Through the looking glass: women and art at MeCollectors Berlin

Permanence and transience. Can art represent both of these simultaneously? These questions of time and history are just what “The Moment is Eternity”, an exhibition starting September 26th at meCollectors Room, aims to explore. 

Comprised of some 300 images from over 60 artists, “The Moment is Eternity” illuminates the photographic works of the Ollbricht Collection, and shows them in conjunction with a range of weird and wonderful historic artefacts from the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”. 

Considered to be one of the most extensive private collections in Europe, the Olbricht collection is filled with artwork ranging from the 16th century to the most recent contemporary work of artists and photographers.

Through an interplay of art forms, the “Moment is Eternity” looks at the theme of transience in a series of single fleeting moments – the only “perceptible slice[s] of eternity” – as captured through the lens of a camera. As meCollectors suggest in their accompanying press release, “Lending duration to the moment is inscribed into the very medium [of photography] itself.”

“The Moment is Eternity” is diverse in terms of medium and epoch. This is a collection of harmony and incongruity: where images of defining moments in history are placed next to erotic scenes of young lovers, where bodies meet with objects, colour meets with negative, and the passing of time persists despite all human effort to prevent it. 

It is this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the conventional and the absurd, that gives us a peripheral view of identity across the ages. 

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When taking my first steps into “The Moment is Eternity”, I was aware that this was an exhibition with a clear purpose. With the many sheets of information I’d been given in hand, I began looking at these images with preconceived ideas.

These works were about timelessness and eternity and about collecting and preserving, interrogating and reporting, the moment. 

These images were a tangible memento mori, a symbol of transience, mortality, life and death, mapped, at least for the first half of the exhibition, onto visceral representations of the body. 

I glanced from image to image of the human frame. Next to the exposed, elegant physique of the model Kristen McMenamy was an anatomical print of a dissected frog, a quirky reminder from the Wunderkammer of our long standing, human interest in anatomy. 

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Helmut Newton, Nude of Kristen McMenamy, 1995

It seemed odd to have a sexualised portrayal of a woman next to an obscure, even grotesque, image of a dead frog. But perhaps this was the aim: presenting incongruity to inspire new ways of seeing. 

Around the room were shameless depictions of the female body. Women were clothed, or not, arranged in a variety of positions, shamelessly projecting their identity and reflecting the aesthetics of the age from which they were captured.

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I thought of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum of the ‘decisive moment’ that meCollector’s had referred to in their accompanying press release.

To capture the ‘decisive moment’ is to capture the essence of a transitory moment and the “form that corresponds to that essence” simultaneously. 

But as I looked from image to image of women stood gazing either in the mirror at themselves, or outwards towards their viewer, I thought that these weren’t, perhaps, what was meant by ‘decisive moment.’

These didn’t appear to be fleeting moments, caught in time, but moments captured, pinned down and perfectly contrived for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Russ Meyer’s ‘Eve in front of Fireplace’ seemed to confirm my view. A woman lies partially clad on a fluffy carpet, looking seductively out at the camera. The fire glows in the background as a glass of wine sits within reach of her hand – all the indications of cosy lovemaking. The artist calls her ‘Eve’, the first woman who deceived Adam and the biblical figure who has been identified for centuries as a wily seductress. 

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Russ Meyer, Eve in front of Fireplace, 1955

A person’s history is always brought to bear on an image they see before them. Mine was informed by the readings of John Berger in his essay, “Ways of seeing”, which takes a critical look at the way we perceive art. 

Berger discusses the disparity between nudity and nakedness and the rhetoric surrounding it in a chapter of his book. He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” 

In an an examination of the European oil painting tradition, he says that only twenty or thirty nudes in the entire collection depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. After reading “Ways of seeing”, I could no longer look at the naked female frame and not question whether it was indeed nakedness, or nudity, that I saw before me.

These images of women didn’t appear to be caught in time, but purposefully arranged for artistic consumption. Was the ‘decisive moment’ here, one that had been artfully put together, rather than spontaneously captured?

The images represented female identity, their roles and rituals, throughout time. But was it their own self, or one created by another, that was being presented in these images? Was Russ Meyer’s Eve naked or nude? Did she arrange herself this way, or was she arranged? I looked to the next image. 

In a black and white photograph, Cindy Sherman is captured looking into a mirror. She poses, clutching a towel around her and looking over her shoulder with a provocative gaze, as if decidedly arranged this way, perhaps even by a male photographer. The moment here was certainly ‘decisive’, yet not spontaneous. 

