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The Surreal World of Mary Katrantzou

November 9th, 2010 § 6

Mary Katrantzou S/S 11, after Magritte

Every fashion season, legions of editors and aesthetes converge online and at the shows to witness the turning of the fashion tides. Admittedly, the returns on this investment of time can be less than thrilling on occasion: Shocking! Last season it was the 50s, now it’s the 70s! Would you just look at all those wide-legged trousers! or Goodness me, can you believe the amount of orange around here? or Who would ever have thought of doing a romper in leopard print? Absolutely groundbreaking!

But then there are those moments that make it all worth it, those truly jaw-dropping collections that reveal an unexpected perspective, an astonishing beauty, or an outlandish wit. Mary Katrantzou’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection, entitled Ceci n’est pas un chambre, offered just that solace in London recently. Her deft transformation of women into exquisitely decorated interiors a la Architectural Digest was unquestionably surreal. The models wore poolside decks, country estate breakfast nooks, and dinner tables overlooking city lights, all impeccably detailed and tailored. The pieces included such elements as printed drapes and table runners that gave way into actual flowing fabric; lampshade-esque rose-printed skirts, and bits of chandelier as necklaces. The effect was jarring upon first view, as there was no readily available point of reference to which to connect it. It was truly odd, and truly exciting.

The Treachery of Images, René Magritte, 1928-29

The title of her collection, of course, references the famous René Magritte painting The Treachery of Images (often called Ceci n’est pas un pipe) and the connection to the great Belgian surrealist artist is tangible. Magritte purported to create his art for the purpose of challenging viewer’s perceptions of reality and normalcy, and by so doing to elevate the experience of daily life through deep awareness. Like Magritte, Katrantzou’s work is clean and streamlined, with nothing to distract from the central, paradoxical messages of her collection: Yes, this is a room. No, this is not a room. Yes, this is a dress. No, this is not a dress. Yes, this is a body. No, this is not a body. This humorous philosophical exercise in suspension of disbelief was made possible by the hyperreality of the prints and the precise, clean lines of the collection.

This wasn’t Katrantzou’s first foray into trompe l’oeil imagery on clothing. Since her runway debut in London just a two years ago, she has focused on utilizing utterly realistic, mind-bending digital printing to achieve her fantastic effects. London has become a mecca for such revolutionary technologies, with Basso & Brooke and Alexander McQueen utilizing similar techniques. Her collections for these past four seasons have turned the models into exquisitely detailed perfume bottles, blown glass, jewels, and this season, windows glinting in the sunlight. In each of her collections, Katrantzou seems to be at her best when she captures the reflective quality of shiny surfaces in her prints, creating a sharp concentration of light. Perhaps in that pooled light we can best allow our perceptions of reality to be disrupted and reprogrammed.

This past Friday, Katrantzou won the Swiss Textiles Award, which will provide her with 100,000 euros to continue building her brand and developing her splendid vision. From that stamp of approval, it’s fair to say  that a good number of people are more than willing to cast aside their previous perceptions of reality in favor of those that this amazing young designer brings to the table.

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Dia de los Butterflies

November 2nd, 2010 § 2

“Here are letters, all yours (already on the folds
their traces of jerky pencil are fading). By day,
folded up, they sleep, amid dry flowers, in my
fragrant drawer, but at night they fly out,
semitransparent and weak, they glide
and flutter over me, like butterflies: one
I may catch in my fingers, and at the night blue
I look through it, and in it the stars shine through.”

-Vladimir Nabokov, 1923
Translated from the Russian by Brian Boyd and Dmitri Nabokov

Harness and brooch, Lanvin. Dress, John Galliano.

A flutter of butterflies burst in from the furthest reaches of the globe to alight on the Spring/Summer 2011 runways, dusting us with the transformative magic for which these creatures are famous.

In New York, we saw L.A.M.B., Rodarte, Lyn Devon and Carlos Miele float them down the runway; in London, it was Aminaka Wilmont and Bora Aksu; in Milan, Sportmax, Iceberg and Blumarine; and in Paris, Loewe, Tsumori Chisato, Lanvin, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen all presented pieces that had been brushed by the butterfly wing.

Eternally emerging bright and flawless from the chrysalis, butterflies are the quintessential metaphor for miraculous renewal, a sprightly visual symbol of spring.  Yet their fragile beauty hints also at mortality–a fitting motif for the autumnal celebration of the dead, Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls Day.

