Fredrik Tjærandsen has a battered doctor’s bag on his worktable in Central Saint Martins. He’s scratched his initials into it, and the interior reveals scraps of rubber, scissors and a bottle of Radical latex cleaner. It’s a fitting companion for a designer and visual artist whose work delves deep inside the human body and psyche: in May of this year, his BA fashion womenswear graduate collection broke Instagram with a procession of enormous bubbles that the models deflated mid-runway, self-birthing their way out of the eerie spheres with arms outstretched. With a single, smooth, mind-blowing movement, the material settled into dress silhouettes that twisted and billowed like alien skin.
“Early on I was calling them membranes but that was just too... membrane-y!” Tjærandsen says, laughing. “Everyone calls it the balloon collection but that was never really the influence. I work in a very ambiguous way, (and) I’m fascinated by the unknown. This whole project, it was always difficult to pinpoint what it was.” What he will say about the collection, titled Moments of Clarity, is that it comes from early childhood memories and the water-snake toys he would play with. “It’s sort of this reflection on becoming sentient, (on) becoming aware of your own mind. I’m so fascinated by the mind and where we come from. It’s based on childhood influences, but I didn’t want it to look childlike. And because it’s latex I didn’t want it to look sexy or fetish. It can be sexual but I wanted to keep it balanced.”
Aptly soundtracked by Mica Levi’s unsettling score for Under the Skin, the sheer, unexpected beauty and absurdity of Tjærandsen’s shapes enticed you to decode their meaning. Like the mind-bendingly creepy bubble organism that connects itself to one of the characters in cult horror show Channel Zero, they looked like human biology from the future. Or were they really an observation on people’s inflated egos? “That’s so interesting, because one of the models (who walked for the show) said something like this,” says Tjærandsen, noting that there was definitely an element of dreams meeting reality to the event. In that way, the show felt like a deft commentary on fashion’s forever-torn existence between the two.
The audience was transfixed, a sea of phones going up at the first look. “I think what was most special was that people clapped. Apparently that doesn’t happen,” says Tjærandsen unassumingly. I tell him I’ve only experienced that kind of old-school mid-show applause at couture, which says a lot about how his work transcends what we’ve become used to on the runway. That he won the L’Oréal Professionnel Young Talent Award surprises no one.
Since the show, Tjærandsen has spent the summer holed up at 1 Granary Square developing new pieces. Across from us sits a tent-sized rubber toile for a brain-like dress entity he’s working on for stylist Ibrahim Kamara. “It’s just all exploded,” he says, luckily not talking about his balloons. “It has been so overwhelming but so fantastic. I’ve met a lot of people who have shown interest in my work and want to help out.”
As well as praise from the likes of Beth Ditto and Courtney Love, Tjærandsen has won admirers in more unexpected places. “So many looners,” he says of his following in the balloon fetish community. “I’m not a looner myself – I didn’t even know that (they) existed – but it’s a huge thing, apparently. People are obsessed with asking me if I am one. But (looners are) the nice ones. I feel like I connect more to them, in a way.” As Tjærandsen adds, not all of the attention he’s received in the wake of the show has been welcome. “I’ve just had so much other shit on the internet.” Some of the trolling has been from misinformed eco-warriors accusing him of using plastic. Which kind of sucks when you’re actually a vegan using pesticide-free rubber tapped from a tree that doesn’t die so you don’t contribute to deforestation.
“A lot of the people who have worn the bubbles have told me they have this ‘experience’, which is nice. They all say it’s very calming and meditative, almost” – Fredrik Tjærandsen
Growing up in the peninsula of Bodø, Norway – “water, small town, mountains” – Tjærandsen spent his childhood running wild in the aisles at the family hardware store after school, “building things with nails and whatever”, or sitting on the beach constructing small sculptures in the sand that he would then set fire to so they would crystallise. “I was a quiet child,” he says. “I’ve always been obsessed with making things.” The designer also spent a lot of time in his inventor grandfather’s basement. “He would invent toys and all of these things for (use) around the house. He developed this way of peeling potatoes where he would fill a bucket with water and potatoes and this machine would stir and peel the potatoes at the same time!”
