When we take a picture with our smartphones, it can seem that we are not so much recording the object as we are erasing it. We click, store, forget. Fashion is particularly vulnerable to erasure, partly due to the sheer number of brands competing for our clicks and mental storage space, but perhaps even more so because very few of the designs now are worth remembering.
Two exceptional collections from Loewe and Comme des Garçons, as well as a new performance piece by the curator Olivier Saillard, featuring Tilda Swinton and Charlotte Rampling, reminded me of the power of photography before smartphones. For several years, Saillard, the director of the Palais Galliera, has been staging performance pieces that ingeniously and almost wordlessly connect audiences to historic garments and key creators. In 2014’s “Models Never Talk,” a small cadre of runway icons, including Violetta Sanchez and Anne Rohart, evoked the early designs of Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and others. Wearing leotards and tights, they walked as though the actual clothes — the tuxedos of Yves, the kooky lumps of Rei — were imprinted on their bodies. Of course, this also showed how these designers had stamped their ideas on our consciousness, because it was easy to recall the clothes from the models’ gestures.
Who hasn’t experienced a similar desire with a Penn?
Saillard’s new work, “Sur-exposition,” explores the power of photographic images. He chose roughly 50 great photographs — by Penn, Brassai, Weston, Arbus, Newton, Mapplethorpe, to name a few — and substituted black poster boards in the appropriate sizes for the original images. The blanks could also imply that the photographs have faded away. Swinton and Rampling, acting as picture hangers in a gallery, took the boards from a cart one by one, calling out the image’s title and date, then placing them in an arrangement on the floor. They also reacted to many of the boards, although sometimes just the name and date was enough to send a chill up the spine. For Penn’s 1950 image of his wife, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, dressed in a black Lafaurie gown and holding out a bunch of roses, the women kneeled on the floor and lowered their eyes to within a millimeter of the board, as if trying to absorb its extraordinary beauty.
To evoke Penn’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp, in which the artist posed against a corner wall, the actresses placed two square boards side-by-side on the wall and then slowly brought the ends forward, creating a wedge — a form beloved by Penn. That produced a laugh of recognition. Swinton, who has worked before with Saillard, has an uncanny ability to make you imagine things, and with a minimum of gestures. For Mapplethorpe’s 1980 self-portrait in a leather jacket, she positioned herself in front of a large board held by Rampling, and settled her shoulders and face into the imaginary frame of the image until she assumed his pose.
It was almost heartbreaking, because you saw Mapplethorpe, so indelible is that image.
In her own way, Kawakubo also explored the archaeology of memory at Commes des Garçons. Her two-word description of the show was “invisible clothes.” Given the enormous dimensions of the 17 garments — round, square, pod-shaped, coffinlike — and the fact that they engulfed the models, her description could be taken in several ways. She could be treating these dark hulks as a metaphor for how fashion has been sucked into a cultural black hole. (Recently, Kawakubo has talked about how much noise and confusion there is in fashion now.) On the other hand, the term invisible doesn’t mean nonexistent. It means the form isn’t necessarily obvious. Embedded in many of her creations — like a red tartan square based on a kilt and extended several feet beyond the model’s shoulders — was the shape of a classic shift, like a fossilized animal in stone.
Andrew Bolton, the Met’s chief costume curator, attended the show with Anna Wintour, and has been meeting with Kawakubo about plans to be the subject of next spring’s Costume Institute exhibit. Apparently she has given her approval. But the Met still has to announce it.
Many of the clothes in Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe collection also had the quality of an artifact — a long dress in washed beige linen with one sleeve (and the edge of the neckline) in off-white cotton, another whose worn texture recalled Issey Miyake’s pleating, and still another in a patchwork of rather ordinary scraps that added up to one amazing garment. For me, the patchwork dress suggested a very worn quilt — or, actually, the memory of a quilt, since the patchwork was so imprecise.
Old-fashioned tatting on the cuffs and collar of a leather jacket probably alluded to Anderson’s taste for antiques, recently revealed to Alice Gregory in an illuminating interview in the Times. He is also now mature enough as a designer to weave disparate ideas into his clothes without making them feel sodden with nostalgia, or annoyingly quirky. He leaves just a trace of the artifact, conserved in a very wearable and feminine shape, and it’s up to us to sense the source — or not.