Purple Magazine
— The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

an excess of sensitivity



Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia has written numerous essays on the nature of living. This year he will release a book on fashion co-authored with fashion designer Alessandro Michele, titled the life of form: philosophy of the re-enchantment. It will be published this spring in Italy (Harper Collins), and later in France (Flammarion) and the USA.

The contemporary system of fashion does not coincide with the millennial and transcultural history of costume. It is not the simple contemporary version of the series of appearances or fabrics placed on a surface. Arising in the moment when the European artistic avant-gardes set art the supreme task of coinciding with life and defend­ing its freedom from the standardization produced by the Industrial Revolution and mass societies, fashion became not only one of the arts but also the most radical and universal form of artistic practice, of manipulation and use of matter to produce and enjoy a particular form of freedom.

Clothing is the most universal artifact that can exist in human societies. It is used by everyone, regardless of class, age, geographical origin, religion, ethnic iden­tity, or gender. And we use clothes every day, whether weekdays or holidays. In fact, it is clothes that mark the quality of time. We use them all day long: even while sleeping, even in bed, we have to redesign our anatomy in part thanks to clothes.

To wear clothing is to reverse the relationship we usually have with a work of art: rather than placing it at a distance, in a place separated from our daily lives, and thus spo­radically coming into contact with it, we make it adhere to our body; we merge with it, and we let it sculpt our identity. Clothes have become the Trojan horse that makes art and life coincide; that is, they transform life into something entirely defined by art. Conversely, because of fash­ion, each of us is placed in the po­sition of having to “produce some­thing artificial in our lives” and turn our lives into artifacts and artworks. There is no more naturalness pos­sible. There is no escape from art.

This idea was explicitly claimed by one of the most ex­traordinary shows in the history of contemporary fashion: the fall 2020 “After Words” show by the Cypriot London-based designer Hussein Chalayan. At an extremely touching moment of the show, models took the “skin” of chairs and transformed it into their own skin. The face of things became the face of human beings. A few moments lat­er, another mannequin transformed a table into a skirt: she turned an everyday object into, literally, the place where her body stayed, a mobile container.

It is difficult to find a clearer metalinguistic statement of what fashion is. First, the metamorphosis of design into liberal art: objects must be transformed from in­struments to our skin. It is also a subtle form of sub­sumption of the world of design into fashion, which is the most powerful feature of contemporary haute couture and ready-to-wear: the last three major players in con­temporary fashion — Alessandro Michele, Virgil Abloh, and Demna Gvasalia — have all affirmed this more than once. Fashion is not only the technique of making clothes but also the art of shaping the whole real world inhabited by human beings and even the whole imaginary world. It is an attempt to find a future freedom in all things, or rather a bet on making things the face of future freedom.

There is the second fundamental point of this fashion show: fashion seems to produce freedom through abso­lute alienation. It is not a question of imagining, as a pharisaical tradition of philosophical bad conscience still does, that freedom can only exist without things. There is no freedom outside the relation with things because there can be no freedom outside the relation with the world. Fashion is but an exercise in select­ing materials, colors, shapes, textures, and smells from the world that are transformed into the skin of the wearer, into the sensitive appearance of an individual. That is to say, fashion gives the world the appearance of the human, and vice versa, makes the human the force that says “I” behind an arbitrary portion of matter. But it is precisely for this reason that it must think of freedom as an attempt to coincide with things: we are only free when we can make things — that is, the world — our skin.

Now, why? Why do we need objects in order to be free? Why do we need fashion?

Let me make a second premise. Before the genesis of the modern fashion system, clothing served to publicly declare a person’s social identity, which was predetermined by a normative order. It is also for this reason that clothing was itself subject to a normative order, the sumptuary laws. Since the transformation of the traditional cos­tume system into a fashion system, dressing has taken on a completely different meaning. It no longer has, as in the past, the obligation to socially classify the wearer. It has become the instrument of the individual and per­sonal elaboration of identity. Georg Simmel showed how modernity is the place where pre-established identity is destroyed and where individuals are obliged to build it themselves: identity thus ceases to be purely social and becomes also psychological, idiosyncratic. One is an in­dividual without being a hero because one constructs the self and one’s identity without having to perform partic­ular acts. To build the self, however, modern subjects are obliged to delegate to objects the task of making their psychological (and not only social) identity exist: to do it only by means of anatomy and language perhaps would impose a series of enormous ritual efforts. By surround­ing themselves with objects at home and by transforming objects into their own skin, modern individuals unload otherwise impossible performances onto things. In this way, identity also becomes a cosmic fact (we can only be a certain “me” by allying ourselves with things, by coop­erating with them: the “me” is always a cyborg). On the other hand, if things (and especially their appearance) allow us to be a self, then fashion is an implicit form of animism.

