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Parson X - Made to Measure

Yorkshire Artspace commissioned artist and writer Fiona Jardine to produce a text on Lisa Gallacher's residency project: Parson Cross Made to Measure.  This project saw Lisa work with 10 residents of the Parson Cross neighbourhood of Sheffield during 2011/12 to explore their relationship with the place they live through creating unique 'made to measure' garments.  

Parson X – Made to Measure

Christopher Kane, who graduated from Central St Martins in 2006, is one of the most idiosyncratic designers to have established a label in his own name in recent years. Whereas old school “arty” fashion designers play with the sculptural potential of clothing, or deconstruct traditional tailoring, (Issey Miyake, Hussein Chalyan, Comme de Garcons, Martin Margeila for example), Kane’s approach, (no less “arty”), is essentially conversational: he draws on personal experiences and affections - his clothes often seem to embody those poignant moments of banality and fantasy which combine to characterize teenage obsessions and aspirations. He says his Autumn/Winter 2011 collection was inspired by lollipops, Sodastreams and pencil cases, the kind of pencil case I think I remember lusting over - padded bubblegum plastic and gel-filled liquid vinyl. For his Spring/Summer 2012 collection, he remarks that the characters he was thinking of when he developed the collection were "the girls you hate at school".

“Arty” is an outmoded, off-hand term – in fashion, you might rather substitute “directional” or “conceptual”, “experimental” or “editorial”. Nonetheless, it is useful in connoting designers who are less immediately concerned with trading on established conventions in relation to what garments are, than what they have been or could be: “arty” designers are somewhat removed from the present tense. The fact that Miyake, Chalyan etc. are considered “arty” by virtue of their sculptural innovations in volume, texture and material is to a degree reflective of priorities in “art” at the time they rose to prominence – the 1980s and early 1990s. Likewise, Kane’s conversational approach could be seen to reflect the influence of the type of “relational art” practices that have characterized the late 1990s and 2000s. Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator credited with coining the term “relational art”, describes it as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context”. He opposes this horizon to the “assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”. Although his description is not without its problems – the opposition between social context and private symbolic space is not one that can (or should) be sustained – the work of the artists he chooses to illustrate it emphasize “conversation” and “process” over “object” and “completion”.Similarly, rather than marveling at the technical ingenuity and clever shapes of Miyake and Chaylan, those who buy and admire Kane’s clothes enter into a dialogue with his memories and characters - whether they know it or not – (subconsciously) invoking memories and characters of their own: human interaction is privileged over any pure sense of the garment as “object” in both design and use. Wearing Kane’s clothes extends the dialogue through whichever particular contexts, places or events they are worn in, and they enter the ambient geography of our visual environment.

Of course, this is true for all the clothes we choose (or are made) to wear, and it doesn’t matter whether choices are deliberate or not, whether the choices are made by someone who loves clothes and the act of dressing or not. Judgments about the class, status and character of people we don’t know are made on the basis of reflex first impressions which mesh with our own background and experiences, our social conditioning: clothes are as important determinants of “the first impression” as facial expressions and accented voices. The power of first impressions is more exaggerated in urban areas where social interactions can be as passing and anonymous as they are frequent and varied. In towns and cities, the opportunity to controvert first impressions is often restricted and decisions about what-to-wear assume greater significance.

In the opening chapter of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, the state of the Raskalnikov’s hat as he walks through (St)Petersburg, a hat which had “originally come from Zimmerman’s fashionable shop, but was very shabby now, grown rusty with age, full of holes and covered with stains, without a brim, and cocked on one side at a most disreputable angle”, draws attention to him as an oddity, even “though that in that particular part of town it would be hard to astonish anyone by the kinds of clothes one wore. The proximity of the Hay Market, the great number of disorderly houses, and, most of all, the working-class population which crammed these streets and alleyways in the centre of Petersburg, lent so bizarre an aspect to the whole place that it would have indeed been strange to be surprised at meeting any man, however curiously dressed.” Significantly, Dostoyvesky observes the intersection between “place” and “dress”: he suggests that in working class areas of the city - areas which have transient, heterogeneous, immigrant populations - modes of dress are more varied than they are in middleclass parts of town, where the unspoken rules of (19th century) polite society enforce a stricter code and tend towards homogeneity in vestment. The intersection between place and dress maps a complex geography of class, ethnicity, trade and fortune.

