Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sensing Spaces - exhibition at the Royal Academy Of Arts

My second trip to London did not leave me much time to go around and see anything as I had too much work in my hands. My last full day there though, held a special surprise. In between the opening of the fair where I'd successfully supervised the stand building for one of our clients and a business meeting, I managed to see an exhibition I wanted to catch since the previous trip here, Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition ended on the 6th of April 2014. All photos were taken from me except the Kengo Kuma one which is from the exhibition website.

The main galleries of the Royal Academy were transformed by installations created by seven architectural practises from around the world: Grafton Architects, Diébédo Francis Kéré, Kengo Kuma, Li Xiaodong, Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura (in no particular order). These installations set out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery environment. As our daily activities of working, sleeping, being entertained, usually happen withing architecture, sometimes even interacting with it. Buildings are an ever-present background to our lives.

The visitor of this exhibition now has an architectural experience in a specifically built space - inhabiting it in a new way instead of the functional or visual way of everyday life might be. Upon entering the gallery and seeing the magnificent wooden structure by Pezo von Ellrichshausen (see photos above) with the four huge columns and it's robust upper balcony, it felt like being Alice the architect in the wonderland of Architecture. Pity there was no Mad Hatter to serve us tea!

Architectural exhibition usually display drawings, photographs and models of the works produced by the participating architects. In that way, the visitor is distanced from the direct contact with the buildings. The physical exploration of them though is usually the key to understanding them. In the real world, one sees buildings, enters them, move inside them, inhabit them. Appreciating their qualities takes time, sometimes changing in the process. The sounds, smells, materials, views and volumes of the buildings tackle our senses and become part of the whole process.

In this exhibition, instead of models and photos and drawings, we got to see the real thing: the "buildings"themselves. We got to experience the nature of the physical spaces, interact with them. The curator said that in the heart of the exhibition is the interaction with three factors: the nature of physical spaces, our perception of them and their evocative power. The installations we experienced (because we did not simply see them) highlighted different aspects of architecture: from manipulating light, mass and structure, to transformations brought about by use, movement and interaction.

The selection of the architects was made based on their engagement with how architecture might move beyond the practical and functional to address the human spirit. They consider how people will inhabit their buildings, how human body and its senses responds to their spaces. They use their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but also are highly meaningful within the present. Their works are strongly anchored in their contexts: from the urban or natural landscapes in which they are located to the cultures and traditions that surround them. The architects' different geographical, generational and cultural sensibilities enrich the array of perspectives and encourage a broader understanding of what architecture can offer us.

Kate Goodwin, the curator of the show, conceived the exhibition in a spirit of enquiry, having had discussions with the architects and developed it through the process of design. Each architect worked with an open brief: to explore the potential of architecture, its relevance to people, the connections it evokes, and how these might be conveyed using architectural constructions within the Neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy.  Each one proposed initial ideas which then found homes in particular places and evolved in response to their location, setting up dialogues with each other and the existing spaces. This resulted in installations that individually and collectively suggest the potential of "architecture reimagined", which is used as the subtitle of the show. The exhibition might be likened to a city, gaining its vitality and character from the ensemble as much as from its individual elements. And of course, like all cities, it needed people to bring it to life.

The curator writes that the architects were invited to create the spaces but this in no way implies that architecture is the sole territory for them. Our responses to buildings or spaces are neither determined by the architect nor inherent in the architecture itself. Although the exhibition demonstrates each architect's intentions, it is equally concerned with what visitors discover exploring the installations and responding to them.

This was perfectly clear in the installation of Diébédo Francis Kéré: Made of a base consisting of honeycombed plastic panels (1867 pieces!) forming a tunnel of sorts, it accommodated a myriad of coloured plastic straws of various lengths, that visitors were free to put onto the structure in any way they wanted. The result was a living structure that changed every moment of the exhibition, from the beginning till the end. I am happy to have been a part (albeit small) of this!

One can see that the higher parts of this particular structure are left empty as people cannot reach them. Maybe they should have provided a scaffolding of some kind to help use them too.

As well as enabling the visitors to find greater pleasure in the spaces they inhabit, the exhibition helped heighten their awareness of the sensory realm of architecture and thereby encouraged perhaps the creation of a more rewarding built environment. After the tunnel, one came up to a portal made by Eduardo Souto de Moura that echoed the frame of the entrance it was installed in. It gave me the impression of an added dimension to the space and building.