Artists such as Philippe Pasqua and Damien Hirst have consistently demonstrated a dual fascination with butterflies and human skull imagery, often superimposing the two in their artwork in various ways. Hirst’s much-hyped new exhibition in London, entitled The Souls and described on Dazed Digital, consists of 120 vibrant prints of the creatures. This follows Hirst’s previous skull-filled exhibition, The Dead. Hirst said while discussing his most recent subject matter, “I love butterflies because when they’re dead they look alive.” Likewise, when they are in the coffin-like confines of their chrysalis, they are alive but look dead. It is this duality that brings power to the winged insect and elevates it from a girly, saccharine spring trend to a powerful emblem evoking the fine line between life and death.

SS11 butterflies 1

Dresses and shoes, Alexander McQueen. Tights, Bora Aksu.

Sarah Burton brought the butterflies into her first ready-to-wear show since she took the reigns at Alexander McQueen following Lee McQueen’s death in February. Like Pasqua and Hirst, McQueen adopted both the skull and the butterfly as symbols of his brand. For S/S 2008, McQueen, with milliner Philip Treacy, developed a butterfly-filled collection to honor the recent passing of their mentor Isabella Blow. Burton took this opportunity, two years later, to honor the life and death of her own mentor, again utilizing the world-bridging butterfly to do so. The pieces she created for the collection gave a passing nod to the darker side, but emerged triumphantly joyful and full of life. Her vibrant success this season bodes well for the future of this important house.

Another insightful collection for Spring 2011 was that of Aminaka Wilmont. Their moody and magical show featured breathtakingly detailed hand-cut butterflies perched en masse upon shoes, blouses, and dresses. The show was entitled “Psyche,” a reference to the mythological Greek lover of Eros, who was widely regarded as the personification of the human soul. Portrayed in ancient mosaics with butterfly wings, her name literally means spirit, breath, life or animating force. In the ancient story of love, loss, and pilgrimage to the Underworld, Psyche’s path to her destiny is paved with formidable challenges and racked with human error. Her numerous, regrettable follies make her journey impossible, and yet she continues to rise up again, a spirited butterfly that looks mortality in the eye and flutters on regardless.

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Lilting Lael

October 24th, 2010 § 3

Lael Neale, Reed Mathis, Trevor Garrod and Cochrane McMillan

Last month, I had the opportunity to paint folk singer Nathan Moore live in concert at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, thanks to the efforts of concert producer Greg Keidan. Nathan is a particular favorite of mine, so this was a great honor. It was also a relatively new experience for me in that, with the exception of sketching at a few fashion events, I usually paint in the privacy of my own studio. You’ll see the finished version of the resulting painting of Nathan soon. A delightful bonus for me was the opening act, comprised of Lael Neale, an up-and-coming Bay Area singer/songwriter, along with Trevor Garrod and Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green, with Cochrane McMillan on drums.

When I heard that Lael would be opening the show, my anticipation for the evening grew. The San Francisco-based, Virginia-raised songstress possesses the voice and the appearance of an angel, and I knew she would be fun to paint. She and her talented companions didn’t let us down. They provided a beautiful, energy-building opening for Nathan, and I contentedly danced along, splashing paint around while I filled in the rough strokes that would eventually make up this painting.

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Konichiwa Robyn!

October 23rd, 2010 § 0

RobynI’ve developed a mad crush on the saucy Swedish electro-Europop star Robyn, whose tracks are regularly inspiring spontaneous one-woman dance parties across the floor of my living room–and presumably, in living rooms across the world. Robyn’s got this vibrant talent and a drive that just won’t quit. She also possesses this sweetly peculiar elfin appearance that turns all the pop star stereotypes on their heads. How can someone be so adorably quirky and so wickedly tough at the same time? Swoon…

She’s been at this popscene for over fourteen years now, buying herself out of her global contract in 2002 in order to start her own record company, Konichiwa Records. Following the success of 2005′s Robyn, she set about releasing a trilogy of albums this year, Body Talk, the second installment of which was released last month as Body Talk Part II. It’s a kick-ass collection of fun, bringing on the sort of spine-tingling revelations of physical joy that only the best dance music can.