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 

Through this image her identity is obscured. We see her face, but only through a secondary source – her reflection. Here, the woman doesn’t show us her real identity, but an assumed one. Her body does not relax into its natural shape, but stands perfectly poised for a photograph.

Women, mirrors, make up, masks, are historically tied up with issues of identity, authenticity, beauty and vanity. Paul Outerbridge’s ‘Nude at a dressing table’, not only depicts a woman gazing into a mirror,  but presents her applying makeup – an action seen by the Elizabethan stage as a concealing of the self. Does the woman portrayed looking into the mirror mask her identity, or accentuate it? And if so, then who for? And why?

Andre Gelpke’s ‘Christine mit Spiegel’ presents a woman behind a handheld looking glass, her face completely hidden by the mirror – her arm raised as if applying makeup to the visage she hides from view. And then there is Gerhard Richter’s, ‘Betty’, a woman captured, but looking away. Her identity unable to reach the viewer at all.

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Andre Gelpke, Christine mit Spiegel

The identity of these women, as represented by these images, reveal something about how they are, and have been, perceived, and how they perceive themselves. They are a double image, with a double purpose. A reflection in a mirror. 

I stood looking at a courtly handheld mirror, dated back to 1650, encased in a glass box near these images. Staring at this tangible emblem of “womanhood”, I wondered how many women had looked into this glass through the ages and had truly seen themselves.

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Questions of time and history returned as I wandered through the rest of the exhibition. Historically charged pictures of the first test of an Atom Bomb in New Mexico, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and a static image of the KKK juxtaposed naked lovers on a back seat of a car and Ed va der Elksen’s photograph of a passionate, cinematic kiss. 

The ‘decisive moment’, one momentarily suspended in time and hastily captured by the lens of a camera, was here, urgent and unrelenting. Whether nude, naked, premeditated, spontaneous, for the self or for someone else, these images have something in common: they are moments in history that cannot be replicated. 

Photographs can capture, as well as distort, reality. They can confirm and conceal the self, but the ‘decisive moment’ remains the same: one that can only be captured by the swift click a shutter. 

‘The Moment is Eternity” is open until the 1st April 2019 at the MeCollectors Room Berlin. The gallery is open every Wednesday to Monday, from 12-6pm.

Autumn

Life in Autumn is but a sepia-toned shadow on a wall. It dissolves in a moment. When the snow falls, Autumn’s warm touch can leave no fingerprints of mist on Winter’s frosty panes of glass.

The other morning, I stepped outside my door and was met by a chill, yet gentle, breeze. It felt like it had been a while since I was encircled by wind, rather than draped in the humidity of warm Summer air. I hastily put on a jumper. Autumn has arrived, I thought.

Autumn air has a particular quality. A crisp edge floats on top of an otherwise warm, enriching breeze. Autumn warms your heart, rather than chills you to the marrow, like Winter. It subtly arrives, not drawing much attention to itself.

In Autumn, trees begin to relinquish their fruits; their skeletal limbs still dressed in Summer jackets. Leaves surrender their deep green colour to a palette of golds and reds, and tumble from the branches to request one last, wistful dance in the wind. The light fades earlier into a gentle hue, the horizon becomes adorned by vague, pink reflections.

Autumn is a time of preparation. Flowers close their buds to defend them from the cold, and animals begin to gather stores for the winter ahead. Slowly the earth begins to temporarily shut down into a period of stillness. Autumn is a time to wind down and look after oneself. It is the perfect time to reflect.

Autumn in literature is often synonymous with the melancholic. Persuasion in Jane Austen is described as ‘autumnal.’ The season reflects Anne Eliot’s slow decline into what she believes will be her spinsterhood: her sighs reveal her fear that her “last smiles” are already behind her.

The arrival of Autumn in literature is often seen as the end of something beautiful: plants that were so recently verdant become decay before our eyes, days end prematurely, the light weakens. And then, darkness. The ‘Autumn of life’ means the closing of days, forever.  

Autumn reminds me of transience. The earth’s physical changes symbolise how nothing lasts forever, but equally that nothing is ever lost. Life is cyclical. The sun may be waning now, but will reaffirm its presence in the Spring.

Autumn holds a mirror up to nature, and in it we can find images and reflections of ourselves. Trees cannot be evergreen, and neither can life. Our journeys will always be coloured by happiness and triumph, but inflected by pain. They cannot always have the golden sheen of Summer.

The leaves of Autumn arrive with the faint touch of a hand, only to remind us of what is real.

