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Don't Beware the Monsters

A new Paris exhibit brings fashion monsters to the fore

In this Blog, Stéphane Gaboué and other Parisians comment on life in the City of Lights.

'Arrrgh! Monstres de mode' (Monsters in Fashion): After reading the title of the new fashion exhibition at the Gaîté Lyrique, with its bold onomatopoeia, many might approach the beautiful venue with the kind of shivers Tippi Hedren surely felt when she crossed that crow-strewn garden in Alfred Hitcock's Birds. But upon entering the first room, with its witty visual identity imagined by Craig Geen (four 2D figures that actually slot together), cartoon-ish ghoul stickers on the floor, and the incredible Andrea Crews dress entirely made of thrift finds (with a few creepy hands peeping), you know you're up for a great romp, and that those billed monsters will eventually be as harmless and cute as Mickey and Donald.

“When I tell you the original title of this exhibition was 'TOYS', the complete topic gets more subtle and interesting, I think”, Walter Van Beirendonck told us. No wonder an exquisite conical tulle confection he designed for a ballet at the French National Opera last year is one of the first pieces on display. The Belgian maverick indeed almost invented the avatary, cartoony and human-altering aesthetic that is at the centre of the exhitbit.

Whilst curating this exhibition, Stamos Fafalios and Vassilis Zidianakis, the Greek duo behind the Atopos cvc collective, decided to focus on upcoming and established fashion designers, showing nothing pre-dating 2001. They were interested in showing creations that “redefine the relationship between body and clothing, and the potential of the human figure by questioning our perception of beauty and ugliness, by wrapping the body, masking the face and distorting the human shape”.

Avoiding the traps of amusement park horror tricks, they displayed many pieces in a luminous white main room, with no casing, thus erasing any kind of distance with visitors. The most striking feature is the systematic desire from designers to cover human faces: radically, like with Cassette Playa's pyramidal green box or Craig Green's spectacular wooden abstraction for AW13, or more sensibly, with the lattice beanie Rick Owens showed for AW12. Although the black Mareunrols headpiece with an all-black house, complete with abandoned baby carriage, has a sinister one, most of the captivatingly strange clothes are amusing. Must-sees include Charlie Le Mindu's Kiss, a freakish, hairy creature with multiple lips, and Manon Kundig's coat which, when inflated by a machine, forms a skeleton head at the back. The collection was provocatively named “Blow Job”.

Which brings us to the dark room that ends the show, a black space hosting Mads Dinesen's dying swan of a hat, little ghost headpieces (one of them smokes a cigarette) by Bernhard Willhelm, and the pièce de résistance: an outsized sequined skeleton, courtesy of the Paris-based brand On Aura Tout Vu. Most of these designers grew up in the TV and internet era, which obviously influenced their aesthetics. Yet, one cannot help wondering what goes through their mind while designing such orginal items. “It is above all about transforming the body and extending it by adding an element”, says the Belgian Jean-Paul Lespagnard, whose George LeBush' foliage outfit stars in the show.

“I try to make the wearer 'abstract', powerful, big, expressive, and beautiful”, explains Van Beirendonck, “In my case, I refer to rituals from ethnic tribes using masks, clothes, and installations around the body to uplift the human to a kind of God”. Significantly, several designers in the exhibitions are his former students at Antwerp's Royal Academy.

This is actually the first exhibition staged since the reopening of the Gaîté Lyrique, a mythical Paris theatre where Serge Diaghlive's Ballets Russes once thrived. It has now been turned into a centre for digital arts and contemporary music, and “Arrrgh!” confirms the space's progressive stance, putting into the limelight great talents who are generally unknown to the mainstream. Its visual vibrancy should clearly appeal to a Lady Gaga-era audience. And visiting the exhibition during Paris fashion week, it highlights what is lamentably missing from most offerings on the runway this season: imagination.