Collaborating with artists as varied as Royksopp, the Knife, and Snoop Dogg, Robyn produces epic pop masterpieces like “Hang with Me” (BT Part II) and “Dancing on My Own” (BT Part I) alongside experimental cult oddities like “Konichiwa B*****s” (Robyn, 2005) and “Don’t F*****g Tell Me What to Do” (BT Part I). Her refreshing appeal lies in her willingness to unapologetically step into the tried-and-true dance pop footsteps laid by Madonna, Kylie, et al, without ever dismissing her own unconventional sensibility. She embraces the music of the masses without losing her individual edge, an approach that lifts pop music to new heights and brings a semi-skeptic such as myself up on my toes, ponystepping and shaking it all around the room, completely at ease in my guilty pop pleasure.

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Prim & Improper

September 29th, 2010 § 0

For about half of my life, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a button-down collared shirt. That item simply didn’t go with the many hats that I tried on in my teens and early twenties. Why, I wondered, would anyone purposely adorn herself in such a bland uniform, so lacking in originality and excitement, so completely devoid of sensual appeal? It allowed no hint of shape, no intimation of cleavage, no revelation of back arch nor glimpse of shoulder blade. It rendered woman, so I thought, colorless, sexless and humorless.

In recent years, I have begun to recognize the appeal. I would occasionally encounter an outstanding shirt that defied my instinctual rejection and forced me to look again. Perhaps it was my 30s coming on. Perhaps I could better understand the freeing properties intrinsic to an unvarying uniform. I could certainly better understand the sensual appeal in not revealing too much skin, and in celebrating the masculine appeal inherent in the garment. Still, though, I was recently a little shocked to find myself gamely appreciating the volume and variety of button-front, collared shirts on the SS 2011 runways in New York.

These shirts were buttoned completely up, all the way to the very top button. There were precious few relaxed, boyfriend’s-shirt-the-morning-after moments here. No, these were tailored and precise and fastidiously fastened around the neck, and the blandest of them were my worst fashion nightmare. But I noticed that it was exactly the tailored precision that allowed the best designers to then experiment around the edges a bit, playing with the concept of prim and proper while providing little intimations of wit and provocation.

SS 2011 Collars 1

Nicole Miller (Egle Tvirbutaite), Proenza Schouler (Daria Stroukos), 3.1 Phillip Lim (Renee van Seggern)

At Nicole Miller, the collar of a shirtdress was artfully deconstructed so that only half of it remained conventional, and the entire businesslike impression was undone by the addition of a sheer, flowy overdress. At Proenza Schouler, the boys managed to make modesty fabulously cool. The shirt was buttoned up to the neck and the skirt was nearly to the knees, but an untucked slouchiness combined with the incredibly textured and dyed skirt fabric to great effect. At 3.1 Phillip Lim, the collars seemed to be floating in midair, barely attached to sleeveless blouses hidden under layers. The illusion of the collar standing alone allowed it to be seen as more of a design element, as a sort of accessory to frame the face.

Rodarte (Auguste Tomasuite), Peter Som (Kristy Kaurova), Michael Angel (Yulia Lobova)

And then, an onslaught of color to breathe some joy into the minimalist landscape! Rodarte, Peter Som and Michael Angel were among the best of those collections that gave new life to an old concept through bright hues. These three also revealed new erogenous zones that filled in for the complete lack of breast interest on the New York runways. The necklines on Rodarte’s incredible California Coast-inspired collection were extremely modest, which allowed for exposure in other areas. The Mulleavy sisters kicked off a bare shoulder craze which has persisted throughout the collections. Peter Som’s vivid sleeveless shorts suit provided some propriety around the neckline while revealing bare arms and legs. And at Michael Angel, gorgeously draped and layered pastiches of impressionistic color opened into bare flesh at the midriff and upper leg, where another strong spring trend, the skirt slit all the way up to the thigh, took hold.

I’d hazard a guess that I’ll never be one to button up every day. But there is a certain clarity and sharpness that attaches itself resolutely to a neatly pressed collar, providing roughly the same effect on the brain as a shot of espresso. And for those moments when I need crisp, clean, caffeinated and professional, I’ll certainly also take a little bit of fun irreverence designed right in.

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Eyecaught: New York, September 2010

September 15th, 2010 § 0

Kayla at Apotheke, September 2

Amina, Gimbel Design Library at Parsons, September 3

Amy, Union Square, September 3

Tatiana at the Met, September 4

Lindsay at MAD's "Dead or Alive," September 5

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New York, Dripping.

