Representing the creative future

Designers
to Hire 2020

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”

The CSM BA and MA graduate Johanna Parv questions the extent to which the shapes from everyday, active situations impose restrictions on the female form

Johanna Parv was five years old when she first learnt how to attach a zipper. “I was living with my grandmother who was a craft teacher and she taught me everything from knitting to crochet and patchwork. I remember I started making some bags and she said to me: ‘You can’t put this zip on this bag!’ and I said: ‘I can! Watch me and I’ll show you.”

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Lineup

“In Estonia, it feels like there’s a certain attitude towards fashion designers where they think you like fashion just because you’re a woman.”

Raised in Tallinn, Estonia, Parv’s deft abilities were nursed throughout her childhood thanks to Estonia’s pedagogical crafting lessons – part of the national curriculum in two orientations: for boys, wood and metal work, and for girls, integrated textiles and home economics. “It’s quite sexist,” she notes plainly. “In Estonia, it feels like there’s a certain attitude towards fashion designers where they think you like fashion just because you’re a woman. But they don’t understand that it can mean different things; for instance, fashion design is not the same as styling. The limitation there is that they think you just have a needle and thread and then a dress just happens. They don’t see the work and science behind the creativity.”

The gendered binaries of her childhood are a trope Parv has unconsciously gestured toward her BA and MA studies at Central Saint Martins, an establishment Parv haply fell into. In a bid to improve her English and at the recommendation of a friend, Parv took to London for a summer course to improve her vernacular in order to get into the Estonia Academy of Arts. “Once I was there, the tutors told me I must apply for foundation. And I was like, I wonder what foundation is? Is that a cream or something?” Scribing the unfamiliar phrase in her notebook, she found herself moving to London a year later commencing the BA Womenswear course. “Was there ever a language barrier?” she asks herself. “No, because there wasn’t the need to speak. Your work speaks for itself.”

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Research
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Design Development

Vacating the folkloric Estonian bubble, Parv’s preliminary collection navigated a psychological passage, catechizing the idea of a woman in nature and her state of development. Questioning the extent to which the shapes from everyday, active situations impose restrictions on the female form. Parv alluded to cycling motifs through lip-shaped helmets; a trope she intrinsically extends into her MA collection: “It’s literally from just how much I cycle.” Residing in Paris throughout her placement year at both maisons Dior and Balenciaga, she began to interrogate the female form, mapped by her surroundings from cohabiting with a porn director. “There was a lot of sexualising women and dildos,” recalls Parv, considering the female body as a performative machine. She considered the human body as sexualised and began unpicking the biography of the skirt as a feminine garment, while the suit is habitually regarded as a masculine one.

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Design Development and Research

“You don’t always have to show everything; there’s value in covering up. Not everything needs to be decorative.”

One year on, Parv is extending the saga through her MA collection, Functional Woman, an exposition defining the city uniform of now. “Is there a silhouette that defines the present?” questions Parv. “Is there a colour palette or style that defines women now? If you think about the ‘50s and ‘60s, there’s a very specific look to it, whereas now, everyone’s looking for extra function. There’s a real mix of products too from cheap to expensive where Primark meets Louis Vuitton. It’s not so elegant either, it’s random.” Wandering from London Fields to Holloway aimlessly with her camera, Parv began documenting the oddities and minutiae of quotidian life. “That’s my process,” she offers. “I just started taking pictures of how women carry their bags, examining the combination of how a garment, the body and the accessories meet to create the silhouette.” Captivated by the intersection, the handbag plays a pinnacle role in her collection, occupying a symbol of desire and necessity. “Historically, it’s always been something quite elegant and beautiful but it’s not really the same anymore. I started drawing parallels between the ‘50s elegance and the modern functionality of the fast-paced city, whereby the bag becomes moulded onto the shoulder. The idea was to lose as many details, extending the silhouette as much as possible. I was looking at how valuable objects like cars and motorbikes are covered with this waterproof sheet,” which she manifests through hybridised waterproof nylon skirts bonded to ‘50s style handbags. “It’s about showing how valuable the object is. You don’t always have to show everything; there’s value in covering up. Not everything needs to be decorative. I removed all the unnecessary seams, there were pockets but I didn’t want people to see buttons.”

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Lookbook
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Lookbook

“Everyone wants innovation; we want it every week sometimes, and this is not good. I don’t think being static and having a moment to pause is a bad thing, it shows that everyone’s thinking.”

For Parv, there should always be a deeper meaning at play. “I want to define or question a problem and offer a solution through my work. When people were seeing it, I wanted them to start questioning the female power and the image of the woman in womenswear as hyperfeminine but functional.” But there are wider questions at work: when does clothing become menswear? What defines power, and in turn, what defines function? Is femininity a form or an action? Governed by this rhetoric, her creations are also a reaction to the hurried pace of the industry. “Everyone wants innovation; we want it every week sometimes, and this is not good. I don’t think being static and having a moment to pause is a bad thing, it shows that everyone’s thinking.” She likens designers to entertainers, placed on a public pedestal of scrutiny and expected to deliver.

“We’re always asking what they’re going to do next, like Raf Simons at Prada or Matthew Williams at Givenchy. We criticise if it’s not the most innovative, and it’s just nice. We criticise and think ‘he’s too old now’ or ‘he should be let go’, when in fact they’re just good at what they do. They’re put under so much pressure.”

Instead, Parv pitches a modern woman who is constantly in motion, operating at her own pace. Unblemished by the rapid current of the industry, she is fully equipped, elegant and powerful, diluting the overconsumption entrenched within society through clean lines and minimalism. And despite Parv’s early toils in understanding the English language, her clothing speaks a universal truth of its own. “It’s funny,” she laughs to herself. “Through my weakness, I actually found my strength.”

Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”
Johanna-Maria Parv, Lookbook
Johanna Parv: “Is femininity a form or an action?”