Today, “fashion” - which determines the currency of clothes - reconfigures such a geography to some extent, blending with class and ethnicity across cultural boundaries. Fashion feeds the power of impression, speeding up the rate at which clothes become outdated (and relegating those who sport them). Despite the growing importance of relatively stable brand identities and maturing sub-cultural dressing codes, (for example Goth, Fifties Revival, Rudeboy, Harijuku, Geek), fashion’s trends are led by an industry still tied to the traditions of textile-manufacture, (although the recent, marked preponderance of “celebrity” driven fashion ranges might suggest that the site of value in textiles is changing, moving away from fabric, from “actual material”). For all that Christopher Kane is a designer whose inventiveness and personality distinguishes him as an “artist” - whose transfer of thoughts into product are an essential element in establishing his brand - he is also an industrial presence, who, in common with the rest of the fashion industry, is locked into the demands of fashion’s seasonal cycle. Seasonality marks Kane’s clothes in colours and fabrics. Trends are developed by colour forecasters and trend spotters in tandem with textile manufacturers for every level of the industry. Where they are synthesized with the (brand) vision of a high-end designer like Kane, hall-of-mirrors style, they will work their way through the most incidental polyester ruffle, the size of the polka dots on a pair of leggings. Seasonality betrays the temper of last year’s mustard, the form of last year’s paperbag waist. Colours and shapes mark the dispensible.

All this is a necessary preamble to my consideration of Lisa Gallacher’s project “Parson X – Made to Measure”. For all the geographical, sociological and personal reasons outlined above, Gallacher uses clothing discursively to investigate relationships between people, and between people and their environment. The “Parson X – Made to Measure” project takes aspects of a design process like Kane’s, as well as the theoretical concerns of relational art and notions about the social significance of dressing, and allies them to ideas gleaned from her conversations with residents in the Parson Cross area of Sheffield about their relationship to the area. If we understand Kane’s clothes as entering the geography of the visual environment marked by his memories and by seasonality, we can understand the Parson X collection as marked by the personal recollections of the project’s participants and the cultural particularity of the area in a similar way. In the Parson X collection, the place of the designer generating ideas and responding to influences is occupied by the residents who volunteered to participate, (who each performed as “designer” for an individual garment), and the place of seasonality is occupied by their (collective) notion of Parson Cross itself. These substitutions - “resident” for “designer”, “locality” rather than “seasonality” – and the changes they produce in the emphasis and outcomes of designing garments are at the heart of Gallacher’s artistic process. Her role as an artist is as a dispassionate production manager and expert, orientated towards directing the development of the garments and realizing the manufacture according to the ambitions of the project’s participants within the realms of practicability. She seeks to open out the processes of (industrial) garment production, explaining technical possibilities and limitations, overseeing and tweaking manufacture, positioning herself as a manufacturer/facilitator, asking - along the way - questions about what an artist is and does. She also occupies a covert role as “client”, the party with whom the ultimate decision-making power lies. The inspiration for, and detail of, each garment stems freely from the resident/designers individually, but the overall project coheres under Gallacher’s broad intent, the way she oversees production and facilitates manufacture.

So, Gallacher’s interest in developing the “Parson X – Made to Measure” project is less in garments themselves, than it is in the processes and roles associated with the production of them. Which is far from saying that the garments are not important. From the outset, in establishing the boundaries of the project - considering the algebra of the substitutions she wished to direct - Gallacher placed a primacy on the everyday functionality of garments – their “wearability”. The 10 participants chosen to work with Gallacher in “Made to Measure” worked with her to design functional garments carrying personal narratives in the detail of the pattern on fabric printed to order, or in the particular form of the garment. These narratives, prompted by each resident’s consideration of their relationship to the area, use design sources which range from newspaper headlines related to Parson Cross’s mediation in the press and photographs of wildflowers seeded on wasteground, to “found” fabric in the form of a blanket rescued from a skip and the shape of a Victorian gentleman’s frock coat intended to evoke the history of Parson Cross’s name. Gallacher’s emphasis on wearability means that the Parson X project does not end with realising the production of illustrative garments for display or performance, as might be the case if Gallacher had exaggerated the ideas of the residents who participated and directed production towards “costume”. Costume might be thought of as clothing with peculiar function, removed from the continuum of the everyday by exaggeration, symbolism or purpose; it declares itself and its function immediately, making whoever sports it (self)consciously aware of the distinction of their appearance. Inasmuch, costume is always “formal”, always inherently “impersonal”, a mask more than an expression. By directing the production of “wearable” garments, Gallacher ensures that those garments can enter the ambient geography of our visual environment without necessarily declaring themselves as a costume might. The significance and particularity of the garments’ design becomes apparent and relevant through conversation – indicative of the project’s central and circular process - otherwise it might pass hidden amongst the general noise of everyday life. Despite the diversity of the garments produced, the variety of colour, fabric and form, the Parson X collection coheres around a place and time – and an experience – which is shared and specific. Perhaps in this, there is a metaphor for the community at Parson Cross itself.

Fiona Jardine, 2012