September 11th, 2010 § 3

Noémie Lafrance's "Melt", New York City 09/02/10

On my first night in New York, Amelia, Lauren and I made our way under the Manhattan Bridge to witness the Noémie Lafrance-choreographed happening entitled “Melt.” In the middle of urban nowhere, we found our queue of murmuring seekers of culture and eventually made our way through the gate into a concrete yard with a huge pile of white granules to the right – hence the name of the venue, the Salt Pile.

In front of us sat eight women, each poised upon a makeshift seat at asymmetrical levels upon the concrete wall. Each woman wore a rough gauzy shift that hung down in tattered ribbons on either side of her body, her hair braided and pinned close. Their bodies, glistening in the hot stage lights, were covered with a dripping layer of beeswax and lanolin. Their legs slowly moved forward and back, never still, their eyes stared forward, focused upon a heat source that we could not see. I think nobody was certain when the performance actually started, but soon the  movements grew more varied and intense as the women began to melt down.

At seemingly indeterminate moments, they would move together as a choreographed group, but never entirely; always at least one performer was doing something quite different in accordance with the asymmetry of the piece. The dancers seemed to be alternately embracing and fighting an inevitable end to their heated journey, at times reaching an ecstasy of movement and grace, followed by a sort of wilting process and a moment of stillness.

The piece recalled Icarus’ fated journey toward the sun on homemade wings; drawn like a moth to a flame he flew too high, melted his waxen wings and fell into the sea. Ah, the intoxicating euphoria of flying so high! And oh, the hazards such flight can bring! “Melt” provided a mesmerizing glimpse into that dichotomy on this hot late summer evening, begging comparison to the city of New York itself–a place where so many come to fly to the top, willing as they are to singe their wings a bit along the way.

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Self Portrait in Pucci

August 27th, 2010 § 6

Naomi Alessandra in vintage Pucci

At the risk of my family making fun of me for my proclivity toward self portraiture and other such vanities, I just had to record this particular ensemble. A few years ago, while visiting my ex’s family in Philadelphia, my son’s grandmother (and my dear friend) Marie Christine presented me with an unexpected and enthralling gift–a classic Pucci dress that had belonged to my son’s great grandmother. I was stunned by the gift of this gorgeous wrinkle-free silk dress infused with all of the early 60s bold, graphic joy that is the earmark of Emilio Pucci! When I tried it on, it fit like a glove.

However, the dress had one issue that I had to address before I could really run with it. The neckline was at my throat, the sleeves were at my wrists, and the skirt hung to my mid-calf. It was just a whole lot of coverage, and at 5’1″, I’ve learned that I need the proper proportions to feel at ease. So the dress hung in my closet for a number of years, just waiting for its day in the sun.

Finally, a few months ago, I pulled the dress out, cut it at the mid-thigh, and moved the base band up to make a minidress. I used the excess fabric to braid together a matching headband. Add a little sixties makeup and a pair of boots, and there I was, a sudden sister to Twiggy, Edie, and Penelope Tree. Yeah, baby!

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Feline Grace

July 31st, 2010 § 2

Clawing at the coattails of Fall 2010′s obsession with all things feral came another contingent of wild felines for Resort 2011. This year leopard, cheetah and jaguar have made themselves at home not only with Dolce and Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli, where they are familiar and loyal pets, but also at Dries Van Noten, Givenchy, and Haider Ackermann, where such spottings  are somewhat less frequent. So why this continuing preoccupation with the furry, the spotty and – there’s really no other word for it – the fierce? And do all of these animal prints a gaudy mess make, or can they be donned with grace?

Givenchy Meets Frida Kahlo

Riccardo Tisci's Resort 2011 collection for Givenchy, inspired by Frida Kahlo

Large spotted cats have long been an object of fascination in various world cultures for their hunting prowess and their intricate rosette patterns. From the Maya in Mesoamerica (jaguars) to the Zulu in Africa (leopards), the pelts of these beasts were reserved for kings and were usually hunted by only the most celebrated of marksmen once or twice a year. With the rise of the British Colonial Empire came the demand for spotted furs in the courts of Europe, where they likewise adorned only the likes of the rich and powerful.

