Friday, September 4, 2009

Project Runway and Avant Garde Fashion: WTF?

Last night's Project Runway included the now-familiar "avant garde" design challenge. I have to admit, I've always been a bit bemused by these episodes. It seems that, at least to PR contestants, avant garde means there is required to be at least one huge poufy or sculptural thing extending from the model's body, like Irina and Johnny's design, pictured above.

Why, I wondered, in the world of Project Runway, does avant-garde always mean playing with volume? I suspect it has much to do with the nature of Project Runway itself, that little fashion tempest in a teapot. Considering that the very definition of avant-garde is something that opens boundaries of art forms, is it really feasible to conceive, design, and create an avant-garde look in one day?

I think that's the thing that's always bothered me about these PR challenges: the avant-garde project seems like an afterthought, something to be whipped together. So the designers rush around like the insane, taking breaks to whine at each other, and then end up just plopping a big pouf of organza on a model's shoulder and crossing their fingers that they don't get cut.

In reality, I suspect that experimental looks actually require a lot more planning and technical expertise than traditional designs. As we've seen, to try to be a "conceptual" designer on Project Runway is to essentially be ridiculous - and a death wish, competitively speaking. Just this season, we've met the unforgivably weird Ari Fish, who was cut for her "disco soccer ball halter diaper," and then the ethereally annoying Malvin who was axed for his bizarre chicken/egg take on fertility for the maternity challenge. I think we all collectively groaned when he primly posited that he was "just too conceptual for America."

Oddly enough, the designs I've seen on PR that have felt the most avant garde to me were Chris March's from the All-Star Challenge. His minimalistic and monastic creations seemed both beautiful and ominious, evoking something beyond just clothes. (Maybe he wasn't napping through the challenge, he was just thinking really hard.)

But I suppose this all opens up the question: what the hell is avant-garde fashion anyway? What makes a design truly experimental, in the way avant-garde theatre or art is experimental? And I'm afraid that's one I'm not prepared to answer. I guess I just wish the producers, judges, and contestants of Project Runway were.

And you, lovely readers? What do you think of the avant garde challenges? Also, any fashion nerds out there that could help out with some historical context?


  1. I adore Chris March and his designs. I thought his collection for the "All-Star" show was incredible. I LOVED the red-carpet look too. Love, love, love. (And, BTW, all his napping is probably caused by sleep apnea, poor thing.)

    Yeah, the avante-garde looks last night were pretty sad. I think the only time I enjoyed the avente-garde challenge was the season of Team Fierce. Between the "cel tower" dress and the AMAZING coat/shirt/pants ensemble, I was completely inspired.

    When I think avante-garde I immediately think of the runway looks of Alexander McQueen, Comme de Garcons, Rodate, etc... To me, they're just so inspiring. They remind me how exciting and artistic fashion is and can be.

    I sure hope Rodarte for Target looks better than Alexander McQueen for Target. It might not be as inspiring as their runway work, but to have a piece of such incredible design is always fun for me.

  2. Jenna, thanks for your thoughts! Sleep apnea, that sounds terrible. I want to take Chris March to the doctor.

    Thanks for your thoughts on avant garde designers--Rodarte is a favorite of mine too. Plus, those sisters are adorable!

  3. Now that I've seen the episode I can comment. I didn't see anything even reomotely avant garde in that group. It isn't something you can take on and off like a cape. You either are avant garde in your design vocabulary or you aren't. They clearly aren't.
    I liked Chrs March's pieces too, and they were much more modern to my eyes than anything that was churned out in the latest episode. Avant garde can be wearable, as Chris clearly demonstrated. I think of avant garde as being well cut and draped with interesting and arresting shapes. Think Martin Margiela, Rick Owens, Comme des Garcons. I also think that avant garde fashion is cerebral with a well thought out point of view. Anyway, yes I obviously agree with you. Bad clothing.

  4. I loved Chris' pieces too! Maybe in his little cat naps he finds inspirations in his dreams!
    To me avant garde is a model simply being a moving vehicle for a gorgeous work of art. And,... art is so varied and personal and should be "above" criticism. And "No" it is not created in 24hrs.

  5. Avant Garde has always facinated and confused me... by definition i suppose it is experimental and unconventional.. but how this translates to dressmaking is an interpretation of its own! I cannot wait for a new season of project runway to air in the UK. (p.s. Gertie, i love your discussion topics!!!) x

  6. Avant Garde, literally, means Advanced Guard. It stems from militaristic language of sending out a group of forward guards to scout the terrain so to speak. An Avant Garde Designer is some one who is the forward thinking designer, a person who can see what is coming in the future, s/he's the advanced scout in fashion who's exploring the territory and reporting it on the runway. S/he inspires all other following fashions.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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