Arrrgh! Monsters In Fashion

Clothing and costume challenge our fears at Paris' Gaité Lyrique

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Like the scream of a frightened soul coming face to face with a monster, “Arrrgh!” is the title of a recently opened exhibition at Parisian gallery Gaité Lyrique, which deals with “monsters in fashion.” Curated by Vassilis Zidianakis and Angelos Tsourapas and organized by Atopos Contemporary Visual Culture Collective, the playfully extravagant exhibition, running through 7 April, is based on the first comprehensive investigation into the growing influence of “character design” in fashion, specifically the cultural phenomenon of avatars, video games figures, plastic toys and comic book heros.

From Alexander McQueen to Bas Kosters, 58 up-and-coming and established fashion and costume designers were invited to illustrate their unconventional take on the relationship between clothing and body. As luck would have it (for us, at least) a good majority of the participating designers grew up during the Saturday morning cartoon era, which seemed to stand as a strong reference and source of inspiration.

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While each piece in the collection seemed to out-weird the next, the oddest outfits came from such famous designers as Issey Miyake, Maison Martin Margiela—who first hid the faces of his models on the catwalks in the 1990s—and Walter Von Beirendonck, whose designs continue to send oblong-shaped avatars down the runway. Alongside such legends a batch of youthful, lesser-known designers did well to push boundaries as well. From a longtime favorite of ours, Henrik Vibskov , to Charlie Le Mindu and Craig Green, each designer’s creations gathered together in two main rooms where visitors are invited to walk eye-to-eye among the creepily life-like mannequins, each clad in clothes extracted from real fashion shows. The scene resembles a bizarre, futuristic crowd, half funny and half scary.

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Showing the way designers wrap bodies, mask faces and distort the human figure while mixing visual and sartorial conventions, the exhibition questions our perception of beauty and identity. Far from the beautiful women cat-walking in fine clothes, many participating designers seem to have shifted towards a new purpose of finding different languages of self-expression. The rare, close-up encounter provokes exhibition-goers to ask themselves just how different we actually are from these “monsters,” and who among us really is the monster—whoever seems different from the mainstream? It’s a question that becomes even more thought-provoking in the context of Western culture’s fetishism of sustaining multiple identities through avatars and online personas.

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In a contemporary global society “natural beauty” is no longer obvious—what is desirable in one particular culture may be repulsive in another, and it seems there is no longer an archetype. This gap provides an opportunity to look at fashion in a new way and remove the boundaries of creative expression and experimentation.

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Arrrgh!” runs through 7 April 2013 at Gaité Lyrique in Paris.

Images by Isabelle Doal