There is a lot of talk about parametric architecture and the way parameter-based generation of architectural elements can lead to the creation of grand projects with fanciful forms and unusual curves. But, while we can perfectly apply parametrical definitions to a building, parametric fashion is still uncharted territory.
Yet, if we go back a few years in time and think about the history of fashion, we realise that there was maybe someone who was already working out parametric curves in his pieces, the late Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré.
Dubbed the "architect of fashion" by many critics for his background in this field, throughout his career Ferré used a language that pertained to the semantic field of construction to explain his work, often talking in in lectures and interviews about "structure", "form", "shape" and, above all, "project".
Over the course of his career, one project remained a firm constant - the classic white shirt, seen as a canvas that could be disassembled and reassembled, stripped down to the simplest forms or over-embellished.
An exhibition that opened last week at the Prato Textile Museum explores and analyses this key garment in Ferré's universe.
Co-organized by the Prato Textile Museum Foundation and the Gianfranco Ferré Foundation, the event entitled "La camicia secondo me. Gianfranco Ferré" (The White Shirt According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré) features 27 white shirts created between 1982 and 2006, some characterised by fluid modern curves, others by angular and sharp cuts, precise tailoring, or studies about volumes and proportions.
Inspired by architecture, art, or origami, made in the most disparate materials including taffeta and organza, and highlighting the neckline, the shoulders or the waist, the white shirts featured in the event are not ephemeral icons or symbols, but work in progress projects. Frank Gehry stated that "architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness" and, in a way, Ferré did the same with his shirts.
Rita Airaghi, a close collaborator of the late designer and current Director of the Ferré Foundation, has got a refreshing no-nonsense approach to fashion exhibitions: putting together such an event is for Airaghi not about offering an instant visually pleasing high to visitors, but about giving them the chance to stop and think, take in the details and go home with an idea, a project and a method. This is why Airaghi refers to the curator's notes in the Prato event as "technical-scientific descriptions", reminding us all that a proper exhibition is an occasion to learn and research and not just a photo opportunity.
Can you take us through a virtual tour of the exhibition?
Rita Airaghi: The exhibition follows Ferré's white shirt project throughout different interpretations and it's introduced by a sort of oneiric installation, a projection on transparent sheets that shows Ferré's hand moving on paper and drawing. The visiting path then takes you through a selection of images made with an innovative technique that reproduces the shirts through a sort of simulated X-rayed effect. These images by Leonardo Salvini are particularly interesting because they allow visitors to read through the structure of the shirts and study the seams and all the hidden details. This is an extremely important aspect since you can read the technical-scientific explanations written by the curator and genuinely understand all the smallest details they refer to by looking at the X-rayed shirts. As you move on to the larger exhibition room you are confronted by a small army comprising 27 shirts: there are 4-5 shirts on each platform and they represent a group of objects, people and emotions as well. They are surrounded by drawings, photographs and adverts referring to the shirts. Here visitors can follow the process of creation of the shirt from the first sketches to the runway presentations and then the interpretation of the advertising or editorial shoots by Guy Bourdin, Gianpaolo Barbieri and many more. So, if visitors have enough time, they will be able to follow a precise path of discovery for each of the exhibited pieces. At the end of the exhibition there is also a 6-7 minute film that focuses on the shirts throughout Ferré's 30 year long career.
What prompted you to organise an exhibition focusing only on the white shirts and not on Ferré's career in general?
Rita Airaghi: A proper exhibition about Gianfranco Ferré's all-encompassing world would be huge. Ferré could be defined as a bulimic designer: he tackled so many topics, looked at so many inspirations and employed so many materials that one exhibition about him would be a huge monster in which nothing would be studied in depth. I have very different projects in mind and I would like to tackle every two years one topic at the time to make sure visitors benefit from such events. We're not organising an exhibition to tell people that Gianfranco Ferré was a great designer, since they already know this. We have put together an exhibition that allows people to learn, understand and maybe research one topic in depth. I would also love it if young people coming to visit the event would try and grasp his working method.
The idea of simulating X-rays of the shirts is particularly exciting since in fashion exhibitions we are never allowed to see the internal part of a garment, and also calls to mind Frank Gehry's approach of working "from the inside out". Was this idea inspired by Ferré "the architect of fashion"?
Rita Airaghi: One of the main aims of this exhibition is evoking a special atmosphere, that moment that happened at almost every catwalk show when the white shirt appeared on the runway and there was always a sort of sensual, poetical and fantasy aura all around. But that moment was also the expression of the designer's will to recount the story of the white shirt project: this garment is indeed the result of a precise project in Ferré's universe that was thought, drawn and conceived with the mind of an architect.
When you see the X-rayed shirts do you ever think about the work of any specific architect?
