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

emanuele coccia

Chalk graffiti by Jean-Charles De Castelbajac




portrait by Giasco Bertoli


Not many philosophers have engaged with the sphere of fashion, typically regarded as frivolous. Italian writer Emanuele Coccia and designer Alessandro Michele rise to the challenge of offering a new philosophy of fashion.


Emanuele Coccia’s new book, The Life of Form: Philosophy of The Re-Enchantment, in collaboration with designer Alessandro Michele, will be published this spring in Italy (Harper Collins), and later in France (Flammarion) and the USA.


OLIVIER ZAHM — You are one of the rare philosophers to approach and love fashion. You are informed about it, which is rare in the academic world. You have also developed an analytical perspective on it. Let’s start with the book you’re doing with Alessandro Michele. How did you two decide to approach fashion from a philosophical perspective? 

EMANUELE COCCIA — The idea was unprecedented. Among the new things that Alessandro did as creative director of Gucci was his first show in January 2015, which launched the idea of gender fluidity. The main topic of the looks was the lavallière or pussy bow, which is the tie that was taken from the clothes of the king. This is a motif that is linked with the story of feminism because it symbolizes a woman taking the symbol of power directly from the clothes of the king and putting it on herself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a feminist symbol?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. There are a lot of handbooks from the ’60s when women started to work in the office, and they said that you had to wear a pussy bow because it was the equivalent of a tie. For each of the looks in this men’s show, male as well as female models wore a pussy bow, which was a double signal. Alessandro was playing with the idea of men adopting symbols of power that were once associated with women.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I was at the show. I was really enthusiastic!

EMANUELE COCCIA — In February 2015, Alessandro presented his second fashion show, a women’s wear show. He distributed a text that he and his partner had coauthored, entitled “The Contemporary Is Intempestive,” which is a quote from Roland Barthes, and the text finished with a quote by Giorgio Agamben. It was a philosophical discussion about what it means to be contemporary. The idea was that to be contemporary doesn’t mean rejecting the past and embracing the new; it means having a free relationship to the past. It was the idea that you can reuse past motifs, which is what he was always doing. From that moment on, he began providing a philosophical text at every show. One of his last shows was done in Puglia in Castel del Monte, and the title was “Cosmogenie.” The press release spoke about the friendship between Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. Through this, Alessandro was saying that to comment on fashion you have to use the language of philosophy and not the language of sociology. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in your point of view, is fashion more connected to philosophy than to sociology?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. It is about stressing the idea that making dresses is a way of thinking and of using philosophy to produce concepts. Every show tries to grasp a concept or an idea, which could be gender, time, or friendship.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or identity and duality?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. For instance, Alessandro’s last show was about twins and what it means to have the same body or the same appearance as someone else while being totally different. So, we met, and since he thinks that philosophy is the language you have to use to describe fashion, he wanted to do a book with a philosopher. So, we began to have a dialogue.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It really resonates with me because, intuitively, I have always included philosophy in Purple. You mentioned Roland Barthes saying that the contemporary is intempestive, meaning that you can use the past easily or freely. What’s the difference between this definition and the postmodern definition, which states that we’ve lost the evolution of time, and now we’re in this sort of eternal present that plays with the past in a cynical, ironic, or just pragmatic way?

EMANUELE COCCIA — I think that there is a huge difference. In postmodernism, the relationship to the past was usually a kind of playful relationship. The past was just a catalog of different forms and possibilities, and the use of one form or another was not justified for any reason other than the possibility of producing a visually interesting combination. It’s not just an aesthetic problem. In a way, what is at stake is freedom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It generates freedom?

EMANUELE COCCIA — You have to be free to develop a relationship to the past. That’s what Walter Benjamin used to say, that you need this element of the past in order to free yourself. There is a very emblematic example of this use of the past in the fashion world: Yves Saint Laurent’s La Collection du Scandal [The Scandal Collection] in 1971. At a moment when designers such as Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges were taking inspiration from the future, Saint Laurent took inspiration from the ’40s, when women had more power because the men were fighting in the war. This style was reused to empower and free women and to produce a kind of sentimental freedom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, fashion is all about the production of freedom, not just the free use of the past. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. And that’s why we need the past — to free ourselves from the present. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. If not, you’re encapsulated in the present.

EMANUELE COCCIA — It’s the opposite of the postmodern because postmodernism used to posit that the past exists in the eternal present, and you cannot escape from this horizon of temporality or bias.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s no evolution because we are stuck in this sort of eternally consumerist present.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. In this case, the idea is that you are providing access to the past in order to break the present and to free the future within the present.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in that sense, fashion can be contemporary.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, this is something that is inscribed in the very idea of fashion. Fashion is not just a costume or a collection. Fashion is something specific, born at the beginning of the 20th century in the age of the avant-garde, when the avant-garde claimed that art should coincide with life. 

