Elisa van Joolen combines design, art and research in her interdisciplinary practice. She approaches clothing design in a socially aware, eye-opening manner by introducing new strategies and interfering with current mode of production of fashion objects, meanings and value. Her works have been presented at the Arnhem Fashion Biennial, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, New York Fashion Week, 5th Brazilian Design Biennial in Florianopolis, Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and recently at CAT Art Terminal in Shanghai and Museum Fur Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Addresscontributor Beata Wilczek talks to Elisa about teaching at Gerrit Rietveld Academy and her ongoing project 11”x17”.
Beata Wilczek: Your practice appears very complex. Could you describe what do you do?
Elisa van Joolen: In my work, I merge the analytical with a hands-on process. I investigate the current fashion system, exploring and proposing new models of production and presentation. My approach to clothing design is characterised by strategies of intervention and reconfiguration. Whereby my projects often reflect specific social contexts and emphasise collaboration and participation. They expose relational aspects of clothing and subvert processes of value production.
Issey Miyake said that design is born out of research, do you agree with him?
Yes, I totally agree.
In recent years there has been a noticeable shift towards research-based and critically-driven fashion design practice. It has emerged in similar time in such cities as Melbourne, New York, Vienna and Amsterdam. We can see this global ‘smart fashion’ tendency in art, design and academic practices. Do you have an idea where did it all came from?
The Internet, of course, has a great influence. As it is tool to get information, know what is going on at any place and any time in the world. Before you had to physically go to places or publish in magazines to share information. Now this exchange and being connected with fellow practitioners is much easier and faster. Perhaps that’s why it emerged at a similar time.
With regards to a shift in critically driven fashion: I think taking a critical position towards the fashion industry is not really new. It is how this critical position is applied that is different. In the 90s you saw ‘critical fashion’ by designers like Viktor&Rolf, whose collections were very much concept driven and questioning the fashion world. However nowadays critique does not end with concepts but I see that designers (and artists) try to apply ideas and start to create their new systems. Critique is used in a way to draw things together, to find new ways to collaborate. Critique as a proposition.
You have studied at Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and Parsons in New York and now you teach yourself. What are the challenges of fashion education?
Fashion changes rapidly, yet the way fashion is taught does not change very fast. Most of the fashion programs are still focused on drilling their students to become the next big star designer. I think this idea is very outdated. It is just one of the many possibilities, there are so many other ways to engage with fashion! Fashion is clothing in context, and this is in constant flux. It is much more exciting to think with students about new ways to be with fashion, beyond these static notions of fashion. I often refer in class to the 10 Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules by St. Corita Kent and John Cage. These rules put importance to curiosity, openness, engaged work ethic and playfulness. To give an example: one of the rules is “Don’t try to create and analyse at the same time. They are different processes.” This sound simple, but to put this in practice is quite difficult. To freely, intuitively create and not immediately ‘limit’ yourself by analysing while you create. And… to analyse what you just did is also super important: to contextualize your work. Especially now in a time where everything is available to us, we need to be specific and precise. But you cannot create and analyse at the same time! If you do so: you end up with stiff, boring work… To make good work is like a ping-pong game: create-analyse-create-analyse-create-analyse.
When I look at your designs I feel like they are very capacious and smooth, especially when it comes to traditional division between menswear and womenswear. Do you feel that this sex-based division is outdated?
I do not design with an idea my mind that it is either for a man or a woman. It is simply not very important to me. Anyone who likes what I make can wear it. I very much like that word that you use: capacious. In my work I try to create new spaces, I am looking for a kind of openness. Literally by cutting open existing materials like sweaters and sneakers and by opening up ideas connected to what a garment is and to whom it belongs.
I think that cutting and opening describes well your ongoing project 11”x17”. Could you tell me more about it?
11”x17″ is a research project that examines and challenges the fashion industry’s prevailing value systems and methods of production. The project began in New York in 2012. In 2013 I continued the project in Amsterdam with a series of conversations with representatives of various fashion brands, including G-Star, O’Neill, gsus sindustries, Rockwell by Parra, Converse, moniquevanheist, and Nike. Then these companies contributed by donating clothing and footwear in the form of samples, archival pieces, and stock. A selection of these, complemented with pieces of second hand and no brand clothing have been reconstructed and presented as 11″x17″ crew neck sweaters and Invert Footwear. I combine different categories from the entire scope of fashion into one piece of clothing. I want to create this kind of plural connection between brands.
And where did the idea came from?
This idea originated from the observation that wearing outfits without hierarchic distinctions between for example second-hand and high-end fits into today’s zeitgeist. When we dress ourselves in the morning it is always a mix of different brands, old and new items. It is very much connected to the way we use the Internet; everything exists next to each other. If you google for example a “blue sweater” a Kenzo sweater will be shown next to a Fruit of the Loom sweater. So why not make clothes that have these multiple connections in them? The launch of 11”x17” took place at Multi-Clean: a local dry-cleaners here in Amsterdam. I decided to do a three-day intervention there because it felt like the perfect place: a space for real clothing where there is no hierarchy; expensive items alongside cheap items that also need to be dry-cleaned.
You have also presented 11”x17” Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam as a part of The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. How did you approach this from a curatorial perspective?
I decided to show the 11”x17” Sweaters not in the exhibition space, but at the entrance area of the museum, on the ‘Merry Go Round’ clothing rack by Wieki Somers. This clothing rack is used by visitors to hang their own coats when they visit the museum. Again I chose for a presentation that is ‘non-hierarchical’, the sweaters were not presented as art objects but next to all different clothing items; different brands, different owners. The installation was a constantly changing assemblage, very much related to how I see fashion, not a static image, but something constantly in movement.
Another part of 11”x17” I presented at the exhibition space: the printing sheets of the 11”x17” Reader hung on clothing racks. You could see it as an ‘unfolded’ version of the publication. In this way the museum visitor could read about the project.
Are you working on any new projects?
At the moment I am in the midst of preparations for the Art & Design Biennial at Westbund Art Center in Shanghai. 11”x17” is an ongoing project and right now I am working on a new series, which will entail more collaborations not only with clothing brands but also other with other artists and designers. I am looking forward to work with, for example, London based researcher Ruby Hoette, graphic design studio Our Polite Society (with whom I made the 11”x17” Reader, we are now playing with the idea to make a new publication) and Melbourne based artist duo D&K and hopefully many more! Another exciting side project is the production of costumes for the play: “Things on a Table” by Uta Eisenreich and Eva Meyer-Keller, which will premiere at Pact in Essen in January 2016.
Beata Wilczek is an artist, researcher and fashion lecturer based in Berlin.