On the emancipation of fashion

In conversation with Waves and Archives founder Manan Ter-Grigoryan, on the acknowledgment of fashion as an artistic medium, and why it matters.

Kathryn Carter
Production / Direction

There are more than two sides to many stories. Like the one about the history of fashion, what it has meant in the past, and where it ought to journey next within the labyrinthine landscape of contemporary culture. Depending on who you talk to, or the particular book you reference, this story exists in a variety of versions, featuring varying degrees of opinion, and many shades of truth. Of course, it’s sometimes okay to disagree on the elements of fashion’s once upon a time. And, since most stories never end, we also need not hypothesize the details of fashion’s happily ever after. Even so, it’s sometimes nice, and necessary, to talk about its true value, its virtue, and its place. To propound upon the ever-changing shape of its kaleidoscopic shadow, cast between atelier and gallery walls.

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment,’ the late Alexander McQueen once said, referring to the role the creative discipline plays in the freedom of expression. But today, fashion itself remains mostly caged within the confines of a culturally-constructed commercial definition, seemingly unable to deliver itself from its (mostly) unbefitting association with superficiality. A tie that has arguably threatened its reputation, and somewhat questioned its intentions.

McQueen was right. Fashion should be a form of escapism, just as it should be acknowledged as a form of true artistic expression.

Such is the dream of Manan Ter-Grigoryan, the Director of New York’s Postmasters Gallery and founder of Waves and Archives, a critical and experimental platform devoted to the exploration and promotion of fashion as something more than what it is currently seen to be. On a mission to endorse fashion as one of art’s mediums, in academic, institutional, and art world settings, the platform is breathing new life into the pursuit of fashion’s place in art history.

Kathryn Carter: You were born in Armenia and grew up in Moscow, Paris, Cyprus, Italy and New York. Do you think that your multicultural upbringing has influenced the way that you engage with art, and with dress?

Manan Ter-Grigoryan: I think growing up in a constant state of embracing and adapting to new cultures—at times having to shed or re-dress the previous ones—meant growing up with a certain kind of wealth. The flip side of that wealth was the loss of control every time my cultural references were re-contextualized. I think this acknowledgment has influenced my reverence for the complexity of dress as one such referent system, and made art into a safe haven, where I went to calmly wrap my head around each new world. I think I looked to dress, and visual culture in general, to recognize patterns before I could gain fluency in languages.

KC: And what is your earliest memory of going to an art museum?

M T-G: My earliest significant memory of going to a museum might have happened entirely in my hopes. I remember standing in front of Malevich’s Black Square in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and I remember sitting with tight braids, waiting for my dad to come home and take me to see it. To this day, I am not certain how the reality unfolded; especially given that Black Square is in the Tretyakov Gallery [laughs].

Kazimir Malevich's Black Square, 1915

KC: You completed your Bachelor of Arts at The American University of Paris, and your Master of Arts at Columbia University in the City of New York. Did the debate of whether or not fashion should be considered an artform ever arise during your academic studies?

M T-G: Over a decade ago, when I was in grad school, the debate on whether or not fashion should be considered an art form was very much in the air, so was the hope that we would slowly shift towards a positive answer. However, we continue showing signs of overarching ignorance. These signs manifest in the poor curatorial choices in museum shows, in the lack of vocabulary for the subject’s criticism, and in the number of fashion artists [still] struggling to find their voice, and their platform, outside of fashion’s immediate industry.

For as long as I can remember, I felt that fashion was not only one of art’s mediums, but that it was its most challenging in terms of curation, complex in terms of analysis, and selfless in terms of its relationship to authorship mediums. As such, I was often disheartened by the attitudes of some of the greatest figures of art criticism, with whom I had the admitted fortune of studying [at university]. Luckily, I had a mentor, who is now also a dear friend, who has shielded me from the demotivating aspects of academia. Her presence, brilliance, and open mind have helped me stay kind to my own ideas, even when they were at odds with the ideas of people whom I very much respected.

A year before Alexander McQueen’s passing, I was told I could not write my thesis on his work, unless I compared it to an “actual” art form. The art form we settled on was film. It was an ironic loophole that the said film’s most memorable signifiers were Paul Poiret’s costumes.

KC: To that point, you wrote your thesis on Alexander McQueen before his blockbuster show at the MET. What was it about McQueen’s work in particular that interested you so much?

M T-G: I have always been intrigued by fashion shows as these balancing acts between curatorial work and performance art. When I saw McQueen’s hologram of twirling Kate Moss, I was moved to tears. Having written my thesis on this very moment, I certainly have the vocabulary to speak of its importance in the larger context of art history, but if I am being honest as to my initial motivation, I was just enthralled by the immense beauty.

KC: What role do fashion and art play in your life, on a more personal level?