And once you have this kind of program — which is a modernist program par excellence, of course — you have to become a couturier because the dress is the artifact, the most mass-market, universal artifact you can imagine because it’s something that everybody uses. No matter which class, culture, geography, age, or time you belong to, everybody is obliged to dress. It’s like an artwork that is closest to you and that everybody uses. So, if you’re trying to make art coincide with life, you have to start manipulating dress, and that’s what fashion was from the beginning — the idea of inoculating art within life to free life from itself, to produce freedom within life. With important dresses or accessories, you are in the same position as an artist in front of an artwork. You can express yourself; you can change yourself. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this was conceptualized by the avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century.

EMANUELE COCCIA — The first exemplary couturier was Coco Chanel, who for the first time used the language of dress in order to produce freedom for women. Everything she did was focused on this idea. She used gender-crossing and destroyed the idea of gender. Think of the typical garment by Chanel, the vest. It was a redesign of a sports accessory. It was a very powerful idea: that in order to understand what feminine elegance is, you have to understand what it means to move, what the moving body is. What is a sporting body? It was revolutionary because it gave women huge freedom to move. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because it was still the time of the corset.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. Fashion is a dream of producing freedom. Of course, it has to change because freedom now is not the same as in the 1920s or the 1940s. It is always specific, and it has to change every three months because our freedom is changing so fast.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now it’s freedom from algorithms. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — But that’s also the problem. One of the most vertiginous ideas that fashion embodies is the idea of freedom also being freedom from yourself, from your past decisions. It must be possible for you to decide to not be what you used to be. So, that’s why seasons have to exist. Otherwise, it’s a uniform and not a passion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain that some individuals embody a fantastic style at one moment, then lose it later in their life?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Life. [Laughs] No more freedom in your life, and then you can’t create. That’s why, in an artistic career, you can’t repeat yourself because then it’s no longer liberating you. You’re just producing a uniform, and you’re stuck in the past. That’s why you have to free yourself in the way that we spoke about — to have a free relationship to the past. The most interesting artists are the ones who have had the courage to change or abandon their past style. Think of Picasso. Every 10 years, he had to move forward. Of course, sometimes it didn’t work, but it was a process that allowed him to go further, to invent new styles, and to be free.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you first said that to me during the Purple Festival, it was engraved in my mind because I had never thought about fashion being the continuation of the modernist program.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. I would say that fashion is like the quintessence of art, but in a very democratic way. I truly think that fashion embodies the realization of the modernist program. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And this program was not achieved by the art world itself.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Not realized, partly because of physical or structural limits. If you’re making a painting, you can look at it for 30 minutes, and then that’s it. In a way, fashion is like wearing a painting by Picasso all the time. First of all, it’s not just a contemplative relationship. It’s also participation. Secondly, you transform the artwork into your second skin. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — You make it alive — you activate it.

EMANUELE COCCIA — In a way, you ask the painting to become your identity. Fashion, at its core idea, is an attempt to let art coincide with life. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain the recent expansion of the fashion world?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Of course, fashion starts with garments, but it has to encompass the entire world. Good designers are not just creating dresses; they are also creating universes. That’s also why, from a commercial point of view, the enterprise of fashion slowly becomes an empire of everything. It’s capitalism, of course, but it’s also something that is inscribed into the very idea of fashion, which is the idea that through art you can redesign your body, your identity, and the world you inhabit. This extension is inevitable. There is the idea that you have to change the world but start from your own body, even as a consumer. The main critics of fashion claim that fashion is a purely capitalistic expression, which is very strange considering that the art world is dominated by the market and by capitalism, much more so than fashion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can even say that the art market is the model for capitalism because it creates the absolute luxury product or a commercial fetish.

EMANUELE COCCIA — You’re totally right — I never thought about it. It’s the ultimate model of the capitalist system because if you think about it, an artwork has no use-value. It’s just a total fetish. You cannot say it’s useful. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — As a philosopher, how do you respond to those who view fashion as a form of commercial alienation? 

EMANUELE COCCIA — Everybody’s speaking about alienation or domination, but when you are consuming fashion, something impedes you from being totally alienated because of the choices available. It’s very rare for people to wear everything from a single brand. You have to mix and decide what works for you. You have to take a risk and make your own bricolage. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why fashion is a personal language. You have to make it yourself. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — You have to say something. Every time you put something on your body, you are saying something about yourself. That’s why I’m also a little bit fed up with this criticism of fast fashion. Of course, fast fashion is heavily polluting the planet, but it also plays a huge role in democratizing fashion. Thanks to Zara and H&M, it’s possible to express yourself through clothes whether you are rich or not. Fast fashion transforms even the humblest garment into something that is part of this language. That’s extremely important.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you see fashion as part of a democratic system today?

