WAVELENGTH: A critique of pop culture

18 designers and artists come together in the NYC exhibition Wavelength, curated by Parsons MFA Fashion Design graduate Liya Liu

“MY HEART BIEBS 4 U” reads the neon text overlaying a Justin Bieber / Jesus Christ hybrid figure. And no, I’m not describing my high school dorm room wall circa 2009. Bieber, along with the 1990s baby faced Leonardo DiCaprio, are simply two of the many pop culture references plastered across Namilia’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection. Nan Li and Emilia Pfohl, the design duo behind the independent, Berlin-based brand, first made waves in 2015 with their debut collection for VFiles, “My Pussy, My Choice.” Ever more relevant now considering America’s current political landscape. I’m eager to ask the designers about the concept behind their overtly sexualized designs and our shared love for teenage heartthrobs. However, at 9pm on the Wednesday night before New York Fashion Week starts, they are nowhere to be found.

“They’re extremely busy at the moment,” Liya Liu explains to me. Liu would know, as she helped collect, curate and construct the entire exhibit in which we now stand. With WAVELENGTH Liu wanted to look at fashion from outside of a strictly clothing perspective. After studying Fashion Design first at Central Saint Martins (BA) and then at Parsons in New York (MFA), Liu came to realize that fashion did solely revolve around seasonal trends. “It’s also about social engagement; our perception and reflection of the world—about people and everything around us today,” she explains to me during the opening night of the exhibit, her quiet voice barely audible over the music blaring out of the overhead speakers. Liu used her contacts from living in China, London and New York to select 18 artists and designers to display their works as part of WAVELENGTH. “It’s hard when you graduate to get enough money to fund collections,” she says. She wanted to bring the selected artists together to raise awareness about the work they have been producing. Against the backdrop of blank white walls, the emerging talents all challenge the current state of society and popular culture with their thought pieces.

Next to the entrance of the gallery is the animated video installation, “The Story of the Pig,” by Ziyang Wu. Having traveled all the way from Minneapolis to show his work, he describes the video as “a mix between 1984 and Brave New World.  It depicts a dystopia where Wu has portrayed humans as K-Pop obsessed pigs. Next to Wu’s installation, Maria Jahnkoy’s display dominates the entire right side of the room. Mannequins dressed in tracksuits constructed entirely of plastic shopping bags inhabit a familiar New York street scene set up. Shopping carts and clothing discount signs all point fingers at the waste accumulated from our consumerist society. Jahnkoy has already garnered press from the likes of Vogue, WWD and Love with her sustainable fashion designs and her eco conscious approach to clothing production.

As I cross over to the next room, my eye catches the work of the Holland-based Parsons graduate, Elisa van Joolen. “It’s like seeing an ex-boyfriend again,” she says with a sigh when I ask how it is returning to New York for the first time since she finished school. Adhered to the wall next to us, various articles of clothing are stamped in ink with the designs of other brands. For her collection, “One to One,” Elisa chose four Holland-based designers who all produce their clothing at the same factory outside of Amsterdam. She imprints their original designs onto basic garments like sweatpants and dress shirts to create a trompe l’oeil effect of her own. She relates her work to the emphasis on branding items in fashion. “Fashion is never original, it is always in reference to something else, some other fantasy,” she says.

Situated between Elisa’s stamped fashions and Namilia’s Bieber tee which initially caught my eye, are a rainbow assortment of tulle pantsuits. A style traditionally associated with masculinity, the designer behind them, Gahee Lim, has constructed the garments completely out of tulle, which is a mainly feminine fabric used for ballet tutus and wedding veils. She explains that her designs address the ever changing definition of masculinity and gender fluidity. The visible stitching on the hem has to do with showing vulnerabilities. “My boyfriend was the inspiration for this. He seemed so confident and strong on the outside, but underneath it all he was so fucked up, he had so many issues,” she confides to me as she peels back the colorful layers of tulle which make up the structured blazer.

As I walk past Jiannan Wu’s 3-D sculptures of various characters snapping selfies, I’m beginning to notice a pattern across the designers’ work at WAVELENGTH. In one way or another they all reference how in our celebrity and image obsessed culture, nothing is ever what it seems. As post-election America feels more and more like a reality tv show these days, the emerging artists have hopes for a brighter and more honest future.

Words Alice Bell Photography Sophie Brockwell