That reality is best beheld gazing into a fantastical looking glass is no secret, but rare is it that genuinely interrogative surrealist proposals make their way anywhere near fashion’s shores. All too often, we settle for tired references to Dali or Magritte, lobsters and bowler hats. Not here, not today. Enter Soft Criminal, a product of the latest collaboration between photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman, designer and maker Gareth Wrighton, and stylist Ib Kamara, opening tonight at New York’s Red Hook Labs. The show presents three interwoven narratives, each a fictional documentation of an African diaspora crime family caught in the chaotic flux of a generational struggle for power. The twenty-two characters (each garbed in a sculptural haute-couture look), the images in which they are captured, and the plots they inhabit are nothing short of cinematic. And yet they’re so eerily real: raw, identifiable prisms through which to view the chaos of everyday life.
Caught in an all-too-present mania in the hours running up to this evening’s opening, Ib and Gareth were kind enough to take a few moments to discuss the show:
Let’s begin by looking at the title of the show, Soft Criminal. Where did it come from, and what does it mean in the parallel universe that you’ve created?
Ib: We’ve always wanted to design something together, and so Soft Criminal was the foundation for us to create this universe where we can really explore characters, and also create a space where there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, where we can really dive in and tell stories, but also push costumes and imagery.
Gareth: Yeah. I think that’s where we kind of began…
Ib: It came about at St Martins, final year, and we just thought that we should team up and do something…I don’t know if this is answering your question?…
Well, whatever you’re willing to give as an answer is good enough for me… but I was particularly interested in what Soft Criminal means within this realm that you’ve fashioned. It’s quite a juxtapositional notion in the ‘normal’ space of language…
Gareth: There’s a duality in the phrase that is present in every picture, and it ties in with a lot of the work we’d each done already, so it was a great commonplace starting point. This project could’ve gone either way—it could’ve been chaos—so it was lovely to have a word to work from the very first day.
Ib: Absolutely, but also, I think Soft Criminal means a space where we can develop characters that exist in a very problematic world, and really shed light on their stories and backstories, on what pushed them to be the characters they are. It’s almost like we’ve designed a movie, shot in stills.
Gareth: And it’s critical, but sympathetic at the same time; it’s not about judging these fictional characters—that’s just their reality. It’s not judgmental, it’s just allowing things to be seen from their perspective.
Ib: Yeah, and it’s a reflection of the world we occupy, our reality. The world is in such chaos at the moment, especially when it comes to the people in power: most of the population are against them, and there’s a sort of rise against them taking place. Which is just what’s happening in Soft Criminal, people are trying to overthrow the old world hierarchy.
The exhibition tells the story of three interwoven narratives of characters of African diaspora—could you perhaps elaborate on their stories?
Gareth: We thought about these three rival crime families, there’s: Old Money, New Money, and Not In It For The Money. For Old Money, we engineered this royal family dynasty, we designed our king and queen, their heirs to the throne, and the rest. Then opposing them we have the revolutionaries, who want to topple them, and helping them is a New Money team of hacktivists, who use technology and more modern means of achieving power.
Ib: And then we have Not In It For The Money, the generation that just wants to create chaos: it’s not about taking down anyone, the world is just so problematic that they want to be part of the problem.
And how did that translate to the making and production process? Gareth, how did you set about translating these nuanced narratives through garment-making?
Gareth: For Old Money, we saw the King entirely embroidered with nature and jewels, and minerals—we shot him on a mine dump in Johannesburg. The Old Money hitman has been tarred and feathered, employing a sort of medieval textile treatment. On the flipside with New Money, we’ve brought in plastics and synthetic textiles. And wires, we’ve used wires in the garments. For the anarchy side, we’ve then really focussed on using trash: the revolutionary is embroidered similarly to the king, but with bottle caps, soda pulls, trinkets found on the street. I love the idea that each one has their identities projected through the signifiers of their garments—I can relate to that, it’s the way I dress, myself.
Ib: It was very easy to tell the whole stories once we’d really pushed the characters’ development: the ideas just kept flowing.