EMANUELE COCCIA — I would say that fashion is a very important proposition for democracy. It’s one of the pillars of material democracy. Democracy is not just the ability to vote or to express your political opinion. It also allows you to be virtually in the same position as others while having the chance to express your individuality. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — In its essence, fashion is structurally democratic.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. That’s why it’s so important. That’s why it’s not going to die. If you eliminate fashion from the world, you will have a predefined identity like in the past. That’s why it is something we cannot abandon.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember asking Farida Khelfa about a dress she was wearing, and she said, “Oh, I don’t remember if it’s Zara or H&M.” And she looked amazing. In that sense, fashion disrupts the class system.

EMANUELE COCCIA — For centuries in Europe, clothes were objects of legislation. You were supposed to spend a certain amount of money on your clothes, which had to announce to everybody your class, your work, your gender. Today we are in a society where you don’t have to announce your class status. So, fashion allows you to express a message, which has nothing to do with your social class or work identity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, fashion allows you to navigate between classes.

EMANUELE COCCIA — It’s actually more than that. Of course, fashion was dominated by class ideology. Thanks to fashion, you have the chance to say something about yourself, which is at the same time an addiction in the sense that it’s not easy to say something about yourself every single day. It’s a burden sometimes in a way. Sometimes it’s easier to wear a uniform. But when it comes to being yourself or finding a way to liberate yourself, fashion is an artistic tool.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about gender in fashion. How has this evolved?

EMANUELE COCCIA — After the Industrial Revolution, the male gender had to renounce the ostentation of beauty, and the female gender was obligated to show its richness. This was when the masculine suit was born. But what is interesting is that it was a division produced by the fashion system. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — The aristocracy used to dress in a very feminine way. The fashion division between men’s clothing and women’s clothing really started with the Industrial Revolution. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes. And with the idea that the male had to work and show his dedication to productivity. It was a Protestant idea, and you had to show it through your clothes, the fact that you were sacrificing yourself. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the female could play with clothes because she was not allowed to work? But is this system declining today?

EMANUELE COCCIA — It’s declining, but it’s systemic, in a way. If you think about it, even what Coco Chanel did was against the system because she took the garments of the male and put them on the body of the female and said the female is not just a representation. So, from the very beginning of contemporary fashion design, every single designer tried to destroy this division and make something different. Designers invent new languages or forms that allow people to free themselves. They invent forms that destabilize or destroy this division of gender.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which is also a division of social position and a form of control that is totally invisible. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — Exactly. There are no written rules.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you explain that very few philosophers or academics, even in anthropology and sociology, take fashion seriously as a subject? 

EMANUELE COCCIA — In general, academic culture is not avant-garde. It has a gender bias and is still dominated by male academics, who are obliged to think that fashion is not important. They are not interested in fashion because they are so focused on the past that they cannot follow what is happening. Academic culture is not searching for the future; it’s studying the past. It is also mainly a written culture and less of a visual one. They think that images are not important because the truth is just the written word. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you think that philosophy has something to say about fashion?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Philosophy is a form of knowledge that is created by desire. It’s not a tradition. It’s not something that can be produced through a method. It is a kind of intensity that allows desire to produce knowledge. Conversely, it allows knowledge to not be defined by a method, by a master, by tradition. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it creates desire, too.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, and it conveys desire.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is why, when you approach fashion as a philosopher, you approach it with love and passion. You approach fashion as a domain of knowledge, and there’s something to discover there. 

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, exactly. There’s a huge amount of stuff to discover. Fashion is the invention and the practice of universal freedom. 

And you have to try to discover whatever is happening there because it’s the art of producing freedom through yourself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does it give you a sort of authority to judge what is good fashion or what is bad fashion?

EMANUELE COCCIA — It’s clear to me that a collection is good when it allows you to be free instead of bringing you down to old identities. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in that sense, fashion is transformative.

EMANUELE COCCIA — Totally. It obliges you to transform yourself all the time, which again is not easy. It’s almost a burden. And what is interesting in fashion is that you have to assume your own transformation. So, you are the only one responsible for the choice and also for your own appearance. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could we say that fashion is constantly redefining freedom?

EMANUELE COCCIA — Yes, and it’s constantly reshaping freedom by following the current moment. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And we cannot rely only on brands. We need to rely on designers.

EMANUELE COCCIA — And designers have to rely on real people. They cannot just have a personal idea. That’s why Yves Saint Laurent and Martin Margiela said they were just putting on the stage what they saw on the street. Designers cannot just impose; they are almost like translators or shamans of what is already happening. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because they can see more than others. 



[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

Table of contents

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