Autumn is about becoming and disappearing. Fading and arriving. Projecting and interrogating the self in the silent slumber of the season.

It is but a sepia-toned shadow on a wall. It dissolves in a moment. By Winter, it’s warm touch can leave no fingerprints of mist on its frosty panes of glass.

What silence did for me

 

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It’s hot. My first of Germany’s intense and unrelenting Summers. I feel a silence within me that wavers between peace and ecstasy. It is the silence of lightning diffused by rain. 

I’m sat on a rooftop at sunset, watching the heat seep into the concrete. Up here, the angles of Berlin’s skyline can be observed in their entirety. I watch as the city’s shades of beauty reveal themselves slowly over the changing light of the evening. The buildings are stripped of their sheen; each prism of light revealing their imperfections. I could have been up there for days.

It is through lasting images such as these that we connect ourselves to a time and place. I close my eyes and envision rows of pristine white, post-war houses with gilded balconies; disused buildings anticipating reconstruction; metal tramlines; cycle paths bearing a range of cyclists, some clad in thermals, others with shopping piled high in their baskets; flea markets yielding goods of old boots; exotic handmade jewellery and books with torn pages; local bakeries stocked with crisp rolls and dark rye; underground clubs with graffiti branded across every entrance; elderly couples enjoying cups of coffee across red checked tablecloths. Berlin’s spirit of change and enterprise is palpable. You can do little else but internalise it. 

In six short months, I have nearly perished in Berlin’s deathly cold – never before has my skin been touched by such biting temperatures – and witnessed the lateness of Spring. With time to spare and a mind clear enough to contemplate my surroundings, I have seen the seasons come and go so fleetingly. Snow gave way gracefully to budding flowers, withered branches grew heavy with a sudden fostering of leaves, and I too emerged from spiritual hibernation. I watched as the city came alive. 

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Graefestraße, Kreuzberg

With the first flowers of Spring came the first fleet of tourists, scurrying about the city in any available site like ants near a fruit bowl. I hear you smirking at my confidence to exclude myself from the definition of ‘tourist’, but how long does one have to be resident in a country before identifying oneself as part of it?

From the rooftop, one can cast their eye over the landscape and imagine a city decimated by War and rebuilt from the ashes. Over the horizon, I picture Hackescher Markt, now a thriving scene of commerce, desperate and despondent in its post-war gloom; the crumbling buildings, broken streets and concrete slabs graced only by the life of tangled weeds; the beauty and violence beneath our feet. 

This is a city who still sleeps with one eye open. The legacy of war is what Berlin climbs into the sheets with at night. It is the monster at the bottom of the bed. The city has been constructed anew, with every last brick a tangible emblem of what they can’t forget. 

Yet amidst the rubble, this divided city became worthy of aesthetic attention. Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin allows its old to coexist with its new. It is a mass canvas of mixed material. Berlin’s task was not to cover and conceal, but to find a way of incorporating the past into the fabric of the future. Stagnation shifted, and reconstruction inspired a new way of seeing. 

In art nothing ever stands still, and Berlin proves it. At every street corner, workmen whistle as they emerge from newly constructed buildings, caked in plaster. The sad frames of disused warehouses brandish banners of images indicating what future form it will take. Baroque architecture maintains its majesty above street view, incorporated into newfound buildings that welcome commerce as a medium for change. Functionality collides with ornament; modernity with history. Art and architecture become the chisel with which Berlin carves itself a fresh identity. I see myself reflected in every new sheet of glass. 

Of course, places can offer you the illusion of feeling changed, or enlightened in some way. They absorb you in a swell of activity, addressing your feelings of anonymity with opportunities for communion with others. There’s a reason why backpackers return with a new set of values to match their post-travelling ponytails. They establish a new sense of self away from routine that reflects their surroundings. Liberation becomes woven into every last strand of dredlocked hair. 

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Sredzkistrasse, Prenzlauer Berg

 

There were nights when I could walk out into the city and forget I was anywhere. I had no shackles. But with an absence of responsibility came an absence of connectivity. Sometimes I felt like I could walk the streets and each house would turn their lights off one by one. No lamp would illuminate the glass allowing me to see my reflection. No flicker of a candle could offer me a nightcap. 

I was alone. The lack of light was just a tangible reminder. I could wade through a throng of people and not one soul would speak. I could be submerged in a sea of faces and still feel all alone.

These were moments where one solitary night can feel like permanent seclusion. I had to learn how to situate myself mentally in nowhere. I learned to inhabit loneliness.

