Monday, February 14, 2011

William Morris ponders Rick Owens

Standing in the designer Rick Owens' London store (not overwhelmingly familiar territory), I found myself thinking of William Morris -that great Victorian designer, poet and political activist.

If evangelical Christians can ponder 'What would Jesus do?', I find I ponder what would Morris think - especially when confronted by good design, well made that is recognizably itself.

I expect he would take its 'androgynous' feel, its fluid sexual boundaries in his stride.

But the questions that Morris would ask, I think, would include - who has made the clothes, with what level and intention of craft, how have they been remunerated and do they share in the fruits of their sale? Does the designer concern himself that the fruits of his work can only be enjoyed by an elite few (though many are the imitations available at much reduced cost) and does that matter in the moral and political scale of things?

Morris, in his own work, ensured the former (the conditions of his workers were good) and failed on the latter (so crafted were the goods that they could only be afforded by an elite, with the exception of some of the wallpapers, mass produced for a wider audience) - a reality that continually troubled him.

Do they trouble Rick Owens? I have no way of knowing. You hope that they do, even if the solutions continue to elude.

But if history is a guide, they may not, and this is what ultimately leaves me uncomfortable about 'fashion'  - that it exists simply as a status differentiator, rather than as a celebration of craft even if, in the current economic system (that confronted Morris and continues to confront Owens), craft means expense, though it has not always been so, for in traditional societies craft has been more widespread, and the barriers to entry lower (no elusive need to acquire a 'designer' mystique to make things individual and well)!

It is this paradoxical marriage of craft and graft that discomforts - prevents simple celebration.

They are, I suppose, curious questions but ones that as a community we need to ask more, rather than less, often; and, they cover the whole spectrum of things made, not only the well-made.

The answers would no doubt make us more uncomfortable than we would like.

They are questions that pursue me to Bangkok where so many work in factories supplying the cheaper versions of this season's fashionable dreams; and, if we care at all, we tend to only in passing! And that such manufacturing sits alongside an older, deeper, tradition of making, everywhere imperiled, that haunts by its beauty (even seen in the traditional houses that miraculously survive within Bangkok's high rise, American imitation, business district) makes the questions doubly troubling.

Meanwhile, back in the London store, aesthetics trump morals: the clothes are edgily beautiful and utterly urban and make me wish I were more flamboyant (and richer)!

Finally, by way of digression, I possess for art a 'What would Winifred Nicholson think' and for literature a 'What would Edwin Muir think' as internalized icons of discrimination and taste. All three I imagine testing works first by striking them gently (with the possible exception of Morris) against the fibres of their feeling being before thinking them through and about as is my own wont. I am struck by how only Morris of this company is by profession an atheist (as both Nicholson and Muir were essentially Christian Platonist(s) of whose party I am one). But then Morris professed a number of things that his practice denied, amongst them orthodox Marxism): he wrote a utopia (the only one I have read that I could imagine inhabiting) that is anarchist in conception and saturated in the light of Paradise!


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