Tenured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for over two decades, curator, writer, editor, and lecturer Paola Antonelli has long since made it her mission to reconfigure the lens through which we view art and design, championing everyday objects over the esoteric. It’s no small feat, but one at which Antonelli continually triumphs—under her influence, and to much industry criticism, MoMA has even acquired popular video games for its permanent collection. Her latest exhibition, titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” at the museum this fall, takes 111 items of clothing and accessories as a jumping off place from which to better understand the cultural, social, and political impact of clothes—from the well-known white t-shirt and Levi’s 501s to pearl necklaces and the Sony Walkman.
Peter Saville, the graphic designer behind those iconic Joy Division and New Order album covers, is certainly no stranger to fashion, having worked in the sector since 1986—even designing England’s national football kit in 2010. With the photographer Nick Knight he cofounded SHOWstudio in 2000, completely redefining the way we see fashion imagery. Saville called Antonelli during the busy install period of her new exhibition—mere weeks before it opened to the public—to discuss everything they love about fashion and, more importantly, everything about it they hate.
Peter Saville—How are you Paola? How are things?
Paola Antonelli—I’m doing well! We’re in the thick of things with the exhibition, it’s a maelstrom. The paint job is done, the walls are all up, and we’re starting to put the objects and the clothes in the galleries on Tuesday. Scary! It’s the first time I’ve worked on an exhibition that has mannequins and clothes, so the learning curve has been really steep. Even just the idea of choosing mannequins, wanting sizes that are for real bodies and instead finding all these size zeros. It’s just fascinating when you get out of your comfort zone. Now is the moment of high adrenaline. It’s about finishing and correcting labels; there’s a whole team of dressers that are in the basement with mannequins. I always compare it to a movie: You have the pre-production, then production starts and it’s a wonderful circus, and then you have post-production, and finally you open the theater. We’re in the stage of production; we are in the thick of it. It’s quite fantastic. Are you going to be in town for the opening?
Peter—September is already getting busy. As you know, I’m high maintenance, so I can’t really afford to.
Paola—I can imagine.
Peter—[Laughing.] It’s expensive! You know how it is. When you just go somewhere for 48 hours, and you’re not 20 anymore, it’s not so easy.
Paola—I understand. I’m so impressed that you found time to come and see me when you were here last time.
Peter—When we met, even after chatting for five minutes or so, it was evident that we had several points of mutual interest; when I was in my late teens and early 20s, my guiding influence was fashion. I found fashion more inspiring than music, more energetic than design, and far faster than product design or architecture! So my early work with record covers actually tracks fashion because there wasn’t anything else for it to track. Interestingly, there was no significant awareness of the potential value of graphics to fashion at that time. When I was first put forward to work on the Yohji [Yamamoto] project in 1986, the then-creative director asked me what the need was for a graphic designer. There hadn’t really been any proactive relationship between graphics and fashion culture. Other than being an art director at “Vogue,” I couldn’t really see a career path.
Paola—It’s a little bit similar to my situation, having grown up not in Manchester, but in Milan at that exciting time. I grew up in a place where, if you needed a coffee pot, your mom would go downstairs to the corner store and find a Bialetti, which is considered a masterpiece. When I was a teenager—from age 15 to 18—I would get out of high school every day at one o’clock. I would grab a piece of focaccia, and walk three blocks to Armani’s P.R. office, where I interned for those three years in the afternoon.
Peter—When was that?
Paola—I was 15, so it was from the late, late 70s and early 80s. It was the time of the supermodels, it was the time of Armani doing both the slouchy jackets and the samurai leather. It was quite amazing. Actually, my very first job was at Fiorucci on Via Torino. I was a clerk, and I really had a good time there. So this kind of normalcy stayed with me, and that’s maybe why this exhibition is such a natural one for me. Because my background is architecture, design, and the normalcy of fashion design in life.
“When I speak with people, they try desperately to put the exhibition somewhere: Is it fashion? Is it garment design? I’ve been trying for 23 years here at MoMA to eliminate these divisions.”