M T-G: Art is a big part of my life. I have worked in the art world for the last ten years, I’ve spent my whole life studying visual culture, and I’ve turned to art whenever I felt misplaced. To me art is literature, film, science, and really any form of cultural production. I do not have this vision of a painting that appears in front of me when I think about art. From that perspective, art is really everywhere in my life, and I only feel far from it when I feel far from myself.

KC: You’re the current Director of Postmasters Gallery, an art space that regularly plays host to events that mix art, theory, and social activism. Could you tell us more about the philosophy of the gallery, and what it offers the contemporary art scene in New York?

M T-G: I always thought about Postmasters as THE gallery. If you were to describe what a gallery should do, where its interests should lie in an unadulterated world, that is what Postmasters is. Their relationships with their artists, their choices within the market, their attitudes towards collectors and critics are just so genuine and honorable.

Postmasters stays perpetually young. Each year, the founders nurture and fight for the artists they believe in, and each year they act as if they did not compound the benefit of having been here for the last 34 years. This attitude allows them to go in full force, try new things, and not fall into repetitive patterns of learned paths—they don’t grow old, and yet they amass all this wisdom. When I heard that they were hiring a new director, I was very happy to throw my name in the hat, and get a chance to learn from them.

KC: Do you think that your work with Postmasters has influenced or changed the way you think about art?

M T-G: I don’t think that my work here has influenced the way I think about art, but it HAS influenced the way I think about the art world. Every day I see Magda and Tamas—the founders of Postmasters—get excited about an artist without stopping for a second to question their selling potential. Seeing that this kind of a relentless dedication to its mission can sustain the gallery financially, attract true collectors, and retain a great roster of artists is a huge motivation. Also, I think that this attitude brings out the best in everyone who works with the gallery, so I get to see the really beautiful side of the art world, which is often hidden under layers of speculation, vanity, ignorance, insecurity, and snobbery.

KC: Who have you collaborated with on the Waves and Archives journey so far?

M T-G: It is important to mention that Waves and Archives is quickly becoming a product of not just my labor, but also the efforts and faith of our team. Julian Jimarez Howard joined forces with us in 2016. He is a bright gallerist, writer, and a contemporary art curator, with an amazing grasp of a perspective that is not purely West-centric, a rare understanding of textiles, and a visionary outlook on fashion’s prowess as an art form. Marianna Kosheleva, who joined the team around the same time, is a literal rocket scientist by training, and has years of experience working in marketing. She is the reason we are more than just an idea today, and I feel extremely fortunate to have someone as brilliant be an integral part of the platform.

KC: You launched Waves and Archives in late 2017 in an endeavor to endorse fashion as one of art's mediums in academic, institutional, and art world settings. At the time, and still today, do you feel there is a gap in the market for publications and platforms that engage with, and explore, fashion as an artistic discipline, rather than one that is purely aesthetic and commercial?

M T-G: Although I launched Waves and Archives in late 2017, the idea for a fashion gallery came to me in 2007. Because I’d lived with this calling for 12 years, I’ve been sensitive to all the ways in which a platform was needed. To give credit where it’s due, there are several serious fashion publications out there, like Anja Aronowsky Cronberg’ Vestoj, and Valerie Steele’s Fashion Theory, [as well as] quite a few great authors who write about fashion, like Agnès Rocamora or Alison Bancroft, and amazing curators like Judith Clark. But we do continue to see a divide between fashion’s representation and that of art’s more traditional mediums.

Fashion enters museums without a gallery platform to nurture and protect its artist, it is written about in art theory journals with a vocabulary that does not compare to the one reserved for traditional art mediums—i.e. a well respected art publication actually used the following phrase to review The Met Heavenly Bodies exhibition “fabulous […] will make you feel all godly"—and it is not taken seriously by academia. As a result, we are missing out on the potential work of many talented artists who chose fashion as their medium, by pigeonholing them into [roles that involve] creating whatever sells.

KC: The right of fashion to be acknowledged as one of art’s mediums is item #1 of the Waves and Archivesmanifesto. What do you think stops people from considering fashion as art?

M T-G: I think education is very important. On both ends, fashion designers are not trained to think of themselves, and to fend for themselves, in the same terms as artists are in art schools. And on the other side of that spectrum you have art programs that do not empower you to think about fashion on the same terms as you would about more traditionally accepted art mediums.

Many people have challenged me on this topic, with questions about the irreconcilability of fashion as art, [mostly] because of its relationship to utility, context, or performativity, or due to the modes of its production. But I feel that—post Dada, Bauhaus, and Pop Art—20th century art has already dealt with these issues gracefully enough to deserve counting fashion among its mediums. I feel a bit silly even having to engage with this nonsense, since I end up having to quote actual hundred-year-old movements in art history in order to make a point.