That ties nicely into your preoccupation with fantasy and the surreal: what is it that you see to be so potent in fantasy and the surreal, and in its ability to voice or mirror reality? And does it allow you to approach your personal history closer than you’d otherwise be able to?
Ib: And also to create a free, breathing ground to really push ideas, and really exaggerate in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily in reality…
Gareth: Exactly, fictionalizing these characters means you can get away with a bit more. It means that we’re not directly pointing at real figures in our past, it means we can then challenge so many more ideas with these cinematic characters—
Ib: And we can give them much richer backstories, they can be beefier, heavier in terms of the design and the way we everything is brought together.
Gareth: Surrealism is a great tool to use, particularly now when reality is stranger than fiction: you can go even further over the course of a whole look—she’s wearing thigh-high boots, but it looks like a snake could be eating her. Every step of the way, we’ve thought of all of these fun in-jokes and silly ideas, and we’ve followed through on them to produce such a vivid collection.
Ib: Yeah, and a vivid imagery. Just looking at everything once brought together, everything is so cinematic, it just looks like something from a movie.
Gareth: I also think that we’ve avoided being cynical, we’ve been genuine every step of the way. It’s been extremely important for us to really believe in these characters, to not judge them. We’ve crafted three sides of one argument, coming at it from every angle, just as a film director would, which has only enriched this world that we’ve built.
I think you hit the nail on the head earlier, when you were commenting of how absurd the world is today, and how the only way to counter that is to employ that same language of absurdity, hyperbole and exaggeration. But another thing that comes through strongly in your use of fantasy is its relationship to African-ness. Fantasy has historically and contemporarily played a crucial role in the fashioning and telling of diasporic identity: the verbal tradition of storytelling; visual art; Afro-futurism. How consciously were you using fantasy to explore a uniquely African identity?
Ib: I think we really latched onto the greatness of Africa, and it was really important for us to be working in Africa. Even though we were working there, the stories aren’t necessarily inspired by the environment we worked in, but it absolutely found its way into the casting: we wanted to make sure that the characters that ended up in this world were shown in the most positive, elegant, dignified light possible: that’s what Africa is. Africans just want to show you that their sun is the best. Whenever they leave their homes, they want you to see the best that they have, and so it’s incredible to be able to share that with the world.
Gareth: Going there for the first time, the style on the street, just the way that people wear clothes, everyone just looked incredible. And not in a fashion week, street-style kind of way, but just the way that people wear clothes—
Ib: And the way that people express themselves, it’s really something in the water—
Gareth: Our models were some of the most creative people I’ve ever met, it was such a joy to collaborate with them. Our fit model, Alonzo, he’s a dancer, and he was with us every step of the way, so supportive.
Ib: And he just totally got into the vision. Even the people that we worked with, the tailors, the local craftspeople: we were bringing them new technical challenges, but they have the skill-set, and they were ready to show off the extent of their skills and their elegance. Thanks to them, we were really able to take things one step further and clarify our vision.
So, tonight is the opening of the exhibition at Red Hook Labs, with a live fashion show to present the garments. The exhibition will then carry on after that, which seems to be tying into a shift in fashion presentation and the consumption of fashion imagery—moving fashion away from the buyer-governed runway and into the gallery space. How important was it for you to show this work in a gallery context? And how crucial is this shift in fashion?
Gareth: We’ve always approached the garments of this project as pieces of sculpture. It’s not so much fashion as it is costume: this isn’t department-store, retail ready, it’s an artistic proposal. So it’s appropriate that it’s being presented in a gallery context. And then, as well, we drew a line between art and fashion, only to then dance all over it.
Ib: Absolutely. It’s definitely an exciting time if brands are aligning more closely with art, I always feel that art is the first place where change is instigated in culture, a space where real expression is permitted—fashion can be quite limiting—but the gallery is where ideas that lead on to fashion start forming. The slow intertwining of these two worlds is definitely exciting, and I hope that greater, more exciting work will come of this overlapping of fashion and art in the same space.
Words Mahoro Seward