Rita Airaghi: One of the essays in the volume that accompanies the exhibition was penned by an architect who was a university friend of Ferré and who worked with him on his accessory lines, Daniela Puppa. Rather than writing an essay, she preferred taking images of the shirts and juxtaposing them to different architectural elements and design objects to highlight the similarities between lines, forms and curves. We called this chapter "Assonanze e Affinità" (Assonances and Affinities). One of the main things that came to my mind when I first saw some architectures by Frank Gehry was a shirt dress that is actually a shirt and skirt combo. The skirt was made with a pinstriped fabric, while the white fabric of the bustier wrapped around the chest, reached the shoulders and formed another sleeve that rolled up upon itself on one arm. The curves of this shirt-looking bustier are very similar to Frank Gehry's curves and this design proves Ferré had the same frame of mind that allowed him to create solid and powerful yet soft and ethereal architectures.
As you highlighted, the white shirt was a discipline that continuously evolved collection after collection. How was it possible to isolate in this work-in-progress project 27 shirts?
Rita Airaghi: It was extremely difficult! We selected them according to forms and project. We obviously went through a lot of shirts and some of them were basic men's shirts embellished with lace, embroideries, and appliqued elements, so they looked like very complex shirts from the point of views of materials, but they weren't interesting for the purposes of this specific exhibition. We found indeed more interesting a crêpe de chine shirt with no embellishments that actually revealed behind it a precise inspiration and story. There is for example a shirt from 2001 that could be described as a sort of blown up collar of an ordinary men's shirt that passes around the breast area twice. I find this project particularly interesting, because it's a bit like a synecdoche since it employs a part of the classic men's shirt to refer to the whole thing.
Do you have a favourite Ferré shirt?
Rita Airaghi: I am completely biased and therefore unable to pick just one! When working with other curators and set designers I find it really interesting discovering which is their favourite piece and why. To be honest I don't think there is a shirt that could be elected as the queen of this exhibition, even though I have a soft spot for the first one, because it's the first one, for the shirt that looks like a chalice or a calla flower, because it is poetical and lyrical, and for the collar shirt because I think it's a clever idea. That said, I'm really in love with each of these 27 shirts.
Will there be a catalogue of the exhibition?
Rita Airaghi: Yes, it will be published by Skira and it will feature the X-rayed shirts accompanied by the technical-scientific sheets by Daniela Degl'Innocenti that include information about materials and inspirations, and new photographs of the shirts by Luca Stoppini. The book will also feature a series of essays that focus on Ferré's modus operandi by different people such as designer Quirino Conti, set designer Margherita Palli, and architect Franco Razzi who was a close friend of Ferré since his university years and who provided for us an architect's view on the designer.
Will the exhibition travel abroad as well?
Rita Airaghi: Nothing is defined yet, but there are some ideas. I would love to take the event to Rome, but we are in touch with institutions in Berlin, Moscow, Antwerp and maybe London. There are also quite a few institutions in the States who would pay to have such an exhibition in their museums and Qatar may be another option.
In 1982 an exhibition at the MIT explored the links between architecture and fashion through the work of a few selected designers, Gianfranco Ferré included. Why do you think this link hasn't been explored in more recent exhibitions, do you feel we are almost scared of discovering the real structure of things while we tend to focus and concentrate on the most superficial aspects?
Rita Airaghi: In my opnion the main explanation is not only linked to fashion, but to the entire system that is focusing mainly on what immediately catches your eye on a visual level and what can be easily recounted without doing any in-depth researches. I always feel sad when I lecture and discover that young people who were born in the 1990s do not know the fashion history from the '70s and the '80s, two key decades for Italian fashion, so they do not know Walter Albini or tell you that Armani is old, but relocate the birth of Italian fashion around the '90s with young brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. But when you explain them things from a historical point of view, they are totally fascinated. Yet, if nobody analyses with them the history of fashion, they will stop at what's visually pleasing at the moment, at what the social networks can quickly and immediately grab and spread around.
Do you feel this lack of historical knowledge, is also the main mistake of fashion institutions?
Rita Airaghi: Yes, I do. I'm not accusing anybody in particular, but most institutions encourage students to be extremely creative. But, you see, you can't make a plastic dress if you don't know how to make it, if you don't understand how to make this material work on the body, how to mould it and what kind of seams you should use. Gianfranco Ferré always insisted on the logic and rationality of each and every project. After that you can inject your fantasy and poetry into it, but you must remember that three-legged trousers are not useful for anybody. That's why I firmly believe we must all make an effort to help young people studying history, it is indeed only by understanding the past that they will be able to take fashion forward into the future and be genuinely modern.
"La camicia secondo me. Gianfranco Ferré" (The White Shirt According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré) is at the Museo del Tessuto (Textile Museum), Prato, Italy, until 15th June 2014. The exhibition will be accompanied by a seres of workshops, lectures, Instagram challenges and collateral events exploring Gianfranco Ferré's designs and the white shirt theme. For further information visit the dedicated site of the exhibition.
Image credits for this post
Images Courtesy/Copyright Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré.
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