KC: Do you feel that the current conversation surrounding, and engagement with, fashion—the fast pace, the fanfare, the focus on the aesthetic creation and how it can be worn (and purchased) as opposed to the concept—is perhaps a part of the problem when it comes to our failure to consider fashion as an art?

M T-G: I think we should draw a line between fashion that is apparel, and fashion that is art, the same way we can intuitively draw a line between any three-dimensional object and a sculpture, any image and a two-dimensional artwork, any website and net art, etc. The medium itself neither makes nor limits the medium’s capacity to be an artwork.

KC: Fashion is considered a creative industry, and yet the debate still rages on whether it should be considered an artistic discipline. What do you feel a designer has to do to transcend the realm of the creative into the realm of the artistic?

M T-G: I think that answering this question would be like defining all artistic production. In my subjective view, an artwork redefines what art is. I think Iris Van Herpen is an artist, I think Rei Kawakubo is an artist, but I do not think we should come up with certain criteria of what art is, and let the designers enter the art world only when they check those boxes. We should create all the conditions of possibility for fashion to not be unjustly cast aside, and let the fashion artists decide and define what art is, like generations of artist have done time and time again.  

KC: In your Waves and Archives manifesto, you use the term ‘fashion artists’ as opposed to fashion designers. Do you feel that all fashion designers are artists? Or do you think a distinction should be made between commercial fashion (to be displayed exclusively in shop windows) and more artistic fashion (to be displayed in galleries)?

M T-G: I am thankful to you for this question, because I know it is a question on many people’s minds, and it needs clarification.

There is fashion production that is not art, just like there are painted things that are not art. These things are not within the sphere of Waves and Archives interests. However, I do think that in a world that is well past Duchamp’s ready-mades, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s silver-wrapped candy, or even Yves Klein’s burnt receipts for the sale of immaterial pictorial spaces, reducing a medium to its mode of promotion, proliferation or production is a very traceably archaic.

A fashion artist is an artist if they have that intent, and they should be haled good or cast aside as bad on the same terms reserved for any other artist. In terms of the modes of display, I can see how shop windows can be an extension of the artistic practice, the same way that Alexander McQueen’s, or Hussein Chalayan’s, or Victor & Rolf’s catwalks are an extension of their artworks. They don’t have to be, but they also don’t have to NOT BE, you see. It’s all about granting fashion artists the same freedoms extended to artists working in other mediums.

KC: The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute began as the Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937. In 1946, the institute merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art as The Costume Institute, and in 1959 became a curatorial department. Do you feel that displaying fashion in galleries in this way, as a quasi-separate extension, helps or hinders the view of fashion as an art form equal to, say, painting or sculpture?

M T-G: I think fashion should be in museums, but I think fashion should not enter museums without the gallery and academic platforms first supporting it.

As a result of fashion entering museums without the same supporting platforms that other art mediums enjoy, we end up with fashion exhibitions in museums for the sake of ticket sales that are subpar both in curation and in motivation. We end up with museums using the immense beauty and relatability of fashion as entertainment bait, instead of trying to present its complexity and cultural significance.  

Here are a few examples of some very simple curatorial decisions that we easily accept with fashion, and yet would be appalled to see in the context of hitherto accepted art mediums. We see rooms curated by the colors of dresses from different eras and different designers, with differing conceptual underpinnings. Can you fathom seeing all the yellow paintings independent of whether they were by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Ellsworth Kelly being shown in one room, because they all happen to have some yellow in them? Or how about the museum texts in fashion exhibitions that speak about the number of stitches or hours of labor, reducing a rather conceptual piece to its craft only? Can you ever imagine a conceptual artwork’s description focusing on the number of days it took to create, unless that labor was somehow a part of the concept to begin with? I could go on forever, but this is why the Waves and Archives manifesto appears as a statement of rights, rather than assertions.

KC: Such a solid point, in treating fashion differently to the way we treat other mediums, we’re really only worsening the problem. In an ideal world, how would you envisage the display of fashion within the museum space?

M T-G: I think an ideal world would allow for fashion to organically start claiming and finding its own just curation, audiences, vocabulary, and critics. The correct path is not to artificially recognize and methodically eliminate all the ways in which fashion is being presented incorrectly, but rather to recognize the need for, and to promote and encourage, [more critical] thought on fashion, and platforms for fashion that would serve as a supporting system on that path.

Fashion schools should provide an alternate path for the designers who are artists, they should provide art criticism courses that are to the same standard as what is offered at art schools, and art schools should allow students and faculty to choose fashion as their subject of investigation. Galleries should represent and show the works of fashion artists on the same terms as they do any other artist’s work, and everyone should work together to build up the audiences and eventually a market for this alternate form of creative practice. When those things happen, we will find that good curation will follow.

KC: When we view fashion on the runway, it’s a carefully orchestrated and often fleeting event. The experience does not allow much time for contemplating each garment, or the collection as a whole. Do you feel the fanfare that surrounds these kinds of displays is of detriment to our ability to take fashion more seriously?

