FROM MAO TO NOW, FROM GHOST TO [D.R.A.G.]ON
by Danilo Venturi
Professor Juanjuan Wu in the book “Chinese Fashion. From Mao to Now” perfectly described the recent evolution of the Chinese aesthetics from the times of the Cultural Revolution up to current days. It’s an interesting reading for western fashion inside-outers because on one side what previously forb[h]idden is rising a kind of voyeuristic pleasure much more intense than the one we feel for the Japanese culture: Rising Sun’s designers are amongst ours in the fashion weeks and streets since a long time, we have been bombarded by Japanese images since our childhood while watching cartoons, Tokyo Hotel the German music group in which millions of European teenagers are self-reflecting has a frontman looking like a manga avatar, and sushi has become a kind of street food like pizza and kebab, the typical quick lunch for young executives in Milan.
On the other side, looking at the rise of the Chinese fashion is provoking a kind of masochistic pain because we are conscious that many western brands fed its industrial potential by producing there their second lines and cheap accessories for decades, so also reducing creativity to the last self-faked commodity, leaving a white space for new players in the deeper and higher levels and finally founding a common ground for the mass merchandisers backed of a minimum [copied] design quotient. What is really surprising is rather the hypocrisy of a generation of politicians and entrepreneurs that in the late sixties was revolutionary embracing Mao’s ideology, then transformed it in ashtrays and lighters, at the end going back to Mao for exploiting the cheap work force of his people, apart from declaring today that globalization, the crisis in the textile industry, relocations and the consequent mass dismissals are China’s fault. Penitenziagite.
The global and serial reproduction of fashion creativity started in Japan when Louis Vuitton in the late seventies/early eighties had to find a way to meet the odd expectations of Japanese people who were bringing back the hand-sewed bags thinking they were damaged because obviously not perfectly equal. As a result 94% of Japanese women in their twenties own today a LV bag (that means they can have also more than one). Leather is the skin and the skin is deep because a bag is a virtual body where we put our intimate objects. This congruence between product and body has changed with the evolution of the womankind. It’s well visible in the difference between the first and the last operas by Cindy Sherman: “I am like you want me to be” in the beginning, “I am free to manipulate my body however I want” after. It’s not a positive liberation. The second Cindy Sherman is telling that women can stop to shape themselves according to men’s will and starting to manipulate their body induced by broader factors, like the corporate vision of beauty, that is also corporal. Serial bags make people appear like replicants, self-objectified non-subjects. The logo is a too simplified media between identity and identification, so all-over bags are ultimately commercializing those who bring them. Skin has become the leather.
Globalization as we know it today means: new territories and players; reduction of available resources; faster and closer circulation of ideas, people and products; a steady flow in every place for every single flapping of butterfly wing; centrality of technology, especially in communication. Globalization is, while accomplishing them, the end of the terrestrial expansion and of the research for perfection, tensions which can now be embodied (see John Galliano’s “Mapping the World”, f/w 2004/05), or projected into the space (see Hussein Chalayan’s “Airplane Dress”, s/s 2000, activated by remote control). Geography is disappearing right while mindscapes, bodyscapes, landscapes, urbanscapes and brandscapes are overlapping and virtually extending. Distant elements in time and space are now running close. The unsustainable standardization is making particularities explode, ultimately creating a labyrinth of cultures, references, genders, meanings, emotions, and symbols. John Galliano is decrypting the possible exploration of this chaos and Dries Van Noten is encrypting it.
As geography is disappearing, history is forgotten. When Japanese designers were included in the French fashion week they were welcomed and stated as “Hiroshima chic” because clearly exposing in their creativity the concept of “post”, in the sense of post-atomic, post-modern and post-human. Man is animal in nature; becoming human if equipped of moral discernment; inhuman when trying to become God instead going back to the status of animal with the face of the beast; finally including all these inner geographies in the post-human like displayed by Matthew Barney. Fashion designers followed this path also through the evolution of the congruence between body and dress: form, overform and deform up to the “Dress Becomes Body Becomes Dress” by Rei Kawakubo. After this experiment the evolution went on with the augmented reality of Junya Watanabe, the multiform of Bernhard Willhelm’s Molux, arriving to the recent trans-human by Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and the reborn-through-death casted in the last Thierry Mugler menswear show. But when Japanese designers came to Paris, this process was not so codified, in any case not so mindful and clear. At that time USA were ruling the world, right thanks the Hiroshima’s bomb, making it relatively preordered in a cold war environment. Exactly the opposite since 2001-9-11 when the western world, and Japan with it, started to live in a continuous state of imminent apocalypse.
History is made of turns and returns. What is post can easily become pre. In the nineteenth century UK passed its world throne to the USA, then lost after a religious war. Like avant-garde should always do, Alexander McQueen in the collection f/w 1996/97 stripped in advance the romance to the truth presenting religion as cause of wars, a social and political trauma eroticized apposing Christian crosses on black masks and Don McCullin’s war-report pictures on the dresses. Who listened to his emotional revolt? None in the powerscapes. Alexander McQueen represented many times the decadence of the western civilization. In the f/w 1997/98 he imprisoned the body of a model in a rigid shell, underlying the tension between body and ageing, of a woman, of fashion, of the whole society with its obsolete values. Beauty is used to obtain money and money to obtain beauty, but at the end death comes for everybody. In fact at the end the apocalypse came. With the financial crash coup de grace the world throne went to China, already one of the most civilized regions of the world before UK’s turn. Then, also big names such as Chistian Lacoix and Yoshji Yamamoto went into bankruptcy and the time for a spread disenchantment arrived.
