Fashion is...

"Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." - Coco Chanel.

This blog looks at fashion in its many incarnations, from the haute designers to the high street and from the trend-setters to the avid fashion followers. For this blogger, fashion is far more than the shirt on your back; it is communication, art, culture, anti-fashion, gender, revolution and resistance. It can instantly define or defy your identity. It is one of the most personal and unique things about you...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Gaga for it: Irish designer’s ‘wearable art’ catches the eye of the first lady of avant-garde fashion

Whilst interning at the recent London Fashion Week for Vauxhall Fashion Scout, something decidedly unsettling caught my eye in the foyer. Encased in a glass box, was a flesh-coloured, leather head piece, reminiscent of medieval armour. Slices of leather curved around the contours of the head and were bolted together with bronze nails. The longer I stared, the more fascinated I became by the complex accessory and my initial interpretation of it changed significantly; leather covered in brass studs shouldn’t emulate delicacy but surprisingly it did. What I had just discovered was the first collection from budding London College of Fashion graduate, Úna Burke.

The fine line between art and fashion has often proved uncertain, and the Irish-born designer is continuing to blur the boundaries with her eight-piece, conceptual collection entitled ‘Re.Treat’. Úna herself describes the creations as “wearable art or sculptural fashion.” Indeed, their production was an art form: each item—made in ethical vegetable-tanned leather—consists of 300 pattern pieces with 700 brass fittings held together with screws. Each piece is indefinable as a particular garment and so cannot be pigeon-holed into the conventional categories of the fashion industry. They are left free to exist as unique fashion artefacts which can be interpreted autonomously by the viewer. Their interpretations are commonly emotionally charged, which is unsurprising considering the muse behind the collection is the subject of human trauma. Carcass-like in form, they personify the feelings and emotions associated with this theme through the powerful positioning of their physical gestures. Like dissected limbs, there are separate pieces for the arms, legs, neck, head and shoulders. The theme manifests from Úna’s own experience of a childhood trauma which she repressed for years. Through her experience, she believes that victims of such ordeals often create subconscious emotional barriers as a means of protection against the re-occurrence of that pain. After years of counselling, Úna became interested in psychology and the idea of taking a negative event and making something positive out of it. She cites artists Tracey Emin, Anthony Gormley, Hans Bellmer and the late fashion designer Alexander Mc Queen as all having suffered disturbing childhood experiences which later inspired their work. The pieces therefore remain subjective and have the capacity to arouse several emotions within the viewer, depending on their outlook as a result of past experiences. To many, they can conjure up images of bandages, prosthetics and braces and ignite feelings of fear. Others may take solace in their protective and healing capabilities and consider them to be an organic suit of armour.

Since her otherworldly creations went on display in London, Úna has been inundated with requests for her work from stylists, fashion agents, photographers and even book publishers. To date, her pieces have been featured in Dazed and Confused, Italian Vogue as well as photographed for Numéro magazine and by Stephen Klein. One of the exceptional designer’s biggest fans is Lady Gaga; the propagator of avant-garde fashion. The modest designer was in utter disbelief when the quirky US singer’s renowned stylist, Nicola Formichetti, called her to request eight pieces for Gaga’s global Monster Ball tour. Costume has always played a key role for performance and timeless pop queens, such as Madonna, have long advocated the power of outrageous theatricality and arresting visual spectacles both on stage and in music videos. However, what sets Lady Gaga apart from the typical come hither routines favoured by most female performers, are the physical distortions of her apparel and the unusual use of blood and bandaging in her shows to evoke darker connotations. It is for these reasons that Úna returns the sentiment and is a huge fan of Gaga’s unique persona. Formichetti commissioned her to make the pieces from scratch so that they would be tailored to Lady Gaga’s exact measurements. After receiving the measurements only days before the show, the dedicated designer stitched and glued through the night and barely had time to eat or sleep. “I lost half a stone that week,” she later revealed. Her hard work paid off and Lady Gaga was so enamoured with the designer that she has since requested for her to design footwear for her.

In fashion today, there is a new mood of experimentation and the aim is individuality. People want to set themselves apart with little quirks or accessories which are somewhat meaningful to them. It is this concept that has made Úna Burke’s designs so contemporaneous and so influential. Even in her early work at degree level her premise was to deconstruct the boundaries between fashion and art and to create something completely unique. For her final degree project she looked at wedding dresses and their sense of preserved innocence. She manipulated the fabrics of the dresses she created so that they could be used in a way that differed completely from their typical use or appearance. She coated lace in plastic resin to give it a hard texture and took soft leather and gathered it to make it soft and girly. Fashion is regularly accused of being shallow, but Úna’s designs are so deeply immersed in thought that she could never be accused of superficiality. Hers is not merely an occupation, she lives and breathes her work: “In life, you really need to do something that you love or you just won’t settle.” Her designs are not based upon disposable trends, they are timeless fashion artefacts and she is set to become the fashion world’s answer to Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe. Úna Burke’s work is extreme, controversial, beautiful, ugly and absolutely essential...

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