Radical Chic

When the big white tents pop up in New York’s Bryant Park, look out. Another Fashion Week, the period during which all the season’s apparel collections are exhibited, has rolled around and there’s no escaping the fusillade of creamy pictures and sticky copy that’s launched from behind the Public Library. It is practically impossible to walk down the street without being informed that SKIN IS IN! or FASHION GIVES SEX ANOTHER TRY! or simply NAOMI! or LINDA! or KATE! Okay, while I confess to a great weakness for fashion magazines, WWD, gossip columns, the Style pages of the Sunday Times, and even the mind-numbing Models, Inc. and MTV House of Style – in fact I think that apparel design is graphic design’s closest cousin – even for the die-hard fan, Fashion Week is a bit over the top.

As if Fashion Week weren’t enough, it happens to coincide with the final days leading up to the fall elections, so that its’ not long before the overblown proclamations of the rag trade and the bilious misinformation of campaign advertising collapse into a black hole of hyper-dense media matter. The nexus of apparel and politics, however, is not novel. Apparel design is inherently political in that it’s a big business that codifies class and social status. Politics in turn is not all that removed from an industry that deals with image and surface. Both politics and fashion are cyclical, subject to the whim of an often inscrutable public taste, and so seasonal re-invention is the rule.

Over the past few years, the political has become increasingly fashionable in both art and design. In graphic design, there has been so much writing and talk about political and cultural issues, Helvetica is starting to look like a mad subversive plot engineered to bring about world domination by the Swiss. The beleaguered corporate designer who dares to present a portfolio of logos and brochures before a group of avid students is open to heckling and pointed questioning concerning professional associations with the dark forces of corporate America. But as popular as politics has become, the grafting of the political and the fashionable will always be fraught with contradiction and ambiguity. Two examples of editorial design that surfaced during Fashion Week are poignant.

The November 1994 issue of Harper’s Bazaar dedicated to the arrival of the new fall fashions sported a six-page feature entitled “The Fashionable Barbara Kruger.” The editors invited Kruger, an artist known for her wry, neatly-packaged feminist slogans, to comment on the new collections. From the thousands of images, Kruger chose five: a Versace frock, a Lauren suit, Lagerfield’s wedding veil, a vinyl coat from Colonna and a crazy teddy bear hat by Anna Sui. The lush duotones serve as backdrop for the standard Kruger treatment — a style so familiar it has become a visual identity of sorts — in which tightly cropped photos are plastered with fat bands of Futura Bold Italic headlines and blocks of dense black copy.

Barbara Kruger needs little by way of an introduction. Her rags-to-riches ascendency from the layout desk at Conde Nast to international art fame has taken on a mythic quality.(According to an essay in a retrospective catalogue she “single-handedly designed Mademoiselle, a nationwide fashion magazine” while still in her early twenties.) Kruger’s public posters and billboards – clearly informed by, and critical of, the kind of instant word/image-based ideology of the magazine layout – retain the ephemeral quality of commercial art. Her return to Bazaar is interesting in that her work always questions the kind of constructed gender identity offered up in traditional media fare like the fashion press. But Kruger’s presence in Bazaar and her ambivalent copy – at once bitter and sympathetic – indicate an evolving perception of the fashion magazine that reconsiders notions of outright manipulation and coercion in favor of a more nuanced reading that includes the possibility of fantasy, masquerade and pleasure.

In the essay that accompanies her feature, the artist defines fashion in a social frame: “Fashion, is about not only garments but the tastes and styles which subsume our lives on every level; it suggests and dictates what we look like and what we don’t look like — what are our desires, what are our disgusts…” Her pages attempt to bring that level of social critique back to the surface of the images she covers. Versace is overprinted with “Who do you think you are?” underscored with a tiny disclaimer “This is not you.” Lauren’s tailored suit is banded with “What do you want?” and is captioned with an ironic narrative that borrows from the hyperbole of ad copy starting off “This will be you. You will silence rooms and catch eyes…” and ends “It is mean, gorgeous and ambitious, and definitely the last word for the next few seconds.” Then, again in the tiny form of the disclaimer — in case you didn’t get it — “This is not real.” The face of the model in the vinyl jacket peers over the top of “What are you looking at?” followed by “This is not a mirror.” You get the picture.