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” at C /O Berlin ★★★

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” documents a narrative of infatuation. Through a series of photographs, Moshammer aims to discover more about the “sinister stranger” who arrived, completely by chance, on her doorstep. Using images captured from real life and some produced from her own imagination, she powerfully explores the fine line between romance and delusion, love and obsession.

Upon first entering the exhibition, I got taken up by the swell of the romance of it all. A guy named Troy travels across the continent to say hello to his ex and, upon opening the door to you, falls instantly in love, “not just with your face”, but with “your heart”. He sends a letter declaring his love for you, describing how his life has led up to this moment and how he couldn’t possibly forget the “honey” that he saw filling up the doorframe like a portrait. What more could a girl want?

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C/O Berlin, in their accompanying press release, describe this story as a “bizarre declaration of love from a stranger”, a “fleeting, banal encounter” that lasted no longer than five minutes. Moshammer’s exhibition is a visual curation of this encounter – a story only images could capture. She aims throughout the exhibition to “answer his image of her with her image of him”.

To me, however, it seemed more like the staging of an inquisition. One of the most striking examples of this was the display of Troy’s letter in three different forms. Each time the letter was further zoomed in, the words became clearer on the page. It felt to me like Moshammer was questioning how we would handle such a powerful declaration of love, or perhaps whether it was ever “love” at all.

As individuals who are all susceptible to the daily deluge of romantic culture, Moshammer’s exhibition questioned whether romance of the kind she experienced, the kind that we see in movies, is really what we desire. The image of a gas station and a Motel – a literal emblem of Moshammer’s journey across state lines to learn more about the stranger who sought to steal her heart – was particularly powerful to this end. In scenes of American romance films, the Motel is iconic – a stop off point for travellers, a temporary love nest – perhaps even an imagined life where all you know is the road.

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Using phrases from Troy’s letter to form themes or ideas for each image, Moshammer gives them new power by isolating them. The line “the almost new special car to feel special and appreciated” for example, (taken from Troy’s promise to buy her a new motor if only she would come back to live with him) seemed on the surface to be a man’s humble bargain for affection. But after dwelling on it a little longer, the words take on a sinister quality. This kind of monetary exchange sounded something like prostitution: the giving of oneself for money or possessions. Was this, in Moshammer’s eyes, the ultimate promise of comfortable living, or ownership?

An image of perfectly arranged postage stamps – their neat rows obstructed by an image of a naked woman packaged in bubble wrap as if for sale – seemed to confirm this idea.

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As I continued round the exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel like Troy was trying to silence Moshammer with promises of the perfect life. Troy spoke assertively, not speculatively, in his letter, almost removing her ability to reply. I began to understand Moshammer’s photographs as a visual answer to his letter. Her images became her agency.

Through images of suburbia and domesticity, possessions become conflated with affection. An image of a hotel room and a perfectly laid out bed placed next to each other seemed sinister in their simplicity. I thought of the typical budget hotel bed sheets, steamed stiff with starch, that were strict and imprisoning, unable to be moulded to the body. This seemed the perfect metaphor for what Moshammer thought of a life with Troy. Below the caption read, “Happily married, or want out”.

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Pictures of the landscape, seemingly desolate and infertile, were juxtaposed with images of supposed happiness and unity: a demonstration of the fine line between dreams and reality;  the discrepancy between what we are told we should want, and what we actually want.

Towards the end of my visit, I thought back to the picture of a woman with her face blurred out that I had breezed by at the start of the exhibition. Perhaps it was Moshammer’s own identity that she was uncertain about. Perhaps Troy had unearthed uncertainties within her about her own dreams and desires.

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Another interesting element of the exhibition was the fact that each accompanying title could not directly explain what was going on in each image. It occurred to me that sometimes words are inadequate to convey experience. At times, we need demonstrable evidence. I enjoyed the gap that was left between words and images, feeling that, like Moshammer, I too was having to piece together fragments of a puzzle to form meaning.

A title reading “Duck Sick” caught my eye. It accompanied a picture of an old school motor with “Suck Dick” elegantly printed onto the back of its bumper. A perfectly contrived image, perhaps, of Moshammer’s rebellion against Troy’s offering and an assertion of her own power and identity. His perfect aesthetic arrangement from a movie: the car, the house, the woman, wouldn’t ever, it seemed, quite make the cut.

“Not just your face honey”  is on show at the C/O gallery until 23rd September 2018.

