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

time machine



“The temporality of fashion has another character that relates it to contemporaneity. Following the same gesture by which the present divides time according to a ‘no more’ and a ‘not yet,’ it also established a peculiar relationship with these ‘other times’ — certainly with the past, and perhaps also with the future.” Giorgio Agamben, What Is the Contemporary? 2008, Payot / Rivages

1. What is this unique relationship between fashion and time? If fashion divides the present into the new and the passé, how does it simultaneously engage in a “peculiar relationship” with both the past and the future? While remaining elusive in his response, Giorgio Agamben says something essential in his brilliant book What Is the Contemporary?: fashion, much like art, represents a prime example of this unique experience of time that is contemporaneity. Therefore, the connection between fashion and art is not superficial, nor a mere marketing tool for fashion instrumentalizing contemporary art. It is a fundamental relationship that fashion maintains with the art of its era, which allows us to grasp the essence of fashion through the shared and distinct relationship that art and fashion form with the present. This fashion-art link is, in fact, the raison d’être of Purple: to reveal how art and fashion together — yet distinctively — produce a sensation of time we call contemporary. It’s a “violent sensation of time,” as Barthes says about fashion — more than a perception or a vision of the present.

2. Fashion and art are cultural forms of the present. More than that, they are its factory, its laboratory, its production studio, its artificial intelligence. For the present is not a given; it must be produced. To articulate it as Agamben does, to be contemporary is not to coincide fully with the present. It is not the light of its time but rather its darkness: “The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity.”

3. The present, in reality, is not luminous. It is not visible: it is precisely this time that passes, that eludes, that fades between a past that has been identified and for which we might feel nostalgia, and a future that is desired or feared (which today is a source of anxiety). The present is obscure, Agamben says: to be contemporary is “to perceive the darkness that emanates from the epoch” and to address this obscure emanation. Art and fashion, each in their own way — and that is their strength — confront this obscurity, unveil it, and give form to the present. An image in chiaroscuro.

4. Yet, let us depart from Agamben’s religious-like metaphor of light and darkness for a more practical lexicon. Fashion and art embody the very creativity of the present in contemporary society. Each makes the present moment unveil itself in a new form, each in a unique manner. They metamorphose the present. It is the transfiguration of the given moment into a new temporality that creates a violent sensation of a present emerging from within itself, inherently both identical and distinct. In both fashion and art, contemporaneity is the transformative force of the present, the phenomenon signaling that the present has been altered, that it is no longer fully recognizable even as it propels us toward a new temporal dimension. Thus, the tectonic sensation that a temporal plate is shifting. That a fracture is occurring in the time block of the present. That the temporal ground of the present is beginning to tremble. This is what defines contemporary presence: to be present, receptive, and open to this irreversible and violent transformation.

5. However, art and fashion do not interact with the present in an identical way. It is perhaps more precise to say that they diverge in their modalities of fissuring the present, thus engendering time’s passage toward the future, toward the realm of the unknown.

6. Art, contrary to Roland Barthes’s assertion, is more violent than fashion and more radical: it problematizes the relationship to time through more brutal effects of rupture. It is a truism to state that art shocks, transgresses, upends, or plays with our current certainties, and this applies to its relationship with time. Art uncomplicatedly scrambles the signs of time and the intelligibility of communication systems to release a distinct temporality,
an alternate present, a promise of change, a rebellious hope. Is this an illusory utopia, a futile expectation, a magic trick, or merely the aura of a luxury product? That is for us to decide. The gesture of temporal rupture can extend to abstraction, the radical rejection of all visibility, to nonsense, incommunicability, void, terror. It is the experience of the limits of time, through language itself, knowing that, according to Georges Bataille, the ultimate boundary is indeed death and transgression.

7. Fashion is neither dramatic nor metaphysical, even when it occasionally pretends to be; it is rarely ironic or irreverent, even though it may shock. Fashion that fractures the present does not pull it toward death but rather toward life, subjectivity, and community. As philosopher Emanuele Coccia conceptualizes, through clothing, appearance, and the interplay of signs, fashion is a “re-enchantment of the world.” It is the continuation of modern art’s ambition to connect art and life, which emerged in the last century, sometime between Chanel, the Cabaret Voltaire, the Fluxus movement, and the conceptual art of Robert Filliou, from whom we could hijack the definition of art: “Fashion is what makes life more interesting than fashion.”

8. However, fashion does not overthrow the established order of signs like art does. Fashion is the empire of signs, the power of signs, which it redistributes and reinvigorates, and rarely overturns (with the exception of what Martin Margiela accomplished). To achieve this, it draws from all languages, all cultures, all epochs, without fear of colonialist appropriations. Fashion is, in fact, more past-oriented than we might assume. This has nothing to do with the cliché that fashion is a mere anticipation of change, a temporality ahead of itself. In truth, fashion reactivates from the past multiple forms that it confronts and merges with the present, which it simultaneously declares to be definitively outdated. This is less confrontational than the method employed by artists to alter the present, to transform it, to induce its mutation. In doing so, fashion projects the present toward an imperative future and sets the temporal machine into motion.

9. The runway show is the essence of fashion. It’s that singular moment where everything is at stake for the designer, where in 50 to 100 runway walks, sometimes fewer, the goal is to activate the machine that manufactures the present. When successful, there is an exhilaration in feeling the present take flight in its Mallarméan purity: “the virgin, the vibrant, and beautiful today” (Swan Sonnet). When it fails, the attempt does not take off. We remain within the conventions of the genre: a presentation of clothes more or less successful or commercial. But the hoped-for ascent does not occur. But if it takes off — we can remember some of the shows by Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, or Rei Kawakubo, to name just three designers out of hundreds — it is in those 10 minutes that one has the chance to witness a blazing experience of contemporaneity. It is for this rare moment that I attend a hundred shows a season. It is also in pursuit of this moment that fashion designers invest so much energy and passion into these very few but spectacular minutes. Because beyond their collection, its impact, or its communication, what they all seek madly, intuitively, and relentlessly is this ascent. This present lifted from itself, this weightless present that unveils a new form before our jaded eyes and propels us elsewhere, into a dreamed life.


[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

Table of contents

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