power of making at V and A: craftsmanship and imagination

V&A’s latest show The Power of Making is a thoughtful showcase of modern craftsmanship and its relationship with imagination.

While the theme is nothing new, I’m struck by the choice of objects in this collection. From gigantic wool knit, a gorilla made of metallic coat hangers, bio-degradable coffins to spray-on fashion, the objects question the boundaries of conventionality and unconventionality, celebrate the play of imagination and such application in different industries. By putting objects outside of their typical contexts, they acquire an exciting dimension. An oversized piece of chunky wool knit displayed on the wall becomes an artpiece in itself. Layne Rowe‘s glass hand grenade is startling, making a social statement out of it. It is almost impossible to imagine the blood that will be spilt with a hand grenade. Equally, Dominic Wilcox‘s gloves with finger prints on the rubber pose a most threatening question: where lies the limitation of the manmade?

The show pays tribute to the value of traditional craftsmanship – teasing objects out of wood, paper, metal, glass, fabric… – providing the fundamental work platform for contemporary designers. I remember Leung So Kee in Hong Kong, so famous for its handmade umbrellas, and the undying fashion of handmade objects in the western world, how you can hardly place a price to something handmade. At the same time, the exhibition reminds one of the necessity of imagination in elevating and transforming a piece of work.

power of making 1

pin dress

Looking at the pin-dress created by Susie MacMurray, I am impressed by its curious texture and authenticity of skill. From afar, the dress seems to breathe a life of its own, taking on the guise of a half-woman, half-bird sculpture.

Altogether, it is a far better show than other recent exhibitions (such as the shows on the Cult of Beauty and Yohji Yamamoto‘s work) put up in the same venue, with more engaging narrative and clarity in presentation.

At the main entrance of the V&A, Amanda Levete‘s sculpture, Timber Wave, stands, beckoning at the passers-by, a commissioned piece from this year’s London Design Festival. Its contemporary design of wooden loops is somewhat at odds with the ornate architectural style of the V&A. I was expecting something more striking and poignant, something that interacts with the venue, such as Louise Bourgeois’s black spider or the rolling bridge by Thomas Heatherwick.

Exhibition at V&A from now until 2 January 2012.

power of making 2

Yohji Yamamoto

I went to see Yohji Yamamoto‘s current show at the V&A, his first UK solo exhibition. There in a room of white light, you see the sheer simplicity of clean lines and shades of red, black and white, whispering fashion.

It isn’t the size that undermines the exhibition but rather the want of a compelling narrative. It is a little sad for the fashion designer who has taken Asia’s catwalks by storm. What I find lacking from the show is something that explains the biography or success of this designer. In what ways is he different from other designers? Apart from pointing out that he is loved by the Bunda school students as ‘an idol’ and that he has got a law degree (unusual for designers), I find little to inform or appeal to me. The blurb for the show points out that he stages his S/S 2011 menswear collection at V&A, but little else, not to mention that menswear is hardly the best selling point about his clothes.

The multimedia element is not very confidently used in the show. The video featuring interviews with Yohji’s teachers, students and friends is placed at the beginning of the route, where viewers have scarcely read or seen anything other than the artist’s profile at the entrance, and the interviews are done in a very matter-of-fact way, a rough sketch.

It is the fashion collection that saves the show. The distinct choice of fabric, thoughtful tailored cuts and the drama in the textiles and craftsmanship. It is a little hard to find the annotations for each garment though, for the catalogues seem to be placed at the far end of the room where no one looked. Nevertheless, the Guardian is right to point out that the show features some of his very interesting collaborative work with other artists or filmmakers.

A quick browse at the exhibition’s souvenirs for the show also disappoints. I went there planning to buy something, almost anything, related to Yohji, and came back home empty-handed: there were only a few plain-style tees featuring paper clip and cliche calligraphy designs, rubbers and pencils, and a few small badges and furoshiki bags. I felt like I have just walked into an H&M cross-over collection.

I would love to know if this is because of the lack of attention from the V&A or the designer himself.

Dutch eco-design: uncomfortable stories of the pigs and sheep

I am drawn by the work by a Dutch designer, Christien Meindertsma, who made her name with the pig book project, hinting at the residue traces of slaughtered pigs in the products made for human activities and comfort: beer, chewing gums, glue, bread softener…The pig’s yellow earplug affixed to the chic book cover is hugely disturbing.

pig book

Next she sets her eye on one sheep sweater: she knitted a sweater, a pair of socks, a scarf and a pair of gloves from the wool of a single sheep. She also attached on the garments the identification of the sheep that donated the wool.

one sheep sweater

One of her recent projects, urchin pouf, seems less outrageous at the outset. but the unconventional, organic design celebrates the strength and vitality of the wool-giving crossbred sheep that grazes the grass in New Zealand.

urchin poufs

Check out her eco-design philosophy from the following interview with the artist (Design for a Living World).