 

 

 

Strangers and Serendipity

 

‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.’ On the Road, Jack Kerouac

 

I thought about this quote the other day from a book that is very dear to me. On the Road is a classic as it is consummately American: filled with dreams, illusions, sex, drugs, and a whole load of heartache. It contains all that we seek to find in American literature: dreams punctured by reality. Pulsating to the rhythm of 1950s jazz and the emergence of counterculture, On the Road captures the exhausting richness of life: its exuberance, its melancholy, its incomprehensibility and, more importantly, it’s variety. 

It is now after spending six months away from home that I realise the gravity of Kerouac’s statement about ‘the mad ones’. It is these people that I came to know in Berlin. The people that love life and experience; the people that speak to strangers because they want to; the people who pluck conversation topics out of thin air and fuel them for hours on humour, gesture and narrative. Storytelling is what we live for. It’s what the travellers crave. 

Clear in my mind are the days that I wandered through the city, anatomising the face of every building and every person with a childlike curiosity. I began to speak to people out of desire more than necessity. Small talk gave way to conversations of unimaginable depth. I revealed sides of myself only a stranger could understand. 

Chance encounters became my source of serendipity – those uncanny moments of meeting somebody who you need or desire right in that moment. A stranger who will take care of you just for the night. Searching through underground clubs of dancing and flashing lights, where drugs and alcohol give visage to the faceless, to find my friends was just another way of making new ones. Sharing in the song of a blues guitarist in the Park was just another, more lyrical, way of speaking. Reading aloud about my life story was just another way of learning to bargain with the dangers and difficulties of words. The diversity of languages owned by the many different kinds of international people became both a bridge and a barrier to communication. Under such circumstances, you fashion new ways of understanding. 

I found that the people who said that they were travelling for fun had the most to hide. They veiled their pain under a guise of spontaneity. These were the people who were running from something, but couldn’t quite articulate what. After a few drinks, you knew why they had fled. Everyone is always looking for something. The people who say they aren’t just don’t know it yet. 

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Time can mean everything, and it can mean nothing. There are people you meet who become part of the furniture in your life. You shuffle over and prepare to make permanent room for them. These are the ones who provide a sturdy bed and a place to rest your head – the ones who will tuck you in after a bad night. And then there are the people who will pull up a chair to immerse themselves in you just for a few hours. 

Romance can exist for a night, and it doesn’t have to be marked by sex. I often tell people about my ‘one-night love stories’ in Berlin clubs. They are never what people expect. 

There’s something that seems deeply spiritual, again uncanny, about connecting to a person just for a day, or an evening. Significant events in life don’t have to be judged by their longevity. A night of looks across a room, a night of dancing and talking, a night where moments of conversation pique your interest for a lifetime, have their own importance. They say you never really forget a face. 

It’s 3am in a club that I never would have trespassed this time last year. For most, the night is only just beginning. I find my Parisian gentleman wandering around by himself, just soaking everything in – or, just clearly out of his mind on alcohol.  If there was ever a stereotype to be fitted to a Frenchman, he fit the bill entirely. This guy loved the Romance of it all: English girl with big brown eyes and a heart full of curiosity travels to another country to find herself. He filled in the part about her falling in love with the Parisian poet. 

We talked of an alternative life where I abandoned Berlin to live with him in Paris. Every morning we’d open our pearl-white kitchen windows and breakfast on the balcony on red-checked tablecloths laden with jams and croissants. Outside, our bikes would be lined up next to each other, ready to embark on our scenic trips out of the city on the weekend. We’d dine into the evening, getting as drunk on each other as on the traditional Parisian wine, and return home together, hand in hand … in the rain. You get the picture. 

Narrative is integral to human nature. It connects us to time and place, and to each other. These moments of serendipity, while short-lived, hold significance still. My Parisian love may have wandered into the distance without my phone number, but he left behind a deep impression of the novelty of the moment.

It’s possible to be happy just where you are, just for one night. The irony is that part of the romance of meeting somebody is never seeing them again. You suspend that moment in time and place, and preserve it for what it was. He was definitely one of Kerouac’s ‘mad ones.’

Looking back on my photographs of Berlin – my own visual memoir of the best six months of my life – made me think of how these are snapshots my children will look at someday. Perhaps they will know that their mother had stalked the ‘sidewalks of life’ without fear and apprehension, and had learned something along the way. 

On the Road is all about the quest for ultimate fulfilment. This is the paradox of human life. We seek to be fulfilled, but never will be so. 

In a way, I never want to know what it’s like to feel utterly fulfilled. I never want to grow old in a house at the end of a street in suburbia, sat in a chair in my perfectly ordered garden, gazing out at the trees I never climbed. My grandfather always said that looking at life with an ever-youthful, ever-curious eye was what sustained him throughout his life. The demise of curiosity is the moment you stop living. 