Right next to it, was the entrance to perhaps the nicest environment of the exhibition: the gate of Li Xiaodong's installation, a labyrinthine "hose"complete with courtyard/garden. Going through it, with the brightly lit floor and wooden walls was an incredible experience.

In this one can really "get" the connection between traditional and modern, local (Chinese) and international, while at the same time have all their senses alert to fully experience the installation.

And of course I tried getting a decent shot of the courtyard but the light was low and my iPhone could not get a good photo there:

After the Chinese architect's installation, we came upon the most photogenic and probably most posted on social media installation: the Grafton Architects space. A play with volumes and light, it consisted of various forms that looked like concrete slabs (but surely weren't that heavy), alternating in height and dimensions. Simply brilliant.

Then it was out to the exhibition's reception area, passing beforehand through a projection space cocooned in gauze.

There were projections of snippets from the architect's views and quotes on the gauzy fabric surrounding the reception. One could get the quotes on printed cards for free, which was a nice detail.

What we managed to miss, due to the fact that we were in a hurry and a bit dazed after a whole day of work, was the Kengo Kuma installation, in the gallery right next to the Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. I am really sorry to have missed it, not only because Kuma is a favourite, but because it used the sense of smell to enrich your experience. Below is a photo of it from the exhibition website:

In the real courtyard of the Academy, one could also see the installation of Álvaro Siza. It was another fantastic exhibition I managed to see in London and one I will remember forever.

Parts of the text analysing the exhibition were taken from the leaflet accompanying it ,written by the curator, Kate Goodwin.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

From Club to Catwalk: 80s Fashion

Another exhibition I was very lucky to see in London this past January was one in V&A (it ended in February), dedicated to 80s Fashion. From Club To Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s explored the creative explosion of London fashion in that decade. Through more than 85 outfits, the exhibition showcased the bold and exciting new looks by the most experimental (and then young) designers of the decade, including Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano. The exhibition traced the emerging theatricality in British fashion as the capital’s vibrant and eclectic club scene influenced a new generation of designers. Also celebrating iconic styles such as New Romantic and High Camp, and featuring outfits worn by Adam Ant and Leigh Bowery, the exhibition explored how the creative relationship between catwalk and club wear helped reinvent fashion, as reflected in magazines such as i-D and Blitz and venues including Heaven and Taboo.

For me it was like travelling back in time, re-living my teens, remembering things I had completely forgotten, identifying stuff I used to pore over in 80s magazines, seeing amazing clothes and remembering songs and events that marked my adolescence. Then it suddenly dawned on me: my teen years were encapsulated in a museum exhibition! I felt really old and odd at the same time. Luckily that feeling passed by quickly as I thoroughly enjoyed the outfits and photos, the texts and layout of the exhibition, which was minimal but thoroughly into the spirit of the decade with the bold graphics and colours. One of the best parts was a dark room with small screens all over, playing a slide show of photos from the clubs of that era, accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack. One could recognise all the famous (and not so famous) people of 80s London, even seeing together people one would not imagine had met. Below you can read about the concept of the exhibition.

The ’80s saw the explosion of the London club scene. Specialist club ‘nights’ offered opportunities for dressing up in the company of a like-minded crowd. Stevie Stewart of Body Map explained that ‘each group of people, whether they were fashion designers, musicians or dancers, filmmakers, living together and going out together had a passion for creating something new that was almost infectious’. Early clubs such as Billy’s, Blitz and the Club for Heroes were small and attracted a selective crowd. As the decade progressed, venues such as the Camden Palace and one-off warehouse parties began to attract much larger audiences. Although less intimate, they perpetuated the creative link between music, club and catwalk. This symbiotic relationship remained the defining characteristic of 1980s style.

In the early ’80s, London fashion began to create a stir internationally. Fashion shows took place in New York and Japan. One breakthrough event, titled ‘London Goes to Tokyo’, included many of the designers featured here and in the upstairs gallery. The inventiveness of London design owed much to the excellence of the city’s arts education. Colleges such as St Martin’s, the Royal College of Art and Hornsey College of Art offered advanced training in the fundamentals of fashion design, while also encouraging individuality. At night, young designers’ imaginations were sparked by a vibrant London club scene. John Galliano recalled, ‘Thursday and Friday at St Martin’s, the college was almost deserted. Everybody was at home working on their costumes for the weekend’. Designer Georgina Godley remembers, 'Young London was all about taking risks and creating something out of nothing through passion and ambition'.

