Deconstructing power relations with Johanna-Maria Parv
"Are you the rider, or are you being ridden?"
The discussion of power relations is an incredibly sticky and often circuitous one, especially in art and design. Fundamentally, the language and visuality of this discussion has everything to do with the speaker. BA Womenswear graduate Johanna-Maria Parv has, through her graduate collection, proven to be a sophisticated voice and the right candidate to add to this discourse. Her collection, titled “Safe Ride,” succeeds in an incredible feat (which in this political climate, and climate of fashion designers going “political,” should not be undervalued)—tackling body politics and power relations in a body of work which in result, strikes a round balance of both conceptual subversion, and visual efficacy.
“YOU’RE BUILDING YOUR LANGUAGE OF IMAGES, AND HOPING THAT OTHER PEOPLE WILL UNDERSTAND THE WAY YOU SEE THINGS. LIKE WRITING A BOOK, EXCEPT VISUAL.”
Parv started her research with very classical tailoring references—specifically referencing womenswear from the 1890’s and 1940’s—as a recognizable symbol of power and domination, but also in particular, a symbol of social restriction. She cites a particular interest in the cycling trends of women during this time—the way that women retained their learned femininity, whilst at the same time becoming very active and sporty. Through cycling, women were legitimizing their rights to wildness and physical freedom. Her research then becomes primary as she starts imagining what would happen to a woman’s suit as she lives and exists in it; when she moves freely, bends, stretches, spreads. Fundamentally, when she goes about her day as a free body does. “I looked into trousers being a bit awkward. Like, maybe you have a cameltoe, or the skirt gets stuck up somewhere, and people think it’s a bit awkward. How many mistakes can womenswear, and especially formalwear, have, because it’s meant to be so proper?” Parv emphasizes the societal obsession with things going wrong, and its obsessive classification of mistakes as “awkward.” She accepts this as a falsehood, and turns the other way, avidly emphasizing these potential movements of the suit to achieve design features. “If I have this formal skirt, this formal suit, and I want to bicycle, what will happen to it? I thought about and researched the shapes drawn and created by everyday actions. If I combine the skirt and the trousers, it actually creates this hole, and suddenly it becomes sexual!”
Fast forward to the BA press show, during Parv’s catwalk presentation. As the eye glazes over the first look, it suddenly catches a single, perfectly executed hole built into the skirts, interrupting the crisp tailoring almost immediately, and metamorphosing the confining skirt into a pair of trousers (perfect for riding a bicycle.) And then you blink, and let yourself continue exploring look after look. Single graphic colors — a warning red, for example, or a pastel lilac — in focussed areas (skirt holes, bike helmets, sculpted strap-in bags) contrasting with the soft earthy wools. Mixes of plastic, glossy leather, silk, wool, and metal — indulgent materials, reminiscent of consumption. Then the cycling references hit, and your head begins to spin with narrative possibilities. The holes in the skirts are, in fact, specifically engineered using metal and leather to fit around a bicycle seat. The presence of the holes (in the metal bags and accessories as well) almost guarantee an immediate sexualization by the viewer, when actually, they’re Parv’s sculptural solution to the problem of women on bicycles not being comfortable. It’s merely an ingenious technical combination of trousers and a skirt.
One wonders about the engineering of these cycling holes, both in the garments and in the accessories, which are quite sculptural in nature. She laughs; “It’s just about making really.” She then points to the aqua-green satin skirt from her collection (red leather hole unmissable) strewn casually behind her on her personal clothing rack. “This is a toile! I did it the first time!” She pauses. “The sad thing is that no one may ever see inside the garments, which are quite perfectly finished, if they don’t sell. You create all this value, and you need to sell it.”
During her placement year at CSM, Parv interned at Dior and in the atelier at Balenciaga. The collection is practically an exhibit of this experience of constant making, along with natural talent for realizing three-dimensional ideas. It’s really what rounds out her collection so beautifully. Using the proper resources to communicate an idea is essential, and the importance of materiality and make cannot be underestimated, not even in a body of work as conceptually loaded as Johanna’s. One cannot convey a narrative if one lacks the language.
Included in her visual vocabulary is the recurring motif of human lips, and their implications, in hand-moulded leather sculptures draped over the body, or in accessories like bags, protective cycling helmets, and even subtly incorporated into oversized boxing gloves. This is a further exploration of female orifices, and the general anxiety around the boundaries of the female body. How disgusting, yet sexy and fascinating, are these boundaries. The lips are the ultimate representation of desire. Why not decorate a reproduction of human lips with goose feathers? Why not play with the awkwardness of nature? Johanna passionately cites Hannah Wilke as a major academic influence. Mary Douglas and her work regarding orifices and their relationship to our concepts of purity and demarcation come to mind as well.
Parv makes it clear to me that whilst her body of work is inherently a women’s narrative, the subject is not solely “feminism.” Much more holistically, this is body of work regards power relations. Parv questions: “Where is, and who has, the power? What power does the wearer have, if any at all? Is precisely why she wears these clothes to protect herself? Are you the rider, or are you being ridden?” Clothing is inherently disciplinary, and therefore restrictive, and Parv admits her clothes do actually create a lot of restriction. “But through restriction, there can be liberation of great variety. If I add this hook here or hole there, what functionality does it add? What does it restrict?”
Johanna had begun with, and sustained abundant laughter and passionate smiles throughout the interview. She ended no differently. “You should always understand what you like, and not try to deny it, and not to try to be like others. Always be with yourself about things. The final year teaches you to ignore others and focus on what you are, and to just enjoy. It’s a really egoistic four months, and it’s really hard to finish after that. You’ve just been on this high of beautiful, amazing things, and good and bad emotions, and stress. You have to prepare for the aftermath, although truly, it’s impossible.”