And here we are, back at the present moment. Today marks my six-month anniversary in Berlin. Some people I have met have stayed, others have fled, and the ‘mad ones’ have become a part of me. In Berlin, people live with a natural and purposeless freedom. To live is not just to be alive, but to experience the inexhaustible potential of people and places. The sands of time have little bearing on anything. 

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’

 

Poverty exploited by the privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week exposed the industry’s dark side

Berlin & her places

By Miriam Partington 

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how “logomania and streetwear were alive and well”, and how “wild prints” and effortless ensembles were “perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture”. In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took centre stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

fashion week poster An outline of Florian Schultz’s collection at Berlin Fashion Week 2018. Credit: @slowberlin 

Schulze’s collection “revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing”. Taking inspiration from the “bag ladies of New York City”, Schulze has created garments that reflect their “beauty of imperfection”. Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from “dumpsters” and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using “detailed handwork” and “precise processing”, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their…

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‘Put Me Back Together Again’: Florian Schulze’s Homeless Aesthetic 

Poverty exploited by the Privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week revealed the industry’s dark side

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how ‘logomania and streetwear were alive and well’, and how ‘wild prints’ and effortless ensembles were ‘perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture.’1 In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took to the stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

Schulze’s collection ostensibly ‘revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing.’2 Taking inspiration from the ‘bag ladies of New York City’, Schulze has created garments that reflect their ‘beauty of imperfection.’ Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from ‘dumpsters’ and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using ‘detailed handwork’ and ‘precise processing’, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their ‘shabby’ aesthetic. His website reveals how his homeless muses received a ‘well deserved upgrade regarding their appearance’ in exchange for the inspiration they so willingly provided. Now this is just offensive.

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There is something quite incongruous, or perhaps even unsavoury, about using the clothes of the homeless to inspire a collection for a multi-billion pound industry. Simply put, this is poverty exploited by the privileged.

The ‘bag ladies’ of New York City do not carefully select their fabrics for aesthetic purpose as fashion designers do. They look this way because this is all they have. Their ‘fashion choices’ are based on accessibility, not taste. Their ‘craftmanship’ derives from necessity, not free will. Florian Schulze takes their scraps of survival wear and ‘puts [them] back together’ again for his own artistic purpose. And was their uproar on the runway? In the name of ‘Fashion’, not one critic batted an eyelid. With very little stir in the press, the incident seemed to slide under a perfectly woven rug into insignificance. This kind of exploitation is clearly nothing new in the underbelly of the fashion world.

I wonder what Schulze’s first thought was when walking the streets of New York, gazing intently at the outfits of homeless people with an artist’s eye. He looked at the homeless women of New York and saw an aesthetic worth replicating. He saw inspiration, rather than desperation. I slightly winced when I scrolled to find a comment from a friend on his instagram reading, ’I told you, you were going to be famous.’3 Amidst the showers of compliments lies a moral problem obscured from view. The homeless people of the streets of New York do not profit from their ‘shabby’ aesthetic, but fashion does.

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This is symptomatic of a wider global problem in the fashion industry. Schulze’s decision to replicate the garments of the homeless and ‘upgrade’ them using high quality materials fits into a wider framework of ‘ cultural appropriation’ – a controversy that is woven into the fibres of many designer’s work. Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, for example, came under fire for producing looks for white models which were inspired by the turbans worn by the Sikh community. Schulze’s negative appropriation of poverty commits the same crime, placing high fashion over cultural sensitivity.

A quote on Schulze’s website reads ‘Fabrics sometimes need to be destroyed before they show their real beauty and become a part of their actual usage.’4 His artistic vision involves denigrating before creating: ‘putting things back together again.’ Whilst this is an interesting philosophy – it’s not entirely original, nor something that should be applied to real people in real circumstances.

In what perhaps began as a noble artistic pursuit to take inspiration from destruction, Schulze’s collection turned quickly into a patronising reimagining of the homeless ‘aesthetic’. Schulze used the shabby scraps worn by the people of the streets to exhibit his own artistic skill and provide a collection worthy of Fashion Week’s scrutinising eye. In doing so, he chose style over moral substance.

 

1 http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/berlin-street-style-spring-summer-20192 http://iamflorianschulze.com/ma-graduation-collection/
3 https://www.instagram.com/iamflorianschulze/
4 http://iamflorianschulze.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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