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CHAMBRE FASHION: The Poetics of Rag

On my way to the office a couple of times a week, I pass by a few collection points for used clothes which are overflowing with dirty and worthless stuff. Stuff that deserves to be burnt or taken to the landfill together with the equivalent of one truckload of textile waste that - it is estimated - ends up like this every second in the world, but is instead thrown into (and out of) big yellow bins marked 'donate value', which - under the circumstances - sounds like a bit of a joke.

“Give Value!”. This is the imperative that emerges from a pile of rubbish. What is the value of a garment?

It is not in my interest here to analyse the problem of the serious impact that a certain type of clothing industry has on the environment and on workers, nor to explore how various fashion houses are working to bring about change.

Tackling these issues about sustainability within the fashion industry is more important and topical than ever.

But far more fundamental is to restore value to clothing.

I borrowed from a famous Arte Povera work: the Venus of Rags (1967). Or rather, a garden sculpture on which Michelangelo Pistoletto, the author, originally threw the clothes he used to clean the surface of his Mirror Paintings. At least that's what they say.

Basically, it is a concrete copy of an ancient Greek sculpture. The subject of the statue is Venus: a universal symbol of imperishable beauty.

All around her is waste and decay: a mountain of rags!

Image from : Venus of Rags, Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1967.

Beauty is also expressed through fashion, the fashion that comes from the creative flair of certain masters who know how to discover value and point it out to the community by giving it the shape of a garment that has the power to move.

These artists are able to rework a great deal of heterogeneous cultural content - taken from the arts but also from nature - and translate it into the language of fashion.

"You have to know that this is a great place. We want to work here. I mean, I paid to be here, to get here, but I'm learning a lot more than I would have learned anywhere else. And that means a lot. Fashion here has a purpose a history."

So said one of the interns at work on Vivienne Westwood's Everything Is Connected show in Paris, 2013.

Vivienne Westwood's poetics blossomed in London. Here, together with Malcolm McLaren, musician and future manager of the Sex Pistols, in 1971 she opened the shop "Let It Rock" at 430 King's Road, where the two sold junk from the 1950s.

For Let It Rock, Vivienne gave shape to her first creations by dismantling suits and trousers from the 50s and reassembling them to create new garments that could be replicated.

Also dating from this period is an intense creation of tops and t-shirts made with the application of discarded materials (chains, caps, pipes, safety pins and boiled chicken bones) bearing the label "Let It Rock".

Image from Venus T-shirt, Vivienne Westwood, 1971. and Vivienne Westwood Website: 10 Years of Artisan.Fashion in Kenya

Vivienne used to tell Malcolm that 430 was more of an art installation than a shop, so by the same logic she would also consider her fashion shows at the Paris fashion weeks as an artistic expression. Pure fashion. Fashion that reflects a historical moment.

Walter Benjamin wrote that "Fashion has a sense of the present, wherever it lives in the wilderness of the past. It is a tiger's leap into the past".

It is also very interesting to note how in the presence of contamination between fashion and contemporary art a great added value is created, which is evident for fashion houses especially in the vintage market.

This concept is beautifully summarised by the musician's statement "the place where music and art meet is called fashion". In fashion's ability to synthesise lies an exceptional value. A value capable of encompassing finely embroidered fabrics, and discarded pieces of plastic.

Talking about waste and its possibility of redemption, I think it is interesting to mention a contemporary upcycling experience by EFI (Ethical Fashion Initiative) in which Vivienne has been collaborating for more than ten years through the production of bags using second-hand textiles and small parts. The project is called Artisan. Fashion and is promoted by the International Trade Centre.

It is an initiative involving artisans from Kenya, Nepal, Burkina Faso and Mali with the aim of providing people with stable and constant employment rather than donations for their own sake.

In the context of the contiguity of the arts and the value that a "rag" (this is how Antonio Marras referred to the clothes he created in some interviews) can take on, a rather carnal experience resurfaced in my memory: Nulla Die Sine Linea. A 2016 exhibition that brings to light the submerged side of Antonio Marras, curated by Francesca Alfano Miglietti, at the Milan Triennale. The exhibition in question is also the setting for the presentation of the men's/women's fall-winter 2017-18 collection.

This is what the designer says:

"A strong part of me is present in the exhibition, so also a visceral, physical path that is the most unknown part. But that side made up of another voice will also be visible, my way of relating to other disciplines, a path that respects the concept of the non-boundary of thought between the different arts. Everything can be connected, even if my work is usually thought of as just making rags. Despite the fact that I often manage to bring different dimensions of the sign into dialogue within a show. This time, however, I am exhibiting installations that I have made, over time, together with other artists, people I have had the opportunity to meet and with whom I have been lucky enough to have worked. From Maria Lai to Carol Rama, store apprentice With these ladies who have allowed me to play, to put off, dribble, reconvert and postpone things, of all kinds, through which we have had a lot of fun creating, as always with recklessness and thanks to the same madness that brings me here, today, I have worked and exposed myself, sure that I can stay behind these great women. Confident that I will never be the one to step forward in the first place".

In this space, the designer has given us the precious opportunity to delve into his creative universe. An authentic Wunderkammer whose contents, precisely because of their richness, heterogeneity and originality, elude any definition. This mysterious component, today as then, manages to move me, and like me, I believe, other people too.

I conclude by quoting the opening words of Vivienne Westwood's autobiographical book, which I quote in the Bibliography:

"Thanks to the people who have lived before us we can rediscover different visions of the world through art - this is the true meaning of culture - and, through comparison, form our own idea of a better world than the one we live in, and which we have devastated. We can change our future. In the search for new ideas you will begin to think, and this will change your life. And if you change your life, you change the world.”

Special thanks to Elisabetta for inviting me to contribute to the magazine.

words: Clara Rigamonti


F. R. Rinaldi and S. Testa, L'impresa Moda Responsabile: integrare etica ed estetica nella filiera, Milan, Egea, 2013.

L. Ciuni and M. Spadafora, La rivoluzione comincia dal tuo armadio: tutto quello che dovreste sapere sulla moda sostenibile, Milan, Solferino, 2020.

W. Benjamin, L'opera d'arte nell'epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica, Torino, Einaudi, 1966

V. Westwood and I. Kelly, Vivienne Westwood, Bologna, Odaya, 2015

A. Marras, Fashion Unfolds, Milan, Moleskine, 2014

Images/full credits: : Venus T-shirt, Vivienne Westwood, 1971 : Venus of Rags, Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1967

We do not own the rights to any of the pictures in the article. All the rights go to the authors of the pictures.

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