and “crisis”.
Too many collections a year. The impact of social media on the catwalk. The rise of “see now, buy now” collections, in which product is made available straight after the show is done.
It is a period of change and upheaval.
But when was fashion ever not in a period of change and upheaval?
The contemporary fashion industry likes to believe it has always existed. It loves words such as “legendary”, “iconic”, “heritage”, “forever”, even though few of the brands have been around more than fifty years, some just under a hundred.
It is as if fashion has always been this way, and always will be.
Which is clearly not the case.
When people talk of “the system”, they usually mean the twice-yearly shows which take place in New York, London, Milan and Paris.
How long has this “system” actually existed?
Lets try and work it out.
A couple of years ago, Caroline Evans published The Mechanical Smile, an excellent book on the first fashion shows.
Evans states it was Lucille of London who “created the fashion show, or ‘mannequin parade’, a cross between an elite party and a theatrical event”.
Her shows were to clients, society figures, and journalists.
Similar to shows today.
But from the beginning, models were also public facing.
Parisian couture houses would send models to the races to parade their gowns.
Three models in gowns by Margaine Lacroix at the Longchamp races in 1908.
Evans states that in the United States, fashion shows “rapidly became part of the American cultures of consumption and entertainment”.
American shows were “open to the public who came in their thousands, often paying for entry tickets”.
Just like the Yeezy show by Kanye West at Madison Square Garden in New York on 11 Feb, 2016.
Indeed, Evans writes that in September 1903, a two week event titled ‘The Fashion Show’ was held at Madison Square Garden, with live models parading in groups of three or four accompanied by a string orchestra.
In 1908, the Wanamaker store began staging shows open to the general public.
From the very beginning, there has been a tension between public and private.
The book is so so good.
But lets skip on, because I don’t want this to become a Wikipedia post on the history of the fashion show.
For the first half of the twentieth century, it was the Paris couture shows that formed the basis for what could be called “the fashion system”.
In 1951, the first Italian fashion shows took place in Florence, not Milan.
The first shows attracted hundreds of American buyers and journalists, hungry for the optimism and glamour of an Italian look.
Soon, Italian couturiers began to show in Rome.
Disparate, shifting sands, with cities coming in and out of favour.
That is the real heritage of “the fashion system”.
Our present day idea of the shows, and the focusing of fashion on Paris, Milan, New York and London occurred at some point during the 1970s.
As prêt-à-porter and ready-to-wear became industry mainstays.
And the seasonal shows, with six months from catwalk to store, gave buyers the chance to place orders, and magazines the time to create shoots that feature the collections.
Robin Givhan’s book The Battle of Versailles, about a November 1973 Paris show that brought American designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows to show alongside Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro, shows the comparative strangeness of fashion shows within what is for some living memory.
And yet “the fashion system” is talked about as something long consolidated.
Before the invention of fashion TV, the shows were malleable.
Fashion TV – Elsa Klensch on CNN from 1980, The Clothes Show on the BBC from 1986, Tim Blanks on Fashion File from 1989, Cindy Crawford on MTV’s House of Style from 1989 – made permanent the idea of the fashion show.
To those growing up in the 80s, many of whom are now journalists (and I put my hand up here), it was through TV that an idea of what-a-show-should-be-like was formed.
And it is against those ideas that many of today’s shows, and today’s systems, are judged.
Here’s Elsa Klensch on Thierry Mugler’s 1988 show.
Here’s Tim Blanks reporting on Gianni Versace’s spring 91 show.
An episode of House of Style from 1992.
TV coincided with the rise of the designer brands which now dominate: Armani, Versace, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood.
When TV started showing fashion in the early 80s, the notion of ready-to-wear was still incredibly new.
And yet TV gave it substance, as if fashion had always been this way.
TV coincided with, and helped to coalesce, the idea of “the fashion system”.
The circuit of shows that provided content, as well as reason for employment, for fashion journalists.
Because we have an idea ingrained from childhood of what the shows should be like from TV, that is how we think they should forever be.
And yet it’s clear that the purpose, timing, scheduling and access to fashion shows has always been fluid.
What’s happening right now isn’t a breakdown of some centuries old tradition.
It’s the latest shift in and industry that profits from change.
And lets note that this all written with the blinkers of the catwalk.
The fashion industry loves to ignore or denigrate the more important shifts in fashion of the late 20th century – sneakers, sportswear etc – which has always been public-facing and about direct consumer engagement.
Maybe because of racism within the fashion industry, or snobbishness. Maybe because it’s just that being public-facing made sense for the sneaker and sportswear brands.
But it also raises the question: has this thirty-five year old “fashion system” always been broken, because for decades it shut out such a fundamentally important sector of the industry?
Much of this talk about the breakdown of the fashion system is actually about fear.
Fear from journalists because they are fearful of their future.
Print is already in terminal decline.
Now the industry they we write about seems to no longer need our presence.
What’s the point of a fashion review in the world of “see now, buy now”?
(I’m saying “we”, but actually I find these changes thrilling – I’ve long realised the purpose of fashion criticism is something wider and more engaging than just the rote reporting of what is presented on the catwalk).
Fashion continues. Fashion has always been about more than just “the system”. We have to find a way to adapt with it, to understand it, and to report on it.
And without letting nostaglia for the past mar an excitement about the future, whatever it may be.