You can see where Tjærandsen gets his experimental nature from, and he has pushed his work at Saint Martins way outside the traditional framework of fashion. Aside from serious pattern-cutting skills, the smooth transformation from bubble to dress is the result of a clever system of air-pressure control involving what looks like a freaky umbilical cord. There isn’t a single stitch – only welded seams, which is perhaps quite ironic for a fashion school. “That comes down to designers that I admire, such as early Balenciaga. It’s that design ethos of minimal but impactful design – when I work I like to keep it as minimal as possible.”
DIY adventures aside, Tjærandsen’s leap into fashion was inspired by his discovery of Alexander McQueen. “I guess everyone says that,” he says, laughing. “I was fascinated by the idea of working with the body. My small sculptures and drawings were always of people. I just got really obsessed with (fashion) and how it’s (like) art on the body. It can be like a performance.”
The designer first came to Saint Martins on a foundation course, where he vacillated between fashion and sculpture. Once on the BA, during which he did placements at Balenciaga and the show bag department at Louis Vuitton, he ended up doing both. But it wasn’t until the second year that he began exploring installation-like pieces and a multidisciplinary approach, after tutor Anna-Nicole Ziesche asked him, “We know you can pattern-cut and sew, what else can you do?” “That was a turning point,” he reflects. “I started working a lot more freely (after that).”
Tjærandsen is also his own test pilot: in videos of him trying on prototypes, he writhes around with the poise of a professional dancer without actually being one. “I always film myself when I work,” he notes. “It’s that constant pushing the material to its limits.” Besides, he adds with a slightly terrified look on his face, “in the beginning these things are not safe at all, so it was more of a practical thing of it being OK if something happens to me, but not if I kill somebody (else).” Once the bubble has been inflated, you’ve got three or four hours until the oxygen runs out, and he had to train all his models in releasing the deflating mechanism and diving out.
“A lot of the people who have worn the bubbles have told me they have this ‘experience’, which is nice,” says Tjærandsen. “They all say it’s very calming and meditative, almost. It’s a space. A strange space.” The bubbles were intended to be much bigger – the biggest inflates to around 15 metres in diameter – and thus more transparent, with more potential for movement and light, but the show space couldn’t accommodate them. “My ambition with this now is to have another presentation where it’s a performance.” Instead of going on to do the MA, he’s looking to set up his own studio practice to continue working on special projects. “But I would also like to build a (sustainable) business, working between art, fashion and performance, and to figure out a way of releasing that new work.”
As of right now, Tjærandsen has no plans for ready-to-wear. “But if that’s (to be) the case, I would love to do something a bit more random. Something unexpected,” says the designer, who has turned down music-video and magazine-cover requests to avoid the project becoming – no pun intended – “thinner, in a way”. Tim Walker asking him to be part of his Wonderful Things exhibition at the V&A was different, as he got to be fully involved. “It was a collaboration. For me that’s what is important, that it’s a mutual thing. I don’t like when it’s used in a context that doesn’t make sense; it’s nice (as) a learning thing, as a connection.”
The bubbles seem like ripe pickings for museum curators, but the constantly deteriorating rubber prevents them from going into a museum. Somehow, this ephemeral quality only adds to their aura. “You have to constantly take care of (the rubber) and nurture it, otherwise it dries out,” says Tjærandsen. “That’s the thing with the bubbles: they become less transparent over time. The more you use them, the less transparent they become. I have to wash and moisturise them every time before we use them, then afterwards I moisturise them again.” Like a living organism? “They literally are!”
Hair Mari Ohashi at LGA Management, make-up Nami Yoshida at Bryant Artists, models Steinberg at Storm, Jae Bourne at Premier, photographic assistants George Eyres, Dale Cutts, styling assistant Met Kilinc, hair assistant Masayuki, make-up assistant Yoko Minami, DOP Roberto Colombo, production Emily Miles at Mini Title, casting Noah Shelley at Streeters