Amidst the colourful extravagance of 1980s fashion, one label in particular stood out thanks to their pioneering approach to making and showing their creations: Body Map. The exhibition looked back at the DIY origins of the label with its two founders, Stevie Stewart and David Holah, and of collaborations with a young Mario Testino, Michael Clark and David LaChapelle, among others.

In July 1986, era-defining style magazine BLITZ published an issue featuring images of 22 Levi’s denim jackets that had been customised by some of the world’s most lauded designers – Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Katherine Hamnett among them. The jackets went on to be worn during a special evening of performance, and were displayed at the V&A. Apart from some of the outfits, there was a video of the show presenting the fashions, with each ensemble presented by a model and a group/singer. Patsy Kensit was one of the models! Below is Leigh Bowery's entry.

The variety of styles exhibited are credit to the diverse background and aesthetic of the designers back then and it also chronicles the transformation of British fashion from small, local and self-centred to large, international and global.

I am sorry for the quality of my photos but they were taken with my iPhone without flash and in a hurry until a kind lady from the museum stopped me! The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is a must for every fashion enthusiast and designer, with rare material inside.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore: a very emotional exhibition

Last January I had the immense pleasure of seeing the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore exhibition at Somerset House in London. Since the moment my trip to England's capital was finalized, I set my eyes upon seeing this unique show, to have the chance to be intimate with the scores of her amazing clothes by famous designers such as Alexander McQueen or Housseing Chalayan or Prada. But that was not the only reason. Blow was a unique creature, a woman who had managed to infuse the fashion world with her singular sense of style and aesthetics, her vision and her love for up and coming talented designers.

Isabella Blow by Mario Testino, 1997. Image used as the show's poster.

Who was she? One of the scores of British aristocracy offspring, born into an infamous family (her grandfather was involved in the White Mischief scandal), she eventually had to work to make ends meet despite her lineage. Born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1950’s post-war Britain, with a family seat at Doddington Hall in Cheshire, her family history can be traced back to the 14th Century – a factor which played an important part in Isabella’s life. Having been brought up in a rarified world of aristocracy, she said in an interview that it was trying on her mother's pink hat that sowed the seed of her love for fashion. The remnant turret of Doddington Castle where she played as a child, incorporated into the ancestral seat of Doddington Hall designed by Wyatt, was also instrumental to her love of medieval aesthetic.

Isabella Blow wearing Philip Treacy's Castle Hat, 1999, photo by Pascal Chevalier

Isabella’s thirty year career began in the early 80s as Anna Wintour’s assistant at US Vogue. On her return to London in 1986 she worked at Tatler followed by British Vogue. In 1997 she became the Fashion Director of the Sunday Times Style after which she returned to Tatler as Fashion Director. Driven by a passion for creativity, Isabella is credited for having nurtured and inspired numerous artists and designers. And her amazing collection of clothes really reflects that.

Isabella Blow with Philip Tracey hat, photo by Sean Ellis

The exhibition showcased over a hundred pieces from her incredibly rich collection, one of the most important private collections of late 20th Century/early 21st Century British fashion design, now owned by Daphne Guinness. This includes garments from the many designer talents she discovered and launched, such as Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald amongst others.  

Exhibition entrance, photo by Stratos Bacalis

From the moment one arrived on the Somerset House Embankment Galleries entrance from the Thames, you got the sense this was no ordinary exhibition. A sense that was confirmed upon seeing the first room, in darkness interrupted by spotlighst focusing on select details of her personal life. The first section of the exhibition explored Isabella’s background, and her British aristocratic ancestral roots. Highlights included family photographs and the sculpture entitled ‘Isabella Blow’ by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, made of various artifacts of her that shaped, when properly lit, her portrait on the back wall.

The second section featured pieces from Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy’s graduate MA collections from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art respectively, including Isabella’s wedding headdress. Exploring the way in which both designers used whatever they could get their hands on to make their garments and hats, this section celebrated the beginnings of their careers and the talent Isabella saw in them and her eye for discovering young talent.