A contemporary collection seems to significantly empha­size this aspect: the fashion show that Alessandro Mi­chele designed in 2018, “Cyborg.” As its very erudite preparatory note states, the collection intends to go against the tendency of disciplinary power to “impose a precise identity on the subject.” This is done by placing the subject in fixed, binary categories such as normal/abnormal. The goal is to classify, control, and regulate the subject. The regulation strategies prove so persuasive that the subject voluntarily chooses to adhere to this same categorization, claiming his or her position within a given social structure. It is first to affirm that “identity is neither a natural fact nor a predefined category that can be imposed by violence. It is not a fixed and immutable fact but rather a cul­tural and social construction. And as a construction, it is an object of choice, of adherence, and of inven­tion. The identity is thus a process, never definitively concluded, which makes itself each time available for a new determination.” This ambiguous, uncertain, multiple identity is that of a cyborg. We never think about it, but you don’t need a subcutaneous chip implant to become a cyborg. A suit of clothes is enough. According to the original definition, a cyborg is actually a technologi­cal modification of an organic body that allows it to survive in a new environment. It is the modification of the self that a living being makes when it is unable to modify the environment. A garment is, by definition, the modification that one imposes on oneself to resist the environment. We went on the moon only thanks to a garment: here is the power of fashion. For Michele, “the cyborg is a paradoxical creature that joins nature and culture, man and woman, normal and foreign, psyche and matter. Contrary to any categorical grid, the ex­pression incorporates multiple and evolving identities that escape any normative discipline — hybrid identities, in the making, built on multiple affiliations. The Gucci Cyborg is post-human: it has eyes that appear on its hands, faun horns, dragons, and split heads.”

The fashion show actually features two particular looks in which two models carry an accessory bag that is a rep­lica of their head. It is, literally, a variation on the theme of the cephalophore, the late antique and medieval legend of the decapitated head of a saint that continues to speak and is taken in hand by the saint who continues to walk until he reaches the place where he must be bur­ied. This talking head, however, is not a form of vanitas, a reminder of fragility, but its opposite: it is the symp­tom of an excess of life and, above all, of an excess of face. Fashion is the superfetation of the face on each of us, an excess of sensitivity.

On the other hand, this excess makes our face the equiva­lent of a bag, an accessory. Our head, our face, or our identity is an accessory in our hands: we can modify it, change it, transform it. Fashion is essentially that: a surgical operation we perform on our body and its sen­sitive appearance, which allows us to modify our identity, our soul. This is why the fashion show, after all, takes place in a surgical room with an operating table. Fash­ion is the attempt, literally, to put our identity in our hands. Conversely, it is also the evidence that in order to change our identity, it is enough to modify its sensi­tive consistency: our future self is the result of a sen­sitive manipulation of our present.

Here is what Michele clearly says in an interview with Vanessa Friedman: “I was thinking of a space that would represent the creative act. I wanted to represent the studio in my head. It’s physical work, like a surgeon’s work. We are the Dr. Frankensteins of our lives: we invent, we assemble, we experiment” with the identity expressed by the clothes, “which can accompany you in the devel­opment of an idea of yourself.” We are all “hybrids.” It is a powerful intuition: it is thanks to our sensitive texture, the fact that we are color, smell, shape, and silhouette, that we can simultaneously be Victor and his monster.

The basic point is that thanks to fashion, objects speak. Fashion makes it impossible to make a gesture without being overwhelmed by a narrative. And vice versa, it is impossible to design an everyday object without adding to it a narrative, an ur-account. From this point of view, fashion has something anti-modern­ist about it. It is impossible to think of fashion as purely functional because it has to speak, and because identity is pure narrative and not function. And the paradigm of fashion design is ceramics, porcelain: the space in which dealing and using an object means read­ing it and vice versa. In order to read something, a page, we have to use an object. I will come back at the end to the coincidence between use and contempla­tion.

Because of fashion, objects speak and make us characters in stories. From this point of view, it is as if fashion were a strange, immense, second Hollywood — a physical space in which fiction and reality are confused, bodies are put to work to become fiction, and fiction occupies, almost demonically, human bodies. Importantly, the true spiritual home of fashion is Hollywood and not Paris. It is not just about transatlan­tic wars but also about emphasizing the end of the order of the ancien régime. Fashion produces myths, narratives in which fiction and reali­ty are blurred, and it does not repro­duce the court, which is the space in which bodies must order each other according to hierarchy and accumu­lated prestige.

