VAMFF BLOG

The Report: High Risk Dressing

The Report is a series created to showcase our Fashion Writing finalists. We send our writers to Arts, Ideas and Offsite Runway events to take a closer look at fashion that challenges our preconceived notions of the runway and explore design that takes us to galleries, stage and screen.

Fashion has the ability and the potential to bring about social change when considered in contexts of identity, individuality, technology and the environment. Using its reactionary abilities in a critical manner can create ripple effects within society due to fashion’s position as an important and highly influential cultural phenomenon. When sitting at the nexus of other disciplines such as art, music, politics and architecture, a new platform arises for fashion, and fashion’s message whatever that may be, to reach a wider audience.

Today, there generally seems to be a lack of investment in cross-disciplinary association and criticality between departments at art and design schools, which seems strange as this is the time in which artists/designers will be surrounded by a wealth of different skills and talent. We are in the age of the single ‘creative director’ - the Lagerfelds, the Philos, the Tiscis – which is reflected in the way in which design students are taught. Collaboration breeds and fosters creativity and newness. The lonesome artist is a trope that no longer feels relevant to the changing tide of not only the fine art sector but also most certainly the fashion industry. RMIT’s design hub is an incubator for cross-disciplinary practice, instigating critical discussions within local design communities. During Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival 2017, the design hub was home to a reactionary, creative hybrid space that subverted the way in which fashion and art have been presented, engaging viewers on a whole new interactive level via public programs, static installations, film, music and performance.

High Risk Dressing/Critical Fashion was an immersive installation incorporating fashion, film, sculpture and graphic design coinciding with VAMFF and was open from the 17th February – 13 April 2017. ‘Installation’ or ‘exhibition’ is probably too narrowing in terms of what the experience of visiting was like. It acted as a hub of inspiration in which people could come and sit around a table and discuss and collaborate while engaging with the installation and video works of the contributing artists. High Risk Dressing was an homage to the Fashion Design Council, an organisation that was in action within the Melbourne fashion scene between 1983-1993 that sort to promote avant-garde Australian fashion, promote diversity and youth employment in the arts. The FDC provoked critical fashion practice reacting to the international punk subculture of the time, bringing in the new wave of post-punk kids. Founded by Robert Buckingham, Kate Durham and Robert Pearce the FDC sought to expand and shatter fashion’s commercial boundaries at the time through happenings, guerrilla fashion shows, performances, film and a retail space that supported students and young designers. The group coined ‘High Risk Dressing’, a term that signifies a certain reactionary zeitgeist that feels very relevant to today’s tumultuous climate.

For High Risk Dressing a group of creative practitioners were called upon to respond to the FDC’s archive of photographs, printed matter and films with new original work that used the framework of the original collective making it relevant to contemporary fashion practice today. The ‘new’ collective consists of (holds breath), Adele Varcoe, Alexandra Deam, Aniie Wu, Chorus, D&K, Laura Gardner, Martha Poggioli, Matthew Linde, PAGEANT, S!X, Winnie Ha Mitford, Sibling Architecture, Studiobird, WOWOWA Architecture and Žiga Testen. A dreamy line up of architects, writers, artists and designers that speaks to the wealth and diversity of the local creative community today.

The unveiling of the archive of the FDC was less about exhibiting what has been done before and ‘looking back with nostalgia’ but more about how its ethos and influence are relevant to contemporary practice. Which is to say, VERY relevant. Four female curators Kate Rhodes, Fleur Watson, Nella Themelios and Robyn Healy brought together a “diverse community of designers, curators, academics and students dedicated to inter-disciplinary collaborations,” creating what can only be described as a refreshing contemplation on the current state of the fashion industry. An array of public program events were staged à la the original FDC that engaged outside audiences with panel discussions, workshops and live performances, drawing a wider public to the influence, issues and concepts of contemporary critical fashion.

High Risk Dressing was divided into four separate sections within the gallery space of RMIT’s design hub. The separate sections were activated by way of the audience’s engagement with the works presented. Rather than emulating a museum or art gallery, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a working studio, library or even a creative office. The exhibition design was created by the three Melbourne based architecture practices; Sibling Architecture, Studiobird and WOWOA Architecture prompted by the social and creative spaces at the heart of the FDC’s original activities, which were ‘the office,’ ‘the bar’ and ‘the shop’. The adjoining space displaying the interactive archive was designed by Žiga Testen. The archive consisted of printed propaganda, videos of runway ‘parties’ and photographs. Getting lost in these archives was a true joy and challenged the way in which archived material can be displayed in a gallery/museum context by inviting the audience to participate their own thoughts about the FDC. Multi-channel screens displayed interviews with original founding members and offered insight into the context surrounding the FDC’s development.

The FDC connected the works of fashion designers, graphic designers, architects, filmmakers, stylists and musicians and High Risk Dressing adopts this connected notion sitting at the nexus of these disciplines.

‘The office’ emulated a contemporary designer’s studio with the fluorescent transparent walls and hexagonal shape creating an open plan-like atmosphere reminiscent of creative incubators. Chorus were in residence in the office throughout the duration of the exhibition, conceptualising, designing and pattern cutting revealing the process of design. ‘The bar’ was where the panel discussions were held and were, like most great ones, where the freest ideas came to fruition. These were safe inclusive spaces created by designers and architects to inspire and initiate discussion and present contemporary work in an entirely new setting and platform.

Sibling’s lush pink-cubed lounging environment mimicked the ‘sedentary places’ from which consumers ‘browse, compare, share and confirm purchases’ from the blue light of our phones and laptops. It was a utopian shop setting in which the audience were asked to engage with the artworks presented on or around the pink cubes (Adele Varcoes sculptures and Martha Poggioli’s ‘cloth objects’) but it also reflected the changing scape of the contemporary fashion retail store. Live music, parties and performances are now staged in these spaces to rouse the consumer/audience from the blue screen of their laptop interface. Sibling’s environment felt like the new retail space of the digital era, merging gallery like platforms and spaces with commerce.

Annie Wu’s genius idea of the contemporary utilitarian ‘uniform’ was worn by design hub volunteers and staff instigating a utopic ambiance within the space.

Trend forecaster, consultant and fashion academic Lidewij Edelkoort’s 2015 Anti-Fashion Manifesto feels relevant in the context of  High Risk Dressing. Her siren call that “the end of fashion as we know it is here” has instigated a lot of critical debate about the fashion system on an international scale and called for a return to local craft, the end to the “cult of the creator”, and a restructuring of the fashion and art academy towards a more collaborative model. A return to localised practice and craft and collaborative creative collective platforms subvert the large-scale corporate operation of the current fast fashion system. Within this changing climate, High Risk Dressing felt refreshingly relevant. 

High Risk Dressing/Critical Fashion was not about the legacy of the Fashion Design Council, rather it sought to activate ideas generated in the 1980s and 90s and use them as a mirror or a spring-board to create new work that is critical of our own 21st Century zeitgeist rather than being nostalgic about another. Whether that was in the satirical claymation video work of Adele Varcoe or the reactionary newsletter writing of Laura Gadner. High Risk Dressing has not ended, it is an ongoing, never ending project, instigating DIY collaborations. The practitioners involved and those inspired by the events are activated to generate new critical work and critical discussions will continue to be had, smaller voices in the industry will be heard and avant-garde fashion practices will continue to develop. This is indeed the end of fashion as we know it and in turn, its future.