M T-G: Catwalks can be a powerful part of fashion’s medium. Think about Alexander Cadler’s Circus— considered widely as the predecessor of performance art—where Cadler himself would perform the work. The way we should understand the artwork depends largely on the intent of the artist. I think, for example, Kanye West’s show for Yeezy’s season 5 collection, where he projected the images of models wearing his designs on giant screens, was very much a part of his art, as a commentary on the image driven proliferation of fashion.

KC: Speaking of images, you’re currently working on a library map, a visual representation of the connections between 150 of the most central thinkers to art criticism. Can you paint us a picture of what this map will look like?

M T-G: Three years ago I tried to imagine the Waves and Archives fashion gallery, the world’s first gallery showing fashion as art, and representing fashion artists as such. Then I realized that the space [alone] wasn’t enough, and that knowledge had to be made accessible for audiences, for artists, and for critics to visualize fashion’s organic belonging as a subject in all these intertwining themes of art history. So I wanted a library, and this library’s organization quickly became a black hole of curiosity.

For three years I read up on library studies, met with librarians, questioned organizational structures behind our current library systems, and realized that this process would become a tool only if the connections between various thinkers and their themes and influences were illuminated in a dynamic and interactive way. This led me to the universe of network citation analysis, and then network visualizations. It took a really long time, and much courage to realize that there was no real place to automate the scraping of all the connections, and so I set down for months and mapped 12,551 edges between the nodes of 150 or so qualitatively chosen signposts of art criticism. It is sort of a screenshot of the Western Academia’s use of different disciplines to carve out a space for art criticism. It paints a picture of mostly white males, and that is rather sad, but to know it is to be able to move away from it. Either way, it is of paramount importance to not feel like it is this inaccessible knowledge.

So I am spending a lot of my time now trying to finalize the design and the development of this map so it can be used, and hopefully we can implement some form of AI to teach the map to rewire itself and accept new signposts, as we both adopt and disrupt the existing paradigm. Someday I hope we can have guest curators of this knowledge map, and maybe even some universal user generated conglomeration of it.

As to the question about its look: imagine a lot of dots and lines that connect those dots in a beautiful constellation, an ever-shifting screenshot of fireworks. The user can set up what parameters are important to them, and the map brings specific edges to the foreground.  

KC: You’re also putting together a Waves and Archives publication, documenting the number of critical works written on the subject of fashion as one of art's mediums. You describe the publication as a hybrid archival art object. Can you tell us more about the format? And where readers will be able to view/purchase the resource?

M T-G: Waves and Archives is conceived as this trifecta: a gallery, a library with its map, and a publication. The publication, as a site for coalescence of critical thought on fashion, will assume the format of an envelope filled with a stack of articles printed in black and white. These writings will escape being hierarchized, as they will simply be gathered together inside an envelope. The practice also attempts to allude to the format of research findings that scholars accumulate and turn to for research and inspiration.

Limited to a numbered and signed edition of 200, the journal will also become an archival art object, documenting the birth, and later the heartbeat, of the discourse for which it is a platform. The Waves and Archives publication in its original form will be available for purchase in select museum bookstores, art bookstores, and concept stores around the world. However, the writing will be available for free download and printing at home, making it possible for anyone to be able to reproduce an exact copy of our publication with a simple home printer.  This idea is very important to us, in order to stay true to our mission and ideals.

KC: What kind of response has Waves and Archives received thus far?

M T-G: Very positive, but also it seems to puzzle people a bit. We seem to stumble back on the familiar questions of: “But is it a wearable?” “But is it art?” “But if it is in museums, isn’t it a sign that it already is art?” “But what about catwalks? Are they not equivalent to gallery openings?” “But if it is mass produced, can it be art?” etc. And then, you have the other spectrum of a world of people holding their breaths, waiting for someone to work away these questions, so that in fact everyone else can finally do so too. And I acknowledge, that in order for Waves and Archives to truly succeed, I will have to not only accept, but also celebrate, what in most cases would be considered competition. I want there to be more fashion galleries, I want there to be more fashion journals and publications that are worthy of quoting in academic papers, I want there to be more place for fashion artists to be fashion artists, instead of being told by someone that their designs are, or are not good enough, for the market.

KC: What do you envisage for the future of Waves and Archives?

M T-G: I imagine Waves and Archives becoming a reality for a quick and bright moment, and then extinguishing into the whole of art history as a movement. It is sort of the Bauhaus of fashion. It will outlive itself only by writing fashion into the existing art history, and by carving out ways for designers to be a part of art criticism’s future. As we start to question the sustainability of fashion production as well, I think this movement might have a lot of unexpected and tangential positive outcomes not only in the art world, but also in the world at large.  

Waves and Archives' Fashion Atlas beta version rendered in Microsoft Power BI

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