When Jackie Kennedy wore a leopard coat designed by Oleg Cassini in the early 1960s a mania for spotted coats followed that reached a crescendo in the bohemian late 60s. By 1969, many of these regal felines were near extinction. The Endangered Species Conservation Act aimed to stem the spotted cat trade in the US; then CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) came into effect in 1975 with more far-reaching restrictions that effectively banned the trade of large cats, although smaller spotted felines continue to be hunted and farmed for fashion today.

Chloe Sevigny for Opening Ceremony, Burberry (Melissa Tammerijn), Tracy Reese

So that’s exotic cat fur in a nutshell. It’s not my aim to delve into the politics of fur in this post. But what we’re getting at here with the leopard print trend has less to do with the physical reality of an animal pelt and more to do, if you will, with the very essence of leopard. For indeed, that is what the best of these designers are getting at. When the pattern is simply being printed on cotton, silk or wool, it is no longer about the hunt or the physicality of the creature, exactly. Does feline grace lie in the actual pelt? Is it in the arrangement of the spots? Or does it, instead, exist in something sublimely indescribable to which these physical trappings can only refer?

In addition to symbolizing power and wealth in both eastern and western ancient cultures, jaguars, leopards and their kin were also revered as spirit guides and were frequently called upon by shamans to assist them in their mystical work. These great spotted felines are equally at home on the earth, in the branches of trees and in the water, unlike any other cat. They demonstrate an uncanny ability to travel between worlds. This, the shamans thought, in addition to their ability to subdue any being, made them ideal spirit companions on travels through the immaterial worlds.

Giambattista Valli (Ramona Chmura), Marchesa, Gucci (Anna Selezneva)

Maybe this is more along the lines of what we seek when we swoon over Dries Van Noten’s leopard print scarves or Givenchy’s spotted leggings – a passport to new worlds where we are wild and capable of anything, where nothing and nobody will stand in our way.

Perhaps this is what the ancient Mayan kings felt as well when they threw the protective skin of the jaguar over their shoulders, or even what Jackie Kennedy felt when she wore the leopard skin coat that launched a thousand ships. Maybe this is what Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Riccardo Tisci’s muse for the Givenchy Resort 2011 collection, was thinking when she painted a jaguar peering over her shoulder like a watchful bodyguard. I know this was what I was channeling when I wore the hell out of my sexy, stretchy leopard print dress throughout my pregnancy with my son. I was fierce. I was unstoppable. And I was about to travel between worlds.

As it happened, that dress was not as unstoppable as I on the journey between worlds; I had to retire it when I realized that it would never regain its original shape. But it did provide that subtle surge of wild strength just when I needed it most. And, when the time is right, I will gladly welcome a new spotted garment into my wardrobe for that moment when life hits me with an otherworldly travel itinerary once again.

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Muse of the Moment: Nicki Bluhm

July 21st, 2010 § 0

Nicki Bluhm: One tall, cool glass of water

I recently had the pleasure of witnessing Nicki Bluhm perform with her Gramblers at the High Sierra Music Festival. This woman has a winning vocal presence and an exemplary personal style to match. Her clear-as-a-bell voice won the hearts of her eager audience as she swung through a variety of sweetly rockin’ tunes, occasionally sharing the mic with her hubby Tim Bluhm, one of her Gramblers as well as lead singer for the well-loved San Francisco-based rock outfit The Mother Hips. Oft compared to inestimable songstresses such as Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, Nicki has a warm, clear voice that breathes ingenuousness. With it, she smoothly traverses the pathways between folk, classic pop, and country rock.

Channeling the bohemian 1970s in a big way, Nicki rocked a pair of high-waisted bellbottom jeans and cropped vest in an appearance on the Big Meadow Stage. We know that not everybody can pull off the high-waisted jean look–in fact, next to nobody can– but Nicki is one tall, cool glass of water, and she owned it in her sweet, unassuming way. Elsewhere throughout the festival, she continued to betray a deep and abiding passion for late 70s vintage style, from a peasant halter dress to her layered shag haircut. Yves Saint Laurent would be proud.

The key to pulling off vintage or retro style is ensuring that the clothes do not wear you, and Nicki’s got that all sorted out. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a talented chanteuse with a doe-eyed, slightly androgynous beauty that shines out from beneath those dark bangs. As her song proclaims, she aims to Keep it Loose–and she does so with an easy, fluid grace.

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