The next section, to which one had to walk up a flight of stairs, exhibited key items from McQueen and Treacy’s AW 1996 collections. McQueen dedicated his AW 1996 collection, entitled Dante, to Isabella and this was his first season to receive international critical acclaim. There was a screen where one could watch the video of the show, an indelible moment in fashion history. The set up of the outfits was really impressive, most of all the outfit with the antler headdress that loomed ominously over the visitors. I got goosebumps seeing all this and they never left me till I exited the show. This same year Isabella styled Philip Treacy’s AW 1996 collection, key items of which were exhibited. Again the exhibit incorporated a video of Isabella talking about Philip. It really showcased these two very important collections, significant not only for the respective designers but also for establishing Isabella as a fashion authority. Some of her personal items were also exhibited here: her notebook, letters, faxes, lipstick and worn shoes. 

Adjacent to the previous section was a huge hedge installation, inspired by Isabella’s love of the English countryside that displayed groups of clothing from her collection presented in four themes conjuring the fantastical world Isabella inhabited and drew inspiration from, reflecting her love of birds, flowers and the surreal. Works in this section showed off a number of Isabella’s favourite designers, including clothing by Jeremy Scott, Comme des Garçons, Julien Macdonald, Viktor and Rolf and Undercover alongside accessories by Philip Treacy and Erik Halley. The sets, either on pedestals or showcases, were incredible, with Tracey's famous ship hat (the one that was on her casket for the funeral) and Halley's lobsters most prominent.


A small flight of stairs on the left was the next room, where Shona Heath created bespoke Isabella Blow mannequins wearing full outfits worn by her, built by referencing archival documentary images. These were displayed on a high pedestal so one had to look up to see them, like worshipping Isabella on an altar. These demonstrated her distinctive, eclectic style and mixing of designer pieces. She was quoted as saying "Fashion is a vampiric thing, it's the hoover on your brain. That's why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me”, demonstrating the way in which Isabella wore her clothing as a form of armour. Pieces here included McQueen for Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Fendi, Philip Treacy, Escada, Teerabul Songvich, Dior, Prada, Jeremy Scott, Benoit Meleard for Jeremy Scott, Viktor and Rolf, John Galliano for Dior, Manolo Blahnik and Marni.

Right next to this section was a room dedicated to one of Isabella’s most famous and successful shoots with Steven Meisel for British Vogue December 1993 entitled ‘Anglo Saxon Attitudes’, featuring Stella Tennant, Honor Fraser, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Lady Louise Campbell, the first time any of them had graced the pages of a magazine, showcasing Isabella’s eye for spotting talent.

Next up was the last section with her own clothes. Taken from Isabella’s owns words: “Tip: Always accentuate the head and the feet”, this part of the exhibition looked at the importance that hats and shoes played in her life- she was rarely seen without a McQueen outfit, Treacy hat and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Representing Isabella’s work and urban London life installations by Shona Heath were created to exhibit hats and shoes from her collection.

For the final section in the exhibition you had to walk down a flight of stairs again and enter a black space where La Dame Bleue was displayed: the S/S 2008 Alexander McQueen collection that Lee and Philip Treacy collaborated on and dedicated to Isabella after her death. The collection was inspired by Isabella and to end on this note evoked both her legacy and her importance.The selection of outfits shown here was impressive, especially the masterpiece long gown made of small feathers. And if that was not enough to bring tears to my eyes, there was a room at the far end where the video of the show was projected on a wall, so one had the feeling of being there and watching it live. I sat through all of it and was moved profoundly of how much the love that Lee (who would follow her to death a few years later) and Treacy infused the collection.

Daphne Guinness said: “This exhibition is, to me, a bittersweet event. Isabella Blow made our world more vivid, trailing colour with every pace she took. It is a sorrier place for her absence. When I visited her beloved clothes in a storage room in South Kensington, it seemed quite clear the collection would be of immense value to a great many people. I do believe that in choosing to exhibit them we’ve done the right thing – and that it is what she would have wanted. I am doing this in memory of a dear friend, in the hope that her legacy may continue to aid and inspire generations of designers to come”.

The show was curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall and designed by award-winning architectural firm Carmody Groarke, with installations by celebrated set designer Shona Heath. Graphic design was by Graphic Thought Facility and exhibition production by Richard Greenwood Partnership. To accompany the exhibition, there was a catalogue with new, commissioned photography by Nick Knight of the Isabella Blow Collection, edited by Alistair O’Neil with essays by Alistair O’Neil, Professor Caroline Evans, Alexander Fury and Shonagh Marshall, designed by Graphic Thought Facility and published by Rizzoli, which of course I acquired, both as a memento of this incredible experience and as a fashion reference and great addition to my library.

All photos by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Somerset House unless otherwise credited.