Representing the creative future

The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress

The retrospective exhibition explores how to define a decade.

In 1971 the Victoria & Albert Museum in London presented Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton. A landmark exhibition, this was the first moment that fashion was historicized in a museological context; as works of art deemed worthy of such splendid prestige. Alison Adburgham writes in the Guardian on the 28th of September 1971, “Sir John Pope-Hennessey, director of the V&A, stresses that it is a criterion of the museum that everything in it must be a work of art, and this criterion must apply to costume.” In 2017, curator Matthew Linde has hijacked this particular fashion retrospective model for The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress which opened on the 10th of September.

Of the 50-odd designers included in the show (pieces kept being added as they arrived in the post) three are from graduate collections Linde decided were too important not to display: Antwerp’s Hideki Seo and Andrea Ayala Closa and Central Saint Martins’ Annalisa Dunn. “Graduate collections are a unique fashion moment,” explains Linde. For years he has been following these particular schools (and the Netherlands’ ArtEZ) thanks to increased accessibility through the internet. Blogs such as Diane Pernet’s A Shaded View on Fashion have also been crucial to his education of fashion grads.

What makes the decade of the 2000s so hard to define, and this exhibition so interesting, is its adjacency to the time in which we are living. Unlike the 1970s or 1980s, it has not yet had the benefit of hindsight to blur out the stylistic details of the period leaving it exposed to be considered in a different light. What we are presented with is a period of time which is ultimately undefinable despite Linde’s best attempts. “These graduate collections revitalise projections of the period’s slippages and anachronism,” he informs. The addition of these graduate collections to the mix truly complicate any attempt at defining the decade, leaving it “overloaded and overworked.”

Stretched across two spaces, the Goethe Institut’s Ludlow 38 and Mathew Gallery, the exhibition is, according to Linde, an “anthology of critical and periphery voices.” So less of the Paris-Hilton-Juicy-Couture-whale-tail 2000s and a slightly brainier inspection of this ten-year period. Antwerp’s A.F. Vandevorst and Viktor & Rolf both make an appearance as well as Central Saint Martins veteran Shelley Fox’s Autumn/Winter 2000 blowtorched sequins. “Central Saint Martins and the Antwerp Academy were of particular interest as their graduates are often aligned to eccentricity,” Linde explains in his booming Australian intonation, “if the program promotes criticality and novelty, it can function as an exciting formula that reconstructs fashion discourse.”

“At that time I started learning how I can be myself,” Hideki Seo, the fashion-designer-slash-artist says of his stint at the Royal Academy of Arts Antwerp. Since graduating in 2005 Seo has been working as “Mr. Alaïa’s” first assistant for 11 years. He recently dug through his extensive archive to ship two looks from this particular collection to New York for the exhibition The Overworked Body.

Hideki Seo’s dynamic Flow and colossal Horn stand with pride within Ludlow 38. The names themselves illustrate how Seo has mutated the body so that the wearer becomes a living and breathing sculpture. “Sometimes cloth is more interesting than body,” Seo explains in response to his Inuit-inspired collection.

Annalisa Dunn, now head knitwear designer for Mulberry, graduated from the Central Saint Martins MA in 2007. Her voluminous “collaged knitting experiments” sit nestled between Seo’s strange creatures at the Goethe Institut’s Ludlow 38. “It was a really happy time in my life, working and studying with amazing people,” she reminisces, “we were all so young and nothing seemed impossible.” Over the next half a decade she would establish her brand Cooperative Designs with fellow Saint Martins graduate Dorothee Hagemann in which the stylistic codes she formed at college were omnipresent. Despite the crash in 2008 the pair slogged on for four years: “we never knew any different, we didn’t have anything to lose”. But, alas, the impossible would eventually catch up and the brand closed its doors in 2011 due to a longing for “new challenges, and maybe to sleep better.”

During this time graduates had more freedom to experiment, “we didn’t need to worry about customers or wearability,” Dunn explains. After her MA show the president of a large unnamed American department requested she bring her collection to her hotel. Although impressed, there was concern about the kind of yarn she had used. Instead of something soft and universally wearable Dunn had used Shetland wool, a course and scratchy knit which tends to irritate sensitive skin. It was the first time she’d been exposed to the reality of actually selling clothes: “Shops wanted the next fashion star, not avant-garde fashion for the adventurous.”.

But a shift is underway. As students begin to use social media as their main communicative tool, “graduates have learnt to exploit this ‘democratising’ technology for greater visibility,” Linde explains. The squabble over the pros and cons of social media has become a rather worn-out argument but the fact that every piece in The Overworked Body was designed pre-Instagram is hard to ignore. Seeing all of the pieces up close, one can experience the garment in a visceral way rather than through the cold image of a screen. The danger, Linde warns, is that “graduates resemble wider narratives rather than creating divergent ones.” The graduate becomes part of the machine making to sell, rather than an alternative to the already established.

The exhibition closed on the 15th of October. A runway performance will take place on Wednesday the 18th of October at Ludlow 38 at 8pm.

Matthew Linde is an independent fashion curator and PhD Candidate at the School of Fashion & Textiles, RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the founder of Centre For Style, an experimental venue for fashion curation and alternative retail strategies, which made appearances in various art biennales and institutional contexts from 2013-2016.