It was exactly 73 years ago that the Moravian-born, American polymath Bernard Rudofsky asked ‘Are clothes modern?’ to a sucked-in, synched-up public. His exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art exposed what the then Director of Exhibitions called the problems of apparel: ‘the present overburdened by the past, a needless waste of materials, and a superfluity and obsolescence of detail.’
It is groundhog day.
‘The term “fashion” could do with being a lot more inclusive,’ says the London-based designer Richard Malone. ‘I think the way people interpret fashion as only being about commercial clothes needs rethinking. It is a practice, just like an artist’s, but it is rarely seen or discussed like that.’ In February of this year, he was approached by the curators at MoMA and commissioned to make a garment that will go on display as part of a new show. Items: Is Fashion Modern? opens in October and offers something of a reboot into the study of the wide range of relationships that exist between clothing and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labour, economy and technology. Curator Paola Antonelli presents clothing objects along three tiers: ‘archetype’ – the original; ‘stereotype’, the popular rendering of the style and lastly, ‘prototype’, a new commission that suggests how it might evolve.
Malone was asked to reimagine the jumpsuit, a garment that has historically been used to reflect a vision of tomorrow. Futurist artists working in the early twentieth century explored the style as a unifying, anti-bourgeois statement; jumpsuits tamper with our notions on gender, class and creed. ‘I think what the curators liked about what I was doing was that I’m from this working-class environment and the uniforms I saw growing up have informed so much of my work,’ Malone says. ‘Now I’m in this odd position where people are looking at what I do in quite a serious way but it isn’t that serious. Working with a curator felt very natural for me. It was nice to be able to focus on making something that wasn’t going to end up in a shop.’
In the short time since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, Malone’s label has become known for its esoteric elegance. Squiggled, nameless forms are something of a signature, influenced in part by the sculpture and performance course he finished before starting his degree. His London Fashion Week outings are part art performance, part rejection of the fashion norm. Items draws parallels between Malone’s approach and the theories held by the Russian constructivist artists Varvara Stepanova and Alexandr Rodchenko, who used the jumpsuit as a vehicle for providing mass-produced, egalitarian clothing to the working class majority after the revolution. ‘They were also making clothes at a time when fashion was becoming a somewhat cyclical, predicable thing. Clothes had lost meaning. And we’re sort of coming back to that in a way,’ Malone says. ‘I work with large scale patterns, drawing things really huge and then putting them on the body later and I think appealed to the curators too.’
Malone was given a series of essays to read before starting on his design. His methods are, he says, erratic. Uniquely, for someone of his generation, it is a process free from images hacked out of 1990s style magazines. Malone likes to work in silence at times and stays away from the digital gossamer of Instagram. ‘To make things without any direct references is quite a bold thing to do. And to be able to do that is a privilege,’ he says.
As a student Malone made a lot of objects that would stand on their own, occupying that space between clothes and not clothes. Magical frothy shapes all spring from abstract drawings: ‘what I am doing now is a more wearable version of that but there is still this risk element, which I like. If you draw a shirt and start sewing it, you already know what it’s going to look like. But I’m taking shapes and adding them onto the body so when you start sewing you don’t know what you will end up with,’ he says. The curators also explore why designers are drawn to making abstract clothes in uncertain times. Malone’s spirited work reflects our new poly, multi reality. At times like these, fashion is worn to show or to shroud. ‘If I lost that sense of experimentation, that element of surprise, I wouldn’t want to do fashion,’ he says. ‘There’d be no sense of urgency, no energy if I was just doing coats.’
Items: Is Fashion Modern?
1 October 2017 – 28 January 28 2018
The Museum of Modern Art, New York