PEOPLE WHO ARE MADE FOR CLOTHES
On the ultimate products of fashion.
A grid of identically formatted rectangular Polaroid photographs, perfectly aligned yet loosely pinned, complement the straight edges of a large, white cardboard leaning against a clothing rack. Fixated only at the middle points of their upper edges, they graciously flutter as pedestrians anxiously pass by, back and forth and sideways, shouting, whispering, moving air and not much else. Scarcely placed pins are white, transparent, occasionally a vibrant shade of orange. The left-hand corners are enumerated with hastily scribbled numbers: 1, 2 … 24, 25, …59, 60. Neon post-its superficially hanging from the lower edges of the photographs reveal a series of names: Sophie, Jessica, Danya, Chu Hua, Marek, Madison, Ivy, Aaryn. All of them are documented in a frontal position, their arms hanging sideways, their legs straight and hip distance apart. Centered, the crowns of their heads and the bottoms of their feet each end at precisely the same position in relation to the edges of the photograph, and pallid height measuring marks make themselves noticeable to the ardent observer. Slippery crossings cut through selective faces, accompanied by comments (FACE: GORG, LEGS R KINDA MEH) arrows and circles in black marker perturbating the Polaroids’ glossy surfaces. Unlike in the many artful fashion editorials, popular Instagram accounts depicting unsettlingly meta, sexy yet anxiety-inducing recollections of Saint Laurent after-parties, high-end luxury campaigns and magazine covers resulting from collaborations with creative directors and trendy photographers, the people depicted here seem interchangeable, pale, almost invisible. Remove one pin and the flat silhouette illusively resigns to gravity.
Modeling is not niche. Even if fashion is the least of your concerns, or a simple phase you’ve already transgressed, tuning into the modeling industry matters. Why? Because before modeling G-string thongs, expensive Vuitton bags or off-brand puffer jackets, before models’ model commodities, they model the economy at large, and our place in it. The Americanization of the French couturier’s invention, the real-life mannequin spawned by the final breaths of the 19th century, is the prerequisite blueprint for neoliberal work employment. The multi-tentacular term ‘model’, verb and noun spelled exactly the same, testifies to the apparent irrelevance of any differentiation between performance, existence, labor, strategy or demographic. Models, in their apparent fragility, in the supposed simplicity of their performed tasks, in the branded identity which attracts and alienates, find themselves at the crossroads of advanced capitalism and desire. The framing of their profession already indicated the gig economy par excellence a century before it was even officially a Thing.
Perks include precarious working conditions, lack of benefits, mostly low or minimum wages, contractual obligations of secrecy, unofficial unpaid labor, official unpaid labor, unreliable clientele, no social framework to fall back on, and, for most, the implicit need to be financially indebted to their agencies in order to be at the right place in the right time - fashion week; amazing. The pandemic has strengthened these attributes. Under-23-year-olds are subject to extreme forms of dependency yet are expected to act independently, friendly and flexible, accommodating and light. The “casting” is a displayed performance of Foucauldian discipline, and cultural analysts as well as sociologists don’t even know which gaze to start dissecting, because there are so many. Models are commuters in a global circuit, the object of ethnic fetishization to make any post-colonial student today shiver in despair. Whichever way you spin it, modeling stumbles as politically incorrect. The list goes on: injurious body standards leading to eating disorders, sexual harassment, racism.
Imagining ethics for this marketplace is always met with poignant disjunctions. Power plays are corporate and personal, rigid and intimate. In Pricing Beauty, Ashley Mears closely investigates and sociologically dissects the means of propulsion at the center of it all: THE look. Fashion, like any consumable commodity, legitimizes its frantic superfluous production with desire. In this realm of desire, Mears argues, value is produced via the tangled interpersonal relationships of behind-the-stage industry players: fashion designers, marketing directors, PR strategists, model bookers, stylists and so on. Like in dancing chairs, everybody involved with pricing bodily capital (putting a price on models, whose market values tend to be more volatile than any Altcoin so-far invented) wants to read the room, read in the room, read outside the room before anyone else. They observe, mirror and project onto people more influential than themselves, the winning contestant; the model who takes it all, the fame, the glory. In the aftermath, this whole process gets narrated as the result of a mystical quality, unnamable yet ontologically ascribed to the models themselves. Models are stocks and the fashion industry is Wall Street.
Diverse, and thereby implicitly progressive(?), runway casts promoted by more intellectually-aspiring creative directors operating at fashion houses like Prada or Gucci are already outdated by the Metaverse’s early arrival. Brands like Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Stefan Cook and most recently J.W. Andersen have already concluded the pointlessness in forcing humans to sell inhumane phantasies, outsourcing the task to rendered avatars; the equivalent of hentai in fashion, puurrr. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you really think about it. In many ways, models are the by-product of garments; human collateral to commodity - this profession turns the subject/object syntax on its head. A model can only model, and consequently be a model, at the discretion of the product which legitimizes its existence. This apparent superiority of the garment, independent and rid of human interference, appears topical in many of Issy Wood’s paintings. In a recent text, she summarizes this dynamic:
“It’s really less a case of me not fitting your body”, the garment seems to say, “than of your body not fitting me.”
René Girard has argued that the negation of one’s own corporeality observed in mimetically induced eating disorders is expressive of highly advanced forms of consumer society. In late capitalism, extreme abstinence becomes paradoxically glamourous. Things fundamental to our physicality become ostentatiously optional. We let the car drive us, the shoes wear us, the alcohol drinks us; basic needs are primitive. This begs the question: can the production-desire-consumption cycle operate without models? And what about the rest of us?
“Don’t be ridiculous, Andrea”