filmography by Jelly Luise, sound Violet Wilson

collaboration with Woke Mamas Collective

When describing the people who wear her garments, Greek designer Dimitra Petsa instantly refrains from using the words “customer” or “model.” Instead, she prefers the term “wearer-performer.” “Wearing my clothes is never a passive act,” she says “There’s an element of performativity underlying my work, which I want to emphasize.”

Raised in Athens, Petsa developed an early interest in fashion, primarily instigated by the cultural significance and psychological underpinnings of the craft. “My grandmother is a seamstress, and I grew up watching her work,” she recalls. “She had a very strong connection with both the tactile material and her clients, whom she knew so well she became like a psychologist to them. I learned so much about women, and about the deep connection they can have with clothes.” “A lot of jokes and gossip, but a lot of tears as well, in a context of vulnerability and nakedness.” Understanding the value of this intimate, affective link between the human psyche and the physically clothed state formed the basis of her creative process, “that’s how I developed my garments, all my models were naked most of the time in the studio dancing, screaming, laughing and then the next moment they would be crying or I would be crying… and they were all very involved in my work, it always felt very personal.” This prompted an ongoing process of creative deconstruction and exploration for Petsa ‒ one she remains deeply immersed in to this day.

“I am interested in the performative element of both creating and wearing clothes.” With a BA in performance art completed before transitioning on to the Fashion MA at Central Saint Martins, the designer’s fashion trajectory is indeed a somewhat unconventional one. “I loved performance because it’s so profoundly based in experience, there is this intimate connection with the viewer which is something that is always very present in my work.” Openness and vulnerability are not only embraced but visibly celebrated in Petsa’s vibrantly translucent garments.

From contemporary poetry, Ancient Greek mythology or early Christian mysticism to ecofeminist theory and the sartorial intricacy of Madame Grès, the spectrum of influences informing the Athens-born designer’s work is wide and ever-expanding.
To Petsa, a look can be just a pair of jeans or the unclothed but adorned body; her pieces or lack thereof straddle the in-between of the skillfully handcrafted yet affecting a nonchalant, effortless style.

For instance, her piss-stained jeans, riding dangerously low on the hip suggest a conscious liberation from social taboo, which is then juxtaposed with her strict tailoring traditions no doubt handled down from the years spent with her grandmother. Another notable piece from the collection is a tear-shaped pendant dangling suggestively from the nipples, which challenges the notion of what a clothed body could be. Her inventiveness in draping is shown through her wet look pieces – made with a textile invented by Dimitra that appears to be wet when worn. Lastly, her clothes embroidered with silver threads, traditionally found in the garments of orthodox priests back in Greece is another layer of the traditional that, within her work, Petsa reconciles with the current conversation in gender politics. “I want to dismantle this somewhat archaic, second-wave feminist fashion depiction of the strong woman as a tough looking, corporate working girl with huge shoulder pads. This type of oversimplification of the female subject feels irrelevant today.”

Ultimately, however, her aim is to explore the multiple ways in which the female identity, vulnerability and emotional expression are constantly censored and sanitized to fit the confines of Western society. « I’m very interested in the censorship of female emotions and expressivity, especially the physical expressions of water and watery emotions ‒ if you cry, you have to hide it, if you breastfeed, you have to hide it,” explains the CSM graduate. “I try to explore the ways in which the personal is political, the microcosm is tied to the macrocosm. The way that people mistreat the oceans, for instance, mirrors the censorship of the wetness inherent to the human body. You start to create these parallels: so many products are sold to us to make us dry, from vaginal deodorants to deodorants, pads…All these things are usually made from very harmful materials in order to fight, deny this natural wetness associated with the human body. We are mostly made out of water, and we are constantly trying to fight this.”

True to her artistic roots, Petsa instills the movement and physicality of performance into her method of working. “I have a very intimate relationship with the camera and the mirror,” she says. “Every garment is draped in front of the camera, or next to a mirror in front of which I spend hours dressing and undressing; to the point where I don’t know which one I’m doing anymore. The nipple dress, for example, was the result of that process: a slip dress falling and balancing on the nipples.” 

“I focus a lot of notions of fashion and the camera and what a ‘fashion film’ can be, usually in a fashion collection the film comes after the clothes are made but in my case, the film was being made alongside the garments ‒ not only as process documentation but as final work.” By the time the final looks were ready, Dimitra had a big archive of filmed performances which she used in her recent exhibition in the Silver room. Inviting women (including the models she had befriended throughout the making of her collection) Petsa worked with musician Violet Wilson who made her soundscapes for a performance they all participated in. Dimitra herself was performing amongst them, gargling water while slowly bending over backward. “I feel like often, designers create clothes without putting much of themselves in them, there’s hardly any physical vulnerability that they are willing to display,” she argues. 

Petsa’s models agreed to being in various stages of undress for the performance moving with abandon to the ambient track. One person elevated on a pedestal even pissed herself in front of the audiences, laying bare the natural excess of the body in what we are trained to see as ‘censored’ and evoking the ‘perfect’ statuesque figure.
Drenched in water, lying on the floor at the feet of the audience, the almost see-through dresses enhanced the wearer’s body in what would sound like a seductive siren call. Yet its effect was very far from sexualizing; instead, it was a challenge to the viewer perceptions of what empowerment might feel like. “When you are performing,” she continues, “you are exposed and you can create this very raw and honest relationship with the viewer.”

As a result, Petsa’s technical process marries conceptual research, emotional alertness and a highly self-actualized creative instinct. Her silhouettes give shape to a woman who doesn’t seek validation by adhering to traditionally masculine traits ‒ rather, she cultivates a very educated and freely chosen vulnerability.

Ultimately, the unifying element transcending every facet of Petsa’s work is her direct, unfiltered involvement in the making of the clothes ‒ a connection to be seen, felt, experienced.

Words
Irina Baconsky

Images
(lookbook blue background) Nicolas Hadfield
(first gallery) Simone Steenberg
(crotch) Dimitra Petsa
(last gallery) Photography Laurent Amiel, styling Christelle Nisin