Peter—Those qualities and those issues are the very atmosphere and lifeblood of Milan. And it’s very interesting: this notion of a spirit of a place. There is a feeling of immersion in a certain sensibility when you’re in Milan. There’s another in Paris, but it’s not the same.
Paola—Milan is a little boring, it’s like the baseline. I find the fashion history in New York and London is really my beast.
Peter—Fiorucci was a kind of disseminator of empowerment to young people. I was obsessed with it. Fiorucci to me was akin to what Joy Division was to the young Milanese: something radical coming from another planet that was absolutely against the status quo of the place I was in. Can you imagine green vinyl pants in Manchester in 1975? Extraordinary.
Paola—I agree. One thing that is very European is the lack of differentiation between high theory and product—between culture and commerce. That’s why this exhibition feels perfectly natural, because you can mix Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body by [Rei] Kawakubo with a white brief; and you can mix Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking with chinos in a very natural way because both of these different extremes are part of the way we dress today. We carry the D.N.A. of Body Meets Dress every time we buy an asymmetrical billowing skirt. We also carry the D.N.A. of Le Smoking when we reject binary structures for androgynous or unisex or gender-fluid clothing. It’s really amazing, all of the pieces in the exhibition we included because they are influential for everyone, not only for people with affluence.
Peter—Virgil Abloh is a close colleague and friend, and I’m seeing a lot of the “codes” of my early work and associations disseminated now by [him] and people in [his] universe out to new audiences.
Paola—When I speak with people, they try desperately to put the exhibition somewhere: Is it fashion? Is it garment design? I’ve been trying for 23 years here at MoMA to eliminate these divisions. One day we’ll get there, and it doesn’t irritate me at all that people try to do that, but it’s my job to counter it a little bit.
Peter—This is the positive equity within fashion: the ability to empower the individual. That’s why I think it’s been so significant in postwar society as a way of inventing self. This idea was introduced to me by David Bowie, but it was facilitated by fashion: to invent who you wanted to be rather than have to live the life that was given to you by birth. And then realizing that invention could be a process of constant evolution in sync with your relationship to time and the society around you.
Paola—And that was really revolutionary.
Peter—It was mind-blowing! In 1966 Yves Saint put forward the idea of mass-produced high fashion. This was not a feature of life before. It’s quite phenomenal. My personal feeling towards fashion now is that I’ve retired. I take a look every month, but as with most of the disciplines—but particularly with fashion and art—the degree to which irony is now interwoven with the work has almost become self-defeating. I don’t find it particularly interesting anymore, but we still need to get dressed every day. I think one of the significant things about the applied arts is that they are a learning curve, they are disseminators of awareness and knowledge. I think it’s important to recognize the moment when you’ve learned. However, it’s very difficult to express that with any dignity in highly priced consumer items.
Paola—I try not to use the word “consumer,” but it’s true. We need to use it when it comes to that. But it’s also about collecting. Two items in particular that have become revolutionary and almost semantically charged, at least from an American standpoint, are the turtleneck and the hoodie. Historically, the turtleneck stands for rebelliousness, for emancipation, for modesty, for arrogance, and for humility. It’s the staple of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, it’s the staple of Steve Jobs, but it’s also the staple of Orthodox Jewish women and beatniks. The hoodie is even more charged. I have this theory that I coined a few years ago: the existence maximum. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German architects had the theory of the existence minimum. They were trying to fit all of the functions [of a house] within dwellings that were small but that could be standardized and erase differences between classes. Instead, existence maximum started, in my opinion, with the Walkman and headsets. They are little garments or objects that expand your metaphysical space. You could be like an anchovy in a subway car, but with your hoodie and your headset on your space is much bigger. It’s this isolation, introversion, and the attempt to protect yourself from other people’s gaze. At the same time, it’s become threatening to those on the outside who think that not seeing your face is a sign that you’re going to do something dangerous.