Now, the question I would love to formulate is: what is the space of fashion? In order to answer it, I would like to cite a passage from an essay written by Anni Albers, published in 1957, the year Christian Dior died.

“If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antith­esis. If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work in­volved, we will find similarities despite the vast dif­ference in scale. Both construct a whole from separate parts that retain their identity, a manner of proceeding, fundamentally different from that of working with metal, for instance, or clay, where parts are absorbed into an entity. This basic difference, however, has grown less clearly defined as new methods, affecting both building and weaving, are developing and are adding increasingly to fusion as opposed to linkage. Both are ancient crafts, older even than pottery or metal work. In early stages, they had in common the purpose of providing shelter, one for a settled life, the other for a life of wandering, a nomadic life.”

Fashion is a variant of architecture: it is a reproduc­tion of forms and structures through the mixing of het­erogeneous materials that must not lose their identity. Both are arts that use the multiple. On the other hand, fashion is an architecture for the nomadic life. It is an art that imposes a nondomestic relationship with space but especially with our time. It is as if, because of fashion, we are never at home with our time. And vice versa, because of fashion, the era in which we live is never our home: we need to escape, to change time. What we call contemporary is this relationship of noncoinci­dence with the present, the will to coincide with one’s time only through a disjunction.

Now, what does it mean to think about this relationship of noncoincidence not only with time but also with space? In what sense do we, through clothes, coincide with real space through a disjunction? In what way is clothing al­ways a form of anti-domestic transformation of the world (and therefore anti-ecological)? Why do clothes give us access to nondomestic space and allow us to travel? And to what space?

The most profound answer to this question was given by another great designer, Demna Gvasalia, who works for Balenciaga. For the fall 2021 collection, in the middle of a block, while others were shooting videos (Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior with director Matteo Garrone, and Ales­sandro Michele for Gucci with Gus Van Sant), Demna start­ed a collaboration with Fortnite and designed a collec­tion that could only be seen by playing a video game, “Afterworld.”

The first interesting point of this performance was the idea of the fashion show becoming a video game — not a passive show, but something in which the viewer has to act. From Friedrich Schiller onward, play has been con­sidered the threshold at which art becomes a higher form of enjoying one’s freedom. Indeed, play is the threshold where one experiences one’s freedom and vice versa, the place where one’s freedom (choosing one path over anoth­er) allows one to intensify one’s aesthetic experience. On the other hand, dressing up means transforming oneself into a video game character, into something that has a purely sensory consistency. Clothing is transfigured into a purely imaginary and dreamlike reality. But to contem­plate a garment implies this metamorphosis into a virtual character; to buy it is to bring this purely virtual in­tensity back into the physical and real world, to bring back here something that seemed to belong only to the imaginary world. It is as if the garment becomes a point of indistinction between the real and the imaginary, between the virtual and the physical. This idea would be developed in one of the following fashion shows, on October 2, 2021 (spring-summer 2022), in which the designer showed a new episode of the famous television series The Simpsons. The episode featured the designer himself, Demna, in the act of dressing and showing all the characters from the series in Paris. “I will take you all to Paris,” he told the assembled audience. It would be hard to think of anything more revolutionary. First of all, attending a fashion show is no longer a way to fan­tasize about a socially superior life but a testimony to the transfiguration of our imagination. The designer is himself a character in an animated film, a force in the imaginary world. Fashion reinvents the elegance of the dreamworld, but it is able to bring these dreams to life in Paris, to transfer them to our world.

It is in this ability to find the thresh­old of indistinction between the real and the imaginary that fashion is the discipline or rather the indisci­pline of our freedom.

It seems to me that these two collections allow us to reflect on an important thing: thanks to fashion, thanks to clothes, we have a relationship with the world that is equivalent to the one we have with the character we play with in a video game. There is a kind of coincidence between the ontology of fashion and the ontology of the video game. When we play a video game, we relate to the world not as a series of objects, but as a series of sub­jects. The video game de-objectifies reality and makes it a subject, a series of selves. And the same goes for fashion. Clothing is an object that has the same form and properties as a subject. But above all, when we play vid­eo games, we experience a demonic experience in our own life: we are literally occupying another body, experienc­ing someone else’s sentient experience. We become the demon occupying a foreign body. Every video game gives us access to a demonic life, and by playing the game, we mostly want to be demons.

It is the same with clothes: each outfit gives us access to a further body, of which we become the demons. Fashion is nothing but the thrill of being a demon, able to pass from body to body to be a soul of all the bodies in the world.


[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

Table of contents

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