Western culture is now populated by ghosts, the ones of our previous [sartorial] pasts and the ones coming from Far East. Martin Margiela in his s/s 2009 collection showed women with blank [lost] faces, very slight total-covering pants making the models appear like white-bulb-enlightened-spirits deprived of their spoiled corpse, and de-structured dresses showing their own ancestors like electric shadows embedded in the garment. One year after, in the f/w 2010/11 he used an oriental model wearing a fifties-style suit jacket in Chinese red, stylized with a smudging lipstick, like if coming from an orgiastic love meeting with a foreign culture. Definitely a [d.r.a.g.]on more than a Dragon. John Galliano, after the video “Lady Blue Shanghai” (David Lynch, 2010), in the Dior’s collection s/s 2011 presented an erupting Chinese red and oriental-style models as well. Prada’s “First Spring” by Yang Fudong for s/s 2010 is another Shanghai-set video. Now, we are the Chinese.
Hong Kong based movie director Wong Kar-Wai is seldom fixing the images, like postcards from the fifties, portraying costumes for a perfect future. He already has been working with Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Soderbergh, and has played the role of chief judge in Venice Film Festival where presented also “My Blueberry Nights”, for his first time a movie in English set in the USA, starring Jude Law and the singer Norah Jones. In the meantime, Guo Pei, author of ultra-opulent evening dresses is considered in her country one of the most representative couturières. Celebrities like Paris Hilton, Sandra Bullock, Britney Spears, Julia Roberts, Naomi Campbell and Bjork are already appreciating the emerging Chinese designers. The Business of Fashion Daily Digest found also the time to signal its top five. In this country new riches can buy from thirty to forty dresses a year and an increasing middle class, now ready for local products, is luring for high-level fashion, also for avant-garde, told Jennifer Woo responsible for style at Lane Crawford. There is an evolution from “Made in China” to “Created in China”. The three Chinese fashion weeks alone are bigger in terms of business than the western all together. Beijing passed from 0 to 232 ateliers in six years. According to Angelica Cheung, Director of Vogue China, it’s not a matter of price or other marketing factors, but simply about creativity, tradition, first level materials and craftsmanship. Of course, rattletraps are instead for our remote-controlled middle class, unconsciously vanishing with the products that once used to produce. Ghosts twice.
Bernhard Willhelm in 2007 showed at Antwerp’s Mode Museum a parade of sheet ghosts walking all together like in the Pellizza da Volpedo’s “Third State”. Some had trompe l’œil screen prints of bloody knifes and all of them were winding cheerfully up the staircase to a dark room with more black-lit ghosts hanging from the ceiling. Parallel convergences and crossing divergences of the globalized era: the Japanese culture is integrated in the western (see also minimalism), and paradoxically the oriental mood is now coming from kitsch flowers in blinding colors. While Japanese brands are failing, American celebrities are purchasing Chinese evening dresses. But the Dragon, owning a big part of the American debt can switch this country off in any moment (they’ll never do it, because then who’s paying the debt?). Despite Italy is a cradle of culture, also for fashion, it can happen in Hangzhou that after an introduction a person is telling you: “Are you Italian? Perfect, so we can speak French”. Yes we could. Try then to purpose to a Chinese to speak Japanese. After all in some maps they see both Italy and France like invisible dots at the margins of nowhere. And after all Chinese and Japanese people have both almond-shaped eyes. Sarcasm apart the point is clear, the Marxist theory, among a lot of lies on its final realization, centered some critical elements: when a country is reaching the economic power, it will reach soon also the cultural. Someone said that as we are born naked, when we start to dress we start to D.R.A.G. .
Will we all die wearing a Chinese mask? If yes, for attracting the ghosts or for keeping them away?
Chadha R., Husband P., “The Cult of Luxury Brand”, Nicholas Brealey International, London, 2008
Chevalier M., Lu P.X., “Luxury China”, John Wiley & Sons, Singapore, 2009
Choo D., “Otacool 2”, Kotobukiya, http://www.kotous.com/news/arrival-otacool-2-worldwide-cosplayers/
Evans C., “Fashion at the Edge”, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007
Fudong Y., “First Spring”, Video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhswOlqbPUU
Hata K., “Louis Vuitton Japan. The Building of Luxury”, Assouline, NY, 2004
Horyn C., “Year of the Couturière”, http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/year-of-the-couturiere/, December 1. 2010
Kar-Wai W., “In the Mood for Love”, DVD, Medusa Home Entertainment, 2008
Kar-Wai W., “Un Bacio Romantico. My Blueberry Nights, DVD, 01 Distribution, 2008
Kar-Wai W., Antonioni M., Soderbergh S., DVD, Cecchi Gori Home Video, 2005
Lin A., “Bernhard Willhelm”, http://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/bernhard-willhelm-modemuseum-antwerp-belgium/1086, December 2010
Lynch D., “Lady Blue Shanghai”, http://vodpod.com/watch/3668067-dior-lady-blue-shanghai-the-movie, May 20. 2010
Loschek I., “When Clothes Become Fashion”, Berg, NY, 2009
Pellizza Da Volpedo G., “Il Quarto Stato”, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milano
Peng E., “BoF Exclusive|China’s Oprah Hung Huang Picks Her Top 5 Chinese Fashion Talents”, http://www.businessoffashion.com/category/international/shanghai, January 17. 2011
S.f., “Spie”, D, La Repubblica, 24 ottobre 2009
Venturi D., “Luxury Hackers”, Lindau, Turin, out in May 2011
Venturi D., “Speech at China Academy of Art”, Hangzhou, March 16. 2010
Visetti G., “Cina. Gli Stilisti Ragazzini alla Conquista dell’Alta Moda”, La Repubblica, 7 dicembre 2009
Wu J., “Chinese Fashion. From Mao to Now”, Berg, NY, 2009