BERLIN GALLERY WEEKEND
Born in 2016 out of the collaboration between a designer and a stylist, the London-based label inhabits the grey area between art and fashion, rejecting the notion of luxury in favor of a new elitism that disentangles high fashion from the nexus of retailing. For their exhibition at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, complemented by an off-site catwalk show, the duo aims to prove once again that the customer is always wrong.
Interview by Myriam Ben Salah | Photography by Franziska Sinn
Before debuting Symonds Permain for S/S 2016 London Fashion Week, you both pursued your own individual practices. Could you describe them and tell me about what brought you together?
I am a fashion designer and Max is a stylist. We met after Max saw a piece I did with Cabinet gallery and approached me about working on a project together. We’ve been working on and off since then, launching Symonds Pearmain last year.
Talking about “breaking down frontiers” between art and fashion might sound like a tired stereotype by now, but it’s literally what happens with your creations, and now you are presenting a project at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie in Berlin. It seems that you are carving your way into the grey area that separates the runway from the white cube. Could you elaborate on this strategy?
I think the “frontier” between art and fashion has already broken down in formal terms. This presents a greater problem for art than for fashion because of the relative commodity values applied to the both forms. Fashion is quite happy about this but art remains broadly in denial because of the potential for “value contagion.” It’s an interesting problem for a fashion designer who is represented by an art gallery.
What does it mean commercially to sell fashion as art?
If you mean that we intend the clothing to operate as, or stand in for “art,” then I wouldn’t agree with that. The collection is intended to be, and operate as clothing—and, more specifically, as “fashion.” However, the acquisition process and commodity value applied to the commercial transaction could be better described in these terms and would be an important conceptual point.
You play a lot with contrasts between high and low, mixing some bourgeois signs with a street wear approach, tackling a certain recent democratic epoch in fashion (I’m thinking about Gosha Rubchinskiy’s take on ’80s Euro casual sports style or Demna Gvasalia’s appropriation of the everyday for Vetements).
I guess so. Although I’m struck by how commercially driven this approach has become. These “plays” of reference sometimes feel more about irony, or commercial consideration than fashion. Fashion should never be ironic. Irony is defensive and has no meaningful role in the creative process. The 500 Euro sweatshirt that looks like original GDR workwear could be seen as quite a reactionary idea.
The notion of “bourgeois” references is interesting though. What does this mean? What is bourgeois now? A fur coat, monogrammed luggage, Celine trousers? It is often conflated with ideas about “luxury”—another word that has become a short hand for high fashion but actually has no clearly defined meaning. I find the idea of “luxury” totally ridiculous and totally depressing at the same time. It has no relevance to fashion but operates in some hinterland of marketing, retail and failed aspiration. We would reject any notion of luxury as defined in these terms.
But you also talk about “keeping something out of reach” as if you wanted to avoid mass communication, which is something quite similar to an artistic approach. What do you mean by that?
We are very affected by the problem of “false choice.” Consumer led protocols, see now buy now, Instagram etc. The “consumer,” whoever that is, shouldn’t be leading or dictating any cultural form. That’s what Uniqlo is for. Not everything is for everyone. The customer is invariably wrong because the choices presented are false. Viva elitism!
After centuries of “timeless fashion” being the Holy Grail, it seems that we are now conversely leaning towards a “fashion of the time”—which probably what makes it a truly “contemporary” field, also in terms of commentary on our societies. Does this in some way relate to your practice?
Yes, although I would hold these ideas of historical context quite lightly. Modernity and contemporaneity etc have lost their currency because the structures of cultural communication are broken. Google, Facebook, Instagram etc just produce a dwindling feed back loop of marketing algorithms—an ever narrowing world of increasingly meaningless ideas, repackaged as “culture.”
More specifically regarding fashion, the “problem of now” is the sublimation of high fashion (the “high” no longer existing as a linguistic indicator) into the nexus of “retailing.” They are not, and should not, be regarded as the same thing. Consumption feedback loops have merged these historically distinct categories into one meaningless stream of “product.” Max and I are interested in the possibility of disentangling high fashion from this mire.
Can you tell me about the project opening at Isabella Bortolozzi gallery for Gallery Weekend and how it relates to your previous presentations?
We are presenting two shows for Gallery Weekend. On one hand, a catwalk show of the new Symonds Permain collection “Haute Militaire” and a window display at the Eden Eden Space. On the other hand, in the main gallery space, a collaborative project with fashion photographer Tyrone Lebon and pornographic actress Stoya, which serves as a product launch and advertising proposal for a new fragrance called “Iron Lady.”
The exhibition "Iron Lady" by Symonds, Pearmain and Lebon is currently on view at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie through 17 June.