Casual fashion: cheerful and carefree bag

My fashion statement:

I like cheerful, casual fashion. I think fashion should be a way of making us like ourselves better, and true to our character.

I think bags are dear to women. We need them.

I have made a carefree and cheerful bag this Spring. It celebrates the free-willed child and the longing for homely comforts in each of us.

It is designed to be small, soft and white, the way we like cuddly things around us.

If you are interested in my handmade things, contact me, and watch out for this space.

Not Just Fashion but Fun: Alexa Chung

I like Alexa Chung.

Who wouldn’t?

She is sweet and sexy, cheerful and quirky. She is 27 years old. She is 5 foot 8. She doesn’t seem to care and she has a cool boyfriend (or seems to be). She can wear anything with her smile (showing her teeth). She is a TV presenter turned fashion icon and Hollywood star. She has Sandra Bullock’s voice. She is all confidence.

Vogue has made Alexa Chung the latest cover girl, and features her fashion diary for the whole month (article).

We love fashion that we can splash on and experiment, that won’t look too bad on us who have not (yet) had the time to get into the perfect shape. We love to be told that the same old stuff hidden in our wardrobes and that we are about to throw away — old jeans, flannel shirts, dusty ankle boots,  quirky trousers — are now the hottest fashion must-haves for the season. We love the feeling of being able to reinvent ourselves without breaking the bank. She makes us remember that we should play with our style. Fashion shouldn’t be boring.

Besides, there is something very appealing about a young Chinese woman (even if her Wiki page points out that she is British) being praised by UK and US fashion editors for her looks and taste. She is Scorpio too. You feel a sense of affinity.

The new face for Burberry

Since Emma Watson has become the new face for Burberry Fall 2009/Spring 2010, those classic check patterned handbags have been disappearing off the shelves. Sales have gone up by 8-12% since the ad launch, and I have to admit the posters look much more appealing than run-of-the-mill fashion ads. It has to do with the unusual combination of this Harry Potter star and the British luxury label, but it has even more to do with Emma Watson’s looks which do not just complement the brand, but redefine it. Photographed by Mario Testino and directed by Burberry’s creative director Chris Bailey, the ads give special emphasis to the 19-year-old actress’s smoky eyes, well-defined eyebrows and natural hair. In other words, this set of images has more to do with defining character than beauty. The remarkable determination and haughtiness in that earthy-toned face works really well to highlight the authenticity, strength and resilient character of the brand.

The only streak of imperfection is that the co-models – Tom Guiness and Charlie France – do not look her match at all and stand there quite overshadowed by her presence.

On creating the Emma Watson look:


The innovation of product names

I like objects and experiences with a personal touch. Being personal is to draw relevance, to unpeel layers, it is a whittling-down to the core of things.

When you meet the person for the first time, you will find that repeating his or her name as you chat with him or her will help to build up a personal connection and help them remember you.

It is easier to market products with interesting names and personalities. I have noticed a long time ago that I like the vibrant personality in the name of every Kate Spade handbag: Gold Coast Elizabeth, Knightsbridge Neda, Apple Stacey…At IKEA, you have the world’s favourite bookshelf called Billy. I once bought an ice-white dining chair from John Lewis that has a name – Marilyn.

Marilyn chair

There is something endearing, familiar and so utterly irresistible to bring back home those paperbacks that bear an orange Penguin logo. The look and feel of these paperbacks entice you to make a personal, emotional connection.

Sasa, a very popular and successful beauty chain based in Hong Kong, has an easy-to-remember name with strong female appeal.

In London, I once went to a small pizza place with a friend. The local eatery seemed to have started only a few weeks ago, or so we thought, because when we asked for the menu, the waiters began to describe the pizzas in a most curious and arbitrary way. “We have a small pizza with some cheese and tomatoes; then there’s a bigger kind of pizza with pepperoni and some cheese; and a very big one which has more meats in it.” These pizzas without names hovered on our minds. We had so much difficulty visualising what they were, let alone choosing between them. 

I used to work for a property developer. One day, a GM called us in to brainstorm the name for a new shopping mall. He asked us if The Village works (the mall is a mega-collection of fashion labels, dining and entertainment outlets). I am amazed by this name because I find it very unusual to call a mall a village, but it sounds interesting and personal, so I seconded the suggestion. Not many people were up for it though. They said that village sounds backward and local, it is something people wish to escape from. But the mall is now indeed called The Village at Sanlitun, and it is no doubt gaining popularity among both Beijing locals and expatriates.