The Art of Collaboration and Creative Trust in Fashion
What ignites a relationship will also be what fuels it. For many, mutual respect is only the beginning. This especially takes shape in artistic partnerships, where the foundation of connection is built on admiration, propelled by common interest and culminates in a level of trust. It speaks to our attitude towards collaboration in the fashion sphere: they are now a dime a dozen, yet continue to spark curiosity and frenzy among consumers because they appeal to our desire to see a given process produce what we love. There’s something that remains exciting about our favorite brands and/or artists coming together to deliver an abundance of a good thing. Of course, there are times when this deliverance feels more surface than substance, with the partners simply presenting the best of their individual worlds under one gleaming banner. Then there are moments of collaboration that provide a new perspective- they offer a balanced oneness to what was once separated.
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A stunning example of this kind of creative pairing can be found in Japanese designer Issey Miyake and American photographer Irving Penn. Their ongoing partnership became central to showcasing each other’s grand vision and confirmed another key component needed to sustain any bond: time. Miyake first discovered Penn’s work in magazines before meeting him in 1983. He viewed his photography as powerful, maintaining a correspondence wherein Miyake would send pieces of his latest collections to New York for Penn to shoot in whatever manner he pleased. This aspect of their relationship is unique: they were never together for the photo sessions, nor did Penn ever attend any of Miyake’s runway presentations. They instead found a proxy in Midori Kitamura, an esteemed colleague of Miyake’s that would travel to New York with his clothing twice a year. She often sat in and watched as pieces she had become familiar with were transformed under Penn’s watchful eye.
Miyake and Penn’s work remains a testament to the truth that collaboration can bring forth: the talents of each artist amplified by their joining, serving as a mirror for one another. In a conversation at Paris’ Grand Palais museum in 2017 for an exhibition surrounding Penn’s oeuvre, Miyake commented, “Through his photographs, I rediscovered my clothes… I did not create clothes thinking about him, but his work inspired me for many new things.” Despite not being near one another, the work was never disjointed. Their cohesion actually allowed the resulting images to be used as advertising campaigns for Miyake’s label and served as the subject of both an exhibit in Tokyo in 2012 and an accompanying book titled “Irving Penn and Issey Miyake: Visual Dialogue.” The name of the book recognizes the collaboration as an ongoing conversation. The innovative techniques Miyake employed in his pieces were magnified on a grand scale to go beyond clothing. They became breathing sculptures in Penn’s care. The measured precision of Miyake’s clothes also provided a bold, graphic edge that contrasted especially well with the photographer’s signature style of fashion photography.
In recent years, some of the most intriguing collaborations in photography and design have been forged by women. This is notable considering the fact that leadership roles in the fashion and apparel industries are largely filled by men. It is not to say that female leadership is nonexistent in the industry, but it is surprising given the amount of attention paid to womenswear and the inherent audience it garners. A recent report by global consulting firm PwC highlighted a stark contrast between the percentage of women entering into the industry via enrollment in fashion schools (78%) or retail associate positions (73%), and the amount of female CEOs leading apparel companies (12.5%) or serving as board members (26%.) As the firm sought out to explore the reasons behind these figures, some of the barriers to entry that industry leaders cited included the lack of championship of female executives, fewer women rising through the ranks, and an absence of a support structure. It speaks to the relevance of initiatives focused on female empowerment that continue to rise both within and outside of the fashion and apparel industries.
With this in mind, creative trust can become a valuable tool in dissolving those barriers. As many emerging artists choose to take a researched-based approach to their practice, the resulting work is often steeped in references that both ground and personalize our relationship to clothing. Collaboration provides an opportunity to not only inventively present those findings, but can also be a subtle way for female artists to create an environment in which they can spur on one another, whether that was the original intent or not.
Take for instance the way sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte have developed their creative team. Three of their frequent collaborators–photographer Autumn de Wilde, and stylists Shirley Kurata, and Ashley Furnival–have been working together for over 10 years since the start of the label in 2005. De Wilde has served as a de facto documenter of the brand’s history, capturing both behind the scenes and runway coverage. Her time as a music photographer served her well in this role as she has become known for the trusting relationship she develops with many of her subjects. “My goal originally, before I had a lot of clients, was no matter what, trust came first,” describes de Wilde of her careful approach. In regards to the collective nature of the women’s work, their synergy is palpable in their efforts as each of them is inspired by similar aesthetics in film and art. They are also bonded by a desire to showcase a certain kind of beauty, one specific to the individual.
Last year, their ongoing collaboration culminated in an incredible lookbook for the brand’s Fall 2018 collection. The portrait series, entitled “Women That Inspire Us,” featured several faces in the music and film spheres as they sometimes glanced away from the camera, stared straight into it, or decided to take a humorous approach to posing. The Mulleavys are known for their fantastical couture-level creations that borrow heavily from art history. They often represent what inspires them in a very fresh way, allowing us to see something new in what has long been familiar. The series was well-received and articulated a thoughtful, sincere portrayal of a world that studied the unique character of the women featured, many of them longtime friends of the Mulleavys. It was also a bit of a celebration as the series was Ava Philippe’s modeling debut and the first official portrait revealing Kirsten Dunst’s pregnancy (a particularly special moment for the team as they have all worked with her over the years.) For de Wilde, she cherishes their ongoing collaboration for what it represents beyond the execution of a shared creative vision. In an interview with Dazed magazine about the shoot, she said, “These two young women have accomplished so much in a world that’s dominated by men. For me, that’s a very important long-term life project – to make sure it’s not forgotten how this started and what they accomplished along the way. It shouldn’t have been possible based on how much, as women, we have to fight to find a place.”
Frequent British collaborators Grace Wales Bonner and Harley Weir have also developed a shared language for their work. Both rose to prominence during their time studying at London’s esteemed Central Saint Martins. Separately, the respective designer and photographer have achieved major recognition in a short amount of time. Their individual works often explore perceptions of being; together, this theme becomes more potent. There’s an incredible beauty to the films they create; for Spring 2016, the pair traveled to India to depict the variety of ways masculinity is portrayed throughout the country. In 2017, they released the short film "Practice.” Shot in South Africa and starring dancer Leroy Mogkatle, the project feels very personal as it explores the impact of sound and movement. Viewing Wales Bonner’s clothes under the gaze of Weir’s camera is a compelling mix; it moves, which is Weir’s goal with all of her work. As she told Bullett magazine, “It doesn’t really matter what emotion it is really…it’s so difficult to move people.”
'It doesn’t really matter what emotion it is really…it’s so difficult to move people.”
The work produced by Wales Bonner and Weir has a similar appeal to that of Miyake and Penn. The women have traveled together to produce their work, making their proximity a bit different than the latter pair, but they feed each other creatively in that same vein. It’s also interesting that they have never specifically cited the need to create space for one another as women, but they both recognize the difference that they bring to their projects because of it. As Wales Bonner has recently launched a separate womenswear arm of her label, after several seasons of buyers selecting smaller sizes of her menswear line to use as women’s ready to wear, she noted a certain consideration she brings to this process. She told Business of Fashion, “Sometimes I see fashion that looks quite aggressive towards women and it’s quite assaulting almost. You can tell the intention towards the wearer and there's a kindness and a sensitivity to the way that I'm thinking about these things.” For Weir, it is an understanding that on a photo set she has the opportunity to approach her subjects with a level of comfort and that at times she too is just as vulnerable behind the camera as those she puts in front of it. Of this dynamic, she has said, “Sometimes I come away from shoots thinking, [that was] horrible. But it’s 50/50, because honestly, there are so many things I can get away with as a woman that I couldn’t if I were a man.”