Peter—In 1985, when I felt that my own decade-long immersion in retrospection had run its course, and I felt that it was time to go forward by going forward, rather than by going back, I declared my personal year zero and I reflected on what I understood [to be] the last moments of “modern” in the 60s. Referencing period pictures of Bridget Riley in her studio, I went out and got a black polo neck and a pair of white 501s. The polo neck has stayed with me since. It’s really interesting, your analysis of the polo neck as a symbol of nonconformity and resistance, and the hoodie as this symbol of defense or even aggression.
Paola—That’s a good point.
Peter—It’s almost this statement of being outside of the system. You’re not actually challenging the system; you are outside of it. That’s where all those associations of menace or criminality come from. The hoodie is without a doubt a defining symbol of the post-recessionary period. It’s interesting how it has been adopted outside of society.
Paola—Yeah. To me the hoodie is “Mr. Robot.” Did you see that T.V. series? It’s about a sort of quiet defiance, or at least shrugging the system off.
Peter—Indeed! In the beginning it’s like, “I don’t want to belong,” but, as with everything in the constant flight of art from business, it gets co-opted as another way to belong, leaving us with a rather confused state of affairs. “Is this just a benign kid who wants to look cool, or are they about to take my iPhone?” The hoodie is really difficult to read. Politics, war, and invention are really the only things that fundamentally change our cultural production. But they don’t happen so often. I think that the sneaker, or the trainer as we call it in Britain, is an example that fits into the technological development side. It’s interesting to recall that it was actually businesswomen in New York who were the beginning of the sneaker crossing over into lifestyle.
“You’re not actually challenging the system; you are outside of it. That’s where all those associations of menace or criminality come from. The hoodie is without a doubt a defining symbol of the post-recessionary period.”—Peter Saville
Paola—Actually they were not businesswomen, they were the secretaries.
Peter—Women who felt compelled to wear heels of some sort or ridiculously uncomfortable shoes for work were able to take them off and put their sneakers on to actually move around. That was the beginning of it slipping into style culture. I think they do represent a technological evolution of footwear.
Paola—And they are so comfortable! I lose my mind for sneakers, I would buy them all.
Peter—My problem with fashion retailing these days is that it’s relentless to the point of tedium, and isn’t recognizing the real social economic reality around it. I’ve likened fashion culture to having transitioned from L.S.D. to crack. There are people who took L.S.D. in the 50s and 60s, who speak highly of it as empowering, mind-expanding, and capable of changing their perspective of the world. Very rarely do they say that about crack. Crack is a kind of temporary immunization from reality that will take all of your money, and then you die. That’s what some aspects of the business look like to me now. The enduring allure though is fashion’s role as “entry-level elitism.”
Paola—[Laughing.] That’s so good.
Peter—I think it’s worth viewing fashion and its relative availability to all of us, whether it’s a new pair of sneakers, a Vetements dress, an Hermès handbag or whatever. It offers people, depending on their way of life and their means, an entry into elitism. That’s the equity in the puchase: you feel special. That said, it’s not very good business to say, “We’re only doing minimal romanticism this year,” because you’re going to reduce your market potential to a tiny minority. So basically, everyone does everything now. They deliberately produce iconic pieces, but when you go in store you find out that there are a range of very multipurpose, pluralist products available for everyone.
Paola—I’m noticing more and more that designers are trying to weave political concerns into their work. Something beautiful and elegant is more than enough for me, but if you also want to say something political then I value it even more. I’m thinking, for instance, of Richard Malone in London, he’s Irish, but he’s based in London, or of Kerby Jean-Raymond who started Pyer Moss here in New York, or Shayne Oliver who has Hood By Air and now is at Helmut Lang. And there’s also several women who are doing fantastic work, like Lucy Jones. All of these designers are thinking beyond collection and beyond the usual, old-fashioned market. They’re thinking of niche markets because technology allows them to forgo the massive production lines that they had before. So they’re changing the market in the way that tech companies have done in the past few years.
“Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” curated by Paola Antonelli, is on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from October 1, 2017 – January 28, 2018.