The ‘fictional’ label created to critique conventional notions of avant-garde fashion. By Fleur Watson.

Dolci & Kabana’s quote couture

Dolci & Kabana team Nella Themelios (left) and Ricarda Bigolin.
Credit: Sampo Pankki

At The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition at Rotterdam’s compact yet prestigious Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, an installation of garments by Melbourne-based “brand” Dolci & Kabana is displayed among works by global fashion icons such as Viktor & Rolf, Comme des Garçons and Hussein Chalayan.

Unlike their famous contemporaries, D&K does not produce seasonal collections nor a commercial range. Instead, this is a predominantly “fictional” label. The clothes on display are intended as a critical commentary of the cyclic manipulations of the fashion industry and an interrogation of the disparity between the visionary and ideas-driven creations for the runway and their inevitable dilution to cater to the demands of the retail market.

Dolci & Kabana – a deliberate wordplay on a well-known brand – is an ongoing project founded by fashion designer Ricarda Bigolin and curator Nella Themelios that challenges conventional notions of fashion practice. Themelios describes the intent as “finding new ways to critique fashion in a rigorous way whilst remaining in the discipline”.

The Future of Fashion is Now aspires to highlight the role of critical reflection among the world’s most experimental fashion practitioners. In her catalogue essay, curator José Teunissen writes: “Today’s designers are no longer searching for an ‘authentic style’ … their main concern is to critique the present fashion system with its consumerism and its excessive and barely sustainable production methods and to embrace new technologies, resulting in new ways of imagining fashion.”

Teunissen describes D&K as “exploring what makes a fashion brand – playing with a logo, a campaign, they put up clothes on racks. They want to show that once you have a brand and a logo you can sell anything. They want to make this clear with everything they do. What’s a fashion brand and what does it consist of and what do you use to create hype and is this right?”

Creating a fictional setting for radical ideas is, in itself, not new. There is a long legacy within architecture and design of harnessing the opportunity of speculative practice as a way of testing ideas and instigating interest around a project that has a currency within a political and cultural context. This is particularly the case in times of austerity when work is scarce and the freedom to experiment is limited. Released of the constraints of a client, budget or even the need to realise a design in physical form, a self-generated, speculative context drives forward innovation that can, eventually, lead to real outcomes.

The Italian Futurists grasped the excitement of the advent of the motor car and opportunities of the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century, conceiving a fantastical world far removed from the everyday depression of Europe. Jump forward to Archigram’s famous drawings of wonderful Walking City and Plug-in City that speculated on the potential of technology explored in the space race of the ’60s transformed onto everyday Britain in the context of free thinking social radicals. The beautifully crafted yet dystopian drawings of Lebbeus Woods created urban schemes for post-conflict cities while Zaha Hadid’s early “paper” architecture explored what were, at the time, considered “unbuildable” ideas, such as the social importance of opening up buildings to the street which resulted in her soaring, sinuous forms.

In the late ’90s designer Ora ïto caused a sensation by hijacking the products of the most iconic international brands such as Louis Vuitton, Apple and Nike and projecting his fake designs onto the companies. Ito’s imaginary concepts were so well conceived that he received international attention, his website was flooded with orders and, in turn, he shifted his fictional design practice into a role as an international artistic director. London-based Australian “body architect” Lucy McRae also straddles the worlds of fiction and reality. McRae creates startling, highly aesthetic yet unsettling cinematic worlds and products that describe a radical future. In a recent video work, Swallowable Parfum® Live Lab, McRae performs a launch event for a fictional digestible luxury product – a pill that, once ingested, reacts to one’s own body chemistry to exude a bespoke scent through the pores of the skin.

The Future of Fashion is Now pinpoints the resurgence in using an experimental model to test and critique design ideas. The point of difference lies in the fact that, although sited within a museum, the exhibitors are operating from within the fashion industry as fashion practitioners. Furthermore, Melbourne’s designers are viewed as global players within this new wave of critical reflection. In addition to D&K, Teunissen invited two other Melbourne-based designers to contribute to The Future of Fashion is Now: Pia Interlandi and her label Garments for the Grave, in which she designs tailor-made clothing for the dying and the dead – a challenging concept within an industry built upon notions of youth, power and beauty. And, Adele Varcoe, whose practice examines the relationship between clothing, language, and imagination through a series of public, interactive performances.

“Fashion is often depicted within the museum as a singular moment with a very beautiful example of a garment and that is often quite far away from the realities of fashion practice,” says Bigolin. “The base garment and signature of our exhibit is a T-shirt … the bottom of the food chain in terms of garments related to ideas of mass production and fast fashion. Here we’ve tried to show this process and question: ‘What makes something like a T-shirt take on this greater value?’ ”

D&K 101 T-shirts explores the trajectory from basic item to “luxury status symbol” by removing all decorations and brand identity from the T-shirt and then reapplying them as external elements. An online shop will eventually allow audiences the option of purchasing the so-called “limited edition” versions of the T-shirt – an option that further critiques the illusion of exclusivity.

Bigolin and Themelios describe D&K as being deliberately “inconsistent in how we put our message across. Which is often the opposite of what a successful brand strategy should be. We’re using this process of this overinundation of graphic design, of text and image to make a very unstable brand identity that is ultimately ambiguous in its message.”

Bigolin sums up: “I think that the future is the understanding of personal identity in a world of highly commercialised identity. I think it’s a question of understanding that the individual within the mass is the future of [design].”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Quote couture". Subscribe here.

Fleur Watson
is a curator for RMIT Design Hub and a former editor of Monument magazine.