Reason/Passion: The place of politics in fashion according to Julien David
Born in romantic Paris and trained at Parsons among the cold, spread-sheet towers of Lower Manhattan, designer Julien David established his fashion company in Japan, and guides its global operations from offices in London, Paris, and Tokyo, as well as airport lounges everywhere in between. David has sound reasons to prepare for the challenges that will arise out of the Brexit referendum, the triumph of Trumpismo, and the lurch toward the extreme right in Europe. The challenges include the rise of ethnic nationalism, raucous popular demands for tariff protections, draconian migration restrictions, and dismantling the very free-trade zones that bolstered decades of global prosperity.
Consciously and unconsciously, Julien David and other successful designers tap into popular passions when they sit down with their sketch pads. As business people, successful designers also know that – especially in volatile times – they must draw on the power of reason to inform their designs, their pricing and marketing decisions.
Drawing on rationality, Julien David staged his Fall 2017 ready-to-wear show in a neoclassical hall at the Université Paris Descartes. The university’s namesake, René Descartes, was the founding father of Western philosophy and mathematical genius whose thinking underpinned the Age of Reason. The university, also known as Paris V, was established after the legendary Sorbonne university was forced to close its doors in the wake of the French cultural revolution of May ‘68 – a violent reaction, fueled by students and workers, against capitalism, consumerism and traditionalism.
Appropriately, the lines, cuts, and colors of the collection exuded the martial. Men in khaki cargo pants and aviator hats looked ready to parachute into war zones. Women in uniform-like navy shift dresses, embroidered with Hokusai waves, marched in heavy combat boots. A jersey shirt was embellished with velvet boy scout patches listing all of the languages of the European Union, plus Japan. The utilitarian clothes solemnly making their way down the runway felt sober, purposeful, and tough, as they marched to the sound of “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. David blew up three days of production work on an upbeat, electronic tune when he suddenly turned to Dylan’s froggy voice chanting: “You that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks, I just want you to know I can see through your masks. You that never done nothin’, but build to destroy, you play with my world, like it’s your little toy.”
The polemic lyrics, historically rich location, and solemn tone of the collection were a perfect cocktail for a show rich in political meaning and a message of protest.
But was this David’s intent? On my way across London to interview him, I was locked and loaded and ready to rush toward the front, certain in the knowledge that Julien David’s collection was attempting to challenge and criticize the current state of world affairs.
Alas, to my surprise, and youthful dismay, David’s answer was simply ‘no.’
“Fashion companies intrinsically can’t get involved with politics because it’s commerce, first and foremost. Having a creative voice is valuable, but at the end of the day you have to sell your clothes. Business is business, and politics is politics,” he said. It is true that, intrinsically, ideology and profit naturally repel one another, like oil and water. In a time when many designers are vehemently broadcasting a social and political stance, David’s standpoint is staunchly pragmatic. He is interested in creating high-quality clothing that is uniquely designed and that people will want to wear. Furthermore, for David, a collection shouldn’t be narrowed down to a clear cut, transparent message. “It would be boring if it was so direct, if you could resume it in just one sentence,” he said. “It’s not about sending a direct message, but it’s more about making people feel a certain way and trying to create something new compared to what you’ve been doing, and what clothing is today.”
Indeed, although he does not believe that it is his place to make blunt political statements through his designs, he does not deny the strong power of creativity in communicating a feeling and in making people think. “[Being able to] communicate feeling is the difference between purely commercial brands and brands that tend to have an interesting creative direction,” he said. “It’s so good to have a perception of something and to be able to make people think. If you manage to do that, if they are transported during the show, if they are not focusing anymore on the details of the clothing but are thinking about what it means in general or how they feel, I think you’ve won the game.”
By placing so much emphasis on provoking the viewer to think, rather than force-feeding a personal, or popular ideological message, Julien David adds another element to the reason/passion dichotomy so apparent in his choice of show location: the university. This third element draws on Descartes’ defining maxim Cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am’. For David, what gives fashion meaning, and its right to exist, is its capacity to make people think.