Within weeks of the publication of Kruger’s Bazaar, The New Yorker magazine’s fashion week extravaganza waddled in, overstuffed with ads for every apparel line, designer fragrance and sportswear collection imaginable. Slipped away in the last signature of the magazine, a remarkable series of drawings from the illustrator Sue Coe offered a completely different angle on the fashion issue. Coe decided to document a series of Chinatown sweatshops in which undocumented workers and children slave at sub-minimum wage to make the clothes draped across the models in Kruger’s layouts. Coe made the drawings while accompanying a series of Department of Labor investigators assigned to the apparel industry as they made there rounds through the piecework factories around the city.

An emigre from England’s industrial North, Coe has authored several politically-charged books including X, an illustrated biography of Malcolm X and Porkopolis, a kind of modern day illustrated Main Street in which she exposes the meat packing industry. Last year the Village Voice ran a series on “anonymous heroes” featuring her unflinching drawings of AIDS victims and workers. In the tradition of George Grosz, Coe’s political drawings – she calls herself a political cartoonist – have a brutal quality that depicts the dark, decaying underside of contemporary urban capitalism rife with violence, corruption and injustice.

While many of Coe’s drawing use raw, torn-edge collage – featuring dog faces grafted onto hulking storm troopers – her Chinatown images are simpler. The atmosphere is more quiet despair than violent outburst and conveys the sense of tedium and hopelessness that haunts the windowless basement factories and airless lofts crammed with pressers, needleworkers, cutters and floor workers. Her drawings are specifically of New York City, but they depict a kind of desperation that supports the glamorous fashion industry in cities around the world.

What can we make of these two layouts? What happens when a mainstream form like a fashion magazine attempts to make political commentary on the industry it supports? Perhaps Kruger’s article is a testament to the extent to which political commentary has become the accepted language of the theory-savvy consumer. That Bazaar can find space for an artist to openly critique the process by which it functions is a measure of the contradiction consumerism can tolerate. Kruger’s street posters function because she jerks ad layout and ad language out of context, we are forced to consider the odd ideology imbedded in words and images that confront us every day. In the context of fashion page, however, Kruger’s signature rage is denuded. Her brutally direct language, brought back home to the magazine spread, becomes just one more in a familiar litany of layout techniques.

In Funny Face, the film musical that depicted Bazaar under Snow, the editor-in-chief proclaims she will construct “a magazine for the woman who isn’t interested in fashion. A magazine for the woman who THINKS!” The thinking reader of today’s Bazaar is certain to be aware of the contemporary narrative spun around the notion of constructed gender identity and the distortion of advertising images. Kruger serves up some fashionable theory. She demonstrates how critical theory has become an index of fashion in itself, an index of “women who think.” There is nothing surprising in Kruger’s Bazaar work, except for the fact that it appears in Bazaar in the first place. Bazaar’s use of Kruger speaks only of the magazine’s willingness to be seen as daring, radical, while safely assured that even the most contradictory language ultimately ends up reinforcing the carefully-crafted image of bravado.

Both Coe and Kruger work to lay bare the myths spun around their subjects by the exposing the seams and ragged hems of the sequined surface of the fashion system. But Coe goes further. Her work is surprising, radical even, in that it reminds us that glamour is not only fantasy, not only self-image and status, but an economic phenomena built on the back of sweated labor. Coe uncovers the structure that under girds Kruger’s shopping jitters. Her message is that glamour, or perhaps the entire fashion system, comes at the expense of some distant hidden caste — mostly female — sequestered in the dark workrooms of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and New York. Coe sheds a little light into those dark holes. She interrupts the Fashion Week party and rudely illustrates the deep compromises we accept in our embrace of a system that celebrates the conspicuous display of wealth and power. Kruger, before her great success (and new found purchasing power?) used to do this as well. As one of her early posters read, the type overprinting the open palm of a businessman: “Our loss is your gain…”

© Michael Rock